Ruth Beckermann is an Austrian filmmaker who often works in the documentary mode, exploring varied themes of labour, resistance, Jewish history and experience, autobiography, journeys, war, and many more.
Her latest film, The Dreamed Ones (2016), is a narrative film that metatextually stages the correspondences between authors Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann – not-entirely-clandestine lovers – in a Vienna sound studio. The film had its North American premiere at TIFF 2016, where Beckermann discussed the film with Christopher Heron.
The Seventh Art: How did you first come across the letters between [poets] Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, and arrive at the method you would stage them? They were only recently published?
Ruth Beckermann: They were published in 2008 and I read them immediately.
They were supposed to be sealed longer, until 2030 or something like that?
Yeah, there were rumours about the affair and her family especially were very anxious not to publish too much about [Bachmann’s] life. For instance, she had this relationship with [writer] Max Frisch and the letters are still sealed. Her family objects.
He cheated on her, as well, didn’t he?
Yeah, he really destroyed her. I don’t know what he did, but… I was so intrigued with the letters, so impressed by this correspondence [with Paul Celan]. Not only by the content – their complex and complicated love story – but also, of course, by the way they expressed themselves. They try hard to express their complex feelings, if it’s passion or hate or jealousy, whatever. They really struggle to find the right words and I think that’s so rare today and it’s so important to be precise. Not only with love or expressing with words, but also in making films. Being precise is a virtue that is getting lost a little bit with the digital and the internet and so on, but I think these letters remind us that you come closer to a person if you try to express your feelings precisely. I mean, you can never reach the other fully, but you can approach as far as you can.
How did you choose the letters you would use – the adaptation process – as well as the writing of the vignettes in between the performance of the letters?
This took a year [laughs]. We wrote at least twenty-five versions, filling in and taking out, because the book is almost three-hundred pages and this is just an extract. But we tried to tell a story, to have a storyline on one hand and on the other to make it universal – to leave out everything that is literary gossip and most of the other people. Of course, Max Frisch and his wife are in the letters and in the film, but a lot of correspondence was about who goes where and who appears on which radio talk show – this is not interesting. What I wanted to do from the beginning is to tell a story that is understandable and interesting even if you don’t know who Bachmann and Celan have been: if they existed, what they wrote. This was important, but on another level. That’s also why I chose very young actors, because I wanted it to become a story of today and not just history.
Similarly, we don’t know the characters’ background, we’re just picking it up in the same way as if you were reading letters; the references they make give you an idea of what their lives are, but we don’t ever see what happens before, after, or even during. That made me curious about how you came to decide what the characters would talk about between performing the letters – it tends to be about art, music, but there’s also a shot in a car, one of the few outside of the recording studio.
I walked around a lot in this radio building, the Funkhaus, which is a beautiful building from the 1930s, because I really liked the architecture and I wanted to show as much as I can of this architecture. I decided where I want them to go in the pauses, when we are not in the studio. I definitely wanted them to be in the concert hall and I wanted to see the staircase, so this was an idea for what they could do when they are not reading [the letters]. Of course, it was helpful that both of [the actors] love smoking, so they were always happy to go outside [laughs]. This staircase outside is just by the studio door, so it was very easy to sneak out. The deal from the beginning was that we would also shoot in the pauses – not the real pauses when the crew goes to have lunch – and they agreed. Many times I didn’t tell them anything about what they should say or the subject they should talk about, they just came up with something. Sometimes I picked up something that I liked and tried to make them repeat it or talk about something similar. It was a mixture of improvisation, documentary and fiction. I think that the letters in themselves are already partly fictions. Both of those poets also invented their love story. I had this feeling, at least.
How did you and [DP] Johannes Hammel choose how you would shoot and block these dialogues that occur in the same space? I noticed about halfway through the black background and tightly frame close-ups from the beginning returns, it seems like there’s a rhythm of shot lengths.
We prepared that and then we – many times – did something different. I love to work like that, to really prepare very precisely and then go with the intuition you have. What we prepared was to have close-ups with the dark background twice: the beginning of the relationship and then the beginning of the second part of the relationship, eight years later. We wanted to start with their faces and their voices; this is the film, their looks. In the beginning we didn’t want viewers to know where we are and then after that to open it up and show the real situation. In the first part, she’s speaking and he’s mainly silent, and in the second… beginning [laughs], it’s the other way around. The second close-up sequence should also remind you of the first, of course, because they fall in love again… or they try again.
I like how the camera moves the most when the two performers are debating their thoughts on the letters and the poets, there’s an almost violent panning back and
forth. Was that an improvised decision?
This was real improvisation and my cameraman hated it, but we decided – and it was an important decision – to not have a tripod at all. It wasn’t even there, because whenever a tripod is there, a D.O.P. might say, “Now I really need it.” So we decided no tripod around, but then when the characters were sitting far away from one another, he didn’t want to do it. I said, “Do it now, do it now,” because now they were really talking. I knew that I would like it, because I liked that he had to pan and you see these empty chairs in between, you have this feeling of distance and going back and forth. Sometimes you have to force a D.O.P. But for most of the time it was such a smooth work, all of the crew together. It was very intimate. I think it was because we really prepared it, the D.O.P. and me, and I could concentrate on the situation, my intuition, so it was really good work. But we didn’t prepare with the actors, not at all. There were no rehearsals.
They had the script, but hadn’t read through it together?
They got the script maybe a week before [shooting]. Of course, actors prepare in different ways. Anja knew already a lot of the writings of Ingeborg Bachmann and I’m sure she read even more. I don’t know how [Laurence] prepared, but I think in a different way. I didn’t want to rehearse, I just wanted to do it.
Is that the documentary filmmaking impulse?
I love surprises, I love the immediate reaction – the first reaction to the text, when they read it. Sometimes we had many takes, but most of the time we took the first take, because the first take is something… in this kind of reduced setting, you really notice everything. Even if there is just the glimpse of emotion, you notice it. After you read it forty-five times – and she’s not an actress – this might get lost.
When you were reading the letters, what made you think of doing a performance of them as a film? I know you’ve dealt with other texts before, A Fleeting Passage to the Orient (1999) had letters in it and even the Robert Frank text that you were working with for American Passages (2011). What’s the difference with this one that put you in a new direction?
I always try to find something new. I’m a very curious person and I try to push my limits and find a new form. In this case, the idea was there the first moment I thought of making a film, I thought this should be mainly in a sound studio. In the beginning, I thought the main part would happen in the studio, but then we leave the studio several times. The voices would be off-screen. I already shot in different places where [the poets] lived in different cities or places. The original idea was to show Europe today and combine it with the studio, but after two or three days of shooting, I said, “It would be great if we could leave all that out.” I think it was a good decision to stay [in the studio] because then you have this inner space and more concentration. To step outside and show Paris or Rome or whatever would divert your mind and I think filmmaking is a lot about making negative decisions: I’d rather not to – to focus on something important means that you have to leave out the other stuff.
A lot of your films have travel in it, I know you’ve talked before about Walter Benjamin and his Passagen-Werk, but that has an internal element, too, it’s not just about physically travelling. Do you think these actors representing a younger Europe are experiencing that internal passage when they engage with these letters?
Right, definitely. [Anja] definitely had one. She’s a very deep and thoughtful person, writing her own texts for her songs. He? It’s hard to say. I think he’s so good in the film because he changes throughout the film. She’s very strong and she has this aura. In the beginning, [Laurence] is just a young man. You watch him getting older, maturing. I was sure when I read this text that we would do something with young, very modern, contemporary people. This was the proof – this was my experiment. I was curious what would these texts do with these people individually, but also by changing their relationship to one another. This discussion, within the chairs, this really happened. I didn’t script it, they discussed it, because he thought why didn’t [Bachmann] send the letter. He thought a lot about it.
When you were going to make the film more a reflection of contemporary Europe, how did you think the letters pertained to now? What would you have shot outside of the sound studio?
The goal was to show that this is a special relationship between a Jewish man who survived the Holocaust with the daughter of a Nazi, but today, too, you have people from different and enemy cultures or societies. It happens today that people fall in love, fortunately. I didn’t want to show couples in different places in Europe [laughs], but I wanted to show in a very associative way – to find images in different places where they had lived.
One of the things I noticed was that [philosopher Martin] Heidegger is not in it as much as I was expecting because of both the anti-Semitism, but also [Bachmann’s] study of him. Was that a deliberate choice?
Yeah, it was deliberate because there are some things that you leave out or you really go into them. But to make it a little bit of Heidegger and then a little bit of this, we said no. There’s also this very important story not in the film about the plagiat. The widow of a poet, Ivan Goll had accused [Celan] of copying the “Death Fugue” in a way, this one sentence, “Black milk of the morning,” from her husband. This really destroyed him. He was already quite fragile, but this story was really very strong and a big part of the correspondence in the book. We decided no, it would be a whole film.
You also understand that a bit through the anti-Semitic review.
Yes, this was important. We decided which subjects are really important for us and those we really treat in a way that is not just thrown in. You can understand what we want to say.
I found it interesting that there’s a kind of epilogue after you reveal both poets died, there’s still one more scene. What was your strategy with not just ending with the text stating they passed away?
This epilogue is in the novel Malina that [Bachmann] wrote and finished it when [Celan] committed suicide. Then she decided to put a couple of pages in the novel, it’s like a fairy tale in the middle of the novel, called “The Princess of Kagran.” In this kind of fairy tale, she treats this experience again and so I took this paragraph out. She says that “I loved him more than my life.” I wanted the film to end with this, that death is not really the end, but there are memories coming after. Someone has a memory and writing is also about keeping the memory of a person. And I wanted to try get permission to have Anja smoke inside and we succeeded [laughs].
Are you working on another documentary or are you continuing with another fiction film?
Now I’m doing a real documentary, I mean hardcore, about Kurt Waldheim, who was the Secretary General of the U.N. in the 1970s and then he became president of Austria. There were allegations against him brought up by the World Jewish Congress because he lied about his wartime past in World War II. The U.S. put him on the watch list, so he was President, but he was not allowed to travel to the U.S. It’s about this story, which is a bit our Nixon case.