ARTIST IN FOCUS: Marcel Ophuls


In the context of the Courtisane festival 2013 (Gent, 17 – 21 April)

Resistance. If there is a single word that characterizes the work of Marcel Ophuls, this is it: resistance to every form of injustice and banalisation, resistance to the prevailing dogmas of documentary cinema. It is an attitude that is marked both by a whole-hearted abhorrence (for indifference) and by passionate love (for narrative film). The one is a response to his experiences during WW II, the other a legacy from his father, the famous director Max Ophuls. The result is an uncompromising cinema that for four decades has had no equal in blazing a trail through the 20th century’s shadowy realm: occupation and collaboration during the Vichy regime in Le Chagrin et la Pitié (1969), the Troubles in Northern Ireland in A Sense of Loss (1972), war crimes in Nazi-Germany and Vietnam in The Memory of Justice (1976), the siege of Sarajevo in Veillées d’armes (1994). Time and again, like a roguish Inspector Colombo, Ophuls makes his way through the heart of the conflict zone, in search of witnesses, in search of the story. Because Ophuls’s work primarily brings to mind the fact that the word “documentary” is always followed by the word “film”. This is a cinema that places structure above content, subjectivity above objectivity, discussion above pedagogy, a cinema that recognizes that documentary always equals “fiction” – a construction, a presence, a form. It is a cinema, finally, that refuses to make a distinction between “history” with or without a capital “H”, between a politics of the commonplace and the politics of the power apparatus, because that distinction, according to Ophuls, “forms the worst escape in life itself, the avoidance of every responsibility.”



KASKcinema Thu 18 April 13:00

The Memory of Justice
1976, 35mm, color & b/w, various languages with English subtitles, 279′

The film uses Telford Taylor’s book Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy as a point of departure in exploring wartime atrocities and individual versus collective responsibility. Divided into two parts – “Nuremberg and the Germans” and “Nuremberg and other places” – it builds into its very fabric the identity of the filmmaker. It’s not simply that we see him interviewing the subjects or feel his presence through intrusive editing; but Ophuls includes scenes with his German wife, his film students at princeton and even his grappling with cutting and arranging the overwhelming material. “I try to be autobiographical in Memory of Justice because of my wife’s childhood and my childhood – my reaction against what we feel has been misunderstood. I felt a great misunderstanding concerning The Sorrow and the Pity (the movie of my life, like Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes – I try to get rid of it, but it won’t go away): there is no such thing as objectivity! The Sorrow and the Pity is a biased film – in the right direction, I’d like to think – as biased as a western with good guys and bad guys. But I try to show that choosing the good guy is not quite as simple as anti-Nazi movies with Alan Ladd made in 1943.” (From an interview with Annette Insdorf, 1981)



KASKcinema Thu 18 April 22:30

A Sense of Loss
1972, 16mm, color, English, 134′

Preceded by a talk between Marcel Ophuls & Eyal Sivan (KASK CIRQUE 20:00)

Ophuls’s self-described “film report” on the troubles in Northern Ireland. “The structure of the film was to start with the investigation of death, death in all its forms – death by the bomb, death by the bullet, the almost accidental death – and then to set out in search of who the individuals were, what their favourite record was, their favourite film, where they wanted to spend their holidays, etc.. All this to give the life of an individual some sense. It is individualistic and anti-generalizing, and in that sense almost an anti-ideological film. Consequently, what it is about is not just the structure of the completed film, but most of all a structure of research. It was indeed the case that in the chronology of filming, the ambulances were followed first, with a system of having previously established signals with the police, with the people of the IRA, with the people of the British army in order to know where a conflict was underway, where violence was taking place, where there was death, and always being on the alert, even at night in the hotel, to be able to be there in five minutes. It was only afterwards that we tried to identify the people, and the historic reasons, the ideological, sectarian aspects of this conflict. It is therefore the research structure that determines the structure of the film.” (from an interview with Lorenzo Codelli, 1973)



KASKcinema Fri 19 April 14:00

Veillées d’armes (The Troubles We’ve Seen)
1994, video, color, various languages with English subtitles, 234′

“Ethnic cleansing, that brings back memories,” Marcel Ophuls muses on the train to Sarajevo in this epic, ironic investigation of war and the journalistic impulse.. Ophuls traveled to the besieged city in 1993 to mingle with the motley crew of reporters camped out at the Holiday Inn; his interviews with French, British, American, and Bosnian journalists deliver trenchant observations on the political, ethical, and psychological factors behind the making of news. Other interview subjects include Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who claims his country’s freedom of the press is “unparalleled,” but says “don’t trust my explanation.” “I won’t.” Ophuls replies. Excerpting films by his father Max Ophuls, adopting the Marx Brothers as muse, the director employs a strategy of playful self-reference in the midst of horror; between feints at media and mediation, he moves in for a sucker punch of reality. As legendary reporter Martha Gellhorn, who survived both the Spanish Civil War and a marriage to Ernest Hemingway, puts it: “the brave are funny.” (Juliet Clark)



SPHINX Fri 19 April 20:00

Max Ophuls
Lola Montès

FR/DE, 1955, 35mm, color, English with Dutch subtitles, 110’

introduced by Marcel Ophuls

Max Ophuls’ final film (and his only movie in color) is a cinematic tour-de-force masquerading as a biography, in this case a dazzling fictionalized life of the notorious 19th century dancer, actress, and courtesan. “Did his father’s reputation as a filmmaker help or hinder Marcel? “It helped me to get work. More than anything, it helped me to be modest about my achievements. I was born under the shadow of a genius, and that spared me from being vain. I don’t have an inferiority complex – I am inferior.” Ophuls worked with his father only once, as third assistant director on Lola Montès. “That means I was the coffee carrier.” It was his father’s last film, one the critics hailed for its ingenuity. In one shot, Lola arrives in a circus ring to re-enact scenes from her life while standing on a turntable that revolves in one direction, while the camera tracks round her in the opposite direction. “He was a genius, but that film killed him. I carried the coffee and saw him withering.” It was then Max had his first heart attack; two years later he died. “People say he was a romantic who dealt with private things like love and I was political,” says Ophuls. “That’s bullshit. I never make a distinction between private life and politics – that’s a petit bourgeois thing. How can you make a stand against Nazi Germany, or in Rwanda, when you live life by making that distinction? What I am saying has to do with citizenship.” (from an interview with Stuart Jeffries, 2004)

Once was Fire


Films by António Reis & Margarida Cordeiro, Stavros Tornes & Charlotte van Gelder, Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet

‘Once Was Fire’ is part of the programme of the Courtisane Festival (17 – 21 April 2013). Curated by Stoffel Debuysere

What is it the work of these three filmmaker-couples has in common? Perhaps it is passion, the burning desire to craft a cinema of their own, against the grain, against the void, a desire inscribed in every form, always staring right back at us. Perhaps it is attention, a constant consideration for all things equal : the beauty of the moving wind in the trees, the sounds of words spoken, the splendour of the world we don’t care to see in life. Perhaps it is grace, the generosity of artisans meticulously plying their trade, echoing an epoch when cinema and art were not the big words they have become. Perhaps it is risk, the painstaking chance they take in every image, at each moment risking their lives for a look, a sigh, a gesture. Perhaps it is soul, the broken soul of Southern Europe, this ancient theatre of memory where everything is haunted by ghosts of past and future, this land of lost dreams where all and nothing is horizon. Perhaps it is dream, the clarity of an age-old dream reawakening something that has been stifled, forgotten, annulled, in defiance of the storm of progress blowing from paradise. Perhaps it is love, the tender care for people and places, where everyone and everything has a name, where time is suspended and multiplied, inventing new capacities for framing our daunting present. Perhaps, when all is said and done, it is persistence, and the burdensome solitude of those who know all is lost, putting everything at stake to catch a glimpse of a fire that once was.

In collaboration with the Royal Belgian Film Archive, with many thanks to the Cinemateca Portuguesa, the Greek Film center, the Cineteca di Bologna, Barbara Ulrich and Pedro Costa. In the framework of “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)” (KASK/HoGent).


António Reis & Margarida Cordeiro

“A way of life that stands under no present law and only pays attention to the wisdom and advice which reach across to us from ancient times,” wrote Franz Kafka in The Great Wall of China. It is this text, read out in the guttural sub-dialect of northeastern Portugal, which is at the heart of Tràs-os-Montes, António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro’s first portrait of the Nordeste Transmontano region, the “frontier of sorrow” between Spain and Portugal. Here, out of reach from the arm of the law, out of sight from the watchful eyes of the capital, another form of community still abides, a deep-rooted communion between men, land, and the seasons. Here, at the crossroads of different ages, haunted by a violent history of inquisition and repression, steeped in ancient myths and primitive rites, time offers resistance. In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, whose poetry deeply inspired their work: “When behind each shape more that the past lays hidden, when that which lay before us was not the future.” In these rural villages, working from day to day as “peasants of cinema”, Reis and Cordeiro created two magnificent frescos, depicting forms of life that owe absolutely nothing to the imperatives of Empire. It is a world of endurance, always on the verge of disappearing, trees of life blooming and withering alike, caught in the throes of the great round of change.

PT, 1976, 16mm, color, Portugese with French subtitles, 111’

“I have never seen a Portuguese film that speaks of Portugal in such a profound and beautiful way, that is not only about the earth, the people and the faces, but also the dreams, the stories and the layers of millennia. We first see a documentary blossoming, opening up, which offers itself as an ethnographic pearl, after which we evolve towards something that leans more toward science fiction. This section is that of our soul, from the depths of our being. Sensitive to colour, the time, the passing of time: Tras-Os-Montes is a great poem. Like those children who lose themselves in time, we are a people who live as if time never existed.” (Manoel de Oliveira)

PT, 1985, 16mm, color, Portugese with French subtitles, 114’

“A film by poets, but also by geologists, anthropologists, sociologists, by all the possible -ologists. Reis and Cordeiro are Portuguese, but not from Lisbon (it is a much too provincial capital city), not even from Porto. They situate their films in this North of Portugal where the tourists never come (they invade the Algarve in hordes, the fools). Beautiful and abandoned landscapes, which have to be perceived as sumptuous ruins; a countryside that is filmed as if it were a city. In Ana, the trees, the roads, the stones of the houses almost have names. Everything is a junction; nothing is anonymous. The film is a consoling buzzing: the sound of the wind causes the images to swell and shrink like a sea. There is emptiness in the heart full of sensations, the way there is an emptiness in this part of Portugal. The films by Reis and Cordeiro record a disorienting situation of emigration, caused by the exodus: the men have left, the children are now left to their games and the elderly are left to guard the places. There is no supervision from the parents here, only the guardianship of grandparents, in a game of glances, fleeting and tender, surprised and serious.” (Serge Daney)


Stavros Tornes & Charlotte van Gelder

“In cinema, there is this possibility of what is to come, of a new awakening. There is a possibility of a future existence.” Stavros Tornes is one of the forgotten prophets of cinema, poète maudit steeped in the land of myth and tragedy, companion of all the outcasts of the post-industrial society, of all the vagabonds wandering amid the wreckage of Empire. Always choosing the enchantment of the world, in all its exuberance and intemperance, in the face of the disenchantment of the social, tinted by memories of occupation, civil war and dictatorship. In the handful of films he made with his “alter ego”, Charlotte van Gelder, there is no rift between the real and the surreal; reality and the imaginary flow into each other as if the concrete world were inhabited by ancient animistic forces. In the course of seemingly aimless voyages through space and time, adrift in a dérive through foreign landscapes, we are offered the unexpected wonder of another humanity in its many figures: the return to the origins, the descent to the netherworld, the arrival in the promised land. “Homer operating the camera, Heraclitus recording the sound”, as film critic Louis Skorecki once wrote. A cinema before cinema: primordial, unattainable, mythical. A cinema that makes us whisper, in complete bewilderment, “Where am I?” Not for fear of being lost, but because of the revelation of being in a deep sleep, suddenly awakening, and not knowing what estranged world we have woken up to.

GR, 1982, 16mm, color, Greek with English subtitles, 80′

Balamos is a popular film, though not easy to absorb; it puts forward a passionate, persistent claim to the poetry and dreams which man has earned for himself, in the teeth of all the powers that be. Balamos is about the return to the East, about water and earth, and the anguished concern with freedom. It is a popular fiction, not a populistic, moralistic intrigue. It is firmly situated whithin our culture, but not in a localized, pictureque sense. It is permeated by time, but not by calendar markings. It is both very ancient and very new. It ignores the facilities of photo-romances and seeks out the image. Tornes follows a cinematic line that grows out of one of the shots in Eisenstein’s Que viva Mexico. There are underlying emotional repercussions from the work of the Taviani brothers and Straub. The popular quality of a film like Balamos can never be quite accepted in an age that preaches the trade unionist version of freedom. It is a film that any of us could have produced. But the technocrats of the film industry the technicians of authority have deprived us of that ability. All we can do is immerse ourselves in these images, ride Balamos’ horse in order to recapture a human right which is only too often ignored or repressed: the right to dream. (Antonis Moschovakis)

GR, 1984, 16mm, color, Greek with English subtitles, 83′

“Tornes has tried to fragment the course of life of a man, whose journey through the 20th century to a certain degree presupposes a collective memory, and then put it back together again. A man, who witnesses his own death, becomes the narrator of a challenging life. Disillusioned love affairs go hand-in-hand with revolutionary dreams, and South American music accompanies images of the Greek desert. The ‘saints’ that have freed themselves from the conventional yoke meet believers who embark at all costs in search of salvation and, in particular, everything that transcends, rises above them. ‘The imagination is a quality of the spirit that we can exercise as memory,’ Luis Buñuel had said a little earlier, and Tornes seems to have taken these words literally.” (Illias Kanellis)


Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet

“No filmmaker should make a film without it having a minimum of what Cézanne spoke about when he watched his mountain for years on end before being able, one fine day, to capture it and say, ‘Look at this mountain, once it was fire’.” The cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet is one of the uttermost concentration, capturing the whirlwind of the world in every tiny inch of matter. The sensible and the intelligible cannot be separated. That is what they have learned from Friedrich Hölderlin: the dream of the community to come is not embodied in laws and governments, but in gestures of life and forms of nature. But for there to be a community, it must be divided, and that is what they have learned from Bertold Brecht: the changeability of the world does not insist on agreement, but on its contradictoriness. Between Brecht and Hölderlin, materialism and mysticism, at once dialectical and lyrical, the films of Straub and Huillet point to an abandoned yet irrefutable truth: we do not live in the best of possible worlds. The roots of Fascism, war, injustice and resistance are revisited by way of much older dramas, recounted by authors such as Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini. But these texts are not more important than the people reciting them, the space they find themselves in, or the movement of light and colour shimmering through. What matters, in the end, is the sensible intensity which is always there, always in the present, affirming the enduring capacity for the construction of a new common world: a community of sense.

Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the Clouds to the Resistance)
IT, 1978, 35mm, color, Italian with electronic English subtitles, 105’

Dalla Nube is composed of two separate parts, one mythological, the other modern, without any apparent relation. The Nube part is six of the twenty-seven Dialogues with Leuco (“Dialoghi con Leucò”), written by Cesare Pavese in 1947. The Resistenza part is extracts from another book by Pavese, The Moon and the Bonfires (“La luna e i falo”), published in 1950, a few months before his suicide. This latter part is not a surprise: every Straub film is an examination – archaeological, geological, ethnographic, military as well – of a situation in which men have resisted. To Nietzsche’s claim that “The only being known to us is being that represents itself,” the Straubian would respond that only those who resist exist for sure: resist nature, language, time, texts, gods, God, chiefs, Nazis. Mother and father. This is how the shot, the basic atom of Straubian cinema, is the product, the reste (remainder), or rather the restance (remaining) of a triple resistance: texts resisting bodies, places resisting texts, bodies resisting places. One has to add a fourth: the public resisting shots “designed” this way, stubborn resistance of cinema’s audience to something intractable, something which renounces it as a public”. (Serge Daney)

IT, 1999, 35mm, b/w, Italian with English subtitles, 66’

Sicilia! is a film that shines both in its own inherent vision and as a highlight in the work of the Straubs, a top that we can reach without extra tools. If, according to the generous idea of Manoel de Oliveira, a film’s true nationality is the country in which it is filmed, then a great deal of the Staubs’ oeuvre is Italian, even if we hear a lot of German and French in it. Few of their films are about the modern world in a direct sense: they are rather elegant peplums from the theatre in which antiquity is always revived, brought alive into modern history. With Sicilia!, it is the Italy of the 20th century, when Mussolini was enacting his parody of the Empire of the Caesars. It is the exploitation of Sicily, the almost African earth, a South that tries for as long as it can to resist the North, and the film a black-and-white poem of the outraged world. Thanks to the voices of actors who had never before spoken Italian so amusingly, the Italy of today is physically represented. It is incomplete, with its empty spaces, intense: the lost soul of Italian cinema. When, as is here the case, it is about oranges that cannot be sold, fish grilled on charcoal, police suspicions, returns to the mother’s house, nightly clandestine meetings in the valley that ultimately come to light, functional objects that no one buys any more, the loss of manual thinking, what is taking place here is the excess or the insufficiency which, as is true in life, gives rise to a film.” (Jean-Claude Biette)

Who was Stavros Tornes?


By Louis Skorecki

Originally published as ‘Qui était Stavros Tornes ?’ in Libération, August 1988. Revised and extended version of the translation made by Marios Karamanis. Two of Stavros Tornes films will be shown during the Courtisane Festival (17-21 April 2013), as part of the programme “Once Was Fire”.

This man has died. Artists die as well, even the greatest ones. And Stavros Tornes – this is the name of this man, a Greek, we can see him in his 1982 film Balamos, alive and well, even more hallucinating than the crazy horse he’s holding on to – this man has died.

Every death is a scandal, but his was inadmissible. Stavros Tornes did not have the right to die. He allowed himself to. He probably had his reasons, but he should have remained eternal.

And the strange thing is, he could have.

Stavros Tornes was a filmmaker. A word which today sounds like an insult, a curse, an impudence. This is normal: it is used to point out frauds. This era definitely belongs to television (so much the better), and since quite some time the concept of cinema has been taken over by makers of video-films, TV-films, whatever-films.

He was a filmmaker. That was all he was. Poet, philosopher, prophet. But poet in cinema, prophet of images / messages for the planet.

He was today’s greatest filmmaker. He died in the anonymity he had chosen, conscious of being an animal on the way to extinction, survivor of an advanced era in which the words art and cinema, artist and filmmaker were not yet swear words.

He was young; 56 is childhood for a filmmaker. But to be the greatest and yet unknown is exhausting. It exhausts quickly and hefty, even if one has chosen to remain unknown in order to be able to continue to make films.

Every second Stavros Tornes was aging one hour. Tormented by the agony of cinema, he was dying of desire – love – to resurrect it, be it at the cost of his own destruction. To give his life to the woman cinema, and die.

Exhausting his body by feeding on anything – a poor man’s philosophy. Without asceticism or any other crap. Without alibi. Without support. Excluded, marginal, road companion of all the squatters of the post-industrial society, of all the vagabonds of the urban delirium, friend of the animals because he was one of them, an anomality, a mineral, a landscape all by himself, he passed through this half a century too quickly to be noticed and too slowly for people to realize he was moving at all. Too intense to be loved.

His films are but his own. Unless you see them (we are waiting impatiently to see an important retrospective at the filmmuseum, real releases in one or two cinema’s, articles, dedications, traces) it is impossible to describe them or talk about them. Is he a Pasolini more Pasolinian than Pasolini, a Straub less dogmatic, a Murnau for the present time?

Stavros Tornes died last Tuesday, 26th of July, 9 o’clock at night. For the past year, he fought with the bureaucrates of the Greek Film Center in Athens for them to finally give him a budget of four million drachmas to make his film. He knew it would be his last. He knew he was going to die (cancer, refusal of hospitals etc.), he simply wanted to use his last energy for this Robinson Crusoe which will never see the light of day.

Four million drachmas is about 200.000 french francs, twenty lousy old million french francs, the average cost of his films. Greek “filmmakers”, the others, taking turns, receive fifty, sixty million drachmas, at least. It often takes them up to five years to make, with emphasis, “films” that cost twenty Stavros Tornes.

Stavros makes a masterpiece within a year while others spend half a decade piecing together their monuments of academism. Papatakis, alone, perhaps (he loves, admires tornes and tried to organize a homage) escapes this horde of drachma-eaters who killed the old Stavros a bit faster.

The very day of his death, a few hours before the end, the Center announced that it would finally grant the four million to Robinson Crusoe.

They didn’t know. Today, perhaps they are sorry. Time will tell.

In the images that Stavros Tornes left us, drunks play Rimbaud, grocers make love with the sand, blacks call out to the darkness.

It is a cinema before cinema, Homer operating the camera, Heraclitus recording the sound. A chiffonier cinema, Emmaüs whispers, incantations to Lumière: “Why have you left me alone, inventor of the devil?”

Stavros spoke like that, at every moment of his life, with the god Cinema. He was heretic, philosopher, poor amidst the poor. In Why do we film? he cites one of his texts from 1977: “The cinema is the place where you and I recognize each other, where “me” and others embrace each other.”

Love, nothing else.

Stavros has also spoken, lived, filmed with Charlotte van Gelder. Without her, nothing would exist. He is not dead as long as she is there to accompany the films they have made together.

And yet, somewhere in the world, an orphan is crying.

DISSENT ! Marcel Ophuls & Eyal Sivan


Thursday, April 18 2013 20:00 KASK cirque, Gent. In the context of the Courtisane Festival 2013.
introduced by Stoffel Debuysere

Resistance. If there is a single word that characterizes the work of Marcel Ophuls, this is it: resistance to every form of injustice and banalisation, resistance to the prevailing dogmas of documentary cinema. It is an attitude that is marked both by a whole-hearted abhorrence (for indifference) and by passionate love (for narrative film). The one is a response to his experiences during WW II, the other a legacy from his father, the famous director Max Ophuls. The result is an uncompromising cinema that for four decades has had no equal in blazing a trail through the 20th century’s shadowy realm: occupation and collaboration during the Vichy regime in Le Chagrin et la Pitié (1969), the Troubles in Northern Ireland in A Sense of Loss (1972), war crimes in Nancy Germany and Vietnam in The Memory of Justice (1976), the siege of Sarajevo in Veillées d’armes (1994). Time and again, like a roguish Inspector Colombo, Ophuls makes his way through the heart of the conflict zone, in search of witnesses, in search of the story. Because Ophuls’s work primarily brings to mind the fact that the word “documentary” is always followed by the word “film”. This is a cinema that places structure above content, subjectivity above objectivity, discussion above pedagogy, a cinema that recognizes that documentary always equals “fiction” – a construction, a presence, a form. It is a cinema, finally, that refuses to make a distinction between “history” with or without a capital “H”, between a politics of the commonplace and the politics of the power apparatus, because that distinction, according to Ophuls, “forms the worst escape in life itself, the avoidance of every responsibility.”

A conversation between two accomplished advocates of documentary film, about cinema and history, montage and narration, and the role and responsibility of the filmmaker. Eyal Sivan already participated in a DISSENT ! session in december 2012. Marcel Ophuls is one of the Artists in Focus on the Courtisane Festival. The talk will be preceded by a screening of The Memory of Justice and followed by a screening of A Sense of Loss.

DISSENT ! is an initiative of Argos, Auguste Orts and Courtisane, in the framework of the research project “Figures of Dissent” (KASK/Hogent), with support of VG & VGC.


How can the relation between cinema and politics be thought today? Between a cinema of politics and a politics of cinema, between politics as subject and as practice, between form and content? From Vertov’s cinematographic communism to the Dardenne brothers’ social realism, from Straub-Huillet’s Brechtian dialectics to the aesthetic-emancipatory figures of Pedro Costa, from Guy Debord’s radical anti-cinema to the mainstream pamphlets of Oliver Stone, the quest for cinematographic representations of political resistance has taken many different forms and strategies over the course of a century. The multiple choices and pathways that have gradually been adopted, constantly clash with the relationship between theory and practice, representation and action, awareness and mobilization, experience and change. Is cinema today regaining some of its old forces and promises? Are we once again confronted with the questions that Serge Daney asked a few decades ago? As the French film critic wrote: “How can political statements be presented cinematographically? And how can they be made positive?”. These issues are central in a series of conversations in which contemporary perspectives on the relationship between cinema and politics are explored.

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.