(July & November 2008, Vienna)
With few exceptions, Peter Kubelka does not write texts on principle. Since the second half of the 1960s he has been preoccupied primarily with lectures and the spoken word in general. The interview was made in Vienna in the course of July, shortly before Kubelka's two journeys, symbolical of some subjects of his work. The first journey was to Barcelona where he had been invited by chef Ferran Adrià, a representative of so-called molecular cooking. This, of course, is the opposite of what I am interested in. They use chemical substances and contemporary chemical knowledge to create their dishes. It is a phenomenon which you have to study. I'm curious myself but I do not have any preconceived idea. Indeed, the concept of Adrià is less of a lie than the one of the star Michelin cooks, because they make believe that we live in a world where everything and especially food is perfect. Another journey he planned was his more than two-month stay in Australia where he had been invited by the director of the » National Film and Sound Archives of Australia« Paolo Cherchi Usai.
I would like to ask you about the starting points of your filmmaking career. In the 1950s, you decided to study film at film schools. What made you deal with film; did you have any prior experience?
As to my studies, I was 18 years old when I came to Vienna. I just came out of the Gymnasium and I was very naive. I decided to become a filmmaker; though the term did not exist then; and to dedicate my life to film when I was 17 years old. And I thought that going to a film school was the way to become somebody who makes films. Then, as I went to the Vienna film school, I was shocked, because this kind of film didn't at all appeal to me; that was not what I was dreaming about. So I tried Rome and it was the same, just better quality – there were some famous directors but that was it. It was a school for people who make commercial films that can be sold and who do what the producer wants them to do. I mean, the usual feature film as we still have it today.
However, beginning with the first film I ever saw, I was fascinated by the film event, the dark room, the shining film on the screen. When I came to Vienna from the small, provincial town of Wels, I had not seen much cinema, not even good feature films because at that time the important films would not make it to Austria. I had a good musical education, I had been reading a lot; I started reading when I was 5 years old and when I was 18 I had read most of the classics and poetry. So my formation was mainly poetry and music. I was also a member of the »Vienna Choir Boys« that sings classics – anyway, I was raised as a professional musician. If I had not become a filmmaker I would have become a musician, maybe.
The connecting link between film and music was also a theme with the first film avant-garde, in the works of W. Ruttman or Oskar Fischinger; who, among others, developed the colour hearing theory. Moreover, Richter or Eggeling were engaged in image partition according to rhythm or melody. They were creating so-called Rollenbilder. Were these works an inspiration for you?
No, I hadn't known them before I made my metric films. What they did, also Legér etc., was that they made films which were silent films completed without sound. The music had to be played live and naturally had only a loose connection with the image. If a film reached commercial cinemas after its initial presentation, it was usually accompanied by a mediocre pianist who improvised, producing completely inadequate sound. Although using important silent films, such a presentation created very mediocre sound films.
My idea of sound cinema was different. The sound of the film must work with the image, every 24th of a second. Let us say we have 24 frames per second and each of these frames gives the filmmaker the opportunity to say something between sound and image. Ideally, I have 24 opportunities per second to speak, to leave a message between sound and image. In a good film, one can not speak of music anymore. It's inseparable. A filmmaker has to make the connection between sound and image at the same time, you can not first make the film and then add some music to it. You must think in terms of sync-events. There are several possibilities of making sound film speak. This method enables a filmmaker to achieve very complex articulations. That is the greatness of cinema. The filmmaker should articulate between each frame of the image. There is frame A and frame B; and in between there is what I call articulation. And then you have frame A and you have sound A, let us say at the same time; then you have an articulation between sound and image. And you have sounds, sound A and sound B, and you have the articulation between these two sounds. That is very complex and that's the greatness of cinema.
If I get back to the 1950s when you created your metric films, one way of confronting one's films with other independent works was the Belgian experimental film festival in Knokke. When did you participate in this festival for the first time?
The first time I participated was in 1958 in Brussels; Jacques Ledoux, the director and founder of the »Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique«, organized these events. There was MOSAIK IM VERTRAUEN and ADEBAR, and SCHWECHATER was also ready. I wanted to present it but there was a war between the beer people and myself, they didn't give me the permission. In 1963 I presented ARNULF RAINER which was completed in 1960 and it was thrown out by the preliminary jury, all my films were always thrown out of festivals.
You say that your films were thrown out from the competition. How was the acceptance of your colleagues´ films? For instance those of Stan Brakhage?
Well, he didn't win a price either. I was thrown out already before the competition. Then Ledoux made a special screening of several films that he personally liked and that had been thrown out by the jury. So ARNULF RAINER was projected in Knokke but not in the competition.
I am a little bit confused now; we are talking about the history of Knokke as an experimental film festival; but in reality it was rather a competition of short films?
No, no – it was always about experimental films. The question is so difficult because Belgium was a very provincial country at that time. Ledoux had to accept a local jury which was the preliminary jury and then he had a more prominent jury who actually gave the prices. So what happened was that the provincial jury already threw out many of the interesting films. UNSERE AFRIKAREISE, too, was thrown out; it was also not admitted at the »New York Film Festival« by Amos Vogel who was curating.
Your third metric film ARNULF RAINER is a culmination of a certain intellectual tension that was reflected not only in film but also in painting, music or sculpture of that time. Minimalistically severe, ARNULF RAINER is composed of white and black film frames only, which is a very rational method. One can talk about a certain personal as well as period testimony.
This is an interesting topic. There are two possibilities for a young person to make a certain kind of work. One possibility is that you go to school and then you depart from what you see there. And the other one is that something is in the air and you feel it and you do it. These things were in the air. I had no instruction, I didn't know who Malevich was; what I wanted was the purest possibility of cinema, the purest form, the simplest one. I dreamed of seeing that. When I made ARNULF RAINER I didn't even know how it would look on the screen because I had no possibility of trying it out on the screen. I had no money, absolutely no money at that time. So, the film was planned and dreamed up without my being able to control it. When I saw it for the first time I was absolutely shocked. This is one of the reasons why I don't want to put things on digital because my films are made by hand, by looking through the frames. I didn't have an editing table, I didn't have a projector. I just knew how cinema worked, how the projector worked. I used to have the pieces of film in my pocket when I went around. I used to touch the film, make a cut, make a splice. At that time there were only splices with glue, you had to scratch the film and then make the splice with glue. You had to learn this, it was like cooking. It's very close to cooking. So, the desire for making a film like this was not rational. It was a longing for a film event created and experienced on the screen in a completely dark space – darkness, light, sound and silence.
First you had a film score?
First there were pieces of film. I had practically two strips of film: blank film and black film. Then I could start to make splices and make elements and look at them and imagine what they would look like in the cinema. For example the strongest WHITE/BLACK/WHITE/BLACK/WHITE/BLACK/WHITE gives you a certain impression on the screen which is very, very strong. You have practically twelve impulses of light per second which is just not enough to make it seem continuous. This is something called flicker.
Are you talking about the flicker in the sense in which Tony Conrad and Paul Sharits worked with it?
For example Tony Conrad's films are much different, they have something like a psychedelic intention and they have musical accompaniment. Whereas ARNULF RAINER does not have a separately made soundtrack. The sound is not separable from the image, only the whole film makes music, so to speak.