Among this year’s official Oscar submissions, few will resonate as easily with audiences as Switzerland’s “Wolkenbruch’s Wondrous Journey Into the Arms of a Shiksa.” Adapted from a novel by the same name, this uproarious comedy is at once universal and specific, telling the story of a young Jewish man who seeks love outside of his Orthodox Jewish traditions. As the film seeks to reach audiences through a Netflix distribution deal and its awards campaign, I caught up with director Michael Steiner to talk about his bold directorial approach. Below is an edited version of our chat.
Shane Slater: How did you approach the tone of the film and bring out the comedy in such a sensitive issue?
Michael Steiner: Zurich has the largest Orthodox Jewish community in German-speaking countries. It’s an area of Zurich. I lived there for over 10 years. So I had a glimpse, but I had no depth. Then I met a guy who left his family at the age of 17. He’s basically an original Motti. He helped us a lot in understanding what it means when you leave the community and how it will affect your life. Especially the rituals, rules, prayers. He was with me during the whole shoot, because I wanted to be really authentic.
I found out that when the movie came out, people were really astonished that they could see behind the doors of a world they don’t see in Switzerland. It’s a very small minority.
SS: Inge Maux, who plays the mother, is so perfect for this role. How did you go about casting her?
MS: My casting agent came to me and told me about this Jewish actress in Vienna and she speaks Yiddish. And she came over and I think she got the role after one minute. [Laughs]. It was quite easy! She’s the only one who did not have to learn Yiddish. I wanted a Yiddish that is also understood by those who speak Swiss German, because Swiss German is basically the brother/sister language of Yiddish. So I organized a Yiddish professor from Munich to level up the dialogue within the family, because the Yiddish spoken worldwide is different. So I took out all the local words and the Hebrew words and added more Yiddish that could be understood by anyone in the world who speaks Yiddish. I love the language, I love the sound of it.
SS: I found it interesting that Motti’s parents send him to Israel to reconnect with his conservative heritage, but it has the opposite effect on him. What was your perspective on “Jewishness” in Israel, versus diaspora communities?
MS: All these things are based on the novel. But it happens. When you are in a small Orthodox community, maybe you don’t find the right girls. So the rabbi might send you to Israel because the selection there is wider. It’s really true.
I helped Thomas write the screenplay. It was his first screenplay and I know it’s not easy when you are a novelist. I worked a long time with him to shape the novel into a movie. I tried to get out the essence of the book. For me, it was very important that the end of the movie is open-ended like the novel. So I basically cut down the third act by two or three minutes. I found it very important that this freedom of choice was very clear. Switzerland is defined very well by freedom of religion and separation of religion and state. The book is about this as well.
The reactions from the Orthodox Jew were very varied. Some really didn’t like it because it’s a story where a member of the community leaves. On the other hand, there’s a couple in the movie that finds each other within that community. So the reactions from the community were varied. We got a lot of support because you get a glimpse into this world. And the more you learn about how a religious minority lives, it’s good for the spirit of tolerance. That was basically my goal.
SS: The film also seems to speak to a generational divide in how we view love, sex and relationships. Was there a difference in how young audiences responded versus older audiences?
MS: I didn’t see a big difference. The movie and the story is based in the Orthodox Jewish world. But when I shot the movie, I always told myself it could be an Italian mother. This mother-son relationship is universal. The tone and the voice is Orthodox Jewish, but this story applies to all kinds of nations, cultures and religions. I think this is the element that connects the younger and older audiences. That main plot is so universal. It’s basically a coming of age movie with a character that is much older than classic coming of age characters. That was the most fun part for me as a director.