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What Is Love

Ruth Mader’s latest film is an exquisite contemplation of relationships.

Even if a screening is sold out, tickets are often available 30 minutes before the start of the film at the box office at each venue.

Image gallery

  • Director-Screenwriter Ruth Mader
  • Producer Gabriele Kranzelbinder
  • With Saskia Maca, Helene Bubna, Michael Bubna
  • Austria 2012
  • 80 mins
  • Sales Autlook Filmsales

A woman, who appears happy to live alone, attends a family reunion. A husband and wife argue that he’s spending too much time at work. A priest is at prayer. On the night shift, a worker goes through her routine in a pristine factory. A Christian couple present a united front to their children, though they quibble in therapy. Ruth Mader’s contemplation of relationships between families, husbands and wives or with God, taking place in different strata of society, makes for an exquisite film. Her static camera captures these five episodes and their environments with composed elegance, presenting curious, honest and intimate slices of modern life, scenes that are often insightful, emotive or amusing. The film’s title is tellingly without a question mark, and while it would be difficult to argue it provides a definitive answer to what love is, What is Love suggests it can be something that is beautifully mundane.
Michael Hayden

Director Q&A

The film’s title is formulated as something between a question and a statement. Which occupied the foreground for you at the beginning?

It’s a question and provides five examples of how people love, how they can be happy.

Documentary film normally describes phenomena that are out of the ordinary, provides background information, or points out some kind of problem or injustice Could this theme be termed ‘anti-documentary’, since the film attempts to document existence per se, or ‘normality’?

From the very beginning I wanted to portray normality. I didn’t want to show either freaks or stars, but normal people, because for the most part not much attention is paid to normal people. ‘Normal’ was however nothing more than the approach, and then you see an ambivalence in this search for happiness – how it can be only partially successful or not at all.

What were the ideas and requirements you went into casting with?

It wasn’t simple, finding people who were good for the film and who really wanted to participate. By that I mean people you can identify with and who are interesting, too. What I demanded of them was a willingness to permit an authentic look at their lives. And they read the screenplay beforehand. Each scene was planned out and they knew what to expect.

How can each scene be planned out in detail for a documentary?

At first I performed research on them and observed how they live, and then chose scenes that are representative of their lives. For the most part research lasted two days that I accompanied them in their daily lives.

That doesn’t sound like a simple task, filtering out the essence from two days of research so that it can be used to prepare a detailed script for each shoot.

Actually, it didn’t take long. The phases of this project that involved a lot of work were the search for suitable protagonists and editing. In most cases, what was very important was finding the right order and rhythm for the portraits, because a slight variation could change a great deal, and it did. Shooting itself was a great experience and not difficult at all. We shot five days with each of the five protagonists.

Your formal approach is extremely rigorous and clearly defined. Wasn’t it an almost photographic challenge, portraying an individual or a family in ten to twenty minutes with solely visual means?

I think it was the right approach, telling this story in images with this kind of precision. I wouldn’t have been able to produce the same results with a shaky hand-held camera. And my formal approach was ‘portrait’. [...] I modelled my film on classic photographic portraits: Walker Evans and August Sander. In my opinion they create extraordinary clarity and intimacy. They manage to create intimacy with their subjects without getting too close. That was my approach for What Is Love: I wanted to maintain distance, because in certain circumstances that can create more intimacy than getting extremely close.
Ruth Mader (from an interview by Karin Schiefer)

Director biography

Born in Vienna in 1974, she studied Directing at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Department of Film and Television, and graduated with distinction. Her short film Gfrasta received the Max Ophüls Prize in 1999 and Null Defizit was her first film to be invited to Cannes, screening in the Cinéfondation programme in 2001. Struggle, her first feature, played in the Un Certain Regard programme at Cannes in 2003, and then at the LFF. Mader and her co-author Martin Leidenfrost received the Carl Mayer Screenplay Prize for their screenplay Serviam – Ich will dienen, but budgetary concerns have sadly long postponed its realisation. Her latest film, What Is Love, received its world premiere at the Berlinale Forum earlier this year.


1992 Endstation obdachlos [doc s]
1993 Gatsch [s]
1994 Kilometer 123,5 [s]
1997 Ready For What? [doc]
1998 Gfrasta [s]
2001 Null Defizit [doc s]
2003 Struggle
2012 What Is Love [doc]

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