It was meant to be the highlight of the London Film Festival’s Experimenta Weekend last October, but a broken projector prevented Austrian avant-gardist and experimental filmmaker Peter Kubelka from presenting his ambitious Monument Film project – a double projection of his works Antiphon (2012) and Arnulf Rainer (1960), back to back, side by side, as well as superimposed. Both works explore the four cinematographic elements – light and darkness, sound and silence – effectively stripping cinema down to its bare essentials as well as offering ‘a countermeasure to the dominating emotional motion picture’ (Jonas Mekas). What’s more, Antiphon literally presents the answer to Arnulf Rainer: what was white before is now black; where there was sound there is now silence. Monument Film is a response to what Kubelka describes as the ‘hostile takeover’ of analogue cinema technology by digital media, and hence might be best understood as a ‘last call to dogged resistance’. This month, Kubelka will be back in London to accomplish his endeavour, which he himself considers to be a culmination, the grand finale to his cinematic labors.
Pamela Jahn talked to Peter Kubelka about the essence of cinema, stealing films and losing friends when making them.
Pamela Jahn: You once said that you’ve lost most of your friends because of your film Arnulf Rainer. Why did you decide to produce another film, which is the polar-opposite version of it, as you’ve done now with Antiphon?
Peter Kubelka: To be honest, I love it when people enjoy my work, but I don’t really care if they leave the cinema. My intention when making films is not a wish to entertain, but rather that of a scientist who does his research. I use my medium – though use is also a too-cool word in this sense – I love my medium, and I use it as a ship to go on a journey to places that I haven’t been to, or nobody has ever seen before, and whatever will be found there is fine. I made my film Arnulf Rainer without having a precise idea of what it would look like on the screen, because I couldn’t project it or look at it on an editing table, because I had no means. I was very poor back then. And as with almost everything, when you are poor, you are more courageous because you have nothing to lose.
But to answer your question, I am overjoyed when people share my satisfaction. But if they don’t, I won’t change my mind because of this. And if some people leave now when they see my work, whether it is Arnulf Rainer or Antiphon or Monument Film, that really gives me pleasure, because it proves that they can evoke a reaction from the audience even after more than 50 years, when so-called ‘art’ has turned into something that is closer to social entertainment, where people accept anything, and it has practically become impossible to get people to admit that they are shocked, because they really don’t feel it anymore, or worse: they don’t care. People are not really interested in what it is they are experiencing any more, they just participate in the social epiphany. But again, I never really had a relationship with the public. I work for myself. And I strongly believe that if I do the best I can for myself, according to my standards, then other people will understand my work, and stay.
But particularly the people you worked for in the beginning didn’t share that opinion. Your first films Adebar and Schwechater were originally commercial films that your clients – a Viennese bar and a brewery – refused to approve.
I consider my position towards the commercial side of cinema, and by that I mean commercially produced films and the industry around it, as that of a parasite. I had to fight a lot in order to squeeze out some pieces of hardware and material for my work. Again, in a way, it’s a very similar position to that of a scientist or explorer, in that you have a wish, or a strong ambition, and in order to get where you want to be, you need to have some sort of a relationship with those who pay for the medium. And the only way I thought I could do this was to become a criminal – I stole all my films. I accepted commissions, but then didn’t really execute them in the way that those who paid for them had anticipated. But what gave me the moral assurance that I was right was to believe that I gave them something that was much better than what they really wanted. So when I worked in the 50s, I had that same attitude.
Were you sued by the brewery, Schwechater?
Yes, I was sued and I had to leave the country. I went to Sweden and worked as a dish washer and god knows what else. It was the only way for me to survive. Schwechater was very influential, so I couldn’t stay and work in Vienna. Even the film lab would no longer do prints for me, because Schwechater was their client and they would tell me: ‘They pay us a lot of money every month and you are nothing. You just create problems because your films are so difficult to print with a thousand cuts in one minute, so go away.’ All in all I paid very dearly for my films, because I lost all my friends, I lost my social and my work environment many times. I lived about 14 years of my life without a clue how to survive until I came to America and started teaching.
Which partly explains why your entire body of work comprises barely 90 minutes of actual film, but you have become a very well-respected lecturer around the world. What do you teach your film students, or your audience, about filmmaking based on your own experience?
Well, I am very strict in declaring that what I do in my films has nothing to do with what I say in terms of my authority. When I talk about my films, I do it in a way as if I wasn’t the maker of these films. And when the films are fresh, as my new work is, I actually talk very little about them, because the verbalisation is of course a completely different medium, and it takes some time to digest what you have done in a medium that, as film does, excludes the medium of speaking and excludes literature, for example. On the other hand, the whole spectrum of what the human being is experiencing in its conscious life is bigger than what one single medium can show. It’s a fact that music is a very important medium that is extremely rich in content, but this content remains within the medium. No one is able to fully explain a piece of music to people who haven’t heard it. It’s like the phenomenon of ‘deaf-mute’. If you are deaf, you are mute because you don’t know what speaking sounds like. So, it’s practically impossible to translate the content of films like mine into another medium like language. So what I do in my lectures is to try to help people to find a non-verbal entry into my work by leading them into my thinking. For me, speaking is just another medium I exercise. It’s not like the filmmaker translates what he has to say. In fact, for me the phrase ‘what do you have to say’ already expresses the dictatorship of language over all the other media which now exist. So, in essence, my lectures are ‘talk’ work, which I have pleasure in exercising.
What was your main intention when making Arnulf Rainer and, subsequently, Antiphon?
Arnulf Rainer is the logical consequence of my previous film travels, so to speak. It’s like when Schönberg started 12-tone music: he didn’t invent it as people always say, rather it was a logical consequence of musical history up to that moment that opened the door to 12-tone music. In the same way, Arnulf Rainer uses the most simple and essential elements that constitute the medium of cinema, namely light and the absence of light, sound and the absence of sound. These four elements are the bare essence of cinema, you cannot go beyond that.
Do you differentiate between the absence of light and darkness, for example?
No, but I prefer the absence of light in this context, to take the thoughts of a person who hears the word ‘darkness’ away from its other connotations, for example, fear or even a romantic kind of darkness. It’s a more neutral way of saying ’darkness’. I don’t want to work the spectator’s brain in that way. Again, it goes back to an essential situation of the human being. We have our senses and with their help we react to changes in the situation we are in. In fact, every sound is the message of a movement, of a change in situation. And that sound is a warning that wakes us. We start to analyse the situation in order to decide what we will do, how we will react, and if it is actually necessary to react. But the important thing to understand is that the change in situation is what makes us feel that we are alive in the here and now. And since the earliest days of mankind, there is a desire to artificially create such moments, to create a ‘now’ experience, like clapping hands, for instance. And then comes, let’s say the artist, who extracts the element, who uses those ‘now’ moments, and by this intensity and rhythmic condensation, ecstasy is given to the audience. So when I made Arnulf Rainer my intention was to use these most simple elements of cinema to create this ecstasy for the movie goer, for the people who cannot dance, and drink or take drugs or party for days, but quite the opposite, they sit very well educated in their cinema seats. In a way you could say with Arnulf Rainer the pole of the cinematic universe has been reached, the point of its most simple form of existence. But it might not be as clear when you look at the film alone. Its counterpart, Antiphon, which I have now made, completes the work in that way. It’s comparable to the philosophy of yin and yang in that both films complement each other to create a whole. This is what I was trying to achieve with Monument Film.
Did you need to go through a process in order to come to that conclusion, or did you always intend to make Monument Film after Arnulf Rainer?
The idea was already there in the very beginning, and it was first of all an economic question at the time. But then, all my metric films are only prototypes, where I realise only one phase that defines that kind of cinema. For example, in Adebar, I had already had the thought that light and darkness should be equal, and I achieved this by showing all the elements in positive and negative for the same amount of time, so by the end of the film, the screen has received the same amount of light in all its parts. So this was my first metric film, an idea that I then followed up with Monument Film. And another point is important here, which is that with Monument Film, I wanted to create a memorial to cinema that explains the materiality of film.
How would you describe your idea of a cinema?
For me, the idea of a cinema is a machine, not a place of entertainment. It’s a machine that has the aim to bring the work of the author to the public in the least disturbed way. And my model of a cinema is the interior of a classic camera, namely complete blackness, where in the place of the lens there is the screen and in the place of the negative in the back of the machine is the brain of the author, represented by the projector and the film strip, and in between is darkness. So the ideal cinema for me would be a black space in which you don’t even feel that there is a space. You should only feel that it’s black and the only element of reference would be the screen and what happens on the screen. As for my films, I call my cinema normal cinema, I make normal films and the industry makes commercial films. The real filmmakers are those who work for a result without compromising.
Interview by Pamela Jahn