Tobias Nölle (2016)


In the information age, aren’t surprises great?

Though the film may have premiered to some lukewarm reviews, everyone lost their collective stuff earlier this year when it was announced the low-key, somewhat-anticipated horror movie “The Woods” was, in fact, a Blair Witch sequel. The announcement came so close to the release of the film that there was no time for rampant speculation on the plot; no time for myriad spoiler leaks and internet debates; just enough time for audiences to go in naïve to the story and soak up the pure experience of it. It was the first volley in what will hopefully become a new paradigm in cinema: Not just studios keeping things under wraps, and fans allowing studios to keep things under wraps. For a filmgoer, there’s no greater joy than going into an anticipated film completely naïve to the content. Can you imagine seeing Star Wars for the first time having already read internet spoilers about Obi Wan dying and the final assault on the Death Star? What about fans debating the physics of Sonny Corleone’s death at the toll booth before the movie’s even come out? In an age that values—and disseminates, and dissects, and brutalizes—information, getting to indulge in pop culture with absolutely no information at all might be the best new-old pleasure.

That was the experience for filmgoers at both Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX and Ithaca Fantastik in Ithaca, NY when they took a look at Aloys, the sophomore feature (and first solo full-length film) of Swiss writer/director Tobias Nölle. I’d sort of be killing my own thesis if I said too much about the movie here, so I’ll summarize it as briefly as possible while still putting that worm on the end of the hook: The titular Aloys Adorn (Georg Friedrich) is a curmudgeonly private investigator grieving his elderly father’s recent death. It seems Papa Adorn was the only person Aloys had in the world, and Aloys has had nothing to do lately but go about his business like a highly efficient zombie. If nothing else, his newfound isolation allows Aloys the opportunity to more fully indulge in his two favorite past times: Petty theft, and surreptitiously videotaping everyone and everything around him. Indeed, Aloys has an entire library of mini-cassettes documenting everything from the malfeasant (one of his clients’ spouses having an affair) to the mundane (a long, mostly eventless loop of what goes on in the hallway outside his apartment at night). The night after his father’s cremation, Aloys gets hammered on whiskey and passes out on a bus, waking up to discover that he’s been robbed—specifically, of his tape cache. Shortly after, Aloys is contacted via phone by a velvety-voiced yet sinister sounding young woman named Vera (Tilde von Overbeck, whose mesmerizing performance has her lined up to be the next Audrey Tautou), who confesses to being the thief and engages Aloys in a series of manipulative mind games.

This is the point at which I’ve got to stop. In fact, even though my above summary only covers the first fifteen minutes of the film, I already feel like I’ve given away too much; I’ll have to console myself with the knowledge that it’s all in the name of trying to get you to see Aloys. What happens next is not what you’d expect, and that’s a very, very good thing. Although the execution of these first few sequences would make for an excellent thriller, the direction the movie takes (last hint: a hypnotic therapy technique called “Phone Walking” comes into play) is far more satisfying, and far more soul soothing, than anything the audience could have imagined. Viewers may go into Aloys ready for a great movie; they’ll leave feeling like great people.

It was my pleasure recently to speak with Nölle about what might have been the most satisfying and life-affirming movie to come out of Fantastic Fest (and, when all is said and done, perhaps Ithaca Fantastik, as well). I’m hesitant to ask you to read it before seeing the film, but, if it’ll encourage you to get out there and track down a screening, go ahead. Whatever your decision, here’s Mr. Nölle…

Preston Fassel: How did you come up with the idea for the film? What was your inspiration?

Tobias Nölle: I’m obsessed with the universe that exists within in our heads, which is truly infinite; and there are 7.5 billion different ones on the planet, still excluding animals. I tried to find a way to enter one of those universes with the camera. I chose a private detective, who is forced to explore his fantasy in order to solve his last case, which is, in a way, himself. 

PF: There's a subtle genre shift that occurs early on in the film; a lot of the people I saw it with at the festival thought it was going to be a thriller or horror movie at first. Was this a conscious decision? 

TN: I always loved this vision of a “noir but magic“ tale. It was always these words I had in mind for the creation: noir but magic. The mix of a film noir-like detective story and a magical journey inside his mind. I was very attracted to that idea. I didn’t really think of genre, or about playing with the audience expectations within those classifications. Genres don’t matter to me, that’s up to the audience, if they need some sort of classification. Genre is good to pitch, to sell, to put it in a box and store it next to all the similar boxes. I always hope to be my own genre.

PF: What was your inspiration for the concept of Phone Walking? The film explains it as a therapeutic technique developed in Japan, but, as the many folks who Googled it after the premier discovered, it seems to be your invention. Is there any real-life basis for it?

TN: I just found it interesting to imagine that somebody has these very personal phone conversations with a stranger and actually meets that person in his imagination... from there I created the Phone Walking concept, which is super simple because I wanted to create something that would be possible in reality, without a science fiction machinery making the magic trick. To create images based on what you hear is basically all it takes.

PF: A lot of attention is paid early on in the film to Aloys' borderline kleptomania, which sort of recedes as the film progresses. What did you want to convey about the character?

TN: It was very logical to me that a man who is invisible would make use of this advantage once in a while and steal stuff when he feels like it. It was more about that, his invisibility, which turns out to be his main problem. So I used the stealing to show his invisibility and him making use of it, not the stealing itself. Not sure if it worked. Or you wouldn’t ask, I guess!

PF: Because the movie is focused through Aloys, we get to know him much better than we do Vera. Did you have a concrete backstory in mind for her? 

TN: Yes, we did. But I decided early on that I didn’t want to spell it out on screen but only give hints, so the audience finally has to do some imagination work as well. Backstories are mostly boring: car accident, abusive parents, avalanche, drug addict... all that is usually generic and always the same. The only interesting part is what the character feels, what she lacks, what she desires. And that I showed in many places, visually and especially through her stories about the animals in the zoo. But her backstory reflects everywhere, in the plants in her flat, in her spying on him, in her stealing the sheep, in her eyes, underneath her words, even in the tone of her voice. I casted [Tilde] because she has it in her, an understanding of Vera.

PF: Many American viewers probably think that the idea of technology acting to depersonalize relationships is a US phenomenon, but of course this isn't the case. What is the situation like in your home country? How does it compare to the role of technology in people's relationships in other places you've been or lived?

TN: It’s everywhere the same. People glued to their cellphones, waiting for likes, waiting for virtual acceptance and working on their virtual second life, trying to be a better person in the web than they are in reality. The fear of failure is a big motor for that, and the desire to belong of course, in every urban civilization.

PF: Do you see Aloys as a story that belongs to the information age, or is it more generally about loneliness and isolation-- a story that could be set in any time period that had access to phones?

TN: I clearly intended to tell a story that addresses the issues of the information age, but in a subtle way. I didn’t choose social media, I chose the beginning of it all: the telephone. Since its invention, we don’t need to meet each other physically anymore in order to be in contact with each other. The telephone is the beginning of virtual reality. At the same time, I talk about the power of imagination that often goes along with being inside your head, being isolated and alone and the need for an escape from it, into virtual worlds where you are surrounded by life or in the middle of a party, as in Aloys’ case. These are universal themes, not connected to any specific time. Imagination was always and will always be a healing power, but also a dangerous force, if we hide in it. It turns into madness if gone too far.

PF: It's difficult to imagine anyone else in the lead roles, and, as you say, Tilde von Overbeck really embodies something special in her portrayal of Vera. How did you choose Georg Friedrich and von Overbeck for your leads?

TN: I just waited and searched until I found these two amazing raw diamonds. Georg Friedrich is famous, but in very different roles. Tilde von Overbeck fell from the sky, just before shooting. She never acted before, but she is blessed with this amazing, edgy yet very beautiful aura. In my eyes, both have a magic quality about them, that only very few actors have.