Viennale 2014: Talking With Julian Radlmaier About A PROLETARIAN WINTER'S TALE

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Viennale 2014: Talking With Julian Radlmaier About A PROLETARIAN WINTER'S TALE
No one can seriously doubt that there is a black hole in German cinema. 

This black hole comes, among other things, from a lack of interest and awareness in film as such with all its history, languages and forms. There are not many young German filmmakers that put themselves in the tradition of a cinematic language, let alone German cinema.

Of course, there have always been individual filmmakers who were an exception to this rule. But they were either put into silly categorizations, like the Berlin School, or they led a marginal existence somewhere in the invisible corners of cinema.

This black hole (of German cinema) also appears in 29-year-old Julian Radlmaier's A Proletarian Winter's Tale, a film that proves that Radlmaier is one of the few exciting young German filmmakers working today. It also provides another hope that the marginalization of serious and formally relevant German cinema in a national and international context might stop.

His political-comedy about three Georgian workers testing their revolutionary cabability during an art exhibition at a castle, is full of wit and intelligent use of stylistic devices. Radlmaier is not shy of using quotes, from D.W. Griffith to Jean Renoir to Pedro Costa, and he makes a shot not because it is the best way to narrate something but because the shot itself narrates something.

Therefore I was very happy to sit down with Mr. Radlmaier and talk to him about his film and about cinema, a cinema that is born out of formal desire.

Patrick Holzapfel: Hello Julian, have you been visiting any other screenings here at the Viennale?

Julian Radlmaier: Actually I really wanted to watch as many films as possible but then it was announced that I am part of a Harun Farocki panel taking place on Thursday. I get a bit nervous about that. This is why I took time to rewatch some of his work in my hotel room instead of going to the cinema. But I still want to visit some films. I was a bit unlucky in that respect because the films I really die to see are all screening when I will have left Vienna again.

You repeatedly worked with Georgian amateur actors. I think that's very interesting. Isn't it difficult to direct in a foreign language? How do you work with those issues while shooting?

As I have known the people for quite a long time and they are my friends there is a long process of preparation involved. The moment I was writing the script, I had them already in my mind and I tried to write dialogues that I could imagine them to speak. After that we met a few times, not really to rehearse but just to read the lines. We just wanted to check if the text works for them. They laughed a lot and it was great fun which gave me confidence. 

On the set they performed with an amazing somnambulistic certainty and I always found them to be great. So directing was more a question of blocking and posture and so on. But in terms of speaking we just followed the way we had found during preparation. I had not much to do concerning the speaking. I cared more about rhythm, volume or speed of the dialogue. I listened to it in a more abstract way, just like music. Most of the time that worked without any intervention from my side.

I like that very much. And I am also thinking about things that Jean-Marie Straub said about dialogue or about Jacques Tourneur when he had his characters speak very softly and silent. And it worked for me in your film. I sometimes did not read the subtitles of the Georgian dialogue but just leaned back and listened to the sound of voices so to say.

You are right. I was never as strict as Straub with it though. But there is also this documentary of Harun Farocki about the rehearsals of Straub and there is something that impressed me very much... the way he constantly operates solely the sound of the dialogue...I think also Jean Renoir worked like this.

Can you tell me something about your mixing of politics and comedy? This seems to be a very unusual approach.

The films I found to be the most interesting from a political point of view were always comedies for me. Even if they weren't explicitly political. I think of Chaplin but I also think of the 1960s and 1970s with films like The Hawks and the Sparrows by Pasolini or Everything's Going Fine by Godard. This has always been a style of filmmaking that gives me the feeling of being able to avoid the traps of more realistic representations or more serious forms. And the playful elements of comedy give me new possibilities in terms of political representations and more interesting ways to articulate them. 

This seems to be true especially in relation to working class characters. You can see that for example with Chaplin. He articulates political capabilities through a certain way of dealing with the world. There political capability doesn't mean to understand one's exploited life and to be able to draw one's conclusions in an almost didactic, Brechtian sense of aesthetics. But with Chaplin it is more about: Which possibilities do I have as a body or as a speaking being to react against my exploited life and how can resistance be articulated in this reaction. Resistance is framed in its essence. There is a certain universality to it.

One can clearly hear that you are the translator of some of the most important texts of Jacques Rancière to German language. Those issues about resistance and political capabilities are also an important aspect about his work
.

A central aspect for Rancière has always been that politics begin when workers stop working and just look out of a window for example. That might sound banal but especially in terms of cinema it gains a lot of importance to focus on such moments. When someone acts against his function...it is about not representing a generic worker but to show the prospects of acting against those preordained roles society seems to give us.

There were many scenes in your movie that related to that. I am thinking about the playful way the workers make breaks, skate on their cleaning rags and literary are looking out the window. Is the artificiality of the dialogue and form of your film also part of that?

Absolutely. I very much plead for exciting aesthetics. On the one hand side there is also something political if you playfully deal with language. It is against this realistic notion where characters are imprisoned in their faculty of language just to be able to represent realistic workers or something like that. I always liked working class characters that were presented almost as literary figures like in a Beckett play. Through language they change the reality they live in.

Can you tell me something about the architecture of the castle the story takes place? That was very striking also in relation to the way the characters moved in the castle and your use of the Academy ratio.

I somehow had the feeling that the Academy ratio captures the essence of this space but at the same time gives the impression of this place being merely a theater stage. This way the ideological connotations of the place became much clearer. But it is also about the relation of character and place because with the Academy ratio one has the feeling that there happens an encounter between both. There is no eternal entity swallowing the character but there is a confrontation. Both of them meet as characters. 

And during the Q&A our cinematographer Markus Koob also mentioned this very convincing text by Jean-Luc Godard that was published in Cahiers du Cinéma someday where he examined the different formats. There he says: Academy ratio shows a human being, 1,66 shows a character and this goes on to credit card and dollar bill and so on. That of course relates to the things Fritz Lang says in Contempt. And we also had the feeling that Academy ratio is somehow the most humanistic format and we really enjoyed working with it. Strangely almost all the films I really like are shot in Academy ratio. Be it Pedro Costa, who I love, the Straubs, Godard's films in the 1980s, Renoir's films. And I always wanted to work with it.

I honestly think there shouldn't be any doubts about such a choice of format. People tend to think that it is an old format but it is not. It is just the television industry that dictates widescreen right now.

My producer is already threatening me...I am not allowed to do it again (laughs).

What really surprises me is that not only you seem to be working with a kind of theoretical background but also your cinematographer is standing in front of an audience and quoting Godard. That seems to be a perfect match. How did you find him?

Markus and me met at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie in Berlin where we both study. And he was the only cinematographer I met there that not only had a similar taste in movies but was also into theory. So I can talk to him about the whole range of implications. This doesn't mean we find our images because of film theory but it works on an instinctive as well as reflexive level between us. I am very happy to work with him.

I also wanted to talk about the doors in your film. You used them quite often. People coming in, going out, hiding behind doors. It really felt a bit like a Chaplin film. Maybe the question is: How important is space for you in relation to humor?

Though we didn't really manage the brilliance of it we of course, thought a lot about people like Jacques Tati or even Renoir...there is again a theatre element in it. We play with things happening at the same time, with foreground and background. On starts to perceive the characters as abstract shapes moving on a surface and thus creating some kind of humor.

But as you have mentioned Renoir there is also my only criticism concerning your film. In my opinion an important aspect of Renoir is a certain feeling of randomness concerning the use of off-screen and in A PROLETARIAN WINTER'S TALE it always seemed to be very controlled. Sometimes I missed a breath of life in your images. Was this intended or is this something you see different or is it something you see similar?

Do you refer more to the acting or to the static of the film?

I would say it is the staging of movement in space.

Ok, I understand. Well, it is intended. With Renoir it is of course different because if you for example look at The Rules of the Game it is quite evident that everything constantly flows but the static was very much intended for us as well as the distinct movements. I wanted this place to appear as something extremely static and hostile to life. The characters need to resist the burden of the space. Maybe this does not happen very easily. The space predetermines clear lines and one can try to act against them but to me it would have seemed false to not show the violence of the space. I would have hoped for a certain balance.

I quite liked the character of the American modern-minimalist artists. Is he based on someone real? Did I sense a certain disapproval for this kind of art or artist?

Well, I work as a supervisor at an art gallery for contemporary art. And I very much dislike the art scene or at least the part I know of it. It is all about producing speculative objects to satisfy burgeoise needs. Of course, this is not the fault of the artists and I even believe some great works can be produced in such a context but it is just very unpleasant. The actor playing the character you mentioned is Carlos Bustamante, a former professor at the dffb who also worked as a cinematographer with Harun Farocki in the 1970s. I always liked him very much. He hopefully will play the main part in my next feature. 

But he is not based on some real artist. I even think he is quite likeable especially when he gets lost. What I never understood is how an art that derives from political needs always ends up in the midst of this hyper-capitalistic art market. The same is true for people like Farocki. Suddenly they are reviewed positively and accepted in the world they rebelled against their whole life. The art market seems to neutralize everything, every form of critic gets swallowed by it.

We also have to talk about the black hole in your film. First it reminded me of the black hole we see in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY but then the emptiness of the art market, of this world got visible with the hole. And maybe you can talk more general about your use of special effects.

Yes, the black hole emerged very banally. We just thought about what kind of art to exhibit at this castle. We didn't want to make a parody on contemporary art, that would have been stupid. How do you do that? Building something that looks like contemporary art or asking someone if he can borrow us stuff? And then we had the idea for something that was at the same time part of the diegetic world of the film and the surface of the film. It also looks a bit like John Baldessari. But then I sensed a metaphorical capability and we decided to go for the black hole. More and more we emphasized it and in the end there was the idea that the hole tells the story of the film. 

It works visually as you have the feeling that all bodies refer to this hole in the center of the frame. The hole becomes something like the negative mirror image of the camera lens. The hole of the shot wanders into the space and the hole where the light gets in is the narrator. And as the film is about telling stories and the question how you can translate that into your own life it just matched. The hole was the origin of the fiction and at the same time something opaque. It is open and opaque at the same time and this is a metaphor for what we tried to narrate with our film.

Why does the film in the end intervene and work against its own characters?

At one point we even thought about a much more adverse ending which had the three of them just keeping at their chamber in resignation. But we decided to have them break-out at least in the realms of fiction. The stories they tell themselves always talk about the impossibility of resistance or some kind of revolt. The stories we know are those of failed revolutions. They fail because they don't work, because they become what they fought against and so on. And I wanted to be very careful about that in order to maybe talk about something which happens in politics today. 

So I didn't want to tell a story where a revolution works but one in which the characters decide for a resistance despite this hopeless conclusions the stories and history give them. And something which helped me very much was what Rancière writes in his book about Béla Tarr. He describes how Tarr always tells stories based on novels with a bleak and hopeless ending and always directs against the story and thwarts the fable he is telling. I think this kind of dialectics is exciting in order to not fall into a naive story of a successful revolt.

I wanted to discuss an aspect which seems to me very important concerning your kind of cinema. It is the relation between production and aesthetics. Maybe one can think of Brecht. Now A PROLETARIN WINTER'S TALE was produced as part of your film school education but in how far are you able to think or even allowed to think already about this relationship?

There is something about the perception of my films. I always feel that I have an absolute aesthetic of poverty. I work with friends, I shoot at places that exist in reality. There is no financial effort involved compared to people that create a world or something. We simply have no money. We buy historical clothes at a second hand shop and represent the middle ages with it. Strangely people often think that we invested a lot of money and the films get some kind of production value. That is neither intended nor do I see it myself. 

There is also something about film school students. Many of my colleagues compulsively try to convey the impression of an expensive production. Most of the time they fail. And I don't get the reason behind it because most of the time it is just about creating selling point or something like that. I always wanted to be more honest about the conditions but it seems it doesn't really work because people think they are expensive as they take place in castles. We got even blamed by the school administration and in some discussions. They told us that it will be ridiculous to represent an upper class party or the middle ages without any money. 

But as we have talked about Straub and Farocki before I want to say that they encouraged me because they showed that you can represent anything using the simplest devices. There shouldn't be false modesty. This is the opposite of what I told you before. There are those who always act like they are producing a Hollywood film and then there are those who only shoot in flats in old buildings in Berlin. That is false modesty. We wanted to risk representing anything we wanted to even if we didn't have the money.

That brings me to my last question. We have talked quite a bit about influences and there is obviously a conscience of film as language in your film. How important is that to you? How important is to you not only what you represent but also how you represent?

I never understood why this isn't important in Germany, why nobody is even interested in it and people tend to be aggressively against the idea of quoting and being aware of cinema. Even at film school. I understand if people dislike direct quotes which I try to do less and less but they even resent if you are just drawing something from another work. 

The knowledge of film history always gets resented and I think it is because the stupidity of German mainstream is meant to be untouched. The knowledge of cinema is a danger in that respect. But for me that was how I got to know cinema. 

Roland Barthes has written that for him at the origin of making art always lies a formal desire. I never searched for the ideal medium to express ideas I have but because my experiences with film electrified me. And I need to work with those moments that electrified me in my life. And I try to find the same energies that moved me as a spectator in my own films.
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Julian Radlmaier

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