A clearer view of reality
In Bangkok for the World Film Festival, German director Fred Kelemen takes time out to talk about his art
Today, when a filmmaker says he makes art films, the statement often sounds apologetic, sheepish, even embarrassed, as if it's a (postmodern) crime to treat cinema as if it was something deeper than what most people believe it is: an ice-cream, a Dolby experiment, a necessary yet forgettable diversion. Thus, it's bracing to hear Fred Kelemen, the German film and theatre director, speak openly of cinema as an art with metaphysical powers, as a philosophical agent that allows us to witness time flow and see the secrets of life, glinting like hard-earned gold.
Needless to say, Kelemen's films are not household names to most audiences; they're watched and revered by a relatively small circle of fans around the globe, a number of them in Thailand. Last week, the 43-year-old director was in town to screen his latest film, Fallen, at the World Film Festival of Bangkok and hold a workshop on film and theatre for enthusiasts at the Goethe Institute and Thammasat University.
All of Kelemen's films - Fate, Frost, Nightfall, Fallen and a Cannes entry he worked on as a cinematographer, The Man from London - share a characteristically bleak, sunless setting, featuring wet streets, portentous alleys and decaying Socialist architecture and characters battling with guilt and existential struggle. In Fallen, a clerk sees a woman about to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, does nothing to stop her, and is later tormented by this sin of omission.
But Kelemen, who studied painting, film, music and philosophy, tells us that darkness and depression are not the reasons he makes movies. On the contrary, it's all about light. In this exclusive real time interview the artist talks about Asia, Europe, the Eastern bloc, Western commercialism, music, concepts of time, art, life and, of course, darkness and light.
Your films are often described as European art films. In your view, what is "Europeanness", particularly with regard to your own movies?
That's a question asked from the outside, and it's difficult to answer because I'm on the inside. I can only try to imagine looking at things from the outside, like you are. For me the quality of Europe is the diversity of cultures - the different languages and peoples, the absence of homogeneity. Europe is a very heterogeneous place with different languages and backgrounds and climates, and all this diversity creates a richness which I believe is important.
And then Europe has a strong background in wars. I think what unites different European cultures is the experience of pain. Which is different from, say, the United States, where a war never happened because of the invasion of a foreign force.
In Europe, it's a sad link, but the experience of pain links the countries. Today they struggle to overcome these painful memories and change this negative, violent link and make it positive. Alongside this background of struggle and war, there's also a kind of liberalism with regard to human beings as individuals. The whole concept of personality and individuality is a very European idea, one which is present in my films. It is somehow different from the concept of individuality or family in other cultures.
So there are both positive and negative links and I think I show both in my films. How an individual is responsible for everything he does and to take individual responsibility, and on the other hand, how this individuality can lead to an incredible loneliness.
If Europe starts to become homogeneous then it will start to lose its richness. It's very important to keep the differences, to defend the differences. I'm not a fan of nationalism, but it's good to preserve the identity of each country and not to create an unidentifiable mix of everything, which in the end belongs to nobody and which nobody cares for.
If there were still an East Germany, your films would have been described as having East German - perhaps Socialist - aesthetics, as opposed to West German, or West European aesthetics. Do you think such a distinction is still applicable?
Yes, East German cinema was completely different from West German cinema after the Second World War. West Germany was influenced by the Allies, especially American cinema.
In Germany, German cinema died in 1933. The Nazis only allowed a kind of entertainment cinema, and this continued in the West after the war, until the revival of New German Cinema in the 1960s and '70s. But this New German Cinema, which was a reaction to the Nazi generation, was only a short period. It was necessary but it did not create a strong tradition. The idea of auteur-led cinema is not popular in Germany nowadays; this line of tradition has been cut.
In East Germany, because of the strong influence of Russia and the absence of the commercial ideas of cinema, since there was no need to produce films to make a lot of money, [the idea of cinema as an art] continued. There was the problem of political censorship, sure, but there was never commercial pressure. So, Eastern European directors made their films under completely different circumstances. The idea of cinema as an art was stronger kept in Eastern Europe and East Germany for sure.
I know of directors who did not make films any more after the decay of the Socialist countries because they couldn't cope with the capitalist system, or with the idea of making films for profit-oriented purposes. The whole market economy is very strange to them. The commercial criteria destroyed or replaced other criteria and values. And that's why cinema loses more and more of its power and becomes more and more like other products, like cars. On a cultural level, it's a big loss since the [decay of the Socialist states] in the late 1980s.
What are your impressions of Asia, and Bangkok in particular? Location seems to be very important in your process of making movies. Do you think "Fallen" could have taken place in Bangkok?
I think some conflicts that are acted out in certain ways in a European country would not be acted out the same way in a city like Bangkok. Even though, on a profound level, human beings - human desires and human fears - are quite the same everywhere in the world, the way to act these things out are different.
The people I've met here are very tender, very soft and gentle and careful and respectful to each other, I cannot imagine daily violence acted out, say in Germany, to be acted out the same way in Bangkok. People deal differently with their aggressions, with their problems. I think we have the same problems, but the ways to try to solve them may be different.
I can imagine [Fallen taking place in Bangkok]. I can imagine a woman jumping off a bridge and a man who sees her and feels guilty for not preventing what happened. But I'm not sure how guilt would manifest here. That would be interesting to talk about - how the idea of guilt is treated in a country like this since the idea of guilt in Europe is different from here.
A blunt question: Why are your films so full of misery, dark streets and decaying cities?
The misery is not the only thing in the film. There's not only darkness, but there's also light. The question is what you focus on. You always see what you want. People say the films are very dark maybe because they focus too much on the dark and they don't see the light in the film.
Misery exists in life. We're not living in paradise. Our life is full of struggle and injustice. And I think it's important for any art to open the eyes, to have a clearer view of reality and not only see the beautiful life, which for sure exists, but to see other things too and not to take your gaze away from this part of life. I think films should take human beings seriously, at least in my case.
If I want to give an honest portrait of a human being, I have to go deep inside him, and to go deep inside a human being I will surely find darkness, loneliness, pain. In order to tell something important about ourselves, it is only if we are able to see the dark and dirty part of us that we're able to see the beauty. Without facing the dark part we will never be able to see and understand human beings - ourselves and others. And without this understanding we will never be able to be generous to anybody.
But generosity is a very important step on the way to establishing a profound love inside us. We have to leave the areas of ignorance and illusion and enter the space of reality. Because knowing about pain creates the desire for beauty. How can you show the light if you don't show the darkness? My films are not only dark, there's also light. And they show light through darkness.
Perhaps people in Asia, in Thailand, prefer not to see the darkness.
That could be dangerous. It's like you have this wound but you don't try to cure it. Pain and guilt are not just European, they are human. Life is not so easy. As long as we fight in a positive way, then there's no real darkness. The darkness starts when people start to accept the darkness, when people accept the nihilistic way we're living, in which all the values are just put down to questions of financial and commercial efficiency. When people start to accept this, then the darkness begins.
As long as people struggle and put something up against it, there's hope. In my films people struggle to defend some idea of life or love against the world around them. That's why I don't see the point of darkness, because as long as people fight there's always light.
You also work extensively in theatre. Do you see a connection between making movies and directing plays?
Sure there's a connection. But there are differences as well. Cinema is very melancholic because it's a look into the past: what you see on the screen has already happened. It is like watching the sky at night - some of the stars you see may already have faded away, dissolved. We still see it because its light is still on its way to us. But in theatre, everything happens now. The actor on stage breathes the same moment you're breathing, his or her heart beats in the same moment. It is the art of presence. That's a big difference.
Then there's the absence of camera in theatre. Since the existence of cinema, theatre has lost its illusionary character. On stage, when a man dies, you know he'll get up at the end for the applause. But a man dies in a film and even though you know he's an actor, the moment is real, and it can deeply touch you. So the reality on film and the reality on stage are very different. The theatre and film are different languages. Whatever you want to bring into the reality of theatre needs a different translation than if bringing it into the reality of film.
Which is more real to you?
Neither are real. Both have their own realities. This is difficult. The events and characters are bigger in theatre, all the sets and the wardrobe, and you don't have that in cinema, where people sit there eating popcorn - you won't see people eating popcorn in a theatre, right? I would say neither are real. But both touch reality in different ways, both are able to enter deep into our realities.
Film is a stronger illusionary place, though. It pretends to show reality more directly. In a movie, you see a man sitting in a restaurant drinking beer, and it's really a restaurant and a beer. When a man sits on stage pretending it's a restaurant, you know it's not a restaurant, it's just a stage.
You have this aspect of reality in film because of its photographic quality, so film is closer to photography. But how real is a photograph? You look at a photograph, is it a reality or is it a picture of reality?
Your films also use a lot of long takes, without cuts. Do you think that the longer a take is, the more real, the closer to the concept of time it becomes?
The longer the take is doesn't always mean that it becomes more real. Sometimes the longer the take, the more boring it becomes. The length of a take is a question of tension. I try to keep scenes going as long as the tension is there, and cut the moment the tension fades. Even if a scene is long and almost nothing happens it doesn't mean that it's empty.
When you observe something for a long time, you start to understand more, and then it's more than just getting information. To use an image to give information is easy. Today everybody uses fast-cutting video clips, and you can get information on the visual level, but that's not important for film.
Maybe it's important for TV news, where you have info but not knowledge. But if you want knowledge, you need to go deep into it. You need time, when you observe something a little longer, then it goes beyond information and it starts to become metaphysical. You can go behind the skin or go through the eyes and you see something else. Maybe you catch a secret of the moment by doing that.
Time as a cinematic concept?
The concept of time in my films is much more influenced by music than by cinema. When I was young, I heard the music by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, and I was deeply moved by the way the sound closed in and created a new variation and forced into itself and came back again. This idea of the flow of time, which is also present in traditional Indian music, was something I tried in my very first film in film school.
But isn't Bartok's music very jolting, very rhythmic, like fast-cut editing?
Not always. In some works by Bartok, and the early works of Schoenberg and the minimalism of Morton Feldman, time flows and the theme and melody are falling into each other. There's an incredible flow in it. I think I have a strong influence from music, maybe more so than from cinema.
Are audiences today less patient when it comes to appreciating the passage of time?
Yes, because life is very fast, because everybody is under commercial pressure. Time is money. In our society - mine and yours - the more time you spend, the less money you make. People are chasing material satisfaction and they lose the mental satisfaction. If we rush through everything we don't see anything any more.
We're reminded that time is passing away because we're mortal. If we could live forever, time would mean nothing. But we have an end, and the fact that we'll die makes the presence of time uncomfortable.
Mainstream commercial cinema tries to eliminate time because they know that time is uncomfortable. In commercial films, you have no presence of time, you only have the presence of action, which is quite empty. You have action, fast cuts, loud noise, it's more like an attraction park. All this is just to make people forget that they are alive, that they're mortal.
This kind of cinema is killing our time. But the other kind of cinema tries to preserve time by showing longer sequences. This kind of cinema gives us time. So for me, we should go to cinema to get time, not to kill time.
And to remember, rather than to forget?
The Bangkok Post, November 16, 2007