I would like to begin by asking you about your history. What it is that you do today, and how did you come to engage with the archive?
I am the curator (in collaboration with other people) of an organization that was founded in 2000. It is now our fifteenth anniversary. It is called the Kinothek Asta Nielsen [Frankfurt], after the great Danish actress, whom we consider to be very important in the history of cinema and the cinema of women [figure 2]. I'm responsible for programming and related events.
How did you decide to do this? You said you started fifteen years ago.
The idea came up at the end of the '80s, when we realized that a lot of feminist filmmaking and the filmmaking of the new women's movement was lost. You know, even in 1989–90, it was difficult, for example, to do a retrospective of Elfi Mikesch films or films from the early 1980s. So we thought that before it all got lost, we should start an initiative to not only collect or archive the material, but also to keep alive the history of that very, very important phase of filmmaking in the Federal Republic of Germany. This was also important, of course, internationally.
How did you go about collecting? This was in the 1980s; did you already have some materials?
No. I remember that I had a conversation with the now-producer Ulrike Zimmermann in 1989, and we founded the Kinothek in the year 2000. So it's been a long process. And our main objective was not to collect films ourselves but to instigate the archive's look into that really problematic area and see to it that these films were being saved or restored. There is still a lot of work to do. We did not want to compete with big archives. We are more oriented toward collaborating and getting together with other institutions to realize projects.
Did you begin by suggesting to archives what they might program? How did you even begin that process?
When I say “archive” and our “archival work,” I mean living archives, so to speak. We are interested in the imaginary archive and museum collective, in the consciousness and memory of film and cinema. Our main interest is in showing films and taking them to audiences and, in that sense, keeping the history of cinema alive. However, in order to be able to show films, you also have to encourage archives to invest in restorations that otherwise might not happen. I mean—it is a bit notorious—but I should mention Asta Nielsen [again]. She was one of the really important figures shaping the concept of cinema in the 1910s and developing an aesthetic of the cinema.
Her work was totally neglected when we wanted to do a retrospective in 2005. So we had to get together with archives on an international level, with FIAF [International Federation of Film] Archives, which instigated restorations and looked for materials. I am very happy to be able to say that material was found, that restorations were made. Luckily, at that time, the footage of the famous Hamlet film turned up, [and we were able to include] that very beautiful restoration in our program. And then we were able to show everything that, to our knowledge at the time, had survived of Asta Nielsen's work. So this was a big effort. We could not have done the restorations, of course, but we could encourage the archives [to do them] and explain to them that there is an interest. Actually, this retrospective was very successful. We could get Arte1 to commission compositions for two films, which in that version were then also broadcast. [One was a composition] by the Dutch pianist and composer Maud Nelissen. So this is how you can keep the history of cinema rolling, in a way, without having to be a material archive yourself. We wouldn't have the means, of course, so networking and cooperation are the key to the work.
You began, as you were saying, by realizing that the work of women filmmakers and feminist work of the 1970s were disappearing, and then you moved back [into early cinema]. How did you move back historically? Obviously, you called yourselves Kinothek Asta Nielsen, but how did you move back into the teens? Was it specifically about recuperating women? Was it about film history itself? What was the motivation?
Our aim is to bring the history of women in cinema—both in front of and behind the camera—to an audience. [We also want] to look at gender roles/gender relations in the cinema. We are not interested “only” in the work of women, but we are interested in how the history of cinema, and also, of course, in contemporary cinema today, how women are dealt with. We are interested in how they appear, what their image is. A group of women—and also men, I must say: Martin Loiperdinger, Wilhelm Roth other people—got together and founded the Kinothek. And obviously different interests informed this enterprise.
At the beginning of the 1990s, we could look back on a few years of rediscovery in the early cinema. This, of course, was an eye-opener to the public and to film scholars. Also, our work is very closely linked to a feminist film magazine that has been in existence since 1974, Frauen und Film [Women and Film]. The interest of various people who worked in these different areas came together. This is how we also showed or developed this interest in early cinema, because it was a very, very important phase for women working in that field. Their contribution was rather unknown to a wide public. I mean, how much effort got put into the restoration of the German cinema of the 1920s—all [by] males? How many versions do we have of restorations of Metropolis? It is a repetition of the canon. What was also there—and which might have been as important as these so-called masterpieces—was neglected. We thought we should look into that. I will name a few female filmmakers: Asta Nielsen, Lois Weber, Alice Guy. Guy was totally unknown—we did an Alice Guy retrospective, I think, four years ago. Even when I talked to colleagues of mine (male colleagues, female colleagues), I'd say, “Alice Guy,” and it was like a repetition of the famous phrase that Alice Guy herself coined: “Alice qui?” (Who is she?).
There are still discoveries to be made. We also have an interest in contributing to a history of women's cinema that is close to reality, and not to the canon that is being repeated.
But to get back to your question about the 1970s: the first big show we did in 2000 [in Frankfurt] was called “Frau Kino”—“Madame Cinema,” you could say. We looked at work from the beginning to the contemporary day. We did a very nice publication with it, which was a special edition of Frauen und Film, [in order to] open this [film] up as a fan, to show what is in it and what constitutes its different parts. We started from there.
Doing this work is always enabled by the mixture of the possibilities you have and the openness of your partners, as well as access to money, of course. We are a nonprofit, moderately subsidized, publicly funded institution. We have to fight for money, apply for money, every year. So it is not easy to plan for the long term. Some projects are very expensive. “Asta Nielsen” was about 120,000 euros, if you add all the costs. You have to raise that money. So we do a mixture of various things.
We never neglected the history of cinema. It is very rewarding to bring these films to an audience, to a young audience. We always try to combine things with seminars at the university. Heide Schlüpmann, who is one of the cofounders [of the Kinothek], was teaching at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. We always tried to combine her teaching with showing films. The students were part of the process. They could do internships. That is very rewarding, to show a film from 1910 or 1912 and to have ninety seats in the cinema, and fifty [of these are occupied by] people between the ages of twenty and thirty. They realize that these films are not just like an old discarded coat, some kind of moth-ridden material, but still have relevance today. So this is why we do it, really. It is not to “unmoth” Asta Nielsen or some other star. That is not interesting at all. We are not cinephiles. [Film] should be more vivid and more in motion.
A lot of it what you do is thinking about history differently, and also about how to bring this to an audience.
Yes, I think that is the really important point. How do you bring [film] to an audience? We have reached a point where all this material is in decay, and people want to freeze it for five hundred years. I don't know what happens in five hundred years. I am not interested. I would rather show a print until it dies in the eyes of the audience or in the projector. Because then it stays in their mind and so continues. Store it forever? Put it away? What is the use of that?
In terms of the actual prints, have you seen a change? I mean, getting programs out during the change to digital, during this [technological] shift. You were talking about “Frau Kino,” which was around 2000, and then the founding of the Kinothek, so you started this focused work at the very moment that practices were changing. Could you comment about that?
Digitization poses great difficulty for a programmer for various reasons. At the beginning, when you had all these different digital formats, it was incredibly expensive, for example, to do a program of short films from the teens to the '30s or '50s. Films were digitized on Betacam or on U-matic, and you had to get different machines for the one program because there was no uniformity, no compatibility. You had to take what you got.
Were you still using prints?
We still do use prints. We have a collection of prints, thank God. I love to project. We have a very good 16mm projector that can also take silent speeds. We have a lot of silent film. But there are various difficulties. First, there is the problem of money, because people say it is so much cheaper to ship a DVD or to ship U-matic. But then you have to hire a machine that costs you five hundred euros for eight minutes in order to project these materials. We end up doing a short film program of ninety minutes that costs a thousand euros. Ridiculous. You can't do that.
Second, a lot of the stuff, of course, does not get digitized because nobody cares. They do not digitize, for example, Super 8 work unless it is acknowledged as “art.” And experimental cinema—who cares? If archives and film history do not care so much or have no consciousness of the importance of the work of Su Friedrich or Abigail Child or whoever—
Then you don't have access—
—then you don't have access, and it gets lost. It is also difficult—and in a way it has to do with the digital—because a lot of films moved into this field of “art.” Galleries, yes? With the consequence that the actual object, the celluloid, become the art object. This situation is, of course, ridiculous.
I would say, as a film historian, that the film museum or the archive was, traditionally, that [gallery] space. And what you are saying, interestingly, is that the shift to digital is the point at which film became part—concretely—of that gallery space precisely because of the change to digital.
Yes. Well, celluloid became the object. You nail it to the wall, and you hang it there, and it becomes very expensive. But I still think that you should always try to present film in the cinema. The cinema is the space where film can best be seen. I am not saying that it can't be shown in a gallery, but as with other things, there is always a best way to present or handle something. And this should be our objective.
Some films moved into art exhibitions and galleries and got digitized. But the consciousness of the people showing that work—their knowledge [of film and film history]—was deplorable. Maybe they did not want to know. It must have happened to you, that you've seen films projected (by [László] Moholy-Nagy, for example) in a completely different format in exhibition. You go there, and you say, “You have to change the lens.” And they look at you and think, “Where is the lunatic asylum? What is this person talking about?” You see films without heads. This is the problem: the awareness of the quality of the presentation. This may all change for the better, but at the moment this is very much in transition.
And you still feel that now as a programmer?
The next step [or problem] is that you don't get prints anymore, even if they are there, because now you can get digital format. The distributors, for example, do not care about schlepping a 35mm print to you. They say, “Oh, no, we don't have one.” This just happened to us here in the Kinothek—we showed a beautiful, “nonexistent” print, 35mm, of a film by Todd Haynes, Velvet Goldmine . The distributor said, “The print is in really bad nick.” So the guy I work with at the cinema, who I am collaborating with, said, “Just send the print anyway. We'll check it.” It was a perfect print; it was a beautiful print. It was shown in the cinema. The sound was unbelievable. It is such a beautiful film. And the colors! I would still say that I have hardly seen a digital restoration of a color film where the colors come really close to the celluloid.
I am not nostalgic; I am just looking. I've seen a digital restoration of Il conformista [The Conformist, Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970]. I could not believe how bad it was. So the distributors said they did not have a print of Velvet Goldmine, but we showed the film. The student cinema here also wanted to show the film and got in touch with the distributor. They said no, we don't have a print anymore. See, it is a very stupid process. …
And what is behind all this is sheer economic interest. I do not know why the film world submits to this, or the other arts. They are like lemmings, all jumping off cliffs. [Lemmings] don't do that these days; they are adorable animals [laughs]; it is a myth. But the film world nevertheless says we have to do this. Why? What I am arguing for—I have gone a bit astray—is to have a hybrid concept of film. Where you show digital format, of course, because it is unavoidable, but you also show 35mm, 16mm, and Super 8.
I think this kind of argument becomes all the more profound precisely because of “women's cinema.” When you think historically about the '70s, it becomes more acute, perhaps, in the kinds of cinema you might be more actively looking at. What about the kind of issues we might have around a topic we were discussing before [we began this interview]: gray matter or gray history?2 Could you comment about the kinds of materials you have around the films? A lot of archivists have been saying that these “other” materials, such as ephemera, production notes, and advice manuals, are also significant.
They are very important. To understand the context in which feminist filmmaking and the new women's movement in the 1970s evolved, it is important to look at what was done in the field of criticism and festivals. There is a lot of material. It helps to understand the historical period if you also look at this material. We have a big collection that comes from various sources. It was my personal collection, which I am very happy to make available to the public—
When did you start that? How did you even start that? I don't happen to have a personal collection, so how …?
I went to the first feminist film festival in Copenhagen. It was one of the first festivals worldwide, I think. Organized by the Red Stockings Collective.
When was that?
In 1974. I think I kept the leaflets. I kept all these things because, at a very early stage, I also started to write about film. I also got engaged with Frauen und Film at the end of the '70s, and it is always good to be able to turn back to texts. I think historical texts that were written at the time are also very helpful. So we have this collection, and now people are getting older (as we do!) and moving to other places, so huge packages arrive in the mail from different libraries.
So people actually send—
—they send us material. At the moment, we have raised some money to be able to view what we have got, to put it in a computer, and, in a later step, hopefully to digitize and put it on the Internet. I have to say, though, that this is information, content. It is lovely to look at the physical materials, however, because you can see this rapid development, technical development, in how you reproduce things. In 1974, [they had a machine that] I don't know if you have ever heard of. It was like a pasta machine; something called Matrize/n.3 It was complicated, but it was a technical process where things were reproduced by hand. When we used this machine, there was a very nice noise and a very nice smell. All of this fades now. Then you had the photocopying machines. That was new. It was like a revolution. We did not have a fax machine, even when I worked for the Oberhausen festival in the 1980s. At the beginning, [documents and criticism] were typed, like in an old Western movie, tick-tick-tick. I think it is also part of doing historical research, to be able to look at these technological developments. You have to put much more effort into physically typing and transcribing a ninety-minute film, you know, than you would today using digital media.
I know that in the Asta Nielsen research, it must be enormously helpful to look at all the cinema papers and journals being digitized. The irony, for me, is that it is much easier to research materials around silent film—this kind of gray matter—than it might be for [materials from] some other, more recent decades. Your materials are not yet digitized, are they?
No, not yet. But we will try to digitize them.
Eventually that would be a searchable database. But the problem is that you have no sense of scale, do you? It is hard to distinguish between the essential and the merely interesting.
No, that is one problem. And another thing: [when you are] in a library and looking at the, say, twenty-year bound volumes of a magazine. You get tempted. You are not focused only on what you want to find—you just roam through, and you find other things. It is kind of leisurely, an attitude in research that I think has become totally lost because we do not have the time. It makes a difference. I don't want to evaluate that, but it makes a difference.
The one thing that digital access has in its favor is that it is very important that people have access. You can't travel from Melbourne to Frankfurt to go get a few leaflets. Digitization is very good for you. But, at the same time, the idea of a library where you have material access is also, I think, very important, and it becomes less and less available to us.
That kind of material access would relate, in a sense, to how important programming is in terms of getting together to look at material. It is about that kind of sense of community, too, looking in a different way, in a leisurely way.
Yes. There is also one other thing. We own a manuscript of one of Asta Nielsen's novels, which she typed on her typewriter. I can show it to you [figures 3, 4]. You can sense the person behind it because she worked with a red pen; it is all scratches and changes. That is lovely; it is in the paper. The paper is soft, and if you go hard with a pen, you can see that. So there is all this energy and everything in it, like in a film where the surface has been scratched. The experience with the material is totally different, and I think you should be able to have both experiences so that you don't throw away [one]. …
I mean, everybody knows that ten years ago, film restorations were not as good. You did not have the possibilities that we have today. Yet the Bundesarchiv, the Federal Archive, they had one of the few surviving color prints of an Asta Nielsen film, which came from her estate through the Rochester archive. This is because there was this effort to send home national treasures. The Bundesarchiv made a restoration of that film. In dem großen Augenblick [The Great Moment, 1911], it is called. It has a lot of red in it, which is the most difficult color to reproduce digitally. And they made the restoration and destroyed the nitrate print. Great! Today a better restoration could be made. Isn't it ridiculous? You are storing all this atomic litter, and then you say nitrate is dangerous to store.4
That is true. What you are doing now in terms of programming? You have talked about your Nielsen work. …
We got very interested in queer cinema and also early queer films. Look at the beautiful Alice Guy dance of the two women, this beautiful color piece [Au bal de flore].5 And, of course, it is not only the obvious that is interesting, but also what is sous la peau, under the skin. Our interest is—and has been increasingly over the last fifteen, twenty years—to bring together, in one program, one bigger program of early cinema and recent cinema and different forms of cinema. We did a beautiful retrospective, with the support of many people, of the work of the American underground filmmaker Jack Smith [in 2012].6 We combined his work with the work of Germaine Dulac and other films in order to have the whole stage. Because things are happening at the same time, they are also happening earlier, so we wanted the public to see that kind of tapestry.
There are other archivists that I have been speaking with—Giovanna [Fossati] and Elif [Rongen-Kaynakçi], and I will talk with Bryony [Dixon] next week. Do you find that having female colleagues changes the way you program or are able to do your work?
Definitely. In terms of the way you look. Of course it makes a difference.
I know you regularly go to Bologna [to Il Cinema Ritrovato ]. You go to Pordenone [to Le Giornate del Cinema Muto], you go to all the festivals. And you have been an active part of all of them. I was thinking that in your generation, there are not a lot of women archivists and people really doing the programming whom I know. They seem a bit more visible now, or maybe it is more of a collective.
Yes, I would agree. I mean, there are so many different initiatives and things happening. Of course it makes a difference [to have female archivists]. I mean, the whole area of film archives has been incredibly male-dominated. You can establish this through sheer visible evidence, because when you go to these festivals, you look at the contents of the programs. I am not commenting on this. But it is true. So it is obvious that there is a repetition of old patterns and structures. It is very important that people with different experiences are involved; they have a different view, of course.
And this is what you mean about the kind of programming you have been doing with the Alice Guy [program], all those figures, where you bring them together.
Yes. One last example: we did the first program of the work of Germaine Dulac. This great French filmmaker had been restored and had been sitting in French archives, and nobody showed the films. We did the first complete (at that time, one film was missing) retrospective of Dulac's work in 2002 here in Frankfurt. Nobody cared, you know. She was known as “the cow” who wrecked Artaud's script for La coquille et le clergyman [The Seashell and the Clergyman]. The cow! She did thirty-four feature films, I think. She is extremely interesting. [Even with all] her splendid theoretical, film historical, critical, and political work, nobody cared. It is very nice if you can be an eye-opener.
And that is what you were talking about at the beginning [of this interview]: being able to get a sense of what is going on now and to promote, in quite a concrete way, research for publics who might not otherwise see this material. Because it is really important to get it out there.
Yes. Dulac was a huge success. We opened at a six-hundred-seat venue here in Frankfurt, but four days before the opening, we had sold just eleven tickets. I got a telephone call and they said, “Shall we move to another venue?” And I said, “No.” And then it was completely sold out, and people tried to get in, and I will never forget this moment—it may sound a bit nostalgic—but we erected a thirty-six-square-meter screen for the big hall of the Frankfurt theater [the Schauspielhaus Frankfurt, Großes Haus]. And, of course, we had 35mm projection. And we had two compositions, one by Maud Nelissen for La belle dame sans merci. We also had L'invitation au voyage , which was commissioned for the Ensemble Modern, a very prominent formation of musicians.7 When the projection started, there was silence in the cinema. It was a really magical moment. People don't see silent films in the cinemas, and it was [consequently] a very magic moment. It was a huge success. People were just delighted. That's the point, you know. People were just happy.
That, in the end, is the point, isn't it? As much as we might be scholars or interested in archives in a scholarly way, it is about ensuring that people beyond ourselves are entertained and engaged. [They need] not be critically or theoretically aware that they might be reviewing history, but [they are] engaged in that past-ness, because otherwise …
It was beautiful.
Yes, and you could not have had that, could you, on a computer screen or on a DVD?
No. So, as you can see from what I said, it is a pleasure doing this work. I think there is still a lot to discover, to un-dig.
And in more recent decades, too. Obviously, my own research—and yours too—goes back to the turn of last century, but it is also recent. …
Yes. Look at the work that is done at the EYE Filmmuseum. They started this in Europe, when they looked at their materials. It was just incredible. If you remember the first retrospectives at Pordenone, there was Soviet cinema (Russian cinema, then), Swedish cinema. … It had not been seen before.
Again, it is returning to the moment of viewing. Digital archives might be important in terms of getting access to knowledge of what exists, but in the end it is about bringing it to audiences.
Yes. In the cinema we have often heard people say, “Oh, my God, for the first time, I have seen this film,” even if they had seen it previously. And I think this access to digital films has had a huge impact on the quality of writing about film. People only look, they sit at home, and it is tempting: you get a bit bored, you fast-forward, you know. It has made a big change, I think.
And the irony is that at some time in early film theory, we talk about montage, the way film compresses things. What we are saying now, actually, is that film is a slow viewing experience. It must be. Because otherwise the tendency is to fast-forward. At home, it is like: “This bit is boring, I know what will happen.” And film, viewed together, forces you to watch, doesn't it?
I avoid being on juries. I've done that many times. I am not interested anymore. But I decided that I wanted to be on the jury of the Association of German Film Critics for the prize for experimental filmmaking in Germany in 2013. So my two colleagues thought that we would all get the DVDs, and we would sit at home, and we would say, “Yes, no, maybe” to each of the films independently. And I said to them: “I am not doing this. If you want to do it that way, I am not interested.” So last year I went to Berlin, and we spent two days together. This year they came here. And we sat here. We had the projection, which was very good quality. And we watched a two-hour film. And nobody—
—could fast-forward that or would have watched it alone with that attentiveness. …
—would have watched it for two hours. But it was important.
And that is similar to what Elif [Rongen-Kaynakçi] was talking to me about, with her experience of Mariann [Lewinsky] coming to Amsterdam, for her “Hundred Years Ago” program [at Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna], where they view materials together.
Yes, she is also so important, Lewinsky, in doing all this archival work—
Yes, in their experience of watching together, that is what Elif was saying. It is that act of maybe not looking at the projected image—I am not sure how they are viewing their materials—but of sitting together and watching as a kind of community. …
Yes, also to get the physical, the bodily reactions of people. Like my colleague (who knew a film was two hours and ten minutes) said, “Are you sure it is an experimental film?” And I said, “Just wait and see.” This was after ten minutes, maybe. People should also realize that there is a real pleasure to gain from watching films together with other people. It is very important.
And that is basically what you are promoting here—
People can't believe that I don't have a television at home. Yet I find television programs so outrageously boring and bad. I am not interested. I try to go to the cinema as often as I can.
If that experience stays or is exposed to younger generations—that is what you were saying before about your work at the university with Heide [Schlüpmann]—it remains an experience that people can have. Thank you, Karola.