We are all inmigrants, strangers in our world - Interview with Fred Kelemen

By Saša Markuš

Fred Kelemen is one of the most innovative and exciting contemporary European film directors; he was born in Germany but five feature films he has made so far were shot on locations all over Europe. The last one, Krišana (Fallen, 2005) was made in co- production between Germany and Latvia, and filmed in Riga. Each of Kelemen’s movies was awarded at film festivals around the world and his uncompromising fight for pure artistic film expression attracted attention of theorists such as Susan Sontag. Apart from directing, writing and filming his own movies, Kelemen also collaborates as a director of photography, amongst others, with the Hungarian director Béla Tarr and occasionally dedicates himself to theatre. Fred Kelemen teaches film at various schools, including CECC of Barcelona. This author was guest in the 2005 edition of Posible, Central and Eastern Europe Film Festival of Barcelona, the festival will present Fallen during it's 2006 edition.

You proceed from Germany, but you have been filming on locations in Poland, Portugal, Latvia and other European countries, you have a large history of working as a director of photography with the Hungarian director Béla Tarr… How do you see inter–European relations today in the context of filmmaking? Your work seems to indicate that there are no difficulties in moving, crossing borders and mixing identities?

Film is a universal art. Unlike the theatre, where an actor depends on his language and is pretty much bound to his country, the art of film is not based on the language of words. It is a visual art and, as such, it is close to the universality of music or painting. Its basic elements are beyond any national definition. I never understood what a German, Spanish, etc. film is supposed to be. Every fixation on national terms, definitions etc. is a terrible limitation of broadness and freedom of arts and the human being. Since I am interested in the human being and human issues, the secret and drama of human existence, I am not looking for national or cultural differences but for what human beings have in common. The idea of making a film about Germans, Spaniards etc. has never occurred to me. Human beings cannot be defined by national parameters. Every national definition is artificial and untrue. Every human being has an individual expression, an individual tone, colour and cannot be reduced to national issues. For me it is only natural to work wherever a strong impulse takes me to. This impulse can be created by people, a place, a subject. It is an artistic and emotional matter and nothing else. Generally, I could work everywhere.

Is working in ex–eastern European countries different from working elsewhere in Europe? Does the area still feel different for having a different past?

Yes, it is different from Western countries, because the people deal with certain things in a different way. It is difficult to explain. Maybe it is less egocentric and people are less concerned about the things that make Western people worry a lot. Certainly, the past still has a strong presence, but the present reality, but the present reality as a mix or confrontation with the past and the “new” Western-like capitalism are different from what it is in the West.

How do you feel about the identity of your own films? Apart from being your movies, are they German, Latvian … European movies?

They are just movies, individual artistic expressions, personal reflections of reality.

Your first movie, Fate (Verhaengnis, 1994), elaborates on the lives of several eastern European and other immigrants in Berlin of the 90-ties. Did you intend to comment on a particular social situation in Germany of the time?

The film was not intended to be a comment on the social situation in Germany, but like any other human being I reflect the reality around me. And at the time Fate was being shot, the things happening in Berlin were pretty interesting and, naturally, the situation influenced the film. But at the same time, it is not a film limited to a certain period. It is about basic human attitudes and conflicts independent of any specific location or concrete date.

Immigrants come from a different culture, they are displaced and therefore especially vulnerable. They live between worlds, so to speak. The concept of Fate has a strong resonance under these circumstances. Can you comment on that?

We are all immigrants. We are strangers in our world. We are in constant pursuit of happiness, love, warmth, communication, understanding, peace, longing to step out of the circles we are moving in day in day out. We are not at home in ourselves, we are not at home at our working places, companies, schools, families, relationships. We are always looking for something better. An immigrant is a perfect image of the general conditions of our human existence. We are vulnerable, even hurt, the human existence is terribly fragile. And we are definitely living between the worlds - between the material world of our everyday life’s struggle and limitation, and the spiritual world of our desires, hopes, beliefs and intuitive knowledge.

Abendland was translated into English as Nightfall, but, actually the word means something like ‘Occidental world’, if I am not mistaken. It was shot in Portugal, Poland and Germany and it is about unemployment and a crisis of couple. Did you think of it as an attempt to visualise European space and its problems?

Abendland talks about human beings in Western society. The West, the Occident is where the sun sets, where the light fades, where the darkness reigns. It is our society which is quite dominated by the material, the ideology of profit, exploitation, wars etc. A very limited view concentrated on the material aspect of existence which creates the poverty of soul and mind. And as a consequence a desolation of culture. That’s the background of every human relation in this part of the world. And the question is how can people gain love and human dignity, how can they develop an existence as fully flourished, authentic human beings in front of the background of a world determined by the things described above?

The society alienates, humiliates … It seems that it has an antagonistic role in your movies? Is/was there a better society?

I don’t know if there’s ever been a better society. But an individual human being with his/her desires, hopes, possibilities always is in conflict with a society which limits the individual qualities and potential. Especially the 20th century, as a century of the masses and industrial production, suppressed the development of an idea of a community of individuals living together in full respect of their specific qualities. I think that experiencing society’s reality is experiencing resistance. In our modern world we are living in abstract societies ruled by abstract laws put into concrete action by indifferent bureaucrats which, as a whole, creates a reality that is completely alienated of our real human needs rather than living in communities dominated by mutual recognition and respect based on ethical values and love.

Words like pessimism and despair are often associated with your poetics as a filmmaker. But, in a way, your characters are full of life, energy, and emotion. Where does this contradiction come from?

If it is a contradiction – I think it is not – it comes from life itself. The more we love, the more we are open and sensitive, the more we are faced with the limits of what is done in our society and in our lives. And this experience of the limits makes us sad. So, there is no contradiction. The one is the result of the other. The more developed we are in a mental and emotional way, the more pain we experience.

Do you deliberately search for archetypical contents? Fate is about wondering, Nightfall about decay, Fallen about guilt and suicide…

I don’t search. I am orientated in certain direction and I am following my path. And on that path, I sometimes find something.

You write, film and direct your movies. Do you see these as separate tasks or is it all one big task of making a movie?

I don’t divide film into different excluding parts. And I don’t divide myself into different excluding parts. As an art form, it is a whole as I am a whole. The different things are just different aspects of the artistic expression. To write the script, to direct and to create the images is one act for me. Of course, it can be done differently. Being the Director of Photography of another director’s movie is also nice, for example. But practicing the different parts of this art is possible too. Everything is possible.

How do you achieve such a good dramaturgy without having a strictly elaborated script in advance?

Hm…

In your expression you rely mostly on a pure power of moving images, which makes your movies different from the majority of contemporary works. Yet, this kind of attitude is not new, it is, actually something basic. How come that this was lost? What else is lost nowadays in filmmaking? How can it be recuperated?

Of the basics of the art of film a lot is not common anymore. It is not lost, but it is not part of the majority of films anymore. There are still cinematographers who work with the basic elements of film in a very elaborated way. But they belong to an endangered species.
The main influence on people’s aesthetical sense comes from the TV films, video clips etc. The classical or formally more developed films are rarely screened in cinemas. And for me, the question of form is a question of attitude. It is terribly difficult to gain access to the treasures of this art. But as long as people care for it, as long as people are willing to make an effort to produce, to shoot, to distribute, to watch these films, and as long as film artists are consequently devoting themselves to film as an art and not just a hastily produced consumer product, as long there is a good chance that film, as a universal communicating art and a spiritual language, will survive.

Decembre 2005

Related links

http://www.fredkelemen.com/

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