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Bettina Oberli • Director of My Wonderful Wanda

“Humour can come out of desperation”


- We talked to Swiss director Bettina Oberli, who opened the 16th edition of the Zurich Film Festival with My Wonderful Wanda

Bettina Oberli  • Director of My Wonderful Wanda
(© Andreas Rentz/Getty Images for the Zurich Film Festival)

Bettina Oberli’s My Wonderful Wanda [+see also:
film review
interview: Bettina Oberli
film profile
 sees a Polish nurse (Agnieszka Grochowska) once again coming to help a wealthy Swiss family – especially its paralysed, 70-year-old patriarch, Josef (André Jung). But Wanda’s services go beyond what’s in their formal agreement, and soon enough, complications, and cows, make an unwelcome appearance. We talked to the Swiss director about her film, which opened the 16th edition of the Zurich Film Festival.

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Cineuropa: There are quite a few aspects to this story which could be described as ugly. And yet, ultimately, it’s quite humorous.
Bettina Oberli: What I wanted to avoid was showing Wanda as a victim. She is a very strong woman, and that’s what I told Agnieszka: “You are not a victim. No matter what you do.” I was also interested in telling a story about Switzerland. I think that people laugh because they recognise themselves. Humour can come out of desperation. I took these characters seriously; I never wanted to make fun of them. It's more about the situations they get themselves into.

It’s an ensemble film, so it was very important to find a balance. These are all experienced theatre actors, they don’t do just films, so they are not just “fighting for their close-up”. They have fun working together, giving all these little things to their partner to react to.

When I see yet another Polish cleaning lady or caregiver in films, I get scared – it has become such a cliché. They often refer to Wanda as “the Pole” here or talk about “Polish ways”. Were you afraid it might be considered offensive?
I wanted to treat these characters, all of them, with a lot of humanity. When you see people struggle, and really try hard to survive a disappointment, it’s easy to feel for them. But that only works when the actors are allowed to bring some complexity and layers to their interpretation. I didn’t have to convince Agnieszka to do this film, and that is the most important thing – that you like each other, because you go on this journey of ups and downs. I made a bad choice once, and I had a really hard time.

The fact that you have Cezary Pazura, who used to be this “Polish Jim Carrey”, in a supporting role is just hilarious to me.
I didn’t know how famous he was. Agnieszka laughed so hard when I told her he was going to play her father. I found him funny but also liked everything about his physiognomy. Maybe if I had known his movies, I could not have imagined him for this part? For me, he was a blank page. And he is so nice, Jesus Christ – he is such a nice guy. When we went to shoot in Warsaw, we told the service production company, and they asked: “What about bodyguards? People will block the whole street.” And yes, they were going crazy whenever they saw him.

These people do so many things we could consider as wrong, yet still they stick together. Is it because that’s what you do in a family?
Every relationship is a process, always. It’s not set in stone. I wanted to dig deep into this typical family construct. André is such a good actor that people still like him in the movie, even though he plays such a horrible guy. He adds so much charm to this part. It was important because I wanted to show that Wanda and Josef, they are friends. He is happy when she is around, and it’s not always sexual. That helps a bit with accepting that there is this old guy, paying for sex. I was always very aware that this could go very wrong.

Is that why you show what happens between them in such a matter-of-fact way? When he calls it a “business transaction”, that’s just what it is.
I always said that this sexual act needs to be just like washing him, feeding him or going for walks. She does it in a very pragmatic way; there is no emotion. You see her do other things with his body, and that was the only way. And we had to shoot it on the second day already! I talked to many Polish women who stay here in Switzerland, doing this job. When we started writing, there were so many stories already in my head. Let’s take the cow – that’s a real story.

You’re kidding.
Well, not exactly the same, but one of them told me that with the first pay cheque she earned here in Switzerland, she bought a cow for her parents. Someone else had her employer wanting to divorce and marry her instead, or leave her his entire fortune. We say this is a win-win situation, but it’s not true. All of these women told me: “I don’t have my own life. I have kids, but I never see them; I have parents, and I can’t take care of them.” I wanted to add this Swiss perspective and think it through, think what a real “win-win situation” would be like. Everyone here has a price to pay. But at the same time, they are glad they have a job. They might be victims of economic circumstances, but not of these people.

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