With only two feature films, German director Helena Wittmann has established herself as one of the most distinctive voices in international cinema. Her 2017 debut Drift and her latest film, Human Flowers of Flesh invite audiences on transcendent, formally bold voyages, creating a space for reflection while feeling wholly transported to her locales. Starring Dogtooth’s Angeliki Papoulia, with an appearance by Denis Lavant, her latest film follows a woman who sets sail on an aquatic adventure with five male members of the French Foreign Legion, none of whom speak the same language.
While in town for her New York Film Festival premiere last fall, I caught up with Wittmann to discuss her connection with the sea, casting, how she pulled off some of the film’s incredible shots, being inspired by Claire Denis, and more. Check out the conversation as the film enters a limited release this weekend, beginning at Metrograph and expanding.
The Film Stage: I saw Drift at New Directors/New Films and was blown away by it. Could you talk about the process after completing Drift, and when you knew Human Flowers of Flesh would be your next film?
Helena Wittmann: While we were making Drift, it was this experience to be on the sea. All these experiences of being in a boat on the ocean, on the open water, were quite a revelation in so many ways. I knew for Drift I had to focus on a certain aspect which was then more like the sea as a space… but in a very concrete way, you know? We wanted to get away from all the metaphors, but really: what does it mean to be a human being on the sea? And of course you need some kind of vehicle, which is a boat. If not it wouldn’t be possible. To find out about this I made so many observations and wrote a lot, but not everything could enter Drift. So I continued with the sea.
There were several aspects that interested me, and one really strong one was the sea as a matter, because something I didn’t think about so much before was the depth, and of course the depth means that it’s full. The sea contains really everything––the whole code of this world––and this fascinated me. So I went on to think about this, and then by reading I came into this realm of fluidity. This was another thing that then inspired me to do Human Flowers of Flesh: this dissolving moment and to try to take on another perspective.
To make a film like Human Flowers of Flesh takes a lot of confidence and vision as a filmmaker. As soon as I saw the second or third shot I knew I was in good hands. It’s the same kind of cinematic language you’ve used in Drift but greatly expanded. When I watch your films, it’s kind of what I wish nature documentaries were––to have the patience to actually live in the environment and feel like you’re there. In the filmmaking process, what are the obstacles you encounter to ensure this vision stays intact, particularly with the long shots?
I think it also has to do with Drift, because when I did Drift there was no script. I mean, there were of course some scripted things, like in the dialogues, but it was along the way because I had a long time of shooting. So I would shoot something, I would watch it, edit something, and then continue from there. So it was really a process that was developing. By doing it like this I learned a lot about duration, rhythms, how language works or not––all of these things were on the way, but it was very organic, so never conceptual. And then when I was thinking about Human Flowers, I could take everything that I learned to make this film. I wrote a script––I don’t know if It’s a very classic script––but it’s a script and it was very decisive. It was always inspired by the places and the situation because everything that I’m doing is rooted in the concrete world, in some kinds of experiences and observations. Also the material––whatever the lens sees, like literature or phones––anything that is part of my world, but what I share.
In the script that you wrote, are there more “complete” ideas––perhaps just dialogue-wise––that you can pare down a bit when you’re in the editing room? Or what you see in the script is what we’re seeing?
No, no, it always transforms. I mean, we shot everything that was in the script, and we shot a little bit more. But then, I never look back into the script, or into what I was writing before. It doesn’t interest me anymore. It’s also why I like doing so many things in film––doing the camera, writing, editing––all these different modes of filmmaking. And for me it all belongs. But with each step I get somewhere new, so I’m always searching. I always make, I would say, strong decisions. So I never shoot variations, for example. Never. So it’s really like “No, this scene is like this,” and I only have that. But then, when I have all the material, first I watch it four times, five times––watching, like, all these hours in order to understand what’s there and to find out all the secret things that happen. Because you plan things, but then there’s always something additional that is happening. And that’s the beauty. And then I work on that, really apart from the script. But of course there are some things that you can still find in the script. In a way, the basic structure is very simple. It’s a voyage, with the starting point and you end somewhere. So that was easy, but then around Human Flowers of Flesh I would work with these different layers and scenes and images that would mirror each other. So sometimes you see something in the beginning of the film that you get back to––maybe––later.
There’s some shots that are just so breathtaking, and I’m curious, logistically, how you pulled them off. The shot I think of first is the parachuting scene. Obviously you could write that, but you could probably never dream what it actually looks like onscreen. How did you pull it off?
I mean, it’s funny because yesterday I was standing outside the cinema after the screening, we were talking about this, and it was scripted. I knew because when I was researching the [French Foreign] Legion, I knew what they were doing in Corsica. They are training all the time. Then I saw videos on YouTube where I saw not this shot, but I saw they were doing these jumps. And so when we were in contact with the Legion I knew I wanted to have this shot. That’s something I never question. Same with Denis Lavant: when I wrote it, it had to happen! I’m never doubting it until it’s not possible. Then I find another solution. But until then, I go for it and I try to really get it.
With the parachutes, it was really difficult to get the shot because they have their specific times when they jump. But of course it depends a lot on me, too. We were not so lucky on the first day, so it was really the second-to-last day for shooting that they said “Okay, today we go, but it’s a different place, so you have to come.” So I went and then I also knew “Okay, I have two takes,” because there will be two times they’re doing it and it has to work. But this moment of focus and being there with the camera and also trying to foresee how it might work––the focal length––because you only see the sky. And then you have to wait until the plane comes in… but I like these challenges a lot. And then, when you have the shot, it’s so precious. Somehow, in a way, somehow you feel it, I think.
There’s the shot that kind of recalls the one you did to end your first film––here, peering down in the ocean that keeps going and going. I can’t even imagine how you pull that off in terms of one camera.
That was a shot I couldn’t do myself, obviously. So we had a cinematographer who can dive, and he was like an underwater cinematographer. But it was pretty difficult for me because I knew exactly what I wanted. But then it’s so difficult to shoot underwater, the timing. This cameraman, usually he’s doing things for National Geographic or a lot of commercials. So for him, when he first came out––it’s 30 meters down. When he first came up it was all far too quick and he didn’t stay in the end, and I didn’t like the angle. To communicate this, he was like “Yeah, but the shot you want is so long,” and I was like “Yeah, yeah, yeah. [Laughs] Exactly!”
So you’re watching it live as it’s happening?
No, so he was coming up and then he showed me what he was filming. And then he went down again and it was clear that he can do it like three times, but because of the depth you can’t do it, like, a million times. It’s too exhausting and too dangerous. It’s interesting because I was never down there and I had seen videos of some divers who had this material. And that’s where I saw that the surface of this aircraft is inhabited now. And I knew I wanted it, but I had never been there. And it was like this imagination. I was in this little boat and it was very wavy, and knowing he’s down there filming and I couldn’t do anything…
I want to talk a bit about casting, too. I haven’t seen Gastón Solnicki’s new film, A Little Love Package. I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet but––
I have seen it!
I just find Angeliki Papoulia’s choices so fascinating, and obviously breaking out with all the Yorgos Lanthimos films and to what she’s doing now. As you talk with her, what is her vision of cinema and how do you think it fits with yours?
Yeah, you know, Angeliki is really an atypical actress, I would say, in a sense––as everyone I’m working with is, in a way. Because she comes from theater, and she’s a director also. She’s working with Christos [Passalis], who is the brother in Dogtooth, and they are in theater together. They have a collective. She was suggested to me by a friend of hers who’s a big producer, and he put us in contact. I sent her Drift, and the short films, and the script. We met and when we started talking, she immediately… I mean she understood everything. Feeling it or understanding, for example, it’s not so much about acting, but more about being present and putting yourself in a state of receiving or acceptance. She wanted to do it right away. So she was like, “I want to do it. Let’s go!”
And that’s amazing because Ida––and this is what I found out during the shooting––all the other characters were pretty clear, because the cast had inspired the roles. With her, and this Ida figure, she’s so weird, in a way; we had to find her on the way, and Angeliki was open to do that. She never asked anything, and she didn’t want to know anything that I could not give her, because she knew I couldn’t and it was not my interest. I think this understanding is pretty awesome. I mean, this role is so different from all the others she did. We also talked about it because she suffers a lot in many roles. She always has to, as a woman, sort of carry the weight of the world, and I wanted her to be free of that. Not only her, but this figure, Ida––that at least the film doesn’t give her a reason to suffer because that is very rare to see.
I know early on when the film was first announced, and with the casting of Denis Lavant, Beau Travail was referenced. You’re taking on similar subjects, but a different cinematic language. I’m curious what Claire Denis means to you as a filmmaker and if you could discuss the casting of Denis Lavant.
It’s not so much a “homage,” even though I love Beau Travail, of course. I mean, that’s why it’s in there: it’s part of my world. When I watched it, it did something to me. It is an important film, as are the books by Marguerite Duras. It’s really something that informs me and that then gets in relation with other traces, and as a filmmaker I’m pretty impressed by Claire Denis, that she is ever-changing. And so there are films that I love, that I adore, and there are films that I really don’t like as well. But it doesn’t matter. She’s a strong voice. She’s brave, and I like that a lot. And Beau Travail, I watched it so many times, even before Human Flowers. You know, it’s one of these films that I enjoy watching again and again.
I find it a very spiritual feeling, watching your films. I feel like I can reflect on the other things I’m thinking about in life and drift in and out, too. What is your dream reaction from someone after seeing your films? What do you hope that they will take away?
I think there are many ways to react to it, and this I like. I always hope that very different people find their space in the film. I’m always super-curious to hear which space they took. It is as with Drift: I feel already even though Human Flowers is really fresh and not so many people have seen it yet, but it’s already a similar thing that the feelings are very personal and very different. So with Drift, people felt completely embraced and safe and meditating. Or, that it was really unsettling… and it’s the same with Human Flowers now. Some get sad, and I can understand it, but it’s not like a sadness that is a dramatic sadness. It’s more, I think…
Yeah. I think when there is happiness, there’s also sadness; they are linked. As when you’re talking about spirituality, life, and death obviously. I mean, it sounds super-banal, but then it’s not in the end. So I’m listening, but I’m not expecting anything.
Human Flowers of Flesh opens on April 14 at Metrograph and will expand.