Stefan Ruzowitzky: Let’s leave our comfort zone!

edited by Philipp Blom

I always felt that as an Aus­tri­an and as grand­son of grand­par­ents, some of whom were par­ty mem­bers and pas­sion­ate Nazis, at some point in your life as a sto­ry­teller you should do some­thing about this impor­tant part of your past, of your family’s past.

There is an Amer­i­can sci­en­tist by the name of Joseph Camp­bell, who came up with a the­o­ry that there is a so-called “mon­o­myth”, the quin­tes­sen­tial sto­ry. And actu­al­ly, all sto­ries – the Bible, the Odyssey, Grimm’s fairy­tales – are expres­sions of this mono-myth. There is a hero and he hears a call to adven­ture. He is chal­lenged, and this chal­lenge can be that there is a white shark killing peo­ple. The chal­lenge can be that he meets a beau­ti­ful girl and wants to get her. So he hears the call to adven­ture and final­ly cross­es the thresh­old and then enters a new world.


A new world can be a dif­fer­ent set of beliefs, it can be an ill­ness or a new love, it can be a dif­fer­ent world, it can be the world of shark hunters. And there he learns some­thing, he has a near-death expe­ri­ence and with this new knowl­edge he comes back to his ordi­nary world. This is sort of the sto­ry we all can relate to.

We are con­stant­ly chal­lenged to enter a new world and we con­stant­ly have to decide: is it worth it, do I have the courage? This is my def­i­n­i­tion of courage. Do I have the courage to enter this world or do I stay in my nice con­fined famil­iar world, which is not per­fect but where noth­ing is going to hap­pen to me?

I made a doc­u­men­tary called “Rad­i­cal Evil”, and it’s about the so-called “Ein­satz­grup­pen”. This was sort of the first part of the holo­caust before there were even death camps. There were Ger­man troops, ordi­nary men, and they were espe­cial­ly in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and they were going from vil­lage to vil­lage killing all Jews – men, women, babies, chil­dren, old peo­ple. The film was about the psy­chol­o­gy of these men because they were no super-Nazis, they were just ordi­nary men. But it was easy to turn them into mass mur­der­ers. And the most fright­en­ing part of the whole doc­u­men­tary was at the end, when I asked about those who refused to par­tic­i­pate in the killing. There were very, very few who refused. And they were not exe­cut­ed but they were put on latrine duty. So, the choice was to either go out and kill or clean the toi­lets. And 99.9 % decid­ed to go out with the others.

Run­ning with the aver­age is some­thing that is deep inside us. 10,000 years ago, when the whole tribe was going to the left and you as an indi­vid­ual said, but I’d like it bet­ter over there and I go there alone to the right, a) you don’t have any off­spring, b) you are going to be eat­en by a lion. So all the indi­vid­u­al­ists die, where­as the con­formists sur­vive and have chil­dren. Con­formism is deep inside our DNA. We are social ani­mals and there­fore we are nec­es­sar­i­ly conformists.

I still like my def­i­n­i­tion of courage being the thresh­old to be crossed. I think for you as a per­son it is always good to cross thresh­olds, to leave your com­fort zone, to try some­thing new.


The Oscar win­ner Ste­fan Ruzow­itzky is con­sid­ered one of the most suc­cess­ful Aus­tri­an film direc­tors and screen­writ­ers. Since 2013 Ste­fan Ruzow­itzky is co-pres­i­dent of the Acad­e­my of Aus­tri­an Film.

After com­plet­ing his stud­ies of the­ater and media stud­ies and his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vien­na, Ruzow­itzky designed tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tions, doc­u­men­tary films, com­e­dy pro­grams, com­mer­cials and music videos for artists like Justin Tim­ber­lake, The Scor­pi­ons or Ste­fan Raab.

His pro­duc­tions have received numer­ous awards. Ste­fan Ruzow­itzky gave his direc­to­r­i­al and screen­play debut in 1996 with the film “Tem­po”, for which he received the Max Ophüls Prize, one of the most impor­tant awards for young film­mak­ers in the Ger­man-speak­ing area. The hor­ror film “Anato­my” is still the most com­mer­cial­ly suc­cess­ful Ger­man genre film to date. The pow­er­ful con­cen­tra­tion camp dra­ma “The Coun­ter­feit­ers”, which pre­miered in the com­pe­ti­tion of the Berli­nale, final­ly won the Oscar as “Best For­eign Lan­guage Film”. Also in the fol­low­ing years Ste­fan Ruzow­itzky used a vari­ety of for­mats and proved his tremen­dous ver­sa­til­i­ty and the courage to try new things.