Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts marks the welcome return to filmmaking of Peter Whitehead, the documentarian who captured the historic first meeting of American and English beat poets with Wholly Communion (1965) and the 1968 student rebellion at Columbia University that occurred in the aftermath of the Martin Luther King shooting with The Fall (1969). In recent years, Whitehead has been active as a cyber-novelist, and through his website has published the Nohzone trilogy, of which Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts is the first instalment. After attending a tribute to his career at the 2006 Viennale Festival, the director decided to shoot the self-financed film version on location in Vienna and developed a fragmented narrative that follows the attempts of Michael Schlieman, an MI6 agent who has gone rogue, to make contact with the elusive Maria Lenoir, an eco-terrorist who is wanted by the British government. Schlieman has come to identify with Lenoir, but finds it difficult to navigate the elaborate network of contacts that surrounds her, even with the assistance of Sophie, the alluring archivist at Vienna’s Third Man Museum. Although this summary suggests a relatively straightforward conspiracy thriller, Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts is a defiantly non-linear experience as voice-over, imagery and on-screen quotations serve to deconstruct cinematic time and narrative form in a disorientating manner. Peter Whitehead spoke to John Berra about the development of the film and the multiple readings that are presented by his unorthodox approach.
Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts is the first film you have made in 32 years. How had the landscape of independent filmmaking changed in that period?
I knew absolutely nothing. I had not paid any attention to independent filmmaking since 1973; I have no idea about what has been done, I never watch films, I only write novels. The film is based on my novel, and that is the only reason I decided to make it. I was already starting to think about making a film, I was going to finance it myself and it was going to be based on my three novels that are on the web, the Nohzone trilogy. I attended the Viennale, where I had some fantastic dialogues, and I met Samantha Berger; she was sort of a Peruvian anarchist filmmaker, and I decided to take the first of my three novels and make it in Vienna with Samantha.
How did the narrative and themes develop in collaboration?
The film is clearly a homage to my great hero Jean-Luc Godard, who is a very difficult person to have as your hero; I had a publishing company in the 60s and I published all of his screenplays. I didn’t set out to do a ‘Godard’, that was provoked as much by the people who I became involved with to make the film. A lot of my films are made in collaboration with actresses, which is very Godardian. I made Daddy with Niki de Saint Phalle, and I made Fire in the Water with Nathalie Delon, so I like to be inspired by creative females, it energises me in the sense that I can make a documentary or semi-documentary. It is documentary in that it is about the person, but it’s more often about their fantasies, their ideas, their relationships. So I started making the film with Samantha, who was a correspondent for a magazine in Peru called Godard. I told her that I was making a film of my novel Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts and that it has a character who becomes a terrorist and it’s about an assassination. I then met Nina Erber, who is the bass player in Who Killed Bambi, and I thought she would be great as Maria Lenoir and I thought I had the perfect situation because, as I got close to Nina, I discovered that she was also a total Godard freak. Unfortunately, I have a bad gene that leaves me prone to an auto-immune disease, which I had in 1968, and I was struck down for a second time in Vienna, so I had to get back to England and it took six to nine months for me to get better. When I went back to Vienna, I found Sophie Stroemer, who I had met at the Viennale, and discovered that she was working in the Third Man Museum, and she gave me what I needed, which was the narrative of a disappearing Maria Lenoir. The film became entirely what it is due to my relationship with these three different girls.
Although the film uses a third-person narration, it also plays with aspects of first-person filmmaking as it is shot largely from Schielman’s point of view. He encounters several physically similar femme fatale characters, and it is suggested that they all could be Maria Lenoir because he is capturing aspects of their personalities that he believes to be facets of the woman he is pursuing.
All the girls in the film are Maria Lenoir; as far as I’m concerned, there are only two people in the film, one is Maria Lenoir, and the other is Michael Schlieman. If you start talking to me about ‘characters’ in a film you’re talking about Hollywood; I’m not interested in that, I’m interested in the archetypal. The two archetypes are the man and the woman and the archetype of the female, which I’ve called ‘Maria Lenoir’, is the modern female, and she and Schlieman have a dialogue about technology and the rape of nature and God knows what else. It’s about that total split between the male vision and the female vision. For the female it is all about revenge and rejection, self-sacrifice and suicide. I hope it’s clear that Michael Schielman identifies with these females; there is a mention at one point that he identifies so much with Maria that he too might be Maria. In other words, there is an archetypal yin and yang in all of us; the yang is that male thing, which is to do with technology, and that is why I have the sequence that says ‘Welcome to the machine’. The female thing is the development of this virtual web of total connecting, gossipy little fragmented bits of communication; the world of the female is a conspiracy.
The film keeps returning to the two tram lines in Vienna, and the possibility of an overlap, or collision, between related forces or events. At times, the film itself plays like a collision between your real-world concerns and an evident enthusiasm for classic narrative cinema, as exemplified by The Third Man, and literary pulp fiction. It seems to be deconstructing narrative and space.
It is totally and deliberately doing that. Part of that is the deconstruction of the single character because only a single character can give you that linear line from A to Z, and I’ve just disintegrated it. I’m fascinated by the Ringstrasse because it’s a circular thing, you go right around the city and you see the entire history of Vienna. Tram number one goes one way, and tram number two goes the other way, they just go around constantly, and they’ve been doing that for 40 years. I thought that was perfect for me because the film is about entanglement; I imagined all these characters linking like a cyclotron, one going one way and the other going the other way, so the narrative is a double circle. Entanglement is where you split a proton and it goes off into two halves, and they go round two circles, and then they collide. I like the idea that he is reflecting on his past, because he is about to die, and she is trying to look to the future. One is the past and one is the future, one is memory and the other is imagination.
When discussing the production of The Third Man, Sophie observes that, ‘Film doesn’t play by the rules of space. It makes quantum leaps’. It’s interesting that film can capture a city to some extent, but it is also always cheating the audience by jumping to other locations of studio sets.
That’s the reason that I wanted her in the movie. I went to the Third Man Museum and she started to explain how she was taking people around the city to show them how the film was a complete lie because half of it was shot in London, and half of it was shot in Vienna, and that’s what fascinates her; how time and space in film can become something totally different. The idea was hers, she brought it in at that moment, but I had already talked to her about entanglement and physics, so I had encouraged it.
Interview by John Berra