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The Telegraph (08/Apr/2006) - Film-makers on film: Dominik Moll

(c) Telegraph (08/Apr/2006)

Film-makers on film: Dominik Moll

Dominik Moll, the director of Lemming, talks to Benjamin Secher about Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936)

'Sabotage is one of the strangest and darkest films, not just in Hitchcock's career, but in cinema in general," says Dominik Moll. "It's gloomy, desperate, and almost impossible to identify with any of the characters. And for all those reasons, I really, really like it."

Occasionally for this feature, an interviewee will select a film which so neatly matches the aesthetic of his own work that, in retrospect, it becomes hard to imagine why he would ever have plumped for anything else. In choosing Alfred Hitchcock's 1936 adaptation of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent - a taut, tense thriller with a generous sprinkling of comic absurdity - Moll has done just that.

In his French box-office smash Harry, He's Here to Help (2000) and again in this month's outrageously entertaining Lemming, the young German director flaunts a distinctly Hitchcockian flair for pace and atmosphere: summoning menace in an instant, then just as suddenly dispelling it with a burst of oddball comedy. While his plots flirt with the preposterous (Lemming begins with the discovery of the eponymous rodent in the S-bend of a kitchen sink), his off-kilter indulgences are, again in the tradition of Hitchcock, tempered by the meticulous visual craftsmanship with which he conveys his story.

"When I make a film, I try to think how Hitchcock might have approached it," says Moll, one fidgety hand skimming across his flyaway hair. "When you watch his films you can really feel the pleasure he took in fabricating them. He understood the specificity of cinema, how you can tell a story with film in a very different way than in a novel or a play."

Sabotage is a case in point. Hitchcock took a great Edwardian novel, about an inept terrorist and his credulous wife, and boiled it down to 76 breakneck minutes. The result is a zinging enigma of a movie, punctuated with disquieting images and haunting snatches of speech. "For me it is a film full of open doors," says Moll, "spaces to which you can add your own story."

The voids at the heart of the film are the Verlocs: Mr Verloc (the secret agent, played by Oskar Homolka, his beady eyes ever active beneath a glowering brow); his curiously incurious wife (a luminous Sylvia Sidney); and Stevie (Desmond Tester), Mrs Verloc's retarded brother with whom they share their London home. "The relationship between the Verlocs is very strange," says Moll. "They're married, but you don't really know why." The closest they come to having a full conversation is when they discuss the sogginess of the cabbage the cook has prepared for the evening meal. "There is obviously no love in their relationship, and probably no sex either," says Moll. "Although they're quite polite with each other, quite gentle."

Gentle, that is, until Mrs Verloc plunges a carving knife into her husband's sizeable stomach. "Yet even when she kills him, it's a very strange, uncertain moment," argues Moll. "One minute she is looking at the knife, the next, he's been stabbed. You look at Mrs Verloc's blank face and you think, 'My God, what is going on inside her head?' You're not even sure she does it on purpose."

Far less ambiguous is the film's climactic sequence, in which the jug-eared innocent, Stevie, is tracked across London, as he unwittingly transports a bomb through the capital's streets. Along the way, he encounters persistent salesmen and dense crowds, all apparently conspiring to impede his progress. "It is," says Moll, "as if the whole population of London is trying to stop him getting rid of that bomb."

He never reaches his destination. The bomb goes off in his hands while he's sitting on a bus next to (in a devilish bit of Hitchcockian embellishment) an old lady with a cute puppy. It brings to a suitably explosive end what Moll describes as "the tensest episode in an extremely tense film".

Moll first saw Sabotage when he was 20, and "in a heavy Hitchcock phase" that had begun two years earlier. "When I first started to become interested in film, I would try to read [highbrow French film journal] "Les Cahiers du cinéma", but it was all Greek to me," he says. "I didn't understand a thing. So I said to myself, 'My God, making films must be a very complicated thing.' Then I discovered a book of interviews between Truffaut and Hitchcock - full of useful, comprehensible advice on filmmaking - and everything fell into place. From there, I went to see Hitchcock's films and discovered his world, which I still enjoy."

It is already 70 years since Hitchcock made Sabotage but, Moll insists, its peculiar brilliance remains undulled by time. "If cinema changes in such a way that one can think you'd be better off forgetting Hitchcock," he says, adopting a melodramatic tone worthy of the man himself, "then that would be the time to forget about cinema altogether."