Timo Novotny  about TRAINS OF THOUGHTS


«Urbanity just fascinates me, and my images focus on architecture. I have more affinity to architecture than people. In documentary film in particular I consider the city to be the most interesting location of all.» Timo Novotny talks about his Trains of Thoughts.

The time spent on the subway is down time or “wasted time,” an opportunity to let your mind drift or philosophize, and at the same time the subway represents better than anything else everyday life, the banality you need every day. Did you look for your approach somewhere between the means of transportation and the metaphor for the dark, mysterious zones of the city and in people?
Timo Novotny: What really led me to this project is architecture. When I get home after walking through a city and look at the pictures on my camera, there are about a hundred of the subway and just one of the city. Prague’s subway was a great inspiration in this sense. In New York’s subway people are really in their own worlds, and not knowing where you are or where you’re going has both advantages and disadvantages. Some people say that it’s the most important part of the day, because no one can reach them. Though they’re in this tin can with millions of other people, it’s really time they use for themselves and look forward to a little. In general, it’s the same as putting mice in labyrinths and seeing whether they’ve changed after a century, when the labyrinths are constructed differently. The subway also reflects the city and explains why the people in Tokyo are the way they are, and why New York is the way it is. What’s always been important to me is capturing the music and urban activities that move us. I didn’t want to make a philosophical film that was fraught with meaning, that isn’t my thing. On the other hand, I didn’t want to just examine the banal aspect of everyday transportation either. Getting on and getting off alone wouldn’t be enough. The important thing is maintaining a buildup of tension and portraying individual cities. That’s why this movement from East to West was extremely important, we move westward the entire time. There are a few stops in Vienna in between that take us away from the stress and tell us how the subway can also be something quiet and lyrical.

Have your travels inspired you to observe subways more closely?
Timo Novotny: In particular it was a trip to Prague and one to Munich where I had an extremely powerful experience of architecture. Of course, while touring with the Sofa Surfers and traveling for film shoots I’ve always felt an affinity for subways. I’m fascinated by train travel and this uncertainty you feel while traveling underground. There’s part of a line in Florence where the subway crosses a hill. The train makes a 360° loop to work up enough speed to make it over. This loop isn’t on the map, and every day you take a kind of roller-coaster ride without noticing it. I think that’s amusing. My intention wasn’t to sing the praises of the subway, but I like the fact that it’s also bound up with emotions, such as with the Russians, who are so proud of the Moscow subway.

Is the subway t h e symbol of urbanity in your opinion?
Timo Novotny: For a European, yes. In my opinion, that’s the most obvious in LA. There, the subway plays a purely symbolic role, it gives the city the impression of an urban character. Most Angelinos aren’t even aware that the city has a subway, but for us Europeans a subway is indicative of urbanity. On the other hand, a small city like Hannover has a subway to take visitors from the airport to the Cebit trade fair or the old city center, which makes people think they’re covering vast distances. You could cover the same amount of ground by bicycle or on foot, but it creates the impression that Hannover is a cosmopolitan city. There’s something about the subway that turns a space into a city.

How did you choose the cities?
Timo Novotny: The are 160 subway systems around the world. Of course, the most honest thing to do would be making 160 documentaries, in my case the premise was to make cinema and this world tangible by means of cinematic images. That’s why I had to make choices. The fact that Paris, London, Buenos Aires and Mexico City aren’t included is definitely a shortcoming. Unfortunately, you have to limit yourself, and I think there’s something emblematic about New York, its subway is the oldest in America. The great thing about it is that nothing works, sometimes people just get stuck and then have to get out in the middle of a tunnel and walk to the next station, and they start talking to each other as a result. Then you go to LA, this anti-city. For me, LA is the embodiment of an anti-city, and it’s familiar to everyone thanks to Hollywood. I had fun shooting underground there, at places that have rarely been filmed in the past. After LA the obvious thing, of course, was to continue on to Latin America, but I wanted to continue on westward. Capitalism and how it has come out on top in Tokyo represents the future for me. Tokyo is where the sun rises, and where it’s possible that people already function in a future form. I can imagine that some day we’ll all be like the people in Tokyo are now. I saw a society there that’s dominated by work, not-looking, rules and order. I think our societies are moving in that direction, that something’s eating into them, and at some point everybody will be messed up inside, even though everything apparently still works. The film continues westward, from the middle course between capitalism and communism?Hong Kong?to old-school communism in Moscow. The basic idea was analyzing social systems and creating varieties. We begin in Vienna and end up in Vienna, though the return to Europe is at the conclusion, in Moscow. There are intermediate scenes set in Vienna, and they’re intended to have a calming effect and create a bridge to the next city.

In these intermediate sequences in Vienna there’s a photographer who guides us through the tunnels, and he in a way resembles a shepherd taking us into the dark underworld. Is he also your alter ego?
Timo Novotny: I wanted to show someone who’s a kind of guerilla photographer or who could be a kind of alter ego of mine. That was also a way to show the subway as a location that can be used in alternate ways, some possibly illegal, walking through the tunnels and finding peace, a balance in one’s life there. During shooting I learned that Vienna’s subway system is a stronghold of graffiti artists. There’s really a kind of sprayer tourism here, because you can get into the tunnels and out again fast. Showing the graffiti didn’t really interest me, I wanted to have a photographer because that fascinated me more, that someone wants to go down there to find peace and to take in and illuminate the space.

The subway is a system where everything runs “on rails” and is controlled, where safety plays an important role, and at the same time one of your interviewees claims that for him the subway is a place where you lose all orientation in time and space. Do you consider the subway a place with a number of contradictions?
Timo Novotny: Yes, definitely. In all five cities we stay in the range of the legal and controllable. With a photographer in Vienna’s subway tunnels you might have the only moments of tension in the film because someone sets off on paths that people aren’t normally allowed to set foot on?he takes a completely different path, and that’s possible in each city. This buildup of tension does a little more to illustrate my thinking.

Can you briefly describe the five cities?
Timo Novotny: When you start in New York, the interesting thing is that that city makes you feel that anything’s possible there, though it’s an isolated world. I like the fact that the place is also used in a way that wasn’t originally intended, that artists perform there. I think it’s great that it sometimes gets stuck. Anything’s possible, and the people are extremely friendly when it happens, because they have to communicate. In New York you’re rarely confronted in an unfriendly way. In Vienna we had a problem right away, so I had to get out. In New York anything’s possible: Communication works without a hitch. On the other hand, the subway’s in pretty bad shape, it snows into it, and water runs down the walls. It represents the city and life there. The walls outside the system are just as thin as they are underground. When you’re down there, you can sense what things must be like above ground. In LA there’s some nice interplay with the camera. We chose someone who can talk to anybody, who knows the subway and uses it. In LA an incredible number of people never knew that there’s a subway. All the people there like to look into the camera, there’s a dialogue, a game with the camera, and it’s all about image, you can sense Hollywood. But at the same time it’s totally obvious in LA when someone doesn’t have a car and has to take the subway, they’re at the bottom of society.
In Tokyo a lot of things are explained, because it’s the most difficult system of all to understand. We have a figure we follow. One statement sums things up extremely well: The Japanese are so punctual because the trains are punctual. Our production manager showed up right on time every day, which didn’t happen in any other city. I thought it was so absurd when I found out that it’s considered polite when you’re pushed into an overcrowded train or that a family’s proud of their father who committed suicide. Everything’s double-edged there and difficult to understand, that’s why there’s an announcer. You’re always in motion in Tokyo. There are no performers in the subway, no standing still, just functioning, quietly, courteously, without a lot of fuss.

The subway in Hong Kong represents for me the totally absurd fact that the subway there isn’t publicly owned, it’s run by a private company. This company buys empty spaces, builds huge apartment buildings and the subway at the same time. As a result, completely insignificant empty land is suddenly turned into an expensive residential area. It can happen that you pay your rent to a company, use its subway and work at one of its shops. Sometimes they determine your entire life. Fortunately, we found some interviewees who have a critical view of this. This company’s expanding, and in my opinion it represents the pinnacle of capitalism. The company determines the city’s heartbeat completely, and control over the people is total. Moscow’s struggling with what’s left of communism. The people there told us with complete conviction that they have the most beautiful subway in the world, even though they’ve never seen any others. They’ve had it drilled into them long enough. Their national pride seemed extremely characteristic to me, and it’s expressed quite well through the subway. And the distances between the stations are endless in Moscow; once I made the mistake of getting out too soon on the edge of the city and then spent an hour and a half walking.

While doing research did you visit other cities that you ended up not shooting in?
Timo Novotny: Yes, I also went to Seoul, Paris and London. I wanted two Asian, two American and two European subways. Vienna and Moscow couldn’t be more different. The Asian subways are very similar in terms of design, though Tokyo and Hong Kong are extremely different as far as mentality’s concerned. If I were to be critical, I’d say that it’s too bad I didn’t include Buenos Aires or Mexico City, but LA, as an anti-city, was too important to me. I wanted not only urban cities, but this city too, which pretends to have a mass-transport system. I traveled around the world for three months doing research, then I filmed in New York for seven weeks, which was an exception, in most cases it was two weeks.

Is filming permitted in all subways?
Timo Novotny: In New York they interpret the law in an extremely ambiguous way. Filming is not permitted, but videography is. Whatever the difference may be. We had permits in the other cities. And when you’re so close to people, you have to ask for their permission to film them and get their signature.

How is it possible to shoot in the tight space of a subway?
Timo Novotny: In New York I wanted to talk to as many people as possible. In those cases we often asked right away if we could bring the camera along and left it up to the individual whether they slept, read, or just sat there. The New Yorkers were extremely open. In Tokyo and Hong Kong our approach was similar, though we sent two interpreters ahead with a camera, and then another two of us stayed in the background with a telephoto lens. When the interpreters thanked the interviewees and they relaxed, we were able to shoot that moment of relaxation with the telephoto lens. Those are often the most honest moments, because the awareness of being filmed always makes people a little less natural. So we found a solution that was legally OK and gave naturalness a chance.
The crew was always small; we needed interpreters, of course, but we weren’t allowed use tripods or lighting, and large cameras would scare off the subjects, so there were just a few of us. I was waiting for this Japanese single-lens reflex camera, I ordered one right away and then we could get started. This camera was a godsend, you hold it like a normal camera. Again and again we tried to pose as a couple of tourists to be as inconspicuous as possible. And I can understand that people feel that their privacy’s being invaded on subways. In New York especially, where, as I said, the subway ride is often the only time in the day when people can withdraw into themselves. In my opinion the film turned out to be extremely honest, it doesn’t have a single scene where I had to say, do that again, or where I had to tell someone where to stand. In Moscow we always made sure to stay out of the way.
Half the time I operated the camera myself, and the rest of the time I had several different camerapeople. During editing, the only important issue was how something fit together, how it could be turned into a film which does justice to the subway’s movement and rhythm and conveys a sense of the space.

Music represents an essential element in your work. Does every subway have its own sound and rhythm?
Timo Novotny: Yeah, I think so. Of course, the general atmosphere and smell can’t be ignored. I can’t really think about the sound by itself, in isolation from the other things, because the smell is such an important element in New York in particular. But I think that they all have sounds and speeds. In Moscow the trains generally move fast, and when you turn the volume on your iPod all the way up, you can barely hear the music. If you did that in Tokyo, it’d be incredibly irritating for the person sitting next to you. Talking on a telephone is also a huge no-no there. Tokyo’s ahead of other cities in that sense too. Speeds and sounds are extremely characteristic, and right away I always knew which of the Sofa Surfers I would have do the music for a certain city. I’ve worked with them for a while now and know them extremely well, which is how I knew who would be good for what task. I don’t make music with the Sofa Surfers myself, sometimes I put together pieces of the other loops, add voices or sounds, but I wouldn’t call myself a musician. I’m on stage with the band as a visualist only and do the videos and CD covers?everything that’s visual. At the same time I’m right there when the music is made, and since I put together so many live images, I’m very good at working with rhythm and visual material. That was extremely helpful for this film.

After Life in Loops, TRAINS OF THOUGHTS is your second full-length film, and the focus of both is the city as a theme.
Timo Novotny: I saw Michael Glawogger’s Megacities at the Metrokino cinema when I was 25. It was the only Austrian film that hit me like a lightning bolt. I’m interested in cities in general. Although I like to spend my entire vacation at the beach, I generally like to be in cities exclusively the rest of the time. Urbanity just fascinates me, and my images focus on architecture. I have more affinity to architecture than people. The next project I’m planning, Vienna Was Moscow and Paris, is about a century of Vienna in film. I’ll be working in archives, and the film will be about Vienna’s image in film.
In documentary film in particular I think cities are the most interesting locations of all.

With all the off-camera voices reflecting on movement underground, would you call TRAINS OF THOUGHTS an essay or a documentary?
Timo Novotny: I consider it a documentary, because it’s an extremely honest film, with the exception of the montage and music. In terms of the images everything’s real and puristic, as it should be in my opinion. On the other hand, of course, it’s a visual essay about the subway. I wanted the off-camera voices, they fit the idea I developed with my assistant director, Jakob Barth. For a long time it didn’t work, because we made the mistake of having too many shots of architecture with voices in the background. In the course of editing we finally figured out that the people sitting on the subway are necessary so you can hear the off-camera voice better. For a long time we tried to make a purely architectural film with a number of emotional and personal intellectual levels. I didn’t want to show the people, just hear and sense them. But it takes a lot of effort on the viewer’s part to see another place when you hear a train of thought and the picture fails to have the intended effect. In terms of the basic idea it was important that all the voices were off camera. And it was important to me that the approach was different for each city. In New York I wanted to have everything come from off camera, in LA there was the entertainer, in Moscow we had the tourist group. The intention was to vary it and make a European’s experience of the city approachable and tangible. In LA it was important to have someone who’s familiar with the city, because I was afraid down there, even if it wasn’t obvious. Being alone underground in LA was always an unpleasant experience. That’s a cliché that came true there. Heinz was born and grew up there, he was able to deal with these situations, and he wasn’t afraid of guns.

How did you come up with the title TRAINS OF THOUGHTS?
Timo Novotny: That was after a long search, and then I found this nice double meaning of “train of thought.” The double plural isn’t correct in English, there are only trains of thought. I was thinking about the train and the tracks and a lot of other things, and I thought that they came together so well in this image. I read Marc Augé’s texts on non-places and the metro. I didn’t want it to become too philosophical and intellectual in its approach. Films should also be entertaining. I tried to find a middle course where you can feel the atmosphere without being bored with facts and statistics.


Interview: Karin Schiefer

June 2012