«A film that never stands still.»

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: "I’m 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 of people.
How long was it, after the break caused by Michael Glawogger’s 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 wouldn’t 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 I’d 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 there’s 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 didn’t 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 team’s 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 can’t 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
February 2017
Translation: Charles Osborne
«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.»