|An Architecture of Emotion
Peter Kubelka interviewed by Alberte Pagán
[published 8-01-2013] [an excerpt of the interview was published in Spanish in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine in July/August 2012]
With a film work not exceeding one hour in length (if we do not take Monument Film into account), the Austrian Peter Kubelka (1934) is one of the most prominent experimental filmmakers in the Western World. His three “metric films”, which boast great formal precision, turned him into a forerunner of structural/materialist film. His other four works, which he calls “metaphoric”, make a detour through fiction, found footage and documentary and display an innovative and equally meticulous montage of image and sound. His films have the organic presence of a cloud, of water or fire, ruled by certain physical laws we cannot see but the presence of which we can intuit.
After sharing a couple of days with Kubelka, great connoiseur of Galizan cuisine and culture, and watching his films during the (S8) 3ª Mostra de Cinema Periférico (Corunha, Galiza), I interviewed Kubelka on the 4th June 2012 at the CGAI (Centro Galego de Artes da Imaxe).
Filmography of Peter Kubelka
Mosaik im Vertrauen (1955, 16’, 35mm, b&w and colour, sound)
Adebar (1957, 69’’, 35mm, b&w, sound)
Schwechater (1958, 1’, 35mm, colour, sound)
Arnulf Rainer (1960, 6’24’’, 35mm, b&w, sound)
Unsere Afrikareise (1966, 12’30’’, 35mm, colour, sound)
Pause! (1977, 12’30’’, 16mm, colour, sound)
Dichtung und Wahrheit (2003, 13’, 35mm, colour, silent)
Antiphon (included in Monument Film) (2012, 6’24’’, 35mm, b&w, sound)
Monument Film (2012, 6’24’’x4, 35mm, b&w, sound, projection and installation)
At 17 you decided to become a filmmaker, retaking your “first love” of cinema (in Tscherkassky’s words) as a child. Up to then you had only seen commercial cinema, and you were not familiar with the historical avant-gardes. What made you take that decision?
You know the story about the first film event that fascinated me strongly: when I was 6 years old I went to see a commercial about the preparation of Dr Oetker’s Vanilla Pudding. I was not so much fascinated by the film itself as by the event, the darkness, the lights, the sound, all those people watching in silence, isolated from the outside noise, concentrating on what they were seeing and hearing. And that hasn’t changed. On the other hand, when I was young I was educated in music; it was the wish of my parents that I become a musician. And then my interest in literature started very early (I learned to read when I was less than five years old). I made musical compositions also at a very young age and I started piano and violin lessons. When I was ten years old I was a choir boy in the Vienna Choir. But then, at 14, 15, 16, I felt this enormous weight of the past because in Europe we have great artists in every classical discipline. You can maybe be half as good as Schubert, but you would never be able to be as good as Mozart or even better. I did not want to be second in anything. I was always very competitive. So I was not very keen on continuing my musical education. But then cinema fascinated me more and more and at 17 I decided I would dedicate my life, so to speak, to cinema. So, when I was 18 years old, I gave up music and concentrated completely on cinema for the next 14 years, actually until I went to America in 1966. Day and night I had these metric films I had made with my hands in my pocket. I absorbed film.
Wasn’t there a particular film you saw and said “Oh, I would like to do something like this”?
On the contrary, I was not happy with films. In fact, it springs up a theme which I wanted to discuss with you, because from your films [Kubelka attended the screening of some of my films (Os Waslala, Eclipse, Puílha and Película urgente por Palestina) on the 3rd June during the (S8) 3ª Mostra de Cinema Periférico] I saw that you are a political person. So, if you like, I wanted to speak about politics. In fact my opinion, if I may start this argument immediatly, because it fits now, was always that if I was discontent with something, I did something for it. I am for practical politics, not for politics of words. I am for non verbal politics, not for politics of revenge. I’m for natural politics which means growth, in the sense that you grow something.
I felt that the films I had seen when I was young were not what I aspired to. I had another level in mind, because I knew how fantastic, how high, the level of literature and of music was, and the films which I saw did not meet that quality. A poem is so condensed and so controlled that every letter, every sound, could not be something else, and then you can live a life long with such a work. These were my models. And I did not find that in cinema. This prompted me my politics: I wanted to make better films and I wanted to do it myself. I was not for the politics of destruction, I didn’t want to go and destroy the production companies. I was always for the politics of doing and of growing.
Peter Kubelka during the presentation of Alberte Pagán’s films (Photo by María Meseguer).
When you started making films in 1955…
…there was no avant-garde film in Austria…
But, after your first films, did you get to know or have contact with Austrian experimental filmmakers like Kurt Kren, Marc Adrian, Hans Scheugl…?
But this was after me. Kurt Kren began making films five years after me. Yes, I got to know them. I was the first to show films by Kurt Kren publicly. Kren started in 1960, practically. Before that he had been doing some kind of amateur cinema, but without being much sure of what he was doing. He was in a way a student of mine. He was very much inspired by my metric films. That was his start. I helped him, and in 1960, I don’t remember the date, could be 1961 or 1962 [it was actually in March 1961], I showed his first films at a kind of summer university organized by an outsider priest, a catholic intelectual, Monsignor Maurer. He was interested in arts, but then he got the usual difficulties with the Church. They tried to stop him, but he got to do a lot for young artists. And he organized a Kunstsgesprache, “dialogues about art”, every summer. He invited artists and there was a film show, and I was the first to make a film program there. And in that occasion I showed Kren’s films.
The other day, during you masterclass [“The Edible Metaphor” at the (S8) Mostra de Cinema Periférico on the 2nd June 2012], you said you had started making 35mm films because there was no 16mm available…
There was 16mm but not in the technical perfection I found necessary for my films. The sound was on magnetic tape, which I didn’t like because, as it was glued on, it wouldn’t hold for long. That’s why I went to America in 1966, to finish Afrikareise. The Americans had known some of my films earlier. Mosaik had been shown maybe in 1957 or 1956 in New York and I was in correspondence with American filmmakers and then they wanted me to come over. But I didn’t really want to leave Europe.
And Mosaik was at the Venice Biennale.
Yes, in 1956. And it got the fist prize at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris also in 1956. It was shown really internationally.
After meeting Brakhage and getting to know the New American Cinema, did you see them as your cinema soul mates, after the artistic loneliness of Austria? Did your perception of cinema, your points of view, and your own cinema, change after that?
It was a mutual recognition. We were up to similar things, not the same. I came from Austria where I was suppressed by ignorance and provincialism, and they came from, let’s say, Hollywood, where they were suppressed from professional perfection and unions. In the middle were the French, liberal Paris, but they were all bought up. I despise all these Nouvelle Vague films, because they are not fish nor meat, they pretend to be political but it’s completely lackey cinema. So we became friends. There was sympathy between us, but of course I only became friends with people whose work I could also respect. It was not so easy to immediately comprehend things. I did not like the early Brakhage films, but then I saw Anticipation of the Night in Brussels at the World Exhibition in 1958. He saw Mosaik and Adebar and we congratulated each other and then we stayed friends for life.
MOSAIK IM VERTRAUEN
Your first film, Mosaik im Vertrauen, was a colaboration with Ferry Radax. At first sight it seems to have more things in common with Sonne, Halt! (Radax, 1959-62) than with your later films. What was his role in the film? Did you feel influenced by his aesthetics at the time?
Well, I think it was more the other way round. Radax was older than I am, I think by two years, and he had already worked for more commercial purposes. We came to know each other in the Vienna Film School, where he was also studying. It was a very primitive situation and we were both in the opposition, because the school was meant to train people to become professional cameramen or editors, or directors for the Austrian level of feature films, films about Beethoven, Schubert, Sisi and all these things. When I started to make Mosaik I called on him to colaborate with me. He was mainly the cameraman. I left this field in his hands, this was his role. He did not colaborate on the script, although it’s written in the film credits. But he colaborated with the editing. But, as I said, Mosaik is my film. I was the deciding authority.
Radax then made a film, Sonne, Halt!, of which there exist various versions. I liked the first version very much, which I preserved for the Austrian Film Museum. But then, you see, he is the kind of artist who constantly change things in old works, something which I’m not at all for. And he made the film worse and worse and worse. And the new versions are really not good anymore. And he wanted to make it international so he included a French text, and the film was watered down very much.
With me he went a bit off the way in finding out possibilities of cinema, namely that you work between image and sound, and so on. And you can see this influence in his later films. But it gets less and less. And in a way I’m sorry for him. Well, I can’t say sorry for his career, but he went in another direction.
The producer of the film was a catholic priest, Rudolf Malik…
Yes, he was a friend of mine whom I had met when I quit the Vienna Choir. I went back to Upper Austria and I was in Linz where my parents had settled. There my mother wanted me to have some out-of-school activity. My mother’s family was very religious, so she suggested going to what was called Studentenwerk, obra de estudiantes, which was run by Jesuits. Malik, who was older, was a priest in the Church of the Inner City of Linz. He was very modern-minded, but also very Christian, and he wanted to become a Christian film producer. Then I went to Rome, to study at the Centro Sperimentale [di Cinematografia], in 1954. We kept in touch and then we met again and he suggested producing a film for me.
The first words of the film might be addressed to the film itself. There is a Christian feeling in the film. Was the biblical sentence “Get up and walk” a “concession” to the Catholic sponsors? Were you religious at the time?
No, it was not a concession, it was irony. I use the same irony in Afrikareise, where the word for “getting up” is said twice, when the zebra is dying.
When the woman says “Auf!” [“Ow!”]?
No, “Ow!” is like the juxtaposition of big and little things. You say “Ow!” when a mosquito bites you, but I synchronized it with the death of the zebra.
The fact that I was raised as a Christian was a big factor in my life, but I soon became a nonbeliever. When I was 10 years old I started a philosophical school at the Choir. But when I came back to Linz I joined the Studentenwerk and I gave it another try but it only lasted for a month or two. I just couldn’t do it, even considering its traditional importance. And then I had a long period when I only viewed religion in a sarcastic way and made jokes and so. As of now, I mean I still like blasphemy and jokes, but I see religion as an element of evolution, it is there in mankind, you cannot just say it’s stupid and not true and throw it out. Then you could throw out most of human history. It’s there. What is important is to find out how you deal with it.
In Mosaik Frederick Putnik, who speaks French at the beginning, is credited “as himself”. Who was he? Is it really his life you portray?
Yes. He is a Jugoslavian who emigrated first to Italy, where he was detained in one of these camps the Italians already then had for illegal emigrants, near Rome. He studied with me at the Centro Sperimentale. Then he emigrated to Paris (there comes his French).
Is he carving or just painting the filigree on the boxcar door? Was it his creation?
It is crayon. It was made by Radax. Radax was also interested in graphics.
Because of the social content of the film and the class struggle overtones, first I identified the song the railway man whistles as the International. But then I realized it was the Marseillaise.
Exactly. It is the Marseillaise. It’s me who is whistling it. This scene is very typical of my thinking of politics. The Marseillaise is so grandiose and so wonderful. [He sings the song.] But what you see is the ventilator of this locomotive that just goes round and round and round and is completely unimpressed by the Marseillaise. It is a play between the acoustic and the visual. The visual is a sort of eternally turning and not taking the advice of the sound, which says: “Allons enfants de la patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé.” But nothing happens. This film of course has a strong social component in the script: it it about this émigré from outside who comes to Austria. That’s what Malik wanted, but then it was transformed by me. I let the film material grow and I developed all it suggested, all it could do, and I did not crop it down to a political message.
The use of found footage, the newsreel of the catastrophe in Le Mans, is very suggestive.
Yes, it was very important for me.
Were you already shooting the film when the accident happened, in June 1955?
The accident happened in the same year. In my film I wanted to juxtapose great catastrophe and small catastrophe and relativize it. As I told you, in Afrikareise the woman says “Ow!” as if a mosquito had stung her, but it is death at the same time, because you see the zebra being hit. You can find many of my later elements already in Mosaik. One of these was “big catastrophe” against “small catastrophe”. In my films there are only small catastrophes, so I was looking for a big catastrophe, and in that year the biggest catastrophe was the accident in Le Mans, where 64 people died. I asked Malik to buy the material with the rights to use it in the film.
There is an obscure shot, the longest in the film (1 minute long), where we see Putnik inside a barn, while we hear an ovation. Is it the public at Le Mans, or just a football match we hear?
It’s not a barn, it’s a broken-down railway car, with the roof fallen. He is sorting out wood to make the fire. The sound is of a big stadium cheering football. Putnik, completely alone, is sorting out this wood and throwing it out of the wagon while the huge crowd cheers him in sync. There is a juxtaposition of solitude and loneliness on one hand and mass entertainment and mass interest on the other.
Mosaik im Vertrauen is your only fiction film. But there is an insert of a quick montage, although not strictly metrical, of a table football game. And between the colour shot of the radio and the colour unfocused close up of the woman you insert a brief sequence with a very quick editing, which is an announcement of your metrical films.
Yes, exactly. It’s the clock with the pendulum.
Were you aware at that time that that would be the path to follow?
Yes, I already had in mind films that would be metric and would take for the image what music has done for the ears.
This sequence could be formally interpreted as a sexual intercourse between the man and the woman, a mixing of images and of bodies, highlighted by the entry of the other man into the house and a display of phallic symbols.
Yes. In all my films there’s always erotic insinuation. And this is one example, of course.
There are several parallel stories: Putnik and the girl, Leo and the girl, Michaela and her driver, Putnik and the chauffeur (both with fake binoculars) and, as a metaphor of the film (Life as a race), the footage from Le Mans.
Yes. Konrad Bayer and Michaela (her real name was Ida) were a couple. They were elegant, they were already mods at that time. He had practically no money. His parents were house superintendents and very poor people, from a low social level. But he became a Parisian gentleman in his fantasy and I used him as such. I did not want to have just actors, I wanted the elements as they are, to just put them in into the film. And the girl who is between Putnik and the one with the radio, Leo, was my future wife, we were a couple at the time. In the film Putnik tries to get her but she is impressed by Leo.
There are five silent colour shots. Were they added on second thoughts?
No. They are silent for technical reasons. We didn’t have the money to do it with sound. But, as I later did in Adebar, I already wanted to break this illusion of reality. I wanted it to be a film, people should look at the film and be aware of it. There is not a black and white reality, but if you have a black and white film then people accept it as a whole, as you accept a black and white drawing; you don’t say “I miss the colours”. And if you have a colour film, it fits nature, which is in colour. But if you mix it, people start saying: “What’s that? Is it now a colour film? Is it now a black and white film?”. This is what I wanted, to break up this lazy illusion of reality.
In one of the colour shots we see the hand of a woman with a round object: what is it? Are they Michaela’s hands?
It is a tyre. And it is Michaela’s hand. And she plays with her finger. There is another finger play in the film, when Putnik, the inmigrant, is scratching the floor of the boxcar. This finger play is something that fascinates me. It is also in Afrikareise, on the soundtrack, when the elephant is shot; you can identify it either as a shot or as a finger tap.
There is another colour shot where we see the moon rising fast. Was it filmed in time-lapse?
It was filmed with the Arriflex. I had no quick camera, so it had to be made by hand. This shot was then edited in the film in a way that makes the railway employee light his cigarette with the moon. He has this lantern, then the moon comes up and he lights his cigarette, and I made this connection as if he had lit his cigarette with the moon.
Peter Kubelka during the screening of Alberte Pagán’s films (Photo by María Meseguer).
The editing is very similar to the one in Afrikareise. After Arnulf Rainer, a film without “content”, without “images”, for Afrikareise you chose images with a huge political charge. Images transcend the filmic form. In fact, when writing about the film, they usually write more about colonialism and the western gaze than about cinema itself. Were you aware of these dangers when doing it? Is the film “your” statement about colonialism?
Well, you see. Just as an example, when I was young in Vienna, when I made Mosaik, there were what you could call two “political parties” of painters: the abstracts and the non abstracts. And they were enemies. If you belonged to the abstracts you would despise the non abstracts, and viceversa. And I never subscribed to that, because the human being is a multiple organism. As the Bible says, there is a time for eating and there is a time for killing, and there is a time for music making. With the metric films I followed one direction, which for me may be the most important one. But Afrikareise then came along so I developed a film language which I think is the real language of sound film, namely that you present, between eye and ear, a nature created by you but which is in sync. A human being can sing a song in church and then go to the pub and express political views by talking. I don’t feel that you have to belong to a party.
There is a jerky shot filmed from the jeep, during the hunting of the jiraffe. Is there any editing, or is it a single take?
It is not one single take, but it is one single occasion. These people were not the Upper Austria hunters but professionals who were hunting jiraffes to sell them to zoos. I was allowed to go with them in the back of the car when they would catch a jiraffe, and there are many shots of that in the film. But the sequence you are alluding to, when the image goes left and right, was one single occasion. But there are cuts in it.
Were these proffesional hunters Austrian as well?
No, no. Some were Southern Sudanese, I think there was also an English person.
There’s a voice in English: “I put it inside”. Who’s speaking?
This is a Sudanese Arab person who says “They left it outside, but I put it inside”, which is also a sexual allusion.
There is much sex and much humour, both in Mosaik and Afrikareise.
Yes, yes. I do not believe in deadly earnest statements.
As in Mosaik im Vertrauen, the collision of images and sound are at the core of the film. But in the same way that you edit one shot and the following one, I have the feeling that you also “created” sentences by means of montage. For example, the sentence “Think about / the end of Goethe’s Faust” sounds as if the second part came from a differente person. Is that so?
Yes, I did that, of course. My great inspiration was James Joyce, who has split up language and words. I also split up ongoing actions, like the handshake, and turn them into something that’s too… You cannot say it with language. This is what film can do.
James Joyce was for me the most important writer even before I had read a single line by him. From 1933 on, when Hitler came the power, they cut information off. At school there was a German teacher who said: “There is a writer who wrote a thick book, many hundreds of pages, and it was only about one day, and what he wrote was only banal things of everyday life.” But he had not read Joyce, he had got this from one of his textbooks. And when I heard this I realized it was exactly what I had dreamed about long long before. At school I had this wish for years and years. I wanted to hear how the Romans lived their everyday life, what they did, what they cooked… And then what we learned were battles and dates and emperors. So, when Joyce was mentioned, he became my role model, but it took years until I was able to take hold of the book. This is very interesting because it shows how things are in the air. Joyce did not come out from nothing either. It was his longing before to do that, and to break up the language was also in the air. And I thought, “How should people go on writing novels after Joyce”? And interestingly enough nothing happened. They went on as if Joyce had never existed. All the best sellers that you can read today are written as in the 19th Century. And this is horrible.
There is a rhythmic or even poetic repetition of words, like “So”. But sometimes the same sound seems to form different words and meanings, as “auf”: “Auf!” as an exclamation, followed by “Aufstehen!” (Up and rise!) and “Pass auf” (Pay attention). Words, like images, change their meanings according to their positions.
Yes, exactly. I do this very often. Also in the sound I have the motif of dance. There is the dancer doing this movement. And, once, towards the end of the film, she is perfectly synchronized with the motor of the boat. You hear “tack, tack, tack” [he imitates the accelerating sound of the engine] when the motor starts, and in the image you see her dancing to this rhythm. And there is another time when you see her making this upward movement with her nose and you hear a boasting account of one of the hunters. He says: “Jetzt respektiere ich den Bush. Das kann ich dir sagen.” (“Now I respect the bush, I can tell you that”). And I had her raise her nose when he said “I respect the bush”, as if she had spoken it. But what she radiates is completely different from what he radiates.
The dancing girl is the most repeated image in the film.
Yes, and every time it has a different acoustic synchronization. It is also synchronized with the Sinatra song [“Around the World in 80 Days”].
You have said somewhere that the girl was dancing for you alone. But in one of the shots we can see a man inside the frame.
Yes, but this was another occasion. He was a man who got married at this occasion. It was a marriage I had been invited to in Khartoun, in Sudan. And then girls usually dance at night, but for me she danced in daylight, which was an act of very great daring.
Goethe’s Faust is mentioned a couple of times. And we can hear you saying that “Goethe was an asshole”. Did you feel like Faust, selling your artistic soul to your bourgeois sponsors, but in the end redeemed by the artistic creation of the film Unsere Afrikareise?
No, at that time I did not know how the film would be. This is a scene where we all were drunk. I was drunk too. And these other voices belong to two German ex-nazi émigrés who had fled Germany in order not to be caught and they had gone to the Sudan and lived there and had important jobs because these former English colonies had a lack of schooled people. And they helped my companions, the Upper Austria business people, to do this safari, because they were living there and they were very powerful. One of them was the director of the Mint, where they make money, but he also designed the money. He was a German engineer who could do anything, you know. And he built a water dam. And he constantly pestered me with his knowledge, always saying “Goethe this” and “Goethe that”. So in order to stop him I said “Goethe was an asshole”. And then he says: “Das war er nicht” (“No, he wasn’t”). It was a drunken talk. I satirize myself here, and let him say the real thing. Goethe was not an ashole, of course. You see, it’s so difficult to talk about this film, and my films in general, because I specially did things which you cannot express in other media. I worked for five years on this short film, and these juxtapositions of image-and-image and sound-and-sound are so intricate that you could talk for an hour about one single cut, and still not get it out, because it’s film. Maybe one should make an analysis on the editing table once, and go forth and back and show all these juxtapositions.
At the same time, and punning on shooting and “shooting” (the camera), the film is like your personal safari, your trophy, or even your vengeance on the Austrian hunters.
Yes, in a way. I hated them from the beginning. But again, I repeat, the film is not a political film that has a message now. It goes in all directions. I don’t see life as a single recipe.
I think it has a hundred messages.
In your masterclass you mentioned the sound of thunder that accompanies the scene where they shake hands. But it sounds more like drums to me.
No, it’s not even drums. Very often, in the African film, I use a sound that sounds like something but is something completely different. And what you hear is empty metal water pails being lowered into a well by indigenes, and it makes [he imitates sound]. But it sounds like thunder. On another occasion, when the lioness is hit, and then she starts attacking, you hear [he imitates sound], and everybody thinks that it’s her you hear, but it’s not, it’s the whistle of a Nile motor boat. It’s not the lioness, because when a lioness attacks she does not scream.
We can hear a tango when they shoot down the crocodile. Was it taped in Africa too?
That came out of an Italian pub for black people, in Sudan. Everything was recorded on the trip, including the music we hear when the lioness is lifted up which was recorded in Jugoslavia on the way down.
The crocodile shot is the longest in the film, at 24 seconds. I think it was Mekas who said that it looks like a Warhol shot, by your standards.
[He laughs] Yes, but if you watch it, it was one of the most difficult things I have done, because image and sound are perfectly synchronized. Every movement in the image is reflected in the sound. But neither the sound nor the image are cut. It was not easy to make them fit.
Did you use a tripod at all?
No, no, in Afrikareise there is no tripod at all. Just an anecdote: When the film came out (well, it never came really out) there was one newspaper review about the film, which was completely put down. And one of the worst elements of the film, the review said, was that the image was not steady, that I hadn’t used a tripod. Can you image? At that time, in 1966, in Austria, it was unimaginable to shoot an image without a tripod. As it was unimaginable to have dialect in the film. When Mosaik came out its use of dialect horrified many. In Mosaik we had dialect and non dialect and French and Italian, as it came.
Were the sarcastic compositions (like the hunters with “horns” created by a tree or by the snorkels) something you deliberately seeked when shooting or were they elements you found later, during editing?
I was aware, I was aware. This is one of the powers of cinema, that you can cornudir a person with a camera, without them realizing it.
In one shot we see some youngsters taking water out of a canoe, with apparently direct sound. When, some 20 shots later, we see, and hear, a bush fire, we realize it is the same sound. It is as if, retrospectively, the youngsters were carrying water to extinguish the fire. Is it really the same sound?
Yes, it is the sound of fire. And, also, when the fish is torn out of the water, there is this kind of white water foam which is very much like flames, and it continues into flames. The fish comes out and then the flames are there. So, water ignites fire.
Basically you superimpose European voices and sounds on the African images. But the Jugoslavian peasant woman, in the one-before-last shot, walks in silence, as if it were not possible to do the opposite, to superimpose African voices on an European landscape.
Yes. It’s like this. There are really three shots that belong together. The first is dark, and the naked indigene with the spear and a chunk of meat and the naked penis walks by. And there is this voice of an indigene who cannot speak English well, who says: “I like to visit your country”. Then I cut, and here is my country: snow and the Jugoslavian peasant woman getting nearer, and there is no necessary or possible sound, it’s just that. And then, in the final shot, the naked man walks out and says: “If I find chance”. This is a kind of coda to the whole film. The film ends and then you should be reminded of what would happen if he had the chance to do to our country what we have done to his.
Yes, and we should take into account the fact that he’s a hunter as well, coming from the bush with his piece of meat.
Exactly. That’s it. You could call it a political message. I mean, what we do to them is horrible. Let’s imagine what they would do to us.
The silence of this shot is paralleled by the sequence where the Africans walk in the bush, first under the Austrian peals of laughter, then gradually in silence, full of dignity.
Yes, dignity is the right word. When these Whites and this stupid laughter will be gone they will be still walking. It’s like a watershed in the film. They come from the left and from the right and walk by. And in the end one of them takes down her arm and then comes the car and loud radio music again, which brings the death of the elephant.
Was that music recorded in sync with the image?
Yes, it comes from the car radio. Sometimes I do things in sync just to make the believe that everything is in sync stronger.
Afrikareise is a film very close to the spirit, the shape and the humour of A Movie [Conner, 1958]. Did you know Conner’s film?
Yes, I know it. But I did not like it too much at the time, because the music just adds the mood. It’s not really about synchronizing image and sound. What I did was sync them, so Afrikareise is really different. But I like things by Conner very much. I quite like a film that was shown yesterday, Valse Triste. But again it lacks precision.
Yes, Conner uses just music on the soundtrack.
Yes, but Kenneth Anger uses just music in Scorpio Rising, which I like very much. Kenneth Anger creates connections between image and music, much more than Conner.
The people in the village, posing for the camera with an axe in the air, what were they doing?
Well, this was a shot that the Upper Austria hunters ordered. They wanted postcard shots they could show at home. One was them making fun of the tall warden. And the other was this one, also making fun of them. They would tell them to pose, and they would pose happily, being ridiculed, of course. And they told me to shoot that.
It’s funny, because when they are trying to make fun of the tall warden, they are actually making fun of themselves.
Yes, of course. It is always like that. And in the other shot you have just cited we hear the voice of this wise guy, the SS guy, saying: “Kubelka, you have to respect something. We all respect it.” (“Du etwas musst du respekt, etwas musst du achten. Das achten wir alle.”) He speaks about respect, but they respected nothing.
Polbo à feira by Peter Kubelka (Photo by María Meseguer).
Your last films, Pause! and Dichtung und Wahrheit, lack credits. There’s no title and your name is not there. Is it because, in the case of the former, you wanted to leave all the protagonism to Arnulf Rainer, and because the images of the latter are found footage?
No, no. At that time I thought that, you see, when you hear a symphony by Beethoven in the concert hall there is nobody in front that says “You are about to listen to a symphony by Beethoven”. The film is better without the title.
Up to Pause! you used to edit your films at home, without a moviola.
No, I had a moviola for Afrikareise. But it was very difficult. It was a kind of a home-made moviola and I could only use it at night because it was owned by a news reporter who used it by day. I edited Afrikareise in black and white negative because I had no money to make a positive print.
After your stay in the USA, did you have more means at your disposal to edit Pause!? And more money to finance the films on your own?
Yes, of course I had an editing table for Pause! That’s true. For Pause! I even had this very small subsidy. I had some money to cover print costs.
Was the presence of Rainer a coincidence, or did you feel in debt with him after eschewing his image in Arnulf Rainer?
No, no. I was interested in using him like a quarry, like a resource. I was interested in emotions for no reason, separated from normal life. And then I built an architecture of emotions.
Rainer’s Körperspräche (Body Language) is the sole “content” of the film. You, as a filmmaker, disappear discreetly behind the camera. In that sense it is a documentary. Could Pause! be an Zumalung [a Rainer painting where the artist paints on top of another image till he partially conceals it], where the apparent portrait of the artist conceals some other content? Did you take decisions together as to the form of the film?
Well, no. This is the power of cinema. I cut away everything I did not want. I put the microphone on his body where I thought it would bring out his own feelings more intensely. So the film is much stronger than if you had been there and seen the real thing. It’s a condensation. When I had shot the film I divided the material into, so to speak, chapters of emotional qualities, which slowly build up, and then reach the peak, and then come down from the peak and then comes the fatigue. And there is one scene which not many people realize when they see it, when he is so tired that he asks me to stop, saying “Pause!”. And I took this word for the title. But Pause! was not a colaboration at all. He did what he wanted and I shot what and when I wanted. He did it for me alone, we were alone, but I did not suggest what he should do. That was all his choice. He never knew what I did with the film until it was finished. But we had made a deal that he would get copies of the material which I had shot. And then he made enlargements and overpainted them [for his photographic series Face Farces].
I counted 108 different shots filmed in seven different spaces. Was it filmed in a single day? Are all these spaces in the same location?
No, it was several locations and it went on for over a year, I think.
I tried to classify the different shots according to space, to duration, to framing, to the clothes Rainer is wearing, to repetitions… but couldn’t reach any conclusion. Is there a hidden structure in the editing? Did you base the editing on the sound or on the image?
You could find a structure if you classified them in cathegories of feelings. It starts with a slow building up of emotions, in which the common denominator of the different shots is this upbuilding. And then there are different shots of fatigue in which the fatigue is concentrated. It is an architecture of emotion.
Towards the end of the film there is a shot (the longest in the film) which I like very much: Rainer, naked from the waist up, is very nervous, breathing very deeply and very quickly, and then he starts relaxing. And, after so much suffering and endurance, he gets to transmit this relaxation to the public. It is a very intense shot.
Yes, what you hit now is a very important fact. When making the film I knew these things would happen, because in cinema, it’s very well known, you identify with the actor or the characters. In this film I would have people identify with all these crazy things that happen on the screen. The human animal is not going through the universe on its own opinion; in the first place we watch what others do. You see, when we come into a room and the room is empty, then you feel uneasy because you have to judge for yourself. But, if you see another person, you look at this person, and if the person sits happily there then you feel calm. But if you see the person lying on the floor making faces like Rainer you would get scared because something must be wrong. We are always guided by others without even realizing it. And that is an important element or motif for me in the film. I wanted to show somebody doing something crazy but with no reason given why he behaves like that, to show just the emotional outcome.
While the image is “real” (we see what you saw during the shooting), the sound is not, because the microphone is so close to Rainer’s body that the sound produced by his body sounds too loud. They are sounds we wouldn’t be able to hear so clearly were we standing next to the camera. Did you record the sound directly on the film strip or did you use a tape recorder? Did Rainer have a mike on his clothes at all time?
I used a tape recorder. I put a microphone on his body not in every shot but in most of them. That is a very important decision because we do not hear objectively. The ear is on my body and I hear what I’m saying now completely differently to what you hear of me. You hear from a meter and a half distance. When the microphone is the ear and I put it here, then you hear every scratching, you hear his body movements, you hear him breathe much louder. You hear him very much like he hears himself. Sound film gives me the possibility to split up the human watcher.
DICHTUNG UND WAHRHEIT
In Unsere Afrikareise you called Goethe an “asshole”, but then you use the title of his Autobiography as a title for your film Dichtung und Wahrheit. Are you reconciled with Goethe?
[He laughs] Yes, but that was not the spirit. I respect Goethe a lot. I had something with Goethe. At the time I preferred Kleist and other writers but then I made my peace. I also had difficulties with Beethoven and then I made my peace. I still have difficulties with Mozart and I did not make my peace. I can’t still stand a Mozart concert.
Dichtung und Wahrheit can be translated as “Poetry and Truth” or “Fiction and Truth”, which I suppose is the more correct translation: the fiction of the acting versus the truth of the actors as persons, before the word “action”. While “poetry” sounds as something positive, “fiction” means false, fake, and therefore it is rather negative.
Yes, I meant acting as poetry, and also the filmmaking of the actors. That’s poetry. And of course the worst kind of film poetry is advertising films. There is irony in this title. With me you can take everything from a distance. I almost always have a double meaning. Because I believe in that. I don’t believe in this straightforward Sieg Heil. That is a one-way life which politics easily gets into.
As early as 1989, in an interview with Christian Lebrat, you were already talking about using publicity films as a didactic tool. Did you already have Dichtung und Wahrheit in mind by then?
I did not have in mind to make a film. In fact, I had made the film for a lecture. It was originally used in a lecture, and it was a film I didn’t even contemplate to bring out as a film in the beginning. I made the film, used it in the lecture, and then it was archived in the Filmmuseum. I didn’t show it after that. It was [the director of the Austrian Film Museum Alexander] Horwath who said: “Listen, you have a film here. Bring it out”. I had made several very long lectures at the Filmmuseum, all with film examples. But things went lost and there were some persons who tried to reconstitute them, people like Frau Schlemmer, who had always helped me to get the material. It was she who, for Dichtung und Wahrheit, would collect the material from the chest where film companies throw it out. I said “Get me this or that” and then, as she knew film companies, she just went there and collected it. So this film is very much an archaeological work of mine.
Dichtung und Wahrheit consists of 12 sequences which ilustrate 10 basic scenes. They don’t belong, apparently, to more than 2 or 3 commercials.
Yes, yes. One is the hair improvement, with the man in front of the mirror. Another one is this chocolate feeding. Then there is the cleaning ingredient which makes everything shiny. And then there is another one with the noodles, which is a different one. So it’s four commercials.
Dichtung und Wahrheit, like Mosaik and Afrikareise, is full of humour and sex. When editing the film, were you looking for a sort of hidden narrative in the images?
Yes, in a way it’s human paradise as seen by advertising. The advertising people try to depict a human paradise: it must be clean, mother must be good, the child is the mother of the puppet, and the dog is the faithful servant. And there is this blue pail, which is very important for me because it becomes an inorganic actor. Not many people understand that. First it’s dark and then comes the light and it lights up. It is the motif of eternal light from heaven. Religion is present in the film.
There is a lot of humour but, at the same time, it’s a horror film. The scene with the little girl at the end is terrifying, as are these fake smiles which become frozen on their faces.
Yes, I’m very happy with what you say. But still people laugh very much. It’s funny also. And that’s exactly what I want. I always wanted to have a double meaning, like in the universe. Two people look at the moon, one cries, one laughs. And it’s the same moon, and the same life.
This is the second time you use found footage, or an object trouvé. The first one was in Mosaik.
Yes, I have had all my life things which I have not made myself. I like the idea of the object trouvé. It’s very interesting that now that I’m that old I see that practically I have had my main ideas already as a child. It’s fantastic. You just then work them out but they were always there.
You consider the image in cinema “ugly”, with no room for composition, and “inferior to painting”. For you the “content” of the images is not “a source of energy”. You create your films basically through editing. That’s why it is a bit surprising that you haven’t resorted to found footage more often.
I would not say that. The content is important, but it has a different importance. It’s different in each film. For example, I could have made Schwechater with a completely different content of images. But then it would also have been different. This film is very much a beer drinking film. And it’s at the same time a celebration of the complexity of the universe.
But then that’s right. I like more the work after shooting than shooting itself. But it’s also because I have found out what I have already said: in my competitive thinking, filmmaker against painter or filmmaker against musician, I found out that Eisenstein made a big mistake by betting on his compositions, because composition in cinema is always pathetic, it’s not really possible. Something very interesting happened the other day. In Mosaik, when Putnik scratches on the lower part of the screen, I had this double meaning (at that time I still believed in composition): I wanted him to scratch the floor of the railroad car and at the same time to scratch the frame of the cinema. But in all my life it has never worked, except here [at the CGAI, during the (S8) Mostra de Cinema Periférico], because here they have the biggest cut out of the frame that I have ever seen. It shows everything. And in any other theatre they cut a little bit away because they don’t want to see the splices or something. Here it also worked with Adebar. It was difficult, because they show everything and you start to see the splices. So I was very happy with this projection. It worked out that he scratches at the same time an element in the film and the frame of the cinema itself.
I’m very happy too that that happened here. At first sight, the images in Dichtung und Wahrheit seem to have been edited in a loop. Soon we realize it is not so, and in the sequence with the dog it becomes clear that you are using different shots. Did you use all the shots you found of the same scene, or on the contrary you chose only a part of the original material?
I took mostly all I had. And I didn’t influence it at all in order to keep its archaeological value. What you say about the loop is very good because when the director of publicity films makes one take after the other, that is a loop. They want just one thing. Let’s say, the hand comes and puts the chocolate in the mouth. And then they are not happy with this, so they do it a second time and a third time. It is a loop, but as they do it in reality, reality does not permit loops. Every cyclic event is a little bit different from the one before. So every shot is different in many many details. This is also a film which you can see many times without getting bored because it gives the richness of actual cyclic events. All the events in the film are cyclic, so this film is in a way metric and not metric. It is both.
The best projection of Mosaik ever: 1st June 2012 at the CGAI (Photo by María Meseguer).
You can see “truth” before the word “action”, but when the actors realize they have done somenthing wrong, as these are outtakes, they become themselves again, they go back to “truth”.
Yes. But there is something I discovered while making the film. What you have just said is what I had in mind. Before I made the film I wanted to show these people as truthful people before they started acting. But then I realized, while making this film, that people always act. You see, I am acting now for you, you are acting for me. We are not just speaking our minds. We accompany our words with, let’s say, endearing qualities, we smile at each other, and we want to project a certain personality. Even when people sleep they act. And not just people, but also animals.
Adebar was a publicity film for a café in Vienna you had contacted through Konrad Bayer. Were they happy with the result? Did they ever use it as publicity?
None of the films were ever shown as commercials. Schwechater was not shown either. The Schwechater people wanted just to destroy it. There is now a Schwechater museum in Vienna, where they have everything, and the film is not in it.
Does the Adebar night club still exist?
No, it’s not there anymore.
The first film you saw, when you were six, was a commercial. And your love for cinema started there. In a way, all your films are related to publicity. Some were straightforward commercials, others were commissions, and one just uses outtakes of commercials. There was a time when you aspired to live on making publicity films. Did you actually film anything else besides the films we already know?
No. You see, when I was young and I wanted to make films, and it turned out to be so difficult, I did not know how to survive. I had a great fear of not being able to give society something so that they let me live. Now I’m very lucky, I can live the life of a middle class person, but it was not always so. So I thought, what if I make a publicity film or other kinds of films for a living and then make my films at the same time. But then I found out it’s not possible. This cannot be done. Either you do this or you do that. Because making a publicity film, or feature films, or documentaries for television, implies a self-domestication which you have to undergo in order to be able to sell your things to television. So you already erect barriers and you make yourself a prison in which you then sit and cannot get out anymore. And then you cannot say: “Now I’ll make my films”, because you don’t know anymore what your films would be. Adebar and Schwechater started out as advertising films, and Mosaik was also in a way an advertising film for Catholic philosophy. And Afrikareise was a film thought to be a travelogue for rich business people. And Pause! was thought to be an advertising film for Arnulf Rainer, as was also Arnulf Rainer the film. But I couldn’t do the things they expected from me and then I transformed the films and there was always a crash and a clash. I’m used to that now. I had to steal my films, I always had to take commissions to have access to something. But on the other hand I’m a fighting person, I don’t accept impositions.
In your metric films you use a metric system, as in music: sections and fragments that create rhythm. Your films are not climactic: we have the same rhythm and the same harmonies from beginning to end, like fragments of something larger. You could start watching them midway and nothing would change. The same could be said of Pause!
Yes. This is what Heraclitus said: “Panta rei” (“everything flows”). That is very important for me, as opposed to what the Church or Jesus said: “Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper et in sæcula sæculorum”, which means everything is static, it was always like this and it will always be. And I’m violently against this and the fact that people still follow that idea, because it does not allow you to acknowledge all that has been found out about the universe. Heraclitus knew much more about the world than Jesus did. I’ll give an example from cooking. You have for example a cheese made near here which is called cabrales, which I like very much. It’s fantastic. It’s like a ruin from the Middle Ages. Cabrales is the best example to illustrate Heraclitus’ panta rei. It starts with milk and then the milk ferments and then it gets more compact and then the mold starts to come in and transforms it and it goes on and on until it ends up like dust. And in the middle of it we call it cabrales and eat it. But it is only a short excerpt in the life of this whole process. And so I see my films. My films are like that, especially the metric films, while the 19th C melodrama follows the Jesus theory: it starts, and then comes the scena madre, as we learnt in Italy, the high point, and then it ends. And it’s happy end forever. And this is what I always wanted to avoid. So, you can say that all of my films have no beginning and no end. They are excerpts from the flow. I can imagine my universe as all my films contemporaneously flowing at the same time in the air, not seen but always flowing.
Apparently your films are very formal and abstract, not concerned with people or society. But people are there: you have said that Arnulf Rainer is like “thunder and lightning 24 times per second”, or an image of “day and night”; and you have said Adebar is “about meeting and departing, or attempts at meeting and not reaching”, and about loneliness.
There is a fundamental error in the use of the word “abstract” in art theory. Because “abstractus” means “taken away from something”. When around 1911 Kandinski started what is called abstract art, it was called abstract art first as a put down, like most art names: baroque is a put down, gothic is a put down. Abstract is also a put down, it’s like saying there is nothing in it. But it’s not true; it’s not even possible to make something abstract. A good illustration is abstract expressionism. When people throw colour onto a canvas, the canvas is not abstract, it contains the traces of a dynamic act, you see? There are splashes where you can see that the hand must have been very fast, and then there are other signs where there was a smooth movement. So the paintings are traces of dances with colour, where the colour left a trace of what has been going on. Of course my films are never abstract, but I do not know any abstract work. Every abstract painter has had something he wanted to say with it.
Did the 8 different shots of Adebar come form a sole continuous take? How much film did you originally shoot?
I had 60 meters of film and I filmed several shots when these people were dancing and then, since I had absolutely no editing table and no projection, I started to look at it in the negative. And then I took out some shots which had a common denominator, which interested me.
Presentation by Peter Kubelka at the CGAI (1-06-12) (Photo by María Meseguer).
The construction of Schwechater is based on several elements. But there are three “waves” which give dinamism to the film: The black wave (increasing and decreasing, in parallel with the image shots), the red wave, increasing its presence through the reduction of the non-red elements in between…
No, there is not a red wave. The red is an element which is always equally long but the intervals become smaller and smaller. There is only a black wave going through the whole film: one black frame, one image; two black frames, two images; four black frames, four images. That overlies the whole film.
But then there is the sound wave, which barely anybody mentions (or, when they do, they do it incorrectly), which accompanies the red sections but decreases and increases as for the number of beeps (3,2,1,0,1,2,3,2,1,0,1,2,3).
Yes. The sound coincides only with the red colour. There are two sounds, a high beep and a low one.
How did you create these two sounds, the short high-pitched beep and the longer deep sound?
The sounds were created electronically. They are pure sinus waves and when you look at the print you can see these beautiful sound waves written on the film, because the sound writing is an analogue rendering of the sinus waves. That’s also very important for me. I wanted sounds which could be read by just holding the film in your hands.
Before making Arnulf Rainer you shot some sequences in colour of the painter painting. Do you keep all this material you never used?
No, all this material is lost.
Did you actually cut and spliced every single frame of Arnulf Rainer, or was it made at the laboratory?
No, never. I did it all myself. I did every single frame but not in the image. In the end I made the image in the camera, but frame by frame, of course. But the sound was cut. There were two strips, one empty and one with the sound on. And it was all cut frame by frame, as it is for the new film, Antiphon.
Arnulf Rainer could be understood as an imitation and homage to Rainer’s Übermalungen (total superimpositions), paintings which cover totally another image, usually identified by the title. In that sense, Arnulf Rainer’s white and black frames would conceal the portrait of the painter initially intended, as a palimpsest.
No, not at all. Arnulf Rainer has nothing to do with Arnulf Rainer, because he is an abstract expressionist, if you want to call him that. As you can see in Pause!, he works out of his emotions and out of the mechanics of his body. Pause! of course contains his body language. In the images of Adebar there may be some influence of Rainer’s paintings, which I respect very much, they are great paintings. But Arnulf Rainer is completely different. It bears his name only because he paid some money. And he was of course very disappointed when he saw it. Arnulf Rainer is a purely metric cool construction. But people sometimes misunderstand the sound in Arnulf Rainer as something horrible and they are afraid of it. It’s not so. For me Arnulf Rainer is a completely quiet thing, you see. I sit in there, it’s a structure in which I hang myself into, and it’s not at all frightening.
That reminds me of your masterclass. During the projection of Arnulf Rainer I saw a person covering her eyes and ears trying to keep the film away. But the film is so agressive and powerful that it’s impossible to get away from it: you watch it with your whole body.
Yes, that happens sometimes.
Did you know, or were influenced, by the paintings of Malevich?
I did not think of him either. I have a huge respect for him, but it was not that I wanted to make an analogy. And the film is not just black, it’s black and white, and it is very dynamic, but of course there is a similarity to what Malevich did.
You used to project Arnulf Rainer unfocused. What would be the ideal projection for you?
I have projected it unfocused, in the beginning. But then I understood that it was wrong to do that, because it’s a fake, it denies the material. It has to be in focus, absolutely. Because I want people to know that cinema is not light, it is light going through a stencil, and the stencil is material, and the material acquires traces of its life, scratches, dirt, patina, whatever you call it. I like scratched prints of Arnulf Rainer, because then this other life comes into being. And now that cinema is endangered, I want the presence of the material on the screen.
You edited your metric films manually, at home. What was your first reaction when you saw them projected on a big screen? Were they exactly as you had intended them to be? Did they surprise you?
Always. They always surprise me very much. With Arnulf Rainer I was afraid of what would come out, but then it made me very happy, and I’m still am. I imagined what would come out, but when reality appears it is always stronger than what you imagined. That must have been what happened to the people who developed the atom bomb, they may have been very much surprised of the outcome.
ANTIPHON AND MONUMENT FILM
Are you still at work on your unfinished Denkmal für die Alte Welt (Monument for the Old World)?
Well, there is material, but in principle I am not making predictions on what I’ll make. This year I will bring out a new film, in fact it is practically finished, which is called Monument Film. As of now, I don’t think I’ll finish Monument for the Old World as it was planned, but the new film has the title Monument Film, and it is my monument for film in the blackest year of cinematography, 2012, when digital is taking over. I think now that it will be my last film, and since it is a monument for film, and film was the main thing in my life, it does what I planned with Monument for the Old World, since film, and it’s fantastic, has become a part of the old world, a historical material. So this is the situation as it is now.
Tscherkassky has described your Monument Film as a complex event which includes your last finished film, Antiphon, which is the exact negative of Arnulf Rainer, both visually and auditorily. Monument Film will encompass a projection and an installation of both films. What is exactly Monument Film?
As you probably know, with Adebar I started to exhibit my films on the wall, as three dimensional objects. This time they will also be exhibited on the wall. Arnulf Rainer and Antiphon will be juxtaposed, and opposite they will be overimposed, so that everything will be black, but only in theory. [As for the projection,] First I’ll project Arnulf Rainer, then Antiphon, then they’ll be projected side by side, so that the light always jumps from one screen to the other, and then on top of each other. And in the projection the white is overriding, because the light is overriding, but on the wall the black is overriding.
So you have already tried the projection to see how it will look.
No, I haven’t. You just need to think of it. When one projector is black, because the image is black, and the other is light, the screen is light, you see? But when you put it on the wall, and one frame is black, and the frame on top of it is white, it’s still black. When it’s not transparent light, the black is stronger than the white. It will be something very interesting. I have checked the adjustment between the projectors. When I get home I’ll see both prints for the first time. The films, Arnulf Rainer and Antiphon, have exactly the same length to the sprocket hole, not just the frame. I have already checked it with John Miripiri from Anthology Film Archives, because they are going to stage it, as well as the New York Film Festival. You have to have two projectors, and they have to be really synchronized, so that they have to be always running at the same time, and they will run also when there is no image. When Arnulf Rainer runs, there will be black film on the other projector. And when Antiphon runs, there will be black film on the left projector. And then they will be both running. And you don’t have to check this, because, when they are over each other, if one is black, the other one makes it light, so it’s light. So the projection of both of the films will be continuous light and a continuous noise. And on the wall it will be silent and black.
Will the projection of these four parts be continuous? When is it going to be premiered?
There’s a small pause between them, but everything is on one reel for one single session. It will take about half an hour. Because it’s 6 minutes 24 seconds four times. The premiere will be in the New York Film Festival at the beginning of October. And then comes the London Film Festival and the Viennale in Vienna.