Stephan Sachs

Fascism and the Fantastic: an interview with Stephan Sachs

Stephan Sachs is a 32 year old experimental filmmaker working in Düsseldorf. After going to art school in France in the late 1970s he began working in film, completing eleven short films over the course of the 1980s. His work interrogates romantic myths of masculinity, German identity and the exotic, using methods that are at once expressive and intellectual. A consummate technician, Sachs has made two home-brew optical printers and a circular movie screen for installation work. He completed his last film in 1987 entitled Paramount, which features his friend and fellow filmmaker Klaus Telscher. Paramount replays the German mountain film of the 1930s, a film form whose icy ascents set the psychological stage for Germany’s entry into World War Two.

MH: When did you start making films?

SS: Ten years ago.

MH: Because you were in art school?

SS: It developed slowly. I started to study art in France, and while there were many different subjects film was not included. I always made a lot of serial photography. Then I began doing slide work, then slide work with soundtracks, then a special track to synch sound and image (laughs), so at the end it was very close to film. Then I moved to Düsseldorf. I thought they would have more film equipment in Düsseldorf, which wasn’t really true. I still painted and made photographs, but film became more important. Now I haven’t painted for years and don’t make many stills.

MH: Was there a co-op in Düsseldorf with equipment you could use?

SS: Yes, there is one. The co-op has maybe sixty members and most are not active. They have super-8 and 16mm equipment, editing tables, good sound equipment, Arriflex and Nagras, but no frame by frame cameras. They’re not really equipped for very experimental work because not many people are making it.

MH: Is the co-op the centre of the film scene in Düsseldorf?

SS: Ten years ago the Düsseldorf Art Academy had a film section and some documentary filmers emerged. Their work is very political but in a conventional way. The Academy closed this section because they thought that it didn’t have much to do with art any more. Some of these people began the co-op which is now a part of the Düsseldorf film institute. There is also a Kommunale Kino.

MH: Is the Kino a place where you can show your work?

SS: Yes, it’s a very good one. Whenever I have a new film I can show it there no problem. Once a week there’s an evening of experimental film. It’s very regular and that’s important for Düsseldorf. It’s normally not so easy to see them.

MH: Was that already happening when you came to Düsseldorf?

SS: Yes. I saw a lot of classical experimental cinema: Richter, Eggeling, Bunuel, Deren, Brakhage and newer work from Germany, not only the classics but other generations, which is important.

MH: What did you make yourself?

SS: I made Verelsung in the subway here, a year after coming to the art academy.

MH: Did the film start because you were watching them rebuild the subways?

SS: No, I was looking for different rooms and found this subway in construction. The film begins with immense rooms that become smaller. At the beginning it’s very static and objects move while at the end the camera moves when I run through very narrow rooms. That films was the beginning. I made a script, and drew pictures and looked for them. Verelsung was made in 16mm. After that I began to use super-8, shooting spontaneously for the first time without a film in mind. At the same time I was painting and making objects. Later I discovered pieces that fit together and common themes. But there were only small pieces of film I really liked. I had to do something to extend the material because you can’t do much with only three meters of super-8. So I began to make my first optical printer with a small projector. The first result was Fa(h)r (weit). I made several other tries but they never became finished films. The whole film was made in supser-8, much of it on the printer. But at the Academy, and everywhere else, the super-8 projection is always bad, so later on I remade the film on my second printer.

MH: Can you describe what the film looks like?

SS: It’s built on long takes. The opening shows a freighter being untied from its mooring, shot from above. We see the anchoring rope line and movements of the sailors The second section shows a fixed line, a metal rail with the moving horizon behind. Now the voyage really begins. Its movements are very musical. Normally the horizon is fixed for the eye, but now it swings up and down, like a wave. This wave motion was changed on the printers until it became like breath for me. When you see it on a big screen you nearly get seasick. After that it goes into the inside of the boat, moving towards a diagonal line. Then it moves into a completely abstract section taken from the overhead wires of a train. These are worked in a very musical way. Both the rope at the beginning and the wires at the end, mark a diagonal line across the frame. In between you have a movement between the horizontal to the diagonal. These two kinds of travels are movements into abstraction. You have the impression of things moving but it’s not true, it’s you moving. In fact, it’s only cinema, only film. The movements of the crew around the rope that casts the ship away at the film’s beginning was very wonderful for me. It was like a theatre piece I happened on; I couldn’t have constructed it. To see it later was marvelous.

MH: And the title?

SS: It’s a word game. ‘Fahr’ means to go, to travel, the ‘h’ is in brackets, without it, you get ‘far’ in English which means ‘weit.’

MH: What came after Fa(h)r (weit)? Was this still the period where you were trying to deal with your super-8 material?

SS: I was shooting quite regularly so I had a large archive, some of which got into films much later. The next film was Satourne, which was made in a park in the Mediterranean area. It’s very artificial like a park is. It’s shot frame by frame from one point, through a piece of glass which shows at the same time a panoramic view and a view of the sky. Two levels: one horizontal, one vertical. I shot over several days and the view depends on the relative illumination from both levels. The beginning is very slow, freeze framed, then the movement builds through a kind of choreography to a summit, where it moves so quickly you lose you point of centering. You have to concentrate on just one of the movements, you can’t see them together. In the end I made brief shots with a flash at night which gives the illusion of a very fast movement where there are only stills, separated by black leader. It has quite a classical dramatic form.

MH: When you talk about it, it seems quite metaphorical.

SS: One movement seems more structural, the other more poetic. These two levels are always struggling in my films. The film itself is always talking about filmmaking, but at the same time it has to have a very poetic surface and a very physical cinema you are taken into, not like a fiction movie, but with your eyes. These two movies are silent; they have to be because they’re musical, the music is in the image.

MH: How is this film like filmmaking?

SS: Perhaps it’s just the way I work. I always try to make image spontaneously, but it’s hard to hold this feeling after making films for years. For me films is an island where I put my projections, feelings and longings. They are my world. I make work to be shown but that’s not the first impulse. The first idea is to make islands where I can sit. The point is not to be pedagogical. For instance, in Satourne, I couldn’t make only an analysis of the circular movement, I know structural film, but for me this is a historical period, it’s over. It was an important time, but I use this received information in a personal, poetic way.

MH: So-called structural film often defines a specific arena which it examines and elaborates. Satourne shares this quality.

SS: I use a narrative structure, but without people. Or if people are in it they work more as an image than a person. They’re equal to the objects that surround them. I never become psychological. The rhythm of the sound and editing are much closer to something human than the people in it.

MH: And the physical cinema you spoke of earlier begs an identification with the moving camera. In your early work the camera becomes the protagonist.

SS: Yes, you identify with the aesthetics, not the person.

MH: Why is that important?

SS: I have a great respect for other people. I get closer to what I want to say with the properties of film than acting. Finally, I’m not able to construct a script; I always find things and put them together. I begin with the image. Whenever I applied for a grant and was asked to draft a synopsis for a new project, it always turned out to be a description of the film I was working on! (laughs) I can’t pull subjects out of my head, it comes out of life.

MH: The island film is the next work…

SS: I worked for more than a year on a circular screen. The screen hung from the ceiling, with a projector mounted inside on a tripod with a motor on it. if the spectator wants to follow the film they have to walk around with it, on the outside of the screen. Movements in the opposite direction of the projector become still, while stills are set into motion. For example, the first film I made for this screen, the simplest one, was a 360 degree horizontal pan in a landscape. But if you project it from inside, leaving the spectator outside, then the circle is erupted, turned inside out. The turning of the camera and the projector are at the same speeds but in opposite directions. So there’s no movement, there’s only a single scene with a change in light. The moving projector beam scans the landscape. I made several of these. The latest I made showed the inside of the projector apparatus, so finally the installation projects itself, as if the screen were a window.

MH: Is this an ongoing series?

SS: Most were loops. When I began to think about the circular movements in Satourne I thought, “I have to make a circular screen.” The point is that you always stay outside, so when there’s a lot of spectators they’re all running around the outside of the screen, and it’s quite funny to look at. There you see which position the filmmaker takes. He puts people in a dark room, and then sometimes you have to run just to follow the image. This is a dangerous point I think.

MH: What came after that?

SS: Die Insel is a film made by Jean Francois and I in 1984. “Die Insel” is the island. It’s a kind of narrative about storytelling. Two men sit in a hotel room taking breakfast in a long shot. All the noises of eating are synchronous but not the speaking. One speaks while the other is eating silently. This image stays for a very long time, three minutes or so, it gets a little boring. He speaks about his holidays, and the more the story goes on, the less the other listens. All in one shot. The next shot show the two much closer. We began with a long focus shot from far away and end in short focus very close up, so you have nearly the same things in the image compressed at the beginning and separated at the end. After this first scene, the camera moves back into another room, and he’s talking all the time, over the whole course of the film’s fourteen minutes. Like the images, the stories are very banal, unscripted cliché talk about his holidays. When the camera moves into the backroom you don’t see them any more, you see chairs, plastic plants, some tables. The camera plays with these objects, but now with very much love. They appear as banal as the story. You’re always looking for a connection between what he’s speaking about and what you see in the room. And then the film finishes. The story gets close to the images, but they never really meet. There’s an obvious identification between the silent man and the camera. But like the rest of the film it becomes too much, it’s ironic. The whole film has no really interesting images in it. If there were, it wouldn’t work.

MH: Most filmmaker would find that hard to admit. Sometimes you experience a very moving sunset, and then you take a picture of it, only it looks like a bus station postcard. It’s impossible to represent because the very act of representation makes it banal. The camera records only the cliché, only the history of other’s intentions.

SS: Sometimes when you look at a sunset you think, “It’s nice, but not as good as a photo.” I like the known images of these postcards, which everyone has experienced. What is represented in the picture is not so interesting, but the way it’s taken the view is important. There’s no image which doesn’t say anything. That’s a contestable point amongst some documentary filmers, they believe in the objectivity of their own pictures as opposed to the truth of their view. But the view is always there, before the camera registers it.

MH: The next film is Soria Moria Slott?

SS: Yes. Soria is originally a Norwegian tale, the story of a young guy running through the forest to find a girl in a castle and having a lot of adventures. “Slott” means Schloss or castle, which is far far away and he never reaches it. The first image is two minutes long, and shows a little island far away. There’s mist on it, and the sea is in a blue mood, a very Nordic mood. The camera advances very slowly, moving from a boat in the far part of the fjord. Then a small boat crosses the frame, floating away from this movement, like the island far away. Then the island leaves the frame. This is a whole story for me, a film itself with a beginning and an end. At the same time, it could be the beginning of a fiction film. When this part ends, when the boat is almost out of the picture, the film is lightstruck at its end, it grows orange and cuts directly into the orange of another picture, a woman sitting in a wooden chair reading a story from a book. You never hear the story, you just watch her reading. Her movements are very emphatic and expressive, it’s like the way people read for children. This is interrupted by short sequences you can’t identify, shot in a very dense blue. The storytelling is orange, and these short bits are accompanied by a very high tone. The storytelling is intercut by these pieces which get longer and longer, and then a third element is introduced. You see ground moving towards you, in blue-green as well, and then you see the woman turning a page before entering into another materiality. It’s printed several times, so it’s not really sharp, it lacks detail so she becomes more abstract, more like an image. Meanwhile the movements on the ground are becoming more continuous, swinging back and forth like a wave as she disappears more and more. I just strung a rope up and attached the camera and filmed it backwards. The camera swings over the ground until the end when you see not only the ground but the woods as well. The image freezes and that’s the end of the film, which could be the beginning of the film as well. This whole story is about storytelling.

MH: The woman who’s reading is very emphatic in her storytelling. She seems to be telling the story of what happens to the boat on the island, she seems to make up the distance between the boat and the island. This is what we expect in a traditional narrative. But her role’s undermined here because we can’t hear what she’s saying, so she becomes a sign for a storyteller instead of the story itself. The brief shots which interrupt her reading look like the tops of trees, photographed to suggest subjectivity, the camera moving, the sound harsh and angst ridden, as if someone’s confronting something.

SS: These shots are cued by the most exaggerated of the storyteller’s movements. In a way it’s a joke, there’s another story beginning finally.

MH: It serves as a counterpoint because it brings image and sound together.

SS: The sound that accompanies the storyteller – you don’t take it as an accompanying sound because you can’t hear her voice. But in the interceding sections sound and image move together, s well as the image where the camera swings.

MH: It’s like a trio then, each has its own sound… It makes them a bit like characters, no matter how abstract the image is, they continue to return and progress. But for the most part the film refuses to tell a story. What is the film saying about stories?

SS: It refuses a certain way of telling stories. The last part in the film is what I like. It’s a very physical cinema, the film moves towards that point. I’m laughing as well at a certain kind of storytelling, because is not really what happens, what really happens is much more unconscious. It arrives before words, it’s something you feel.

MH: These films are all a year apart, they mark a very regular production. The next film is Le Dauphin.

SS: It’s in two parts. It starts very slowly, beginning with a wink, the creation of the image, with the deep sound of the cello, and then a small orange spot that grows. It’s a film in itself. When the image is nearly white you see a bit of a palm tree and a bad zoom backwards, and then you know where you are – a standing palm tree in orange with an aura of light around it which changes to blue before moving, intercut later with images of the sea. Water and wind move towards the spectator in a dramatic circular movement, a small hurricane which grows louder as it draws closer. Then it breaks into a movement like flying through green leaves, penetrating a green tunnel, interrupted occasionally by fish appearing silently. Then we return to the images of the wave very large on the screen, but it’s cut just before breaking, a little like the motion in Fa(h)r (weit), where you stop breathing when there’s images coming. It returns to a long, silent passage of sea and jungle, this forward looking movement which gives way to flowers not mixed in with the jungle any more but solo, one species and then another. In this artificial jungle setting they’re reminiscent of Rousseau’s pictures, with long stamens flowing from the ovaries, they look quite wet, quite obscene. Over these pictures sounds a piece of Bach played by Karajan, very slow and sentimental, much too sentimental. This is the end of the first section.

Then you have the tropical environment but taken in another way, there’s no more moving through space, it’s very flat, they’re really images, they’re slowed down, worked on the printer, they’re quite still, like wallpaper. In the second part you have drums – because we’re in a tropical rain forest and there you have drums, in a very repetitious way. (laughs) In the final part of the film we see the sea again in the moonlight, with very heavy music. It’s Bartok though you can’t tell. And then there is a palm tree, you see this three times in alternation in a triple ending, and then that’s not the end, you have a very decorative fireworks with certain dramatics in it. Usually with fireworks you have Baroque music. But this pathetic music makes the fireworks pathetic as well, and that must be the end. The film begins to smile about itself, it can’t stop. Satie has a very nice piece like that.

MH: What does Dauphin mean?

SS: In French it has two meanings – the dolphin and the successor to the throne. There is a dolphin in the film, but only for 24 frames, between the first and the second parts, at this border.

MH: Le Dauphin seems at least in part to be about the relationship of humans and nature, an uncommon and exotic nature. The relationship between camera and Other is ecstatic in the first movement. It’s a male movement of penetration which is interrupted by fish and flowers. At the end it feels spent, having had its way with nature. It’s like you’ve had an orgasm and they’re you’re limp at the end.

SS: This picture of the flower brings to a point what the jungle reflects in the preceding sequence. But it’s brought too much to a point, it’s so much sown that it’s not erotic, you laugh about it. If you want, the summit is over, it doesn’t go on, especially because I don’t show one, but several. I show one flower after another, you begin to count and this isn’t an erotic feeling.

MH: There’s a certain reversal of shape because the movement I the jungle is like an arrow, but when photographing the flower the camera withdraws, so it mimes a dramatic curve.

SS: Yes. And what you asked before about the surrounding… I’ve never been to the tropics, but I have images in my mind about it which I like. It’s not nature itself, but the image of nature. This longing for the exotic was expressed in colonialism, and again today in our travel pictures. They show a western view of the south, with these strange ideas about an open sexuality. I also have a longing for this exoticism, but on the other hand I have to laugh. Most of the tropical pictures have been taken in Germany’s greenhouses. I created this other world right here.

MH: Why the fish? They’re contained in an aquarium like the plants are contained in a greenhouse. But you don’t show this containment of the plants, With the fish it’s very obvious.

SS: It’s a very close situation with an aquarium, as if you’re in front of a screen. The wild movements of the first part are like diving, but then you meet these fish and it isn’t strange at all, it’s quite normal.

MH: The fish are rest stops, punctuation for the continuous movement of the camera. They are also an image of terror and chaos, these flesh-eating piranhas, but contained now in a small tank, they become beautiful. After hearing the Bach, which is the most pointed connection in all your work between sound and image, the most didactic…

SS: I often use sound and image together to create an atmosphere. But there I break it. I make an atmosphere but it’s too obvious, so it flows into its opposite. In Paramount I use it in the same way. It’s like a re-make; it takes another direction. It was always a question: can I go on after these flowers? It feels closed, it could be the end. I didn’t want the end there because it would have been too easy. In the second part I work out a certain theme. There’s nice pictures as well, but with the drums it gets only to the surface, no deeper. The second part is a variation. It shows where these pictures are coming from: palm trees, blue skies, drums, water by moonlight, these things come together in such a familiar way that they’re flat, there’s nothing more, they really reduce themselves.

MH: There is a tension between the lyric moving camera and the essayistic impulse, it’s a film that contains its own analysis.

SS: Yes, at the beginning the source is always the libido. But I always end up with another view o what I’ve done, and finally the film ends up with both in it. This thinking on the view is never at the beginning.

MH: Is this the split between shooting and editing?

SS: At the beginning the atmosphere of the shooting, its circumstances, is so strong I can’t really feel the image. It takes a long time to get rid of this, then I can bring another view to what seems like images made by somebody else, and then I can work with it. You shoot something with a certain intention or fascination, but when you look at it later this has no importance at all. If there’s no other view then it has no use.

MH: In a way Paramount replays many of the themes, image and formal strategies of your earlier work. The beginning recalls the Slott film, though instead of watching a boat moving towards the island we’re on a boat – the predominant blue-green colour figures again as it does in Fa(h)r (weit), Le Dauphin and Satourne, travel’s involved, it mixes super-8 and 16mm, and walks a line between a clichéd romanticism and its ironic reflection. How did it begin?

SS: I had some super-8 footage I made without a film in sight, sitting on top of a mountain with a friend, Klaus Telscher. We drank red wine before a vast panorama, under blue skies. I thought it would b a good thing to make a film about this male longing, to struggle with nature and to overcome, to get above it, to get higher. Nearly a year later I met Klaus again. His film class in Bremen was going to Italy and he asked me if I wanted to go with them. That was another atmosphere, a lot of woods with water running down the mountains. And then I remembered the images of a year ago, and this fit into it. When we began we were upside, and here we were downside, in an idyll that recalled romantic painting.So I filmed with Klaus there, aksing him to act and walk. Later I went to Switzerland, so it came piece by piece. Then I wondered how to go on, that the part of the hard struggling was missing. I had onlyromantic nature, Kaspar David Friedrich, but Klaus doesn’t fit at all, he’s too tall, and he doesn’t wlak like you’d believe he’s walking a lot in nature…

MH: And at one point he’s smoking a cigarette and you hear an airplane overhead.

SS: I like the cigarette very much. I searched in the archive – a huge pile of all sorts of mountain films. I looked for a harder gesture, for being in the cold regions in these mountains, the fight must be stronger and more existential. I found them finally in an old film with a group climbing, so I blew up just a small part of the frame, and only the gestures of climbing. From other mountain pictures I took panoramic views that move into the sun. The best one I found was in a recruiting film for the German army. Then I recognized that this male gesture of struggle… that I couldn’t shut my eyes to this part of German history and film history as well. This all fit strangely together, from the Romantics to the top, where you really get a fascistic aesthetic. At the beginning the film had more to do with masculine behaviour and sexuality. By going into the material I recognized that this had to do with fascism. This behaviour of struggling is only possible without women, with soldiers for example, they’re able to do a lot of things only because their sexuality becomes perverse, it grants them energy to fight.

MH: But it’s not obvious in the film that sequences are drawn from an army film. It seems the journey of one man.

SS: No, no, I didn’t want that. But when you see the ice picker the sound is a gunshot. And as well the jumping over the crevasse, you only have one man in the film, but at this top there is a multiplication suddenly, and there’s a whole troop jumping, and the music stops. You could see it as a loop, you can’t tell it’s a whole troop, they’re soldiers wearing uniforms. You shouldn’t be able to tell them apart because they express their solidarity in their dress.

MH: I wonder if the mountain isn’t a uniform as well. Can you say something about the German mountain film?

SS: You always have a hero position, and the body is very important in its struggle against nature, it begins inside it then moves to overcome it. In fascism everything has to be bombastic, inflated, and the mountains are quite good for this. It works very well together. But I didn’t want to make a direct line to these films – to take a piece out of Riefenstahl or music by Wagner. This would have been too direct. There’s one little bit of Wagner in it, when the avalanche comes down you see a spot, someone is disappearing in the avalanche, and I put in a small piece from Tristan and Isolde, but in an American big band version. It’s a joke but it’s not so funny. In my film he never reaches the top, as well there is never this hero person. In order to have this you need identification and I never really allowed this.

MH: One of the odd things about the film is that one person figures so prominently but there’s never the sense we’re with him. He seems closer to the landscape than we do, but he doesn’t seem to be in it, either. Because of the music with the landscape and the idyllic pastoral scenes, it’s as if he’s read bout a certain view of nature and now he’s come to look at it, he seems on the edge of the visible. He’s always a little outside.

SS: This position of being in, doesn’t work, I don’t believe in it. But later on in this film, in the found footage, the gesture is much more decided, it gets harder, it’s another step up towards the gestures of power, the climb.

MH: What about the images of the avalanche? Is that the revenge?

SS: Yes, prefigured by the storm and the agitation on top of the mountain. Like a fiction film I begin to introduce the bad end which has already begun. So after all this pathetic struggle and bombastic music and the camera rising into the sun, and the flying eagle it has to come to a bad end, because the whole thing is drama. At the end he sit again and drinks the wine. Well, that’s the Hollywood version, the Paramount version.

MH: But then it closes again with a bird.

SS: It’s an eagle, but it looks destroyed, because I printed it in reverse. When you see him flying he’s very elegant and majestic, but at the end he’s a poor animal shitting. It all has to do with power relations, this climbing, and that became clearer when I saw the context I was working in.

MH: You were saying last night that it was really Le Dauphin that made you much more of a public filmmaker. This film, Paramount, is the first to come after that scrutiny that came with winning a prize in Oberhausen for Le Dauphin.

SS: After Le Dauphin I became more involved with the experimental film scene in Germany, where there are power relations. I recognized that the behaviour of some people changed towards me, which I couldn’t really understand. That’s one of the reasons I was so interested in this theme, the question of power and of a certain macho behaviour which goes along with it. After Le Dauphin it was very difficult to begin something else, because it was the most complex film I’d done. There was a big hole afterwards, I felt like I could never do a film again. It took quite a while to begin the next film. There’s two years between them.

MH: Is it because when you see them finished all you’d hoped to do in film is done?

SS: I don’t know what’s still in me to put in another film. I know by now that I have to wait, to live. It’s only by living that it comes back, it has to come from somewhere, the strength. You have to get the energy from somewhere.

MH: You said last night that for you and Klaus it’s less possible to be naïve about your filmmaking.

SS: In the beginning I just photographed without ulterior motives. But after making films awhile, you see that there are principles you seem to follow which are not intended, and a style which I don’t want to have, but you can’t do otherwise because you love certain things and you have to do them. After while when you take the camera you think much more about what you’re doing, 1000 possible interpretations enter before you hit the trigger. At the moment I have to give myself a kick not to think too much. It’s hard because you know the difficulties that come later when things don’t fit; you’re already editing before you shoot.

Stephan Sachs Films
Duell 10 minutes super-8 1980
La Plague 8 minutes super-8 1981
Verelsung 20 minutes b/w 16mm 1982
Lauf 7 minutes 16mm 1982
Fa(h)r (weit) 8 minutes 16mm 1983
Satourne 8 minutes 16mm 1983
Die Insel 14 minutes 16mm 1984 (with J.F. Guiton)
Filme zur Rundprojection Wanderndes Filmbild 1984
Soria Moria Slott 7 minutes 1985
Le Dauphin 22 minutes 16mm 1986
Paramount 22 minutes 16mm 1988

(Originally published in The Independent Eye Vol. 11 No. 2/3 Spring 1990)