Seeing in the Dark

By Robert Chilcott and Gareth Evans

abendland-fred-kelemen-1.jpg Abendland, 1999

The cinema of Fred Kelemen finds an enduring beauty in the challenges of the times


“In a dark time the eye begins to see…” The words are poet Theodore Roethke’s but could almost serve as the distilled imperative of the singular cinema of Germany’s Fred Kelemen. A genuine auteur of the moving image, Kelemen garnered much attention for his visionary nineties trilogy – Fate, Frost and Nightfall – in which the profound social uncertainties of an emergent, radically altered Europe and the stark personal crises of its dispossessed were explored with a rigorous formal invention and compelling emotional intensity. Indeed, the late Susan Sontag found in Kelemen’s work an urgent relevance, a kindred spirit to the meditative, metaphysical cinema of Sokurov, Béla Tarr and Sharunas Bartas, where profound enquiries into both being and the nature of the image are primary concerns.

In this latest feature, Fallen, Kelemen continues on his defiantly independent path – with his absolute commitment to making on one’s own terms, Cassavettes is surely an influence – to craft a brooding, existential fable for an unstable new century, a telling monochrome noir of yearning, unanchored lives lived on the edge of often troubling revelation. Set in Riga, it follows the attempts of an isolated archivist, Matiss Zelcs, to trace the identity of a woman he passed on a night bridge but did not speak to, a woman he then heard leap into the river unseen. Overcome by his passivity in that turning moment, he becomes consumed by a need to assemble a sense of what had led to such an action. Acquiring her handbag, he begins to construct a narrative around letters and photographs (in striking homage to Antonioni’s Blow Up), and steadily infiltrates himself as an active agent into the life of the man she left behind. Obsession filling the vacancy at the core of his own days, Zelcs’ search for meaning grows increasingly tormented.

krisana-fred-kelemen-1.jpgKrisana, 2005

From its virtuoso opening sequence, an extended tracking shot of remarkable atmospheric power, Keleman constructs a world in which identity, worth, belonging and belief are both terribly vulnerable and so much sought, albeit with a quiet desperation. Working at the spiritual heart of the European art cinema tradition, where the self and place, as well as the medium of film itself, are constantly interrogated and re-imagined, he is nevertheless a true poet of the edges, of thresholds, of the hybrid, whether in location, intention or production. Shooting on digital video (transferred vividly to film) in the challenged Baltic port and with a protagonist whose surface reticence belies great internal turmoil, he shapes a vision, at once luminous and deeply shadowed, of moral ambiguity and profound social shifts. Swimming against the tide of almost all contemporary cinema in his passionate creation of a timely, resonant, aesthetically bold and philosophically enlivened oeuvre, Kelemen’s is a pressing, essential voice, needed more than ever in these all too fallen times. GE

Kidderminster College: How much of the film was improvised?

Fred Kelemen: In the script sometimes I leave empty pages, because I’m not sure what really has to be there but I have a taste of it. If you enter a room and behind the curtain, by the window, someone is standing – you don’t know what he looks like, but you know he’s there because you can see his feet. Sometimes I have this feeling when I write scripts, and I give these scripts to the actors with these empty pages. And I talk a lot with the actors before choosing them, about the topic of the film, the philosophy, the questions with which the film is dealing. So the visual characters, the biography of the actors, influence the script a lot. After this, it’s easier to finish the script when I know who is performing. I have the image of the actor, therefore I can better imagine scenes, even reactions, because I know the energy, the way he moves.

Let’s take the swan scene in Nightfall (Abendland) for example. There was an empty page in the script, and the main character has to do something which shows that in a certain situation he cares for somebody, which is an animal. Wolfgang Michael, the lead actor, told me that many years ago he was coming in drunk from the theatre, and he passed by a river and suddenly there was a noise of a swan, trapped in the bushes, and he couldn’t get away. Without thinking about it, he went down to the river, slipping, and liberated the swan back into the water. And the moment he told me the story I thought this was very good for the film and I integrated it. Everything you see in the film is based on something real that happened to me or somebody, and I just collected it.

So even things that seem to be surreal or bizarre have a realistic background. If you take the scene with the bell, it also has a realistic background, as it was, in the Old Russian Empire, a way of torturing people. The Romans crucified people, and the Russians crashed people in bells. So its not coming from some fantasy, it’s based on something real. It’s not happening now, for sure, but it happened on this earth sometime.

krisana-fred-kelemen-2.jpgKrisana, 2005

KC: How do you work with sound and how do you see the role of music in films?

FK: In Nightfall (Abendland) I don’t use a score. The music you hear comes from realistic sources, from a loudspeaker in a bar. There’s no music just put over a scene. I think that film doesn’t need it. Film is an art of itself, not a mix of all arts. It’s something completely different from the other arts, even if it has elements of the other arts. I think film should be able to communicate and provoke emotions without using music, because music is a different art. I think good film music is more noises and sounds, not melodies, as you can easily kill an image with a melody. Music by itself is completely emotional, it’s a much more abstract art, and you can touch emotions very fast with music. That’s why if you have very strong music, no doubt it will be stronger than the scene.

But many films use music in this way because they don’t trust their scenes, don’t trust their actors, and then they push it with the music. So I’m very purist in this case and very much against using music in this way. One should be very careful and not illustrate the scene – it’s better to use a sound than music. Every film should be a complete universe which works in itself. Very often I use music I don’t like, but it is realistic and credible for the scene, and it’s important for the emotion. It doesn’t mean I take my ten best records and put them in the film. I take music I don’t like, that I never would hear privately, because it matches the scene.

Sometimes you have to be very brutal with yourself, so if you only put in music that you like, maybe it destroys this universe, it doesn’t match, and for sure it will destroy the credibility of the whole film. You have to serve the laws you create in the beginning. I think if you remember the score too well, then something is wrong with the film. It is not the reason film exists, to support music.

KC: How did you go about casting?

FK: Normally I don’t like to do this typical casting, where you get ten actors in, and the casting director is very arrogant, and it’s like a machine. For me, to meet a person, to sit in a bar, to have some drinks, to talk, and to see if you can relate to this person is very important. Because it’s basically a human being you have to work with – not an actor, but a human being, so it’s essential for me to have a relation to the person. This gives me the strongest image, and after this I decide if I want to work with this person. If I have doubts about his quality as an actor, I can make maybe some images with him, but normally I don’t, I decide very much from my heart.

frost-fred-kelemen-1.jpgFrost, 1997

Most of the actors I work with come from the theatre, and every theatre actor very much overacts in the beginning, big gestures and so on, but I take them down and down and down and quite fast they develop a sense for this limited way of expression. Sometimes they say “but I’m doing nothing” and I say “but you stand in a very beautiful way, or it’s very nice the way you smoke a cigarette”, and they say “But I’m not acting!” Yet it is something very personal that can be very beautiful. And it’s an uncomfortable feeling in the beginning, the feeling that they don’t do enough. Also they are used to rushing – in a conventional TV series they never have time to sit in a chair and smoke a cigarette then get up with the camera still following. So it is new for them, but after two or three days they adapt very easily. Once an actor told me that he became very aware about these things after the first or second day, and later he even forgot there was a camera, because he was just doing what he was doing and he didn’t realise anymore that the camera was shooting. Because the actor also falls into the realism, and he doesn’t feel like he has to act anymore.

KC: You rely a lot on long takes. Bazin suggests the use of long takes in the construction of a film creates realism…

FK: Time exists for us, because we are mortal. If we weren’t, time wouldn’t be a question. We don’t have time, that’s why time is a question, because our lives are limited. The fact that we are mortal, we experience time because we are mortal, there is a strong relation between time and death. I think when we observe time, somehow we observe death at work, the active aspect of death. Time passes, and it no longer exists. The longer people exist, the weaker they are, and they will die. In our mortal life, and in film, time is the only reality. Time structures our life, sculptures our life, like I said it’s close to music, and time sculptures film. It happens in time, and for me it is very important to give an audience the feeling for time, and to recognise and experience time on itself.

So when you observe a scene, you start to realise time exists, and it takes time to do certain things. And I like to show that the things happen, not just to give the information that they happen. So for example, if someone walks on the street, for sure to give the information that he walks on the street you can give it in two seconds, because today we live in a culture of video clips and fast images and we are able to understand very fast visuals that give information. But I think film, cinema, is not this kind of image factory with just information. I think a film artist has to give something else. When I let him walk, you experience it. That’s the difference between experience and information. We are flooded with information today, but we don’t know so much because knowledge and information are something different. Knowledge comes from experience, and I think if I go with someone in a film for some minutes, I know what it means to walk, and I know from myself that when I walk a long time, it has to do with time, it is quite meditative.

Also I believe there is a certain moment when physical time transforms into metaphysical time, when the screen looks back to you, you are not only focussed on the screen, you start to think about yourself, things which you experience in your life which are similar with what you see on screen. So you are very much walking inside yourself, for example, when you walk with someone on a screen. I think if we are open to a kind of cinema that doesn’t just give information with fast cuts, I think we can experience something, and I think the reason why some people avoid it is that its not always used, its boring or uncomfortable, and there is a fear of the uncomfortable, but an uncomfortable feeling can be good. When you give more than just information, it is yours, your experience, which is very individual. Information belongs to everybody but experience belongs only to you.

KC: This is a horrible question, really tragic, but what would be your best ‘advice’ to us as students?

FK: I read a very funny interview some years ago with Werner Herzog, and he was asked what advice he would give to the students and he said “Don’t keep the curtain out of the bathtub when you take a shower, because then the floor gets full of water”! There is no general advice. Trust yourself and your inner voice and do what you believe in, and don’t change it for some speculative ideas to serve a market or TV station or whatever. The reason why some people lose their way is that they follow other voices, other thoughts, they start to create tactics – maybe if I do this, then I can reach this point… But this is not true, and I think then you lose your way. I’m very sure if someone doesn’t give up and follows his artistic way, in some way he will succeed, because something that is authentic is strong by itself, it cannot be killed or overheard. Because if you do something that you don’t believe in, everything is wrong, it’s always weak. That is the worst that can happen to somebody, to be alienated from himself.


This is an abbreviated transcript of a Q&A between the filmmaker and the students of Kidderminster College. Special thanks to John Bradburn.

Fallen is released by the BFI on 29th September 2006 and opens at Tate Modern. Seeing in the Dark – The Cinema of Fred Kelemen continues throughout October (www.tate.org.uk/modern/eventseducation/film)

Robert Chilcott is a writer and film-maker.