SPIEGEL: Mr. Durringer, you're the first person to ever make a film about an incumbent French president's thirst for power and his failings as a husband. In doing so, you've disregarded the previously sacrosanct line in France between the public and private personas of the country's head of state. Have you broken a taboo?
Xavier Durringer: It was Nicolas Sarkozy himself who divested the persona of the king and the role of the politician of its sacred status. His presence in the media and the public eye is greater than that of a pop star or an actor. He has led politics into the age of glamour and celebrity.
SPIEGEL: Do you think Sarkozy is a good example of how leading politicians can adroitly put themselves in the limelight emotionally so as to win over the hearts and minds of voters?
Durringer: To be more popular, he plays with transparency. Whether he's jogging, biking or kissing his wife, the cameras are always there.
SPIEGEL: Is that supposed to make the French think he's just like them?
Durringer: Yes, and that's why they're supposed to buy into his politics. Sarkozy is a master showman who has brought the cult of the personality into French politics.
SPIEGEL: But that has its dangers, as well.
Durringer: It has certainly played tricks on him in the past. By giving us a window into his private life, he has altered the traditional code of conduct. Cecilia, his second wife, also broke a taboo during his rise to the presidency and dispelled the illusion of domestic bliss: She dared to leave him shortly before his greatest triumph, didn't vote and filed for divorce. That's completely unprecedented -- in any country.
SPIEGEL: Though it sure makes great movie material, there has to be more to this than just the trivialization of politics. Is it a sign of the times?
Durringer: Whether it's the Greeks, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Molière or, more recently, Brecht, playwrights have always sought to shine a critical light on their society. And part of that is questioning the policies of those in power. In a democracy, it's healthy to have artists hold a mirror up to the world and allow us to look into the sun or the abyss.
SPIEGEL: You have clearly seen more darkness than light. Are you worried about how Sarkozy might react? On several occasions, he has shown that he can silence critics he doesn't like. He simply makes a direct call to the owners of the relevant media companies …
Durringer: … and demands that they be kept on a shorter leash. And what results from this is a kind of political self-censorship typical for France.
SPIEGEL: Does this reluctance reflect a fear of powerful people? Or is it merely an expression of respect for privacy, as some would claim?
Durringer: Though some people knew about it, President Francois Mitterrand's second family and his daughter, Mazarine, benefited from this protection. The media also kept silent about the nocturnal escapades of (French presidents) Giscard d'Estaing and Jacques Chirac. Of course there were rumors, but nobody wanted to delve into it further. The French people are quite willing to accept that politicians lead double lives, that they have affairs and mistresses. Infidelity and extramarital affairs are normal parts of life. France is a libertarian society; we have politicians who are a lot like us.
SPIEGEL: Do you think this tolerance will disappear because of Sarkozy's exhibitionism -- which is vaguely reminiscent of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's -- and the implosion of Dominique Strauss-Kahn?
Durringer: Sarkozy has tried to draw attention to himself and has even summoned photographers when going on vacation. Strauss-Kahn is another case entirely -- and one that saddens me deeply. It's a shocking catastrophe for France and politics in general. A frightening tale is being written as we speak. Strauss-Kahn embodied the hopes of the political left. France needed a strong challenger like him to run against Sarkozy in next year's presidential election. Now our entire political class is taking a beating, and I can only hope that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, doesn't emerge as the joyous victor.
SPIEGEL: Strauss-Kahn's precipitous fall is the stuff of dark novel, and the story is perfect for a film because the facts are stranger than fiction. Does that make it tempting for a director like you?
Durringer: This exceeds my moral limits; I'd never touch that story. Being prosecuted for sexual assault is completely different than having people know about your mistresses. A movie about "DSK," as he is known in France, would have to try to analyze his relationship with women from a psychological point of view. That's repugnant -- and definitely not for me.
SPIEGEL: His womanizing was well-known, and his sexual advances were notorious. But people kept quiet about them. Was this really a failure on the part of the French media, as the American media claims? And doesn't the current silence of France's politicians -- or at least the womanizers among them -- give off the impression that they think they can do as they please?
Durringer: If it does, they have clearly failed in their duty as guardians. But Strauss-Kahn still hasn't told his side of the story. And, until then, we need to keep an open mind. If it turned out that there was a certain pattern to his behavior toward women and that there were repeated attempts to cross the line, it would certainly be devastating. This story really moves me because I have always thought very highly of DSK.
SPIEGEL: But, as is also the case with Sarkozy, it shows that a mantle of privacy can't be used to shroud a politician's character and personality.
Durringer: Sooner or later, everyone has to face their moment of truth. Nobody forces people to become politicians. If you step into this world, you have to sacrifice a lot of things -- including love and friendships -- and you have to do horrible things. You can only win power by elbowing your enemies aside. Sarkozy has lost track of all the things he gave up to win. And that's what my movie shows.
SPIEGEL: You make it sounds like a Shakespearian tragedy. But the film is much more like a comedy.
Durringer: I disagree. "The Conquest" is a movie about the comedy of power. It's not a political film; it's a film about politics. The audience's laughter merely underlines what the politician has sacrificed -- his loneliness, his narcissism and his gradual loss of love, friends, morals, convictions and principles.
SPIEGEL: But politicians don't do these things alone. Do you think that French journalists play a willing role in this process because they enjoy being close to powerful people more than doing their job, which is to sound the alarm?
Durringer: At the apex of power, politics is all about the art of presentation. And you can't have that without journalists. They travel with the president, they are his dinner guests, and they become his confidantes. That creates a bond, a feeling of belonging to a political media elite.
'Sarkozy Is Like a Child without a Developed Superego'
SPIEGEL: The actors in your movie brilliantly mimic the expressions, speech, gestures and demeanor of the characters they are playing -- Sarkozy, Cecilia, Chirac and Villepin. In fact, they do it so well that it almost seems like a parody. Could one of the weaknesses of your film be that it depicts the dark side of politics as something more like a comedy skit?
Durringer: Our goal wasn't to shoot a satire or a spoof. Instead, we wanted to be as real and true-to-life as possible. Take the scene where (former) Prime Minister Villepin tells Sarkozy, his rival, that he never ordered an investigation into his alleged involvement in a money-laundering scheme. Sarkozy obviously knew his prime minister was lying to his face. So what did he do? He asked Villepin to get someone to fetch some chocolate. Of course, the audience laughs when the chocolates arrive. But isn't there something eerie about this comedy? After all, in this scene, the sparks of hatred are just flying.
SPIEGEL: Doesn't your movie take the perspective of the court jester who dares defy the king?
Durringer: Modern courts no longer have jesters who tell the truth. Sarkozy treats his staff like a slave trader would. He starts nearly every day with a temper tantrum. He shouts, spits venom, treats everyone like complete idiots and genuinely thinks he has to do everything himself because only he can do it well enough.
SPIEGEL: So would you describe him as a dominating type 'A' personality who won't let anything stand in his way?
Durringer: Yes, though he's driven by a desire for power rather than by malice. His self-confidence is boundless, his optimism unassailable. There's no room for doubt, as it would be cumbersome. And anyone and anything that gets in his way is simply swept aside.
SPIEGEL: Villepin contemptuously refers to Sarkozy as "the dwarf." Aren't men with an inferiority complex and a belly full of burning resentment dangerous when they come to power?
Durringer: Of course, especially since Sarkozy is constantly driven by the need to prove himself to everyone else. He's a political orphan, perhaps even a usurper -- in Villepin's eyes -- and definitely an upstart. He's beholden to no one. As he once stated menacingly himself, he is free to do as he pleases -- which also means he's free to betray and stab people in the back. He simply can't accept not getting what he wants, which makes him like a child whose superego hasn't developed yet.
SPIEGEL: Sarkozy reportedly almost got violent when Cecilia, the woman he was married to before Carla Bruni, took the gloves off and packed her bags.
Durringer: He couldn't stand not being able to keep her. But, then again, what husband could just sit back and calmly watch while his wife was leaving him? That also makes him human. And therein lies the tragedy of his life: He won the election, but he lost his wife. He is a man caught between his ambition and his passion for his wife.
SPIEGEL: What do you think is the biggest mistake politicians make in power?
Durringer: They become self-centered, narcissistic and boundlessly vain. That's why they believe in the omnipotence of their own will.
SPIEGEL: Is your movie also meant to remind us of other statesmen? Is it a warning against the perils of hubris, the curse of the gods on the powerful?
Durringer: Yes, very much so. A politician should never forget where he came from. If he does, he will no longer know where he's going.
SPIEGEL: Sarkozy knows only too well where he came from, and it pains him: He is the son of an immigrant who abandoned his family and a Frenchman with mixed blood, as he said in the famous speech he gave when announcing his candidacy for the 2007 presidential election.
Durringer: That was a tremendous speech -- as well as a key scene in my movie. During shooting, I was moved to tears when Denis Podalydès, the actor playing Sarkozy, repeated the words: "I am the child of a Hungarian immigrant." I realized what it meant to be French: a member not of an ethnic group, but of a community of free citizens. France is more than a country; it is an idea.
SPIEGEL: Sarkozy refuses to look in the mirror you are holding up to him. He has said he won't watch the movie.
Durringer: Yes. And he's given an odd reason for it, saying that too much narcissism will drive you mad. That's the insight I'm after. But personal insight isn't usually his forte. He can justify any stance with the same amount of passion. He wants to be loved, no matter why or wherefore. He is a bundle of nerves in search of recognition and affection, not a cool-headed intellectual.
SPIEGEL: Don't you think that he might watch "The Conquest" in secret at the Elysée Palace together with Carla Bruni?
Durringer: I'm willing to bet on it. And since he's a compulsive blabbermouth, he'll eventually betray his own secret some day.