Words and Action: Julian Rosefeldt and Cate Blanchett bring 'Manifesto' to life

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The film Manifesto began its life as a 13-screen installation. Each screen projected Cate Blanchett playing a different character situated in a bizarre setting somewhere in Berlin. Each character delivered a “supermanifesto” stitched together from such manifestos as Marx and Engels’s Manifesto of the Communist Party, The Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, the Fluxus Manifesto and Jim Jarmusch’s Golden Rules of Filmmaking. In the film, Blanchett’s first character, for example, plays a homeless man wandering through the streets quoting text from the Situationist movement, including Alexander Rodchenko (The Manifesto of Suprematists and Non-Objective Painters, 1919), the Draft Manifesto of the John Reed Club of New York (1932), and Lucio Fontana, White Manifestos (1946). Manifesto is enthralling, hilarious and an acting tour de force. Director Talk recently met with its director, Julian Rosefeldt.

DT: Julian, I’m interested in how you matched the various pieces of Manifesto together: text to text, text to character, text to location.

JR: It’s very important to keep in mind that the original work is a 13-screen film installation. At the beginning, I started working mainly on the installation but knowing that there would also be a film, because in order to finance the installation I had to bring onboard people who were more interested in the linear version. So I was thinking about the film from the beginning. There are thirteen characters and twelve scenes—in one scene Cate plays two characters. In the installation, each scene was displayed on a different screen. The challenge in editing the linear version was how to create a film out of that, because there’s no narrative. There aren’t even twelve short stories, so it’s more like we created a visual narrative.

Coming back to your question, I started working in parallel on the manifesto collages—re-editing manifestos into “major” manifestos—and, on the other side, collecting ideas for scenes in which a woman (and one “man”) delivers monologues. Cate and I were playing together on a long list of ideas. At first there were more than fifty, and we ended up doing twelve out of that.

Sometimes it was easy to translate a certain manifesto collage into a contemporary scene. Sometimes I wanted the spirit of the manifesto very much contained in the scenery. Take, for instance, Futurism, where we set the Futurists’ fascination for speed and technology in a stock exchange, which had the same ethos. Sometimes the combination was playful, even antipodic; for instance Pop Art, where we took a Claes Oldenburg text and combined it with a conservative family at lunch, which is everything but Pop Art.

DT: The family at the table was in fact Cate’s family.

JR: That was her family, in a world where only the little pink salt and pepper shakers could be called poppy. And Cate calls the dog Poppy. But that scene depicts the world against which Pop Art had to run. So there were two strategies: directly playing with the content of the manifesto by analogy or juxtaposition, but also sometimes just playing with it, like with the Fluxus collage, where we integrated Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Maintenance Art Manifesto and Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto—performance manifestos, because we just felt that the scene needed some liberation.

DT: Liberation from a one-to-one translation, even if it was antithetical?

JR: Yes. That’s also the recipe for some other aspects of the work, for instance the way we use the architecture. I believe it’s interesting if you separate images from content, because then you as a viewer are much more engaged and much more asked to participate and complete what you see. The image has no didactic mission. We urgently need the audience to complete what we created. So you are seeing something, and your senses are super-sharp from the beginning, because you see places that you haven’t seen before, the action doesn’t necessarily have to happen where it does, in these weird places, and the text material, which is highly intellectual and very poetic at the same time, also sharpens your senses. Things happen there that are absurd in a way.

All of these—including the fact that a woman impersonates or reenacts all these testosterone-driven male texts, which is another strategy—aim to peel out the nucleus of the original beauty of the texts. Because these texts have been interpreted so many times by art historians, they became monuments of art history. But I was very interested in the actual poetry of the words of these writers, whom we know more for their visual work of course than for their writings. It’s interesting if you keep in mind that these texts were written at a very early stage of the artists’ lives, when the work for which we know these artists now, the visual work, sometimes wasn’t even created yet.

DT: What work did you and Cate do before shooting?

JR: Cate very generously gave us two weeks in Berlin, so we had eleven shooting days with her plus two rehearsal days. In order to do everything in such a short time, my team and I had to work half a year on all the preparations, but at the same time Cate and I talked a lot about the attitudes and accents of each and every character. These are not really characters, they are more vessels for ideas. They are archetypes, some of them very exaggerated, like the choreographer or the tattooed punk, which are rather like exercises in acting. Others are very believable, like the teacher or the single mother who turns out to be a factory worker.

Out of hundreds of manifestos, I distilled thirteen text collages. The question became: How would you speak these texts? And there’s not only Cate onscreen, there’s also a lot of inner monologue, which we recorded later. Cate likes to say that there was no time for intellectual reflection during the shooting of the film, so she just went for it and felt the attitude of whatever we had scripted. Then, with a few comments like “getting angry,” she really used her fantastic knowledge and experience to make this very beautifully detailed evolution of each and every character.

DT: How long did she have the texts beforehand?

JR: We met in New York probably half a year before we started shooting and went through all the text material together. We also played a ping-pong of ideas to select those twelve scenes out of many other ideas.

DT: Ideas about characters or ideas about texts?

JR: Characters.

DT: In the scene where Cate plays two characters—the news anchor and the reporter on the street—I got a very clear sense that you weren’t only illuminating the text but you were also deconstructing it.

JR: Deconstructing through the way we constructed the visual scene or in the text itself?

DT: No, in the way she delivered it.

JR: Isn’t it amazing that when you read these texts—they’re quoted word for word—they seem so very serious, and when you speak them as she speaks them, they’re hilarious. Many people laugh, and I think that in this particular scene, current politics overrun us. When we world-premiered the film at Sundance, people were laughing so much, and all of a sudden I understood that they were referencing the fake news debate connected to Trump. A similar thing happened when I talked about the project in Istanbul just a week before the referendum. People at the Q&A talked about populism—in France the same thing happened—so all of a sudden this project, which had a political interest but was also a love declaration to all the writings, became a super-actuated call for action. But you were asking about deconstruction in this piece.

DT: There’s an acting exercise that’s supposed to help you separate what you’re feeling from the words you’re saying, which Cate brought to mind when she played the news anchor.

JR: At the beginning of the scene, one of the people on the news crew says very quietly: “Time to go, let’s put our truth faces on before the show starts.” It’s all about the attitude. What you consider to be true is all about the attitude in the news. Cate would say something with her truth face on, and they sell us everything with that attitude.

DT: Exactly. The words are completely irrelevant. As you said before, this began as a 13-screen installation. You shot it knowing it was going to be a feature film, but what choices did you make when editing the linear version? Or did you not have to make any, since that was your intention all along?

JR: At first we thought it would be very easy. When we premiered the installation, we knew the material by heart, of course, as we had worked on postproduction over a year. Our first attempt was to just put the scenes in a certain order with titles in between explaining which artist movement they referred to, but that was very boring, very didactic.

As I mentioned in the beginning of our conversation, there is no narrative in this film, so I understood that my editor and I had to create a visual narrative to drag people in. I think it works quite well. You don’t reflect, you don’t miss having a story, it’s just happening as you go from location to location, and it’s also fun watching Cate’s transformation. But you’re also struck by the texts, which in the filmic version become more like one very long text instead of opposite opinions, because it’s always her voice, and you hear only one voice, whereas in the installation you have a cacophony of voices all at the same time, where you’re moving in the space and deciding how long you want to stay in front of each screen.

What I like about it now is that it’s not only this love declaration to manifesto writing, it’s not only a call for action, but it’s also, if you want, a piece as it really shows us. I like to say you can be loud but you have to have something to say. Populists are just loud. There’s absolutely nothing in what they say. It’s just hollow. But there’s also a third aspect, probably more visible in the film, which is a kind of research on filmmaking. This film is not a normal film, yet it is entertaining. If you go on my website, you can see more of my multi-channel installations. I’m always very interested in the mechanics of filmmaking, and to what degree you can actually create realities and deconstruct them again. That fascinates me a lot, but we don’t reflect it much anymore. You are forced to see a short film, a long film, or a documentary, and that’s it. Those three boxes. Sometimes when I see a Bollywood movie, I realize: Oh, there’s also a way of seeing cinema like that, and every film should be three and a half hours long.

There are many, many more possibilities for making a movie, but we’ve unfortunately left these experimental times. Think of early Godard works, where in every film he tried something out. Sadly, because of the industry and the pressure, that’s gone. We just have always the same first, second, third act. The same romantic comedy again. The same action film again. The same thriller again. Always what you see tells you what’s going to happen. Always the music tells you how you should feel. There are very few exceptions to that approach, and if you have an exception, it often ends up being an experimental film that never makes it into the theatres. So here of course Cate’s fame helps a lot because it creates a hype around seeing her in thirteen different characters, which I’m grateful for, because it drags people into this film that would otherwise never go if it would just be an “artistic” film.

DT: You teach Digital and Time-Based Media in Munich. How do you see the relationship between music and the moving image?

JR: I like to use music not as something that illustrates what’s happening onscreen. Of course, sometimes music happens in my films because it’s contained in the image—you see singers or musicians and necessarily you hear their music—but I like to avoid using music (with some strong exceptions, I must say) just forcing you into a certain feeling. I also like to use music that doesn’t belong to what you see. I did a project on westerns called American Night. It’s a five-channel installation that’s an homage to the western genre, but it’s combined with current foreign policy: I believe attacking Iraq had a lot to do with the “Out here a man settles his own problems his own way” attitude, the myth of the frontier, taking the right in your own hands, I’m my own sheriff. It’s still very present. Also the whole weapons cult, this is still very present, even in pop culture; rap music also derives from the western. I used Mozart for the big scene at the end, and it works really well.

If I can say one thing, I really do not want music to announce a feeling. If the scene doesn’t create it, you’ve failed with the scene, so you better do it again in a different way. You can add up music, of course, or use strange or entertaining music. In Manifesto the music was very important. I worked with two composers, Nils Frahm and Ben Lukas Boysen. It was important to stitch together all these different elements, different sceneries and sets. There are two musical motifs in the film. One is more electrifying, speaking about the sparkling ideas, and the other is a piano motif, which is more of a dreamy thing that helps stitch together what doesn’t belong together.

DT: A number of directors have architectural backgrounds like you—Eugene Green [Italy] or Amos Gitai [Israel]. How does your background in architecture translate into your filmmaking?

JR: I’ve always had a very strong interest in architecture, not only as a motif in my films and as a very strong influence on how I build the sets together with the set designers but also in the actual showing of my work, which happens more in the art context in the form of multiscreen installations, where I work a lot with the space and so on. But in this film, architecture has a very important function, because the architecture doesn’t necessarily illustrate what you see in the movie. We shot everything in Berlin and surroundings, and even Berliners have a hard time understanding where is what location. There are just a few things that everybody would recognize, but I tried to avoid using Berlin as a symbol. So it’s more architectural surprises, where you as a viewer again are very alert because you don’t know what that weird building is: That’s a strange thing, you think, What is the function of this building? So your senses are sharpened.

As an example of what architecture normally does in a film, you see a narrow, dark street with no end, and you know a crime will happen soon. If I use a narrow, dark street, I will probably do something completely different with it. There’s a lot of painter attitude to the composition of my films. I always say shooting on film has much more to do with painting, where you build an image layer by layer, than shooting a documentary on video, which is equally interesting but is something else. The composition of each and every image in my films matters to me. I guess it does to every filmmaker, but I think a lot about compositional ideas. In Manifesto, clearly the architecture is an important protagonist for Cate.

DT: In your opinion, which was the most successful segment in Manifesto, and why?

JR: I think various segments are successful for different reasons. The conceptual art scene [with the news anchor] is very funny, and it’s a vignette of a conceptual piece of art in itself. Then you have the funeral speech, where Cate is so breathtakingly good in the way she dramaturgically shapes the speech. I personally like the school scene a lot for many reasons. The children are amazing, it’s hilarious, and there’s also a recipe for my attitude toward those original texts. When Jim Jarmusch’s Golden Rules of Filmmaking say, “Steal from everywhere—nothing is original,” that’s what I did. I stole from everywhere. And it also has a lot of hope at the end, with the pigeons and the last text that says, “Tomorrow we begin together the construction of a city.”

DT: The final tracking shot is achingly beautiful.

JR: I get goose bumps when I see it. I created it, but nevertheless I still get goose bumps. I think after hearing all this beautiful poetry and visionary ideas, you see these children and you hear this last line, and you understand that OK, whatever we create now, they have to cope with it. It’s very clearly in this shot, and I love to understand that final phrase from Lebbeus Woods—“Tomorrow we begin together the construction of a city”—as a city of ideas.

Click here for the trailer. Released by FilmRise, Manifesto is currently playing at New York’s Film Forum, with a national rollout to follow. Click here for a theatre listing near you. The author thanks Keaton Kail and Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview. This Q&A is published here courtesy of Director Talk. Copyright © Director Talk 2017