That the takeaway from Manifesto, a film where Oscar-winning thespian Cate Blanchett plays a baker’s dozen of parts, manages to be something other than her virtuosic talent speaks volumes to the intellectual rigor of director Julian Rosefeldt’s film. He first introduced the project into the world as a gallery installation where different screens pertained to an artistic movement or school of thought, whose texts Blanchett then brings to life as a character befitting a dramatic exploration. Rosefeldt reintroduced the work as a 95-minute feature film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where I spoke to him about bridging the two experiences without sacrificing the density of philosophy and theory contained within.
Movie Mezzanine: Just so we have a baseline before I jump off into more detailed questions, can you talk a little bit more about the viewer experience at the Manifesto gallery experience?
Julian Rosefeldt: Basically it’s 13 screens: one is just showing the burning fuse on the entry screen, and the other 12 are on a 10-minute loop. And they are all set up in a labyrinthic [sic] way so you can see them together, but you make your way through it on each and every scene if you want by staying sticking to one screen and looking at it. But you decide yourself how long you want to stay. They’re all the same length; they’re all looped; they’re all synchronized. There’s a moment you saw in the theatrical version in the end where the split screen – in the installation, each screen is dedicated to one character (one is dedicated to two – it’s the reporter and anchorwoman) – they break the fourth wall, look towards us and speak that part of her dialogue on a certain pitch level. They all add up to this harmony in the world.
Basically, it’s all coming from the same shooting material, and it’s edited in a different way. It’s probably easier to focus on the text in the theatrical version.
Just because there’s less noise?
Yeah, because you only see one thing at once. You’re not so distracted.
Did people proceed in a certain way – and was that the edit you chose for the film?
Well, there’s always the fuse and the homeless man at the beginning. And there’s always the school at the end. Futurism is quite early with the stock exchange. In the installation, I try to guide the audience by setting up the screens in a certain order. It’s not necessarily this order only that you can view the work.
They have the freedom to go watch however they want.
When we finished the installation, I thought it would be easy to do the film. And actually, it was the opposite because we had to get the installation out of our minds and the logic of it. Also, chronological order didn’t really make sense, so we just decided to go with the images and the flow and the edits that the material has. And that was a wise thing to do.
How did you choose the segments to cross-cut – for example, the conservative mother who recites the Pop Art manifesto?
She’s like a running gag. If you see it on one screen, it’s endless. So that was just a running gag; while editing, we thought, “It’s time for her to come back.”
What led you to adapt the installation into a feature film?
At the very beginning, it was actually a compromise I had to accept to fund the installation. I had money in part from the Bavarian broadcast TV channel, Fighting For Arts, NTV, and they needed something linear to screen. But I was very happy for this opportunity. First of all, for many years I was confronted with the question of when to do my first feature film. It’s in the air, and it’s not a step up – just a side step. It was another thing to do, but certainly with more constrictions. In my world of museums, I can do anything. Multi-screen, logic, illogic, narrative, non-narrative, looped, not looped. As you know, in this world, you have short form, long form, documentary, and that’s it. It’s somewhere in my mind all the time, and I thought this was a good opportunity to experiment to find out if something conceptualized for the museum could exist in a more linear form.
It was there from the beginning, the idea, but I was afraid there was a big risk to fail. And I’m very happy the audience reacts. It’s very knotty, there’s a lot of text. Did you suffer yesterday sometimes?
I wouldn’t use the word “suffer” – but I talked with friends afterwards, and I think I compared it to taking an entire semester of college art philosophy in 90 minutes.
That’s good! That’s a compliment.
And I didn’t have the chance to see the installation in New York, but a part of me wishes I had the chance to take 4 hours to sit through it as much as I want.
Well, it’s traveling.
One difference between the gallery and the movie theater is that viewers have the choice to experience in the museum, whereas here you choose for them what to see and experience. Were you conscious of doing that?
Absolutely, very conscious. And after editing the installation, the first idea was that we needed equal space for each manifesto scene. And that was all wrong. Sometimes we had to really densify a lot. But the Dada funeral scene is almost the entire length because it’s such a beautiful dramaturgical curve, and you don’t want to cut it. But the lady at the lake is such a pain in the ass that in a theatrical, linear version, you don’t want to see her that long. Whatever she wants to say, she unfolds it and you get the character. But once you got it, you don’t necessarily need to hear everything she said.
What philosophies were guiding you in shooting the film in terms of controlling what the viewer saw or giving the audience the freedom to look around the frame?
Generally I would say, I do what I do because I want to experiment with breaking standards of storytelling and how to unfold a story, how to develop a character. I believe that film schools are far too narrow-minded regarding possibilities – who said this means this, that means that? Just try it out, change a few parameters, and you’ll find out the world doesn’t care at all.
One philosophy behind it was that I wanted the viewer to actively participate and add up a lot. So I chose locations that are hardly to be read as functional – there are a lot of spaces that you don’t know much about. That triggers curiosity and creates fertile ground for ideas. You take text that is sometimes complicated, take a character, and mix it all up. You have the job to do as the viewer. That’s probably the feeling of your friends.
I generally work a lot with deconstruction and long travel sequences where instead of telling a story through editing, I’d rather tell a story by moving a window or a screen. Swoop back, something has changed. Observing what happened in the editing process over the last 50 years of filmmaking, there’s an incredible acceleration going on. We are so used to it now that it’s almost addictive. When I had a TV, I was going through the channels at night and finally find something of quality … but so slow because it was probably a movie from the ‘50s or ‘60s, and you just go on because you’re so used to it [fast cutting].
So I try to focus on things that apparently are boring, but I don’t find them boring at all. Observing people in their homes, doing nothing, spending time with their daily routine – not talking about Manifesto, just a woman preparing breakfast, something that a normal narration would never depict. It’s not transporting anything, so maybe 10 seconds and CUT! Action, action, action, action. I try to break that and experiment a lot with pace and different perspectives, different angles.
Is the film itself a manifesto?
For me it is, absolutely. And that’s why I’m so happy that is out there in different forms now. It is a compilation of manifestos, but it has this manifesto energy. I also feel it in the reactions. Of course it’s contextualized like many films here. All of a sudden, they become descriptions of our time and what’s going on in the world – encouraging people to go against populism and stupidity. Although Manifesto is brainy and a hard text even for me, and I probably know them all by heart now, I think it’s a lesson in various things.
On one side, it encourages you, if you are creative, to go on. It shows you that artists can be seismographs of their time with a utopian kind of prophetic view on life. They can’t prove what they say, but they risk saying it and speak it loud with intelligence. That’s what makes them so different from the stupid populists of our times, right? They are speaking up, but with something to say or use such a poetic language that there’s space enough to read it in a new way. It’s a lesson in political articulation as well and encouragement to listen to artist.
And also showing that education – we should all be aware that what’s going on in the world is a result of allowing too much media monopolists to take over power and brainwash our country’s population. If you want to change something, you have to be aware of where to invest.
I think that’s why it’s so neat that Manifesto is coming out as a feature film – it’s democratizing the work.
But both of us know that if you buy a ticket for such a film, you probably already have education and read about it before. But that’s another audience.
But when you have Cate Blanchett, maybe you have people browsing on iTunes or Netflix, see her face, and stop to watch.
Then you have people click on it and say, “What?!”
You talked about how a lot of these manifestos are inspiring, but you also chose to include movements like Futurism, which I remember were favorites of far-right wing populists of the 20th century.
They actually sympathized with fascism later. There’s a lot of potential danger in manifestos in this arrogance of saying, “Down with, down with, down with!” In that case, there was also the time, and there was certain danger in it. But evidently, these energies have to be a manifesto, too, the potential manipulative danger in these texts.
This is going out there – but what manifestos do you think are going to come out of this time now, good or bad?
I definitely think that manifesto will have a rebirth in this time of populists because it’s the right answer, or one of the right answers. I used to say when I was interviewed that manifestos are a little bit outdated because there are so many possibilities to say what you want to say – blogs, interviews, podium discussions. There are manifestos that are not in Manifesto – but are really important manifestos. There are also political manifestos, and I tried to focus only on visual artists, architects and filmmakers.
I can’t tell you what’s going to be in these manifestos. There will certainly be manifestos. I hope so.
We talked a little bit about Cate Blanchett before – I’m sure her stature made this a lot easier to get made, but was there anything else you thought she brought to this role that no one else could? Besides her incredible talent.
Yeah, witch power!
There is something in her doing that is hard to describe and hard to understand. There is something almost inhabiting her when she works. She has this genius thing in her, but there is something else that overwhelms her when she’s acting. I don’t think I’ve seen it elsewhere. I mean, just imagine that she did these thirteen characters in eleven days [the length of Manifesto’s abbreviated shooting schedule]. We did half of the homeless man and the newsreader in one day, of which she probably spent five hours in the makeup van. And then she does that with a Scottish accent here, a CNN accent there – there’s something about it that’s hard to understand.
She has such a versatility, but when I think back to her past roles, I don’t associate her iconography with a single role.
Exactly. Tilda Swinton is often mentioned together with her, but I think Tilda is a little more arty, ambivalent. I think she’s [Cate] more versatile. But I think it’s almost more fun because it’s almost caricatures. Some of them are very precise and calm, like the teacher is brilliantly observed. Others are probably more like the choreographer, the punk lady, the homeless man, they’re classical offers to let go and exaggerate something to play with it.