“Not a Word,” which is being sold by international sales agency Beta Cinema, will have its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in the competitive Platform section. Variety speaks to the film’s writer-director, Hanna Slak, and debuts its trailer.
“Not a Word” tells the story of a relationship crisis between a parent and her teenage son. Maren Eggert, who won the best acting award at the Berlin Film Festival for “I’m Your Man,” plays an ambitious orchestra conductor, Nina. Jona Levin Nicolai (“The Net,” Netflix’s “The Grimm Reality”) plays her moody son, Lars. Following the death of a girl at Lars’ school, the boy has a mysterious accident, but refuses to talk about it. Nina decides to take a break from city life and together they head to their vacation home on an island on the rugged Atlantic coast. As a storm gathers, their brittle relationship, wreathed in silence, is pushed to breaking point.
In the film’s end credits, Slak includes a dedication to her mother, and she confirms that she has drawn on her own relationships – both with her mother and her own relationship with her children – when crafting the film.
“It’s very much a film that focuses on a single relationship,” she says. “It focuses on the relationship between a mother and a child, a son, but at the same time, it explores different nuances and the depth of this relationship. There is a lot of me in the mother; there’s a lot of me in the child. There is my mother in the mother; there’s my mother in the child. There are mothers that I know and children that I know in all the characters.”
She comes from a family of artists, she explains: both her parents were filmmakers.
“My mother especially has had a huge influence on me as a director. She’s retired now, but she was a sound designer, which was quite unusual as a profession for women in the 70s and the 80s, when she was at her most active. She was an amazing artist, and she had an amazing career. She really made an impact on film in the region, on the way sound was utilized.”
She adds: “So yes. There is a lot of my mother, of me growing up with a mother who is an artist to whom her artistic career was crucial, existentially crucial, not only in a financial way, but in the sense of her identity. And then myself becoming a mother and being an artist for whom a career also is something crucial and existentially crucial for my identity.”
For Slak, it is important for parents to have fulfilling careers, and for artists to have fulfilling personal relationships, rather than to have to choose between the two.
“There is a kind of narrative in the public [domain] that I have been observing for years: that in order to have a successful career, especially a successful artistic career, it’s impossible to be a good enough parent,” she says. “And, on the other hand, I wanted to draw from my own experience, and the experiences of people around me, and maybe ignite another thought: Is it at all possible to be a good enough artist without having those significant relationships, the experiences which are, of course, up and down experiences, which take us to the depths and to the heights of our lives? Can somebody be a truly great artist and have a truly fulfilling artistic career without living those experiences and those relationships as well?”
When Lars has his accident, Nina is preparing her orchestra for a performance of Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony, and the film’s soundtrack, composed by Amélie Legrand, is based on the symphony. Slak uses Mahler as an example to illustrate her point. “I don’t think his music would exist in the form that we know it if he didn’t have these kinds of experiences, because this was what he poured into the music: the life experiences that he lived through, his relationship with his wife, with his children, with his siblings, with his family.”
“So I would like to open another window in this public discussion, which is: It’s not only about choosing between either having an artistic career or being a good enough parent, or having serious attachments in your life – it doesn’t have to be parenting – but it’s more about: Is it possible to be really good at any of those things if you have to focus only on one of them?”
“Because I think that the true growth comes from learning on one side and implementing the knowledge on the other side. So that learning through our parenting or through our personal attachments brings us towards solutions in our work, maybe creative work, or maybe not creative work. Sometimes we find solutions in our relationships for challenges that we face at work. And sometimes we find solutions for our relationship in the challenges that we find at work. I think it’s one life, and it’s all very connected. We cannot really have this division of life into the professional section of our lives and relationships section of our lives. It doesn’t work because we need both, actually, and we can only grow from both.”
Another focus for the film is the consequences of violence, including the effects of violence on those who are not the direct victims of that violence, but who are nevertheless traumatized by the incident. It also looks at the consequences of silence that surrounds a violent incident, which is a form of violence itself and doesn’t allow “a certain truth or a certain problem to come to the surface.”
She adds: “To break the hold of this violence on a person there is a need to work through it and break the silence.”
Again, she found inspiration for this in Mahler’s life and music. “That’s something that I hear a lot in Mahler’s music, that he is dealing with in his music: the consequences of violence and with silencing itself, because I think as a person, he himself was subjected to a lot of violence, being a Jewish person in Vienna [in the late 19th and early 20th century], and he was also subjected to a lot of silencing. And in his music, I can hear this kind of rebellion, this kind of subverting and seeking also for the beginning of the healing.”
Another theme in Mahler’s life and music was the death of children. Six of his siblings died when he was still a child and one of his children.
“I think that what I hear in the 5th Symphony is this process of mourning, of trauma being worked through in the Trauermarsch, the funeral march at the beginning [of the symphony], and then really going into some kind of craziness or neurosis, sadness and despair, and then a kind of giving in, in the Adagietto [best known for its inclusion in Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice”], which is like a kind of surrender, surrender to something bigger, which can be life, can be love. And then it comes back, at the end [in the rondo finale], into this very joyful piece of music, which is like the coming back to life. But, in order to come back to life, we have to face the darkness. I think that’s what his music is about: that in order to bridge the gap between the moment of trauma and coming back to light, coming back to life, you have to face the darkness. There’s no way around it.”
“And that’s something that I’ve been always interested in, in my work also: how to face the darkness. And so, I thought it would be quite interesting to write a story which would fit the narrative of the 5th Symphony as I perceive it to be.”