Rhythmic writings and atmospheric impressions. An interview with Klaus Wyborny

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Klaus WybornyInterview by Federico Rossin. May 11-13, 2012

For Klaus Wyborny to make a a film in camera has a lifelike quality, is a complex process in which he peels images off reality in thin layers. In this interview, conducted in the context of tribute curated by Federico Rossin held in the festival Images and Views of Alternative Cinema in Nicosia, Cyprus, last June, the German filmmaker explains how he relates the history of filmic forms with his own history.

You studied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in Hamburg and then in New York: how have your studies influenced your work as filmmaker?

Often I look at pictures as almost abstract quantum-field-like entities. Something that pops up in space and time, and then disappears. A particle that comes to life and vanishes after an interaction with a viewer. Accordingly I don't think of pictures being "images" that record reality, but I consider them to be "impressions" depicting certain atmospheric qualities that are unique for a short moment or will disappear very soon. So I don’t aim at a "realistic" presentation of world phenomena, but I rather want to generate something like a visual "impressionism in time".

What do you think about experimental films made using mathematical structures?

Most of them are too silly. Just permutations, golden ratio, etc. In Pictures of the Lost Word (1971-1975) I worked extensively with permutations of three parameters with changing properties, which was interesting for a while, but in the end I found it intellectually undemanding and boring. So I got more interested in musical notations. I admire the mathematical-rhythmical complexity of the late Beethoven, of Schönberg and Webern.

Do you think there is any connection between the scientific way of looking at the world and the new eyes that experimental cinema gives us?

Scientific eyes became very insecure. Certainty has left us. Cosmology etc. became incredibly complex. No solutions seem to be at hand. A dark age has begun. Maybe subjectivity is the only remaining force that deserves credibility. I prefer hand-camera to tripods. I actually hate tripods. They are scientific in an old-fashioned way. Cartesian, Descartes. Not Emersonian.

Studien zum Untergang des Abendlands (Studies for the decay of the West) (2010)

The issue of film language is of central importance in many of your films: you have been one of the first filmmakers who explored the history of film language and form: what do you think about film history?

I'm more and more amazed about the speed of filmic development from 1896 to 1914 (D.W.Griffith's The Birth of a Nation). Less than 20 years from zero to a film form that is so complex that our contemporary narrative films aren’t much better. I'm just publishing a 450 page book on Elementary Film Editing Theory. Analyzing the narrative editing procedures. They are simple, but really interesting as a topic for time-philosophy.

How do you consider the expression “film language”?

Film has no language. It doesn't have an equivalent for "no". There is no negation. And without negation there is no language. But film has complex ordering-systems.

Can an experimental film make a motion picture analysis?

Yes. I did that in my Elementary Film History (1974) and my Histoire du cinéma (2005). And there are other examples. Ken Jacobs is the master.

I have the impression that since from your first short films your working process has never radically changed: you start filming with great freedom and quickly, then you re-work the materials many times, manipulating the image until the final result.

Yes: I want a maximum of freedom in the shooting phase. Trying often to even generate the editing rhythms in camera. But to have this freedom, you sometimes need a lot of preparation.

And we can say the same for your entire work: you repeatedly reedit and rework your films. Is this correct? Can you explain your working process?

Yes, I take my time. And watch what I have done. Not all the time, just occasionally. In bursts. And try to order it in a way that seems promising. Very quickly. And then I try to give it a maximum of emotional intensity. On this I work very hard, trying to optimize even the smallest detail. This takes a long time. That’s why freedom is so important in the shooting phase. Some of it must still be alive in the end.

What is the connection between the strictly documentary part – the shooting – and the work on manipulating and editing in your films?

I don't really know what the relation is. But there are two things: first of all I like to record images that depict stuff that’s going to be gone soon. Lumière’s Démolition d’un mur (1896) is the model for it. But then the images just become part of a composition and I don't care about their reality-value any more, they are just images of a certain emotional intensity with which I work.  I actually have the strange feeling that I peel my images from reality, thin skins, just as Lucretius has described it, and thus reality becomes poorer and barer by my filming. That’s why I like to film things that are going to disappear anyway. I don't do much harm this way.

Bilder vom verlorenen Wort (Pictures of the Lost Word) (1971-1975)

How do you develop the construction of the film? How does the connection between the initial ideal approach to the living material you are confronting with work?

Well, my films are made in many different modes. I actually try to make them really different from each other. Some of them are structured very rigorously. Sulla (2001) has a voice over narration of two hours, which was fixed before the shooting. So I "just" illustrated the text with images, I thought fitting. The shooting was relatively simple. 6 weeks with a few actors. But the editing, the precision I was aiming at, took almost 6 years. Other films are loosely structured. I like modules though. Blocks of let’s say about 15 or 20 minutes, which are little films for themselves. Then I put them together and change them a bit, so that everything fits well.     

What is the relationship between maîtrise and non-maîtrise of the film form?

Well I like the coexistence of both. I like extremely carefully structured modules, and then rough intrusions by what looks or sounds like a mistake, very rough imagery suddenly. And then back to the finest that is achievable. I like the mixture. The rough stuff protects against the tendency to produce kitsch by being too masterly.

One thing that interested me a lot were outtakes. Stuff I didn’t use in a film, or of which I used a variant. Especially in my early films I constructed long time structures by first presenting a "film" and immediately after that the outtakes in a special formally more advanced mode. So the "garbage" got treated with extra care and it achieved an anarchistic quality the original couldn't have, because it had to behave too well to fit into a certain dramatic structure (Demonic Screen (1969), The Birth of a Nation (1973)). Later I constructed time structures in advance with I edited in camera, so that I had to use whatever I shot, even if I had an unhappy hand in choosing the moment or the location when taking a picture. Sometimes I was aware of the bad quality of a series of shots, then I had to react to that in the next sequence, thus making the "mistake" a life challenge for the following series of images. By that the whole process of constructing a film in camera got a life-like human quality, concentrating on the atmospheric impressions more than on "picture-quality". I try hard to take "good" images, of course, but I know that I can't be good all the time. That’s why I generally dislike stills from my films. They loose the fleeing quality, that I like in images. In stills the image suddenly becomes static, in gets an importance it didn’t have when I took it.

In all your films a keen interest in music is evident: the musical language seems to have built the deep structures of your films and many times you made and played the music for them. Which kind of relationship is there between cinema and music and more generally with sound, and what kind of experimentation do you think it might have in the future?

Well, film and music are both rhythmical modulations of time. The rhythmical analogy is very strong. Melodywise the analogy is much weaker. So I like to mix music and film in a very intimate way, generating visual rhythms from musical ones, and, especially in my early films, vice versa. Am Rand der Finsternis (1985) and Gnade und Dinge (1985) are the most complex in that respect- two voices: voice one: music; voice two: images and sometimes the other way around. Very hard to see, that they correspond, audiences always thought the relation was arbitrary, just looking and sounding "good". So later, starting with Aus dem Zeitalter des Übermuts (1993) I preferred to be a bit more direct, with sync music-image relations, so that people could see, that there are strong correspondences. In Studien zum Untergang des Abendlands (2010) is some sync-footage that is two voiced in Am Rand der Finsternis.

The future? --- There will be much more of that, but at the moment there is technical stagnation. Video is a setback for that type of work. A film like Studien zum Untergang des Abendlands can’t be made again for at least 30 years. Because you can’t edit that kind of stuff in a video camera. So you have to do it with editing programs, and then it takes too much time and the images aren’t flexible enough. See: all the editing, the filtering, the fading of the Lieder der Erde (1986-2004) series, 6 hours of film, was done in-camera. It was possible to control that in the super 8-Format and then go to 16 to do some fine-tuning and printing. All that is gone now. Now you have to shoot blindly, not knowing which image will be in which space etc. And you have to work with computers indoors. But my films were all edited outdoors etc.

In all your films there are continuous meta-linguistic reflections, variations, repetitions, many questions and very few answers: how can you reconcile this inner speculative nature – that does not solve matters but reflects on the problems – with the clear Beauty and the powerful Ecstasy your films are built on?

I'm still mystified by "quality". It remains a big mystery to me, why some things are good and beautiful, and other stuff is just ordinary or even bad. So I like to work on the edge of that border, sometimes clearly trespassing into sheer beauty, and then being "vulgar" again. Yes: I don’t want to solve "the problem of beauty", but play with it.  It’s little bit like sex. Just exploring the "beauty of sex" is ridiculous.

Am Rand der Finsternis (The Edge of Darkness) (1982-1986)

Even if you are not a character in your works, your films can be read as coded autobiographies: how important are subjectivity, identity and autobiography in your films? 

Yes, well observed. See, as a child I was a fugitive. Born in 1945 when Germany was in ruins my parents tried to find a home in different places before they settled in Hamburg in 1953. This idea of a sudden new "home", after all that travelling, is one of the mysteries of my life. In many of my films I went to exactly the locations where I first got "impressions" of that new home, and I tried to record what was left of those impressions (for example industrial landscapes in the port of Hamburg where we lived for a few months). Later, when all that had gone, I was looking for places that had similar atmospheres. So my films are charged with variations of the "ur-Impressions" I had as an eight year old boy when seeing the industrial areas of Hamburg for the first time, in which, as my parents told me, we were supposed to settle now, after being fugitives in rural environments.  

So this was the "Ur-autobiography" that intrudes all my images and stories. Later I extended that to my later biography making use of its strange turns.

Africa, Europe, America: you are one of the greatest cine-traveller and the travel is the core of many of your films. The melancholy passing of time in your images push us to a deep meditation about the end of Civilizations and Cultures. Would you consider your films as audio-visual essays-poems about the end of an era, of a cosmos?

Yes, the later travels were extrapolations of my childhood travels. For a long time I managed to see the world as I was looking at it as a child. Now this has become difficult. The world has changed a lot and became very uniform. You find California everywhere. So there is no hope to find a new home, by acquiring familiarity with new images. Documentary films of everything that is strange have killed the unknown. Now the strange new stuff mixes too strongly with the already well known (the uniformity of the inner cities all over the world, the uniformity of factories, of so called "good Italian food", of pizzas, of the ware houses, roads, cars and bridges etc, of entertainment, etc). So the age of the great explorers  (and I was a great explorer when I was a child, never audacious but always courageous) seems to have come to an end. And with it, as Malraux has put it, the art of the great explorers.         

What film projects do you have for the future?

Well there are five or six works in progress. One about the painter Monet, one a film in which I collaborate with the poet Durs Grünbein. Then I have several hours of footage I took with digital video all over the world in recent years, out of which might emerge some new stuff. But I have no idea how it might look like yet.

Das szenische Opfer (The Scenic Sacrifice) (1980)