Excerpt from an interview with Stephan Sachs

by Mike Hoolboom
The Independent Eye Vol. 11 No. 2/3 | Spring 1990 | Toronto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MH: But then it closes again with a bird.

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

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

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