«It is like Cinecittà.»

Gastón Solnicki has a particular faible for Vienna, its sounds and its layers. In the first images of A LITTLE LOVE PACKAGE he has captured for posterity the last hours when it was still permitted to enjoy a cigarette with one’s melange in a Viennese café. And in a city where the vanished past never entirely dissolves, the Argentinian filmmaker begins his story together with two women, one of whom intends to settle in Vienna. Just as the search for an apartment in Vienna develops into an associative voyage, A LITTLE LOVE PACKAGE becomes an essay on remaining and passing by.
The first images of A LITTLE LOVE PACKAGE create a kind of a parallel to Introduzione all’Oscuro, the film you shot in 2017 in memory of Hans Hurch, but also as a homage to Vienna. Is Vienna per se a city that inspires you to reflect on a vanishing world? What motivated you to shoot your new film in Vienna as well?
I’ve experienced how people react to Vienna – be it the parks and trees, its silence or the musical culture. It’s curious to see how local people react to these films, since they are submerged in a city they find so natural. As for Buenos Aires I learned through my friend Hans about the effect the city had on foreigners. He often expressed a link between Vienna and Lisbon by the vast imperial past that got lost. Despite the fact that Buenos Aires and Vienna don’t really match in this aspect, there was a strong connection that constituted our friendship, which began and developed during our respective visits to Buenos Aires and Vienna. The very candid images of the city that we captured in Introduzione all’Oscuro can trigger strong emotions. For me personally, Vienna is a very special place to visit and also to make films. It is like Cinecittà in the 50’s, but with that atmosphere of horror and pre-war feeling that has been so present in all of my recent work.
How would you describe your working method, which seems to be infused by different cities that matter to you?
My film plays in Vienna where time is different. It is wonderful that you can feel all these eras at the same time. Vienna is a place that kept evolving in a curious way with all its layers that are vividly present. That’s something that makes me react strongly. My practice is reactive rather than about constructing a world of ideas. I don’t write much beforehand. I very much like in that regard, von Sternberg’s quote, To frame is to remove things.
Introduzione all’Oscuro was a very spontaneous film. I was invited to Vienna to participate in a tribute to Hans Hurch and I had this epiphany that I didn’t just want to come to show a film, but also wanted to make a film that could somehow crystallize our friendship and the personality of Hans. A LITTLE LOVE PACKAGE is the attempt to go a bit deeper, come back to Vienna and do things with a little more time. We ended up filming during the core of the pandemic, and not only that, November 2nd, 2020, the day of the terrorist attack that occurred in Vienna, was our second day of shooting. There was not a friendly atmosphere in the city, military and police searching for the terrorists, being in the streets was forbidden, people participating in the project had to fly into Vienna from different parts of the world, it was completely uncertain whether any of us would be able to get into the city.
It’s not a film made upon certainties or a hypothesis. I’m used to working that way. I consider this film as my second first film, because I was always trying to imagine myself making fiction films – whatever that means – and I ended up being more engaged with a documentary approach. This film allowed me for the first time to work with elements I hadn’t used before – lighting, tracking shots, actors. It remained a challenge since I still didn’t work with a script. It is a very improvised film, in this sense very much like my previous work, but it’s a more complex film. Vienna is still crucial. There’s one important thing: In 2019, I was in Vienna to present Circumplector, a 2-minute-film, shot in Paris and Buenos Aires, also just a few days before a terrible event – the fire in the Notre Dame cathedral. My previous films – there was one I made on Béla Bartók’s only Opera which was written right before the First World War – often seem to have a connection with the end of an era or a sort of imminent crisis. During my stay in Vienna, I learned that a law was about to come into place which would forbid smoking in public places. Somehow, I felt that it was a meaningful event, the end of a certain lifestyle, of smoking in cafés, a really old tradition. I felt like filming this and somehow, I managed to put a crew together thanks to my dear producer and friend Paolo Calamita who was very supportive and imaginative in order to enable shooting within one day. We filmed in the Café Weidinger and at the Kleines Café and documented the last hours of legal smoking in Viennese cafés, not knowing that only a year later – in a different context – breathing would be at stake. It’s a documentary sequence that now opens the film – you see the last legal smoke in a café in Vienna. A year later we returned to film A LITTLE LOVE PACKAGE.
You focus on certain elements that represent Vienna; the café is one of them. The one you chose is not one of the iconic cafés of the first district but Café Weidinger, a very popular place which is located between the inner and the outer districts of the city. Considering that you don’t write beforehand, how do you let yourself be guided and pick the stories to be in your film?
I owe a lot to my friend, the Portuguese cinematographer Rui Pocas, who was not here then, but who convinced me to make a feature film from these materials. He’s not only a master of cinema and light. We filmed Introduzione all’Oscuro in only 13 days, and he proved not only to be brilliant dealing with the technicalities, he impressed me by his capacity to let go of things that may not function. He has this intuition of somebody who sort of knows that something might not work. Almost everything we filmed for Introduzione all’Oscuro is in the film, we achieved a really rare ratio. And it’s also the case for A LITTLE LOVE PACKAGE. Since we do not start with a narrative structure requiring certain elements to connect or develop things, we had a great freedom. Talking about the film now seems strange for me, I’m not illustrating something I have not written or conceived, I’d rather spontaneously capture what I like to call “filmic epiphanies“. They are at the center of my search. That’s why it’s so important in our formal quest. But back to Café Weidinger: Logistics is always my biggest issue. How do you guide people? What are we doing now? What are we doing tomorrow? How can we access places? During the lockdown it was very curious to see how the city would open itself in a very unforeseeable manner. Shooting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum for instance would have been impossible under normal circumstances. The same with Café Weidinger. Still, it is not a film related to the pandemic. I kept as much distance as possible from these particular circumstances, but it is also a kind of document since you see the empty city. We went to a whole number of cafés and then decided to go to Café Weidinger and film all day there. We were a nice, very Latin cell of people coming from Greece, Argentina, Portugal. People were touched and maybe therefore opened up in front of the camera. I think there was a strong need of human connection. The janitor from the place I was staying came up with things that I wanted to film: this man with a spectacular, tender face and this beautiful accent would come and bang my radiators with his hammer. That’s something touching about cinema:  it offers people an opportunity to open; random persons who are not at all related to acting learn that their face, or a moment of their time may have some significance in the cinema. We worked with these little things as we moved through the city. I wanted to shoot outside the first district, since Introduzione all’Oscuro had already focused on this area. I was interested in a different architecture. There’s also a fur shop in the film, I’m drawn to this kind of things because they haven’t changed in 50 years. As you say, there might be a sense of nostalgia, of an era that is coming to an end.
I have the impression that you moved through the spaces you chose, open and ready to react at every moment. Still, there’s also a story between two women and other narrative elements that you may have written in a more detailed way. What was something you were sure about before starting to shoot?
To be honest, I didn’t have very many certainties before starting to shoot. One of my biggest worries was the fact that I hadn’t worked with professional actresses before. Angeliki Papoulia is an actress I wanted to work with, we met some years ago in a jury in Karlovy Vary and had an immediate connection, it was a real honor to work with her and also a challenge. Carmen Chaplin is a good friend, I met her when I was studying in New York. She is also spectacularly talented. They generously brought very much to the film thanks to their courage. I had no idea how the two personalities would relate, I just wanted to give it a chance. I only had a very faint notion on the search for an apartment. A Real Estate Drama.
This search of an apartment in Vienna in order to invest money that seemingly has to be spent raises fundamental questions such as What is a good place to live? What is a meaningful way to spend money? You’re structuring the film with symbols drawn with a piece of chalk on a blackboard – the money, the brains, the heart. Are these symbols related to the ideas that guided you?
There are symbols, punctuations, drawings … Definitely they have to do with these questions. I’m impressed about how many of my concerns – things that worry me and fascinate me – are represented in the film. At first, things do not come in a very linear way. For instance, the cheese which, I thought, had nothing to do with Vienna. But once you start, connections evolve in a curious way. The idea of the value of things or of money has also been present in other of my films. We had no rehearsals, we just started off improvising; often we would just go to a location that I wanted to film and things would come up.
Family is another very central theme in LITTLE LOVE PACKAGE. How important was it for you to shoot with real families?
Funny in a certain way. After my film Papirosen which deals with my family in an exorcistic way, I wanted to walk away from the subject. Somehow it seems to haunt me. It wasn’t an issue at the beginning, but somehow a cryptical celebration of family and tradition sneaked in. The film took this direction in order to combine different things. There are a lot of characters, it’s not easy to find the bonds which will be different ones for different audiences. The film will be perceived in a very subjective way. But as a matter of fact there are many families in the film.
Children play a very important role. They are on the one hand part of the family theme, they also reveal another core issue of your film: the passing on from one generation to the next. What are the things that live on and the things that will disappear?
Absolutely. I’d like to associate this idea of passing on, also to one of my previous films, a documentary on the composer Mauricio Kagel. It was about music, but also about keeping certain crafts alive. He told us how he learned certain things from others and wanted to pass them on. I specially think about a teenage boy, the son of an Argentinian friend. At the time we filmed, Buenos Aires had been in lockdown for over 4 months. This teenager particularly suffered from this isolation. I thought, he could come over to Vienna and help give us a hand. When I suggested him to join us, he was all enthusiastic about it. At an early stage of the shooting we realized that there was something about him, due to his contemporary clothes and gestures. Apart from that you cannot really situate the film right in time. The children in A LITTLE LOVE PACKAGE are witnessing or discovering what the world used to be like. A fire that is still alive.
As you just mentioned, music is always an essential part of your films; in A LITTLE LOVE PACKAGE I have the impression that you also put a focus on sounds. Are they even a prevailing motif to shoot something?
Indeed. The parquet floor in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, sounds definitely as it sounds in the film. It’s spectacular. And one of the feedbacks I had in Buenos Aires was that we were exaggerating with the silence. Buenos Aires is a very loud city. People in Vienna aren’t noisy, and during our shooting the city was empty, we had to do with a kind of snow-like acoustics. Locations and their soundscapes are very important to me. This is not only a metaphor, what I find fascinating about sound, goes back to an era before cinema. Very often it’s about these notions of how sounds are placed and it has a lot to do with a certain expression of music that I’m really not interested in, I’m much more interested in the idea of counterpoint and polyphony. The locations we filmed in, were also sources of specific sounds. They have the capacity to be very abstract and ethereal on the one hand and also physical on the other. My interest grows into this specificity. So much of my work is based on it. Not a given library sound, but that specific sound in our location. These sounds can trigger emotions. Of course, there is a strong relation between non-linearity and the way sound functions. It is a different way to create tension and to find our structure. Sounds are very important for the whole process. We found most of the sounds during the shooting, only very few in post-production. We also had a great pianist and friend, Han-Gyeol play for us. With Mario Bellatin, the Mexican writer and friend, we looked for a kind of narration, to find a way to help contain and expand the material. We ended very far away from it, guided by his capacity to call for prayer. My films usually are quite compact, I don’t want to make long and boring films, I am aware of the limits of what I can do without a script and the low ceiling of improvised dialogues. I challenge the viewer to find a way to relate with these films. Cinema has a great capacity to lure you, even if you first don’t quite understand what to do with these things.
How did the “brains” chapter and the scientific aspect of the film come up?
One of the characters is a neuroscientist, Dr. Daniel Margulies. He seems as a very ghostly, timeless resident of Vienna. We were interested in digging more into his world and in doing brain scans but we didn’t manage to get into the hospital. It had to do with his world and we found a connection to the Naturhistorisches Museum which is also a location we are very fond of.
Are there ghosts in your movies?
Yes, very many. There are ghosts in Vienna. I dreamed with one upon arriving in Europe a few weeks ago. In Vienna you go to the basement and you start to see all those layers. Even in the cheese cellar building you find something that dates back to the 19th century and another room back to the 13th.
How can we imagine your editing process when you have to deal with all the intuitively collected material?
Our editing job is to find out how the emotional logic works. In the editing stage we endlessly move things around until we understand their function. That’s the reason why I show my work a lot in the course of this process in order to understand what is happening. I think that comes from my theatre background. It’s not evident that everybody will make the same associations. There’s a lot of ways to find access, to be impacted by the material. When we were filming we just tried to pull in things that we were interested in: brains, cheese, money, the shoemaker, the little boats. You don’t get everything you want, but somehow there is a logic which comes from somebody, personal intuitions and connections. None of the images is an illustration of an idea. There’s this wonderful quote by Grisey, whose music stars in the film. No longer composing with notes but with sounds.
How about the title A LITTLE LOVE PACKAGE?
A little love package from the old world, to let you know that we are still alive.
Interview: Karin Schiefer
October 2021

«For me personally, Vienna is a very special place to visit and also to make films. It is like Cinecittà in the 50’s, but with that atmosphere of horror and pre-war feeling that has been so present in all of my recent work.»