‘Zonder liefde, warme liefde, tout est fini!’ sang Jacques Brel in his 1962 hit ‘Marieke Marieke’. Without love, tender love, all is finished. Fifty years later the young director Sophie Schoukens reiterates that view in her moving and sensual movie of the same title, which has just opened in Germany.
‘That’s essentially the point I wanted to make in this film,’ Schoukens told me last week. ‘Marieke is searching for human warmth and tenderness. Her family does not give it to her and she tries to break free from that coldness, whatever the cost. It is Brel’s song that inspired me and was at the basis of Marieke’s character. I think Brel is a great artist and if he is still loved by so many people, it is because he is so profoundly human. His poetry lifts us up, and helps us break free from our own little selves.’
‘Marieke Marieke’ – titled ‘Marieke und die Männer’ in Germany – asks how can we love when love is taken away from us? Its central character, twenty-year-old Marieke (played by beautiful Hande Kodja) seeks warmth in the arms of much older men. With them she feels strong, cherished and free. But the arrival of an old family friend throws her into turmoil. Her mother does everything in her power to keep the friend and Marieke apart, but the young woman falls in love with him and learns the secret of her father’s death. Will she find the strength to accept the truth and live anew?
‘Marieke und die Männer’ is a Belgian-German co-production, one of hundreds of films which has been supported by the German Federal Film Fund. Each year the fund spends some €60,000,000 on producing feature films, providing grants of up to 20% on international co-productions. In addition the film received support from the Leipzig-based regional film fund, Mitteldeutsche Medienförderung (MDM).
‘My German adventure started with the Media Moonstone project,’ Schoukens told me. ‘I was offered the chance – along with seven other young European directors -- to shoot several scenes of my proposed film in Eisenach. At the end of the shoot, representatives of the MDM Fund screened and liked my work, and invited me to collaborate with them and local technicians. My film may be set in Brussels yet – in the end – more than half of it was shot in Halle near Leipzig. My costume woman, the lighting crew and technicians, the production designer and make-up girl were German. Working with them was a very positive experience.’
Schoukens also finalized her script with the help of the Nipkow Program, a Berlin-based scheme that enabled her to prepare for the shoot.
‘Marieke und die Männer’ – Schoukens’ first feature – has already won both the Bild and Kunst prizes at the Hof Film Festival, the first time ever a non-German language film has been so honoured. It has been selected for the Mannheim Heidelberg, Marrakech, Fiff Namur and San Sebastian festival, plus many others.
Reviewers have called it ‘exceptional’, ‘poetic’ and ‘an example of cinematographic perfection’. In Cahiers du Cinema Thierry Méranger commented on its ‘paradoxal and bewitching charm ... a film with depth and panache.’ L’Express championed Schoukens as an ‘unclassifiable filmmaker’, calling her work ‘raw and singular’. Nouvel Observateur advised, ‘Do not miss this beautiful film about the risk of living and loving.’
According to K.U.T. magazine, ‘Marieke und die Männer’ is ‘a fully mature psychological drama that gives Schoukens a place in the pantheon of admirable Belgian women filmmakers.’
Her directorial debut, the short ‘Alice, or life in black and white’ was selected for the 2008 Berlinale, has been invited to over 120 international festivals and won a dozen international prizes.
‘Ever since I was a child, Jacques Brel has been like a guiding light for me,’ said Schoukens. ‘I lived in New York for several years and I always felt a bit like a chameleon – I came from everywhere and nowhere. But a person’s cultural identity does not come out of the blue. During my travels I opened my eyes, and especially my ears, to the world and that enabled me to survive, really. Whenever I hear a Brel song, I immediately feel at home and realize that I am fond of being Belgian – especially with this song because of this unique mix of languages by which I have always been deeply affected. Brel is a very straightforward artist, a fighter who has the courage to confront us, in every respect.’
Schoukens too is a fighter, and a gifted director whose work – not unlike Brel’s – delights, inspires, thrills and haunts, taking hold of a part of ones heart and mind, enable us to understand something more of what it means to be human.