Erwin Wagenhofer on his  film ALPHABET


Erwin Wagenhofer on his new film Alphabet, on of the contenders of IDFA's main competition in Amsterdam.

Considering your last three documentaries, they seem to be a trilogy, and you’ve gone from the concrete theme of food to money, which is becoming more and more virtual, to an abstract term: education. Is reflection on the subject of education the conclusion from the first two films?
Erwin Wagenhofer: The question of how we feed our minds is the theme that has interested me the longest. Film involves the important question of timing, meaning not just the inner rhythm, but also when a theme’s chosen. The time wouldn’t have been ripe for this in 2005. The film isn’t about education per se, but the approach behind education. That’s the really interesting thing. Learning and education can happen anywhere. People learn a great deal until they turn 20, but possibly only a tiny portion of that in school. When you read a newspaper or watch a documentary, it often deals with things that don’t work. When crises or things that are progressing in the wrong way are scrutinized and attempts are made to identify who’s responsible, it often turns out that people with the best education available are involved. You won’t find anyone doing an important job at a bank or in the financial sector who hasn’t at least studied at a university, if not one of the world’s best. After the first financial crisis in 2008 none of the people responsible admitted that they had made mistakes. With technical failures a search for the cause is made right away.

You start with ultrasound images from a womb and continue with footage shot in the desert. What’s the meaning of the film’s beginning?
Erwin Wagenhofer: For the first time I wasn’t able to get someone to appear though I really wanted them. I tried for two years, unsuccessfully, to get Ken Robinson for the film. We did obtain the rights to his speech, which can be heard in a voiceover. While doing research I probably listened to this speech 50 times and filtered out the essence during the sound editing, which took weeks. It also revealed the dramatic arc. We were in the process of doing research in Death Valley, because I was still hopeful that we’d get Ken Robinson at the last moment. Looking back, it wasn’t such a bad thing for the film at all, because he would never had said the most important things in such dense form. So that’s why the film begins with images showing the beginning of life, and this life then transitions to a desert. Then it continues with images of kites, until we end up in China. The film is actually structured like a feature fiction.

Educational and school systems still very much reflect the character of the country where they’re located. Austria’s school system is rarely dealt with in Alphabet. Was it certain right away that you didn’t want to address Austria in particular?
Erwin Wagenhofer: Austria’s school system specifically was never up for discussion, instead we looked at systems in the rest of the world. When you make a film about education, you can shoot everything except for schools. Schools are every society’s Achilles heel, which is why no progress is made in this whole debate. It really isn’t about education, or children and their future, it revolves around power and ideology. The Western system born in Europe has turned into something other than an educational system. Now it’s nothing more than a training system. This system deals with a single question: Does it produce individuals who’re able to compete on the labor market? Nothing else interests people these days. Even at so-called universities, the important thing isn’t shaping a universal view of the world and then specializing in a certain department. What are known as universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen) have accelerated this trend. Our main problem is that this Western economic system as a whole has been completely ruined. Few if any people have professions, just more or less temporary jobs. People need two things: love and a profession. And a real profession, one with which I can lean back in the evening and see the result.  My film begins with PISA and then proceeds to the method of drilling in China, the world’s champion with PISA. What was developed in Europe has been taken too far there. At present China intends to move away from its image as a master at copying and has found out that that isn’t possible through drilling. Creating things requires creative people, and that’s why Chinese educational experts speak so freely, because they have the government’s support. People there realize that the system of drilling is bound to fail. The consequence is exploding suicide rates among young people. It’s a joke that Andreas Schleicher, PISA’s inventor, praises what’s happening in China, because the best results are produced there according to its ranking system, which puts pressure on European schools. These days we’re living in a world where everything’s graded. This competition begins at school and ruins us in the long term. You can compare banks or companies with other banks or companies. This doesn’t really work with countries, and unthinkable with humans, children in particular. A terrible situation. Since the PISA shock in 2003 the Federal Ministry for Education, the Arts and Culture has done a comprehensive study that shows how children have gotten worse according to PISA criteria. What has been successful is that huge sums of money have been spent—another of PISA’s ideas—to create a growth market. And tutoring companies are now quoted on China’s stock exchange. The future and well being of children certainly isn’t the point here.

“Fear or Love” is this film’s subtitle. Education, according to Alphabet, is driven by fear. Which fears determine our educational systems?
Erwin Wagenhofer: Of course, none of them are natural human fears, the kind that protect life, but artificial fears. Fear of competition, fear of dependence, dependencies between men and women, power over children. Exclusion and control, those are the dominant mechanisms. A person who’s controlled can never be free. You’d just have to look at children differently. Money isn’t the only thing if you want to reform systems and make full use of this potential. People have to realize that when they’re born, they already have everything they need. It just has to be able to develop and then it can, like at the end of Alphabet, thrive in the desert. At present we’re facing an educational desert.

Ken Robinson’s lecture can be heard at the film’s beginning. How did you select your other interviewees and define the ground they wanted to cover?
Erwin Wagenhofer: I’m not an educator, nor am I an expert on nutrition or finances. But I can see that something’s wrong. It was a dramatic trick, taking a look at a school far away, in China. That makes it easier to see what’s wrong. I take the audience from there, and then we proceed to neurobiological findings. I definitely wanted a human-resources manager, a German schoolchild with excellent grades is interviewed, Arno Stern has always been a heavyweight in my opinion, and Pablo Pineda was also extremely important. In my opinion those are two people who, to quote Ken Robinson, have been “on the move” for some time now. Furthermore, I wanted to have the people who claim to be the best, people from McKinsey. Then I wanted someone from the bottom of the social ladder who works for a security company. His life says a great deal about society, because this job didn’t even exist 20 years ago. All the current system produces are knowledge workers, and we don’t know what to do with them. Our dilemma is that the sole focus is on cognitive abilities. People, men in particular, don’t listen to their bodies anymore, or their senses. How could you make a meaningful contribution to life if you don’t listen to your senses?

A “trilogy” is one way of looking at these films as a whole. I regard them as more of a mosaic in which one group of interrelated themes is added to another and an explanatory model is expanded upon. Will your stocktaking of contemporary society continue, or has the time come to explore other paths in film?
Erwin Wagenhofer: I plan to take a break for now. I wanted to do this sooner, before I let Peter Rommel convince me to make this film right away. It’s possible that this project took so long because I was so exhausted. Production lasted two and a half years, on top of four years of research. I have three projects on the backburner: Two are fictional, and one’s non-fiction. For the past two years I’ve been working with Valentin Hitz on a screenplay entitled Der Wassermann. About ten years ago I started work on We Feed the World and have studied the way the world is for ten years. In the future I’d like to work with the way the world could be. I feel that growing inside me. For We Feed the World we shot things about how the area of foodstuffs could be different, but there wasn’t enough room for it in the film. Every time we tried to include just a little bit of hope, it ruined the film. That finally worked in Alphabet. The film takes a turn in its final third, used Arno Stern and Pablo Pineda to show ways in which things could be different, and completing an arc when it shows how things can grow in a desert when there’s a little water. It’s possible that more could be done with that. The newspaper Die Zeit published a review of Alphabet that links non-fiction and fiction film. I want to bridge the gap between them, and I’m certain that I’ll succeed. It won’t all go unnoticed like Black Brown White. The reason that the film’s called Alphabet is that the alphabet forms the basis of our thinking. And we need new concepts, a new language. We’ll replace education with relationships, and art will need new terms too.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
November 2013