Under the Sun:
An Interview with Helena Wittmann
By Forrest Cardamenis
When I prompted Helena Wittmann to consider how her films lead viewers to reckon with their inclination to narrativize information, she invoked Michael Snow. Recalling the late artist, whose Wavelength is central to her own 2017 feature debut, Drift, Wittmann mused, “Time passes, things happen, we know that, but we don't know what to make of it; that’s really something that interests me. What doesn’t interest me so much is constructing a narrative in the sense that it leads to some specific place.”
This approach is clear in her latest feature Human Flowers of Flesh, whose dense sound mix and editing patterns prioritize the exploration of space over the conveyance of narrative information. That interpretive freedom takes root even amid a cornucopia of symbolically charged motifs—the ocean, France’s Foreign Legion, desert expanses, and more—which, transformed by the film into something more material, seem to have their metaphorical properties both stripped and intensified. They no longer exist as clichés, but as matter, soaking up meaning anew.
Reverse Shot: The musician Nika Son is the credited sound designer on both of your features and almost all your shorts. Tell me how you started to collaborate and how you work together.
Helena Wittmann: We started because we shared a studio, and that started in 2009. It was one room. She came from painting originally, but she had just begun to work with sound, and I was doing my films and videos and editing. I was witnessing her process of how she would get into sound work and music and, and the same, the other way around. So, at one point, during The Wild, I asked her if she would be interested in doing the sound. I already had very clear ideas, but I knew immediately that sound was something we could do together. It's very special if you have someone who you don't need to talk to so much in order to understand each other. And we really have the same interest in the relation between sound and image. She works a lot with concrete sounds, for example. And I'm always coming from the concrete.
RS: What's it like when you get on set?
HW: Since Drift, Nika has also recorded the sound. We decided that we want to do it like that, because she's collecting a whole archive of sounds. So, in my scripts, I already write what we hear. And very often it's not just the original sound, or it could be the original sound, but altered. Then we talk about the spaces. We shoot, and she records the sounds—and more, of course. When it comes to editing, it's also not typical. We don't do a picture lock where she then starts with the sound. She starts before. Sometimes I even ask her for sketches, and then I will react with the editing to this work.
RS: There is a scene right at the beginning of Human Flowers where they're at the portside bar in Marseille, and the sound—I don't even know if I'm actually hearing it, but there is a bit of music very low in the mix. Tell me how that scene came together.
HW: It was written with this kind of atmosphere and the sounds we hear. You have these voices, some condense into a conversation, and then it disappears again, coming and going. Because it's an outside bar, we hear the surroundings. This was all in the script. And there is a shift within the scene, where time passes, and that has to be reflected in the sound, always as subtly as possible. And then I wanted music also. When I say, “Okay, I want music,” I sometimes have examples or something I could imagine, but it’s never concrete. And then Nika comes in and we try things out. The first time, the music was too foregrounded, and it didn’t work. And now, you're right, it is minimal. Most people, I think, don't even hear it consciously; they feel it first.
RS: In [your 2014 short] 21.3°C, I got the impression at first that it was all recorded on site, but as I watched I thought instead that maybe the entire soundtrack is composed. Is it?
HW: Yes. And this is an example of how we like to work. I don't like films where everything is imposed on you. I like that it still feels organic, but we hear the sounds that I want to hear. The construction site, for example, is really important. We never see it, but you know from the sound something is changing.
RS: And what about the image?
HW: I had one week in this place. I installed the camera, and it stayed there for the whole week. Theresa [George, co-star of Drift] and I would also stay there, from the very early morning to the night, always. And I don't remember now how many, but I had a limited number of rolls [of film]. I knew I wanted different lighting. We were lucky because that week we had rain and sun; we had everything that we wanted. Then we have this bunch of flowers. They’re very common flowers that you can easily purchase, but they also hint at different seasons. Sometimes it was very clear that I had to shoot. And it was beautiful staying there. People think maybe you’d get bored or something, it's just this room. And actually, it was so intense and very exciting.
RS: I was struck by the sequence in Drift when the film first gets taken over by water. At first we hear just water, and then we hear the sound of water and music, and then we just hear music for quite a while. Can you tell me about putting that together?
HW: I always knew that I wanted to have a sequence only with the sea, but I never knew if it was possible. The most problematic parts were the transitions between letting Theresa go and then getting back to her again. Sound plays a big role in making it work. When we see Theresa for the last time in her cabin on the boat, there is some light that goes over her, sunlight that just moves very quickly. And there you hear something with the light. When I saw the image there was no sound, but I always imagined a sound going with the light. And then we go from the most concrete sounds of the sea to more and more manipulated and then completely synthetic sounds. When we were on the sea, we had this very naive idea that we could record the ocean without the human in it, but of course the boat was always there. So thinking about this, we realized that we had to build it, we had to imagine it in a way that makes it clear that it's not the ocean, that it's our ocean.
RS: The other music cue in Drift that jumps out to me is the Donny & Joe Emerson song “Baby,” at the end. How did you settle on that?
HW: Very intuitively. I had everything edited, the whole film, except the final scene. I knew the ending was missing and I didn't know how it would end, but I knew it would come. And that's what happened. It was in the studio I'm sharing with Theresa. We were sitting there and listening to music. It was late at night, and we were working on something. At some point I wanted to hear this song. And I asked her to play, and then asked, to play it again and again. It was on loop, and then I had this idea for this scene. And I said to Theresa, "I think I got it, let's listen to the song." I put on Wavelength just from YouTube, just to explain what I was thinking about. So, it was really something. But when I talk about intuition, of course you always have the knowledge in your head.
RS: One of the shots that really blows me away in Human Flowers is the shot where the camera is very low, and there are waves out in the distance and the sun is setting, so as the waves come up and down the horizon is shifting. How did you manage to get that shot?
HW: We had 15 days on the boat, but I didn't know if I would shoot a sunset at all. I think one day I was actually sitting there without the camera and watching this phenomenon. With this shot you understand that we are moving, that the Earth is round. It includes so much more than just this romantic idea of a sunset. I don't think I got it the next day because I also wanted a clear sky, but I saw it before I shot it and had a plan.
RS: When did you become interested in the ocean?
HW: It’s a funny story. I had to find some old images and found this old folder on my computer. Inside were some photographs of snowy landscapes. I did a series of photographs in Austria many years ago, and the whole landscape was covered in snow. Somehow they really caught my interest, but I didn't know why, or what it was about these, other than that they were beautiful, but that was not enough. I tried to find out, and somehow I got to the sea. I can't even explain why. Because this snow had changed the space in the landscape so much, I wanted to understand the ocean as a space. Everything about the sea was all about metaphor and discourses, but somehow nothing was about just how it is as a space and how we perceive it. So, I said, "Okay, I'll go there."
RS: You have a very international cast. Is that just the nature of film production and funding these days, or did you seek this from the beginning?
HW: Until now, I've never had to make compromises. I think it's not right. The production has to follow the project, and I need very little, because I do so much on my own. For the cast, many of them I found along the way, when I was researching. Some of the roles I had written for the people that appear. Many of them are non-actors, but nobody among them really acts in the film; Denis [Lavant] is the only one, because I wanted him to, for this role. But Angeliki [Papoulia], for example, is not acting because I was so interested in her as a person and in her presence as a real person and not so much in her acting, even though she's a great actress. And I knew I wanted someone from Algeria, because I wanted the language.
We waited one year to shoot [in Algeria]. That was the most we could do. I said, "Okay, let's wait. I will edit. I have enough to do. Maybe we can go next year." And it didn't work. We tried everything, but we had to do “plan B” in Morocco. It was not so easy, but I always knew if we had to do it, I would accept it. I just don't like to work against anything. It's always more like, if I have to leave something, it's for something else. It also inscribes the process of production, the problems of production, this moment, this reality, into the film. It marks it, and it tells about its geopolitical situation, and I think the film is so much about this region, so that adds something. Also, it was the first place in the world where I couldn't enter as a European. And this is, I think, the reality for more than probably 90% of the population in this world. They can't just go where they want. So, we have to be humble.
RS: What did you find in the desert?
HW: I will go back to the desert. I found something, but there's enough unknown that I still don't know, and that's why I need to go. But one thing that is for sure, which wasn't so clear to me, is this fluidity of the desert. It's shifting and transforming. If you fast forward on your computer, it's pretty amazing, you can see how during the [final] shot I'm moving with the camera. But the desert also has, of course, other things, so I need to go deeper into that.