Peter Liechti in conversation with Constantin Wulff
“Film-making is my way of thinking about my life.”
All of your films are documentary and experimental at the same time. Like other documentaries, they revolve around a subject, but their actual purpose seems to be the attempt to trace cinematic associations evoked by your chosen subject. PL: It’s true, I tend to digress. I always have, already when I was at school. You can view that negatively, and call it a lack of concentration. Or positively, and see it as a strength that an associative process begins as soon as something touches me. Obviously, I need a clear structure for my film work, a line that leads me from A to B. That has to be clearly set out, as well because it allows me to improvise. The way it works in music. I like to think in musical structures in my film work. And I’d like to preserve the ability not always to know in advance what I’m going to do, to stay curious and a seeker in what I do. At the risk of things going totally wrong or taking a completely different direction from what I expected. If I can preserve that, I’m satisfied as an artist.
The music in NAMIBIA CROSSINGS obviously plays a central role – but the film isn’t an ordinary music film. PL: From the start, I was always less concerned with the music than with the encounter. The encounter of Swiss and other Europeans with African men and women; the encounter with another country and the encounter with myself. The music project is documented, that’s clear, but it was actually only a means of conveying something else. The film shows that it’s only a vehicle via which we can travel around the country. In a wonderful way, because music is probably the most elegant means of communication: an immediately comprehensible language that makes it easier for people to establish contact with one another. And as I saw it, the twelvemember ensemble was a microcosm of the heterogeneity and internationalism I ordinarily experience in different form as well.
So as a location, Namibia, Africa, is more than just a scenic backdrop for the music. PL: Yes, I always try not to view art, or what is generally defined as art, in isolation, but to see it in a context. Films are an ideal instrument for that. In the cinema I can make thoughts readable, I can inject meaning into images of landscape, I can associate images, sounds and texts – like in a dream.
Africa has always radiated a positive aura for me, particularly because of the music, because of jazz and blues and their African roots. And I’ve always been fascinated by the beauty of the people, above all the way they move. It may sound like an exaggeration, but for me Africa is the place that’s most alien and yet closest to me. I have the impression, which I’ve never experienced to this extent elsewhere, that Africa makes a form of direct encounter possible – encounter with the human condition, with one’s own identity as a human being, and with the possibilities and limits of being human.
What is striking about reactions to NAMIBIA CROSSINGS is the frequently positive response to the fact that the film doesn’t shy away from the conflicts emerging in the course of the multicultural music project. Did you know from the start that conflicts would arise and that you would document them? PL: Actually, no. It took me a while to realize what the point of the experiment might be. I somehow swam along, let myself go with the flow and often didn’t notice what was happening in the background. It took a long time for that to sink in. Until at some point people came and said: we’ve had some heated discussions today. It took a while for that to reach me and so the camera was often in the wrong place. And then I used the small camera, which is fast, and which I started taking along all the time, so I could really react immediately. On average there were twenty or thirty of us, and most things – particularly when there were problems – happened when I was around. In that situation, stepping back and considering what’s really going on during those six weeks, that takes some time.
For Namibia Crossings, where the film takes such an open approach, there were actually only two ways for the film to develop: it could trigger a productive conflict that was exciting and touching, or it could all become very boring and make people yawn. I was really afraid of those two possibilities. But luckily, that’s not what happened. There really was an open clash, with disappointments and moments of encounter, and the will to go on. Although for many people it was a very concrete and painful experience to realize that – even with all the good will in the world – encounter simply has its limits.
The openness that characterizes the documentary technique of NAMIBIA CROSSINGS is even more pronounced in HANS IM GLÜCK. A film that starts out documenting attempts to quit smoking and progressively develops into a treatment of more fundamental topics. PL: It’s true, the two films can be compared very well. Both films are somehow positioned in the midst of life. Which I naturally wasn’t aware of in either case. I understand film-making, which is a part of my life, as a process through which to make discoveries. Film-making is my way of thinking about my life. And in the best case an opportunity to make personal progress. And in Hans im Glück I was radically alone besides. My points of departure were largely given: for instance, the attempt to break my smoking habit by hiking from A to B. The results were totally unpredictable. Even more unpredictable than in Namibia Crossings. For instance, I had no idea that there would be three attempts. And for a long time it wasn’t clear that it was going to be a cinema film. What interested me about the hikes, once the material was there, was: is there a development within these three similar trajectories. Because, for me, the three hikes were very different. The first was tough, and I was insecure and had no idea what lay ahead. On the second hike I already knew what to expect and I generally enjoyed being on the road alone with my little camera, in a sort of “back-to-the-roots” exercise – wonderful. And the third hike was tough again: it was winter and eastern Switzerland did nothing but depress me, and all that smoking, too. In the end it was so tough that I decided I definitely didn’t want to go on a fourth hike. And the editing really reflects the moods I experienced.
HANS IM GLÜCK is a complex mosaic of moods and movements. I would consider two of them as central: for one thing, the viewer watches your quest to discover where you come from (family, region, sense of home). On the other, you confront yourself with situations and images of death. Two classic subjects of the self-reflexive road movie. PL: Remember, I’ve experienced this form of film-making before: fifteen years ago, when I made Ausflug ins Gebirg. When I virtually re-invented the cinema for myself. And I’m fairly familiar with the way I function when I’m on the road, when I’m suddenly alone and exposed to certain moods. “Moodiness” and openness are problematic and interesting situations for my way of working. I was already well aware of that. And naturally I knew that there’s nothing more boring than talking about smoking. Those are the conversations that peter out after two minutes. Everyone knows it’s unhealthy. Smoking could only be the starting point. Breaking the habit – the withdrawal process – is more interesting. Because there are many levels to it. Giving something up. The feeling of homelessness familiar to so many people, artists foremost among them, that’s a form of withdrawal, too: withdrawal from roots or the forces that tie you down. How do you deal with that? By perpetually creating the world anew, literally, every day a new world. And the over-alertness that goes with withdrawal, physical withdrawal, makes a person irritable. And being irritable means being aggressive. But it also means being very responsive to stimuli, which I regard as having a very positive, constructive facet. I really do see more and I’m extremely motivated to do things: because if I don’t do anything, then all there is, is that bloody smoking. And that was a starting point I was aware of before I set off. And it worked. I always find it fascinating and entertaining in other art forms, in literature or the theatre, when people can talk about themselves and manage to achieve a certain distance and remain honest and let in emotions. I’m not as good at inventing stories I haven’t experienced personally as I am at telling my own stories.
Telling your own stories to discover your own longings and desires, too? PL: Yes, I distributed points pretty clearly in the area. St. Gall is neither better nor worse than Appenzell. But I have a sentimental attachment to little Appenzell, with its old rituals that somehow live on, that can still be sensed somewhere. That’s a form of longing I make room for. And I very consciously make room for my own predilections. Hans im Glück fulfilled a whole catalogue of wishes I had written down beforehand. Everything I wanted to have in the film. For that Polish song to be played; for me to show my grandmother in a film; to be able to satisfy my penchant for planes; to ride on a chairlift, etc. A number of things are left. And I’m also very keen on helicopters, I find them fabulous machines. There’s hardly a film of mine that doesn’t have one. Namibia Crossings was the exception. But they don’t have as many over there.
The word “helicopter” leads us directly to SIGNERS KOFFER. Would you agree with the assessment that your film work has a lot in common with Roman Signer and his art? PL: I met Roman Signer much earlier, even before I made my first film. I thought his work was fabulous from the start and we did a lot together. I often helped him with his actions, as a documenter or an assistant, when there was something to set up or take down. And his little films, some of which I made for him. Neither of us had any money, so he took part in my work too. It was always incredibly inspiring to experience his unique way of looking at things. He made many things clear to me. And he really made me aware of myself. Without ever saying anything. On the contrary: he’s a total egomaniac, he isn’t much interested in other people. But being with him has an enormous effect, because he’s a wonderful artist. And because, in all his modesty, he’s also a very open person.
And that modesty is important to me. In contrast to all the opulence we experience everywhere else in our management-driven, design-oriented world, it’s a restrictive modesty and precision that impressed me enormously. He really doesn’t let himself be influenced. I had already documented many of his actions prior to making Signers Koffer, and had always found it a great pity that our films could never do them justice because they had to be no-budget productions. And the desire to do it with a little more money, for once, was the origin of Signers Koffer. I think the film’s success also has to do with the fact that the resources were used the right way. Both Roman Signer’s and my own. That his actions were orchestrated to give them the visual power needed for the cinema rather than simply remaining documents.
SIGNERS KOFFER is a cinema film that was shot primarily on film; HANS IM GLÜCK could not have been made with anything but a little video camera; NAMIBIA CROSSINGS is a mixed form. Are the various media important to your work? PL: I wouldn’t have needed digital technology. I was in the midst of the process of moving forward in the film medium. This whole development actually did more to confuse and disturb me, and it took me a long time to get used to it. That was another reason for making Hans im Glück. I told myself that I absolutely had to make an extreme video film, a film shot exclusively on video, so the whole thing would really make sense to me. Of course, I could never have made a film like Hans im Glück before, that’s obvious. And in that respect, it’s great. But I’ll be happy when the HD format comes, because the picture quality is supposed to be better. It’s more than fine with me if work has to get more meticulous again, because in my opinion it’s a good thing to work on the visual side a little without having to sacrifice spontaneity. That’s why I sometimes went back to 35mm film in Namibia Crossings. There were times when I said, wait, everyone is having a two- or three-hour break, let’s get out the 35mm camera. You simply can’t capture landscapes the same way on video. And making sure that the 35mm shots didn’t stand out from the video footage, and actually enhanced it, really paid off. It’s always a question of how you use your resources. Right now, if I were making a movie like the one with Roman Signer or about a painter, where colours play such an important part, I’d go for motion-picture film or for a hybrid form. But now I’m really looking forward to finding out how the new HD format is going to turn out. Whether it genuinely creates new possibilities and will maybe replace film. As much as I like film, I wouldn’t mourn its passing.
Interview and transcription: Constantin Wulff, November 2004
see also Tracking Peter Liechti's cinematic journeys by Constantin Wulff
»Peter Liechti – DEDICATIONS« (Scheidegger&Spiess Zürich, 2016)
Peter Liechti: »Klartext. Fragen an meine Eltern« (Vexer Verlag St.Gallen, 2013) *)
Peter Liechti: »Lauftext - ab 1985« (Vexer Verlag St.Gallen, 2010) *)
Peter Liechti: Waldschrat. Sechsteilige Fotoserie (Vexer Verlag St.Gallen, 2011)
By Peter Liechti
Carte Blanche Peter Liechti (Jahresbericht ARF/FDS 2011; deutsch)
Carte Blanche Peter Liechti (Rapport annuel ARF/FDS 2011; français)
«Viel zu wenige Künstler stürzen ab» (Peter Liechti im Gespräch mit Marcel Elsener)
»Kinodokumentarfilm – Fernsehdokumentarfilm« – Text zur Rencontre ARF/FDS 2006 von Peter Liechti
«Le documentaire de cinéma – le documentarie de télévision» – Texte pour la Rencontre ARF/FDS 2006 de Peter Liechti
Es boomt um den Schweizer Film, von Peter Liechti, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 30.Juni 2000
Dunkle Stirnen, helle Geister, von Peter Liechti, Tages Anzeiger, September 1997
About Peter Liechti
Von Menschen und Hasen (Alexander Weil in www.literaturkritik.de)
Im weitesten Winkel (Bert Rebhandl in FRIEZE)
The Wanderer (Bert Rebhandl in FRIEZE)
Die Kunst des Abschieds (Christoph Egger, Ansprache Gedenkfeier St.Gallen
Konfrontationen mit dem innern Dämon (Christoph Egger, Nachruf in der NZZ)
Der Einzel-, Doppel- und Dreifachgänger (Christoph Egger, Filmbulletin 1/2014)
Im Luftschiff mit Peter Liechti (Tania Stöcklin, Katalog Solothurner Filmtage 2014)
En dirigeable avec Peter Liechti (Tania Stöcklin, Catalogue Journées de Soleure 2014)
Open-Ended Experiments (Matthias Heeder, Katalog DOK Leipzig 2013)
Offene Versuchsanordnung (Matthias Heeder, Katalog DOK Leipzig 2013)
Peter Liechti, Sismographe (Bernard Tappolet, Le Courrier, 3 septembre 2011)
Laudatio auf Peter Liechti (Fredi M. Murer, Kunstpreis der Stadt Zürich)
Landschaften, befragt, mit Einzel-Gänger (Christoph Egger, Laudatio Kulturpreis St.Gallen)
Kino zum Blättern? Jein! (Florian Keller)
Das grosse alte Nichts heraushören – und es geniessen (Adrian Riklin)
«Sans la musique, la vieserait une erreur» – Collages et ruptures pour Peter Liechti (Nicole Brenez)
Tönende Rillen (Josef Lederle)
The Visual Music of Swiss Director Peter Liechti (Peter Margasak)
A Cinematic Poetics of Resistance (Piero Pala)
Aus dem Moment heraus abheben – Peter Liechtis Filme (Bettina Spoerri, NZZ, 19.8.2008)
Sights and Sounds – Peter Liechti's Filmic Journeys, by Constantin Wulff
Letter from Jsaac Mathes
Passage durch die Kinoreisen des Peter Liechti (Constantin Wulff)
Gespräch mit Peter Liechti (Constantin Wulff)
Tracking Peter Liechti's cinematic journeys (Constantin Wulff)
Interview with Peter Liechti (Constantin Wulff)
Interview zu »Namibia Crossings«, in: Basler Zeitung, 23.9.2004
Dokumentarische Haltung. Zu »Hans im Glück«, in: NZZ, 2004
Jäger, Forscher oder Bauer, Interview von Irene Genhart mit Peter Liechti, Stehplatz, April 1996
Excursions dans le paysage, de Michel Favre, Drôle de vie, numéro 8, Dezember 1990
Duckmäuse im Ödland, von Marianne Fehr, WoZ Nr.21, 23.Mai 1990
Gedenkanlass im Filmpodium Zürich -- in Vorbereitung
Inhalt Peter Liechti: «Lauftext – ab 1985»
Sprechtext zum Film AUSFLUG INS GEBIRG, 1985
Zwei Versuche aus dem Jahr 1987
«Unrast», Arbeitstexte zu MARTHAS GARTEN, 1988 ‑ 1989
Reisenotizen aus den USA, 1990
Logbuch 1995 ‑ 1997
Logbuch 1998 ‑ 1999
Reisenotizen aus dem Südsudan, 1999
Recherchen Namibia, Rohtexte zu NAMIBIA CROSSINGS, 1999
Erstes ungekürztes Marschtagebuch zu HANS IM GLÜCK, 1999
Logbuch 2000 ‑ 2001
Zweites ungekürztes Marschtagebuch zu HANS IM GLÜCK, 2000
Drittes ungekürztes Marschtagebuch zu HANS IM GLÜCK, 2001
Logbuch 2010 (bis Mai)