ON THE SEVEN SEAS by Johannes Holzhausen


Should I tell you a tale about a warship? asks a man as he holds onto his grandson's arm and the two gaze out across the grayish-blue sea. There was once a huge warship which sailed across all the world's oceans and seas. It was manned by the country's smartest and most experienced sailors because it was the most important ship in the navy. The proud days of the Kiev, the largest aircraft carrier in the Russian navy, its sad downfall and even more absurd end was not the original topic of Johannes Holzhausen's film Auf allen Meeren, it gradually became the focus because of the unexpected events which occurred during the long phase of shooting.


In 1993, after hearing that Russian ships were being decommissioned, sold off and then towed to India to be scrapped, the idea of empty ships sailing across the vast ocean never left him. The nature of the odyssey upon which Holzhausen was about to embark did not become clear until eight years later, and his persistency paid off in the end: Auf allen Meeren is a many-layered record which, using ships as objects of association, intimates the sea's fascination and a journey through endlessness. At the same time it is a sensitive study of individual reactions to the collapse of a power structure. My intention was not to make a film, claimed Holzhausen, which concentrates on an objective telling of the ship's history rather than a description of what is no longer there, which could take shape through subjective approaches only.


How did the Kiev become involved in the first place?

In 1996, after financing had been secured for the film, it was next in line to be transported to a graveyard for ships. After the Soviet navy's former prestige object, then quite rusty, was scheduled to be the star, the film crew had to think about obtaining permission to film in a restricted military area and wait for a buyer to appear. The paperwork from Moscow arrived 18 months later, and four years passed before the Kiev finally departed for China. Holzhausen, his assistant director and interpreter Susanne Kotrba and cameraman Joerg Burger made a total of twelve trips to Russia. The filmmaker remembers that, Shooting always depended upon the amount of freedom available to us. We never knew what would happen. The overall concept was constantly being examined and adapted. Holzhausen first began contacting and interviewing retired officers who had served on the Kiev. Identifying and isolating the unsureness and pain from the innumerable empty phrases still firmly anchored in the heads of his interviewees was not easy. I wanted to find out, explained the director, what happens to people who enjoy such a great amount of prestige and then go through such a downfall.


How do they deal with reality?

This kind of psychological landscape, this intertwining of internal and external worlds interest me. Archival footage from the Kiev's glory days and interviews conducted at military academies (which continue to train young people despite their disastrous career opportunities) paint an extremely vivid picture of the identification potential offered by a military construct which was never truly prepared for an emergency. The fact that the Kiev has been converted into an amusement center near Beijing, a mixture of military kitsch and ocean-going romanticism, is both a consoling irony and the happy ending of the fairy tale promised at the film's beginning. In my mind, claimed Holzhausen, fairy tales are associated with passing on tradition, with romanticism and fantasies which are capable of triggering certain things, and with the fact that certain fantasies are necessary for us to exist at all. (ks)