Restoring the quality of realness to the cinema


Harmut Bitomsky interviewed by Theo Bromin. Originally published in ‘Hartmut Bitomsky: Retrospective’, Goethe Institut München, 1997. As found in the Doc’s Kingdom 2010 catalogue. Hartmut Bitomsky will be our guest for the next DISSENT ! session, on March 28.

You have been classified among those referred to as essay film-makers.
Perhaps that is a misunderstanding. I make documentary films, and the documentary film is for me still a useful concept, which covers a very large number of possibilities. An essay film creates its own subject; in a way it invents its subject in the process of making the film. It establishes and determines the subject.

Whereas the documentary film refers to a subject that exists independent of it and has been established by reality. But can you clearly separate the two?
That’s a very good question. They can’t be clearly separated because film is not a science and it’s not literature. I recall something that Pavese wrote in his diary, a demand he made on writing which film is actually much better capable of satisfying. He demands that the analysis should not be openly pronounced, but rather it should be allowed to develop, in a rhythmic way, from an intricate, connected grasp of reality. Intricate and connected! The analysis must be included in life.

Sometimes life is also enveloped by the analysis… I’m thinking about Chris Marker.
Nothing against Chris Marker, Joli May is a wonderful film. Even if everything in it really refers to Sans Soleil.

At first sight Joli May appears to be quite formless.
The film is actually a deterioration of form.

It is a television documentary, a film made of compiled material, a report, a travel film, a documentary film, a propaganda film, a newsreel, an essay…
… And a film d’auteur, mixed with the author’s own private mythology. All of this can be discovered in it. It creaks at the joints and bursts at the seams, like an animal before shedding its skin. And the flow of speech of the commentary, enhanced and inspired by the pictures, is spoken over it, here it is spoken over the pictures, yes, and at the same time it is a bit like reflecting in public.

And he has a political passion, an absolute, unbroken vote, and he speaks out.
Then there is the unforgettable scene of the man painting the mountain while hanging from a rope, as if the rock were a canvas – the painter is sitting down below in the valley on the veranda with a microphone in his hand and is giving him instructions over the loudspeakers. His orders are heard echoing throughout the valley.

There is also something that recalls your films – the compilations, quotations from other films, found footage that was reactivated, Castro in the Sierra Madre. And comics, animated freeze frames, just for fun in between times.
You won’t find comics in my films…

But the commentary sometimes comes like a speech balloon, and then it floats like a strange distortion, as imagination above the pictures.

Did Chris Marker influence you?
Yes, he did, but only later. Of course the French cinema of the sixties influenced me. Going to the cinema back then meant coming to terms with the Nouvelle Vague.

That was A bout de souffle, Les Quatre Cent Coups, Godard. Truffaut…
And Le Petit Soldat, Carabineri, Nana S., and Chabrol – Les Bonnes Femmes, and a couple of people in the wrong place like Rouch and Rozier. The Nouvelle Vague turned the whole of the cinema, as it had been viewed up to then, upside down. We had to approve of it and also to deny it. All of a sudden everything appeared to present itself to our view as something new and unscathed. And this view divided the cinema. Depending on your position, you had to say yes to one thing but then also say no to something else.

As a general fact you could rediscover that the basis of film is the camera shot. A film is a series of camera shots that sometimes hang together and sometimes move apart from each other. That is a lesson that I’ll never forget. Unfortunately, the camera shot has sort of got lost in the documentary film, under the influence of the Direct Cinema in the United States.
The Americans have said that it should be thrown out, that nothing should indicate that a film is being made, and everything should appear as if at the moment of filming no camera had been at hand. First and foremost, I view myself as a film-maker, as someone who takes pictures of things and deals with pictures of things.

What other lessons did you learn from the Nouvelle Vague?
That you have to keep pace on an intellectual level with what you do as an artist; that you have to know that every story has already been made into a film and that only new variations are being told; that a camera shot in a film not only forms the one situation that has taken place in front of the camera, but it also forms other camera shots that come from other films. Pictures are made from things, but they are also made from other pictures. A film, I once wrote, is the struggle between reality and symbol.

A view that Bazin and Rossellini would attack…
I know. They have not considered that there are lost forms, which are destroyed when they are removed from the cast.

Is not the scene in Viaggio in Italia overwhelming, where Ingrid Bergmann breaks down crying and runs away when in Pompeii the lovers, in a nocturnal embrace, are removed from the two thousand-year-old ashes covering them? That is one of the greatest moments that there has ever been in film. Because Rossellini doesn’t tell you this, you have to learn to understand yourself what you are seeing on the screen. You have to experience despair yourself.

I don’t quite follow you. Do you mean that there is an unconscious film story which is lost in every new film and yet is kept and reproduced? And does that mean that every new film is nothing more than a new form that will become lost?
That’s right. Most of the time it is even an undeserved favor when a film is lost and no one can remember anything about it, not even all the reasons why it was once showered with praise.

This is the warm current that went through the Nouvelle Vague. Without his films the cinema would have got stuck in the B-pictures in Hollywood or with Hitchcock. Rossellini gave back to the cinema concreteness and realness, the material namely that photography and cinematography need. Now you have to ask me about my documentary method.

Your films have always been solidly researched.
First of all, you have to press forward and reach the object – it doesn’t just present itself on a silver platter, but rather it needs to be conquered. First you have to develop knowledge, study things from all angles and then accumulate ideas, accumulate them and forget them and then discover them again. There are no rules written down somewhere, and this is how the work on a documentary film begins.
From this, some draw the conclusion that it would be best to know nothing at all in advance, so as to approach the subject with a totally unbiased attitude and to put oneself and the film at its mercy. However, I believe that every kind of ignorance is dreadful and leads to nothing but stupidity.

With a documentary film there is no script, at least not beforehand. Doesn’t this mean that you are necessarily stupid and ignorant?
You don’t yet know the script – it has to be developed during the filming. The author of a film writes his script from the future back into the present time of the filming. You shoot the film, but you don’t know what you’re creating. In a certain sense the film is buried in all the material that is acquired when filming, and later during editing it first has to be dug out again from among all the pictures and sounds that are all rolled up in those cans and boxes. This leads then to this other idea, that actually every documentary film is made twice. First if is made during shooting – that which in the moment of filming you have access to, that which offers itself to the camera and which is the situation. And finally when the material is edited, a very specific version is worked out. When editing, all the material is found footage, that is, pictures that were made for a specific purpose, intended for specific contexts and provided with a meaning and an idea – but all this doesn’t necessarily mean that this has been accomplished in the material. Maybe there’s a totally different film buried in the material than was envisaged during the shooting, and this film first needs to be discovered. When editing, I treat everything that I’ve filmed like a quotation, like a film clip that has been passed on to me, and now I first have to look at what it wants to show me.

Every documentary film thus becomes a compiled film, one that is made of found material.
Exactly. So, when in a documentary film there is the chance to cast an innocent look at the object, a look which approaches it in a completely unbiased manner, then it is when the film is being edited. Unfortunately, most of the time an attempt is made through the editing to make the evidence conclusive that usually the film-maker has already offered before shooting the film, regardless of whether the material can provide this or not. Sometimes a completely different film was made than the film-maker thought and wanted to admit, and then this film is suppressed in the editing room.

I have noticed that your films always embark on a path. The subjects suggest a distance, and they have an extended way, a route, which the film then follows.
The connecting thread, the narrator that is worked into the story, the guide. Dante needs Vergil in order to show us what hell looks like. I think that every film is a map on which a way has been marked out. In a good film a clever way has been chosen, which leads us past a number of places that invite us to cast a look aside. That is why I look for subjects that mark out this path for us, like the production lines in The VW Complex. When the subject has this sort of extending movement, then the film sets, so to speak, itself in motion. It’s like a river that passes by the camera.