Niz od 9 kratkih fimskih eseja. U offu ide čitanje ulomaka neobjavljenog romana njemačkog filozofa Günthera Andersa o zamišljenoj fašističkoj državi Molusiji. Ono što vidimo su nadrealno-realistični, zrnati prizori raznih pejzaža.
Based on fragments from Günther Anders’ novel The Molussian Catacomb, written between 1932 and 1936, Nicolas Rey’s captivating nine-part film presents allegorical stories and musings by political prisoners sitting in the pits of an imaginary fascist state called Molussia. Shown in random order whenever it is screened, the film’s sections ruminate on capitalism, imperialism and resistance—accompanied by gritty, unsettling self-processed images of undefined landscapes. A haunting and moving meditation on brutality and control, autrement, la Molussie has galvanized audiences at festivals throughout the world. Since 1993 Rey has been making films that hover between photography, documentaries and the avant-garde. He is one of the founders of the Paris-based artist film lab L’Abominable. - www.redcat.org/
Based on fragments from Günther Anders’ novel The Molussian Catacomb, written between 1932 and 1936, Nicolas Rey’s captivating nine-part film presents allegorical stories and musings by political prisoners sitting in the pits of an imaginary fascist state called Molussia. Shown in random order whenever it is screened, the film’s sections ruminate on capitalism, imperialism and resistance—accompanied by gritty, unsettling self-processed images of undefined landscapes. A haunting and moving meditation on brutality and control, autrement, la Molussie has galvanized audiences at festivals throughout the world. Since 1993 Rey has been making films that hover between photography, documentaries and the avant-garde. He is one of the founders of the Paris-based artist film lab L’Abominable.
The imaginary state of Molussia is a dystopian setting for a speculative science fiction fable whose gritty and sublime pictures are anchored in the real West, while its stories come from the mouths of political prisoners in a Molussian prison. Across nine chapters, an allegorical body of ideas is constructed about the relationship between fascism, capital and resistance. And if they echo the themes of inter-war European thought, this is not just coincidental. Rey's film is in fact a kind of adaptation of selected passages of the German cult author and philosopher Günther Anders's anti-fascist novel 'The Molussian Catacomb', which was written in the early 30s, but was only published 60 years later and has never been translated from German. However, it is not just with its philosophical theme that 'Differently, Molussia' takes a dialectical approach. Rey's film consists of nine 16mm reels, which are assembled and shown in random order each time the film is projected which gives a total of 362,880 possible combinations. In other words, a different film each time it meets the canvas. In spite of its nondescript timeless expression, the film is an extremely topical abstraction about the concept of imperialism; an enlightenment project in pictures and sound. - www.cphdox.dk/
Differently, Molussia is a 16mm film made up of nine short segments that with each screening are shown in a different order. There are only three prints available: one subtitled in English, one subtitled in French and one in the original German: the film adapts extracts from a 1930s novel by Gunther Anders that went unpublished until his death in 1992. In a film that has plenty of paradoxes of its own, there is none more telling and apt than that the director, Nicolas Rey, who does not speak German, has been fascinated by this book that hasn’t been translated into a language he speaks.
Utilising numerous landscape images that might bring to mind the work of the Straubs, Claude Lanzmann and Patrick Keiller, Rey uses a series of extracts from Anders’ book that capture the paradoxical and the obscure. In one tale a sailor dies and a captain keeps sending letters that the man had written in advance of his demise to the mum, who then also passes away. There is the haunting irony of both the son and the mother having passed away, but the letters continuing.
In another sequence one hears of someone’s persuasiveness in argument, but his realisation that often people believe without evidence, and all the evidence in the world cannot make someone believe. Such ironies are couched in an image that suggests both the permanence of the landscape and the decomposition and uncertainty of the image. At one moment the camera spins on its axis and the landscape ends up upside down. At another moment the landscape becomes the pure grain of the image, resembling the end of Bergman’s The Passion of Anna.
Yet at the same time the landscape is meaningful. If Bergson claimed astutely that a landscape can’t be funny, we can certainly say in the films of Straub, Lanzmann, Keiller and Rey here, that it can reveal feeling. - Tony McKibbin
“Few works so perfectly combine cinesensuality and Marxist dialectics: here, beauty is praxis and agitation becomes thought.” —Film Comment
Nicolas Rey’s third feature, consisting of 9 short segments (reels, to be precise) projected in a random sequence, is a radical project that re-politicizes the cinematic image. Not only does the randomization of the order of projection of the reels circumvent the problem of the authoritarianism of a fixed narrative, it also exposes the seam between the semi-autonomous theses-like segments, thereby making the audience attentive to possible ideological aporias that are usually glossed over by the self-fashioned integrity of filmic texts. Furthermore, the existence of the film in the form separate reels is a breathing reminder of the material with which it was made: 16mm. The persistent dialectic between the visual – shots of highways, industries, farms and modernist suburban housing in the eponymous fictional city registering the sedate rhythm of everyday life – and the aural – snippets of conversations between two politicized industrial workers about the invisible tendons that enable a society to function smoothly – strongly drives home the chief, Althusserian concern of the film: the essential unity of the various, seemingly autonomous, strands of a state, contrary to claims of disjunction and autonomy. - theseventhart.info/
Nicholas Rey – pronounced nicoLAH – is a French filmmaker whose newest offering is an unconventional adaptation of Gunther Anders’ posthumously published novel called The Molussian Catacomb. The director has chosen to adapt the novel despite not having read it because it has no French – nor English – translation. He thus has to rely on friends who read German and can recommend passages for him, his story about two prisoners recalling a man’s rise to power like an infamous 20th century European dictator.
Under the Wavelengths program at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, differently Molussia is made up of nine reels shown in random order. The movie’s aesthetic quality and/or lighting is under the mercy of 16mm stock, producing that sort of grainy look that makes the 2000′s or 2010′s look like the 1970′s. We the audience are hanging on to a few clues of place and context, the movie relying on mood and dread, and mostly relying on the recitation of the novel’s passages. The topics of the passages include deceit, blindness, frustration, irascibility, indifferent philistinism and anger – I don’t agree with the character talking about anger negatively, since anger to me means observation and a want for change. But what happens is that the characters about whom the voice over is speaking are changing for the worse.
For full disclosure, despite taking a class on avant-garde cinema and having seen movies by Germaine Dulac and Man Ray, I have not seen avant-garde cinema of this generation. With this training I can understand Rey’s aims of depicting desolation and emptiness which are or seem to be the novel’s main themes. He chooses Tarkovsky-esque b-roll depictions of nature, shots of suburbia reminiscent of the houses in Jacques Tati’s movie Mon Oncle, and shots of empty factories. That list’s order is influenced by the order in which the reels were shown in my screening. Nonetheless, those images convey emptiness more than what we would have had with a conventional adaptation. The conversations take place in a catacomb, would be like 80 minutes of darkness. But cinema requires action and this movie does not have it. I’m not saying that all nine reels are universally stagnant. There are camera spins in some reels, buzzing sound design in others. The reels with static shots, however, are almost unendurable and anti-cinematic.
But again, let’s go back to Rey’s aims in making the film. They might not have made for the best movie going experience but keep an open eye and mind when you watch it. If it comes (back) in the English-speaking world, that is. - entertainmentmaven.com/
Burru’s Abominable Dialectic: Nicolas Rey’s autrement, la Molussie
In composing this essay on Nicolas Rey’s latest film, I have opted to follow a principle similar to the one that gives his film its overall shape. The essay consists of six semi-autonomous sections, which I have assigned an order using a random-number generating system. There were also additional sections that, according to the randomizing system, have been omitted. This gap-creation system, then, is my own variant on Rey’s method.
The Time Reels
Among the many unique aspects of autrement, la Molussie, there is one that stands out as its boldest and most defining aesthetic element. The 80-minute feature is comprised of nine individual reels of varying lengths, and Nicolas Rey has designed the film so that their order of presentation should be randomly assigned. (Each reel is designated by a differently coloured title card: a pink reel, a green reel, a canary reel, etc.) That is, Rey has built the film from modules, each thematically linked to the others while retaining semi-autonomy with respect to order, narrative, and spatial orientation. They must all appear once, but can appear in any sequence. (This would mean that there are 362,800 different permutations, or distinct possible versions, of autrement, la Molussie.) This is another method by which Rey inserts chance into his work, similar to the manner in which his hand-processing technique permits a range of uncontrolled effects that nonetheless proliferate within certain parameters. This artistic attitude—to make formal decisions as boundaries for chance procedures, within which “accidents” of a particular stripe may or may not occur—of course has a long history, from Duchamp and Cage through Oulipo and the minimalists and beyond. What is interesting about Rey’s treatment of reel randomization in autrement, la Molussie, I think, is that it enfolds the passages of Anders’ novel within a filmic time that is “flattened” or relegated to a universally applicable principle—it could be the first, the last, or some floating middle, a slice of what Deleuze might have called “any time whatever.” In this regard, Rey renegotiates the narrative time of The Molussian Catacomb into a kind of thinly spread simultaneity, an all-over “time field,” not unlike the colour field of a painter’s canvas. Not only does everything happen at once, but in a theoretical timeframe of perpetual diegetic present. The inescapable historical resonances within Anders’ imaginary tale of Molussia—to Nazi Germany, but to various other times including our own—all become equally present through Rey’s unusual presentation. In this way autrement, la Molussie taps into Benjamin’s specific idea of allegory, since rather than one (fictional) timeframe standing in for another, the very vacuity of certain of history’s gestures allows for their multivalent signification. The mundane exercise of power can represent itself in different circumstances while ironically retaining its specificity.
Olo and Yegussa
Günther Anders wrote The Molussian Catacomb between 1932 and 1936. Thus far, the novel has not been published in either French or English translation. (An Italian translation does exist, however, which seems germane to the book’s subject matter.) The novel details social and political goings-on in an imaginary totalitarian state known as Molussia. While the intended target of Anders’ dark satire is rather transparent—Molussia is ruled by a Hitler figure known as Burru, who even goes so far as to hold a dubious plebiscite on his leadership—for the most part The Molussian Catacomb addresses the question of tyranny from a more philosophical perspective. Much of the dialogue consists of discussions between Olo, an older teacher-figure, and Yegussa, his younger and less learned interlocutor. Segments of the book which are actually about other characters, and which Nicolas Rey adapts for use in autrement, la Molussie, are frequently framed as anecdotes or reportage volleyed between Olo and Yegussa. In formal terms, Anders is employing what we would call “free indirect discourse,” a favoured literary technique of Pasolini in both his films and his writings. But there is also an unmistakable Platonic tenor to these dialogues, with Olo inculcating Yegussa into a key point of knowledge through dialectical intercourse. This is most apparent in the “baby blue” reel, “The Positive is Invisible.” In discussing the consequences of a strike, Olo explains to Yegussa that we cannot feel air (the positive), only its absence (the negative). Likewise, the power base has no direct experience of the (positive) function of labour, only its (negative) impact during a work stoppage. (During this segment, Rey shows us trees in all manner of light and then, suddenly, a barren industrial landscape—the loss of the forest, the removal of oxygen.)
What Taxonomies Are
In the “periwinkle” reel of autrement, la Molussie, “What Relations Are,” Nicolas Rey depicts a nondescript exurban motorway, positioning the camera just off the side of the road. Suddenly, the camera spins in a circle while retaining its firm z-axis. The highway whirls in a clockwise motion, comes to rest, and then bobs back a bit counter-clockwise, not unlike a washing machine. For much of the rest of this segment, Rey presents stock-still shots of a suburban village, notable mainly for the blocky modernism of its two-story bungalows. The sequence immediately calls to mind the films of Michael Snow (La region central  in particular) and Heinz Emigholz, and the spinning camera appears elsewhere in autrement, la Molussie. But instead of registering as mere references, these moments signify relationships or differences, the ways in which Rey is thinking about film history and autrement, la Molussie unique approach to it. Snow’s camera was about its ability to pivot and gyrate in 360 degrees in every direction, so when we see Rey’s camera “move” the horizon line upside down and side to side, we’re also seeing it keep its forward gaze wholly intact. Likewise, when Rey shows us the modernist homes, we’re seeing how much more an Emigholz film would reveal, and how autrement, la Molussie is in many ways a concealing film. In this section, there is a dialogue from Anders’ book, one between Olo and Yegussa. Yegussa asks his master how one should begin to analyze a problem, given that everything is connected. Olo stipulates that, in the great chain of things, “relations” exist in the bracket between that which is closest and that which is furthest away. Or, as Olo puts it, “between the ruffians and the astronomers.” That’s to say, those things that are too close to us, we can meet with petty annoyance. And those things that are too distant, we examine with mere dispassion. In the middle of those extremes lay relations. If we extend this to Rey’s own film, we can think about the sorts of film-historical touchstones autrement, la Molussie engages, and what constitutes a meaningful relation. Too close, and we’d feel the need to assert that Rey had some “connection” to this or that artist; too distant, and we’d simply be trainspotting. But when we postulate taxonomies that might not be so direct, but perhaps gesture toward a kinship—say, to Patrick Keiller’s treatment of landscape as sedimented history, or Bernd and Hilla Becher’s framing of industrial structures as Benjaminian remnants of lost utopias, or Ben Rivers’ recent Slow Action (2010) as a similar filmic mode of visualizing past and future by narrating images of the present—then we are talking about relations, ones that hold the potential to instruct without closing down other possible meanings.
Texts of Light
Nicolas Rey’s cinema is identifiable virtually from the very first frame. He always works in 16mm, and is known for managing every aspect of his processing and production. A true artisan, Rey hand-processes and prints every inch of his films (most of which are feature-length or longer) in order to control their overall texture, grain, exposure, colour correction, optical printing, etc., for maximum expressive ends. Granted, “control” may be a word that overstates the case in some senses, because Rey’s aesthetic—for instance, his deliberate use of outdated film stocks for some films—is one that courts chance. His mode of hand-processing often incorporates pockmarks and scratches on the celluloid, frequently at rhythmic intervals, as a kind of skin or patina, the “maker’s mark” in a situation that is too frequently industrialized (or digitized) into anonymous sterility. Nevertheless, Rey has mastered his craft to such a degree that, while there are indeed wide variances in the look and feel of the different passages of his films, he has (literally) developed a style. Images (often medium-long or long-shots or pans) come together from swirling grains, lending the event an almost molecular look. Light in a Rey film is actively forming the sight onscreen, providing even contemporary events with a hint of History’s loss, that old Death at Work wherein the profilmic object, formed as it was by a momentary collision between photons and a semi-solid spatial arrangement, is, in the words of Jonas Mekas, lost, lost, lost.
The Abomination of Praxis
Nicolas Rey is an axiom of the French experimental film community, but in many respects that still does not provide as high of a profile in North America as it probably should. There are certain material difficulties that can produce an unintentional parochialism in the avant-garde film world, mostly having to do with the costs of shipping prints between continents. Programmers, who don’t have as much money as they used to, find it harder to rent from LUX in London or Light Cone in Paris when they could get more films for less from the CFMDC or the Filmmakers’ Co-op. (The Austrians avoid this problem; Sixpack Film has a US office in Marfa, Texas.) So regrettably, evidence of the bustling French avant-garde scene arrives on these shores in tiny bursts—an Olivier Fouchard film here, a Cécile Fontaine film there. What’s more, compared with so many others, Rey is not particularly prolific. This has to do with his penchant for making experimental features, practically a dying art in 16mm. But just as much as any of his films, one of Rey’s major “works” is L’Abominable, the cooperatively run artists’ lab founded in 1996 and situated in Asnières-sur-Seine until earlier this year, when they relocated to La Courneuve. Giving the lie to gleeful prognosticators of doom who bray about the death of celluloid at the hands of digital imaging, the artists of L’Abominable continue to produce film, and to do so very economically. (The Double Negative group in Montréal emerged from this very same ethic.) The wide variety of films that have been made at L’Abominable (works by Christopher Becks, Pip Chodorov, Frédérique Devaux, Emmanuel Lefrant, Marcelle Thirache, and many others) demonstrates just what can be accomplished when lab work itself is treated as a component of the creative process. But in a broader sense, the Marxist philosophy and analysis that is threaded throughout all of Rey’s major works, including autrement, la Molussie, clearly finds practical expression in his role as co-founder of L’Abominable.
But Differently How?
Nicolas Rey has built a pun into the title of his latest film. But at the same time, he has not. This could be construed as a dialectical manoeuvre, although whether or not to read it as such involves a decision based on history and linguistic heritage. Since The Molussian Catacomb was written by Günther Anders, the original German title of Rey’s film is little more than an authorial designation: “Anders, Molussian.” It’s a code of sorts, taking the title of the original while signifying a relationship with it, rather than a conventional adaptation. Ironically, it seems that sometimes calling on the author can signal an attenuated approach between the source text and the newer one—Fortini/Cani (1977) or Effi Briest (1974), for example—and that’s certainly the case here. Even seemingly straightforward nomenclature like Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) was an unbranding of sorts. However, “Anders” was the author’s assumed name. He knew that auf Deutsch it meant “differently” or “otherwise,” and so Rey’s title “pun” is not even built into the original text, The Molussian Catacomb, but into the very name of the author, a true Derridian conundrum. So, the English title really is (or could be), differently, Molussia. But of course, Rey had every right—in the strongest sense of that word, every legal right, the very name of the author—to retain the name “Anders” without translation, to avoid the chiasmus. So how is differently, Molussia “differently?” How does it signify differently? Even if we postpone the question of how the film itself signifies differently, it seems clear that it adapts differently, that it treats its text of instigation with an almost sculptural sense of play beyond that seen even in Fassbinder or Straub-Huillet.
A Conversation with Nicolas Rey
Nicolas Rey’s third feature film, differently, Molussia (2012), is an adaptation of a novel he’s never read. Written between 1932 and 1936, Günther Anders’s The Molussian Catacomb analyzes the rise of fascism by way of a series of parable-like conversations between two men imprisoned deep beneath the surface of Molussia, an imagined country. Unlike Anders’s later philosophical work, with which Rey is quite familiar, the novel has never been translated into French or English. Curious about the book, Rey enlisted the help of a German-speaking friend, who selected and translated a few chapters, and from that material, Rey then chose eight sections to adapt. The resulting film is built from nine reels of 16mm, one reel per chapter, along with a wordless interlude. (“Lud is the Latin root for ‘play,’” Rey told me. “I think the film has an element of play in it.”)
Rey introduced differently, Molussia at the Toronto International Film Festival by reading a long quotation from one of Anders’s later essays. In it Anders critiques the common usage of the word “totalitarian.” Rather than an adjective by which one speaker defines himself in opposition to another (it’s always the other power or system that is “totalitarian”), Anders argues that totalitarianism is instead characterized by its “sense of the machine.” What can be done, must be done. Once a technique is discovered, it must be marketed until a need for it is created, which can then be exploited for profit. Rey quoted Anders again during the post-screening question and answer session: “Nothing discredits a man more quickly than critiquing a machine.”
Rey’s previous film, Schuss! (2005), explores how the radical innovations of the early-20th century improved manufacturing processes and made possible both weapons of mass destruction and, eventually, multi-national capital. Rey finds a metonym for this historical development in a French ski resort that flourished alongside the burgeoning aluminum industry. The majority of the images in differently, Molussia are static shots of landscapes and architecture that were filmed within a short driving distance of Paris. Because the locations in Schuss! are so essential to the content of the film—Rey returns again and again to shots of skiers at the resort, transforming them into grotesque embodiments of decadence—I asked him if any of the places we see in differently, Molussia have a similar historical significance.
“Well, not in the sense that they relate specifically to fascism of the 1930s.”
He smiled while drawing out those last three words. Rey describes the experience of reading his friend’s rough translations of The Molussian Catacomb as a “shock”: “these writings from the ‘30s also sounded contemporary to me.” In my own notes from the screening, I compared one of the stories, an ironic and maddening debate in a café, to the kind of ideological nonsense that now pollutes Facebook during an election season. Rey’s images of machines transforming the land, of computers predicting the future, of fences, vacant parking lots, and lifeless Modernist architecture—these images turn our contemporary moment into a beautifully strange and absurd dystopia.
differently, Molussia is also timely in that it foregrounds the material of film at a moment when digital production, distribution, and projection threaten to sound the death knell for celluloid. The defining formal innovation of differently, Molussia is that its nine reels are assembled randomly for each screening, meaning that there are 362,880 potential versions of the film. Rey argues that this is a formal expression of Anders’s critique, that the very possibility of alternative narratives “opens something” in the viewer’s experience. But the randomness also makes audiences conscious of the handmade quality of this and every other film that has been pieced together and broken apart in a projection booth. “Handmade” is an especially apt descriptor for differently, Molussia, which Rey shot and processed using donated, outdated film stock. In his notes he describes the manual effort required to achieve the final result:
“At first, it was so difficult to obtain an interesting image with [the old stock] that I considered dropping the idea of using it. But after a year of experimentation, I ended up finding an appropriate process and printing procedure: A grainy, rough, atemporal image as fascinating as paintings of Caspar David Friedrich.”
Through his work at L’Abominable, a non-profit, artist-run film lab near Paris, Rey has become an outspoken advocate for analog film, and, indeed, he became most animated during our conversation when the subject turned to the economic realities of film production, preservation, and curating.
I spoke with Nicolas Rey on September 9, 2012, the day after differently, Molussia screened in Wavelengths, TIFF’s program of experimental films.
I started taking courses just like anyone would to learn a language. But, of course, I soon realized that I wouldn’t be proficient enough to read literature. So I thought I’d trust Peter Hoffman to pick a number of chapters. I was glad that he liked the idea of collaborating on the film.
I became friends with Peter earlier because he translated Schuss! in German. He’s a very good French speaker, and he knows my films. Peter and Nathalie, my partner, then roughly translated the chapters he had selected. Very roughly. And then I must say—I always forget to say this—what a shock it was to discover the text, because before that I only had a very rough idea of what the book was about. I felt close to Anders in many ways. And that is why I trusted—had faith—that I would relate with the book enough to be able to make the film. People who had read it would explain what it was about, but when I had the chapters Peter had chosen I felt very close to it. It was a very strong meeting.
How did you identify with it? Was it the politics? The writing style?
A combination. In a way it’s very straightforward and witty. But these writings from the ‘30s also sounded contemporary to me. I was very impressed by that and happy to have found such a gem. Anders had a very clever understanding of what happened in Germany in the ‘30s. This understanding of the politics was the very base structure of his thought and of his way of seeing the world and of tackling problems.
Even his philosophical writing is not academic at all. Parts are theoretical, but very often it’s straightforward and witty as well. So I already had a feeling for who he was as a writer from the other books I had read in translation.
I was surprised to hear you say that what we hear in the film is often a recitation of the entire chapter.
Yeah, some chapters are very short. Anders often says it’s a bit like 1001 Nights. The chapters are numbered: day 1 and then night, day 2 and then night. And it goes on like this. Each time it is one full short story. Sometimes it’s just half a page. Sometimes it’s ten pages. But, yes, most of the time it’s the full chapter. “Back to Nature” is just the beginning of the chapter.
Can we use “Back to Nature” to talk about how you find your shots? It’s the only section that includes portraits, right? We see people working at computers?
I began with the idea that I would shoot the imaginary country of Molussia. That’s how I proceeded, in my head, to figure out what I would film. I realized, as I gathered the visual material, that there would be a feeling of distance in the image. This seemed appropriate because the book stages prisoners who speak about that country, although they are in prison. They speak about the outside world. A lot of the film is landscape shots, but I thought, “A country is also people, right?” So I tried to also film a few sections that would have people in it.
How do I find shots? It’s just things I’ve been thinking about filming. I have ideas like this, and if they don’t fit into one film, they’ll fit into another. It comes back to memory at a point when it feels right. I’d had the idea of shooting weather forecasters for some time. Don’t ask me why. [laughs] It was important to me, also, to film people in front of computers as an update of Anders’ critique of technology. I mean, he died in 1992, but I think the Internet would have killed him. Also, weather forecasters tell you the future. It all fits in nicely, I think. You don’t see many people behind computers in films, although so many fields now involve being behind a computer.
All day, every day.
All day, every day. We’re slaves to computers, but if you try to resist it . . . [laughs] . . . I don’t know. I escaped television completely—I’ve never owned a television, I never watch television—but I use computers as much as . . . [laughs] . . . well, too much.
The pillar, yeah. It’s a bridge, a freeway bridge.
You joked last night that you just drove around to film an imagined country. So you saw that bridge and pulled over? That’s the process?
Yeah, that’s the process. Totally. I mean, we drove over with Nathalie—she was with me for most of the shooting—and we had the cameras in the trunk and the sound equipment, and we’d pull over whenever something struck my eye or if we found a place where we thought the sound would be interesting. Most of the film [laughs . . . I don’t know if I should say this . . . most of the film is shot less than 100 meters from the road.
There was also the option of the spinning camera and the option of the wind camera. The wind camera has windmill blades of this diameter [extends arms two or three feet], the smallest windmill blades you can buy. Kristof designed and then we built this setup so that the blades are geared up to the mechanical Bolex. If there’s no wind, you can’t film, so you have to find a place where it’s windy enough to drive it because it takes a lot of wind to drive the camera. Once you find the right spot, you get out of the car and you pull out everything, you install it on the tripod—there’s a good brake on it so it doesn’t start before you want to—and then you release the break and step away, because it’s kind of dangerous when it rotates. You don’t want to have your arm in the way.
The camera finds the direction of the wind, and if there’s a lot of wind it goes fast in the camera so it will make slow motion, and if it goes slower it will accelerate. The exposure also changes. If it’s going fast, the exposure will be faint, and if it’s slow the exposure will be very strong on the negative so it will be a clear image. For example, it’s very clear in the section in the tall grass, because there the wind was very shaky, so the exposure changes a lot. Next to the sea, the exposure is more constant because the wind is more constant.
So, yes, we would drive around and use whatever apparatus was the right one.
I usually don’t record synched sound. Although there is synched sound in this film, in particular, because when Peter Hoffman reads the text, that is synched sound that I shot by myself. It was a nice performance. [laughs] A one-man crew shooting sound film. That’s me sitting beside him, triggering the camera. So, I don’t record synched sound, but I usually record sound on location when I film the image—sometimes at the same time, sometimes I film but don’t record, sometimes I just record.
You said you’d pull over whenever something “strikes your eye.” There are some beautiful images in this film, and I’m wondering what role, if any, beauty plays in your project.
In the beginning, I didn’t know what exactly I would film. It just built up along the way. It’s not that I would look for something specific. I would know that certain things would fit in because they would relate to other things I had already shot. Other things would be variations. It’s very intuitive. It was just a matter of, I think, trusting that my sensibility would meet up with Anders’s. That was the chance I took—that there would be some relation. Although I had a few shots in mind, like the weather forecasters, I trusted it would work because there is a kind of correspondence between us.
I saw differently, Mollusia with a friend last night, and when I asked him what he thought of the film he said that after the first two reels, he wasn’t sure if he was going to make it. But by the third, his mind began to race as the structure of the film began to reveal itself. I had a very similar response both to this film and to Schuss! These are the only two films of yours I’ve seen, but would you say this self-conscious structuring and the repetitions are essential to your work?
My first film, Soviets Plus Electricity (2002), was shot while travelling by train from Paris to the Pacific Ocean through the northern regions of Russia that were an area of deportation. The film is chronological in the image and chronological in the sound. The sound is like a vocal diary, like aural notes of the journey, and the images are shots along the way separated by black leader. But the time frame of the sound and image are different, so you hear things that you see later or that you’ve seen earlier, or sometimes in the middle of the reel you’ll be at the same place in the image and the sound. The way it’s shot structures itself along the way because I didn’t plan how I would film before I left. I left out of the blue to make that trip.
In general, when you make a film that is outside of conventions, it takes time for the person watching the film and listening to the film to find his position and to build the film in his head, because eventually that is where it is built. And it takes time. For different people, depending on a number of factors—ranging from the kinds of films you’ve seen to your current state of mind—it will take a different amount of time. Some people never find their way. Those are the people who leave. And I don’t blame them! Even when I edit I feel that. Sometimes it’s hard for me to be in the right position as a viewer. I think that’s true of all of the films I’ve made. It takes a little time to adjust to the film, to discover what position the film proposes.
Also, you know, the order of the reels you saw yesterday was a rough beginning. The first two reels were the most engaging in terms of sound, they’re very chaotic, and then it eases off along the way and ends with the only story that doesn’t have direct philosophical speech in it, the sailor’s story.
One of the chapters includes the line, “To begin a story is already a fabrication.” Had you already settled on the idea of randomizing the assembly of the film before discovering that line? Was it one more little point of connection between you and Anders?
I was settled on the randomness very early, but I was interested in that chapter not just because of that line but because I think that’s what relations are. It’s a very brilliant point.
Is the randomization essential to the politics of the film? To your and Anders’ critique of totalitarianism?
I think so. The way the audience sees it, knowing it could be in another order, this opens something. It goes through your mind, “Oh, but this could have gone before what I just saw.” I’m interested in the variety of visual and aural experiences you can create with cinema. I’ve been a watcher of experimental films for a number of years, and I think that’s really something experimental film explores and can keep exploring. Although I think my films are maybe somewhere apart from experimental film now.
In what sense?
Well, because I think the term “experimental” has now become historical. It’s time for the landscape to be remapped. When I hear “experimental” it’s like having a very old map. [laughs] I think it’s time for a certain corpus of work to be defended but not under the banner of “experimental”—under new banners.
And are you willing to propose new banners?
No, no, no, I’m not. I don’t curate enough to really be able to think deeply enough about that. I don’t watch enough films. It feels a bit like it has a lot of weight, “experimental.”
“Weight” in what sense?
I’m happy that the Wavelengths program here at TIFF has opened up. I was happy to see the crowd watching my film. I could feel they’re not necessarily the people who go out to see experimental film, and I very much like that. I like that the audience for my film can be wide and not used to watching that kind of cinema.
Well, I’ve been very lucky that this film has been shown, and is going to be shown, in a large number of festivals. Imagine trying to convince a producer today to make a 16mm film by saying, “It’ll show everywhere!” But we’ve shown it at about twelve festivals since Berlin, and there’s more coming.
It’s very important to me to prove that you can still make films on film. There’s something very important about this. What’s at stake is organizing the possibility to continue producing on that medium. And showing films on that medium for people to curate. I’m surprised there’s not more questioning about that. Everyone has thrown up their hands and said, “It’s over. It’s over.”
Of course, it will never be the same, and the industry will never come back completely We’ve set up a website, filmlabs.org, that is dedicated to artist-run film labs. L’Abominable is one of them, but there are many—27 worldwide, I believe—from Australia to Niagara Custom Lab here in Toronto. In the past fifteen years, equipment has become more and more available, sometimes for free because it was put out on the sidewalk. It’s just a matter of being at the right place at the right time to pick it up. We are trying to organize ourselves, as filmmakers, so that we can use it and make our work ourselves in a way that, while small, will also be very new in the history of cinema. I prefer to look at in that positive way rather than as the “twilight of cinema.”
It’s not easy. It takes a lot of dedication, a lot of time. It takes proficiency in a number of fields, it takes people who are willing to do this, it takes places that are large enough to accommodate labs when you have no money. I’m sorry to be so materialistic, but we when we were evicted at L’Abominable, I faced this directly and was lucky enough to convince a city council next to Paris to give us space. So now we have space for at least a few years, where we’ve set up our equipment and will be able to make films.
But even on the curating side it’s getting difficult. I’m amazed that cinematheques are willing to show films on digital formats, presented as “preservation.” They’ve abandoned showing the work in its original format. There was a big conference at the French Cinematheque and I didn’t hear them say, “We’ll show the films on film as long as we can. We’ll fight for that.” Not at all. Only the film museum in Vienna has made a strong stand on the matter.
There’s a documentary festival in Lussas in France called Etats Generaux du Film Documentaire, and this summer they showed António Reis films, which are beautiful in 35mm. But they weren’t allowed to edit the reels together. Cinematheques hold prints but they won’t lend them because they’re too afraid that people will damage them. Prints cost so much, and they don’t have funding to strike new ones. They have funding only for digitization, and circulation is supposed to be digital. Preservation on film has become a secondary concern. It’s scary. In Lussas, it was shown in a small village from a truck that is like a travelling cinema. But since they didn’t have two projectors, there would be a kind of intermission after every reel and people got disgusted by the 35mm because they thought, “Well, this is shitty,” you know? It’s revolting, I think.
I’m sorry. I get . . . [laughs]
I was just about to say that you get more animated talking about preservation than about your film? Is that part of . . .
It’s totally part of what I do every day with the lab. I don’t have to get angry about my film, but I am angry about this situation. It goes back to the quote about totalitarianism that I read last night. I hope that showing a 16mm film makes a point.
Wavelengths is always the highlight of this festival for me because it’s such a rare opportunity—especially for someone like me who lives in a relatively small town in the USA—to see grainy 16mm films and to hear the projector and to be reminded constantly that you’re watching film.
It’s a different medium in terms of perception, and it’s also a very different medium in terms of the work it requires, the practice, especially for filmmakers like us who process and print our own prints. Video has nothing to do with being confronted by chemicals and heavy machines. I hope we will find a way to continue. And I hope that people who show film will be keen on making it possible to show it. - sensesofcinema.com/
A Land Imagined: A Conversation with Nicolas Rey
The most mysterious encounter I had at the Toronto International Film
Festival was with Nicolas Rey's differently, Molussia, a 16mm feature film in the Wavelengths section that will be playing at the New York Film Festival in its Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar. The film adapts a book by German philosopher Günther Anders that the filmmaker has never read. In truth, the mystery is probably in the echoing series of encounters within the film, not just mine created by watching it. Rey, widely familiar with Anders' philosophical writings, only had second hand access to the book upon which his film was based, the novel "The Molussian Catacomb", written in the 1930s, which takes the form of a dialog between two citizens of an imaginary fascist country, Molussia, which has striking similarities to the contemporary Germany of the time. Left unpublished throughout Anders' life, and the book is now published but has only been translated into a few languages, none of which Nicolas Rey is fluent in. The director's understanding of the book was created both by Anders' own references to it in his philosophical writings—references to a work that remained unpublished at the time of reference—and later by reports from Rey's friends who could read it in either its original German or the languages in which it had been translated. Thus the change in title of the “adaptation” to differently, Molussia—a world imagined in sound and image
with only partial, elliptical and suggestive hold on its source.
The film itself takes the form of nine chapter-titled segments, separated into reels and randomized during projection, that on the soundtrack feature a combination of extracts of the book read in German and location-based field recordings, and on the imagetrack landscape footage of fields, buildings, highways. It is an expression of construction and investment: with each episode of images and of text, the audience has to construct in their head the picture of a world as told by people talking about that world, whom we gradually realize are just two people, a sort of teacher and a sort of student, and whom we gradually realize are talking in the dark of a prison.
What we imagine from this recited text is then paired with Rey's imagined images, images of a contemporary country which may or may not bare some resemblance to the fascist state that reveals itself variously through the soundtrack. The gaps between the text, which often feature stories that appear as allegories, and the striking images of an unusual, gravely, steel-blue texture that somehow both specifies and generalizes what's being filmed, is at the heart of the film's mystery and its question about the world. Echoes and emptiness within and between the text and the images, especially in the randomized order in which the chapters are presented, make for a distinctly untotalitarian film which is nevertheless positing something about its images of today and our projection into them. The audience's experience with differently, Molussia is a mysterious but engaged activity, a projection that, like the film, like Anders' Molussia, contains an inextricable combination of fiction, fantasy and history.
I had the chance at the end of the festival to sit down with Nicolas Rey and talk to him more about his process of making this unique construction.
DANIEL KASMAN: I'm coming mostly from a place of ignorance; I haven't seen your other work, I know little of contemporary French experimental cinema, and this movie I found profoundly, evocatively mysterious. So I was hoping to start simply, and discuss the production of the film. Making a feature length film in 16mm, let alone a non-dramatic one, is getting increasingly rare...
NICOLAS REY: Well, it's been 15 years or so since we set up a small artist run
film lab named L'abominable; we all had another workshop in Grenoble called
L'atelier MTK that had opened the year before. They were people who did
performance work using 16mm—Cellule d'Intervention Metamkine, it's called—and they opened this hand-processing lab around 1994 mainly for their own use, thinking “well, we're not going to use it every day, so we can open it to people who want to come learn how to process and print their own 8 or 16mm film.” It was a big discovery for me, at the time I was just starting making films; I made a documentary video at the time, and at pretty much the same time I started making a film using the ability to process 16mm there. And very fast I knew that's how I wanted to make films. At the same time, I discovered what television meant, because of my documentary. It didn't fit television's standards or expectations; at the same time, I could make a film using hand processing and making whatever I wanted. Although, it was very time consuming...more like a solo experience. But I thought: “This is how I want to make films.” A number of people had come from Paris to work in that workshop in Grenoble, and so after a year they were overwhelmed not just by people from Paris, but people from Geneva, people from everywhere flocking in to use their tiny two room lab. “We can't go on like this! There's a need for this. You should set up your own labs wherever you are, there's ten people from Paris. You should start a lab in Paris!” So that's what we did; we got lucky enough to find a place, pieces of equipment from the start. It grew up into what L'Abominable is today, and we kept it open to new members. We don't do service, but it's a place where you can learn how to process and print film.
KASMAN: So it's like a teaching facility, too, in a way.
REY: In a way—it's transmission. It's not academic teaching, but it's transmission to other filmmakers, and they get proficient enough they can teach others, help run the lab.
KASMAN: A bit like a cooperative?
REY: It's a bit like that, yes.
KASMAN: And this is financially viable?
REY: Well, the place was so small and the space was almost free. And we supported ourselves also with making workshops for kids, we started to get a little funding, and we're trying to get more, especially as we got evicted from the place where we were for fifteen years, last summer, and we had to find a new place. We found a new one under the auspices of the city counsel, so it's public space, it's large and almost free. It's not forever, it's only for a few years because the building is getting torn down...
KASMAN: Of course!
REY: Of course! But we're trying to get stronger so that we can face the next...when we have it. Get funding, have a couple of persons on staff, especially since of course nowadays, since fifteen years ago, what's at stake is very different.
KASMAN: I would think that fifteen years ago having a place like this was more about control, doing this thing in the space you want with the people you want, but now it seems like it's a rarity for such a lab to even exist. So I would think it's less about people wanting such a space as needing the facilities.
REY: Yeah, and in the beginning the lab was really linked with the experimental film scene, now anyone who needs to use film wants to use it. So the question has become, “How is this going to continue? How will we continue to produce films?”—and show films on film, for curators; it's a very important issue which we're trying to address by running this lab.
KASMAN: Shooting this on 16mm and hand processing it, especially based on material that is political, like Günther Anders' book, is this inherently politically material aesthetics?
REY: I got interested in Günther Anders' writings because of his writing about technique and technology, and his criticism of the technique, of how technology rules the world even more profoundly than our governments do. Like, for instance he would say “What can be done, will be done,” and he wrote that already in the 1950s! The way that needs are being created just to market new products of technology. He was very critical of progress. And what a perfect example of what's happening with the technique of cinema today, and the way it's being imposed I think is very brutal. So, yes. I sort of took a chance, or relied...I couldn't read the book, so I relied on believing that I would relate to it because I related to Günther Anders' writings I could read, the ones that are translated.
KASMAN: And his own references to his unpublished book, right?
REY: And his references to his book.
KASMAN: You didn't read the book...was it read to you, or it was excerpted for you?
REY: A few people read it completely and I discussed the book with these people, and in the end Peter Hoffmann read it and he selected a number of chapters, knowing my films, knowing me. These chapters we roughly translated so I could have an idea of what was in them. And then we worked with those, with this corpus, and recorded a smaller amount of it, and then recorded a smaller amount of that, and put in the film an even smaller amount.
KASMAN: In a way, I see two strands here. Translation is one, but I wanted to talk about that later. The other is fantasy. You are adapting a book you haven't read, and in turn the book is about a land you don't and can't see. You're visualizing text you haven't fully read that describes a place that is fictional. The end result is several steps removed.
REY: I have to admit I was very impressed by the strength of the text, when I finally got to read what I could read of it. It was quite a rencontrer, a meeting, with that text. I owe a lot of
whatever the strength of the film has to that.
KASMAN: Do you feel like, for you, the process of making the film has filled in the gaps of not knowing the full text of the book? Or do you see it as starting from the text and moving to a different space?
REY: I think it's not filling in a gap, it's maybe paying its tribute to the text? And, well, for those who can actually access it, it can make people want to read that text, and read Anders.
KASMAN: As an English speaker, it's quite frustrating but quite incredible to encounter your film. It seems like you've done the only English translation of this work and it is such a unique way to experience it, basically translated twice over and also through images. But it also creates a new life for it, passing along your imagination of a thing you don't know completely to an audience who now will have their own imagination of Anders, based on your imagination. Where was this footage shot? Was it all from the same area?
REY: No, it was shot in, I don't know, ten or twelve shooting periods, and
in different parts, mostly France.
KASMAN: And the process of shooting: did you know the kinds of spaces
you wanted to find or were you searching and found the images?
REY: I just relied on the intuition that if I went out to film "Molussia" there would be something. Again, I relate to the way Anders analyzes the world, I thought it would be feasible to hear the text and put it together with whatever images I would feel like doing. I tried to film Molussia in a way that a country can be shown. Sometimes in a very familiar landscape, one you wouldn't notice when you go past it. But if you start watching it it can start triggering ideas like, “what is this building made for?” and “what's going on in here?”—things like that. I went out a number of times; at the beginning it was unclear what I wanted to film, but processing the material and watching the workprint...when I was going to the next shooting period I would already see things that would connect together and go from there.
KASMAN: Did you start with the text and then select the sections you wanted to record?
REY: No, that came in the end.
KASMAN: Ah, so you found the images before identifying the texts.
REY: Yeah, because I started learning a bit of German—as I had originally wanted to actually read the book in German—I started filming and it took me a long time to “master” the material, since it was very old, it wasn't very easy to process it right so that it would yield an image I would have interest in. So that took a number, already, of months, so I could find the right technical procedure for that. I started accumulating material and started working with Peter and waiting—he lives in Germany and in Spain, so it took a while before he could find the time to come to Paris and to pick the chapters that he found were relevant.
KASMAN: When you started shooting it, at that point several of your
friends had read the book and had talked to you about it?
REY: Yes, because the copy of the book I bought about ten years ago. I have long had this fantasy of making a film from it. One person had read it ten years ago, and a couple others in the meantime. I knew a bit what was in it. At one point, there were other ideas about it I didn't go for. All of this took a long time to settle down, and to say “okay I'll make the film...in German...with Peter...mostly off but there's a few texts I'll film in sync sound.” It just takes me a lot of time [laughs], that's all there is to it!
KASMAN: Can you talk more about this specific look of the film? You said it was quite difficult stock to process, is this because it was old? I saw it was Agfa...
REY: It's reversal stock. It was given to me actually by a person who had seen my films in Berlin that I met one day in the lobby of the cinema. He explained to me he had overheard a conversation in a cafe that someone had a massive amount of film stock in his basement, and he convinced the person to give it to him. He gave me a couple cans to try at the time, and then he was thinking maybe of using it himself. At one point I asked him for a number of cans he could give or sell me . He ended up giving me the whole quantity. So it's funny, the film stock was from someone's basement!
KASMAN: How old is it?
REY: It's from the 80s, I guess. There is no date but from the label I'd say from the 80s.
KASMAN: By this point has the material changed?
REY: Yeah, it gets grainier and the imperfections...it self-exposes in places and not in others. Also, the colors are very...it's harder to color time, grade, than fresh stock. It's totally out of the range of fresh stock. So you have to work on a very special grading procedure. It would drive a professional man nuts [laughs].
KASMAN: But you enjoyed this arduous task...
REY: Yes! Well, you know, I make a workprint because I like projecting the material. I edit on a flatbed, only the sound is digital. But I have this print, this workprint. When I make it I already start grading, not as strict as for the final print, but I make a workprint that is graded, so along the way I learn how to work with the material.
KASMAN: This unique color palette, it's a combination of the inherent qualities of the Afga stock and something you did in processing it?
REY: Yeah, I cross-processed it, so it's processed as a negative. Then it's printed, and it's also printed in a specific way, bleach bypass. I just try to find the right procedure to give it justice. I had done a similar process for another film earlier, working with a Russian stock when I made this film that was crossing Russia called Soviets Plus Electricity , I shot on outdated Super-8 Soviet stock that was a copy of Afga in reversal, actually. I think that, apart from the technical procedures, I was interested in the atemporal look that it has. It looks ancient at the same time it looks now.
KASMAN: It feels like an artifact from now.
KASMAN: Agfa...that was a Germany company?
REY: It was Belgian. Well, Agfa was German, but Gevaert was Belgian and they merged, so it's now Agfa-Gevaert.
KASMAN: Ah, I was just thinking how if this was German stock, used to visualize a book that took place in a fictitious country that seemed a lot like Germany at the time...
REY: It's more Gevaert, more Belgian.
KASMAN: A reach!
REY: It would have been nice; it would have been true for Soviets Plus Electricity.
KASMAN: At what point did you integrate the camera machines into your shoot [the film employs two machines, one spins the camera on its horizontal axis with the wind, the other spins the camera along the vertical axis]? From the Q&A at the festival you were talking about building these machines sort of for fun in the lab.
REY: The wind camera I already have in mind earlier for Schuss!  but it didn't work out. But we had started designing it at the time. I was interested in things about the random aspect and it pushed this aspect. The randomness of wind, of the revolution of the camera. I think it's what I enjoy about the technique of film, and I think I enjoy the fact of dealing with tools that are sort of “man level,” in a way.
KASMAN: Sort of tactile, right? You put your hands on it and it does something.
REY: Exactly. It totally gets lost in digital filmmaking, I think.
KASMAN: At what point did you integrate the idea of having nine randomized reels? Are these actually reels, are they nine equally divided 16mm reels?
REY: They are not equally divided but they are nine reels delivered in nine cans, some are five minutes and some are longer. That came very early. Like with the machines, I could have dropped it if I thought it didn't fit, but I again thought about that idea of the randomness. Well, to put it that way, I'm interested in the way that the audience builds the film in its head when it watches it, taking in the images and the soundtrack. In my films I try different arrangements, and I had this idea before. It seemed to relate quite well to Anders' ideas, I'd say...
KASMAN: In what sense?
REY: You know, incidentally, I just read the second volume of “The Outdatedness of Man” that was published in France a few months ago in French. In the final chapter of the philosophy books he says “this is the final chapter, but that could have been different, it could have been in a different order”! [Laughs.] There's a question of the philosophy and a question of the book. The book is perfectly chronological, because it starts with, like, “Day 1: Night,” and then “Day 2,” and then there's the subtitle of the chapter, the ones I have used in the title cards....
KASMAN: The texts in your title cards are directly from the chapter subtitles?
REY: Yes, they are the titles of the chapters from the book. Sometimes they are very short...but each time it is a little story, they are all independent from one another, in a way. So it just made sense. It also made sense because the chapters that are presented are just a few from a book I haven't read. It really is, it becomes, an extract.
KASMAN: You say these reels are randomized, but isn't their order actually
determined by the projectionist?
REY: No, no—there's a little set of cards and the projectionist can shuffle the cards to help him decide on the order, or he can just take the cans and flip them around, but I made a set of cards that are all the same on one side and have the title, number and color of the reel on the other.
KASMAN: You handled the sound design yourself?
REY: Yes, the recording I do when I go out shooting, I sometimes record sounds where I'm filming, sometimes I record just sound, or I'm filming without sound—it depends on the interest of what's around. With the sound I had recorded, I got interested in those that had rather long duration with variation built...not built into it...had occurred during it. I actually started by editing text against—or, not against [laughs]—in tension with those sounds. That's how I started to edit, I made a number of soundtracks without dealing with the image. Then you realize you can't just do anything, there has to be some tension between the text and the sound, and it was very simple, because every time it was just one long piece of sound and the text together with it. But the placement of the sound, it could be at the beginning, at the end, in the middle, there are a number of combinations that were possible. So I made these soundtracks and then I started editing the image without the sound, I tried to produce, let's say, crossings of landscapes that I thought were possible projecting without sound. That took me already a while, and when I was done with that, I started confronting the two, and that was the editing, to put it together.
KASMAN: So you began with episodic sonic units and then found the images
to match the soundtrack?
REY: I didn't make the image units, or edits, thinking about a particular sound. I made the image units so that they stood themselves, so they could stand by themselves. And then I started trying to see what would happen between those soundtracks I had made and the image. The process is quite interesting to me. That's why sometimes I knew that I wanted some parts to be mute, also, and it wasn't a problem if the recording was shorter, or it could go all the way to the end of the reel.
KASMAN: The production path was created by encountering the material, and the material determining the workflow.
REY: Yes. Because of the importance of the text...it is the first time I made a film from a literary source. Just for this film, this is the first time I did it like this—it is a peculiar way to edit.
Nicolas Rey was born in 1968. Unlike the famous American director, his name is not a pseudonym. Nor is he the son of the French experimental filmmaker Georges Rey. Since 1993, Nicolas Rey has been making films that combine elements of photography, documentary film, and experimentalfilm. He is also a co-founder and member of the collective film workshop L‘Abominable. —Berlinale