Ruth Beckermann, 2018

"A work of art should always teach us that we have not seen what we see."
Paul Valéry

I don’t know what is real. What I do know is that reality “lies beyond a screen of clichés” (John Berger). Every culture produces such a screen in order to facilitate its own practices and consolidate its power. Reality is an enemy to those who are in power. The question of reality becomes ever more virulent in times of great social, scientific and technological upheavals: like today! On one side, the threat of censorship in parts of the world, on the other, the threat of dissolution of all barriers in the West, the total and totalitarian laissez-passer, the disappearance of the gatekeepers.

Little, however, has changed in the mechanism of the threat: What used to be called a lie is now called alternative fact, and retouching has become digital manipulation. The fundamental change – and danger – lies in the democratization of the lie and its millionfold spread. Every single one of us today can forge facts and images for a global audience. The bourgeois public sphere, embodied by a variety of quality newspapers and a few TV stations, is dissolving, with the result that content which was previously expressed only on the analyst’s couch or on the bar counter now reaches a worldwide public. Journalists, editors and curators would have thrown away immediately the majority of postings and Facebook entries. In the so-called free world, these barriers crumble without resistance, while, on the other hand, a new moral police is building up, which progressively invades the privacy of people and tries to control our lives through total smoking bans and sexual decency rules.

Against this background, the debate about which film is fictional and which is documentary seems somewhat outdated, and I wonder if it ever had more relevance than to serve as a distinction for programming or as a label for festivals. Every documentary is a construct and every feature film is also a documentary – about the actors who play in it, the locations, the furniture. One of the reasons why we love old films is that they lead us into a museum of architecture, fashion, vehicles.

I made two films in quick succession, one of which is dealt with as a fiction film or hybrid, the other as a straightforward documentary. One is a chamber piece about a pair of lovers, the other assembles archive material about a dishonorable and powerful man. The categories in which my films are classified by curators and critics are often unclear to me. My aim is and has always been to find the right form in order to make something visible in a way we haven’t seen it before.

My film "The Dreamed Ones" is based on a real correspondence between two real persons, Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. The letters are read by two young people who by no means portray the two poets. They are reading letters, documents. During their reading breaks, they talk to each other – without a script – about anything that goes through their heads, whether it be tattoos or love. Nothing but real or documentary material, one would think. And yet the film shows – surprisingly, including for me – that documentary ingredients can create a fictional structure. Of course, the source material itself – the letters – contains fictional elements such as desires, illusions, fantasies – which we consider to be quite real since Freud at the latest. The fictionalization of the film, however, is mostly made by the viewers. It is they who identify the two readers with the historical figures. In front of their inner eyes, romantic pictures are born of lovers on the banks of the Seine or in a hotel room with a view on the Cologne Cathedral. A film can, above all, be a screen for our projections.

Or it can, above all, be an analysis: The other film, "The Waldheim Waltz", tells the story of the rise and fall of former UN Secretary-General and Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, using only archive material. This material couldn’t be more documentary, and yet it has been assembled and commented on according to my own thoughts and associations. I looked at it from all sides for a long time to finally discover the truth that was valid for me thirty years after the events and in the face of the present world situation. Like any historical film, this one is fiction, because we always rewrite history according to our present needs, be it through selection, montage and text, or through a script and elaborate scenes. Although the Waldheim affair is still well remembered, in and outside Austria, the film caused a surprise, not due to new material, but to a different perspective on the material.

That's what matters! Today as always. Whether analog or digital, more documentary or more fiction: To surprise, to startle, to make people angry, to make them think, to fool them, to seduce them! Not only through form, not only by breaking viewing habits. "Ethics and aesthetics are one", said Wittgenstein. The films of Chris Marker are outstanding not only because of their subtle comments, those of Frederick Wiseman not only because of the masterly way in which he developed the form of direct cinema, Robert Frank and Chantal Akerman are interesting not only because of their radically subjective images and sounds. All of them and many more (but not nearly enough) are opening up a world for us by relating and exposing themselves to this world. They embark on the venture of giving their own thoughts and perceptions a form that they consider to be the only right one, whether it pleases many people or only a few. Every relationship to being is at once grasping and being grasped, wrote Merleau-Ponty. I encounter things because things can encounter me too. Films are the offspring of this encounter. They gain life through the gaze of the spectator. In the space between my view of the world and the gaze of the spectator on my gaze (with each spectator bringing his own view of the world to the cinema), a film is born.

Whether essay, hybrid or rigorous documentary – what makes cinema different from television are its doubts about the world, while television, in an endless stream of images and sounds, makes us believe the world is alright. Cinema awakens us, television puts us to sleep.

Let us preserve cinema's ability to resist! For the calamitous situation of the media mentioned above is coupled with a consumer behavior increasingly adopted not only by spectators but also reputable film festivals. Each wants to be the first and the biggest. Once a movie is deflowered, it often ends up unjustifiably on secondary locations. International and domestic film distributors also bow to the superficial preferences of the audience or rather to what they believe it to be.

In our current situation, the production and dissemination of analytic films, that make connections in the thicket of information, seems of particular importance to me. What’s missing are new, engaged networks for disseminating critical films. Not just on the Internet, but where real people meet each other. Maybe we filmmakers have to be tougher and endure little screens and poorly set video projectors. Maybe new theatres will have to be created to comply with the aesthetics of the 21st century. At any rate, it seems as if the time of relative security and rest, the time of leisure to address even the smallest secondary contradiction and the tiniest differentiation (all the genders, all the victim’s wars!) is over. A rough wind has risen and challenges the cinema to turn again to issues of community and society.

Fundamentally, it's always about searching for the truth. Overturning a screen of stereotypes. Each film can only be one step in this search. And that’s a lot. What we produce is the food of democracy. For democracy’s own good, let’s hope it can go on affording us!

Traduit de l’allemand par Hugo Hengl


Renverser l’écran de clichés/Overturning the Screen of Clichés,
in: Andréa Picard (Ed.), Qu’est-ce que le réel?
Des Cinéastes prennent position (Paris: Post-Editions), 2018