interview: markus schleinzer on angelo

“Costume drama about a young black boy who is kidnapped from his home country to serve as a mascot for Austria’s aristocrats” 

Director Markus Schleinzer was more in love with theater than cinema when he was young. For him it was the true form of art, whereas cinema was a lie as its actors never had to adjust to the moment. That was until a friend showed him Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers (1988). He was 15 years old, did not understand a single word of the film but felt like a bus had hit him.
He started watching more independent and European cinema.
Accidentally, he got into the casting world where he stayed for almost two decades and worked with directors such as Ulrich Seidl and Michael Haneke. In 2011 his first feature film Michael came out, Angelo (2018) is his second film.

[RMA] How come you decided to start making your own films?

[Markus] As a child I grew up with little borders. I had the feeling that I could be part of any discussion. So, maybe this is the reason I was not used to ‘stay on my side’. As a casting director, I read the script and when I didn’t understand something I would go to the director and explain what I found interesting and what I could not understand. I would present a scene in a way that I thought could be more intriguing and natural for the actors.
Writing became part of my job and often I would be asked to come to the set and help direct a scene because the directors felt they could not do it the way I had presented it in the office.
At the age of 26, I met Michael Haneke for the first time. I worked on six or seven films with him. From the beginning he gave me a lot of opportunities. When we did The Piano Teacher (2001) with Isabelle Huppert, I was on set most of the time to direct all the extras.
When we did The White Ribbon (2009), he gave me the opportunity to not only cast but also direct all the children on set. And after we finished he told me: “OK, now it’s time to move on. Write your own script and finally make your own movie.”
So, that’s how – at the age of thirty-eight – I became a director.

[RMA] Your first feature film was called Michael (2011) and your second one Angelo (2018). In both films you follow the (real) lives of two men. Could you tell us more about Angelo Soliman? How did you stumble upon his story and what intrigued you to decide that you wanted to make a feature film about him?

[Markus] What I’m mostly interested in are outsiders. You can become an outsider pretty easily; it does not take much. I’ve always been intrigued by characters who want to go somewhere but are not able to, because of taboos or repressions from society. Both men in their own way represent these outsiders.
As mentioned before, I like films that deal with mixed media. Peter Greenaway came from painting. In his work he makes various references to paintings. If you’re not an expert you cannot decode them, but you can still see all of this superb artworks.
But making Michael (2011) I could not explore this path, as I did not want to make a film about a child locked away in a basement where everything is beautifully shot. That would have been disgusting. It had to be dry and sober and not beautiful or sexy at all.
After this film, I decided it was time to do something in which I could bring beauty. Angelo Soliman is a famous figure in Vienna, Austria and I grew up with a lot of stories about him. I started my research and soon found out that most of the stories I learnt in my childhood were wrong. This human being was used by the Austrian society, but never given the chance to tell his own story.
People always said he was grateful to our society which gave him the opportunity to make something out of his life and that at the end of his days he donated his own skin because he was so grateful. It is something I doubt very much. There were people who said he was a great example of a well-done immigration job. How can you use this man as a good immigration example? He was kidnapped; it is a crime. He did not decide to come here for a better life. We forced him. He came to Austria just to shine for us and not for himself. He was an ornament.

[RMA] It must have been confronting to have your childhood stories crushed like this.

[Markus] Stories often become truer than the truth itself. I think it was Orson Welles who once said that the Vienna that does not exist is the most beautiful.

[RMA] Was it hard to find the ‘true’ story about Angelo Soliman?

[Markus] No, very easy. When you know where you have to go you can find it, but it’s not a loud voice. There are plenty of scientists and experts working on him, but what they have to tell is not as interesting as the huge amount of sweet little stories.
For a while, Angelo worked for the count of Liechtenstein. In the house of Liechtenstein – which still exists – there was a very interesting book in which they wrote down what they spent. So, that much for horses and that much for carriages and things like this. And in every year, there’s also one column for Angelo Soliman. You can read what kind of presents they bought him, like a feather for his head and new shoes.
They had this part in the book for every servant who worked there, male and female. And after every name there is the job description. So, you have Mr. Charlie Hoover, servant number one and Duke Palast servant number two. The titles of the job for Angelo Soliman change every year and are confusing. One year he is a ‘bywalker’ who you could take a walk with whenever you wanted. The next year he is someone to chat with, like an old lady. Or someone who can read you a book.
It seems like they did not know how to name his job. As I said before, he was just there to be an ornament. But for me, in the end, Angelo was a true actor.  He was brought to Austria, to play for us in different ways. Whenever we wanted him, he had to come and have this monologue about an Africa that never existed. And we dressed him the way he had to be and the way he had to react and the way he had to shine, it was also a part of his role.

Interview by: Charlotte Van Zanten