'Manifesto': Julian Rosefeldt Threw Out 'Bullshit' Screenwriting Rules to Direct 13 Versions of Cate Blanchett
German video artist Julian Rosefeldt conjures a living, breathing love letter to art starring Cate Blanchett in her wildest role(s) yet.
Like every human, great art is born of contradictions. Julian Rosefeldt's Sundance premiere Manifesto is built of juxtapositions that result in delicious absurdity: Cate Blanchett, playing 13 diverse characters, delivers manifestos from 20th-century artists, philosophers, composers, architects, and filmmakers in contexts that bear no relationship to the words spoken. A solemn woman delivers the Dadaist manifesto at a funeral procession ("From now on, we want to shit in different colors"). A schoolteacher lectures her class on the fallacy of originality a la Jim Jarmusch ("Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination") and asks her pupils to follow the edicts of Dogme 95 ("The camera must be hand-held").
The text, from Sol LeWitt, André Breton, Karl Marx, Lars von Trier, and others, takes on new meaning as it passes through Blanchett's galvanizing performances and reverberates in the film's stunning locations across Berlin, many of which appear as if constructed expressly for a big-budget sci-fi. Some of the oldest manifestos seem ripped from the headlines of the current political landscape, a veritable call to action; others inspire humor in the nonsensical combination of tone, dialogue, character, and location. Manifesto is a simple concept (almost akin to a theater exercise) that is rendered intellectually rigorous—even incendiary—in execution.
Though the production value is incredibly high, Rosefeldt shot his debut feature film in less than 12 days with under $1 million. No Film School sat down with the renowned German video artist at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival to discuss the role of the artist in today's society, the film's complementary museum exhibition, working with the masterful Blanchett, and more.
"Together with the text, the scene, the character—you have a lot of work to do. And it opens up worlds."
No Film School: What was the genesis of Manifesto?
Rosefeldt: Actually, the real origin of this project was me meeting Cate [Blanchett] six years ago. We met in Berlin in an opening of my work in the museum through a mutual friend, Thomas Ostermeier, director of the Schaubühne in Berlin. He brought her along to an opening of mine and we got introduced. And in that very evening, the idea came up to do something together.
Rosefeldt: We maintained contact for two years, but it was only two and a half years later that, doing the research for another project, I read two manifestos of a French artist, a futurist. It was a neat construct—this kind of utopian, pretentious energy of the manifesto—and I thought this could be something I want to explore more, and maybe something I want to do with Cate.
The one thing I was sure about was that I wanted her to be many people. And so I went deep into reading of all kinds of manifestos that I could get a hold on. Literally every manifesto that I could find—and not only art manifestos, but also theater, architecture, film, political manifestos. I started to re-collage them, re-edit them without really changing them, but rather shortening them or combining them.
On the other hand, I was collecting ideas for scenes in which a woman—sometimes a man—delivers a monologue. All kinds of situations. And slowly these scenes and the ideas of the manifestos merged in my mind.
"Artists can be seismographs of their time. We should listen to them."
I'm interested in the mechanics of the myth-making machine of cinema. But also trying to find out how the brain functions and associative manner—you take A and B and the audience makes C out of it. Two things that don't necessarily belong together sometimes give more space for yourself as a viewer than if you match everything accordingly.
NFS: Because you make them put in work.
Rosefeldt: Yeah. I think that's the case a lot in Manifesto. Like the architecture you see, it's very often unknown and unclear in its function. And because it's unclear—together with the text, the scene, the character—you have a lot of work to do. And it opens up worlds.
So within the scenes, you have contradictions. Sometimes very strong contractions. Like in the school scene, all of the text, apart from the very last epilogue, which is from an architect/artist, all others are film manifestos, or text on film. And they are highly contradictory. For example, Jim Jarmusch’s Golden Rules of Filmmaking manifesto is “steal from everywhere, nothing is original.” It is the opposite of dogma. There’s a certain kind of humor in it, thinking about this contradiction of ideas.
NFS: I hear production on this was 13 days.
Rosefeldt: We had two weeks with Cate in total, but we had 11 shooting days with her. So two days’ prep for costume and makeup.
NFS: How did you do it that quickly?
Rosefeldt: I don't know. Insane. It was crazy. But it was lovely. We had a lot of time in pre-production, a very short shooting time, and a very, very long post-production.
NFS: Locations play a large role in this film. They are the foundation on which many of your scenes rest. How did you choose them?
Rosefeldt: Locations are something that I really like to do myself. I have a lot of spots in my head that I want to use as locations, but I search for new ones, also. It was mainly all shot in Berlin, apart from one or two locations. I wanted it to be a metaphor for a contemporary big city. She speaks in different dialects from all over the English world around the globe, like Australian, Scottish, American, whatever it is. And the characters are depicting the whole spectrum, the whole mosaic of society, from the under-privileged to the very rich. So many of these locations are just difficult to read in function, and again that enables the viewer to add up content and thoughts. It's another example for this chemical, experimental [process]: you put ingredients together and don't necessarily know what it does. But the pleasure for me is in the experiment.
"Actors are getting more and more curious to do interesting films again. They don't want to just earn their money."
We also worked closely with Erwin Prib, our production designer and a location manager who found us mainly the three locations for the apartments and houses. And then we did a few CGI things, as well. For instance, the Stock Exchange hall is a library; we had to shoot the reading room from midnight until six in the morning when the cleaning ladies came. We had six hours to do the whole thing. It was crazy. And there was a lot of CGI involved 'cause we couldn't afford to bring in that many computers and that many extras.
NFS: What was your artistic process working with Cate, getting her into these characters?
Rosefeldt: We had a few email exchanges, Skype conversations, meetings upfront where we shaped the idea. We also met once in New York to go through all the texts, materials and get friendly with the atmosphere of each character. Then, the real thing happened on set. She is so fantastic in what she does that she's really able to deliver right away. It's amazing.
Sometimes we had a very, very short time. For instance, when we shot the Dada funeral scene, we lost some very important time by filming some stupid, unimportant thing that didn't even make it into the film. A scene where the procession is walking by some gravestones. We were waiting for the right light to come and then we lost three hours on that and only had two hours for the real scene. She was just doing it. She's really extraordinary. She's also very curious. She wants to understand each and every person, has a great empathy for the human condition. All that adds up to her talent and experience and genius. She's very good at what she does.
NFS: I can imagine it's a pre-condition for being able to inhabit that many different kinds of people. Do you think it's important for people who make films—or film students in particular—to learn art history and all the different movements?
Rosefeldt: I do think so. It's enriching and I would always advise, whatever you do in the creative field, to go a lot to art museums and know art history. Art history, in the end, is a derivative of history; you can read art history perfectly as history. It teaches us a lot.
NFS: Did you find anything surprising as you parsed the manifesto texts?
Rosefeldt: A big discovery for me was that these artists, whom I had admired for their visual work, were also fantastic poets and writers. Maybe 70% of the artists that are speaking in Manifesto later became the famous visual artists we know now. But when they wrote those texts, most of them were just at the very beginning of their career. So in all these rebellious and furious texts, you can also identify a certain insecurity.
"These manifestos are sometimes so prophetic."
But what I mostly found so fascinating is that these manifestos are sometimes so prophetic. At the beginning, you see these industrial ruins and there is this homeless man. It's a text from 1932 and it talks about the crisis of capitalism, conflicts boiling up in the Far East. When I read this text I said, “Something's wrong with this text—it can't be from 1932, it has to be from now.”
I love my audience, but I question the relationship between creators and the audience in this hermetic world where everybody agrees with everything you have to say. So what's the point, right? It's nice to discuss the actuality of manifesto with people that agree. They will say, “So, I thought about Trump.” Yeah, big deal, me too. But then what I do with this? Where's the energy of the piece, confronting the people who actually need to be seeing this? And they won't because they are lacking information or education or interest. That’s a dilemma of the whole culture scene.
Rosefeldt: I think Cate’s presence in the project is really important because she might widen the audience and bring in more visitors, some of who normally would maybe not go to a museum or to see such a film. I do think that artists can be seismographs of their time and that we should listen to them.
NFS: Do you have any plans to screen in schools or in libraries in order to reach an audience that wouldn't ordinarily have access?
Rosefeldt: That would be fantastic. We had a lot of school classes at the installation. Teachers use it as an educational tool. In New York, where we showed it at the Armory, they did a student summit on manifestos, so they collaborated with a few underfunded schools. They work over weeks with these students on manifestos, writing down manifestos, producing t-shirts, making little performances. And they all came together at the summit, I think there were a few hundred people one day. I was very very happy about that.
NFS: As a visual artist yourself who normally works in the context of museums, it was an interesting choice to exhibit the film theatrically as well as in a museum. The film experience is a bit more immersive in the sense that we're a captive audience, forced to reckon with the text. The museum experience is more wandering, based on discovery.
Rosefeldt: I like the work to be out there as a film and as an installation. It's a manifesto, so it should be out there in various forms. But basically, since 2000, I have worked with the same machinery as filmmakers; I just show my work in a different context.
"It's very easy to repeat something that you have successfully done. It’s a big trap in whatever you do—writing, music, cinema."
NFS: And what compelled you to change contexts?
Rosefeldt: Curiosity. I’ve been confronted with this question, “When are you going to do the first feature film?”, for ten years. It's funny, because in the question there’s always the undertone of, that will be the next step up. But I never saw it like that. I still don't see it like that. I have a lot of freedom in the way I show my work, where I show it [in museums]. You don't have to necessarily fit into boxes—short film, documentary—you can also do non-narrative things on multiple screens, seven minutes long, seven hours long, whatever. So there is a lot of freedom. I'm also interested in the construction/deconstruction of realities in cinema in different genres. I see it as a scientist.
Rosefeldt: I will do another feature film, maybe a more narrative one. It will be [propelled by] the curiosity of finding something that really needs to be told in 90 minutes. But then again, it would probably be a kind of weird film, where I work with my tools.
NFS: What did you learn about yourself as an artist making the transition into a feature?
Rosefeldt: Never give up. Stay curious and experiment. It's very easy to repeat something that you have successfully done. It’s a big trap in whatever you do—in writing, in music, in cinema. I really want to learn more and more. For instance, I have a great fascination for cinema history. I'm not necessarily a cinephile, so I don't know as much as somebody who is really into it. But I learn by doing films. I did a film on the Western, and I wasn't a Western fan before that, but now I am, because through the research I learned so much and now I understand it better. I learned from it.
NFS: You work is boundary-pushing in many senses. What do you wish you saw in more mainstream films and art?
Rosefeldt: People get really tired of [mainstream cinema], not only on the makers’ side but also on the consumer side. There's always the same stupid action film. You really get tired of it. And the romantic comedy is always the same. So if you see the wonderfully arranged program of Sundance, and you look in the premiere section, I was amazed that there were so many unknown directors. They all have these big, famous actors on board. You see that actors are getting more and more curious to do interesting films again. They don't want to just earn their money.
"I am very skeptical of scriptwriting guides, like how to create unforgettable characters. It's all bullshit."
Through this new high-level TV series [form], there's a whole new need for talent. I hope even the big studios learn from that and start to take more risks.
Rosefeldt: You should stay curious and do things you really want to do. That's what I'm telling my students when I'm teaching. It's not about the market and how to find a distributor or audience, it's about finding out about what you really want to do—your own handwriting, what makes you special, and fighting to defend that as much as you can. And that is very difficult. It's very tempting to fall in the market trap or just do what other people do, and think what you do is not good because it's so special. It can also be very unbalancing or make you insecure if you have something in mind that doesn't fit the schemes.
That's why I also am very skeptical of all these scriptwriting guides, like how to create unforgettable characters, blah, blah. It's all bullshit. It might be good to have read it, but then it's difficult to get it out of your mind. You’re taught three, four recipes again and again in different schools. That's why I think it's great to go to museums as a film director and as an artist to go to good films. Just learn from it and widen your horizons, travel a lot, see a lot of things.
NFS: Be aware of new experiences that you can cultivate with your work.
Rosefeldt: Andre Breton says it so beautifully: “May you only take the trouble to practice poetry.” He’s the author of the manifesto of surrealism. And maybe that's one recipe for Manifesto.
The other one is definitely Jim Jarmusch: “Nothing is original, steal from everywhere.” [Making this,] I literally stole from everywhere. It’s a general description of whatever creation is. It is taken from somewhere—you only produce things you've seen or read or consumed. You digest them and make your own things out of it. So nothing is original, including Manifesto.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.