One of the standouts of last year’s Berlinale was the eerie and audacious The Trouble With Being Born, a captivating sci-fi tinged story of an android who was built by a father as a replicate of his young daughter who disappeared years earlier. It won the Special Jury Prize in the Berlinale’s Encounters section.
We met with Austrian writer/director Sandra Wollner to discuss the film’s treatment of AI, address the controversy that has surrounded the film since its premiere in Berlin, and whether our dependence to technology can ultimately lead to enlightenment.
You’ve referred to The Trouble With Being Born as the antithesis to Pinocchio. What do you mean by that?
The usual narrative of this genre – every film about AI – is that either androids want to rule the world or they want to become human. At the beginning of the project, I figured out I was much more interested in the object. I was interested in the projection of the owner onto the object, but not about the question whether the android wants to become human, or anything per se. I was interested in having the android as a mirror. And I thought telling this through a fairy tale of sorts, an allegory in which the characters never become real humans, real figures. I also figured something out during the process of shooting the film which was that it’s a story about ghosts and the ghosts we carry within us more than anything else.
Speaking of which, the title of the film is haunting…
Yes. I didn’t know at the time that it was also the title of a book (the philosophy tome by Emil Cioran). The title came through the track by Oneohtrix Point Never! But the book somehow fit perfectly with what we were going to explore in the film. The book is a collection of aphorisms, and I related to a lot of it when I read it, and I thought it fit with the perception of the android as well. For me, what Cioran says is that the world does not care whether we’re here, but humans still have to believe that we do matter. It’s a paradox that I find very interesting, one which I think a lot of people can relate to.
The sci-fi elements within the film are anchored in reality and feel eerily believable. How much research did you do regarding AI and the current state of technological advances?
We did our research, of course, and I did see these real dolls that you can buy online, mainly from Japanese sellers, and they have changeable parts so they can be used for one reason only… But I felt from the beginning that it wasn’t about AI itself or showing an actual state of what AI is. For me, it’s about the psychological and sociological aspects of it. I was really searching for a perspective that was not human – this was the start of the film.
It was about stepping out of a human perception and looking at ourselves. And that’s the core question: Why do we actually create AI and why do we create androids that look so similar to us? Is it because we’re lonely, or is it to take a good look at ourselves? Or do we do this so that one day we can have an AI that is able to think in patterns that are so removed from our human way of thinking that we then can learn something else, and get the real extra-terrestrial look on ourselves? What fascinates me is the longing behind building the Golem.
Was it difficult coming up with the look for the android’s perspective?
There was a big discussion with my DoP Timm Kröger about how to create the android perspective. We were talking about a lot of camera atmospheres, and mentioned Caché several times. For the look of the film, there were a lot of influences. I feel like my work is quite eclectic – like filmmaking itself is an eclectic process. But one definite influence here was Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin – specifically the way in which he treats the extra-terrestrial entity in a down-to-earth world.
“There is this legend that there were a lot of walkouts during the premiere – in reality, the controversy came afterwards through outbursts of alt-right voices from the US.”
The film premiered at last year’s Berlinale and caused some controversy, specifically the implied sexual relationship between the father and the android child. Were you surprised by the reactions?
Of course, we always knew that the film was going to provoke and be thought-provoking – we weren’t running into it blind. But the controversy didn’t reach me at the Berlinale. There is this legend that there were a lot of walkouts during the premiere – in reality, the controversy came afterwards through outbursts of alt-right voices from the US, through outlets like Infowars, who read about the film and suddenly started to attack us online, stating that the film is pro-paedophilia…
Infowars also attacked me by saying that I was in some sort of paedophilia ring, comparing me to Epstein, and that was something we couldn’t have predicted. It’s ludicrous, as anyone who has watched the film can see it is in no way endorsing or promoting child exploitation. So many didn’t even see the film, but through clickbait headlines, you get all sorts of attention. And because they already made up their minds, even if they saw the film, they wouldn’t change their opinion.
What was your reaction when Melbourne International Film Festival pulled the film from its line-up, citing a psychologist who stated it “normalises sexual interest in children”?
Well, Melbourne chose to go online, which we did not know at the beginning, and I think they got scared. Or were under pressure to pull the film because it was a virtual festival. I just didn’t understand how they stated it, how they thought the film could be a danger, and why they didn’t just tell us at the time that they thought the film would be better served if it was seen in a cinema, where it could be discussed afterwards.
There is potential for an interesting discussion about whether it makes a difference if a film is seen in a cinema or online. There’s the controlled room of the cinema and the absence of a controlled room online, where you can just take a screenshot of a scene and take it out of context.
The android child is played by Lena Watson, a pseudonym to protect the identity of the young actress. But am I right in saying that, at first, you wanted a more adult protagonist?
Yes, the story was always about a childlike android, and for a long time, I thought that the actress would be older. There were tests with another actress, Jana McKinnon, with whom I already worked with, and it made me realise that it was wrong. I was originally a little scared to shoot it with a child but had to try to find a young actress that is talented enough to play the role. And as soon as I realised that I was going to shoot the film with a child, we adjusted the script, took some more explicit stuff out, and took safety measurements.
The fake name is one of those, her family was present during the shoot, and I had a psychologist focused on childhood trauma assisting me and the actress. We talked a lot with Lena and her family about keeping her out of the spotlight, and the alt-right attention I mentioned earlier only comforted us in this decision.
You also use a wig and a silicone mask as added safeguards for Lena…
Yes, and we did use some CGI to blur the borders of the mask with the face. We always planned to do it with a mask, and had several tests, in order to see how thick the mask would be in order to be uncanny but not too much so that expressions would still come through.
There’s much more at play beyond the surface of the controversy, including themes of grief and trauma, and how the way humans deal with memory is intertwined with our dependence on technology. Are you optimistic about our relationship with technology as it stands?
Right now, how we use our phones and our avatars online is to give ourselves some meaning. But I’m hopeful in the sense that technology can provide the chance to step out of our perceptions. I can step out of my own gaze with a camera and filmmaking, but further technological advances can potentially allow us to understand something we cannot yet imagine because we cannot get out of our own thinking patterns. In that sense, I’m optimistic.