Old and New Stories
A Conversation with Valeska Grisebach
Halfway through Western (2017), the last film by the German filmmaker Valeska Grisebach, the taciturn protagonist, Meinhard, helps his Bulgarian friend, Adrian, to build a brick wall. Before beginning the task, Meinhard is first explained how best to stack the bricks. “Every brick has its place,” Adrian instructs his German friend in Bulgarian. “As if he would understand,” his son responds, laughing. Another man corrects Meinhard when he puts a brick on the wall. He takes the brick in his hand, pointing out to Meinhard how to turn the flat side to the front. “Litse,” the man says. The subtitles indicate that the Bulgarian word means “face.” “Litse,” the man repeats, pointing to his own face. Adrian jumps in: “Litse! Gulzet litse, Meinhard litse, Adrian litse.” “Gesicht,” Meinhard nods in agreement. “The brick also has a face,” concludes Adrian, and he continues his work.
Within Western’s pragmatic narrative, this odd scene strikes a symbolic note, with which Grisebach seems to mainly address the viewer: “Look at Adrian’s face, look at Meinhard’s face!” Because in her films, fiction serves primarily as a framework enabling the obsessive observation of faces, to carefully look at people. The characters aren’t just considered as pawns in the story, but as real people who “happen to” pop up in a fiction film. “There are a great many people, but there are even more faces because each person has several,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910). In Grisebach’s films, those faces appear as landscapes, flat surfaces hiding immeasurable realities.1 The relationship between documentary and fiction isn’t shown as an illustrative contrast between two genres, but merges into a magma of old stories and legends fused with our daily experience, in which real events and relationships constantly press new fictions. In Grisebach’s work, a story is not an umbrella but an instrument to observe people and to appreciate them for their melodic intonation, for their vocal timbre, for a glance or expression with which a body adjusts to a space. She builds her splendid cinematic universe out of those small moments, providing the forms used with a wondrous reality.
Valeska Grisebach has made three feature films to date: Mein Stern (2001), Sehnsucht (2006) and Western (2017). When she visited Belgium last February, as part of a series of screenings set up by Courtisane, Sabzian had the opportunity to speak to her in Brussels.
Sabzian: We were first introduced to your work, as so many spectators, through your latest film Western, and then discovered your first films, Mein Stern and Sehnsucht, only afterwards. But even while watching Western, without being familiar with your previous work, the deployed formal principles display the immediacy and “maturity” of a measured poetics. Looking back at those two first films, what was the trajectory that brought about the cinema of Valeska Grisebach?
Valeska Grisebach: It took me a couple of years to figure out. At the film school in Vienna, I really had a quite desperate moment. I think I share this experience with a lot of film students. I had this very concrete love for cinema, and I wanted to be part of this “cinema-planet.” But in film school, I got quite insecure about what to tell and to how to find a connection to themes I was interested in. I found it very difficult to create material for a film, to write a script, to go on preparing everything meticulously, ending up at a set where everything is prepared, and everything suddenly needed to “happen.” At some point, my imagination imploded. There was a moment where I really didn’t know how to get things moving again. I felt I couldn’t do anything anymore.
This was the moment I started doing documentary work. I asked myself: what is really moving me in my surroundings? I decided to make a film with my friends. They were also filmmakers, Jessica Hausner and Kathrin Resetarits. The film would be about our friendship, because this was something that really touched me. Being together with these two women I really felt their shared expectations of filmmaking and being adult women. So we talked and spent a lot of time together. I started to film this “time together” and was surprised when at a certain point a curator saw the material and said he would love to show the material that I shot. For us, it was a really painful process to show this material to the world. Maybe it was easier for me because I was behind the camera and not as present as my friends on screen. But from this point on, I started to think about making documentaries. I think it also worked as a strategy to mix myself with other people; to go out with one simple question and see what would happen when I started talking about it with other people. About feelings, experiences… I think I always knew I wanted to come back to feature films and to research what it’s like to bring documentary strategies into feature films. But I had to re-find some kind of craftsmanship to get out of this feeling that I couldn’t move anymore. For sure I was also influenced by the work of Claire Denis, Maurice Pialat and Milos Forman. By reading interviews, I tried to get a grip on their work methods, to discover how those filmmakers worked. Milos Forman was important to me because of his work with actors. Before shooting a film, he gave them the script, but one or two weeks before the shoot he took it away. The actors felt lost in the beginning, but in the end they knew everything. They had to memorize all of the scenes and the dialogue. This method of memorizing was a really important discovery for me.
When I really wanted to make films again, it was a relief that I could escape Vienna, the place where I was not happy, and come back to Berlin, my city, which was a completely changed city because the Wall had come down. So it was a place I knew very well, but at the same time didn’t know at all anymore. So, I decided to make a film in my new neighbourhood in Berlin. This was to experience the conflict between an idea and reality, reality as a kind of “sparring partner.” I think this contrast is present in all my films. The beginning of a film is never a script but more of an abstract theme, questions that interest me. Then I start to research, write and cast at the same time. At that point, there is a schematic construction of a story, but I always try to keep it in contact with a certain reality, as a kind of resistance to the fiction. On all levels of filmmaking, it’s always interesting to do that.
With every project, there are always new questions. Strangely enough, it can be very calming to know it’s not so much about my intentions and ideas. It’s more of a process. First there is the “subject,” which incites the research and the casting. Then I try to find out the mechanism of this specific film. It’s a search for the needs of the material for the story we would like to tell. It’s always a process, up until the very end of the editing and the sound design. It’s always rethinking the right balance, moulding the right body for the film.
The relation between documentary and fiction does not appear as a contrast in your work, but rather as different sides of a “twirling coin.” Nevertheless, the use of reality as a “sparring partner” points to a certain status of fiction today. A lot of filmmakers seem to be “able” to get to fiction today only through a notion of documentary, in any shape. How do you look at this tension?
It just sometimes really takes my breath away. The beauty of simple material without invention, the contact between the camera and the material: a human, a face, light, atmosphere... It has such a beauty to me, even if it’s sometimes very painful. Those are these transcendent moments. I learn a lot from documentary situations, from the dramaturgy of non-fictional scenes. It’s something I always try to implement in the film, something I can’t control. On the one hand there is this story or plot, a reference to the idea of fiction, or to old legends and stories people bring to the project. It could also be a certain mechanism of fiction, like a “moment of suspense,” a moment where we as spectators all come together and wonder what’s going to happen next in the story. I think these things are very important in my work. But at the same time, I also want to lose control and get to something you can’t understand or sort out immediately. You could say it’s about a refusal to place the characters, the world depicted, “under restraint.” At other times this “quasi-naturalism” is realized artificially, sometimes it’s “stolen” from an experience in the past or an observation, and I try to re-create or memorize this experience. For me, it’s really a case of trusting the thing besides the idea or the intention; which can make us, everybody working on the project, all feel very safe throughout the process.
At which point in the process does fiction appear? When did, for example for Western, the western elements and tropes appear? Meinhard as the rootless loner, the stranger in town, the importance of the landscape, the opposition between two groups or communities?
It happened really early on. The western genre was my entrance to the film from the very beginning. I felt that I could combine it with other subjects, like diffuse xenophobia in Germany for example. I came to realise I have this emotional relationship with westerns, linked to my childhood. Now I could approach it from a very different angle. Later I discovered, of course, that it was not so easy to get all these elements into the construction of a film. But it was my entrance to the film. I used the western element as a guideline. It was helpful in the sense that the western genre is a very strong “format.” It gives you a clear framework in which you can operate.
The film is entitled “Western.” It almost feels like a statement: “Western… today!” The film goes back to a certain fiction that depends on the presence and physicality of the characters, a cinema of faces and gestures. Could you say the title also points to the rehabilitation of a certain form of fiction?
Not so consciously, I think. Although I did find a lot of contemporary moments in the old western films.
It connects also to your work with nonprofessional actors. Hong Sang-soo, for example, started out his career working with nonprofessional actors but switched to professional actors because he thought the nonprofessional actors were too “thin” for what he was looking for. What is it you find in the work with nonprofessional actors?
To me the question of non-professional or professional actors always depends on the needs of the film. What is the subtext or the aura of the material? Until now, I choose non-professional actors maybe as a way of resistance, in my first films, for example, against the melodrama, to serve as a contrast. Sometimes people think that it’s an ideological decision that I have only worked with nonprofessional actors. That’s not the case. It just made the most sense for all of my films until now. I adore professional actors in the way they can artificially bring a character to life, but I find it often also irritating. Again, it’s the enchanting dimension of working with an actor who’s not completely perfect. I am searching for these imperfect moments, which are, on the other hand, very perfect to me, very beautiful.
The choice for certain people, to work with them as actors, always starts from a fascination for their physicality and posture. For me, Meinhard is like a dancer in Western. He has such a feeling for gestures and posing. He always finds the perfect place in a room. I was very interested in the origin of his body language. He gave me so many things that I couldn’t come up with. So too did Syuleyman, he has such a talent of talking with his hands. With him I talked a lot about international gestures and words that could fit the dialogue, to find a “sign language” for the German and Bulgarian men to understand each other.
In Mein Stern and Sehnsucht the acting performance is quite visible: you see people “performing,” you see them acting, oscillating between their own image and the image they’re fabricating in front of the camera. In Western that’s less the case. The actors became much more like film “characters”. Was it something you consciously moved to?
Not consciously, no. For Western I was very interested in what was written in the bodies, in body language, and how you behave in a certain space or during an interaction with another person. Like in westerns, the behaviour of not being allowed to show emotion while there’s at the same time a lot of emotion behind that façade. To approach masculinity in this way, related to the western genre, was very interesting to me. To get this to connect with contemporary life. This was also very much present in my mind while directing the main actors in Western.
What is the relation between the script and the casting? The three sisters in Mein Stern are played by three girls who are also sisters in real life. On the other hand, the film also has a clear narrative curve. What is already present at the casting and how does it develop from there?
When I wrote the script for Mein Stern, inspired by other filmmakers, I was writing, researching and casting at the same time. Everything went hand in hand. I knew I wanted to do something with youngsters on the verge of being grown-ups. I started from archetypal situations in which I could place the youngsters, love stories I was interested in. The apartment of the mother that was working night shifts became the stage for their first experiences. Then I started talking to boys and girls on the street in Berlin and asked them for an interview. I asked them about their expectation of relationships. Most of them didn’t have a lot of experience with love, but they still had very strong images and an imagination of how love should be. I asked them about their expectations for the future. It really touched me because most of them were thirteen or fourteen years old and their fantasies about their grown-up lives were quite conservative at this moment. They all told me they wanted a job, to get married, one or two children.
When I talk to someone that is a potential actor for my film, I also ask to meet his or her friends. In the story of Mein Stern that I had written, Nicole had two sisters. When I found the girl that could play her character, she actually had two sisters in real life. I asked the actual sisters to play the film sisters. The three sisters had real chemistry together. Nicole also had a mother in the story, but I didn’t ask her real mother to play that role. So it depends. People often feel better on set when there is someone they know or can connect to, but sometimes it doesn’t help them at all. For groups, most of the times it’s really helpful if they are an actual group outside of the film story, because the atmosphere of trust is already there and doesn’t need to be created for the film.
For Sehnsucht the casting was crucial for the development of the story. When I was interviewing and casting, there was one couple that struck me but didn’t end up being the couple in the film. They were in the beginning of their thirties, and they were together since they were 18. At some point they told me it took ten years for her to tell him that she wanted to come closer to him during sex, that she wanted something new. They knew each other since childhood, and only now they took this new step. I decided to do something with their story, and it ended up in the film.
It has been said that you work with communities. Nevertheless, your films are not “about” communities, there is no ethnographic ambition.
I’m very afraid of this. It is one of the biggest misunderstandings about my work. People say I make films about milieus, but it upsets me. Then it seems it wasn’t totally clear what I’m trying to do. I would feel very ashamed about this “distance.” I have no ambition to say something about, for example, Bulgarians, “workers” or “youth.” It is true that I use these milieus as a framework, but with my films I want to mingle and interfere in these communities.
Regarding the creation of your characters, what comes from the personal life of the nonprofessional actor and what has been added by you as director? In Western, Meinhard is a legionnaire. Where does this come from, is it invented or is it derived from his personal life?
This was written. And, to me, it didn’t really work out. It’s always interesting to me to discover that these things that work good on paper don’t feel right in the film, exactly like the aspect of the legionnaire. In the script it was supposed to be a defence mechanism of Meinhard, him lying to the other workers about the fact that he was a legionnaire, to give him some kind of a tough posture. But, in the editing room, I discovered that when Meinhard says he’s a legionnaire the audience actually believes it. So in the editing we kept trying to get the idea in the film that Meinhard was lying about his past as a legionnaire. But almost everyone kept believing it. To me, of course, this was a little bit painful. On the other hand, it’s interesting because it was so important for me during the construction of the story that Meinhard was lying. Now I have to accept that the film has different bodies, that it’s telling different things to different people. To answer your question, Meinhard himself, in real life, is far from being a legionnaire. Later in the film there is also the scene about Meinhard’s brother. This was scripted as a scene between him and his “new” Bulgarian friend, a conversation around a table. But then real life interfered, as Meinhard actually lost his brother. This was very private, but I thought it could be important for the film. And Meinhard also agreed to do a scene based on that element. Normally the things I “steal” from the lives of the actors are very small and not these big private things. For me it’s very important that everybody has in mind that we’re making something fictional, that the actors are not playing themselves. We invent something together. This is totally important, not only for the end result but also for the process of making the film.
Is that the case for all characters, even the extras?
Of course. It’s always a balance. For example, the big party at the end of the film, this is a moment of losing control. But I still think that for every role, small or big, it’s crucial everybody is in his or her fantasy playing someone else.
So the group of German workers were not a group of friends or colleagues already before the film?
No, not at all. Everybody is casted. It was a very long casting process to bring them all together. The first treatment really described the specific “roles”: the one with the long hair, the older one… For the group of Bulgarian men there were more surprises. We had more time in Germany to cast the German group. With that, it was interesting to see Reinhard Wetrek, who plays Vincent the foreman, actually acted as a foreman for the group when the camera was not rolling. He was the one who came up with the idea of the German group not using their own names for the whole three months of shooting. He was very strict about it.
How does a typical shooting day look like? Most probably you can’t force the shooting into a very strict schedule due to the improvisation and work with nonprofessional actors.
For Western, the shooting schedule had to be structured. The crew was too big, and we had too many things to do. It wasn’t easy to be flexible. We shot ten hours a day, with a medium-sized crew. For me, the jump from the very small pre-production crew, three or four people, to a big production crew was hard. It is a very ambivalent moment. During the rehearsals and research, we stumbled upon situations that were so beautiful and yet so easy and quickly made. But although those little improvised things were very strong, I knew I was looking for something else. When I thought about the film I wanted to make, it was important to work in this constellation of the big crew. But I definitely needed some adaptation time from the quiet pre-production to the rush of the production.
Bernhard Keller was the cameraman for all three films. Yet the camera work differs in each film. In Mein Stern, there is still this idea of a “frame,” a shot with a recognizable and consistent composition in which you place the actors. In Sehnsucht and Western the camera becomes much more pragmatic. What was the idea behind the camera work for each film?
We met for Mein Stern and I had already seen documentary camerawork of him that moved me a lot. For Mein Stern, we tried to keep the camera fixed. I like my films to be simple, and I’ve always tried to find one image, one shot for a scene in the best case. I always think about the essence of a scene, what is “the” moment of the action so I don’t need to tell everything, maybe just a fragment that can be an entire scene in itself. For me this is very interesting: the concentration of a scene, the reduction. When I made Sehnsucht and Western, I had a great desire to return to this method of Mein Stern. But, in the end, I realized the films had other needs. I wanted the atmosphere to wander around more, to create scenes with more than one image. For me it’s very exciting, when you think about ellipses, there’s this balance between told space and untold space. Especially in Western, this was very much the case.
In Sehnsucht we combined tripod with handheld. Sehnsucht was a complicated shooting process. It was not always a happy period, and we lost control a lot of times. I was glad I knew Bernhard so well and we could talk to each other. For Western, we also talked a lot before shooting the film but more in general about the western genre. We didn’t want to quote too much stylistically, not to lay aesthetic intentions in the film too much but rather let the content guide the camerawork. We talked a lot about lenses for Western. For example, the long lens didn’t really fit Reinhardt Wetrek who plays Vincent. We decided not to shoot him in close-up and to use a wider lens. It suited him better because of his body language. I made a sketch about how we were going to film each scene and I discussed them with Bernhard. That’s why we knew, long before the shooting, which images were important for the film. It was clear in advance that we needed the wide shot of Meinhard riding away on the horse. But other shots of the horse, for example, were just dictated by the atmosphere and content of that given moment.
Do you rehearse a lot with your actors before you shoot?
For Sehnsucht, I rehearsed a lot, even the scenes that were written. I think this was a mistake. Every director knows the situation where you rehearse something and you get sad because what you’ve seen during rehearsal can’t be reproduced anymore. For Western, sometimes I still did it, but I preferred to rehearse something else, to establish relationships, so that the actors feel at ease performing those roles. Before shooting, I decided sometimes to shoot without rehearsing. Sometimes this results in total chaos and we have to rehearse while shooting. Sometimes we do rehearse when there’s a certain choreography, both of the actors and cameraman, and I really have the feeling the actors need the practice.
How did you set up the group scenes with the German or Bulgarian men around the table? Are they the result of long takes with a lot of improvisation? Sometimes the scenes are very short, but they still feel like the process of something you have worked towards for a longer time.
It was different for me with Western, shooting on the Arri Alexa. It meant that I had more material. We shot a lot of long takes, often ten minutes long. This was a totally different way to get into the scene and to set it up. Normally I tell the actors the day before what we are going to shoot the next day. Then on the day of shooting, if it is a group scene, for example, we don’t rehearse, and I go through the scene with the group step by step. What is the dialogue? What is the situation? Some things are very clear in the dialogue, but some things are kept open and then we try. But now, with the Alexa, we had the camera always rolling, which sometimes led to less concentration but also meant that I could talk more throughout the scene.
You talk throughout the takes?
I started to do that with Sehnsucht. With Mein Stern I didn’t do it at all. It’s the most beautiful way because I had the feeling that this way the actors were totally responsible during the shot, to stay in this kind of suspense and to bring it to an end themselves. In Sehnsucht, I did it a lot with the main actor, Andreas Müller. The relationship was even a little bit perverted in the end. I felt like I was his prompter, like I decided his thoughts. After Sehnsucht, I realized that talking throughout a take is sometimes very helpful, but I shouldn’t do it too much. You give the actors the expectation to be given something, which takes the sting out of the scene. For the group scenes in Western, it was important to talk during a take to keep the group together. And when I had an idea during the take for the dialogue, I would walk up to the actor and tell him to try it out.
How, then, do you keep a sense of writing in those scenes? How do you keep the dialogue in focus, serving the story, without having too much documentary “noise” in the dialogue?
It’s a mix. Sometimes I’m very clear about the dialogue, giving specific directions to the actors. But even then, we still get a lot of noise, and in the sound editing a lot of it is taken out or edited. We erase unimportant sentences to make others clearer. While shooting, I also sometimes put my script aside and write something new in the evening or morning before shooting. To me, as a director, the method of memorizing became really important. To describe the scene and the atmosphere to the actors, with very simple lines of dialogue, and then they add so much extra with their performance, sometimes even so much that we have to reduce it again. It’s also very much a process of getting in contact with the dialogue: what is working, what is not. Sometimes the dialogue is totally not comfortable for the actors, but it’s still important for them to say it that way because it will be better for the editing of the film.
Did every scene have its place in the narrative construction, or were there also scenes during the shooting of Western where you were just curious how people would react in certain situations or to certain dialogues?
For sure. There is the narrative construction with scenes following each other, but then sometimes, during the shoot, I imagine other scenes I don’t know the exact place of in the story. I was always thinking about this scene where Vincent is going back to the place where he had the accident with the horse and then that Meinhard would show up there. We were there on location one day, and the sunset was so beautiful, and I thought: let’s just give it a try. I never found a place for this scene when writing, but I thought let’s just shoot it. I was very happy that we did, without knowing if it would find a place in the film’s construction.
You’ve said before that you started shooting Western without knowing what the ending would be. How does this work for the development of the film? And how do you convince funds and television channels to support the film without a clear ending?
The construction of Western took some time. When I started writing, I didn’t really have a story. I had a more abstract construction in my head concerning certain subtexts or questions, which I subsequently translated into some kind of story. It’s sometimes interesting to be straightforward in the story, but I also feel like life is always very contradictory and I think this also needs to be reflected in the storytelling. When I write something in the treatment, it often turns out completely the other way around in the actual film. So I wrote a simple construction with a certain stability and I used some fragments of plot construction to create a certain sense of suspense for the spectator. But I used this in combination with other moments outside of the narrative construction, moments that, to me, connect much more with life. It’s a matter of rhythm, between the documentary-like and the artificial moments. This contrast of explicit story-driven moments and other moments that resist the logic of the narrative construction is very important to me. Then, when applying for money, I write a treatment and a director’s statement where I try to give some information on the project. In this document, I push the moments of suspense to the foreground and talk about the simple construction of the story. When you read the original treatment of the film, you’ll find that the ending was quite diffuse. You could even call it a weak ending. I wanted the ending to have something explicit, but at the same time to be open. I also didn’t really know what the content of the ending was. What are we balancing or playing with at the end? For the treatment, I wrote something that looked like an ending. It wasn’t fake, but I always knew that the ending I wrote wouldn’t be the actual ending of the film. I felt like the words I had written down couldn’t be the last words of the film, it didn’t feel right. Of course, I didn’t tell this to the funding commission. Although I do have a good relationship with them.
So how did the actual ending of the film come about? At the end the film slides into a more abstract feeling, related to a classic love story. Furthermore, the last sentence – “what are you looking for?” – has this iconic quality.
This all came about one year after the shoot. We went back to Bulgaria and had another short shooting period. I always knew Meinhard in a way had to be punished in the story, because of his overacting in the village. But I never knew who was going to punish him. During the first editing period I decided it should be a group. We scheduled this scene for the second shooting period, together with the scene where Meinhard presents his knife to the boy. It was helpful to have these small elements to close the film and at the same time keeping it open. I think I was kind of afraid of the end scene and in the reshoot I came closer and closer. It was a very concrete, haptic way of finding my answer during shooting, because I couldn’t find it during writing.
Is this something you embrace? The fact that you keep constructing and shifting the film, during the shooting, but even going back from editing to shooting?
When we started our first shooting period there was no reshoot scheduled. But afterwards I was very happy to get the second period of shooting. There was really something missing. I would also recommend this to everyone: if there’s a possibility in your contract to involve a reshoot in addition to your main shooting period, do it!
How does this relate to your sound post-production? Do you take a lot of time constructing the narrative by sound editing, dubbing or post-sync? For example, in the group scenes?
Sometimes during stressful shooting days, especially with the group scenes, it happens that we get a sentence offscreen that was supposed to be on, a sentence that is often subtle in the dialogue but very important for the subtext of the scene. In the editing we try to balance the sentences of these scenes so that they are not too present and yet present enough to carry the subtext. I’m so thankful for my editor Bettina Bühler because she really balances this very well. She is sensitive to keep dialogue that is important to the film and yet makes it seem like it’s simple, daily dialogue.
She has a shared sense of which direction the film is supposed to go in?
Yes, definitely, she is very important to me. We are not afraid to take the dialogue from one scene and put it on another scene. You have to be quite ruthless if you think it is the right combination. You can’t be afraid to take a sound from one scene and to put it somewhere else.
You deploy an elliptical form of editing. Does that impact the way of shooting? Knowing that the jumps in time will give rhythm to the scene and story?
The elliptical editing is already present in the writing. There were a lot of ellipses in the script. Of course, this also increases the chances for spontaneous elements and shots to find a place in the story, because the improvised scenes fit more easily in this elliptical structure. Sometimes the material we shoot on set is very stable, but other times it’s not and I have to trust the editing room. Because we go so far into the moment on set, there are always risks that scenes are not perfectly done. It really grows with experience. I can make faster judgements with every film, like whether we have a take that is useable in the editing room or not.
Normally Bettina and I sit together and talk about a certain cut or montage, but for Western I made a very rough edit of a scene and showed it to Bettina. We talked about the subtext and meaning of the scene, and I would walk out and leave her to it, while I started on the rough edit of another scene. This really showed that I could trust her with my film, and it was so beautiful.
Every scene and interaction has its own rhythm, its own pauses. Because the material is not always that stable, we sometimes can only use a small piece of a take, which causes a certain editing rhythm and at other times we really have to stretch a scene in editing in order for it to work. I love editing, because I think it’s like magic. You can make a beautiful film even with the most horrible material.
Are you currently working on a next project, and if so, what was the inciting moment you decided “this will by my next film”?
I don’t know what film it will be. In the beginning, I’m always looking more for an entrance into a film. When we finished Western, it was such a beautiful moment. We had been working on it for ten years, eight years for the actual film. This built up so many expectations and possibilities about what the film would be like, so many years living with this film, thinking about the film. Then in the end we had this moment: “This is it; it’s finished!” This inciting moment to begin a new film is a very personal moment, when my heart starts beating. For Western, it was a personal feeling of longing for this western genre, this male genre, and I wanted to explore my own relationship as a woman towards this male genre. My relation towards this strong masculinity was really exciting to me. Even if I didn’t know what it was going to look like in the beginning. When I started out thinking about Western and the western genre, I looked at it like a scenery, like a coulisse or theatre where a woman could walk in. But this motive didn’t find its place in Western. At one point I decided that this film would really be about these groups of men. It is something that I would like to explore more, the relationship of the woman to a male genre, how in that kind of story a woman would be able to enter without making the narration too painful, like it is for many women in the western genre.
In that way your energy and fascination to make a new film is connected to your love for narrative and cinema and the way they relate to each other?
For sure. This is, for me, so beautiful. Filmmaking is always getting in contact, with people, with the unknown. It’s like a framework, and in this way you are also always in contact with other films and references.
You mentioned earlier that people always carry with them a history of stories. Does it connect also to this idea that melodrama, for example, is not only a filmic reality but also an actual part of our lives?
Absolutely, this connection between storytelling and legends is interesting. You are never alone when making a film, you can go out on the street and interact with someone, share an experience. But you’re also not alone because there are so many films that have been made already and that you can think about… I’m still thinking about your first question about the “old” body language or physicality in western films…
In these old westerns, an actor is in the first place a certain presence, he is the way he carries himself, the way he walks into a room, the way he holds a glass, that’s the thing that conveys the tension of the film. It’s this importance of gestures and faces that is a bit lost in contemporary cinema you could say. There is something old in your films, without being nostalgic or pastiche. In this sense it feels as a form of rehabilitation. This combination of something old and new makes your films very fresh.
Thank you very much.
- 1In Bulgarian лице/litse denotes both “face” and “person.” The translation of “litse” as “face” thus retains a one-sided focus on the “exterior” and not on the intersection of inside and outside. The question is not whether something essential lays in or behind the face, but inversely, that our very essence itself is a mask, an exterior. (In some Flemish dialects wezen [being] is also used as a synonym for “face.”).
Images from Western (Valeska Grisebach, 2017)