DOCUMENTA KASSEL 16/06-23/09 2007

“A form of second life pervades the entire film programme. It touches on one of the fundamental elements of the modern cinema: the question of how one deals with memory.” - Interview with Alexander Horwath

Alexander Horwath, Director of the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna, was curator of the film programme in the Gloria cinema at documenta 12. In this interview, he speaks about the relevance of Vertigo, why cinema needs its own location and how everything began decades ago with Winnetou.

Let's start at the end: the last evening programme at the Gloria cinema screened Vertigo, La Jetée and The Spiral Jetty – a classic, an experimental film and the documentation of an artistic work, essentially the heart of the documenta 12 film programme. What was your motivation behind this (special) selection?

It is a very representative programme which expresses what was of importance to me in the exploration of the film medium within the framework of a documenta: to avoid, where possible, the usual (especially in the art world) demarcation lines and division of films into sub-genres. The programme clearly expresses the idea that it is necessary to encounter the different forms generated by the medium on an equal footing. This also applies to the completely different conditions under which the films were produced. Viewers were invited to engage with this concept during the course of a programme lasting over three hours.
The programme was devised at a relatively early stage of my considerations concerning content as Vertigo is a film of central importance to me. If you trace the development of film criticism and theory in the post-war period, then Hitchcock, and in particular Vertigo, was one of the films which generated a new form of cinema interpretation: a popular film from one of the most successful and famous Hollywood directors, which at the same time, appeared to many writers and critics, such as Chabrol, Rohmer or Godard, to be virtually an experimental film. One sometimes felt, whether through the use of montage or the spatial construction, that the much-cited rules of “classical” Hollywood cinema were being transcended and that the narrative played a secondary role. It is certainly no coincidence that many film makers draw from Vertigo almost as if it were a model – right up to Mulholland Drive by David Lynch.
The basic structure of Vertigo i.e., this moment of return “from the realm of the dead”, a form of second life, pervades the entire film programme. It touches on one of the fundamental elements of the modern cinema: the question of how one deals with memory, how different times can converge within the medium of the film. La Jetée takes this idea even further: a person returns into the past from out of the future. Even the museum topos, which appears in all three of the films mentioned, points in this direction.
And then there is another level of the (elective) affinity, which at first glance may appear to be a surface phenomena, but which goes much deeper for me, namely the spiral form that is so central to these three films. The Spiral Jetty that Smithson built doesn’t just connect with the spiral images in Hitchcock and Marker, but captures something of that ceaseless gyration present within these films, and which grips you when you start thinking about time in film. For me, such non-linear, spiral-shaped effects are essential parts of film in general.

Photo: Isabel Winarsch
In the panel discussion “Expanded film festival”, a great deal of discussion took place on what was the ‘ideal’ presentation form for film on the occasion of the last Berlinale. The forum series “Forum expanded” has just been initiated in connection with installation presentation forms. Film makers are often ‘integrated’ into art exhibitions. What does your decision to provide a separate space for the screening of film mean against the background of the gradual breaking down of the borders between film and art?

My part in this panel discussion naturally had a certain polemical component to it, consciously so. I am not someone who says that moving images should be banned from art spaces. However, at the same time, I have seen enough examples and followed these debates closely enough over the last 15 years, to be able to say that I consider much of what the art world takes for granted when dealing with moving images to be highly unproductive and directed against the works themselves. In this respect, I was in agreement with Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack from the very start that what was required was a conscious gesture. The film medium has a very long, independent history – and a long and complex history in its relationship to the art world. Many art curators today attempt to set an accent by presenting films outside the cinema, considering this to be a progressive and critical stance in itself. However, in the first place, with the contemporary omnipresence of filmic images in the public space, there is nothing progressive about this any more at all. Secondly, cinema itself brought about the “Expanded cinema” as early as the 1960s.
There are intrinsic qualities of the medium that are related to a specific space and time constellation. Curators frequently build spaces designed for strolling, where one perceives what is taking place within a series of different rooms or black boxes merely in passing. However, many works are designed to be experienced as a time-limited event with a start and a finish. You sometimes hears the odd theory that the viewer is a freer and more autonomous subject when he can walk around the filmic installation and return to it at will, as opposed to when he goes to the cinema. I consider this to be a childish point of view. One could provide the polemic response that the reception mode of strolling past moving images in an art setting has more in common with strolling through a shopping mall, with the consumption mode.
The next question would be that of the art market and the manner in which it deals with, from its perspective, ‘difficult’ objects, such as film. The art market is forced to turn films into editions, it has to subject film to certain practices that make it object-like and saleable – however this conflicts with the medium and its potentially unlimited distribution logic. There is something, so to speak, ‘unsaleable’ that resides in film, an immateriality that also constitutes its Utopian element.

However, there is also a film market, and, especially in the last decade, there has been an explosion of multiplex cinemas, film shopping malls. What do you think about this development?

Naturally I am ambivalent about it. When I speak about a film Utopia, this is directed against different forms of non-intensity, of exchangeability – and these are found in the multiplex as often as in the art space. I consciously choose the term ‘shopping malls’ for certain types of modern museums because the dominant type of contemporary perception functions like a shopping mall. One also becomes conscious of this in the multiplex – the fact that film as a component of the general consumer culture still has a role to play. On the other hand, cinema remains, even in this context, a special, social space. The coming together of a specific audience on this day, at this screening, in this multiplex, in this city in the south of the USA, in Thailand or in Finland, generates a completely different experience of the same film, which can only be interpreted together with this specific audience.

Alexander Horwath (right) in discussion with Catrin Seefranz , documenta 12 head of communications, and Roger M. Bürgel, artistic director
Another example of a film program : In the Street, Un giorno in Barbagia, Aufsätze as well as High School – very different films that share an exploration of specific groups of young people in their relationship to the public realm, questioning this relationship. With reference to the third of the documenta leitmotifs: What is to be done(with film)? What is the relationship of the (presentation) form of cinema to the issue of education?

This relationship has undergone significant historical change. Up until recently the education system and the cinema system were arch enemies. This can be traced back to the time when the first pupil bunked off school to go to the cinema. There is this deep routed experience, according to which the cinema is the absolute antithesis of the official site of education. Even the cineaste of the post war era is strongly influenced by such conceptions, this is nicely demonstrated in Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups. However, at the same time, one can already see how the cinema can be understood as a better school, that it is easier to penetrate to the truths and wisdoms of life in the cinema than in the school, that it is far easier to apply what one has seen, heard and learnt there to ones own existence. The cinema has become a more adventurous, wilder, freer, more authentic site of education.
The film High School from Frederick Wiseman presents, in a very conscious manner, but without resorting to polemical commentary, that aspect of school where its role as a disciplinary institute becomes manifest – young people caught in the friendly cogs of a machine that strives to shape them into successful American citizens. The shorter films from Peter Nestler, Helen Levitt and Vittorio De Seta that I selected, are, it must be stated, great works in themselves. However I placed them in a program together with High School because I felt that in this constellation the force of resistance they are capable of mobilising could be experienced with greater intensity. They show children in different states of being not-yet–completely-disciplined.
What the four films – all in the context of documentary work – explore are the border regions between the experience of being a child, of being young as an adventure, and entry into the different social institutions where they are to be educated.

In his concluding comments to the last film festival in Venice, Michael Althen proposed that there should be more exchange between the concurrent art and architecture biennials held in the city. Do you think this suggestion was wise? What could such a cooperation look like? Can you envisage such a cooperation?

I can definitely picture it. From 1999 to 2001 I was an advisor to the then director of the film festival in Venice, Alberto Barbera, who in the course of these three years made great efforts to intensify the dialog, because, at the end of the day, La Biennale di Venezia is an institution. At that time cooperative work was carried out which resulted in installations from Kiarostami and Egoyan being shown in the rooms of the art biennial. It was his idea that installations be shown at the Lido, that is, in a film festival context. I consider it logical that in the years of the art or the architecture biennial one attempts to create forms of encounter in which the film festival audiences are also confronted with the ‘expanded’ forms, with manifestations of the filmic beyond cinema projections, and visa versa. There is only one prerequisite for this: that the respective artistic directors and heads of the sections cultivate a regular and intensive dialog.

One concluding question: what were your beginnings as a cinema-goer?

Are you familiar with the Karl May films? Winnetou? Good German bastard culture, with which, so to speak, I entered the cinema. I also thank television for my film socialisation, not just the cinema. However the first, more intensive – and in serial form – cinematic impressions were actually provided by the German Westerns. The Karl May films from the 1960s are amongst the most successful products of the German cinema industry ever, which is the reason why they were still being screened in the cinemas at the start of the 1970s, where I ‘retrospectively’ discovered them.

I tend to remember Spaghetti Westerns from this time…

Funnily enough the German Westerns started earlier. The first one came out in 1962, after that they ran parallel to the Italian Westerns.
This addictive aspect of the series, that I know very well – interestingly, more from the cinema than television –  probably originates from this early Karl May experience. However it also has a lot to do with literary seriality. That was also the case with the Jules Verne novels: if you read one then you wanted to read them all. This applies to genre art in general, or at least to my own affection for genre films; one enters a virtual family of characters and looks forward to returning there again and again.

Thank you for the interview.

The interview was conducted by Elena Zanichelli.


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