From Naked Punch: 04
WW: I’ll do my best to answer them. Let’s see…
Naked Punch: You've written that "the act of filming is a heroic act", because "the camera is a weapon against the tragedy of things, against their disappearing." The world your camera records, however, is one that you have created---dramatic configurations, characters, orchestrated scenes, etc. How is your creative work something other than a "rescuing" of what disappears? How does the creative act, for you, do something other than merely (in Belazs words) "show things as they are"?
WW: I have to disagree, at least partially. I do NOT create the entire world in front of my camera, on the contrary, I try to let as much unaltered reality as possible enter into my picture. Of course I come with my fiction and my characters to the places that I set the story in, just like any other director. But then I do my best to do justice to that place, its light, its mood, its specificity. I believe that fictional stories sometimes transport real places and objects and things better than documentaries. Whenever I see a chance to let something appear as it is, without the film reality messing with it, I go for it.
Regarding Peter Handke's novel Slow Homecoming, you said that "there are experiences described in it for the first time, strands of consciousness it was thought impossible to describe in words." Do you believe that film can achieve depictions of interiority that textual forms—poetry, drama, fiction--cannot? Is film a privileged mode of truth-telling for you?
WW: I wouldn’t see these things (words on one hand, images on the other) as if they could be separated. Of course film has opened up a whole world that was inaccessible to literature, theatre, music, poetry, painting etc. And of course the contemporary novel has entered into very refined areas of the human experience. I would rather cite in this context a newer work by Peter Handke as an example – but I’m not sure it has been translated into English yet – and that would be “Der Bildverlust” (“The loss of images”). The tricky word in your question is “interiority”, of course. What is that? If it describes the realm of our innermost thoughts, feelings, fears, confusion, angst or joy, then “the word” seems privileged to describe it. All these expressions of our existence are communicated first through words, anyway. That’s how they reach our consciousness and that’s how we pass these things on to others. But the beauty of cinema as the most complex use of imagery today is that it can incorporate the achievements of all the arts, and that it can use words at their most acute, and music at its most refined, and in that amalgam go further than words or music can get on their own. “Truth-Telling”, of course, is as relative in movies as it is in literature, and as impossible as in politics. Sometimes I think you can only determine “true intentions”, and no longer “true statements”, in whatever medium.
NP: Many of your films explore fantastical geographies of feeling and being (the angels in Wings of Desire; the use of landscape in Paris, Texas; technological mutations of the human in Until the End of the World) In a 1958 lecture, Bunuel (quoting Breton) said that "the most admirable thing about the fantastic is that the fantastic doesn't exist; everything is real." Does this belief inform your use of the fantastic, the para-real? Do you intend your films to challenge or interrogate viewer's assumptions about what counts as real, as possible, as mutable?
WW: Great question, I must say! (Considering that I rarely get to answer questions I haven’t heard in one form or another before…) Let me think loudly for a while, before I get to the core of it. When Bunuel used the word “real” in that context in the Fifties, he already pretty much indicated its irrelevance already. If everything that your imagination comes up with is real, then “nothing is real”, as the Beatles sang 10 years later in “Strawberry Fields”. And that was before anybody had heard of the word “digital”, and before we were able to take just about any image and any sound and split them into their very atoms. We can do with “reality” today, so to speak, what physicist can do to “matter”. We live in the nuclear age, and that is no longer restrained to energy, but to information as well. Not only TIME is relative today, SPACE is, too, and any image of it or any sound in it. The word “real” should be scratched from any dictionary. It has become, indeed, a four-letter-word. Only George Bush will continue to use it, in the same perverse way that he continues to use the word “freedom” in every second line. Given that, what do I expect people to believe or to see when they see a film of mine? First of all, I take it for granted that they will also see, let’s say, “Resident Evil”, “Matrix“ or any other contemporary thriller. So their assumptions about what is “real” are already challenged all the time, anyway. In fact, they only have to turn on their TV in order to get their brains washed. “Reality TV” fucks with your perception of the world just as much as the “news” on Fox. So where does that leave a gentle filmmaker like myself, if not with the only recommendation to my audience left which is: “Brace up. Protect yourself. Take nothing more seriously than your own feelings and your own judgment. Don’t let yourself be invaded by junk all the time. Your brain and its capacity to differentiate are your most precious possessions and your best protection. Use them every now and then for firsthand experiences!” And any movie of mine I’m showing them wants to convey one thing only: “Whatever you do in your life is worthless if you don’t do it with love and conviction. And remember: Things can be changed! You’re in charge of your life and nobody else!” If you want those are the only “messages” my films have ever carried. And those messages concern the only “reality” I’m interested in: My viewer’s perception.
NP: You once circulated a question to your colleagues about the future of film. It had become apparent, you claimed, that the distinctly filmic aesthetic was being eclipsed by the televisual aesthetic, that films were focusing more on other films than on the effort to capture lived experience (Tarantino being emblematic of this trend), and that the demands of the market were stifling creative innovation. I put your own question back to you: "Is cinema becoming a dead language, an art which is already in the process of decline?"
WW: I would protest vehemently. In that general decline of “civilization” all around us, “cinema” might be the last bastion of continuing creative, cultural and moral innovation, along with Rock’n Roll. Of course, both arts show serious degrees of decline as well, but they also both keep inventing themselves from scratch now and then. There is still a very lively truly “independent” cinema, especially in Europe, that keeps questioning our world and keeps suggesting new approaches to it. And with the digital revolution, we’ll soon see the rise of an altogether even more inventive and scrutinizing cinema, no longer held back by the restraints of conventional production and distribution.
NP: Wings of Desire is, among other things, a filmic exploration of this question: how should one live?, and it proceeds by way of contrast. The angelic mode of life is set against the human mode. The angels are detached, observational, and hyper-conscious, while the humans are seen as engaged, situated, robustly sensual. Should we read the film, then, as one that frames the question of life in terms of contemplation VERSUS action? If so, do you still believe that those terms are the most appropriate and useful? Should we not try instead to integrate these modes, to find a balance between them or see how each is contained in the other?
WW: The angels in “Wings of Desire” were not “superhumans”, they were rather metaphors for the better people we’d all like to be. We’d all like to be more in touch with the child in ourselves that we once were. We’d all like to be, at least potentially, more detached and observational at times. So that, when it matters, we can engage ourselves more emotionally (without abandoning our control) and can enjoy our senses more (don’t we all suffer from an overload of our senses and from the ensuing apathy?!). So, indeed, integration of “angel and man (or woman)” is what we’re truly aspiring to. Increase our spirituality, but be more grounded and “robust” (I like your word) at the same time. Utopian? Never! I am convinced that God wants us to overcome the gap between contemplation and action…
NP: The philosopher Alain Badiou has written: "A film is contemporary, and thus destined for everyone, inasmuch as the material whose purification it guarantees is identifiable as belonging to the non-art of its time. "Examples of such "purification" include Godard's use of "dirty sound", Kiarostami's car sequences, and the meticulous stylization of spectacularly lurid scenes; in all of these the attempt is made to reclaim vulgarized images & sounds for a more powerful form of aesthetic communication. Do you attempt to revitalize old images, or are you searching for the entirely new? Do you believe that film can help purify the sensibilities of the culture?
WW: Now you’re exaggerating! How many days do I have to answer that?! And where do I start, for Heaven’s sake! To begin with: I’m not sure I want to sign that whole “purification” theory. A film is contemporary, in my book, if the “non-art” of its time is present, period! But there’s nothing wrong with the “art” coming along on the ride. And why define the “non-art” only via contemporary “junk”, the vulgar or the ugly? Why should the elaborate stylization of the lurid be a privileged form of purification? Only because it is considered more “commercial”? That makes me mad! I feel very strongly, in fact I KNOW that stylization can be exercised on the “modest”, the “gentle”, the “fragile” just as well. The LOUD and LURID are terribly overrated, and just because everybody seems to have accepted that they rule, some of us grudgingly, we shouldn’t exclude the TRANSCENDENTAL, the SILENT or the GOOD as being part of our contemporary existence. “Wings of Desire” was making that point, and NOT, I think, by dwelling on the “art” aspects. And the way people all over the world embraced that alternative way of “purification” sort of proved my point, didn’t it? That doesn’t mean I can’t dig the vulgar. Faßbinder’s films as well as, let’s say, Almodovar’s today have marvelously explored that territory, without glorifying it like for instance Lynch or Tarantino. With these guys I sometimes feel they try to prove their point so much that it becomes redundant. Not that I don’t count them as two of the most brilliant stylists and innovators of our times. (I just dread their imitators...) But to come back to your question: I’m not sure how to define the “contemporary” in the first place. And how to protect it against the “fashionable” that so often replaces it today. What can actually be considered contemporary in an era that almost by definition needs to renew its parameters once a month? You’re almost bound to anticipate the contemporary and be ahead of it. THEN you have a slight chance to actually capture it when people see your film. Otherwise you’re always trying to catch up. Also: It can be a painful realization that your audience might be sick and tired of their own “contemporary reality”, and that the last thing they want to see on a screen is their mirror. That’s what happened, for instance, to the German audience that entirely refused to even notice “FARAWAY, SO CLOSE!”. I tried to make them look at a German post-reunification reality with different eyes. Fat chance! They had enough of that in their everyday life.
NP: Do you see your specific methods as transformative, as capable of changing how a spectator sees the world?
WW: Yes. But don’t take that for a self-inflated view on filmmaking. My “method”, whatever it may be, may have a transformative effect on the viewer indeed. But that doesn’t make me a wizard or a guru. It strictly reflects my opinion about the true existence of films. They don’t exist because there are prints on the shelves, or because there are box office results, or reviews, or whatever. They exist because they are SEEN, and the place where they are stored is only and exclusively in the eyes and the minds of the spectator. Now you might say that goes for all films. I tend to disagree. There are films MADE to exist as box office results first, or as reviews first, or as expression of the author first. My films are meant to come to life in people’s heads. They are incomplete before, actually they are meant to be incomplete. I see them like open systems that need to be pulled together by somebody. That somebody is each and every spectator. In a way I think of films the same way I looked at stories in books, when I was little. I realized very early on that the story was not in the written words, but in the space between the lines. That’s where the real reading took place: In my imagination, and that happened in all the white between the letters and the lines. And when I started to see films, I approached them the same way. In fact those films ALLOWED me to perceive them like that, they were asking me to dream myself into them. The classic American cinema has that same specific quality, and this is also the great tradition of European Cinema. I did not invent that “method”. It is an endangered process, though, these days. More and more films come as “wall to wall” entertainment. What you see (and hear!) is what you get. No more space between the frames, so to speak. No chance to sneak in with your imagination, to dream on and to project your innermost hopes or fears or desires into what you see and thereby pushing it further. You come out of the theatre and feel strangely empty. For two hours you were prevented from participating. You were obliged to “witness” instead. And that is the opposite to what you called my “method” which is in the true sense of the word “interactive”.
NP: By what specific procedures does film fight the dissociation of thought from feeling?
WW: Well, actually films rather tend to further that dissociation, they doesn’t exactly fight it. The Cinema creates identification, often against its will. There is a person on the screen, in close-up, you follow what he or she is doing, and before you know it, you’re hooked to SEE and FEEL like that person. Movies work much more through the stomach than through the eyes. They are so overwhelming. There are emotions. There is the unknown. There are myths. THOUGHT is often what you want to leave behind when the light goes out and the film begins. You’ve been thinking all day long. But the womb of the theatre gets you FEELING. So to resume your question: Film encourages the dissociation of thought from feeling, in general. It can bring thought back, sure, but it rather has to do that with the help of dialogue and story. The imagery alone tends to leave you to your feelings.
NP: Do you think that the history of film follows a unique formal trajectory (and can you imagine how the films of the future will differ from those of the present)?
WW: Films have developed. They were pretty clumsy at first, then they became quite sophisticated, towards the end of the silent era. When sound came up, films lost all their elegance and their fluidity for a while and were utterly awkward again. But in the long run, of course, sound advanced them enormously. Then stereo! For about twenty years only the soundscapes evolved dramatically. Then digital cinema slowly emerged and started to reshape the imagery. Again, that was quite a step back for a while. Look how lifeless these effects looked in the beginning, how cold, even frosty these movies appeared! Today, the category of animated films for instance has made an incredible jump forwards, into areas that were inconceivable only a while ago. Documentaries as well! With digital tools you can both enter the realm of fantasy and the realm of reality with a whole new set of ideas. The trajectory of Cinema has not at all come to a dead end yet. On the contrary: We cannot imagine yet the endless possibilities of the next (and future) generations to explore the world, both the exterior and the interior. Not that I think that the catalogue of myths can be enlarged. That is a book to which even the cinema didn’t really add a new chapter…
If we go back to your early films, the sense of a Germany divided is stark - both between generations and geographically. Yet they are also fairly ambiguous with regard to the role of American culture in German society. On the one hand, Americans have colonized the German subconscious and insert ad breaks into the middle of John Ford films, but on the other, these films pay homage to rock n roll and blues. Looking back, how did you view America when you made your earliest films in the late sixties and early seventies?
WW: When I started making short films, and then my first couple of feature films, I had never been to America. (An invitation to present “THE GOALIE’S ANXIETY AT THE PENALTY KICK” at the “New Directors’ Season” at the MOMO in New York became my first visit.) So how did I view America before? As I have answered too often that question about the influence of American culture on my childhood, let me try to formulate something new. “America” was something like my alternative grammar. I had my experience, my culture, my knowledge and my feelings, all of them gathered in post-war Germany, and I had inherited and interiorized a German structure to cope with all those things. American culture (novels, comic strips, magazines, movies, (studio pictures as well as “underground” films) newsreels, cars, pin-ups, chewing gum, animation, Rock’n Roll, Blues, Spirituals etc) had offered me a new pattern, more pleasure-oriented than anything I received from my home sources. Now when I shot my first shorts and the first couple of feature films, I tried to apply that “American syntax” to my “German vocabulary”, so to speak. Mind you, “America” was still the “Promised Land”, the mythical country of my imagination. And even when I first walked around in New York, that didn’t change much. The demystification only started on my second visit when I actually left New York and my American dream came to a grinding halt.
NP: You said a few years ago that you wanted to be a father to US independent filmmakers. Could you clarify what this means: for example, does it mean that you feel close to the films young American filmmakers are making or that you feel close to the films they might make in the future? And why a father to US indie cinema and not German independent cinema?
WW: For Heaven’s sake: Who would want to be the father of all those babies! What I probably said somewhere was that films like PARIS, TEXAS were predecessors to the Independent Cinema in the US. That film more than other European movies - as it had been written by an American writer, shot in America and largely cast with American actors – had been some sort of model for a new approach to producing low-budget, but high profile films. German Cinema has gone a different way over the last decade and has rather tried to move away from the “auteur” tradition, towards a more “industrial” filmmaking process. As the directors of the so-called “New German Cinema” (Fassbinder, Herzog, Schlöndorff, myself and others) reinvented filmmaking in Germany, in the early Seventies, we were by definition “fathers” to the next generation, or are by now grandfathers of the youngest wave of filmmakers in my country. It is almost inevitable that they’re having to revolt against us. I couldn’t/wouldn’t blame them…
NP: Staying on the theme of filmmaking, you made a particularly cynical film about the “holy whore” that is the movie business, The State of Things. Compared to your own experiences in the movie trade do you think it’s easier for filmmakers to get their films made today?
WW: No, and yes. It’s become more difficult on one hand, easier on the other. It seems to me that the competition is harder, with all those armies of young filmmakers leaving the film schools all over the world. (And there are more schools now than ever before.) And then the selection process for accepting scripts it certainly tougher, at least in Europe. Most films here are made with the participation of Government or State institutions, in fact very few films are made without any subsidies. And these institutions often apply pretty drastic “commercial” requirements and have become really demanding on the quality of the script. Much more time is being invested in script development, anyway, than ever before. And then television is no longer a partner you can count on, in almost all European countries. They were the most reliable sources for funding when we started. None of Fassbinder’s films, or mine, could have been made without the co-production ability and ease of television. They were adventurous and innovative. Today the same stations are utterly conservative and would not participate in any of our films any more.
But on the other hand, yes, it is easier! As a young filmmaker, you have a whole new range of tools at hand: Digital Cinema is there to stay. You can make a full-fledged feature film for budgets that were unthinkable a few years ago. LAND OF PLENTY for instance was shot on Mini-DV, cost half a million Dollars and is now distributed in Cinemascope and Dolby Stereo all over the world. That film would not have been possible for twice that money, not even in 16mm. So digital shoots give the next generation of directors and authors the chance to get movies done quickly that otherwise might need long development phases or might juts never get green-lit. All you need is guts and a vision to do something unusual. But to quickly return to the opening of your question: STATE OF THINGS was pretty dark, and offered quite a bleak view of filmmaking, both in Europe AND in America. But that film wasn’t “cynical”, that’s just not the right category. “Desperate” would be the better word.
NP: I identify in your late 80’s and early 90’s films a sense that you feel the world is losing its frontiers and the possibility of movement has certainly become freer. How much did this have to do with the end of the Cold War and perestroika?
WW: That did liberate travel and trade, for sure. It also boosted globalism. Movement is certainly freer as the result of that. Only the world is not a freer place. The loss of the communist arch-enemy has certainly contributed to the present US administration electing terrorism as the new world enemy. And that did have a huge impact on all our lives. That also created new frontiers again. A vicious circle.
NP: Your films of that era appear to be quite optimistic and, coincidentally or not, more poetic and more expansive. What about today, are different forms needed to represent the new global political constellation?
WW: I do believe that filmmakers have a new responsibility today. In an age in which information has become a function of the entertainment industry, at least on TV, at least in America – so soon to be witnessed everywhere - and when many people have no access to decent news, for instance in America, movies out of a sudden find a purpose that seemed altogether obsolete. When I grew up, newsreels were still a highly important element of any visit to the movies. That’s where you would see the whole world. Television replaced that source of imagery completely. Television also eliminated the documentary from the theatre, for good, it seemed, but the fact that documentaries came back in a big way only recently is a clear indication that the audience has a need for facts and reality that is not serviced and fed anywhere else than at the movies. And THAT is the new responsibility and the great new chance for cinema to break out of the cage it has been pressed into: Blockbusters on one hand, a few independents and artsy-fartsy Europeans on the other, and that was it. That definition from the Nineties no longer applies. So to make a long answer short: The most important “different form” needed today, in my book, is a more politically oriented, more information-driven cinema. But also “poetic notions” are needed, because poetry opposes any materialistic view of the world. Nothing wrong with poetry. And optimism.
NP: We talked earlier about how the divisions in German society are palpable in your films, but I think it’s fair to say that you have somewhat moved away from these concerns in recent years. Do you feel that there is a film to be made about current divisions in Germany and German society?
WW: Is there ever! In a way I tried to do that film with FARAWAY, SO CLOSE! If ever I made a film for a German audience specifically, it was that one. I made it 2 years after the reunification. Berlin was ONE city now, and the distant dream of WINGS OF DESIRE (it’s German title had been “Himmel über Berlin”, “Heavens above Berlin”) had become reality. Yet the city seemed divided even more painfully. Anyway, it was probably way too early for such a mirror. The film went by unnoticed and unseen. Quite a disappointment, in a way. I haven’t made a fictional film in my own country and in my own language since, maybe because of that disappointment. I have shot everything in English for the last 12 years, with the exception of ODE TO COLOGNE, but that wasn’t really in German, but in “kölsch”, the cockney spoken in the city of Cologne. I might be able to look at my own country again now, after living in America for a long time. Sometimes you have to get a distance, so you can look at something again that might otherwise be too close for you to even recognize it. I guess I’m ready to make a film in Germany again.
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