Sofie Cato Maas, Michael Pilz
Q1: What is it like for you to be back at the Rotterdam festival with a film that features in a program at the 49th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, 22 January–2 February 2020, such as the Tyger Burns?
In June, 2019, I attended a little festival/retrospective of films by Walter Marti and Reni Mertens in Basel, Switzerland, two “old” friends and filmmakers from Switzerland (who have, sadly, passed away) and whom I knew from the 14th Nyon Documentary Film Festival 1982 where I had screened my film “Heaven and Earth”. There, I met another friend, Olaf Moeller, who curated film shows all over the world for many years and edited “my” book, “Kamera. Auge. Herz”, published by the Austrian Film Museum in 2008. He urged me to finish my long-term work in progress “Curtains” (available on my website www.michaelpilz.at since 2009). He was planning a special program for the 49th International Film Festival Rotterdam in January, 2020, and told me I would be one of his favorite filmmakers in this program. When I asked him for a deadline and when he said November, I agreed.
At home I watched 30 hours of DV-video material, which I had converted in 2009 from the originals (video-8 and video-hi8). I was surprised at the fact that I hardly found any “curtains” and I asked myself what I had been thinking in 2009 when I converted just these shots and none of the various curtains I used to film wherever went. I told Olaf that I would use my material from 2009 but that it contained practically no curtains. He agreed and suggested I do whatever I wanted. This piece would be an important part of his program anyway.
During July I transferred 30 hours of video to a hard drive, and in August and September
I did the montage. In the final end, I titled it “With Love–Volume One 1987–1996”.
After that I ran into problems sending it to Rotterdam, but finally in January – on time – I succeeded and even included a short trailer.
When I showed the film to one of my best friends, the Austrian filmmaker Peter Schreiner he sent me this short, personal letter:
“Dear Michael, to me as a viewer, “With Love–Volume One 1987–1996” is a kind of “act of liberation,” evokes in me a heart-warming assurance through a review that is more a realization. In my mind, that’s a highly rare combination. Time becomes insignificant, fizzles down to a tiny speck, which then expands and forms a circle that encompasses “Everything.” Again and again, the beautiful thing about your films is, of course, their “gift character.” So, this time around, the title gets to the heart of things. In your films, you throw yourself away on viewers, letting them take part in your exploration of the world, its contemplation, your hearing, seeing… And you are—at least cinematically—a master in dealing with pain (in all of its forms): You cast a spell on it and turn it into wonderment about immediate perception.”
My last premiere in Rotterdam had been in 2012 with “Roman Diary.” Since then I had had almost no time to work on new films because I had been voted in as president of the biggest Austrian society of artists, the “Künstlerhaus.” Nevertheless, between 2012 and 2017 I filmed and edited my most extensive film, “Triptych & Coda.” Four films (The Use of Bodies, As-If-Not, The Party, Coda) spanning thirteen hours in all premiered at the Austrian Film Museum in June, 2018. I thought this work would not fit into the Rotterdam program. It would have to be screened simultaneously in four rooms with comfortable furnishing and service –.
I was happy to be back in the place where I had first arrived in 1983 with “Heaven and Earth” and which I had often visited in-between, really missing Huub Bals (he had “born” the Rotterdam fest years before), missing Stephen Dwoskin, too, whom I had met several times and whose films I always liked so much due to their “cinematic” quality, and Armenian Artavazd Peleshyan whose eyes and understanding of the essence of the art of cinematography I appreciated very much ever since I had first seen his work in 1984 in Yerevan.
Q2: With Love, which consists of your own archival material, is very much a film characterized by a fascination with the unconscious working of cinema on the individual spectator. Is that where you think cinema’s specificity lies for you personally?
I am not sure if I understand you correctly. Because of you need the word “unconscious”, anyway, ever since my early years, when I was about 20, I deeply felt and was convinced that what I “knew” at that point was a very, very small part of so-called “reality,” and that I really didn’t know anything about “reality” at all. It was more or less hidden behind a curtain of conventions, concepts, imagination, and influence from my parents, my family background, and my social surroundings. I had the feeling of living in a huge castle with thousands of different rooms and “knowing”—meaning being familiar with—only one or two rooms, not more. But I sensed that there was much more space out there, or, better, inside myself. And I wanted to grasp that space. I wanted to explore and “see” that unknown territory. But I was afraid of entering many of the unknown parts of myself. This was the beginning of my interest in psychoanalysis.
During those years many films of different “new waves” from France, Italy, Poland, the US, and other countries came to some of our movie theaters, and when in 1965 the Austrian Film Museum was founded, I was able to watch films marked by extraordinary styles and qualities by the likes of Antonioni, Godard, Brakhage, Rivette, Ozu, and others. But I must say that my inner voice told me that my vision reached beyond most of the films I saw on movie screens. I had a sense that “there must be more.”
In 1968 an important series of lectures was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a student took notes of what Slavko Vorkapich (a former Yugoslavian film editor and director who had left Belgrade for Hollywood) was teaching to a crowded auditorium. These notes were printed in Jonas Mekas’ magazine “Film Culture,” and it was subsequently translated and published in the German magazine “film.” The most interesting part was Slavko’s last evening where he spoke about the future of the art of film. He emphasized the importance of the unconscious, saying that if we want to take a real step into the future of film language, we should build a connection to the unconscious because this would be the future language of film.
Speaking of the unconscious, might be better to talk about “our heart.” As the French writer Saint-Exupéry said, we cannot “see” the essence (or the truth) with our eyes but only with our heart.
I love that Chinese legend of an old painter who always painted landscapes until one day he stepped into his painting of a landscape and disappeared. Or the Japanese legend of a painter who was going to paint a tree and looked at the tree for a very long time, until finally he became this tree. Only then he was able to paint the tree. Another wise man in China—Lao Tzu—simply said that nothing is outside but everything is inside (Tao-Te-Ching).
That was the main theme of my piece “Heaven and Earth” (1979-1982), a two-part, five-hour film that somehow changed the traditional image and understanding of so-called documentary films. I was “fed up” with traditional habits of being fixated on the outside world and only believing in objectivity. I turned this notion on its head and began to tell myself that I am not able to “say” anything about the world of the mountain farmers I met in the Austrian Alps, or about their very hard jobs. I can only start from my own perspective, from my own views, and my own experiences, those of an intellectual citizen. Being honest, I could only capture what I saw and experienced. Between heaven and earth.
This also reminds me of people who, when they were going to watch one of my films, occasionally asked me, “What is your film about?” I often replied that if they wanted to “know” and wanted to boil it down to some information, they should not waste their time with my films. But if they wanted to engage in real experiences, they should stay and watch them. If you really are open and curious, you never know much about your future experiences in advance. You can never be sure what will happen. You can only try to swim, like a fish, with the currents, trust and believe in your senses, and in your heart.
Real art, real films, real life comes from the heart, and so it is your responsibility to keep your feet on the ground beneath you and connect with “the universe.” To open your senses—as clean and clear as possible—at their best to this world (because there is no other world) but to transform yourself—as well as the world you are living in, on the basis of how you experience—transform it “with love” and into pure love. The rest for me is unspeakable.
I wanted to experience these “unspeakable” qualities early on. Some years later I began to attend psychotherapy sessions and continued to do so for about 20 years, slowly drawing closer to essential answers to the question “who am I?”
While I engaged in this personal experiment to open up my senses not only to the outside world/reality, but also to the inside reality of my emotions and underlying – past – experiences (my inner “matrix”) to deepen my feelings, I continually worked with different forms of artistic expression, mainly with film.
From the beginning—when I was about 15—I wanted to follow and express my own perspective, to create my own imagery, to handle the cameras (photography and film) myself. I did just that with my early “experiments” on 8-mm, super8-mm, and 16-mm. After “Heaven and Earth,” 1982, I gave up relying on the help of others at the camera altogether, and from then on, always handled everything myself (with the exception of “Feldberg,” 1990, where I had invited my friend, filmmaker Peter Schreiner, to do the camera work). This approach is Comparable to working on paintings, where in the true artistic expression cannot be contributed by other persons. Every individual is unique. Everyone has her or his own senses and emotions, experiences, many of them unconsciously stored in their inner matrix.
I think that, starting when I was born into this “jungle of influences,” I was given the possibility to learn to trust my own feelings and experiences and build an ability to express them with an open mind, without, or less, fear of negative consequences. Looking forward, this means all of us should be aware of the influence we have on our children and the people close to us. Before thinking about (and addressing) other matters, I ought to think about (and address) myself. I am aware of the world around me only to the extent that I am aware of myself. Or, I only see the world around me as I see myself.
Why I started early in my life to “work” with and focus on images, on photography, and film? I find different answers. Because of my mother’s emotional difficulties of (she was traumatized by the court-ordered loss of her first child after divorcing her first husband and marrying my father). I guess that in early (very early, maybe unborn) childhood I was left without the necessary emotional hugs and “understanding” of my baby-needs from my mother, my father and my “social climate.” I felt I was not being understood. Nobody really listened to me, to my “childish” expressions, words, and behavior. I soon became silent and mute.
I unconsciously began trying to serve their needs by learning to understand their habits and the hidden meaning, reasons, and secrets behind them. Since “normal” avenues of communication did not really work, at least not in my interest, as far as I could see, I was “forced” to watch (with all of my senses) what was going on outside of my “little” world. This obviously was my early strategy of self-defense (identification with the “enemy”). I “wanted” to survive. I could not ask them, “why not?” and it did not really help to ask myself about their behavior, about the secrets of their inside world. Somehow in my feeling they did not exist. Unconsciously, I turned around and looked at myself, no longer asking only “who are they?” but also “who am I?” Growing older I realized the better I understand myself, the better I understand the world. I have to prove my experiences in both of these realities, outside and inside, and vice versa. Over the years, I found more stable ground beneath my feet and this made me more and more convinced of my own, personal perspective.
I became more conscious of life’s duality and of the different tools we have at our disposal to slowly give up this (deadly) concept in favor of unity. The subject (behind the camera) and the object (in front the camera) become one. In a deeper sense, that means “making love,” real love.
I learned that this experience is only possible when I open up myself as much as possible and give up the fear of giving up myself, my “ego”.
I believe in art and in the art of cinematography and that it only happens in a “state of grace” – see my film from 1992 with this title (State of Grace) – and in a state of love. Of real love.
In my film “Heaven and Earth” you can hear me saying, among other things, that “Sometimes the surface of the world vanishes. But this rarely happens.”
Q3: When talking about the cinematographic apparatus and its relation to the spectator, it is impossible not to talk about desire. As cinema constitutes a relation that is ultimately based on a visual illusion, to which the spectator knowingly and willfully submits, which is based on our desire to see. With Love specifically, is a film in which desire takes the form of reminiscing or mourning over something that is lost, time, friends, youth. Does desire play a major role in your work?
Yes, “desire” plays a major role in my films, my work, my collections, my relations to other people, my life. Maybe because very early in my life—maybe even in my mother’s womb—I felt unsafe, at least from time to time, and unable to trust in my life and survival. My mother was traumatized (as mentioned above, when she was divorced, the court decided that she had to place her baby with a foster mother instead of taking it with her to her second husband). She did not trust her life. She was full of despair. Even though she had a clear vision of the beauty and blessings of her life (she was a beautiful woman and had a sense of “higher values” and “spirituality”; my father—I would say—was a rationalist, he believed in things and facts, in “politics,” more than in feelings and emotions. But that’s a different very interesting story).
I always had, and still I have, a hard time saying goodbye. To persons, to living situations, to things of beauty, to emotional contacts, and lovely feelings, to the women I love, and, yes, to life itself. I often get the feeling that, all through my life, I am learning to say goodbye. Above all to say goodbye to the beauty of life. I would say that I have a good taste, a good eye for beauty, and I always tried and still try to find it in real (objective) life as well as in subjectively and to realize it in my work, not least in my films.
It happened to me sometime around 1995 that one day, walking through the streets of Vienna (where I live), I suddenly was overwhelmed by a feeling of “love,” of “I am in love,” and I strongly felt this “love” inside of me. Coming home, I told my girlfriend Andrea, and she asked me, “Who is she?” But there was no person, there was only this feeling of love inside of me, and it was so full of beauty and satisfaction that I was lost for words. It was “beyond” words, beyond anything in this “real” world.
But very clearly it was connected with all the beauty I had experienced in life, with the beauty around me that I had encountered, that had touched me, fulfilling my fears and desires, in this life of unspeakable beauty and cruelty.
This reminds me of when I was between 10 and 13, living at the boarding school of a monastery and singing in a choir. Every day we chanted songs from the Middle Ages in a wonderful Baroque-era church, and it moved me a lot. I realized many years later, when I was about 40 or 50 and I connected again with my experiences of Gregorian chants, that they had opened—so early in my life—a space inside myself full of beauty and divinity.
I think that aside from all the “negative” and depressing influences of my childhood there must have been a strong link to some “real secrets of life,” some “spiritual qualities” of life, or maybe to the “essence of life.” And I always had the desire to connect with this essence and always feared I would not be able to grasp it, or to lose it when I experienced it. For perhaps a moment or two, or sometimes a little longer.
But by now I have calmed down. I feel that I do not need to get “it” anymore, from outside, as I felt it, as I had the need for it in my younger years. I feel the essence—as well as beauty—inside myself. Maybe I am—nearly—fulfilled with it. My desire more and more transforms from “to get” into “to give.” It can be so pleasurable and satisfying to “give,” for instance to make a film like “With Love—Volume One 1987–1996,” or “A Prima Vista,” or any other of my later films, also the earlier ones, because I feel I am really doing this from a place of desire and “with love.”
Q4: During a Q&A at IFFR you mentioned that you approach your films as compositions, which allows you to create a specific cinematic language through which you subject and align the spectator with your own world and your own history. Could you elaborate on that?
Yes, I’ll try to elaborate. When I was 20 and wondered what I would be doing in the future I remember that I wanted to become an architect, or a sculptor, or a composer. These were my first more or less realistic visions. But beyond that and after travelling through Europe for a year I wanted to go to the University of Vienna to study philosophy and psychology. Nevertheless, without further ado I enrolled in the film class at the Academy of Performing Arts. I became friends with Angelos from Athens, with Alejo from La Paz, and with Khosrow from Teheran, my best friends to this day.
What was taught there was not that interesting to me because it was mainly oriented towards the local traditions of entertainment, fiction, and classical documentary films (excluding personal perspectives, saying “I see,” let alone “I see that I see”). It left out that spectrum of avant-garde cinema that I was trying to realize, but with nearly total lack of support from my environment. The cultural mainstream was very conservative, and so were people’s views of film or cinematography. Film for them was mainly entertainment that followed in the traditions of theatre or music, and not in the sense of a self-confident language and legitimation. I did not agree with the fact that the film-class was established at the Academy of “Performing” Arts. For me it should have been established at the Academy of Fine Arts, like painting or sculpture. I did not trust many of the films from those times which – as I saw it – were merely showing “actors at work” and did not tap the artistic capacities of the image from a camera, or the sound recordings, as a (almost) completely new kind of artistic expression, which essentially has nothing to do with theater, opera, literature or other existing forms of art.
Early in my life I had the feeling that film should not be misused for different “non-cinematographic” interests outside of its own capacities and abilities. Film should not be a slave to literature, theater, or to whatever tries to suppress the uniqueness of cinematography (in the interest of profit). On the contrary, I wanted find out what this new expression would look like if I tried to use it with serious intentions only, aimed to become aware of what goes on between me and the world, inside and outside, what the principles are of these tools for this special kind of conversation (with ourselves, with the world).
No arrogance. Simply learning to look at the world, and so learning to look at myself. Learning to become aware that art is not design, just as I can say that literature is not journalism. Even though a camera is nothing but a technical instrument that produces photographic pictures of real objects in an objective reality.
But the essential question is “how” the camera—“how” the person looking through the viewfinder of the camera—is looking at things, at the “objects.” The essential question is the subject. And this subject, this person behind the camera should try to be there as a real subject and more or less aware of “how” she or he is focuses on the objects, the surrounding “world.” Because you can keep more or less distance, or you can move closer, much closer to the objects as well as to yourself.
Looking through a camera basically produces pictures of “dead” things. These things come alive in the same way that you come alive behind the camera. It’s me who makes the world come alive. It’s not the question of “what” I look at, but “how” I look at it.
This can be learned by using a camera. Finally it leads—for an open, instinctive, curious and willing person—to learning with the heart.
After nearly two years, I quit my studies at the Academy and became a self-educated filmmaker. Learning by doing. With 8-mm- and super-8-mm-film I tried to explore all the different characteristics and possibilities of the film-material itself and of the technical capabilities of the camera. I was not interested in inventing stories and “illustrating” these them with my camera, with actors and actresses, and with all the props used in classical, industrial filmmaking. I believed in the material and the tools themselves. I believed in the naked basics. I think Balasz Bela wrote in one of his notes, “Film is the art of seeing and not the art of those who are not able to see.” Or, as Cesare Zavattini noted, A camera actually has everything in front of its lens, it sees things and not ideas.
Due to a lack of public interest, as well a lack of interest from public cultural institutions in so-called “experimental” filmmaking, I started to develop fiction films, in parallel to my “free” experiments. Together with a good friend and connoisseur of films by Melville, Leone, or Hawks, we wrote film scripts in the style of French film-noir. However, in the “deserts” of Austria’s cultural scene and lacking real soil (money), we failed to secure the necessary funding and could not succeed (even though I had signed contracts with famous French actors in my hands). A few years later I gave up on the idea and went back to what I was really and deeply interested in. I wanted to find artistic—cinematographic—ways of expressing my own and real feelings, emotions, experiences. In spite of this being difficult work with many obstacles, deep inside myself I felt that I was unable to avoid this task. It was a must.
Following an experiment with a Canadian friend and filmmaker, John Cook, who lived in Paris at the time and had already started to shoot personal documentary films in Vienna, together we realized an autobiographical fiction film called “Slow Summer”, which we filmed on super-8mm and blew up to b/w 35-mm. It soon became a famous classic movie that has been screened at international festivals and similar occasions to this day.
Our work was exhausting in many respects, and I made plans for a long documentary, at first with North American Indians in Montana but ultimately with mountain farmers high in the Austrian alps. I was fed up with working for Austrian television (for some years mainly to earn a basic income, I had a family and kids). I did not want to continue working in a cynical production environment that focused mainly on the people in front the cameras and behind them, but afforded little time for shooting and editing.
I was very lucky to receive enough money from the newly established film commission at the Austrian Ministry of Culture (I and some friends had fought for government support in the early 1970’s). On the basis of this money I was sure I would be able to work as long as I wanted and as the work itself required. Finally, after three years I successfully presented the five hours long “Heaven and Earth” at different international film festivals. To a certain degree, it changed traditions, and for some curious people in different parts of this world it opened their minds to a more differentiated future of cinematography.
With this experience I came closer to my basic question “Who am I?” which kept pushing me towards an uncertain future. With “Heaven and Earth” I had made an extraordinary film that was mainly based on my personal perspective and less oriented towards the traditions of so-called documentary films and the “real reality” of mountain farmers. I had taken the risk of perceiving subjectively, and after all the doubts and criticism I had to deal with in the years my work had slowly progressed, I had finally “won.” Now the road before me became clearer, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel.
International reactions (not the response in Austria) assured me that I was right to follow Heraclitus’ tenet, “I see that I see!” (he said that some 2,500 years before our time). It became increasingly important to me and I learned to trust in becoming my own witness. Not only to look out into the objective world but also—at the same time, simultaneously—to watch myself on the inside (my immediate reaction). And I learned to be patient and take my time, as well as to give my audience their time.
With each further step—and film—I learned more and more to experience and to accept myself. And the world “as it is” (in my eyes). I lost the fear of, for example, not being accepted or acclaimed, and I felt the love, inside myself. And in the world. Slowly over the years my doubts and resistance disappeared and I became more and more free, like a free jazz musician (I have always felt a deep connection to their music).
I always dreamed of playing the saxophone in the natural, free, and “perfect” manner that all the famous jazz musicians display, freely improvising, following their intuition and in contact—in “communion”—with other musicians, with the “spirit of the world.” The same is possible in film.
I experienced that this kind of cinematic “composing” gives me a maximum of freedom, and it gives a maximum of freedom to people in the audience to get in contact with themselves and follow their own truths and visions and dreams and desires.
For some of them it’s not an effort any longer, they don’t “work” through my films. Rather, it’s a truthful, joyful, and above all simple experience of effortlessly “being there.” Simple as being taken by his or her hand, as if by an angel, and to cross the bridge across the deep river so as to find and meet and be one-self.
In the preface of “Heaven and Earth” I let the wise Lao Tzu say, “Take what is before you as it is, don’t wish it differently, simply be there.”
Q5: How did cinema change over the years you’ve been active as an artist? Did the conversation surrounding art change—did your perception of art change?
How did cinema change over the years in my eyes? Not only has cinema changed, not only have the films changed, but my perception has changed, too.
I grew older. I became more experienced in the use of my senses and more conscious of my instincts. More experienced with myself. I increasingly lost interest in most of the films that were and are produced for wider audiences. I don’t care much about and I don’t believe in any aspect of “industrial film-production.” With the exception of some masterpieces—similar to fine arts classics—which kept their value through the times. But these films have a clear personal perspective, an eye for the truth.
I also increasingly lost interest in being entertained by films. Or by anything. I lost my need for that. Life—for me—lost its entertaining aspects. There are other aspects to be explored and experienced. Communication. And still, “Who am I?”
I like to think that my films invite people to also ask themselves, “Who am I?”
But more and more younger filmmakers tend to experiment with film, not only with its content, but also with its form. Mostly not very truthfully, because they are not really interested in themselves. Nobody was or is there to help them, to “educate” them, to take them by the hand. Crossing the deserts of industrialization. With the flow of industrial design and the commercialization of the arts, the works look to me more and more artificial, intellectually, more “fake,” more on the surface, more designed, more like simple wallpaper and less true. Less personal, less made from the heart. But made for upcoming markets. For the consumers.
This phenomenon reflects changes at art academies and universities worldwide, which no longer offer long-term training and opportunities to explore the different individualities, characters, “persons.” Not really going deeper... but more and more art becomes fashionable, like any label in the world of profit, money, fame, and fashion. Nowadays, nearly everybody can realize artworks for the unlimited various needs and audiences and markets and walls...
That’s not my world.
Still—or more and more—I believe in humanity and human conditions, human conversations, dialogues concerning real issues, issues “of the heart.”
If my work is not done from my heart it’s worthless. Real art (like a real dialogue) has always been done, and is still done, from the heart (remember Beethoven, remember Van Gogh, remember Rembrandt, remember Palladio, Socrates, or Bresson, and many others).
I believe that an artist has to feel a need, a real inner need to live, a real desire to create, a real inner force to ask questions or to find answers. That’s what it takes o realize a film, a painting, a piece of music, or a performance. Without a real need or a true desire the product—and this also applies to dialogue with another person—will be only skin deep, some abstract expression missing a real background, a real reason, real life, love, it only will appear like an industrial design or small-talk at the party. If I am not connected to my heart in its infinite depth, then I am not able to touch the hearts of others.
For me art has deep roots in our unconsciousness, which is fed by experiences during our very early stages of life.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, famous psychoanalysts have produced interesting scientific and psychoanalytic research regarding the question where art and creativity come from. All of them tell us, more or less, that there seems to exist an existential need to stay in emotional contact with our very early experiences during the months we spent—more or less—safe in our mother’s womb. After being dramatically transferred into this objective reality, the outside world, we have the tendency to realize our subjective experiences of “bliss” or “beauty” in this objectively “real” life. On this subject, there are fascinating biographical accounts by famous artists like Klee, Munch, Dali, Beuys, Niki de Saint Phalle, and others.
Over the years, I have lost more and more of my fear, have become more conscious and able to be in the “here and now.” On my rocky path I came across a number of different answers to my question “Who am I?” Looking back, I am able to see the changes in myself and more lucidity in my life. And this also happens to my/the objective “world.” Life is full of joy, as well as sorrow and pain. My heart doesn’t always smile. I am still fearful. But I try to be honest to myself and to others. The same goes for my films. Using my senses, my eyes, and my extended arm holding a camera has helped, and still helps me to spread my wings and fly across the valley.
Q6: In relation to the question above, do you believe that with advancing age and more experience, you’ve come to understand the medium of cinema better in any way?
Yes, definitely. The more I learn about myself, the more I understand myself, the more I understand what film is, what cinematography is, and what it can be.
It is a tool, as Balasz Bela says. The camera is a tool that is able to capture reality as it is, independent of our personal biases and perspective on reality.
Robert Bresson says in his “Notes on Cinematography” that cinematography is a kind of handwriting with images and sounds, following its own, unique laws.
The main question is “how” we understand these tools and how we use them on the basis of their capabilities and on the basis of our own capabilities, of our needs, wishes, and fears, inner needs, truthful needs, needs and fears of the heart.
Early in my life I had the feeling that I have to be very careful about my different senses. That I should not poison them. That I should feed them with the best quality food, with any kind of physical and mental “food.” Because the “output” should be equivalent to the “input.” This means that my body (and my mind) should try not to change the “information” that enters my body through my senses and is transformed through the nervous system into “feelings” and immediately and consequently lead to reactions in the body (muscles, movements and all the expressive physical possibilities).
If I have the image/vision of being a kind of a mirror of the world around me and giving back “my image” to the world, meaning also to other people (when they communicate with me), I want to be as honest and truthful as possible. I do not want to tell “fake news.” This does not help me nor anybody on her or his path to find answers to “Who am I?” and “How I can resolve conflicts?” and so on.
The person at the viewfinder of any film- or photographic camera has a serious responsibility. The same seriousness everybody should have during her or his contact and conversation with others. In other words, what making films means to me is to work with life and death (like any conversation does, conversations with myself and with others, conversations with you, dear Sofie). We are not only connected with objectivity and subjectivity, with things and minds, with feelings and emotions, present and past. We are connected with “the universe,” with infinite time and space.
Q7: Do you believe in the radical possibilities of film, that a work of art could be described as realist, no matter how experimental, if it helped audiences to grasp reality in any way? And do you think your films are concerned with realism predominantly?
What is “real”? (I hope I understand your question correctly). I believe in any creativity, in any possibility, and this also goes for cinematography. Every creative act, every artwork, every film brings something totally new into this world, into this universe, “plants” something in the soil of this planet. Does so since there is life on earth.
Every moment renews “reality.” Therefor we have, or we would have the capability to renew this world as well as ourselves from one moment to the next. As we do with films, which actually change from frame to frame, 24 or 25 times per second. Whenever I try to imagine that, I look straight through the world of things into infinite space and time. Remember the Chinese painter who one day stepped into his painting of a landscape and disappeared...
For me as a human being life has different perspectives, meanings, dimensions, aspects. They depend on my state of consciousness and “talents.” any artwork can be seen as “real.” It need not to be “true.” “Fake news” are real, too.
Film is always real. Everything around me is real. Everything inside myself is real. Films by Dovshenko are real and films by Brakhage, too. As well as films by Hou Hsiao Hsien and films by Ozu and by Pilz and films of anybody in this world. No matter how “experimental” they are. What does “experimental” mean? For me it’s not a label. It’s the opposite of “conventional,” or something like that. The question for me is always the essence of what I am doing. Of cinematography. What is the essence of music, of dance, of literature, of art. The essence of any human expression.
For me it is not the important question if something is real or not. Solzhenitsyn writes in “A day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” that art is not a matter of what but of how.
To experiment with what? With how? For me this is more important than the question of whether something is real, the other question is whether it’s true.
As long as I mix my images of reality with the reality of my images, and as long as I believe more in the reality of my images than in (my) images of reality (of whose reality? of mine? or of the film-producer’s reality?)—that happens with most of the industrially produced films and especially with fiction (created as entertainment and for profit)—there is a lack of opportunities to experience myself.
If I believe in fake news they never will give me useful clues as to who I am. I need the truth. I think everybody needs—or would need—the truth—from cradle to grave. If one does not learn to distinguish between fake and truthful representation any kind of reality is acceptable.
So, how to learn what is fake and what is true? I am only able to work with my experiences, my impressions, feelings and emotions (feelings happen here and now while emotions were created in my past and are stored at my inner matrix, in the unconsciousness, as it were).
I try to become a witness of my own experiences, feelings, emotions, movements, habits and so on. That also means to become a witness of my fears and my resistance, of what I deny and what I “hate,” not only what I love, what feeds my desire.
It’s a lifelong process and for most of us it never ends. To become a witness to whatever I have to become aware of, to what is going on and what it is about. I have to face facts. But how to face facts if my perception is subjective? And how to face facts if I am identifying with my perception? So, to say, if I “am” the facts, how not to identify? How keep a distance? To what I really love, I really need (like air and breathing), I feel in union with it? How to give up this deeply felt sensation in favor of distance, in favor of so-to-speak “objectivity”? Being objective with myself? How to watch myself from distance?
But see, that’s where cinematography comes in. Photography, as well as cinematography, the “writing with images (and sounds)” (Bresson), creates a natural/physical/rational distance between me, the viewer, and objects. At least it creates distance between myself and objects, in a physical reality or on a screen (and there’s the distance to the screen).
I can use this distance to become a witness to what is going on, or I can ignore the distance and identify myself—emotionally and mentally—with “what is going on” (in front of my eyes). I can go without my “self” and sacrifice it to objective “sensations” (on screen) which basically—seen rationally—are at a distance from me. This quickly leads to the question of how to grow up and become an adult. How to become an individuality. How to become able to “see that I see.”
Early in my life I wanted to experience my own feelings, not the feelings that were prepared and implanted by my parents and the society of my childhood. I wanted to come closer to my real, my own, and my true feelings.
At the age of twelve I listened to jazz music for the first time (in addition to Gregorian chants) and at the age of sixteen or seventeen I started to buy jazz-records by Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Gerry Mulligan, and the like. I felt a strong desire for improvisation, for following pure intuition, and when I was about 24 I (again) started using my film-camera without thinking much about how I was supposed to use it. I worked on 8-mm- and super8-mm-film intuitively and I tried to avoid having any ideas as to what the result of this process would be. This kind of editing-in-the-camera during filming was also an important experience for me. When I was done shooting, I watched my own works. In various situations, in different moods, alone with myself or with friends. I could compare, on the one hand, what I remembered about my work with the camera (identification) to, on the other hand, watching the projected results (into a distance from my own perception, intuition, and emotions).
There was no force from outside, I worked free of any obligation. It was a very creative period, and for many years I really missed this light-hearted and carefree atmosphere.
For my film “Cage”/1992 I worked with friends and a dozen of very experienced, international dancers and choreographers over four weeks on improvisation, with performance, music and film. One of the “secrets” was to “keep back energy” but following intuitively what happened here and now. Learning to observe, to be aware of yourself, even in full action and for a longer period.
Dear Sofie, you ask me if my films help audiences to grasp reality. Yes, I know they do. Not the masses. Someone may enter my screening with personal expectations and if she or he is not open to or interested in making different and unexpected—good or bad—experiences, she or he may leave the screening after a while in frustration. In that case, I have tried and failed to interest them in the moment they got the feeling they better leave. I asked them to remember their feelings and maybe some inner images, their inner “films,” what led them to resist...
But if someone wants to have a real experience for her or himself, my films can always help to go deeper into their self and sometimes touch their heart.
You ask me, “do you think your films are concerned with realism predominantly?” I ask you, is this question of importance? What for? Who cares? And das “realism” really mean? Which kind of “realism”? I looked it up on Wikipedia and found that “realism is the general attempt to depict subjects truthfully in different forms of the art.” For me “realism” is the reproduction of facts. My films are generated by using photographic lenses, meaning my films are concerned with realism because a photograph presents a subject because this subject is in front of the lens, but the photograph also represents the perspective of the person taking the picture.
“Art is a matter of how and not of what.”
“Take what is before you as it is, don’t wish it differently, simply be there.”
Q8: And perhaps in relation to that, can cinema in essence be truthful at all? Because it is a medium that is never impartial and that is on the one hand celebrated for its possibilities to transform reality, and on the other for its ability to capture a truthful representation of the real.
Because cinematography (the “writing” with pictures and sounds) always has an author, a person who points a lens onto a subject in front of the photographic lens it always tells the truth. The author’s personal perspective. Subjectively but not—never—objectively. Never impartial in its essence.
For me the most emotionally touching experiences in connection with film were those when I suddenly had the feeling that the invisible became visible, the visible “represented” the invisible. Indirectly. I experienced that for example in films by Hou Hsiao Hsien, Weerasethakul, Sokurov, Pasolini, Jonas Mekas, Lav Diaz, Nathaniel Dorsky, and in some of my own films.
I mean this is a great chance for the arts in general. Especially for some composers. But also for filmmakers. Film for me has much to do with music, in terms of their characteristics. And not only with regard to time.
I think it is the great advantage of the arts to be able to not only to create substantial reality but also the unspeakable beauty of life, in fact doing this with this simple gesture – doing it from the heart.
Because only with an open heart am I able to really connect with others, with the universe, with the essence of life. You need not to go far for that. You can find it in your kitchen. It is not important “what” you are filming, but it is of great importance “how” you are filming.
Q9: Your work often experiments with film material itself, do you think that the medium or the material you shoot with dictates a certain style or pushes you to work in another way?
If you want to express some experience, feelings, thoughts, visions, or whatever it is, isn’t it of importance to ask yourself in which medium you could or should do it? Maybe it would be good to write it down, or to create a play, or to compose music, or to perform with your body, or make photographs, or paint, or make a wooden sculpture, or make a piece of a film? a so-called fiction film? A so-called documentary film? Simply a film? What is the essence of different media? What are the essential characteristics of the media I choose? And is it that creates a person’s the character?
These are the basic questions, at least for me. When I started working with film when I was 15, or later when I was 23 or 24, I looked through the viewfinder and filmed what I liked and what I didn’t like I didn’t film. It was simple. And watching these “shots” I began to realize what my “likes” and “dislikes” were. I learned about myself. But what was essential was that I didn’t “use” (“miss-use”) the camera, didn’t use my camera to “illustrate” non-cinematographic ideas. I can say that, more or less, I was “writing” with my camera.
From the outset, I liked to film “diary entries.” No ideas in advance. Just jumping right in. And afterwards, looking at these rushed shots, I realized what had happened (to me).
I once read about Fellini and Woody Allen that if they had finished a film they did not like to watch it any longer but started to work on a new one. I do not agree. It is essential to watch your own work. To become a witness of your own behavior. Of your own likes and dislikes. Resistance is of great importance. I only “learn” through my own resistance. From the rocks in my path. I learn from my reactions to “what is.” Most of the time we tend to change things into the direction of our “likes,” away from our “dislikes.” But we should become aware and conscious of what we do and why we do it. And what “is.” We need a mirror. To look into this mirror and the image of ourselves.
Billy Wilder’s “Some Like it Hot” (with Marilyn Monroe) is an attempt at making us believe and trust in ourselves even though “nobody is perfect”. It doesn’t take a lot money from the filmmaking “machine” to tell us that we have a right to imperfect. Let us be as we are and let us watch ourselves and let us learn to change ourselves to become “better.” Whatever “better” may mean. Everybody has their own and different image of what is “good” and what is “bad.” It’s a subjective reality. We should not create dogmas from subjective knowledge, and no “religion.” Stay modest and keep your feet on the ground of “what is.” From your perspective. Beyond all the likes and dislikes, the imagination, ideas, and projections. It isn’t a walk in the park but each step can be a rewarding one that brings you closer to “what is” (outside, inside).
That was and still is the teaching of cinema to me. As I said earlier, that I was interested in my own feelings early on, but in my true feelings. Not in the feelings that had I learned—more or less automatically—by imitating the lifestyle of my parents and that of the people around me. Beyond that, I wanted to grasp the essence, my own essence. My own and true essence. I think for me the medium of film, of cinematography was—and still is—the best way to do that.
When I was 20 I became interested in Zen and later also in similar “schools.” they gave me perfect and functional tools. And I used these tools in combination with “the camera.” I always was good in working with my hands. As a child I built boats (which sank in lakes) and airplanes (that shattered into thousand pieces) and I like to collect beautiful things, artwork as well as things of no special value (“from the street”) but full of exciting beauty. If I look closer and closer I reach a point where the distance between myself and my object disappears and I—as a subject—become one with it (fear not!). I this move into and beyond the (usual) duality of life, of physical and mental existence. That is one—essential—effect the use of a camera can achieve. I liked that and learned to use it.
You see, the way I use tools makes all the difference and leads me to different experiences, insights (into myself), and knowledge about the world.
Q10: In relation to film material and its fragility, do you think cinema makes you a witness to your own decay—both mentally and physically—through the passing of time? As cinema is in essence both beyond time, a medium that transcends the boundaries posed by the passing of time, yet simultaneously a medium that is physical and thus decays with the passing of time.
We should not worship the ashes. We should pass on the fire. I have the feeling that all of us, all human beings, are one, part of the universe. There is only one. It always has been and it always will be. Even if mankind should disappear. From a modest perspective, my “ego” fades more and more in favor of feeling in union with other human beings, with nature, with the past – and with the future.
Subjectively, it is of no of importance what effects the passing of time will have on my films. Still, I have archived all my material at the Austrian Film Museum. Others should be able to watch my films, whether intentionally or by chance.
My idea of how my films should be screened for other people: I think that the best way would be by chance and without any titles and credits. Just the ways you get ideas or thoughts into your mind by chance. By chance one could be surprised by a film like “With Love—Volume One 1987–1996” or any other one of my films. It is not important to “know” anything about me as an author or about a title or to have any “information” about the work.
There is a beautiful art space, an open-air museum north of Düsseldorf, Germany. It is called “Island of Hombroich” and is situated on the wide banks of the Rhine. You enter it near the highway through a transport container in the corner of a parking lot by simply paying an entrance fee with a short comment on the organic restaurant somewhere along your path between bushes, trees and, fields of grass. There is no catalogue, only a basic description of the footpaths crossing the river banks. Walking through beautiful natural scenery, from time to time you pass little pavilions built of bricks, glass, and metal. Inside them, you find different artworks, pottery, vases, paintings, statues (I remember an ancient Buddha), sculptures, graphics, and simple but very beautiful objects. Without any advice where it came from, who made it, and when. You only experience this beauty. As well as the beauty of the pavilions themselves, cubes of different sizes created by a famous German artist on the basis of one square meter.
Here more than in other more or less famous art museums you calm down, become patient, silent, get a feeling for yourself, for your experience of being confronted with “beauty itself.” And if you are open to yourself and your feelings, sooner or later you become aware of the beauty of yourself.
This concept or plan or idea was my plan about 55 years ago when I said, above all at official events and “film policy” discussions (in the 1970s I co-founded the “Syndicate of Filmmakers” in Austria with the aim of getting legislation passed that would support Austrian filmmakers and our projects, as it had been realized in all other European countries before), that every village in this country should have a cinema hall, the same way they have churches. There, films would be screened from morning to night every day, the “good” films of course, and entrance should be free. And for the capital of Austria, Vienna, I demanded, from the 1960’s on, at least one movie theater for so-called experimental films only, meaning “the essence” of cinematography (what in the late 1990’s the co-founder of the Austrian Film Museum, Peter Kubelka, realized with his series of about 60 programs entitled “The Essence of Film”).
But why? Why this “extravaganza”? Yes, because the art of cinematography should not be commercialized the way movies have been since its beginnings. When clever managers and owners of large media companies founded their film studios and started producing movies for the masses for profit. Only a small number of more or less serious avant-garde artists was interested in the artistic aspects—secrets—of the new invention. Not caring much about the money and profit-oriented entertainment industry, they followed their individual interests and inner needs. They asked questions as they did in the past and now tried to make use of this new technique but followed their individual interests.
I never wanted to become a slave to procedures that weren’t mine. I remember that in film school when I was asked and invited to shoot short films for others, for my colleagues, with my camera, I only agreed in the cases of very good friends who respected me and whom I respected.
I had often heard people say that I would have become a great cameraman. But I was never interested in putting my talent at the service of others and their cinematographic (or photographic) images if they did not share my perspective, thoughts, and desires.
Again, I want to say that any kind of expression and creation—especially concerning dialogue with another person—should follow a real inner need and should, so to speak, be motivated and led by the heart. If it is not done from the heart it is worthless in this universe. This applies to the art of cinematography as well as to personal expression. Is that an answer to your question?
Q11: One of the aims of the “Tyger Burns”, was to show that all the films included coincide at one point, namely that they are all consequences of a burning desire to create that is still there. Are you currently working on something new?
Yes, I am always “working.” There are several projects waiting to be realized. One could be the follow-up called “With Love–Volume Two...” Another “work in progress” for many years I call “Diary.” Another one (filmed in a remote area at the Canary Island of La Gomera) is called “Three Days, My Friend” (legend has it that the first people that came from North Africa to the Canary Islands were the so-called Guanches). This project is close to my heart.
I have a lot of videos from the past years and from different travels, for example to Iran where I have been 15 times in 15 years and each time on average 3 to 4 weeks. But also to the West Sahara (the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Polisario movement) and from different other parts of the world, not least also from my situation at home and around Vienna. I used to film whenever and wherever I felt like doing so.
It’s a pleasure for me to dig into this footage simply because is was mostly shot many years ago and this usually helps me—as it has helped me from the outset—to apply what I’ve learned to my future films with less emotional conflict (while editing films I learned to handle the footage itself almost without feeling any emotional ties to my past, or whatever it may be. Simply and clearly it should be only “matter.” It helps me get closer to the invisible side of visible matter if various recordings are stored “in silence” over a longer period of time).
Looking back at my personal life I have to say that it was—and still is—a life full of accidents, full of wonders, and full of love that I feel could be shared with others if they wish to do so, and if they wish to share their own experiences, as well. With love.
Michael Pilz, Vienna and Oberwindhag, Austria, April 9, 2020
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