When Michael Glawogger embarked on a journey in December 2013 for his project Untitled, it was his desire to make a film that never stands still. He was not to return from that journey. Monika Willi has now edited the material created over about four and a half months, coaxing the narrative and poetic power from this film with no name a task which was both melancholy and marked by zest for life.
On 3 December 2013, when Michael Glawogger set off from his house in Lower Austria to spend a year travelling for his project
Untitled, the plan was that you would be sent material at regular intervals and start creating the first narrative draft before he
returned. What was your relationship to that material during the first four months of his journey?
MONIKA WILLI: I received material at regular intervals, and after a short delay I started editing it. At first it was impossible to develop
any narrative structure from what I had in front of me: hours of tracking shots along bullet-ridden houses in the fog, opulent
buildings, icy landscapes in Hungary, 25 minutes of sheep in a trailer behind a tractor. There was very little that fitted
into a scene structure. So I described the first four or five sections as "expanses", because I didn't really feel the term
"sequence" was justified. After all, we didn't just want to make a compilation of images. Michael didn't want to see a raw
cut until, as he said, "it would be a pleasure". "Expanses" was a term we both felt was appropriate. At some point we got
the feeling that the expanses were too expansive, and something began to crystallize which indicated an approach to making
the film. Everything was new about it for all of us: the script concept, the approach to people and places, even the technology.
Up to then Michael had sought out people, and when he found them he spent months or years gaining their confidence; then he
would film in a very concentrated burst. The subject and the approach to the film were decided in advance. With Untitled everything was different, for me as well, especially because it was the first documentary Michael filmed mainly with digital
equipment. That made it possible to shoot long sequences, which meant there was a lot of potential but it could drive
you to distraction in the editing room. We discussed the material very regularly. The automatic reply on his voicemail was:
"Im on a one-year-trip (December 2013 to December 2014) and will only be able to pick up my mails very sporadically".
But every time he went to a new country he inserted a new Sim card, so he was in constant communication with a small circle
How long was it, after the break caused by Michael Glawoggers death, before you went back to this material and the decision
was made that you would take charge of implementing the project?
MONIKA WILLI: I never really stopped working on the material, because after Michael died there were a whole series of memorial events, and
again and again it was necessary to work with the material in some way. I now know what it means to be forced to do something.
It was very apparent that the material he'd filmed was too good to be locked away. I quickly came to the conclusion that I
would only be able to do it myself, because I wouldnt have been able to bear any other director taking his place. An
attitude which was interpreted as stubbornness on my part. There were a number of names floating around, and it certainly
wasn't immediately obvious that I would make this film. There were also other options, such as archiving the material and
making it accessible in that way. There were a lot of ideas and options. I made my interest clear to Andrea Glawogger and
the production company, and they decided to trust me, which I very much appreciate. The original project was terminated, and
Untitled in its present form was resubmitted in May 2015. We got the green light for it late in autumn 2015.
In a conversation we had several years ago, you said: "My relationship to the material has less to do with my technical approach
and much more to do with the ability to submerge myself in it with my mind, heart and soul." Was it particularly difficult
for you to work with the footage that had been shot between December 2013 and April 2014?
MONIKA WILLI: When I first got the green light Id been longing for, I suddenly felt completely paralyzed. I sat in the editing room
for days on end with the 70 hours of material, viewing it but completely incapable of finding any way in. But that feeling
of not being equal to the task does arise again and again. You ask yourself questions like: "How would Michael have done it?",
"How can I do it properly?", "What would he have said about it?" Moving on from this, because in the end you simply can't
get into another person's mind even if you have made so many films together and talked about films so much, is a huge step.
And then another big step is letting yourself dare to do the thing. That must be a very feminine attitude, first letting yourself
"dare" do it, and then reaching the stage where you say: "I dare to do it, I have to do it, and I want to do it and
it's a lot of fun as well!" Working on the film was incredibly satisfying; it just took a long time. I had people at my side,
from a personal as well as professional perspective, who supported me a lot. One of the most important of them was Wolfgang
Mitterer, the composer of the film music, who was always prepared to add music to small sections or ideas I had formulated.
Alongside the visual level theres also a textual component, which was written by Michael Glawogger. Was that textual
component always available in parallel while you were working, and did it provide some sort of guide?
MONIKA WILLI: It took a very long time to decide that his text would be the basis for the textual component of the film. I once sent Michael
a montage with his own text, "he awoke in an unfinished house", provisionally added to a sequence I had edited with fog in
Krnić, Serbia, and his response was that it didnt work at all. His attitude was that the texts were solely designed
for the blog to be published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the Standard during the journey. We had agreed that in addition
he would send texts from the journey now and then, which I would then arrange to be spoken for the film. It was essential
for the text to provide reference points, because the film doesn't have any people speaking to camera, subtitles in the local
language or explanations. When I was looking an appropriate text it involved considerable detours into poetry, quotes from
Elfriede Jelinek and quotes from other writers he was close to, until I came back to his own writings, which I had read again
and again, because they have such poetic force and were the only right thing. Working together with Andrea Glawogger I picked
out certain sentences and assembled them into sections. Previously Andrea had worked with Eva Menasse on re-editing the texts
in the screenplay of
69 Hotelzimmer. These texts, which are very fine literary works and not autobiographical diary entries, enrich the film considerably, because
they bring in an additional level that makes Michael present.
To what extent do the images and the textual sections become charged with significance when they are suddenly seen as a legacy,
making it necessary to demystify them?
MONIKA WILLI: They become enormously charged, and that second level, which can suddenly be read as a premonition, is really fatal. It makes
everything distorted, overdone, too exaggerated. Transposing the text too much in terms of time or place leads to the wrong
kind of disruption. In principle I think disruption is very important, but it has to be appropriate. However, there was never
any question of using chronology as the structure of the film; that would have contradicted the original intention, and it
wouldn't have been particularly interesting.
Untitled opens with a sequence featuring both Michael Glawogger and Attila Boa on camera, shooing away a flock of birds. Then we hear
an extract from an interview, with Michael's voice. How important was it to you to let Michael Glawogger be seen and heard
in the opening sequence?
MONIKA WILLI: I always felt I would have loved to subtitle those first sentences: "Shall we go inside?" and Attila's reply: "Yes, the two
of us!" And in the background you can make out the Hotel Eden. It would hardly have been possible to create a better opening
sequence for the film. But since nobody in the film was subtitled, I couldn't subtitle those words either. Then Michael talks
about the project itself off camera. It was important to me that this passage should feature as a prologue, and that he should
be present in the film. There were also versions where he appeared in the film more often. Even though he never consciously
wanted to be portrayed, I could have used three fine sequences, and I originally included them. But in the final phase of
editing, where you gradually reduce things to the absolute essentials, those sections were cut; it would have looked too much
like a gimmick. It would also have suggested too much that it was "his" journey, and the film also had to work for an audience
that didn't know Michael Glawogger or the circumstances.
Presumably, since the four months of his journey only covered two sections of two continents, that meant you had to establish
a thematic relationship between those two continents, south-east Europe and north and west Africa?
MONIKA WILLI: The film didn't have a subject, a screenplay or a thread running through it, so one of the biggest questions was how to convey
clearly that it was based on a journey through the Balkans which touched on Italy and then continued to north-west and west
Africa. It turned out that those two regions, both in terms of the energy they exude and the images that Michael and Attila
filmed, are fundamental opposites. The Balkan material is very strongly influenced by the war that recently ended, by emptiness
and sadness, while Africa is very much alive. That made it apparent that it was necessary to alternate between the major thematic
sections, whether they were dealing with childhood or religion or foodstuffs. The people and their lives are always the central
focus, never the places where the sequences were filmed. And that's also what made the film flow.
In the quote at the beginning of the film Michael Glawogger says that for him, the finest film is one that "never comes to
a standstill". Movement and progress appear to be the guiding principle, perhaps also so the film gets as close as possible
to human experience, to life itself?
MONIKA WILLI: All our conversations revolved around this point: a film that never stands still. At the same time, movement can only be perceived
in a relative sense. You only become aware of movement when it slows down repeatedly. Since the teams journey was never
supposed to be the subject, movement is represented by the motion of other elements. When the camera approaches from behind,
focusing on an animal, for example, it conveys that element. In general, animals are a motif that occurs repeatedly. They
are portrayed primarily as beasts of burden, with great naturalness. I could have placed even more emphasis on animals, since
Michael was very fond of them. It was also my intention to create a sizeable space for reflection, to consider the ideas triggered
by the images, so being drawn in and confronting the images happens of its own accord. One person may perceive absolute misery
in the images, while another sees great beauty. Openness and room to move were always the aim. One premise about making the
film was that it should show change, which results in considerable length. It takes some time to create the transition from
the peaceful atmosphere of a man sitting beside a tree he has just felled to the moment when he starts working again.
Again and again the camera focuses on rituals and ceremonies, either allied to religion or triggered by it. Why do they have
such a central function?
MONIKA WILLI: Religion was a subject before Michael set off. He only wanted to take three books with him: the Bible, the Koran and the Gilgamesh
epic, which he asked me to obtain for him just before he left. Religion was already present in Whores Glory, always in respect of the significance of religion for people and less in terms of his personal attitude towards religion.
Ritual, as a metaphoric support with eternal validity, is simply an important pillar of human existence, whatever form it
takes. I have emphasized that hopefully in a way which is justifiable. For example: Moslem and Orthodox hymns at the
same time, later Orthodox and Catholic, religion also as a contributing factor to wars. During the first raw cut I noticed
that the images are very male dominated. I think that's mainly due to the locations and the access that was available. It
cant have been Michael's intention to depict men more strongly than women. Children are also a very present motif, certainly
for that reason. What Michael and Attila really achieved during those four months is a depiction of the cycle of life.
For me, the Christmas festivities at the end represent less the ceremonial aspect than the feeling of being at home.
MONIKA WILLI: That's also how I see it. It was a promise to Michael that I never actually had to make
He always describes that place
in Albania as paradise. In a sense I had to bring him back, but leave him outside the window as an observer. But he and we
as the audience remain outside, and the film moves on. There are hardly any interior shots in the film; it is set either outside
or in public interiors. There's only one sequence filmed in Serbia with footage of a private room, and that is cut very rapidly.
I associate it with postcards, which we normally send with views of the countryside. Here it's the other way around; we send
postcards of interior spaces. That's a very conscious interruption to the flow of the film, an intentional montage of postcards
images from life. There are two or three passages in the film with such rapid cuts, and the one in Serbia stands out because
Wolfgang added such brilliant music to it.
One of the text passages at the beginning features a farewell. The whole film is a kind of farewell: for us as his audience,
and very particularly for you as somebody who worked closely with him for so many years. To what extent did the tonality of
farewell underpin your work?
MONIKA WILLI: Before he set off Michael made a point of saying goodbye properly to everybody who was close to him, which he hadn't done
on earlier projects; it was almost eerie. With hindsight there is so much that you can interpret, so much you can take as
a sign. I try not to do that. It was important to me that the film should be regarded in the light of the facts: Michael wanted
to make this film, and that's why he went on that journey with Attila Boa and Manuel Siebert. During the journey he died.
The sequences in Untitled are drawn from material that had been filmed up to the point. The material was edited to produce the film after Michael's
death, and I accepted that task as a consequence of his passing away. Three of them set off, and one of the first sequences
shows people panning diamonds, which I see as extremely symbolic of their work. They went out into the world acting on the
serendipity principle, looking for tiny precious stones in an endless amount of sand. It could also be the place where Michael
was bitten by the mosquito that infected him with malaria. In a sense, since I am aware of that, it's even more charged for
me. As far as the music is concerned, after considering a large number of options we decided together to use a lot of music,
very upfront, working with Wolfgang Mitterer as the composer. Wolfgang's work really enriches the film; his music gives the
sequences additional levels without providing any commentary. I would claim that you often see more as a result.
The film stops at the place where it began. A gift to him, who was not permitted the moment of return?
MONIKA WILLI: It's certainly the case that there is a reluctance to accept his death. I very, very often dream of him returning, suddenly
standing in front of me.
It wasn't originally my intention at all to create such powerful arcs. There are four of them really, although I don't like
the idea of something opening up and then closing again and again until it finally closes. But the last of these arcs had
to be there. There was at one point a concept focusing on death, and every place they journeyed to would be shown twice, from
different perspectives. But there wasn't enough material for that. It would have been an oddly constructed, artificial format.
In the end the images I found important were of the train that moves away, the misty-covered garbage dump in the desert where
the young goat was given shelter and the return to paradise.
How far were you able to distance yourself from Michael Glawogger as a voice whispering in your head while you were working
on this film?
MONIKA WILLI: There is no way of answering that question. And I didn't feel any impulse to distance myself from it. When I'm working, as
soon as things start moving I don't impose my vision on the material. It's always the material that does the talking. As far
as the editing of Untitled goes, there are some parts that Michael would never have permitted. And at those places there was a sort of dialogue with
him, where I said: "I don't care about that now. I'm going to do it, because I think it's right". At some point I simply had
to go ahead because I didn't get any reply and ended up talking to myself.
Interview: Karin Schiefer
Translation: Charles Osborne