Clemens von Wedemeyer

A necessary disappointment

An interview with Clemens von Wedemeyer (Villa Romana Fellow 2008) by Bert Rebhandl.

What was the trigger for Die Probe (The Test)

The trigger for Die Probe were recent election campaigns and how during these campaigns talented or experienced speakers arouse enthusiasm and cheering crowds assemble in stadiums. If you see this as a symbiotic relationship, then what happens when someone in this mutual understanding says "no" in an inappropriate place? You can see that some politicians have perfected the form of their speeches in election campaigns, the spin. But when is the adrenalin of this election campaign reduced? After making several attempts to write a speech refusing public office, which was to be spoken by an actor as politician, I transferred the situation backstage, to the transition period — the short, at first still busy break after a politician wins an election and before his speech. So Die Probe became more of a gap, an opportunity where perhaps one’s awareness returns.

A politician who has perfected the art of keeping power by refraining from political content then strips politics of its only remaining content — himself – and as a result creates an exceptional situation.

That captures it very well. I watched a few fi lms on the subject, for example 1974, une partie de campagne by Raymond Depardon, and Der Kandidat about Franz Josef Strauß. But I found an enormous amount of material on the Internet. I found video clips of politicians backstage. You become a voyeur who penetrates a person's intimate sphere. But a politician can take advantage of this situation by making the private public — the more perception, the better things are for him.

How do you view the logic of the loop in this case?

On the one hand, this loop is due to the fact that the film is being shown in an exhibition, because I think it is perfectly okay if you stumble upon a scene during the film and seek your own access to the situation. On the other hand, it occurred to me while planning that the loop heightens an uncertainty, namely, whether the speech is really spoken and, even if it is spoken, whether it increases the politician’s power — in other words, refusal as an exception giving the president even greater sovereignty.

Resignation before taking office as the real coup. So the loop would also express that the balance of power as such cannot be eradicated — you cannot step down from it. The structure is more important than the event. It seems to me that due to the form of the loop, the viewer is also afforded a look behind the scenes: you see a politician in a situation he can fall back on again — it’s not possible for him to get out of or abolish the game.

Perhaps the double viewing leads to necessary disappointment. After all, it is an intimate play, with actors and extras coming and going; the camera is static like the spectators in a theater. On the other hand, there is no direction they play towards: the so-called fourth wall is closed. Walter Benjamin, I believe, said that a performance becomes a projection when it is ignored by the spectator… As a spectator you have no possibility to intervene either, you can simply affirm. The only possibility to break through pure affirmation is perhaps the loop, which simulates another aspect and invites the viewer to analyze it. I have dealt with disappointment in other works — for example by juxtaposing a planned, staged piece of film with its factual background or another aspect and thus counteracting the deception of the film in a second step. It happens in a Making Of and in Von Gegenüber (From the Opposite Side) shown in Münster last year, as the camera in the film and the spectators, after leaving the movie theater, move through the same space.

At skulptur projekte münster in 2007, you created a temporary cinema sculpture, if you will, at whose center was also a fi lm loop which, however, followed a natural cycle — morning, evening, day, night.

In Münster, I was initially interested in all of the movie theaters there, because I wanted to suggest a project focusing on cinema as space — I was interested in using the medium of fi lm to approach sculpture. One main aim of the art event was encounters with public space. There are only three movie theaters left in Münster, and none of them is in the inner city. They all had to close because of the big Cineplex and probably also because of a lack of interest. One of these old movie theaters had not been renovated yet. There was a small room reminiscent of a movie theater. The chairs were gone, the projector removed. It looked like a dead shell, and my idea was to actually conceive this space as a body you can enter into as a spectator. Inside you look at the screen as though through the eyes of another person who is outside the movie theater. One possibility would have been to simply cut a small hole in the outer wall and thus turn the movie theatre back into a camera obscura. In front of the movie theater is the Münster railroad station, where people are constantly walking around. They would have provided a good viewing object. But I found the hole in the wall too small, too little film…

The focus is on a man, a homeless man, whom most of the passersby ignore, but who is also invisible in the film — because he is behind the camera, because his view constitutes the film.

It occurred to me that the same people kept walking by in front of the movie theater, slowly; particularly older people kept taking the same path. The Münster rail station is a hub for homeless people who were pushed out of the posh inner city. I wanted to follow the paths that a homeless person might take with the camera and thus make a film that dissolves into everyday life: by having the camera move through the public space yet wanting to leave this space, looking at it and away from it at the same time, a subjective view that totters, is evasive in a public space in which it has no private sphere, cannot find any peace. I also thought of the paradoxes in Samuel Beckett's Film

… in which Buster Keaton, known from slapstick comedies, slinks through an urban landscape as though he wants to make himself invisible.

Yes, Buster Keaton makes himself invisible by shunning any looks in public, and inside his apartment he even closes all pictures of eyes. Beckett writes in the screenplay, esse est percipi, or to be is to be perceived. And how prone to looks is someone who stays around a railroad station 24 hours a day, with no home of his own and constantly being perceived by others? In Film, Beckett also deals with the subjective view, which he separates from the other takes by shooting them out of focus… But I envisioned a subjective view as a camera that records the movements of the person wearing it. The shaking gives rise to an oppressive feeling like the feeling evoked by the experimental films of Michael Snow, in which the camera moves like mad and due to the movement you get a sense of the three dimensions of the space filmed: the outer world becomes a sculpture because it is physically palpable.

What was it like to make the film Von Gegenüber? In a few parts the shooting must have been complicated.

We filmed eight sequences, each five minutes long. Each sequence takes place three hours later, so the fi lm shows the course of a whole day. Each take is a planned sequence in which the camera covers a path. The cam eraman, Frank Meyer, had the 35 millimeter Arri camera on his shoulder; next to him was an assistant who controlled the focus; and I was behind him with a control monitor and radio giving cues for action, and the soundman with the boom. Hidden at different places in the station and in the area in front of it were extras and actors and assistants who executed a certain action, sometimes for only ten seconds. I had thought the uninitiated passersby would look at the camera more, but the big camera seemed to exercise power and to make them speechless and sightless. Only when we were there alone with the sound did the people make jokes. In this film I actually wanted the passers-by to look into the camera as though at a person who is moving through a public space and doesn’t feel comfortable there. The camera as elephant man. But since the people in Münster were not impressed, we had our extras look into the lens. The camera also had to strike a balance between looking at and looking away; we had planned all of this in the preceding weeks with a photo storyboard. We needed at least one day of filming for each five-minute planned sequence.

How did you become interested in planned sequences, which film criticism assigns to a very specific observer position: the intelligent subject that cannot be indoctrinated?

After the films Occupation, Big Business, and Silberhöhe, in which montage featured prominently, I was interested in experimenting with longer camera shots. When I made the film Otjesd, a planned sequence was in order. This was connected with an invitation to the first Moscow Biennial, and it seemed to me that in a film in or about Russia, a drive would be appropriate, because the film landscapes known from eastern Europe often speak in the grammar of these tracking shots. I am thinking of the Hungarian Béla Tarr, who developed mannerist expertise in this area. In Sergey Eisenstein's method, the split is between pictures. In his work, through the editing, pictures lying together are supposed to fuse. In the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, and often in the 1960s, the split is no longer between pictures, but within the pictures — there are cuts within a zoom or details of a big situation. And with Andrei Tarkovsky, the split is between the picture and the viewer. The canvas is a cut between the auditorium — a room of presentation — and the film room — a room of production.

How do you view the relationship between cinema — as a commercial, normally narrative medium — and your filmmaking as an artist? Are your productions critical of the apparatus, as in the theory and art of the 1970s, or the continuation of a fascination in your own productions?

I try to appropriate the medium of cinema or fi lm, and in the process I cannot completely forget about the framework of the medium, which I distrust. Perhaps it also has to do with discussions I had with my professor Astrid Klein and fellow students during my studies. I do strive to expose the apparatus, but because it fascinates me. My aim is to produce a fi lm well in order to achieve the effect of deception. I am currently learning a lot about this. One should really fi rst take on the material, and then stumble upon the mannerist aspects or other mistakes, which, sometimes planned and sometimes unplanned — for example, due to a shortage of time, enter the film. There is the expression suspension of disbelief. It relates not only to film, but also to the way in which pictures that people accept function. This is the cinema machine that can be transferred to other areas. Art interests me because you are not alone when you distrust this cinema or film image. I am more interested in the conceptual procedure than in purely narrative aspects: concept and narrative should meet halfway. The screenplay, the production, the projection venue – ideally each part should have its conceptual link.

This interview was first published in the exhibition catalogue Freisteller in the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin. (c) The authors and Deutsche Bank. Frankfurt am Main 2009.