1. Werner’s Gaze, by Chantal

In the prospect of writing a text on Chantal, I viewed films she had shot during the 2008 Venice Film Festival, where she was the President of the Jury for the Orizzonti section; she had asked me to put them on the hard drive of my computer, for safekeeping.

Out of discretion, I had never looked at them before, but, for Senses of Cinema, I told myself that maybe they would contain some precious remarks by Chantal that I could transcribe and communicate. However, the private and intimate character of these films moved me to the core, and the moments recorded are so confidential that I do not feel entitled to divulge them. Yet I captured this portrait of Werner Schroeter that Chantal filmed on the large screen of the theatre where they projected the arrival of the guests during the closing ceremony.

Werner Schroeter was quite sick then, and he has also left us since (in 2010), but that night he delivered a sublime speech on cinema. Chantal loved Werner so, and she unceasingly proclaimed with all her radiant energy that he was the only one she would ever go to battle for. His gaze brings in our midst an abyssal world, reflected in his sweet handsome face. Cinema is this embrace from ghosts.

Translated and edited by Bérénice Reynaud.

2. Chantal Akerman, Ciné-Fille

Excerpts from The Pajama Interview

In the heat of the summer of 2011, although busy with the release of her new film, Chantal Akerman offered all the time needed to elaborate on this interview – which she reread and corrected while scattering I don’t know throughout, to reject, with characteristic tenacity and exactitude, any pretence of mastery. I have organised this wealth of material while interweaving commentaries on the films chosen by Chantal for the carte blanche series offered by the Viennale (the Vienna International Film Festival) and screened at the Filmmuseum.

Schroeter (Werner), 8mm Films with Maria Callas: Callas Walking Lucia, Maria Callas Portrait & Callas Text mit Doppelbeleuchtung (all 1968)

CA: I haven’t revisited these films, in my memory the most beautiful of Werner’s, since I discovered them in Cologne in 1971. Werner wasn’t there but I’d met him in 1969 in Belgium; Jacques Ledoux, the director of the Cinémathèque royale, had had him come. Werner was very handsome, he spoke every language, he was the blonde angel – very cultivated on his own account, clearly, not like an heir. We both meant a great deal to each other.

NB: You filmed his magnificent testament discourse in Venice, 2008.

CA: Yes, but I didn’t record the whole thing; José Luis [Guerin] should have the ending. In any case, I really fought for him to win a prize.

Bresson (Robert), Mouchette (1967)

CA: The ending of the film, with Mouchette rolling toward the river, is tremendous. With so little, Bresson makes us feel so much about the world: Mouchette rolls alongside all those who have ever been sacrificed; all those who haven’t been just raped but destroyed. All those who have been rolled in the mud.

NB: Mouchette prefers to remain in solidarity with her poacher-rapist and to die rather than stay with the old village dignitaries. She’s in solidarity with her class.

CA: Yes. I don’t know. Perhaps. I only remember the ending. When I was shooting D’Est in the Ukraine, we ran out of gas. Some peasants siphoned the gas from their car to give it to us, but then didn’t want us to leave and prepared a feast. Poor as they were, they cobbled together what they could to offer us a meal of a king. They didn’t know Prokofiev or Shostakovich, but they knew that when someone’s hungry, they have to eat. Stalin himself “forgot” to plan for the plowings, and caused a famine in the Ukraine that led to the deaths of seven million people. Even though he came from there, the Ukraine. Nothing is simple. Those same peasants could still have massacred the Jews in the war. The same peasants or others.

NB: What’s so frightening in Mouchette is that ferocious desire to die, this assertion of death. Mouchette tries three times before she manages to drown.

CA: Yes, it’s often like that when one wants to die: keep trying and then it comes. It’s also a film about France, which could be so beautiful and hides a kind of horror. Later, Mouchette is going to be buried, and the land is tied to the killing. It’s why I don’t trust the land. Blanchot wrote a beautiful text on the Jews and nomadism in The Infinite Conversation: he affirms nomadism and the book. 1 No land, no killings: Blanchot explains that land equals blood and that the world is nothing more than an enormous cemetery, still bloody, while the book can be a bloodless land. To live without one’s own land is to risk becoming an enormous slaughterhouse. Nomadism is beautiful and it’s heroic. But is it good to be heroic all the time?

Garrel (Philippe)

NB: You also appear in Philippe Garrel’s Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les sunlights (1985) and Les Ministères de l’art (1988). Philippe is only two years older than you, and you have a lot of the same reference points, Rimbaud, Godard, and the same minimalist, anarchist tendencies …

CA: I don’t know if we have the same references. Young men dream of Rimbaud, not young girls. Anarchist? I don’t see myself in that word. I was there, of course, and I wanted to make films, in ‘68. Yes, Godard, of course, minimalist. I remember when Philippe came to the house to film Elle a passé… . I hadn’t slept the night before. He had an old camera, nearly broken. He had to secure the lens with his hand.

NB: That’s why that film is so stunning.

CA: Maybe.

Murnau (F. W.), Tabu (1931)

CA: Such simplicity, such economy, such beauty in how it treats its young characters. Such horror toward the persecutors. I love Sunrise (1927) too, but in Tabu things go worse, the couple doesn’t recover like in Sunrise. There’s no good and bad woman.

NB: In Almayer’s Folly, the shot of the boat with all the young people asleep seems like a cross between Tabu and The Night of the Hunter (1955).

CA: It’s possible. I don’t have any visual memory, only emotional; I don’t remember exact shots, only what they evoked for me.

Pasolini (Pier Paolo), Mamma Roma (1962)

CA: I love this woman. Her generosity. I feel sad for her when she gives the money to the gigolo. Her son dies like another Christ – that’s a weakness of the film, for me, without a doubt because I have a sort of revulsion towards Catholicism. Unfairly, I’m sure. The film is great, not for its fiction, but its documentary dimension, with Anna Magnani as female character. When she’s walking with the other prostitutes during that uneven tracking shot, clearly taken from a car, and you follow along in her joy and that of the other women – for just this shot, the film is very great.

Sirk (Douglas), Written on the Wind (1956) & Fassbinder (R.W.), In a Year with 13 Moons (1978)

CA: “Written on the Wind”, that title is so beautiful. Douglas Sirk managed to sneak so much subversiveness into the melodrama, it’s enough to think of Imitation of Life (1959) and the way he invites a white viewer to feel what a black woman would feel. Fassbinder was very influenced by Sirk, but he brought more rawness to it. Sirk doesn’t give the impression of holding grudges against anyone; in his films, there’s no trace of resentment. Whatever Sirk’s conscious desire, it’s completely surpassed by the film itself. That’s what gives it its force, its beauty.

NB: However, whether in your films or installations, you’ve always shunned pathos and psychology.

CA: While my tendency has always been towards Bresson, I think that it’s possible to go towards the same, essential materiality through the opposite path, through melodrama. Bresson and Sirk, two opposing paths that finally meet; the final shot of Pickpocket (1959) could be put at the end of a Douglas Sirk film. Sirk is already there in Dante’s Inferno, and Bresson is still on the threshold, in transit. I bring up Dante because of the fire.

NB: In Written on the Wind, it’s the fire of the derricks and the oilfields.

CA: The devil’s gold that – it’s insinuated throughout – fattens the land and soils the sea.

Chantal Akerman

La région centrale

Snow (Michael), La région centrale (1971)

CA: I saw it in New York, when I was 21, thanks to Babette Mangolte, who brought me into a world I hadn’t known about, a world at the time very small, very covert. The sensory experience I underwent was extraordinarily powerful and physical. It was a revelation for me, that you could make a film without telling a story. And yet the tracking shots of <——–> (Back and Forth, 1969) in the classroom, with movements that are purely spatial while nothing is happening, produce a state of suspense as tense as anything in Hitchcock. I learned from them that a camera movement, just a movement of the camera, could trigger an emotional response as strong as from any narrative.

NB: Your films of the time immediately rework these new experiences.

CA: Yes, but they’re very different, too. I didn’t want them to belong to scientific experimentation. I didn’t adopt Snow’s programmatic style, I’m not into the confirmation or repudiation of a hypothesis. On that point, I depart from him. But his films freed me.

NB: In the long run, don’t you think you’ve come back to them in your installations, which are cut off from narrative?

CA: No, because I’m not into purely experimenting with an idea. I’m looking for something, I’m not sure what; I don’t stick to the conceptual, ever. Besides which, he was a terrific ladies’ man; he brought me up to his loft and I was helpless. But content.

Straub (Jean-Marie) & Huillet (Danièle), Moses and Aaron (1975)

CA: I saw it at Cannes at the time. The subject excited me greatly. It was so beautiful, captivating, intelligent – a beauty that doesn’t want to be beautiful, and that’s how it’s achieved. Aaron lets the Golden Calf be raised; thanks to him, the Commandments are broken, so now they’re not only Commandments, but among the most powerful ideas in the world. Straub & Huillet’s materialism allows them to take off from the religious aspect, which is vital to us. The difference between Moses and Aaron concerns the question of exodus – a crucial moment for humanity, whether one is Jewish, Arab, or anything else. Everything is there: the Law, the broken law, the exodus of the slaves, the idol. We’re still there, and we haven’t quite realised it. Exodus is one of the most important books of the Western and Semitic world.

Girl/Daughter

NB: You always talk about yourself in terms of a fille, girl, daughter; one of your self-portraits is titled Portrait of a Young Girl in Brussels at the End of the ‘60s, and the main female character in Almayer’s Folly is named Nina, petite fille or little girl. Fille signifies youth but most of all a filiation, a heritage. For you does fille mean not to be a femme, a woman?

CA: Possibly. Probably. I don’t know. I never grew up. I was always an overgrown child. Almayer is a father who has a dream for his daughter and maybe for himself in regards to her. I never followed my father’s dream, to have a family. I stayed a girl, the daughter of my mother. In the end, I don’t know.

My sister, yes: she started a family in Mexico. She has two beautiful, intelligent children. My niece is getting married soon and the line will continue. Sometimes I regret not having kids. Maybe I would have gone from a daughter to a woman – but whether that was possible for me, I don’t know. Probably not.

NB: So you determined to remain the girl.

CA: I wouldn’t say determined. But it’s what happened. I was the first child. My mother always scolded me for not eating, she obsessed over food. At three months old, I was sent to board in Switzerland, to eat porridge, always the same porridge, and they knocked my chin against the sink if I didn’t eat it. Things got better when my sister was born. As a teenager, I ate voraciously – which bothered my father, since you had to keep skinny to get married. He was a Jewish father, nine years older than my mother, with three sisters he also took care of, and my grandfather who lived with us. To show us what we should or shouldn’t do, he banged the palm of his hand on the table top.

NB: Something you often do yourself.

CA: Yes, probably. In the ‘50s, parents claimed their own authority; they didn’t want to be friends with their kids.

NB: They were the trustees and guarantors of a law. What values did your parents want to impart?

CA: Yes, the Fathers, in any case. You had to be a good human being. To act properly: there was what one did and what one didn’t do, and in the end it was that simple, even when you didn’t agree.

But, on the other hand, they didn’t encourage me to work at all. My father didn’t pay any attention to school, and for months I didn’t go. My mother signed my report card half-asleep on her bed. They never pushed me to study, even though I was quite good at school. But afterwards, high school was a disaster. Because I was a good student, they sent me to a very wealthy, rigorous high school for the intellectual elite, Belgian Freemason types. I met daughters of doctors, academics and captains of industry. I was an outcast.

My father became a worker when he was 12. On my father’s side, I come from a family that’s tumbled down the social ladder. My family in Poland was rich, and my grandmother was accustomed to a grand lifestyle. Her three daughters learned to play piano. But then they fled Poland with nothing and my father became a worker, a glove-maker, to feed his family.

He would have liked a son in my place, so his name would have been carried on. One day I asked him: “Have you seen what I’ve done with your name?” He’d read a few articles on me, but it wasn’t enough; in any case I wouldn’t perpetuate his name, so disappointment was predetermined.

NB: What was your mother’s name?

CA: Leibel.

NB: Almost an anagram of “Liebe”, German for “love”. [In Yiddish, Leibel signifies “little lion”].

CA: In her family, the most important person was her mother. Her father was a cantor in the synagogue and their marriage, of course, was arranged. My grandmother was already a feminist; she wanted to become a painter and get married on her own. She was born in 1905, and her mother was very religious. She didn’t get the life she wanted – no more than my mother, who admitted as much the day after my father died. With a kind of fury. This time, I was the one who couldn’t understand. Am I the repository of all that? Doubtless – all that, and other stuff, too.

Chantal Akerman

NB: If you go back to your life, your freedom, your creativity – don’t you have the feeling of a kind of reparation?

CA: No, definitely not. What reparation? At first, I thought I was speaking out, since my mother never had been able to – but now I know that’s not it. That I never had a choice. Not really. Well, I don’t know.

I lack that kind of drive to be constantly turning my thoughts into actions … But everything comes from the journal of my grandmother. When I got sick for the first time, my mother fled, but left me the diary of her mother, who came from a very orthodox family. In 1919, at 15, she was writing: “It’s only in you, dear diary, that I can confide my feelings and my grief, since I’m a woman!” She would paint in secret on Saturdays. My mother thinks I’m her heir, that it all comes from her. My grandmother made dresses and drew the models herself. My mother’s dream, before the war, was to learn to draw so she could open a fashion house with her mother. But that dream died in the camps along with so many others, and nothing more was possible.

When I wanted to make movies, my father didn’t want it. He was scared I’d be overwhelmed, that it would go badly. But my mother said, “let her”.

The diary was the only thing that was left of her mother. I’ve read it a dozen times. My mother wrote a couple lines in it, I did too, then my little sister as well. A whole female tradition. Thanks to it, my mother never believed that men were superior. Of course, she served my father, she gave him the best pieces at dinner … but not in her head. My father admired his mother greatly; he never said so, but I could tell. I only knew her when she was crazy. She held it together during the war, and cracked after.

One night, I was writing A Couch in New York to please my father – thinking that it would bring in money and that money would finally satisfy him. My uncle (by marriage) told me how devoted my father was to his mother (whom I’d only known after she became crazy), more than to their father. That gave me some space to breathe, let me feel somewhat relieved. But it meant I had to save myself. If I didn’t, as a daughter who’s always withdrawn, what would I become? In a clinic my whole life, like one of my aunts.

Reprinted, with kind permission, from the now definitively out-of-print bilingual (French/English) Viennale Useful Book #1 publication: Chantal Akerman, The Pajama Interview (2011). English translation by David Phelps, revised by LOLA.
© Nicole Brenez & The Vienna International Film Festival August 2011

 

Endnote

  1. Maurice Blanchot (trans. Susan Hanson), “Being Jewish” in The Infinite Conversation (University of Minnesota Press, 1993), pp. 123-130.

About The Author

Nicole Brenez teaches film studies at Paris 3 University and curates the experimental and avant-garde programs at the Cinémathèque Française. Author of several books, with Philippe Grandrieux she produced the collection It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, devoted to revolutionary fimmakers.