Institute of Documentary Film will organize the jubilee 15th edition of Ex Oriente Film workshop within Ji.hlava IDFF. The second out of three sessions will again offer a series of creative masterclasses and lectures on various aspects of documentary filmmaking, coproduction and distribution open to wide public. Among its tutors, there will be also the award-winning Austrian director Andreas Horvath. In his masterclass (October 25, 17:00 – 19:30 | Dukla Cinema, Jihlava), he will speak about his latest film Helmut Berger, Actor, an unconventional and controversial portrait of the actor Helmut Berger. The film itself is an insightful commentary on the documentary medium, revealing the power dynamic and struggle sometimes present between filmmaker and subject. Andreas Horvath will present an extended Q&A session that will be preceded by the screening of the film Helmut Berger, Actor (90 mins, 2015). The masterclass is organized in cooperation with the Ji.hlava IDFF.
As an invitation to his lecture, we asked Andreas Horvath some questions.
How do you search for themes of your films? For your last documentary, you chose an actor Helmut Berger, why him?
Since my early teens I admired Helmut Berger as an actor, especially in Visconti films like “Ludwig II” or “The Damned”. So basically it all started from the desire to make a portrait about an artist I truly admired. At the same time there has always been this other, much darker, side to his personality: Helmut Berger, the guarantor of scandal and excess wherever he shows up, the celebrity who just does not give a shit about public opinion. This side also fascinated me. In my early twenties I wanted to make a photo book about him. It never materialized. In hindsight I am glad it became a film, because a film allows you to explore the more complex contradictions of a character.
Did you know his personality before and did you imagine how difficult the shooting can become?
Of course I knew it would be extremely difficult to work with him. Helmut Berger is notoriously difficult and capricious. But in my films I like to look into things that are ambivalent, things I don't quite understand: ambiguities, dichotomies, hypocrisies. It's not just what people say, but how they say things, with which intonation and intention. Film is a very good medium for these subtleties and Helmut Berger is a very good subject.
Was it an advantage to shoot an actor? Was it difficult to catch his authenticity?
It was difficult, but that was the intention, that´s exactly what this film is about: We are never quite sure how much he is acting or not, but throughout the film you get the sense of this looming outburst, the sudden release of tension, the removal of the mask -- which eventually happens in the last scene. And all of a sudden, at the end of the film, there is Helmut Berger lying in his bed, half naked and vulnerable, but content and happy, like a newborn child. And you think: So this is what it was all about! It is almost like the “Rosebud”- moment of Helmut Berger. The mask of arrogance and hostility falls and you realize: He just needs love and attention. It actually was the last thing I shot with him. After that I felt no need to continue and gather more material. And it was not staged or planned.
What caught my attention – you are very often a director, editor, director of photography and a sound director in one person. Why did you choose this way? I can imagine in each part you have a precise idea about the result.
In the case of Helmut Berger it was the only way to make the film. I could never have created the intimacy of many of the scenes with a team. Also, it was often difficult to plan ahead. He would call in the middle of the night and insist he has an important thing to tell me ... now or never. You cannot do this with a team. -- But it is true. In cinema I like when you get someone´s unfiltered view. There might be idiosyncrasies in a film (what some might perceive as lengths, unusual editing or whatever), but at least it´s one person´s take on something. The old discussion about the objective truth of a documentary is beside the point. It´s really about the truth of the filmmaker´s point of view. Of course you can achieve that with a team also, but so far working by myself from time to time has worked for me.
In your documentaries, do you work with some concepts or do you make some plan where you would like to orientate the narration?
You cannot help working with a concept. At the very latest, you start thinking about a concept when you pitch the film as an idea. However, for me it is important to remain flexible about the concept. If you realize your premise was wrong, you need to be willing to change or at least adapt your concept. I like to work intuitively: Of course it´s important to do research and be prepared, but I also like to preserve a certain naïve curiousness about the subject matter. This helps me to have a sincere interest for the actual person I am dealing with. This was particularly helpful with Helmut Berger: I think there are a few very revealing moments in the film, simply because I didn´t know some of the people he was talking about. I have never been part of the ”jet-set” and did not pretend to be. This annoyed him and he lost his cool. He involuntarily opened up.
Except filmmaking, you are a respected photographer. In your last documentary Helmut Berger, Actor I liked very much your work with the camera. Do you observe your surroundings in the same way when you are shooting or just taking a picture?
In film you have much more control over the way the audience will view your images. Contrary to a photo exhibition or a photo book, in film you determine the order of the shots and for how long your shots are displayed. For me this creates a very different approach to collecting images. Much more than in photography, I am thinking of the juxtaposition of images when shooting a film. An image that might be meaningless as a still photograph might be of great importance in the context of a film. I have never managed to do film and photography about one subject at the same time. It´s two different mind-sets.
Please, tell us what are your future plans?
I am working on my first fiction film. Inspired by true events, it tells the story of Lillian Alling, a Russian immigrant, who, in the 1920s tried to walk from New York back to Russia. She attempted to cross the Bering Strait. Last year I spent nine months in North America shooting and I am currently editing. Ulrich Seidl is the producer. This project is so demanding that I haven´t been able to think beyond.