• Frauke Finsterwalder © C.K.
    I always need
    to know where
    things are leading

A portrait of director Frauke Finsterwalder

Frauke Finsterwalder © C.K.

Frauke Finsterwalder already knew at the age of six that she wanted to be a director. “I always wanted to tell stories for an audience.” Until she arrived there, however, she went through several stages that she now describes as difficult but nonetheless incredibly important.

Frauke Finsterwalder was born in Hamburg in 1975. After leaving school, she began studying literature and history in Berlin. At the same time, she worked as an assistant director at the Maxim Gorki Theatre and the Volksbühne, Berlin: a first step in the direction of creative storytelling.

But subsequently, she switched to the media industry and took a job as an editor for the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s magazine: “That foray into journalism happened by chance,” says Finsterwalder in retrospect. “In the early 2000s it was very difficult as a female director – in theatre, but especially in film. The profession was almost impossible for a woman.” Journalism did not bring her much joy, either. “I was really unhappy!” Today, she describes this unhappiness as important because it encouraged her to be courageous – a courage that led her to the Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film (University of Television and Film) in Munich.

A good 20 years later, Frauke Finsterwalder is touring the world with her second feature-length film. SISI & I premiered at the Berlinale 2023, where it wowed audiences and critics alike. The focus is on two women, Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, and her Hungarian lady-in-waiting, Irma Sztára – played by Susanne Wolff and Sandra Hüller. Frauke Finsterwalder not only directed the black-humoured drama but also wrote the screenplay – as she did for her first feature film FINSTERWORLD – in collaboration with her husband, author Christian Kracht. For SISI & I, the two incorporated historical facts about the famous empress, but went on to the story more freely. “I was never really interested in the historical Sisi, more in the fact that women at that time lived in a kind of parallel universe, to which men had no access.” SISI & I, therefore, is far more about unequal power relations – also between the women, since the lady-in-waiting was naturally at the mercy of the empress to some extent – but also about friendship, love “and everything in between”, Finsterwalder says.

To date, Frauke Finsterwalder has made only films for which she has written the screenplay. For her, it is always a broad overall process: from the first idea, to the screenplay, the preparation, the shooting and post-production. “Unfortu­nately, I haven’t yet been sent any screenplays that I liked. So, I guess I will go on doing everything myself for the time being.” Finsterwalder believes the most important thing, for her job as director and work as a screenwriter, is being at one with herself and knowing herself well. “I always need to know what exactly I want to say, and where things are leading. Then I can be brave and listen to my inner voice.” In the same breath, she adds: “Don‘t look at others, what they are shooting or writing or what is going down well right now. That dilutes what you do and you get boring, become less authentic.”

The artist finds her ideas and inspiration on her travels, but above all in the different cultures and countries she has lived in – like the USA, Argentina, Italy, Kenya, and India. Finsterwalder often returns to Germany to visit and then feels like a stranger in her own culture. But she does not see that as a disadvantage; in fact, it sharpens her perspective. For FINSTERWORLD and SISI & I, those were exactly the right perspectives. In general, new perspectives are essential for Frauke Finsterwald: “I don‘t want to get stuck in my own comfort zone.” This also applies to her curiosity about other genres. “I definitely want to make a horror film and have made several attempts to write one. But in the end, there are so many dramaturgical rules about how it works that I don’t feel free. That’s why I’ve preferred to incorporate horror elements into my films so far.” Still, there are new ideas. The next project is already in the works, the script is written and preparations are underway. “If everything goes well, I’ll be shooting next year!”

Angela Sonntag