The contents of a black briefcase lead into a superficially well-ordered life in West Germany in 1970, in war-torn and concrete-replastered Cologne, a city that can be seen as representative of the entire country. In this briefcase: the meticulous documentation of an affair between the small business owner Hans, head of a medium-sized company, married, early 40s, and his secretary Monika, 24, also married. A detailed protocol of their sexual activities leaves a trail through the field of infinite possibilities and finite probabilities of leading a different life under the same circumstances. – Two years after the film critic Philip Cartelli saw the experimental documentary Szenario by film makers Philip Widmann and Karsten Krause for the first time at the 2014 Berlinale, he revisits the work for a talk with Philip Widmann.
Philip Cartelli: When I first saw Szenario at the 2014 Berlinale, I remember that it stood out to me in the crowded festival slate for its formal conviction and innovation. And so when you asked me to have a dialogue about the film two years later, I was glad to revisit it as much for what I initially experienced as its freshness, as for the possibility of seeing how the work had aged and influenced me in the interim. Of course, I also hope that you’ll talk about how you consider this work two years later and how you situate it in your growing body of films and installations.
One of the most vital themes in Szenario that has remained with me is the film’s unique manner of mixing a narrative centered on a few individuals with wider audiovisual references that suggest their location in a specific society, namely postwar urban West Germany. This might be called the »landscape« element, especially if we think about your film as part of a range of other audiovisual works that use notions of landscapes or more generally natural or built environments to speak about social conditions. I’m thinking of Masao Adachi in particular, whose films have become more familiar to viewers outside of Japan in recent years thanks to his collaborations with Philippe Grandrieux and Eric Baudelaire. But Adachi is particularly interested in the ways in which our surroundings contain or conceal social and economic violence. Your concern in Szenario is very different, and I was struck while watching the film again in preparation for this conversation at the role that sexuality plays in this.
There’s a particular kind of disjuncture, which I find quite pleasing, that you manage to create in your film, in between the shots of landscapes (mostly mid-range shots of parks, buildings exteriors, streets in Cologne) and the references to human bodies, which occur through the voice-over’s description of the principal characters and their sexual interactions, a few staged shots of these interactions, and a parallel series of footage drawn from period films and videos that speak to the particular nature of sexuality in this period of time and place.
Philip Widmann: When I read your initial review of the film, I was surprised to find a reference to the »landscape« element. I think this element goes largely unnoticed as viewers usually seem to be taken by the »ugliness« of the architecture and its interplay with what is generally perceived as depressingly bad weather and the text, which is in certain places also not very uplifting.
As far as I remember, when we (Karsten Krause and I) started working on the concept of the film, we were aware of the importance that the city has in the documents that form the basis of the film and in the affair that is being represented in these documents. One of the first things we did was to make a catalog of all locations, places, and streets mentioned in the documents. From this, we made a map, trying to find patterns and also changes between the city of 1970 and the city of 2012. A more topographical or geomorphological onset.
I knew about Adachi’s A.K.A. Serial Killer and I had seen the works by Baudelaire and Grandrieux, yet I think that »landscape« as a term was not very present. There was a different link however, and that was the notion of violence. In A.K.A. Serial Killer, the gaze is diverted from the actual crime scenes of the murders, which the »serial killer« Norio Nagayama was the suspect of, towards a more structuralist look at the built environment that Nagayama must have seen in the 19 years of his life before he got arrested. It’s a redefinition of the crime scene: Landscape is where the power of the state is exercised on its citizens, without them necessarily noticing the amount of violence it inflicts on them.
»There is an actual appearance of two human bodies that represent the protagonists of the affair, yet I think they rather represent an idea – of a certain lifestyle, a certain time, a certain type of gender relation, certain world views, and the sensations related to them. The smell of spilled beer and brown gravy, the sound of someone removing their fish nets, the suggestive gendering of male and female voices in actuality and educational films, and so on.« – P. Widmann
In the context of Szenario, I had a similar notion of the built environment of a postwar city in West-Germany representing a sublime violence. Not as an allegory, rather as an embodiment. This violence appears and reappears in other forms as well: the rather cold look that the author of the documents seems to have at the affair he has with his secretary; the transformation of people into statistical/calculable figures; the public image and the legislation that put women in their place at the time; a certain fascination for progress and a Cartesian worldview. All of these speak of certain measures of control that are exercised on people and that also find their expression in the city landscape.
I think the notion of »embodiment« is interesting when thinking of the other elements of the film that you mention and their connection to the landscape pictures. There is an actual appearance of two human bodies that represent the protagonists of the affair, yet I think they rather represent an idea – of a certain lifestyle, a certain time, a certain type of gender relation, certain world views, and the sensations related to them. The smell of spilled beer and brown gravy, the sound of someone removing their fish nets, the suggestive gendering of male and female voices in actuality and educational films, and so on. Eventually, all thaxt appears in the film is more like an example. It could be like this, but maybe it could also be like that. This woman could be like Monika, she could be a Monika, making similar experiences. I’m not sure what the accurate name for such a trope would be called in literary studies. Since it gives physical shapes to ideas, I call it embodiment for the time being.
PC: This is what I was thinking of with my reference to Adachi, more than a direct parallel between your work and his. What you both have in common is the perspective of someone familiar with the significance of landscapes in a given society. Of course, you are not simply a direct product of this period in West German history but you are German, and there is a personal element in the approach that you (and Karsten) take. This could be characterized as something similar to Harun Farocki’s How to Live in the German Federal Republic, where daily life is reduced to a series of instructional videos, something you play with in similar ways in Szenario, as you noted.
Another related depiction of postwar West German society is Walter Abish’s 1980 novel How German is It?. I mentioned this novel in my original review of Szenario because I felt that you had found a way of representing what the novel had done in a literary sense in a cinematic form that drew directly on audiovisual objects from the period. But you do so in a way that relies equally on »real« artifacts such as physical traces or the period films and on more »literary« descriptions, like the sense of »spilled beer and brown gravy.« Of course, whenever a society concerns itself with organization, sexuality can’t be far away, which I alluded to in my first comments, and this is a major topic of Abish’s novel.
»…the narrator speaks methodically of sexual excitement and pleasure, so while we follow the film’s lead in reading into that the critique of an order-obsessed society, we’re simultaneously able to appreciate the characters’ notion of sexuality – their own and one another’s. This is a major feat, as far as I’m concerned – achieving your critique while also opening up space for its object’s complexity.« – P. Cartelli
Maybe I can resume what I wanted to say about bodies and sexuality in Szenario by talking about the ways in which the film deals with pleasure. First of all, the shots, in general, are very pleasing in an aesthetic sense. They’re well-framed and illuminated using mostly natural light, and they reveal what they have to say in a subtle manner. I’m actually struck at times by how the film becomes something that I’m not sure it intends to be – a tour of under appreciated architectural elements in Cologne. Many of the shots include rainy conditions, and the gentle patter of raindrops throughout the film creates a pleasing rhythm. There’s a particular shot that I recall which shows off the slight undulation of a pedestrian overpass with dark green tree leaves heavy with rain in the background and a car passing directly in front of the camera. It’s possible to appreciate shots like this on their own, but within the context of the film they gain in complexity: the narrator speaks methodically of sexual excitement and pleasure, so while we follow the film’s lead in reading into that the critique of an order-obsessed society, we’re simultaneously able to appreciate the characters’ notion of sexuality – their own and one another’s. This is a major feat, as far as I’m concerned – achieving your critique while also opening up space for its object’s complexity. I find myself sympathetic for the characters, and this allows them to develop into the complex individuals whom they no doubt were/are.
But back to what you were saying about embodiment. Is this the same thing that you called »transmission potential« when we were speaking in advance of this conversation?
PW: Yes, that’s what I called »transmission potential,« in the sense of the potential of taking an idea and expressing it through a specific thing that »embodies« it. As a figure of speech, that would be metonymy or synecdoche, but I would have to look that up.
I didn’t know about Abish’s novel when I read your review, but read it afterwards, and later, when I was at Solitude , I asked for the book to be bought for the library. Each fellow gets to mention two books he or she wants for the library, and I thought that How German Is It? would be a good addition in a place where many of the residents are in Germany for the first time, and that is still somehow out of it – up on the hill, a semi-fictional space for some. Almost like the fictional town of Brumholdstein, where the novel is set.
What struck me about the book is that, while it reads more like a parody of post war Germany, it is clearly written by someone from an outsider’s point of view who doesn’t speak the language – the »Germanness« here is similar to the old »Old Europeanness« in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel – it does create something of an authentic atmosphere. An awkward stuffiness or stiflingness of suppressed sexuality and the grief about a lost grandeur – an assumed grandeur, to be precise – that is compensated through new wealth.
Of course, being born much later, I’m just as much of an outsider when it comes to judging this atmosphere. But I think that in the 1980s when I grew up, there still was a faint notion of actually living in the 1950s. The ideological divide was still there, between nations and within the country. There were those who had »liberated« themselves at the end of the 1960s and those who tried to keep old ideals of family and nation alive.
Coming back to the film, however, it’s quite easy to see that the divide is not as clear. It’s the year 1970, and the two protagonists are not the ones who have just sexually liberated themselves and are fighting against the old order. But they are the ones who try to make space for their lust within the confines of a bourgeois model of marriage and family. They have an affair, and they know how to deal with the consequences. She takes the pill, and when it fails he pays for the illegal abortion. That’s possibly the flipside of conservative ideals: Few people can truthfully adhere to them, and by secretly taking care of their desires and needs and the resulting damage, they start to live double lives with their own hidden economies.
»Eventually, what the film does to me – and hopefully to others, too – is to create a highly ambivalent situation on many levels. A situation where the shots of the city are both aesthetically pleasing and representing the sublime violence mentioned earlier. Where the voices are extremely controlled but speak of physical pleasures. Where, likewise, the text speaks of physical pleasures, but also of the control exercised on someone. This kind of ambivalence is possibly more truthful to what most people experience in their lives than anything else.«– P. Widmann
I think what I just wrote is falling into line with what you had written about social critique and a simultaneous appreciation of the characters’ sexuality. Eventually, what the film does to me – and hopefully to others, too – is to create a highly ambivalent situation on many levels. A situation where the shots of the city are both aesthetically pleasing and representing the sublime violence mentioned earlier. Where the voices are extremely controlled but speak of physical pleasures. Where, likewise, the text speaks of physical pleasures, but also of the control exercised on someone. This kind of ambivalence is possibly more truthful to what most people experience in their lives than anything else.
Abish put a quote by Jean-Luc Godard at the very beginning of the novel. It says: »What is really at stake, is one’s image of oneself.« In a way, I found this to be quite fitting for the ambivalent situation that the film creates as well. Because that is what we perhaps feel the characters of the film will have to face: a redefinition of their identity – a closer look at who they are, what they represent, and what they want to be – that in the film is not being realized.
PC: This is another thing I liked about your film: It doesn’t deride its bourgeois protagonists and it finds the space and time to consider them, despite their relative gender inequality, as victims of a society within which they have ostensibly been given a great degree of social (but above all economic) liberty. This is no small feat, especially since many other filmmakers, artists, and writers tend to treat similar subjects with derision. It’s not clear to what extent they find their images of themselves indelibly altered by their experiences, but you give us the opportunity to see those frequently identified as consumer society automatons as significantly more multidimensional individuals.
When I first saw Szenario, I was working on my own nonfiction film, Promenade, which a couple of years later has been completed. One of my goals in depicting the transformation of a waterfront public space in southern France was to establish an equality between the different users of the space. Following the lead of the architectural scale images that covered billboards in Marseille during the period when I was shooting the film, I treated locals, tourists, those to whom renovated spaces seemed to be directed, and interlopers with a balanced degree of attention and respect. There’s a critique that is perceptible throughout the film, relating to the effects of the space’s transformation, but I was aiming for a subtle approach that – as I revisit Szenario – reminds me of what stood out for me in your film at the time.
In our conversation, we’ve moved through a number of the themes that we’d discussed in advance, but there’s maybe one last one that I’d like to bring up on my end. In our few interactions, I’ve gotten the sense that you, like me, are not particularly one for labels. Having seen not only Szenario but also your short Fictitious Force, and looking forward to your more recent feature A House in Ninh Hoa, it’s clear to me that you like operating between different regimes of representation, whether these go by the name »fiction« or »documentary,« or in a disciplinary sense, »cinema« or »art.« I also recall that, like me, you have a background in anthropology while you are now primarily a practicing cinematic artist.
»Having seen not only Szenario but also your short Fictitious Force, and looking forward to your more recent feature A House in Ninh Hoa, it’s clear to me that you like operating between different regimes of representation, whether these go by the name ›fiction‹ or ›documentary,‹ or in a disciplinary sense, ›cinema‹ or ›art.‹ I also recall that, like me, you have a background in anthropology while you are now primarily a practicing cinematic artist.« – P. Cartelli
I imagine that there is something relevant in your educational background. Szenario is a work of art, to be sure, but it has something of the anthropological about it, even if only in its reflexivity. And yet, in your approach to »documentary« filmmaking, I observe a keener interest in illustrating or depicting rather than describing. Even when the topic of the film (Szenario) is itself a description or a series of descriptions, the work of art itself is primarily concerned with illustrating this series or system rather than analyzing it. This, to me, has always been the key different between social scientists’ products and those works of art that may have something in common with sociology or anthropology. Rather than assuming the position of expertise, they seek to transmit a perspective or the sense of a perspective to their viewers and thus empower the spectator to form their own perspective. There’s certainly more to your films (or mine) than this, including the multidimensional notion of pleasure that I brought up in my last comment, but I wanted to take advantage of our exchange to bring this up, in part to hear how you would go about situating yourself and your own practice within this framework.
PW: After reading your lines, I watched Promenade again last night. You’re right, it is a very respectful, equalized way of capturing the spaces and the people that appear in them. For Szenario, there was a notion of the city being a collection of stages, and in Promenade it seems to be one very large stage. The way the pictures are framed, the expanse of the space seems ultimately accessible for a viewer as almost always everything is in focus and very bright. So I could mentally put myself as another figure anywhere in those spaces. At the same time, however, this has also quite an uncanny effect as it seems as if no one can hide in this space, it’s almost panopticon-like.
That’s perhaps the difference in the spaces that the two films display: Whereas in Promenade everything seems to be hypervisible – and thus controlled – at all times, in Szenario control happens behind closed curtains, in cars and in dark corners, basically in an imaginary space behind the image. That’s just an association though, you don’t openly address it in the film, but the way the space is captured this is one of its main characteristics that becomes visible.
»Because what an anthropological approach – if you want to call it that – ideally does in my opinion, is to find meaning from within the system it describes rather than imposing it from the outside. I think it’s a highly volatile approach, as often it doesn’t work out no matter how reflected one is and how this reflection of subjectivity becomes part of the work.« – P. Widmann
Since you brought up the dichotomy of »describing« and »depicting,« I wonder where Promenade would sit. It is descriptive without a doubt, but I figure that within the description there’s a certain permeability for association and interpretation. It’s not imposing a way of reading upon me, and that’s an openness that I’m looking for in my own work. Thus, it becomes difficult to situate it at times or to attach labels to it. What you call »illustration« or »depiction« is basically an attempt to mold ideas into an audiovisual form. Ideas are sometimes hard to grasp, so eventually the audiovisual form tends to work with similarities, stand-ins, or even parables. That is possibly a more artistic way of approaching the medium, but I find it hard to categorize this myself. You did that to some extent already.
But the other part, our shared background in anthropology, is perhaps more tangible: I’m not very familiar with the Sensory Ethnography Lab that you work with, but I’ve seen some of the work that has emerged from there. To me it seemed ambiguous, most of what I saw evades placing the notion of an author that is identifiable from within the work, yet at the same time is very clear in its perspective and its subjectivity and constructedness. This is something that I found interesting as it indeed creates a space that you attribute to my work and your own; it creates thought potential and leaves this open for the viewer to use it or not.
Because what an anthropological approach – if you want to call it that – ideally does in my opinion, is to find meaning from within the system it describes rather than imposing it from the outside. I think it’s a highly volatile approach, as often it doesn’t work out no matter how reflected one is and how this reflection of subjectivity becomes part of the work. Eventually it’s an approach that occasionally provokes critique: Time and again, there are people who do in fact demand an author’s perspective that is more clearly defined as a personal perspective. And I think there it’s two fundamentally different approaches that clash: One is what you call empowerment by creating an opportunity for expressing your own perspective, the other is one that is more related to a debate where you anticipate controversy in order to make it easier for you to shape your own opinion in relation to others’.