A film is empty when the film coil is empty. Interview with Friedl vom Gröller

May 31, 2018 | Interviews


by Dietmar Schwärzler and Sylvia Szely
A fragment of the interview published in the special (S8) of the magazine Lumière. If you want to read the complete interview: elumiere.net/exclusivo_web/s82018
How did you get to film practice? Have you been working as a photographer for a long time?
I started working as a photographer when I was 16 years old and I was accepted in a laboratory and graphic design school in Vienna when I was 19. After four years I graduated and passed the trade test1. Last year I had two hours a week of film technique and our teacher, Professor Dirnhofer, lent us his camera Eumig C16. I started making films with my partner Erwin Reichmann, widely influenced by Nouvelle Vague. That was the beginning. In the first film I made I filmed Erwin; for that reason the movie is simply called Erwin. The camera with which I filmed, the Eumig C16, I had borrowed it at the film center of the 7th district.
You have shown Erwin in combination with two other films from your first era, Toni and Ilse…
Toni, the little boy with the gun, is my brother. And Ilse was a friend, ten years younger than me, who had recently attempted suicide. I also photographed her. Later she tried to suicide once more and in the end she succeeded.
With Ilse I realized for the first time of the emotion that arises during the film. That’s what interests me primarily compared to taking pictures. Photography has a camera eye in suspension, and I wanted to turn this disadvantage into an advantage: from there the idea of a serial photography was developed, making many similar shots and comparing the images, very influenced by the lessons of Hans Neuffer and Peters Neuffer, who enthusiastically supported my work at that time, liked my idea of the annual portrait -taking a picture of myself every day- thinking that I was not going to get it done completely, that it was not consistent enough. And then I thought – which often happens: “Well, we’ll see.” I wanted to use the specificities of the medium, just as Peter did with celluloid… From there I came to make a portrait in a thousand pieces, to take pictures in which only thoughts changed and nothing else.
Unlike the photos in which you have made daily portraits, weekly portraits and annual portraits, when I saw the films I had the impression that the serial process was less obvious – in fact, it does not appear. When did you decide to photograph something and when did you think “I’ll take a 16 mm camera here”?
That’s a big difference for me! Filming was incredibly exciting… My heart was beginning to beat faster, also because it was expensive. It was also due to the continuity between the individual images and the moments that are always so painfully interrupted in the photograph. I have always been interested in people and their psyche – this remains fragmentary in photography. The more I became aware of this the more time I spent taking pictures, also due to the commissions of the portraits. When people saw the final negatives, they always said: “I do not look like this…” or “I look as depressing as my mother”… Psychologically, that was somehow interesting. Then I started my occupation as a psychoanalyst, with a kind of phototherapy.
Actually, my clients took me to it because once they saw their own expressions reproduced on photographic paper they began to speak very openly about their weaknesses, like never before. The idea of working in series also came from seeing the negatives. It always happened that people did not recognize themselves in the photos, although obviously they were. Clearly, the photo is suitable to produce many images and show them all together so that – and I have adapted this technique from Peter – the articulation in photography can be found between one image and the next. In the film medium the articulation lies between the frames and is located between tone and image. It’s a matter of what happens in the viewer when he looks at one photo and then the next. Psychoanalysis has influenced me a lot and the idea of intervention, which consists of confronting my characters with an unexpected action while I am filming them; all this came to mind on the couch. It was the act of catching something from behind, the forbidden act or, perhaps, the fantasy that the analyst could assault me … Really an incestuous action, something very forbidden…
In your first films Erwin, Toni and Ilse, the portrayed figures are shown in relative isolation from you, behind the camera; but with Graf Zokan, the portrait of Franz West, one has the impression that he reacts with respect to you.
Yes, I caught a tantrum… The movie was so expensive and he did not do what I wanted him to do.
How was the selection of characters? Most come from your immediate circle of friends and family…
Filming for me is a very passionate and dangerous act, but at the same time I’m also cold-blooded. I consider myself very carefully which faces I film, as there are some faces that I think I will not yield any interesting result…
You direct people, tell them what they have to do?
They just have to look at the camera.
Do not you say “do what I do, look at the camera”?
No, I do not say that! For the love of God! Then they would be ready-I’m just saying, “Look at the camera.” I’m always very nervous when I shoot and I can not hide it, everyone can feel it. I experience what I do also as an attack on the feelings of my characters. This was particularly extreme while filming Mutter and Vatter. I have never hugged my father, and for years I just fought with my mother, without touching my cheek to his. And I knew how much she missed that. And then I did it partly because of the movie, because my actions during filming are the mouths of a longing; and you also see how his facial expression changes, I do not know if you could appreciate it, how this acquires a hard facial expression, of disappointment. In addition, she gets up and leaves. The only person who did not stay in the seat, as if stuck to him. Once I photographed a minister, I slapped him in the face and he remained faithfully seated-what I was not allowed to do was show the film… and he did not do what I wanted him to do.
How was the selection of characters? Most come from your immediate circle of friends and family …
Filming for me is a very passionate and dangerous act, but at the same time I’m also cold-blooded. I consider myself very carefully with which faces I film, as there are some faces that I think will not yield any interesting result…
Do you direct people, tell them what they have to do?
They just have to look at the camera.
Don’t you say “do what I do, look at the camera”?
No, I do not say that! For God’s sake! Then they would be ready-I’m just saying, “Look at the camera.” I’m always very nervous when I shoot and I can not hide it, everyone can feel it. I experience what I do also as an attack on the feelings of my characters. This was particularly extreme while filming Mutter and Vatter. I have never hugged my father, and for years I just fought with my mother, without touching her cheek with mine. And I knew how much she missed that. And then I did it partly because of the movie, because my actions during filming are the mouths of a longing; and you also see how her facial expression changes, I do not know if you could appreciate it, how this acquires a hard facial expression, of disappointment. In addition, she gets up and leaves. The only person who did not stay in the seat, as if stuck to him. Once I photographed a minister, I slapped him in the face and he remained faithfully seated-I was not allowed to show the film…
But do you already know in advance that that person is going to get a slap in the face or do you first put your hand around…?
Yes, I already knew with the minister because I had thought that would be a strong impact.
And how is that for example regarding the portrait Peter Kubelka and Jonas Mekas? It seems that they already knew the indications: no matter what happens now, just look at the camera…
No, I did not tell them that I would do something. “Can I shoot a double portrait of you?” And then I went to Peter, with whom I had not spoken in three days because we were angry, and I gave him a kiss. Actually, it was rather cold-blooded, because Peter always felt that he was the one who had to induce reconciliation and that I never did – and he was quite right.
And then I thought: “Now what we’re going to do is to reconcile ourselves in front of the camera.” You can see how he stands upright and quite happy during the movie.
Fragment of the interview originally published in Photography & Film. Vienna: Christoph Keller Editions, INDEX DVD.
Translation into Spanish by Jorge Suárez-Quiñones Rivas.

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