Tom Tykwer and the Collector's Compulsion

GreenCineStaff's picture

By Sean Axmaker

"You look at filth and it's beautiful because, in a strange way, it is beautiful."

"In Berlin, I tried to catch up with some films, and of course as a filmmaker it gets more and more difficult because you always have business to do," confesses Tom Tykwer. "So I would sneak away. Last year I saw The Last Laugh (F.W. Murnau, 1925), also called The Last Man. It was amazing. The print looked like it was shot on 70mm or IMAX or something, it was so sharp and such nice contrasts and so rich. And I saw Sunrise, which is one of my favorite films ever."

Director of the breathlessly visceral romantic thriller Run Lola Run and the contemplative and dreamy Heaven, Tykwer was in Seattle to promote the upcoming release of his latest film, Perfume. Based on the novel by Patrick Süskind, an international bestseller and veritable phenomenon in Europe, it's an askew murder mystery set in the slums of 18th century Paris, where an orphan with a near supernatural sense of smell and a near inhuman lack of empathy becomes obsessed with scent to the exclusion of everything else. His pursuit of the most beautiful smells turns him into a serial killer who murders remorselessly for the sake of an art only he can truly appreciate.

But in the introductory small talk, he discovered that I had attended the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. Suddenly my questions were put on hold as he questioned me about Pordenone and what I liked about silent film. It was no mere idle chit chat. As his films attest, Tykwer is concerned with the texture of storytelling and the exploration of ideas through images and performance. The silent cinema is perhaps the purest form and it came up throughout the interview. He even used it as a segue to the business at hand, namely Perfume.

"I've done something like a silent movie," he says. "There's, like, hours of no dialogue in this film." Okay, not quite hours, but it made a great jumping off point for an interview that centered on, among other things, the way you communicate the sense of smell in a visual medium.


You have a main character who hardly speaks at all. Ben Whishaw gives an almost completely physical performance. Even when he's walking down the street, he gives off a sense of desperation. His adrenaline seems to be pumping every time he gets out and starts smelling things, as if he has to find a way to capture it. How did you work with him to get this performance? These are certainly not the kind of tendencies you associate with a killer, the visual presentation of a murderer.

To this concept, a story about somebody who is a murderer but at the same time is a kind of hero of the story, we needed somebody very much capable of an ambiguous quality. I really sought out many actors, tested a lot of people, and it was always clear we can't even start thinking about preparing the movie seriously before we have found the really right one. And then, I think after more than a hundred people that I either had met or seen tapes of or whatever, I was sent to see Hamlet on stage in London at the Old Vic Theater. It was a new production, and he was Hamlet, like 23 years old, the youngest Hamlet ever at the Old Vic and he was amazing. He was so different and so specific. There was something so peculiar about a Hamlet who is kind of a very, let's say, one of the nicer guys that Shakespeare has written. But the way he put him there - I loved the fact that he was also doing something very contemporary about it, and very confusing.

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