«A de-accelerated road movie»

When her attempt to establish herself in New York fails, Lillian resolves to head back home to Russia. She sets off west on foot, crossing the American mainland to the Bering Strait, where Russia and the USA almost physically touch and where the dividing line between two days is drawn. Andreas Horvath’s Lillian traverses the layers of the continent as it follows the trail of a lonely wanderer in a road movie which appears to transcend forwards and backwards motion.

Your protagonist, Lillian, is inspired by a historical character. How much do we know about Lillian Alling? What aspects of her story prompted you to transpose
her to the present day in a film narrative?
ANDREAS HORVATH: In 2004, when I heard her story for the first time in Canada, there wasn't much information available about Lillian Alling. A writer from Toronto had just returned from several months in a cabin in Alaska, and he told me Lillian‘s story as a curiosity he had come across in a small museum of local history there. Like most people, I was immediately fascinated by the simple idea of a woman travelling on foot from New York to Alaska in order to cross the Bering Strait and return to her own country. Today there are several books about Lillian Alling, she's in Wikipedia, and there's even an opera. But I was always interested in the universal aspect of the story: the fact that she did what she did, not why. I wanted to save the unique, wonderful core of the tale from being weighed down by some sort of random backstory. That's why it seemed unnecessary for me to set the film in the 1920s. I think this story could play out today just as well, despite international air travel. I saw hundreds of potential actresses, and we spent a long time casting the film; almost everyone who came to audition said she could immediately identify with the idea of simply running away.
Lillian left her home in Russia (where there is no perspective for her) in the hope of making a living in the USA (the land of many perspectives). When it doesn't work out, she decides to return. So she travels on foot from the place where there is the biggest possible contrast between the two worlds to the place where the two opposing worlds almost touch. This entails completing a circle which is not only individual but also global, topographic. Aside from the character, did you also draw a narrative impulse from the place itself, the extreme boundary of both the USA and Russia where oppositions are suspended and two contrary worlds become one?
ANDREAS HORVATH: The concept of a place where the world ends dates back to a time when it was believed the world was a flat disc. In the era of Google Earth, there aren't many "white expanses" left that can conjure up the “end of the world” feeling. But the Bering Strait really is a curious place. Although we have agreed as a society that the world is a globe, our concept of it is often dominated by the distorted image of an atlas, the flat map of the world with Europe in the centre. And in that image, the Bering Strait is suddenly once again shifted to the edge of the world, as if symbolising the beginning or end. And the International Dateline runs through it, too. It's easy to get carried away about unspoilt landscapes in Yukon or Alaska, but archaeologists are quite certain that even in the most remote places on the world, it would be wrong to assume nobody has been there before. For thousands of years there was lively contact between indigenous whale-catchers on each side of the Bering Strait. And that really only changed when Chukotka in the Soviet Union was declared a restricted military zone.
When Lillian starts to make her way back to Russia it doesn't at all seem like a well-planned decision with adequate preparation – she doesn't even bother to get good shoes or provisions. It's more as though she wanders out into the streets of New York like a piece of driftwood on a river and just submits to fate. To what extent is she leaving life behind her right at the beginning of her journey, even though she does constantly move forwards?
ANDREAS HORVATH: I think it's quite possible that the real Lillian Alling suffered from dromomania, a kind of dissociative amnesia or fugue state that can last for months on end, which prompts people to wander away more or less without any reason. They may be found by chance at the other end of the world. These people often insist they don’t know where they've been and can’t even remember leaving home in the first place. A fugue state can be triggered by a traumatic experience, but that isn't always the case. In certain circumstances a hopeless situation can also be perceived as traumatic. In retrospect it is often difficult to establish conclusively whether the people involved are just faking gaps in their memory. I decided that I would deliberately leave that question open.
What did it mean for you, directing and shooting the film, to set off on a journey literally with one single protagonist? Did certain aspects of Lillian's character develop alongside your work with Patrycja?
ANDREAS HORVATH: Definitely. When we were driving and stopped somewhere, Patrycja would be the first to jump out, run into the forest all by herself and then come back a bit later with something like an eagle’s feather in her hair. She identified very strongly with the character and developed an incredible feeling for her. We talked about Lillian a lot, and Patrycja made a crucial contribution to the task of shaping the character.
What criteria did you use when you chose the route, and in particular the locations for filming? Which areas of the land did you feel were particularly important?
ANDREAS HORVATH: One reason the story fascinated me was that I knew the route would take us through parts of North America which are very familiar to me but are often under-represented in movies. As we headed west from New York we came through the industrial ruins and the labyrinthine highways of the rustbelt, the bucolic fields of the corn belt, the desolate prairies of the Nebraska sandhills on the other side of Missouri, the surreal wilderness of the Badlands and Southern Dakota, the Black Hills – which are still regarded as sacred by the original habitants – the continental watershed of the Rocky Mountains, the ecologically devastated oil sand excavations in Canada and the old gold prospecting towns of the Yukon. These places are all rich in history. In some ways Lillian's route follows the expedition of Lewis and Clark, and the countless pioneer treks to the West.
Although the narrative focuses entirely on one individual, at times in the subtext you also record the current state of America: by observing details to a certain extent, but also by featuring political demonstrations, immense industrial landscapes in the background, etc. Was it one of your aims to function simultaneously as the maker of a documentary film and the director of a feature film?
ANDREAS HORVATH: Yes, the idea was that the film would come into being during the journey: the story would only take shape from the concrete situations we found on the way. Lillian's route runs right through what are known as the flyover states, which are distant from each coast: a lot of people from Washington or Hollywood feel misunderstood there or not at all appreciated. Phenomena like George W Bush and Donald J Trump can be understood in terms of the general atmosphere in these areas of the country. At the same time you can also see that the conflicts with the original inhabitants have by no means been resolved, even after centuries, and that they could flare up again at any time.
In retrospect, how would you describe the work of shooting the film? How long did it take, and how many different stages were involved? How small was the film crew? To what extent did it turn out to be possible – or impossible – to plan the stages? What difficulties did you encounter?
ANDREAS HORVATH: We had to start in September 2015 by shooting the final sequence in Siberia, on the Russian side of the Bering Strait. For the main shoot, in 2016, there were seven stages, each lasting two weeks. The team was flown in especially each time. As the cameraman I had an assistant, Sonja Aufderklamm, who also functioned as second camera operator at times, while Klaus Kellermann was responsible for the sound, along with Claus Benischke-Lang on one occasion. On top of that, with Joan Grossman and Chris Shaw we had a production manager and a location manager from the USA. So there were five of us for each stage. I was in North America continuously from February to December, and I drove the whole route from New York to Anchorage in Alaska by car. Apart from a few breaks, the actress was with me the whole time. In between the individual stages we did some research and also filmed a lot. We shot a quarter of the finished film, about half an hour, with just the two of us. The biggest difficulty I suppose was that the film came into being like a documentary, which meant it wasn't clear what would happen on the journey itself, but at the same time you could never lose sight of the feature film aspect that was developing.
How did you structure the episodes when Lillian encounters various people – the sheriff, the pickup driver, the sales assistant – while you were travelling? Were they to a certain extent chance meetings, or did you cast the whole thing and work with actors?
ANDREAS HORVATH: Although we originally thought we might bring in actors for those scenes, it very quickly turned out to be unnecessary – apart from the pickup driver who pursues Lillian: that part was played by our production manager Chris Shaw. He is actually a software developer from San Francisco, but he was very plausible in the role of a redneck. Otherwise everyone played themselves. The sheriff also played himself, when he wasn't keeping the road closed so we could film. I met him when I was doing research on location in a little place called Monowi in Nebraska, which has achieved a certain fame because there's just one person living there. Since her husband died the only remaining resident has been running the only bar, along with the only library, and she's also the only person you can find in the Town Hall. When I went to see her in the bar suddenly the sheriff of the next town turned up. In conversation with him I learned how he would normally behave towards somebody walking through the area. So the scene between him and Lillian wasn’t really invented at all: that’s exactly what it would be like. Actually, I phoned the sheriff recently, and he told me that since we made the film there have been more and more cases of walkers (pedestrians without any particular destination) in Nebraska.
While the setting of Lillian's foot-march is so close to reality, the actual narrative is elliptic, elevated from the events themselves: we never discover whether she doesn't talk or whether the film simply doesn't show situations where she speaks. The insurmountable natural world, getting lost, hunger and thirst, bleeding feet – these things are only ever suggested, without spelling out her achievement in conquering them. How would you describe your approach to fictional narrative?
ANDREAS HORVATH: I wanted to make an unusual, meditative road movie. There are travel films which employ time lapse in order to convey a better impression of geographical contexts. One early example is Oskar Fischinger‘s film München-Berlin Wanderung (Munich-Berlin Hike), which incidentally was made at exactly the same time that Lillian Alling walked to the Bering Straits: in 1927 Fischinger travelled from Munich to Berlin in three weeks, on foot, and combined impressions of the countryside and chance encounters to create a five-minute silent film. In this way you not only get an impression of the changing landscape: the rapid sequence of images also prompts new associations, making the journey feel like scraps of memories from a dream. I was aiming to do something similar in slow motion: a de-accelerated road movie with Lillian as the protagonist and an all-powerful antagonist in the shape of the North American continent.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
May 2019

Translation: Charles Osborne
«I was always interested in the universal aspect of the story: the fact that she did what she did, not why. I wanted to save the unique, wonderful core of the tale from being weighed down by some sort of random backstory. That's why it seemed unnecessary for me to set the film in the 1920s.»