by Francisco Algarín Navarro, Bruno Delgado Ramo, Arindam Sen and Jorge Suárez-Quiñones Rivas
Max Turnheim (Friedl vom Gröller, 2002-2018)
Read in Spanish
Since 1968, Friedl vom Gröller, an artist who has assumed multiple identities (of a photographer, painter, psychoanalyst, an educator and indeed a filmmaker), has made around a hundred short films, primarily monochromatic and on 16mm. In most of them, she has explored the different social and aesthetic codes, particularly those related to the gaze, the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject filmed, and the different identities that this subject can acquire depending on the context, that of a model, character, or even a victim. Particularly interested in the art of portraiture which extends in numerous variants through her exhaustive body of photographic work, she explores the relationships between various artistic mediums that also include painting. In this interview, intimate aspects of her own life often emerge and inevitably reveal something integral about her approach to filmmaking. Friedl vom Gröller’s practice lies squarely within the realm of the private, she films people and situations involving her friends, relatives or others whom she had previously approached based on an element of intrigue.
In 1990 she established the first photography school in Vienna and in 2006, she followed it with the establishment of a film school that focussed on analog filmmaking in the same city. This interview was conducted in 2018 following her film class and two film programs dedicated to her by the festival (S8) Mostra de Cinema Periférico in A Coruña. Here the filmmaker discovered, for the first time, the latest version of her ever evolving, (portrait) film in progress, about a young architect friend, Max Turnheim, who she filmed in different places and situations since 2002. This dynamically expanding film is also her longest film till date. The screening of this film among others stimulated us to talk about her performative interventions at the time of shooting, the dialectical tension between staging a shot and bewildering via provocative off screen actions, and the relationship of such acts with tenets of Viennese Actionism, psychoanalysis, ethics and power relations. What also underscores the conversation is a frank admittance of how situations, accidents and mistakes are allowed to anchor the formal decisions in her films- imperfection as an aesthetic device.
1. On actions, interventions and Actionism
We would like to start by asking about the actions you perform during the shooting of your films and your intervention through them. In one of the Max Turnheim (2002-2018) portraits, you are opening the camera aperture to let the light inside, your hand is removing the cover of the lens, playing with it to vary the effects of lighting.
No, not the cover of the lens. Sometimes I open the lid of the entire camera in order to make the person disappear and appear again. Max could not handle being filmed and having the child at the same time, so I took over the child as I am a mother and I was used to carrying on working with a child. I told Max to let me keep an eye on the child while filming. I thought his face was not well lit up. I went with the light while the camera was on its own, I just had to wind it up every 28 seconds and during that time I came towards him to light up the face. I also did it in the next film, the new one which you haven’t seen yet. It will be released this year at Centre Pompidou. It’s called Paris Episodes (2018). If there is not enough light and I want to see more of the face, then I just use it like an illumination that people use while walking in mountains at night.
Watching Max Turnheim, we get the feeling that your intervention in front of the camera gradually decreases over the years. For example, the film starts with you touching Max’s hair, the way you do it in other portraits like the kiss for Peter Kubelka in Peter Kubelka und Jonas Mekas (1994) or with the apple in Delphine de Oliveira (2009), actions that are rare in the following years. You still have some kind of intervention, like with the light for example, but the bodily contact of touching, of entering a frame and doing something more provocatively physical has gradually stopped.
Can you imagine why? It's a very logical thing. In the case of Max, I could not surprise him any more, I could surprise him only once. So in the first years when I did this, I didn’t even want people to know about it because I thought every model I used would have heard about this and nobody would be surprised. But of course there are so many people, I realised that I was worried in vain. It wasn’t necessary to hide because I could always find someone who would be surprised if I approached and kissed him. In the case of Max, his daughter is growing up to be a Parisian beauty, she is already seven and maybe if the film continues for another three years, I can ask her to go and kiss her father and then the element of surprise may appear again.
The later parts of the Max Turnheim film are shot in the metro. What was the idea behind that, moving from an intimate personal space to a more public one?
In the first years I filmed him in a private space. He was going to become an architect and at the time he was still studying. So I thought of taking him around in the city where he was becoming an architect. The first time the light situation was very bad, many shots were out of focus, also because he was so nervous, he didn't want to be seen/filmed outside. He did it only for me and it was very unpleasant for him and if something like that happens, I get very affected. I saw that he felt bad standing there while people were passing by, I could not even focus anymore or use a light meter. In another year I thought I would film without him and I took a train trip while trying to include the architecture into his portrait because it was more and more important to him.
We sense a certain direct relationship between your actions and those of the Vienna actionists.
It is the influence from the 1960s where the body of the artist was considered important in the actionist movement. Before doing the film at the Viennese Prater some years ago, I did a film with an artist group called Gelatin and they are very much into things like anal pleasure. I was in the planetarium in Vienna because the film school did a festival there and the films were projected on the ceiling in the planetarium. They had a device which was not analogue and I thought it would be nice to have a butthole so that if you look up, you don't see the guy but you see the butthole shitting down. It was the first film I did with Gelatin because they knew the practical things well, they quickly built a chair with a hole in the middle and I placed a camera underneath. I had different members of the group shitting in the camera and I wanted the lens to be covered by shit in the end and it worked in the last second of the film. Then it was projected in the planetarium in a way so that people would think that shit was falling on them. My happiness was childlike, but I was also happy to see that Gelatin was very pleased. Then some years later, I wanted to do something with urine coming from a female vagina because females themselves do not know how it looks. As a child you have all this infantile curiosity about sex, but you don’t know how the genitals look, especially for women because its so hidden. I myself was also curious. This girl, Pinky, helped me do it. Someone mentioned that it was very courageous of me, but it really wasn’t since I was not down there, it was just the camera and it was covered. Maybe it was courageous to show it, but not really to make it.
Psychoanalysis without Ethics (Friedl vom Gröller, 2005)
2. On psychology and psychoanalysis: moral and ethical aspects of filmmaking
You have referred to the psychoanalytic aspect of your films quite often, for example in an interview with Dietmar Schwärzler you mentioned a strong will to grab a psychoanalyst from the divan, a desire for something rather physical. Can we draw an analogy between this and your filmmaking, you performing the role of the psychoanalyst and those filmed as people on the “divan”?
I wanted to disrespect the gap between the filmed subject and the filmmaker as is the case today. I kissed the cameraman when I was interviewed by Elena Duque earlier to show her what I meant about the gap. Normally I would be behind the camera and everybody expects the cameraman to stay there and then suddenly it occurred to me, I don't want to stay behind it. But if one of you were behind the camera, I could also approach you. I think you are somehow right when you say this because, if I have a camera, I am in charge and it is like the role of a psychoanalyst. I never thought of that before. But before releasing a film, I show it to the people who are in it first. I didn't show it to the man in Le Barométre (2004), a boxer. He was the only exception. Max Turnheim has not seen the film in the last three or four years I think mainly because prints are sitting at Sixpack. I show the films to the people on ethical grounds unless someone refuses to see them, which has also happened several times. There might be other reasons too; one of the women who appeared in my last book, Ariane, thought she was not looking pretty enough in the film I made with her, so I didn't show the film even if it is a very nice film. And I am even hesitant now though she died last year. She thought she looked too old, like most women do. I don’t know if this answers your question. Do any of you have any experience with psychoanalysis?
Not psychoanalysis per se, but rather in psychotherapy.
I opened my school for photography with someone who was a psychodramatist. And this turned out to be very interesting. When the students didn’t want to do it anymore, I stopped.
It is very useful when you want to tap into something subtle or unconscious, to bring it to the surface.
So, I first tried out psychoanalysis for myself and then had an education for ten years. It was incredibly expensive and I didn’t have money. Peter was completely against it. Before I had tried out different methods of therapy, to see what is best for my own psychological condition. After the training I practiced psychoanalysis with my clients. I didn't want the clients to know that I was an artist. But since I make autoportraits and have had exhibitions and interviews in the press, I always used to panic a bit, more so after the advent of the internet. So, this film, Psychoanalysis without Ethics (2005) was a kind of valve, to at least put on film something thar bothered me so much. I had this feeling of guilt within myself for having not just the identity of a psychoanalyst but several identities.
And that feeling of guilt, we wonder if that has waned over the years, and perhaps you have got rid of it.
No, I have not, but I have also moved on from it. I met my second husband Georg who himself is a psychoanalyst. When I opened the film school, I was 60. I realised that it was too much for me to run the photography school, the film school while taking photographs, and making films while also practising as a psychoanalyst. I used to be so stressed, the psychoanalytic sessions took place in another district and I had to be very punctual. Georg asked me to consider dropping one of them. I thought about it and decided to drop psychoanalysis because I was so interested in film that I could not leave it. After that I felt much better.
You previously mentioned that while psychoanalysing, you are used to being at a distance from the people on the divan, but while looking for that distance, you are also, we presume, simultaneously trying to bridge that distance. We are interested to know how this translates to your filming, for example the relative relationship between you and the audience?
I’m the main audience for my film. In the film Peeping Tom [Michael Powell, 1960], he is projecting the film to revisit what he has made and that’s what the film is for, there is no intended public for that work. For example, I want to see a recording of the lecture I gave yesterday, how it opens, to reaffirm my existence, which happens when I see that the faces are responding to something I did, verifying that I was really there. I try not to think of the public, neither in photography, nor in film, it needs to be a very private thing and that is why I don’t take grants. I have received awards and they were fine; they were monetary prizes and at that moment, helpful of course. But I don’t ask for grants (only for printing costs, not for production) to do my artwork, it needs to be private.
Was that why you were very moved by the screening of the complete Max Turnheim film yesterday?
This film has so many parts! Max Turnheim is the longest film I ever did. It is also now in my suitcase because I will go to Paris afterwards. I have one fresh roll of 30 metre film and I want to continue the film about Max. I paid for developing the first copies of the films myself but then at a certain point Dietmar Schwärzler said that he would like to have a copy at Sixpack, so I gave them corrected copies while I held on to the bad ones. I saw the whole film for the first time yesterday, but the other films in the program I had seen before. I am still shocked by that film, I think while watching it, I was reminded of my own years because for so many years my life was so difficult. I only feel well since I have been together with my current husband Georg Gröller. Being with Peter Kubelka for twenty-seven years was very difficult. I learned a lot but it was hard.
Peter Kubelka und Jonas (Friedl vom Gröller, 1994)
We can sense it in the portrait film Peter Kubelka und Jonas Mekas, a feeling that maybe you were being judged and we could feel a heaviness directed towards you.
I cannot see it as strongly as you did in the film because it was much stronger in reality, especially from Peter. I know that he loved me a lot and I also loved him back, maybe still do, I don’t know, but this generation of men... it was not only Peter, it was the generation in Vienna who were influenced I think by the Surrealists – some of them they knew personally because Surrealism was the first thing that came to Vienna after the Nazis. I suppose the Surrealist men were very hard on their women. Maybe it was not a coincidence that some of their women became psychotic. Men used to switch to younger women and then again to still younger ones and it was this generation that I knew in the artists circle as a young woman. So, what you saw was only maybe five percent of what it was in reality. But I am glad that you noticed it.
Maybe you can talk a little about the role of viewfinder for you in photography and film. We think that it plays a significant role for you.
What comes first to my mind are the 1700 portraits that I did as a photographer of my mother. I had photographed 1700 and eliminated 700. I had a very difficult relationship with her; therefore, I did these photographs because I wanted somehow to scrutinize her personality. We were four children and everyone had a difficult relationship with her, not only me. My sister went to Amsterdam when she was young, my brother went to Luxembourg when he was young and my other brother Toni, whom you saw with a gun in the film [Erwin, Toni, Ilse (1968-1969)] and I stayed back in Vienna. While taking these photographs, suddenly I had these tender, gentle feelings towards her, but only when I was looking through the viewfinder. So, this was my strongest adventure, all the love that was enclosed in my heart, which I didn’t know of, came to the surface. I took up photography when I was 16 and I did it immediately as a pretext, to make my life easier and adventurous.
And if you look through a viewfinder, you are hiding your face and you can make yourself more important than when you are without it, you can protect yourself with a viewfinder in some situations. You can go to places where you could not go otherwise like on stages, to concerts, to look at your favourite stars with a view finder; you can talk to strangers with a viewfinder which you couldn’t do otherwise; you can photograph female rivals under the pretext that you want to photograph them but then you can look at them closely and make them feel insecure. That’s only to name a few things among many. But I also found that the camera, and here I am talking more of the photo-camera because it’s smaller, can potentially change a situation completely. Not nowadays, because everybody has a camera in their cell phone, but back in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Even if you did not intend to photograph, if you would appear in a spa with a camera where there would be women undressing and dressing, everybody would look at you even if you were not using the camera. So, I realized that the camera as a device was a very aggressive instrument and sometimes I also used the film camera in a similar manner. I think you perhaps touched upon it, that there are implications which are in a way sadistic. It's a sadistic thing which I speak about openly because I read that Sergei Eisenstein considered himself a very sadistic person. He came from a well to do family as you know, cultivated, he said if his father would have allowed him to remove the wings of living flies as a child like the other boys, then his films would have been less sadistic; then he would have got rid of his sadistic nature at the right age and not carry it through his life. I thought if Eisenstein can say that he is sadistic, I also can say it. But the good thing, the ethical thing, is that I ask the people filmed to see for themselves before sharing it with the public.
So, you think there is a big difference between a character who is looking directly into the eye and a character who is looking at you through the lens.
Yes, when I film and photograph myself, it is completely different. A rendered human being is in a way a victim, it depends on what you do afterwards. I told my students in school you can do whatever you like, there is no restriction. Today there are many moral and ethical questions that prohibit many things. I told my students to do or say whatever they need to, but there are certain things which really have to be considered thoroughly before making a work public. I heard some critics say, and I am a little bit used to that, that Atelier d’expression (2016) is not quite politically correct and this made me wonder…. Did any of you think it was problematic?
Atelier d’expression (Friedl vom Gröller, 2016)
We see it more as an extension and in some ways in dialogue with your other works, we did not necessarily see any clear moral or ethical implications arising from the way it was made.
Because the characters in the film were Africans, they were psychotic and restless, these are the lines of argument which I get to hear. And I wonder if the people who say this have had any contact with psychotics or have been in a psychatric clinic like I myself have been on two different ocassions; once I had been there for three weeks when I was young after I tried to commit suicide. I felt very well there and I really didn’t want to leave afterwards because it was a kind of secure place for me while outside it was dangerous. And then the other time when I did psychoanalytic training in a clinic, I felt very well and the people there really liked me. I sat in a corner, without a medical white coat, because I was shy and not a doctor who specialized in psychiatry. Once there was a conference with all the doctors in charge, the psychotics always thought that I was the hidden authority and so they addressed me. Anyway, I wonder if those people who are so eagerly opposed to something that they restrict the use of a word as politically incorrect, have ever lived with someone from Africa. I was in contact for five years with a Senegalese man for instance. I wonder if they have visited a psychiatric clinic, if they know what they were talking about. I think there is an avoidance. A philosopher called Robert Pfaller wrote about this political correctness and “acceptable” language, he called it a reaction to capitalism which demands that you should not be aggressive while at the same time propagating even more aggression. You cannot call the cleaning lady by that name any more but you can take the security away from her and pay her even less. So, he sees a connection between this eagerness with regard to what is appropriate and what is actually happening and I don't want to be part of these politics.
There are some moments in which we feel that you abandon the usual kind of portrait in favour of recording an event where we don’t just see a face but something like the construction of a situation.
The portrait usually is only of a person but here we are confronted rather with a staging of a situation.
You mean the film La Cigarette (2011) for instance?
Yes, for example.
I am often influenced by a film that I have seen recently. I think in this case I had seen the film Vénus noire (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2010). It was a film where an entrepreneur in the 19th century took a black woman to London and presented her in salons and she was treated badly and had to be displayed on a table. So, I asked Marguerite Lantz (she is so gifted as a performer) if she would sit on the table and I gave her a cigarette. It was not a joint, the light makes it seem so, but it was a normal cigarette. Jackie Raynal had come to visit and there were not enough people, so we got a blonde young woman from my building in Paris. I wanted to shoot people who did not know me well, to astonish them unexpectedly while I undressed and put on another dress to see their reaction, that's what you do not see in the movie. I was standing beside the camera and changing to a new dress and that is the moment in the film where everybody is wide-eyed because they see me in my underwear which they didn’t expect.
La Cigarette (Friedl vom Gröller, 2011)
Returning to the topic of the viewfinder, we were wondering if you sometimes leave the viewfinder out there even when you are not filming.
I leave the viewfinder by itself, that’s what I started to do especially in Atelier d’expression because I found that African people get extremely nervous when they are photographed or filmed. I had heard this before and then I saw it for myself. It was never my intent to make somebody so nervous. I listened to the noise of the camera and when it stopped, I had to rewind it and it was then that I looked through it, sometimes that meant starting a new portrait. Now with this one other person in the film, Omar, who is not a psychotic, he is mute and communicates in sign language. When I glanced towards him, he signaled me that he was done with a sign and I stopped the camera.
There is a moment where he hasn't finished, and we suppose you start again so that he could finish his sentence?
But this is also something that Andy Warhol did, that I didn’t really know. Warhol did his Screen Tests and there you see the flickering in the beginning and in the end. He turned around and left the camera rolling for a much longer period by itself because he had more money than I do.
Did you always shoot with a Bolex or did you start with a different camera and then switch to it? Or was it that you were using different cameras simultaneously?
These days I combine different cameras. I still have my very first camera which is a bit broken but I used it in Winter in Paris (2018). It’s an in-between camera that operates in the range of 16 and 24fps. I set it on 16ps but it records a bit quicker. This was the Eumig. The Bolex I bought rather late when I was at the film school where everyone was using one, at which point I thought I should get one too.
You mentioned that you take the opportunity of staring into the eyes of people by using the camera as a shield, something that you couldn’t have done otherwise.
To have a prolonged stare is not possible in the absence of a camera. Only small children can do that. Yesterday I saw a little girl who did not stop staring at me. I couldn’t tell what she had on her mind, but the stare was uninterrupted. That is what I am aiming to do.
Sometimes you probably trick a person into reacting to the camera by telling him that the camera is rolling while it is actually not. At other times you actually start rolling before the person expects you to. You are thus orchestrating an element of uncertainty into the film.
I would like to do it more often. I did it once when Max’s wife allowed me to film her with the child. I said to her, let’s see how you approach the camera with the baby. And when I saw it, I really liked it. But sometimes it is not entirely orchestrated, I tend to be absent minded because of my excitement and then when I notice these mistakes, I let them stay because they have a certain appeal.
What kind of imperfections would you be tempted to include in the final version of a film?
Such decisions can only be made in hindsight. I consciously try to keep the image in focus and you can see how often I fail. In Kirschenzeit (2013) it's nice that there is a photograph in the end that is out of focus. I won a prize for the film 27.12.2013 St. Louis Senegal (2014) which is double exposed without me having the intention of doing it at first. I had initially freaked out when I found out that a lever had been not in the right place by mistake while shooting. It was St. Louis in Senegal where I paid some boys to get them in front of the camera. While shooting with the Bolex, I had only exposed the film with half the light than what was adequate. When I came back home to my rented flat, I saw what had happened. I phoned L’Abominable, in Paris, and told them and they suggested I go for double exposure. And when it was done, I was very happy with the result. This is why I never write a script because this is something I never could have conceived in advance. I sometimes write down a few ideas, maybe five of them and even then, I rarely stick to them because I forget about them in the excitement of shooting. But this is exactly the way I want to continue filming in my life. I need to make films in order to make my life more beautiful, more exciting and to have a certain proof of my existence and the contact I had with someone. Very often I never see the people I film again, unless I intend to give them a DVD for them to preview the work. But even them, the ones who saw me performing a striptease, I feel ashamed because I have this feeling that I have betrayed them.
27.12.2013 St. Louis Senegal (Friedl vom Gröller, 2014)
3. On camera apparatus and cinematic dispositif
You have talked about Eumig and Bolex cameras, we were wondering as to how many other film cameras have you used in your work.
I don't even know the name of the other one, a Super 8 camera which I had bought from Pip Chodorov, a very small one, a Canon maybe. I made Heidi Kim at W Hong Kong Hotel (2010)with it. So, I would say three cameras in all, Eumig C16, the Bolex and then that Super 8 camera.
Did you also shoot on 35mm?
No, never. There were some films which were enlarged to 35mm, even without me asking for it. It was the film department of the ministry of culture in Vienna, sometimes near the end of the year they have left over money. They offered to enlarge the first 10 films to 35mm. These prints are never shown, they are sitting in the Filmmuseum archive. I have never seen those copies.
So, it was a kind of preservation project?
Yes, it was a cultural thing. I was somehow flattered that they spent the money to preserve my first ten films that were released. I didn’t even know at the time if I would go on filming.
But is it not interesting to you to see what changes in terms of quality? For example, when filmmaker Helga Fanderl saw her films for the first time on 16mm, the shift in scale was quite astonishing for her.
Did she like it?
Initially, no. Now more or less she has begun to appreciate the screenings with Super 8 and 16mm combined. One can notice a contrast in terms of the grain and the colors.
I have only seen Heidi Kim at W Hong Kong Hotel enlarged on 16mm and I thought it looked nice.
Do you use the handle to always crank the camera or have you used an external camera motor?
I prefer to crank it, I feel that it gives me a certain reassurance of reality.
Can you talk a little bit about the ending of your films?
Sometimes I like to film elaborate endings. For the title of the film Cherries (2013), the couple was gone and I was by myself and I filmed the title, which is made of the seeds of the cherries. I ate all the cherries in order to have the seeds from them to build the word “Cherries”, which then I filmed. But the film was already over which I hadn’t noticed. For me it is kind of a symbol for life because you do things in order to achieve something and then they don’t work out and in a way it's humorous too. This is where humor should be, in these situations. I came home and described to Georg what I did for the title and that it was not there. I think that’s funny. As long as I don’t kill somebody for the ending or if five of my teeth would have been pulled out, and then had there been no film, then it would have been really sad.
Are you more relaxed about the endings because of this, since there is an element of uncertainty about it? So sometimes if the film runs out, you are not panicked.
Normally, I listen to the sound of the camera if I am near enough, but sometimes if I am too excited, I don’t hear it. Sometimes I think I don’t want to edit, I don’t want to have a post-production and I try to film the title on the same roll of film, until I realize that the camera was empty.
Do you ever think of counting the frames or keeping track in some similar way?
I did this film called One Minute Luxury, a black silent film which comprises 1440 frames and is one minute long. I made it, thinking of the audience, like the one in the screening last evening and I thought that a minute of darkness and silence there would really be a luxury. But while making it, I miscounted and I also have an editing table which is not able to count accurately. So, I took the film to the lab and told them to make it exactly a minute long. In the Viennese school of experimental film, almost everyone works frame by frame, perhaps under the influence of Peter Kubelka, Kurt Kren and Peter Tscherkassky, but I don’t. But to tell you the truth, I don’t have post-production because I am afraid to edit after having lived with Peter for 27 years and having heard numerous lectures on [Unsere] Afrikareise (1966). I didn’t want to enter this world because I didn’t know how to edit. And for the last film, Paris Episodes (2018), Albert Sackl, a filmmaker and a former student of Peter helped me with the editing. For some films where I do have post-production, I did it with Albert.
Winter in Paris (Friedl vom Gröller, 2018)
When you edit in-camera do you keep a mental map of what you had shot before? Because if there is a gap in-between, it might not be entirely trivial to recall what you had shot before.
I think I’m able to do it subconsciously now. Like in Winter in Paris, where I was even astonished by the result.
It is interesting that you are able to achieve this montage of association during the shooting while others might have to do it on an editing table.
I am forced to do it because I am so afraid of editing and this is Peter Kubelka’s influence.
And you are editing in-camera and to us it seems even more challenging because somehow you have to keep track of what was before and what is after, even though you are doing this in order to not edit conventionally on an editing table.
Yes, but in a way it's easier and less lonely, while being at the editing table all by yourself can get very lonely. I like to be by myself in the darkroom for hours developing my still photographs, even for weeks or for months, but this is something else. It has again to do with the influence of Peter, the time I was with him.
Did you ever collaborate with Peter, for example in the film school?
Peter was professor at the Städelschule Frankfurt and when he had to leave Frankfurt to retire because of his age, he was quite sad. He really liked his position in Frankfurt. At the time I was still with him and I proposed opening a film school together: I offered to take care of the organizational aspects and Peter could concentrate on teaching. I already had the experience of the photography school behind me. He declined then, perhaps it was too small for him or maybe there wasn’t enough money in it for him. This year he has been teaching there, invited by Philipp Fleischmann. I didn’t open the film school because I was educated in film theory or film history and I was not so good at film techniques either. I merely wanted to have a film school that I can visit and I wanted to invite other filmmakers for the students to be taught by them. There was no such film school in Vienna at the time, Maria Lassnig was teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts where Mara Mattuschka went, but it was for animation film. I had a similar motivation for opening the photography school. For many years, I was aggressively against the idea of a single photograph, a human portrait with one light situation which I thought was a pure lie. Nobody really paid attention to what I said, it was the early 1970s. So, I opened the school years later and then I had listeners. At the time there was not one ongoing class in the whole country devoted to art photography.
Perhaps you can talk about your preference in terms of shooting and projection speed.
When I was poor(er), I worked also as a maid in a hotel and sold newspapers on the streets but I always wanted to film. It was clear to me that I would film at 16fps. At the time I did not think in terms of projections. Among my old projectors, now I have one which can project at 16fps. I wanted the film to be four minutes long instead of three. Only later did I start filming at 24fps. In the Max Turnheim film, in 2009 when he was breathing quickly, it seemed artificial. I changed the speed from 24fps, to 16 fps.
Paris Episodes (Friedl vom Gröller, 2018)
You have talked about the element of chance in your work. Sometimes you shoot in color because that is the stock available to you at the moment. Do you remember other cases in which you used color in a more deliberate way?
It depends. For example, Max Turnheim is a part of my new film, Paris Episodes, and there I filmed some scenes in color. In one scene I, together with Albert Sackl, thought that the traffic light going red might be interesting in color, a kind of metaphor for Max’s decisiveness when it came to ideas on architecture. When Max married Gala, I shot her face with red lips in color. In Heidi Kim at W Hong Kong Hotel, I really just had a Super 8 color film with me.
Do you always have the camera with you?
I only have the fotoapparat here with me. There are only certain things that I like to photograph. I only take the film camera with me when I want to film somebody. Often, I first take a few photographs and then I give them to the people I filmed later on.
Can you talk about your preference for filming in black and white?
My only activity that Peter really liked was painting. I used to sit and make these small paintings. I was self-taught in this regard. I went to museums and looked at early paintings for hours and I was mostly interested in the way they used colours. To put a yellowish green beside a bluish green for example is satisfying. In photography at that time in analog terms, I could not achieve this because of the filtering which blinded out all the yellow of the entire image. When looking at these photographs, I thought that this is not the way to work with colours. That is when I decided to use black and white.
Nowadays I have a great deal of difficulty in painting and this makes me sad, though I never give up. Painting as an activity pleased me a great deal, even more than filming because I find painting more contemplative.
You have already mentioned L’Abominable a few times. Which other film labs have you worked with?
Pip Chodorov took me to the old L’Abominable and I developed my first film with his help, he was really like a father to me. At the photography school at one point in the year, we would shoot on Super 8 reversal. Now there is a Coop in Vienna where people are very active, so if I want to develop films on my own, I could go there and learn from them.
In terms of your subjects when you are filming, do you choose them from those you meet in your daily life or do you seek something very specific, something that draws you to them? Basically, we were curious to know how you meet the subject of your portraits and what is it that draws you to them?
This is something I cannot really say. For instance, when I saw Delphine for the first time in a poetry circle, we talked a little bit because we were both first timers there and the circle had already been active for about 20 years. We both stood outside in the courtyard, smoking together. It is the same place where I filmed Delphine. Later I filmed other members of the poetry circle. I found her very interesting but I don’t really know why. I didn’t dare to ask her then if I could film. While returning from the place, I found myself in the same bus as she and I thought to myself, this is the time to approach her. So, I went and asked her if I could make a film portrait of her the next time we met. She said yes. The next time she was one hour late, I missed the meeting of the poetry circle and filmed her instead.
I tried to make a similar portrait of my brother Toni but I couldn’t. It was 35 years after the first film Erwin, Toni, Ilse, and it just didn’t work. It was next to the water, near the Danube but something had changed. I can’t put my finger on it and neither are you the first one to ask me about this. I am reluctant to use the word subconscious.
Delphine Oliveira (Friedl vom Gröller, 2009)
What if we turned the question around and asked you, what would be a portrait that wouldn’t interest you?
I think this can be split up into many different reasons. Sometimes the person can be too attractive for me especially if it's a man and that would scare me. Sometimes the person might not have enough humor in him or her, the person can’t take what I refer to as actionism, sometimes the person can be too introverted.
You use different terms such as models, victims, viewers. Is the usage of these different terms determined by context? And do all these other categories somehow fall under the larger category of victims?
I think there is always love involved even if I say victim. Victim is more in terms of an oppositional stance to our society, against the political correctness that determines that you should not be voyeuristic and to me it's very absurd not to be. I think this is outrageous, if our world is voyeuristic why shouldn’t I be? Of course, there are some things which I am more aware of, living in Vienna. I look into a home and couples make less love than before and spend more time sitting in front of their computers. Last week I was up early and I saw a man masturbating in front of his computer, perhaps he didn’t anticipate someone else to be up by five. I felt sad for him, maybe he doesn’t have a partner and this is part of a routine before going to work. I use the term victim provocatively, but they are respectable human beings, all of them.
What about the film with Sebastian Mekas?
He was a victim [laughing].
Do you show Sebastian Mekas (2003) anymore?
I’m slightly embarrassed by the film which is why I don’t show it that often. I think it was two minutes long. I have known him since he was a child, when we were in Jonas Mekas’ house. I have seen him grow up, he was into scientific books and rarely looked up. We were talking about these things sitting at an expensive cafe next to the Louvre; he has a sense of humour. I don’t feel too good about making him do the film but I did not hurt him.
I tried to make up for it though. He fell in love with a student of mine and she said that they cannot bear living apart. So I gave her the key to my room in Paris, something that I would never do for somebody else because it is very important to me and I am possessive about it. But I did it more for Sebastian.
Erwin, Toni, Ilse (Friedl vom Gröller, 1968-1969)
In the film Erwin, Toni, Ilse as you are photographing, you are exposing the film as well as exposing a person to different possibilities of being looked at. On the question of the victim, we were wondering about your own transition – from feeling guilty to acting upon an impulse and then perhaps, to an attraction of some kind.
Let’s take the Paris Episodes insteadas an example. I filmed Monica there who is already in La Cigarette. In Paris, 2015 she is a political activist and she has been one since I have known her from the age of 16. She then fell in love with an African man and got pregnant and gave birth to a child. The film covers the duration of 2015-2017. In a few minutes one could see the past years of her life: first being lonesome, giving everything to your political aims, falling in love, bearing a child, giving birth. The passing of time can be very heavy to watch. So I was reminded of all this and I was thinking of showing Max Turnheim in Paris since he is there in the film and the film will be shown in public. However, I am not so sure of that anymore, I realized that it can hurt him a lot. The same for his mother who might be saddened by the passing away of her husband when watching that film.
We find it interesting when you speak of the photos you took of yourself, the self-portraits where you are the subject and the object at the same time. The central concern is to avoid objectification while being respectful.
Yes, but take the instance of painting, I don’t like those feminist women who say that every woman who has been rendered in an erotic way, dressed or not, is objectified. This is really crazy and misleading. I don’t understand this.
One question we had is about showing the films to the subjects present in the film. Do you show them immediately once they are finished or do you wait for a certain amount of time, because with time the immediacy, the identification with the situation perhaps alleviates a little? A certain amount of objectivity can come in.
It is easier to show them the same year as the film is made.
Interview conducted in A Coruña,
during the (S8) Mostra de Cinema Periférico,
on Saturday, June 2, 2018.
Transcribed by Arindam Sen.
Thanks to Friedl vom Gröller and Dietmar Schwärzler.