Photo © Gerd Kroske
Gerd Kroske: On the Making of La Villette
How did the film come about? Why were you chosen to direct La Villette?
I came to my film La Villette like “Hans in Luck” in the fairy tale. It was late fall 1989: director Jürgen Böttcher was filming his documentary Die Mauer (The Wall), for which I was the assistant director and dramaturg. We were a few reels short on 35mm Fujifilm material, which we needed to film through the evening and night during the momentous fall of the Wall. So we had an appointment with the management of the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films to discuss the issue. Beforehand in the cafeteria, the cinematographer Thomas Plenert begged us to get “at least three reels” out of them.
At the meeting we were greeted by more or less the entire administration—Studio Director Heinz Rüsch, Economic Director Horst Gäbler, and head of the document film team, Manfred Burger. Jürgen Böttcher had a brilliant day with this group. He approached it as “all or nothing” and asked for twelve reels of film instead of three. The administrators moaned and groaned. I looked at Böttcher and thought, “now he’s gone crazy!” As the economic director calculated it, the request was absurd and hopeless: twelve reels of Fujifilm was almost an entire year’s worth of material at the studio. Fuji or Kodak, that meant foreign currency! West German marks that weren’t readily available to the studio.
Böttcher was brimming over with energy and, for a moment, there was a small chance we might get the film material we’d ask for. In exchange, the studio management expected the film would be ready by February, so it could be shown at the 1990 Berlin International Film Festival. But a sense of confusion arose when we said we wouldn’t have a lot of time to film in January, because Jürgen Böttcher, Thomas Plenert and I had received an invitation to an exhibit at La Villette in Paris. Neither the studio management, nor the Ministry of Culture knew about the exhibit at that point.
It was the studio director who came up with the idea that we should film in Paris. A name was dropped and Jürgen Böttcher and I looked at each other briefly. We must have had the same thought. The economic director was convinced immediately: “If Böttcher, Plenert and Kroske are already invited to Paris, we would only need a sound person, assistant cameraman and unit manager to have a complete team on site. The expenses would be minimal because half the team has already been invited by the French.“ We left the meeting not only with a promise of twelve reels of Fujifilm for our film, but also an agreement that Jürgen Böttcher and the team would shoot a film about the La Villette exhibition in Paris.
One week before we were to leave for Paris, Böttcher told me he didn’t have time to shoot the film, because the exhibit curators had arranged for two huge canvases he could work on there as the painter Strawalde. “Finally, LARGE PAINTINGS! Do you know what this means for me?” With, of all things, a quote from Walter Ulbricht—“Young people, have courage!”— Böttcher made it clear that I couldn’t back out. And if I had any questions during shooting, I could ask him any time; he’d be close by. My objections and then refusal were pointless. Meanwhile the situation had gotten complicated, as we couldn’t have cancelled the project at the DEFA Studio on such short notice. So we took off and left everyone under the impression that we were perfectly well-prepared to film at La Villette.
The exhibit was pulled together on very short notice, almost over night, for the two hundred participating artists, as well as you. At the end, you did take over directing the film in Paris. How did you prepare for the project?
I had made all the preparations in Berlin, but they were for Böttcher. There‘s a difference if you’re conceiving of a film for yourself, or if you’re doing research and preparations for another director. So the preparations weren’t that great for my own film. Although I did know who was invited and I had contacts with some of the participants. I knew Hanns Schimansky, for example, from the painters’ group in Weissensee, where I lived. And the rock bands Sandow and AG Geige were part of my extended circle of friends. I got a lot of information through Christoph Tannert.
Otherwise, the preparations for the exhibition had a slightly “conspiratorial” feel, because everything was being organized without the GDR Ministry of Culture and the names of the participants stayed more or less secret. To be honest, I was much more concerned about producing a good film. Looking back, I think I would have felt much better in the role of assitant director. Böttcher had thrown me into the deep end, and I have to be grateful for that. But at first I was angry, because I was so blindsided.
What was the atmosphere like at La Villette when you arrived? How did you feel about being in Paris only three months after the Wall opened?
Our arrival was already bizarre. Our film team traveled with the 35mm film equipment on one of the interzone-trains to Dortmund [in West Germany]; there, the Documentary Studio had arranged for a DKP (German Communist Party) cameraman to meet us at the train station and give us a car (an Audi) and film. The man seemed somewhat taken aback when he greeted us (at the time) young people at the station with the Audi and film; he had long been used to meeting older filmmakers who would then film with him in West Germany. When we returned the car, he was in the hospital with a heart attack—that’s how the fall of the Wall affected him.
The arrival in Paris was terrific for us, the atmosphere very stimulating. At La Villette, they were still setting up the exhibition and we filmed some of it. Other than that, we explored Paris high and low and elatedly soaked it all up. I don’t remember sleeping much. The city lights were magnificent, day and night. After shooting we postponed our departure three times, always staying just one more day, until we couldn’t find any more excuses to stay.
Jürgen Böttcher/Strawalde is featured heavily in several scenes in your film. We see him singing Wolf Biermann songs, painting. What was the reason for that? How did you select the artists who appeared in your film?
In those years, Jürgen Böttcher didn’t have a studio. He painted medium-sized works in a room in his apartment in Friedrichsfelde. It’s this room you see as La Villette opens. The French had promised to procure large canvases so he could paint at La Villette. Most of the artists in the exhibition presented finished works. Only a few staged live “actions”—live performances or installations—in Paris; Kurt Buchwald, for example, performed Fotografieren verboten (Photography Not Allowed) at the Eiffel Tower, which I unfortunately missed. The film wasn’t supposed to be just about the exhibition; everything taking place over and above it was also of interest. And if you know Jürgen Böttcher—and I knew him very well—you are aware of his active need to openly express what’s driving him. So it was clear to me that the creation of one of his large paintings belonged in the film. Because he also painted at night, it also gave the film a dramatic time frame.
In general, the selection of works and artists was very difficult, and I knew we couldn’t show everything. The selection is subjective and most probably not fair. Given the huge amount of art that was there, even presenting a cross section was hard. Later a few of the artists were offended that they weren’t in the film. But that I could deal with. There was also envy regarding the selection of who got invited to go to Paris.
You combined your film material with historical footage from Georges Franju’s 1949 documentary, Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts).
Georges Franju is one of my favorite directors, and I really liked this film, which had to do with the same place as the exhibition was held in. I came across it reading Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film, in which he compares Franju’s film about the La Villette slaughterhouses to documentaries made about Nazi camps . . . in order to examine “to what extent the same methodical nature of institutional death and the same geometric organization of space [prevailed] in both places.”
I wasn’t looking for this comparison, however. At first I was interested in original photos of the slaughterhouse, but I later became interested in Franju’s film, whose images and commentary struck a different tone. It’s fact that all places have a former life; and at times during the exhibit I had the impression that the works of art were being led to the slaughterhouse of the West’s absurd art market.
It is intriguing that you included texts from Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror) by Comte de Lautréamont. To my mind, these texts create a nuanced time capsule of this unique art event. How did you come upon this text and why did you use it in your documentary?
I came across de Lautréamont for the fist time in a text by André Breton and then in an edition by Soupault (who made him known). Lautréamont’s text reflected perfectly the subjectively morbid and somewhat surreal atmosphere of the last days of the GDR. This atmosphere had also reached La Villete in a majority of the pieces on exhibit. The Parisians were sometimes shocked by all the blood and raw meat used by the Autoperforation Artists, or in Jörg Knöfel’s slaughterhouse photographs.
Lautréamont’s text conveys this time capsule in Paris through the sudden encounter of contents; I thought the text and exhibition would be worthy counterparts for one another. It is really worth reading The Songs at least once through!
In the final credits of the film you thank the internationally-known documentary filmmaker Helke Misselwitz (Winter Adé). How much was she involved in your work?
She provided helpful advice and support for the film. At the same time we were working closely together on the script for the documentary Sperrmüll (Bulky Waste, 1990). In the process we shared our thoughts on approaches to work and the search for an aesthetic.
The cameraman Thomas Plenert has worked with Jürgen Böttcher on many films, including his experimental trilogy, Verwandlungen (Transformations, 1981). Your documentary includes a scene that looks like a reference to this work. I guess you met Plenert while working on Die Mauer (The Wall). Could you please say something about your collaboration and Plenert’s involvement in the film?
Yes, you’re surely thinking of the balcony scene in the rain. This view is in Böttcher’s Verwandlungen. Of course we knew it (after all, Plenert had shot these films) and the quotation positively pressed itself upon us. There are so few films that . . . or rather, that’s what makes film history: the citations, the creation of cross references, finding and then creating a direct connection by means of a quotation. Yes, necessarily a respectful quotation!
Thomas Plenert got involved in the film by chance, like I did. Our collaboration was very solidary, because he hardly had to think about resolutions or optical conversions anymore. But I did. We always checked in about how to close a scene, where to shoot, etc., and then tried to find a good balance between “tension” (shooting) and “relaxation” (exploring Paris). Looking back, I remember it as a cheerful synthesis, a very electrifying atmosphere.
The film was not shown for almost twenty years and, sadly enough, almost forgotten. Why?
Although the GDR Ministry of Culture was not involved in organizing the exhibition, they ended up paying for the film as though it had been commissioned. This arrangement was cooked up by Studio Director Heinz Rüsch, who was always finding shrewd ways to get money. But this then meant that the film had to pass through the ministry’s regular approval process. I think the approval meeting took place in April 1990. It ended in an uproar , because the ministry people were fulminating against the de Lautréamont text and the idea that you were virtually taking a subway ride from Montmartre to East Berlin. There was a lot of shouting. Jürgen Böttcher stood by me heroically. We didn’t want to keep being told what to do anymore. At the height of the argument, we left the room.
The film was shown once in Berlin at the invitation of the French Cultural Center and then disappeared. In 1991, I discovered the 35mm print in a dumpster at the DEFA Documentary Studio and took it home. After several moves, it ended up in my basement, where it sat for a long time. I came across the film print again when I was clearing out the cellar to give various materials and film prints to the Federal Archive for storage in 2010.
In early 2010 the arthouse cinema Brotfabrik, in Berlin, re-discovered your film and screened it. How did you feel about seeing your film after so many years?
Claus Löser from the Brotfabrik was concurrently looking for the film to re-release it. He had only tracked down a poor quality Betacam. It was surprising to discover that the print in my basement was apparently well preserved. There was no mildew and it was a technically brilliant print. I was really surprised and had expected it to be worse.
Other than that, as a director you never feel that your film is finished enough. And I can see where I was aesthetically: at the very beginning. At the same time I found I liked the raw look of the film. It was a remarkable filmic encounter. Because a lot of your own stories and memories are burned into the material as well.
Reading the reviews of this 2010 screening, it seems many film critics suggested making a follow-up documentary about the featured artists. What do you think of this idea?
Yes, this idea did come up after the re-release. I am currently researching how the exhibition came about. Because there are a few myths circulating about the role of the French co-curator, Maurice Najman, who was friends with Markus Wolf until his death. In addition, I’m interested in how some of the featured artists developed thereafter, while others gave up, which could also be a good way to convey the period since the Wende. The DEFA Foundation has supported this research, and if I find further sources of financing I’ll definitely make the film.
 Filmmaker Jürgen Böttcher paints under the pseudonym Strawalde.
 Walter Ulbricht was the head of the SED and leader of the GDR from 1950 to 1971.
 Interzonenzug was the official term for a train that ran between the “zones” of West and East Germany.
 The Deutsche Kommunistische Partei (DKP) was a West German political party.
 The Eiffel Tower is in a different part of Paris from La Villette.
 The French writer Philippe Soupault discovered a copy of the The Songs of Maldorer and introduced it to the French Surrealists.
 Markus Wolf was the head of East Germany’s Central Office for Intelligence at the Ministry of State Security (Stasi).
This written interview was conducted by Hiltrud Schulz, DEFA Film Library, in July 2012.
NB: The DEFA Film Library subtitled La Villette in English and director Gerd Kroske presented and discussed the film at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on November 9, 2011. This event was part of the DEFA Film Library’s Film+Art+Jazz program in celebration of Jürgen Böttcher/Strawalde’s 80th birthday.