Nicolas Rey’s third feature film, differently, Molussia (2012), is an adaptation of a novel he’s never read. Written between 1932 and 1936, Günther Anders’s The Molussian Catacomb analyzes the rise of fascism by way of a series of parable-like conversations between two men imprisoned deep beneath the surface of Molussia, an imagined country. Unlike Anders’s later philosophical work, with which Rey is quite familiar, the novel has never been translated into French or English. Curious about the book, Rey enlisted the help of a German-speaking friend, who selected and translated a few chapters, and from that material, Rey then chose eight sections to adapt. The resulting film is built from nine reels of 16mm, one reel per chapter, along with a wordless interlude. (“Lud is the Latin root for ‘play,’” Rey told me. “I think the film has an element of play in it.”)
Rey introduced differently, Molussia at the Toronto International Film Festival by reading a long quotation from one of Anders’s later essays. In it Anders critiques the common usage of the word “totalitarian.” Rather than an adjective by which one speaker defines himself in opposition to another (it’s always the other power or system that is “totalitarian”), Anders argues that totalitarianism is instead characterized by its “sense of the machine.” What can be done, must be done. Once a technique is discovered, it must be marketed until a need for it is created, which can then be exploited for profit. Rey quoted Anders again during the post-screening question and answer session: “Nothing discredits a man more quickly than critiquing a machine.”
Rey’s previous film, Schuss! (2005), explores how the radical innovations of the early-20th century improved manufacturing processes and made possible both weapons of mass destruction and, eventually, multi-national capital. Rey finds a metonym for this historical development in a French ski resort that flourished alongside the burgeoning aluminum industry. The majority of the images in differently, Molussia are static shots of landscapes and architecture that were filmed within a short driving distance of Paris. Because the locations in Schuss! are so essential to the content of the film—Rey returns again and again to shots of skiers at the resort, transforming them into grotesque embodiments of decadence—I asked him if any of the places we see in differently, Molussia have a similar historical significance.
“Well, not in the sense that they relate specifically to fascism of the 1930s.”
He smiled while drawing out those last three words. Rey describes the experience of reading his friend’s rough translations of The Molussian Catacomb as a “shock”: “these writings from the ‘30s also sounded contemporary to me.” In my own notes from the screening, I compared one of the stories, an ironic and maddening debate in a café, to the kind of ideological nonsense that now pollutes Facebook during an election season. Rey’s images of machines transforming the land, of computers predicting the future, of fences, vacant parking lots, and lifeless Modernist architecture—these images turn our contemporary moment into a beautifully strange and absurd dystopia.
differently, Molussia is also timely in that it foregrounds the material of film at a moment when digital production, distribution, and projection threaten to sound the death knell for celluloid. The defining formal innovation of differently, Molussia is that its nine reels are assembled randomly for each screening, meaning that there are 362,880 potential versions of the film. Rey argues that this is a formal expression of Anders’s critique, that the very possibility of alternative narratives “opens something” in the viewer’s experience. But the randomness also makes audiences conscious of the handmade quality of this and every other film that has been pieced together and broken apart in a projection booth. “Handmade” is an especially apt descriptor for differently, Molussia, which Rey shot and processed using donated, outdated film stock. In his notes he describes the manual effort required to achieve the final result:
“At first, it was so difficult to obtain an interesting image with [the old stock] that I considered dropping the idea of using it. But after a year of experimentation, I ended up finding an appropriate process and printing procedure: A grainy, rough, atemporal image as fascinating as paintings of Caspar David Friedrich.”
Through his work at L’Abominable, a non-profit, artist-run film lab near Paris, Rey has become an outspoken advocate for analog film, and, indeed, he became most animated during our conversation when the subject turned to the economic realities of film production, preservation, and curating.
I spoke with Nicolas Rey on September 9, 2012, the day after differently, Molussia screened in Wavelengths, TIFF’s program of experimental films.
You mentioned last night after the screening that in your efforts to read The Molussian Catacomb you tried to teach yourself German?
I started taking courses just like anyone would to learn a language. But, of course, I soon realized that I wouldn’t be proficient enough to read literature. So I thought I’d trust Peter Hoffman to pick a number of chapters. I was glad that he liked the idea of collaborating on the film.
I became friends with Peter earlier because he translated Schuss! in German. He’s a very good French speaker, and he knows my films. Peter and Nathalie, my partner, then roughly translated the chapters he had selected. Very roughly. And then I must say—I always forget to say this—what a shock it was to discover the text, because before that I only had a very rough idea of what the book was about. I felt close to Anders in many ways. And that is why I trusted—had faith—that I would relate with the book enough to be able to make the film. People who had read it would explain what it was about, but when I had the chapters Peter had chosen I felt very close to it. It was a very strong meeting.
How did you identify with it? Was it the politics? The writing style?
A combination. In a way it’s very straightforward and witty. But these writings from the ‘30s also sounded contemporary to me. I was very impressed by that and happy to have found such a gem. Anders had a very clever understanding of what happened in Germany in the ‘30s. This understanding of the politics was the very base structure of his thought and of his way of seeing the world and of tackling problems.
Even his philosophical writing is not academic at all. Parts are theoretical, but very often it’s straightforward and witty as well. So I already had a feeling for who he was as a writer from the other books I had read in translation.
I was surprised to hear you say that what we hear in the film is often a recitation of the entire chapter.
Yeah, some chapters are very short. Anders often says it’s a bit like 1001 Nights. The chapters are numbered: day 1 and then night, day 2 and then night. And it goes on like this. Each time it is one full short story. Sometimes it’s just half a page. Sometimes it’s ten pages. But, yes, most of the time it’s the full chapter. “Back to Nature” is just the beginning of the chapter.
Can we use “Back to Nature” to talk about how you find your shots? It’s the only section that includes portraits, right? We see people working at computers?
I began with the idea that I would shoot the imaginary country of Molussia. That’s how I proceeded, in my head, to figure out what I would film. I realized, as I gathered the visual material, that there would be a feeling of distance in the image. This seemed appropriate because the book stages prisoners who speak about that country, although they are in prison. They speak about the outside world. A lot of the film is landscape shots, but I thought, “A country is also people, right?” So I tried to also film a few sections that would have people in it.
How do I find shots? It’s just things I’ve been thinking about filming. I have ideas like this, and if they don’t fit into one film, they’ll fit into another. It comes back to memory at a point when it feels right. I’d had the idea of shooting weather forecasters for some time. Don’t ask me why. [laughs] It was important to me, also, to film people in front of computers as an update of Anders’ critique of technology. I mean, he died in 1992, but I think the Internet would have killed him. Also, weather forecasters tell you the future. It all fits in nicely, I think. You don’t see many people behind computers in films, although so many fields now involve being behind a computer.
All day, every day.
All day, every day. We’re slaves to computers, but if you try to resist it . . . [laughs] . . . I don’t know. I escaped television completely—I’ve never owned a television, I never watch television—but I use computers as much as . . . [laughs] . . . well, too much.
There’s also a beautiful image in “Back to Nature” that is more typical of the style of the film. I think it’s . . .
The pillar, yeah. It’s a bridge, a freeway bridge.
You joked last night that you just drove around to film an imagined country. So you saw that bridge and pulled over? That’s the process?
Yeah, that’s the process. Totally. I mean, we drove over with Nathalie—she was with me for most of the shooting—and we had the cameras in the trunk and the sound equipment, and we’d pull over whenever something struck my eye or if we found a place where we thought the sound would be interesting. Most of the film [laughs . . . I don’t know if I should say this . . . most of the film is shot less than 100 meters from the road.
There was also the option of the spinning camera and the option of the wind camera. The wind camera has windmill blades of this diameter [extends arms two or three feet], the smallest windmill blades you can buy. Kristof designed and then we built this setup so that the blades are geared up to the mechanical Bolex. If there’s no wind, you can’t film, so you have to find a place where it’s windy enough to drive it because it takes a lot of wind to drive the camera. Once you find the right spot, you get out of the car and you pull out everything, you install it on the tripod—there’s a good brake on it so it doesn’t start before you want to—and then you release the break and step away, because it’s kind of dangerous when it rotates. You don’t want to have your arm in the way.
The camera finds the direction of the wind, and if there’s a lot of wind it goes fast in the camera so it will make slow motion, and if it goes slower it will accelerate. The exposure also changes. If it’s going fast, the exposure will be faint, and if it’s slow the exposure will be very strong on the negative so it will be a clear image. For example, it’s very clear in the section in the tall grass, because there the wind was very shaky, so the exposure changes a lot. Next to the sea, the exposure is more constant because the wind is more constant.
So, yes, we would drive around and use whatever apparatus was the right one.
Along with the voiceover, the soundtrack is built from a variety of natural and mechanical sounds. Did you collect those on the road, too?
I usually don’t record synched sound. Although there is synched sound in this film, in particular, because when Peter Hoffman reads the text, that is synched sound that I shot by myself. It was a nice performance. [laughs] A one-man crew shooting sound film. That’s me sitting beside him, triggering the camera. So, I don’t record synched sound, but I usually record sound on location when I film the image—sometimes at the same time, sometimes I film but don’t record, sometimes I just record.
You said you’d pull over whenever something “strikes your eye.” There are some beautiful images in this film, and I’m wondering what role, if any, beauty plays in your project.
In the beginning, I didn’t know what exactly I would film. It just built up along the way. It’s not that I would look for something specific. I would know that certain things would fit in because they would relate to other things I had already shot. Other things would be variations. It’s very intuitive. It was just a matter of, I think, trusting that my sensibility would meet up with Anders’s. That was the chance I took—that there would be some relation. Although I had a few shots in mind, like the weather forecasters, I trusted it would work because there is a kind of correspondence between us.
I saw differently, Mollusia with a friend last night, and when I asked him what he thought of the film he said that after the first two reels, he wasn’t sure if he was going to make it. But by the third, his mind began to race as the structure of the film began to reveal itself. I had a very similar response both to this film and to Schuss! These are the only two films of yours I’ve seen, but would you say this self-conscious structuring and the repetitions are essential to your work?
My first film, Soviets Plus Electricity (2002), was shot while travelling by train from Paris to the Pacific Ocean through the northern regions of Russia that were an area of deportation. The film is chronological in the image and chronological in the sound. The sound is like a vocal diary, like aural notes of the journey, and the images are shots along the way separated by black leader. But the time frame of the sound and image are different, so you hear things that you see later or that you’ve seen earlier, or sometimes in the middle of the reel you’ll be at the same place in the image and the sound. The way it’s shot structures itself along the way because I didn’t plan how I would film before I left. I left out of the blue to make that trip.
In general, when you make a film that is outside of conventions, it takes time for the person watching the film and listening to the film to find his position and to build the film in his head, because eventually that is where it is built. And it takes time. For different people, depending on a number of factors—ranging from the kinds of films you’ve seen to your current state of mind—it will take a different amount of time. Some people never find their way. Those are the people who leave. And I don’t blame them! Even when I edit I feel that. Sometimes it’s hard for me to be in the right position as a viewer. I think that’s true of all of the films I’ve made. It takes a little time to adjust to the film, to discover what position the film proposes.
Also, you know, the order of the reels you saw yesterday was a rough beginning. The first two reels were the most engaging in terms of sound, they’re very chaotic, and then it eases off along the way and ends with the only story that doesn’t have direct philosophical speech in it, the sailor’s story.
One of the chapters includes the line, “To begin a story is already a fabrication.” Had you already settled on the idea of randomizing the assembly of the film before discovering that line? Was it one more little point of connection between you and Anders?
I was settled on the randomness very early, but I was interested in that chapter not just because of that line but because I think that’s what relations are. It’s a very brilliant point.
Is the randomization essential to the politics of the film? To your and Anders’ critique of totalitarianism?
I think so. The way the audience sees it, knowing it could be in another order, this opens something. It goes through your mind, “Oh, but this could have gone before what I just saw.” I’m interested in the variety of visual and aural experiences you can create with cinema. I’ve been a watcher of experimental films for a number of years, and I think that’s really something experimental film explores and can keep exploring. Although I think my films are maybe somewhere apart from experimental film now.
In what sense?
Well, because I think the term “experimental” has now become historical. It’s time for the landscape to be remapped. When I hear “experimental” it’s like having a very old map. [laughs] I think it’s time for a certain corpus of work to be defended but not under the banner of “experimental”—under new banners.
And are you willing to propose new banners?
No, no, no, I’m not. I don’t curate enough to really be able to think deeply enough about that. I don’t watch enough films. It feels a bit like it has a lot of weight, “experimental.”
“Weight” in what sense?
I’m happy that the Wavelengths program here at TIFF has opened up. I was happy to see the crowd watching my film. I could feel they’re not necessarily the people who go out to see experimental film, and I very much like that. I like that the audience for my film can be wide and not used to watching that kind of cinema.
What are your opportunities now for showing this film?
Well, I’ve been very lucky that this film has been shown, and is going to be shown, in a large number of festivals. Imagine trying to convince a producer today to make a 16mm film by saying, “It’ll show everywhere!” But we’ve shown it at about twelve festivals since Berlin, and there’s more coming.
It’s very important to me to prove that you can still make films on film. There’s something very important about this. What’s at stake is organizing the possibility to continue producing on that medium. And showing films on that medium for people to curate. I’m surprised there’s not more questioning about that. Everyone has thrown up their hands and said, “It’s over. It’s over.”
Of course, it will never be the same, and the industry will never come back completely We’ve set up a website, filmlabs.org, that is dedicated to artist-run film labs. L’Abominable is one of them, but there are many—27 worldwide, I believe—from Australia to Niagara Custom Lab here in Toronto. In the past fifteen years, equipment has become more and more available, sometimes for free because it was put out on the sidewalk. It’s just a matter of being at the right place at the right time to pick it up. We are trying to organize ourselves, as filmmakers, so that we can use it and make our work ourselves in a way that, while small, will also be very new in the history of cinema. I prefer to look at in that positive way rather than as the “twilight of cinema.”
It’s not easy. It takes a lot of dedication, a lot of time. It takes proficiency in a number of fields, it takes people who are willing to do this, it takes places that are large enough to accommodate labs when you have no money. I’m sorry to be so materialistic, but we when we were evicted at L’Abominable, I faced this directly and was lucky enough to convince a city council next to Paris to give us space. So now we have space for at least a few years, where we’ve set up our equipment and will be able to make films.
But even on the curating side it’s getting difficult. I’m amazed that cinematheques are willing to show films on digital formats, presented as “preservation.” They’ve abandoned showing the work in its original format. There was a big conference at the French Cinematheque and I didn’t hear them say, “We’ll show the films on film as long as we can. We’ll fight for that.” Not at all. Only the film museum in Vienna has made a strong stand on the matter.
There’s a documentary festival in Lussas in France called Etats Generaux du Film Documentaire, and this summer they showed António Reis films, which are beautiful in 35mm. But they weren’t allowed to edit the reels together. Cinematheques hold prints but they won’t lend them because they’re too afraid that people will damage them. Prints cost so much, and they don’t have funding to strike new ones. They have funding only for digitization, and circulation is supposed to be digital. Preservation on film has become a secondary concern. It’s scary. In Lussas, it was shown in a small village from a truck that is like a travelling cinema. But since they didn’t have two projectors, there would be a kind of intermission after every reel and people got disgusted by the 35mm because they thought, “Well, this is shitty,” you know? It’s revolting, I think.
I’m sorry. I get . . . [laughs]
I was just about to say that you get more animated talking about preservation than about your film? Is that part of . . .
It’s totally part of what I do every day with the lab. I don’t have to get angry about my film, but I am angry about this situation. It goes back to the quote about totalitarianism that I read last night. I hope that showing a 16mm film makes a point.
Wavelengths is always the highlight of this festival for me because it’s such a rare opportunity—especially for someone like me who lives in a relatively small town in the USA—to see grainy 16mm films and to hear the projector and to be reminded constantly that you’re watching film.
It’s a different medium in terms of perception, and it’s also a very different medium in terms of the work it requires, the practice, especially for filmmakers like us who process and print our own prints. Video has nothing to do with being confronted by chemicals and heavy machines. I hope we will find a way to continue. And I hope that people who show film will be keen on making it possible to show it.