Ute Aurand and Renate Sami in Conversation
Renate Sami (Berlin, 1935) is a filmmaker and translator whose work resists narrow categorisations. Her films are extremely diverse in form and content, oscillating between the poetic, the observational and the political.
As Ute Aurand writes, “Since her first film in 1975, each and every one of her works has emerged from the same strong desire to make this particular film. Whether long or short films, shot on 16 mm, Mini DV or HD, without sound or without dialogue or music – what they all have in common is the special inner freedom with which Renate Sami gives every film its form.”
Sami was moved into becoming a filmmaker aged forty following the death of Holger Meins, the subject of her first film. Later subjects include the work of writers and painters, her films proposing an imaginary dialogue with those of fellow filmmakers such as Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, Harun Farocki and Ute Aurand, with whom Sami co-founded “FilmSamstag” (Film Saturday), a monthly film programme at Kino Filmkunsthaus Babylon Mitte that ran from 1997 to 2007.
Below is a transcript of a conversation that took place between Ute Aurand and Renate Sami in June 2021.
Ute: How does one find a form?
Renate: Yes, how does one find a form?
How did I even come to make a film? Today more than ever before, the fact that I made the film about Holger Meins back then seems like a miracle to me. I didn’t have a clue about film – how to read a light meter, load and use a camera, the sound recorder, all of the mere handwork… I didn’t know anything.
My first film was the one about Holger Meins. I knew him from my apartment on Grunewaldstrasse. I lived there with two film students, Ulrike Edschmid and Philip Sauber. Holger was often there, and I knew him as a somewhat shy, friendly young man. He had made a film about a homeless man, Oskar Langenfeld, which his classmates really appreciated. A film in twelve chapters, black & white, unsentimental and sensitive. Picture and sound weren’t in sync.
The apartment, a floor in a former factory, was big and our kitchen became a hub for politically engaged film students. Holger was one of the most engaged and was among those who were expelled because of a protest against the heads of the film school.
The last time I saw him was in prison. We were both on remand. Little by little, everyone in the apartment was on remand at some point – always because of some kind of protest in connection to the Vietnam War. And he waved at me from a cell as I was being led through the yard.
When I got out a year later, everything had changed. There were now lots of small groups – Marxist-Leninists, Maoists, Tupamoros – and there was the Red Army Faction around Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin, and Andreas Baader. They had just published a manifesto declaring the RAF’s founding. Holger had gone underground and I joined the Rote Hilfe (“Red Aid”).
It wasn’t long before most of the RAF was in prison. Holger Meins was arrested together with Andreas Baader. They were all in solitary confinement and completely isolated, which they protested via a hunger strike.
Ute: Are we now in 1972-73?
Renate: Yes. And the next hunger strike ended with Holger Meins’ death in 1974. They simply let him starve to death in his cell.
How did this lead to the film?
Right after the funeral, a few of his friends got together and somebody had the idea of making a film about him. It was a colorful bunch: a few filmmakers like Ulrike Edschmid, Johannes Beringer, and Gerd Conradt were present, and they were the ones who later helped me, since the group quickly fell apart. One student – Constanze Lindemann – stuck around for a long time. We wanted to know how this entire movement could have fragmented into small, quarreling groups and how and why such a talented young man decided to join this militant group and why filmmaking was no longer enough for him. And what drove me? Why did I absolutely want to make this film? I think that I wanted to continue where he had left off and that I wanted to say that film is important, art is important.
I began interviewing friends and classmates from the DFFB. At first just with a tape recorder and then one day I met a film student from Munich, Wieland Fiekler.
At the beginning of the hunger strike, he had wanted to make a film about it and had therefore appeared at the Rote Hilfe. That’s how we met. Now he wanted to have nothing to do with art and filmmaking anymore. He was living in a squat and wanted to become a baker. I told him about the plan to make a film about Holger Meins and ask him for film stock. Yes, he still had some and he would give it to me. In total, there were, I think, eight or ten 10-minute rolls. I had to be very thrifty. Gerd Conradt loaned me a camera from some school and let me use an editing table in some university on the weekend, and he showed me how all of these tools worked. Johannes Beringer helped me with the sound. Since it was all very complicated for me, especially the editing, I simply left a few frames of black leader between the individual, edited shots, and I liked that so much that I later did it again and again. I found it good to mark where a pause is. I always think about cover-ups when pauses in an interview are made invisible by a dissolve.
Money for the lab work came on cue as I was released and received compensation for the year in prison. I could not have spent the money better. That’s the story behind We all die, the main thing however is how and how we live our lives. Holger Meins.
Meanwhile, I had bought a Super 8 camera and I had it with me a year later when I went with Sarah Schumann and Sibylle Plogstedt to Korčula, a small island belonging to Yugoslavia where a lot of leftists from the east and west have met in the summer since the early 70s. Sibylle and Sarah knew each other from the Brot und Rosen group (“Bread and Roses”). I knew Sibylle through a book project we had collaborated on, Wie man gegen Polizei und Justiz die Nerven behält (How to Keep Your Senses Against the Police and the Law). She’d spent a year in prison in Prague. Two years later, with some of comrades-in-arms from this group, she founded the women’s journal Courage. And with a few other people, Sarah organized the big art show in the Orangerie at Schloss Charlottenburg, Künsterlinnen – International: 1877-1977.
In 1974, the topic on Korčula was “art in modern society” and what was special about this year was the large number of women who had travelled there. An American woman announced a lecture about a feminist topic entitled “Is There Female Art?” That was the first time that I had even asked myself the question. At the time, women were actually coming into view as something special – and all at once, I saw beautiful, interesting women everywhere and started to film them. I later had a lot of this footage digitized. It can be seen in Film Diary 1975-85.
At the same time, a young filmmaker from Munich, Matthias Weiss, had asked me to write a script for a feature film. It was based on a story by Harlan Ellison.
Matthias had studied in the film school in Munich. He was also in the Rote Hilfe. We were housemates.
One day, Joachim von Mengershausen from WDR (public television) called him up and asked if he wouldn’t like to collaborate on a series of science fiction films, and Matthias asked me, and thus began my adventure in scriptwriting, conceptualizing, and translating a story into pictures and sounds. Dialogue had to be written, actors cast, and shooting locations scouted and found.
The title of the story was “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes.” Harlan Ellison was the author. The film later received the title Jackpot. After his wife leaves him, a man begins to try his luck with slot machines and one slot machine gradually transforms into the woman who left him. Woman as lucky charm. Money as an alternative to love. Since we were not allowed to shoot in Las Vegas, we transferred the story to Colombia and placed an indigenous legend that is also about a transformation at the beginning. Everyone was talking about Claude Lévi-Strauss’ structuralism and I was also engaging with it and reading Mythologica, a collection of myths, how they are told in South America. That’s where I found the story of a young woman who leaves her village because there is nothing left to eat and who follows a jaguar. She goes hunting with it and can in this way provide her village with meat, which she lays on the roofs at night. But she slowly grows claws, she gains a fur coat, and ultimately transforms into a jaguar woman. Her grandmother is horrified, curses her, and she dies.
This story is told at the beginning and it is only heard, accompanied by photos of indigenous women in the jungle in contrast to the gambler’s story, where the slot machine transforms into a woman before his eyes, which is recounted cinematically.
This gambler and adventurer was Al Hansen. He was part of the Fluxus Group and he gave me a cassette by John Cage on which Cage explains his “chance operations.” With the help of the I Ching, these chance operations were supposed to lead to him not making music composed of what he already knew, which therefore didn’t follow the old lines, but would change his likes and dislikes. I became preoccupied with this kind of playing with chance for a while and, in fact, I still am today.
When the film was finished, I continued doing small portraits of women in their environments with the Super 8 camera and later had it all digitized and put them in the film Film Diary 1975-85. That was all happening at the same time.
The RAF trials were in 1977 and on December 24th I got on a plane – Germany had become too threatening, crippling. The first generation of the RAF was dead or in prison, sentenced for life. That’s when the search for supporters and sympathizers began. Streets were constantly being blocked off, apartments being searched, lots of people who were sympathizers being arrested, and a few who had no involvement at all were shot “by mistake.”
I had, moreover, begun writing a script about a woman who comes out of prison to find everything changed and at the same time she sees the beauty of the world as if for the first time. I was stuck and on Christmas I just wanted to get away. New York was my first goal. I’d always had it good there and I wanted to visit my friend Ron who was then living in San Francisco and would be glad to see me.
At some friends’ in New York, I met a young filmmaker who wanted to drive with a friend to Oklahoma City the next day. It was James Benning. He had a job there teaching in a film school. He took me with him and on the next day he showed me a film that he had just finished with Bette Gordon: The United States of America. For that film, he had set up a camera in the back seat of a car so that the backs of the heads of the two people in the front seat could be seen and, looking through the windshield with them, the viewer drove from the Brooklyn Bridge straight through the United States to the Pacific Ocean across I don’t know how many states, and in each of these states, the local radio can be heard. This film was like an epiphany. It encouraged me that an interesting and beautiful, multifaceted film could also be made with simple means and without a big crew.
And now we come to Telling Stories, my first film with a video camera.
At the time, Michael Klier was teaching film at a university and had just gotten some video equipment for the school. He leant me one of these new devices and said he was curious what I would do with it. Back then, this was a massive piece of equipment by Sony. It was called a Portapac and consisted of a camera and a portable recorder. It was very heavy but it was possible to make very beautiful black & white images with it. And, above all, record almost without limits.
The winter of 1978 was unusually cold with lots of snow. I was living temporarily on Hohenstauffenstrasse and my window looked out on the intersection of Hohenstauffen and Martin Luther Strasse, which lay there abandoned, icy, exposed to the wind and weather, and, with the snow, had something unreal or supernatural about it for me.
The apartment was heated by an oven and, with a long outer wall, was quite cold. So, in the evening, I liked going to the warmth of brightly lit bars, meeting other people, exchanging a few words, and hearing their stories. And one day, I met Gabriele Reuleaux, who I knew in passing and who had a pretty large repertory of wonderful stories that she was also happy to tell.
She then became the heroine of my next film, in which different stories were told in different ways. In dialogue with a friend, then as a letter, and, finally, in a conversation with two different listeners. And I recorded both of these conversations in very long takes at the bar with lots of movement in the background.
The film begins with a few individual images: the abandoned intersection, a brightly lit bus wafting closely by through night and snow, a hand in front of a mirror that grabs a veil, fingers striking typewriter keys like piano keys – and everything without sound. And then comes this beautiful poem by Hölderlin: “With yellow pears hangs/And full with wild roses/the land in the lake…”
Ute: And where is all of this footage?
Renate: It was all also in this film, which is unfortunately completely destroyed today. The material deteriorated.
Now there is only a description of the film by Rudolf Thome in the Jahrbuch Film 1978/80 (Film Yearbook 1978/80), in which he declares it to be the most beautiful film of the year, which also encouraged me to keep going since, not long before, I had applied to the film school and was rejected and didn’t really know what to do.
I had started writing this script about a woman who comes out of prison – and everything is different. It was supposed to be a mix of documentary and fiction filmmaking with written dialogue, which was very hard for me and then I remembered two authors who I knew had written wonderful dialogue: Hemingway and Pavese. So, I went to the library, found Tra donne sole (Among Women Only) and thought, “this is it,” and wanted to film the book. I didn’t know at the time that Antonioni had also already made a film based on it.
Ute: And is that why you put the other film aside?
Renate: Yes. First, I focused on Pavese, read all of his books, the diary, the poems, and the essays and wrote a treatment and tried to get a script subsidy.
In the meantime, I had earned some money as a production manager, I think, and met Petra Seeger that way. Through some friends, I also learned that two of Pavese’s old friends were still living in Turin and when I received the script subsidy, I asked Petra if she wouldn’t like to go to Turin with me. So, we went to Turin together and when I later received some production money, she continued to work with me.
So, I first wrote a script for a feature film but it did not get funding. And since I had read a lot by Pavese in the meantime, I became fond of the idea of making a documentary. When we were in Turin, we did interviews with the two friends of Pavese who were still alive and recorded them with the Portapac. We cut them together and took them to three or four different TV producers and begged for money. Three stations then decided to join in.
What’s special about the film Cesare Pavese: Turin-Santo Stefano Belbo is that picture and sound are completely self-contained but running in parallel. I had taken a lot of photos beforehand and the order of the images and their duration was already determined – and I did the same with the text. So, the entire film is in fact staged like a feature film, but just with text and picture.
Meanwhile, the Verband der Filmarbeiterinnen (“Association of Women Film Workers”) was founded. I was also part of it. I found “film worker” very appropriate for me. And nine women in the Verband who would often meet then made the film Out of the Blue. The topic was the threat of atomic power. There had just been protests in Gorleben because they wanted to store atomic waste there and shortly before a reactor had exploded in the US. In the meantime, a lot of people were questioning the construction of atomic power plants. Fear of invisible radiation was going around. That’s why the minister for environmental protection recommended always having aluminum foil around in which you could wrap yourself in an emergency.
Ute: Aha, I see – like a domino effect, your films developed from one to the next until the Pavese film…and a coherent web came into being…
Renate: Yes, like a web. And that’s still the way it is. You were initially asking me about form and I told you how one thing leads to the next in my work. This classification into feature film, documentary, experimental film doesn’t mean anything to me. A line in a poem, a shred of plastic in a tree, and a melody gradually merge into something in my head. I then record it and when I edit it, some things resist and some things connect differently than planned, but they connect.
I was and am and do not feel myself to be a professional filmmaker. In fact, I’ve worked in many different roles, but that doesn’t change anything. I don’t know what has driven me and continues to drive me. I tried out this and that, worked with 16mm, Super 8, or video, and tried to figure out what best corresponded to a particular subject. As a gift, a friend gave me a small book by Wallace Stevens, an American poet. The title was The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and Imagination. How do you bring imagination and reality together? And the angel is hopefully not far away when I have the feeling I now need to record this or that and make something out of it.
Ute: What was the transition from the Pavese film to With Pyramids like?
Renate: I made these small films on Super 8, worked with others – for Ingo Kratisch and Jutta Sartory, for Rudolf Thome…and read and wrote a lot.
The fact that I wanted to make a film about Cairo was related to the fact that I had become a grandmother. Starting in 1984, when Sherif and later Salma were born, I was in Cairo every year and began to be interested in the city’s history. I drove around the city and looked at what still remained from ancient times. I drove to Sakkara, to Memphis, looked at mosques: the Mosque of Amr from the 7th century is still standing the way it was built and in front of it, kids play football, the Mosque of Ibn Tulun from the 9th century and in front of it is a kind of Ferris wheel, and there are jugglers and kids coming from school… All a big confusion, this coexistence, everything so self-evident – not blocked off like in a museum. I wanted that to be a topic too.
And then one day, I went to a small souvenir store in Maadi – and found Nayra Atiya’s book Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories. She interviews Egyptian women in it who cannot read and write and they talk very frankly about everything in their lives. For me, it is very unusual for women to speak about private things but these five women were very open. And I thought that it is clearly the case that women there tell each other everything when they are together – and the dramatic way they tell their stories makes you aware that they have already told them often. I found it really remarkable that an act that I see as a rape – it was a matter of a wedding night – can be told as a dramatic story with comic inserts.
That was actually the film’s starting point…these stories. The other part was the history of the city – and the country. What is still visible?
I wanted to combine that with older descriptions: Herodotus, Strabo, etc.
I worked with photos again on this film too, but also with Super 8. I shot Super 8 on set that I then used as well.
At the time, I began closely studying the history of Germany and Berlin. If my grandchildren come to Berlin, I thought, and I go on a walk with them, I’d like to be able to tell them about the history of the city…and I went looking for what could still be seen here: city walls, churches, castles, palaces… And that is how I came to the 16th century and the hunting lodge in Grünewald, which was built in 1540 by Joachim II. A portrait of him painted by Lucas Cranach was also hanging there and during this research, I came across the story of the beautiful wife foundryman who still haunts the place. This story of the ghost of a woman in white who wanders around the palace on stormy nights and was the lover of Joachim II and was locked up – this story was still being passed on orally in 1979 when Ingeborg Drewitz recorded it in her book Märkische Sagen (Legends of Brandenburg). This beautiful foundry woman is also mentioned in a city chronicle from the time. After Joachim’s death, she was in fact locked up and died imprisoned in Spandau. I wanted to place the two narrative forms side by side – how it was passed along orally and how it appears in the chronicle. In addition, I wanted to film in all four seasons a walk along the lake next to which the small palace stands. That worked very well with a small DV camera that a friend had brought me shortly before from the US. I think it was High 8. It was very lightweight, and I could film endless walks with it. I timed the lengths of the walks beforehand with a stopwatch and then adjusted the text to them. I also shot you reading the legend in your apartment with that camera as well as everything else in your apartment that caught my eye. Karl Heil, who reads the text from the chronicle, can be seen in the beginning at the table in his room with the microphone in front of him. The voices were meant to have a face and a space. This film is called The Beautiful Foundry Woman.
And then I made Broadway May 95. During one of my visits to New York, I had started taking photos of store windows. They were decorated very differently than in Berlin and also very differently in every neighborhood, saying something about the neighborhood. So, I had these photos and had had the idea of making a film about New York for a while, and here was Broadway, which cuts through all of Manhattan and follows an old Indian path, and this Broadway has everything that makes up New York for me: diversity, old and modern, chaos, noise, big next to small and beautiful next to ugly. It was dirty, it was elegant, it was colorful, it was exciting. It was everything that I wished for. I went there in 1994 to take more photos and decided to use the 34 subway stations on Broadway and act as small nodal points as my locations. Since I had just bought a Bolex, I wanted to shoot with 16mm as well as Super 8 and see how they corresponded with the photos, which had the sharpness of 35mm. I received some money for the film from the Women Artist’s Subsidy – in order to write a script.
Ute: Was Broadway the first film in which you worked with sound in a different manner? Meaning, with silence and music?
Renate: In that way, yes. The fact that I used a piece of music by Purcell in the south of Manhattan, which is the oldest neighborhood, and Italian opera in Columbus Square and, at the end of the film when a train is leaving Manhattan, Duke Ellington’s Take the A-Train, those were kind of small clues.
But my attention to sound goes back to the period on Grunewaldstrasse when I lived with the film students. The Straubs always used the “location sound” in their films, while Godard, on the other hand, used sound very differently in his films, and of course we talked about that a lot.
Ute: Did you record sound on location?
Renate: No, I didn’t.
Ute: Had you already had the idea of working so minimalistic?
Renate: Sound or no sound, location sound, text, music: I’ve always been concerned with all of it. And even more since I’ve worked with a digital camera. Because this camera records picture and sound at the same time, I’m always considering if I will use the sound or not. So, I always have – unlike with an 8mm or 16mm camera – synch sound already and sometimes I just cut out the sound. When something can be heard afterwards, people’s attention is always much greater. You hear a bird twittering or the wind in the leaves or distant bells tolling. In the film One Year, which I shot out of my kitchen window, all of these things can be heard.
Ute: And in your film Sarah Schumann?
Renate: Sarah was listening to those opera arias with Maria Callas the whole time. I didn’t do anything more. All that is heard there is location sound too. There are only pauses from the music when the cassette ends.
Ute: In When You See A Rose, you also worked with sound and no sound…
Renate: Yes, I was listening to a lot of Luciano Berio and Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.
Ute: I remember that Agnes Martin’s film Gabriel was important for When You See A Rose. The way you filmed the flowers…you really liked that in Martin’s film.
Renate: Yes, the flowers and grass. I really liked Agnes Martin’s film and, overall, it encouraged me in one direction: simple, unspectacular, undramatic – I liked that. It is only a young boy and a landscape, nothing more. In fact, I think that film has always accompanied me. Also, much later for a film like 1, 2, 3 Cranes and an Empty Bench. The rose film, which was filmed with a Bolex, also owes a lot to the way in which you use that camera: short, staccato images edited in camera, quick lens changes, all that.
In the case of When You See A Rose, it started when I saw these pieces of plastic in a tree, at once ugly and beautiful. I liked this contradiction. So, I shot them with the Bolex, the way I sometimes just collect footage without knowing why. At the time, I was listening all day to Luciano Berio’s Recital with the amazing voice of Cathy Berberian, and I found that they fit beautifully together, and the rhythm of this piece of music also provided the rhythm for the editing. It is like a dialogue between picture and sound. When you then received some money for the collaborative project Small Flowers, Small Leaves, and I was often in the botanical garden with my Bolex, When You See A Rose came about almost on its own.
Ute: For Small Flowers, Small Leaves, I gave each of the eleven filmmakers two 100 ft. rolls for a film about a season. That was my condition at the time (1994)… But how did you get the idea to make a film with your friend, the painter Sarah Schumann? Was it part of your idea to make films about painters?
Renate: Yes, I wondered how pictures come about and how artists think. Is it a thought, visual association, or what? And there are a few lines from Hanna Arendt’s Vita Activa that led me to this. She says there are two kinds of thinking: thinking that tries to figure something out or goal-based thinking, that of scholars and go-getters, and, on the other hand, free-wheeling thinking – which is not looking for results…it is “as useless, indeed, as the work of art it inspires.”
I think in words. Do they think in colors and shapes? Can that be called thinking? And what is art? How do artists live, how did they become artists?
I had already begun with a few artists, with Ann Muller, with Margarita Albrecht – and then Sarah returned from Moscow and made the frieze Moskow: Erz + Körper, seven large pictures that she displayed in an exhibition in the gallery in Schillerpark. It was simply overwhelming, and I shot a lot of footage – with a handheld camera and on a tripod, and then I made two versions. In one, the individual images of the frieze are first seen in whole and then shot fragmented as single pieces. And I was then surprised how these single pieces each stood there for themselves and were a whole. (Sarah Schumann). In a second part, I watch her painting – that lasted one month. The second film consists only of this part where I watch her painting. Only, during the editing, I paid more attention to the sound. (Sarah Schumann Paints a Picture).
Ute: How did you continue with the other painters? With Ann Muller?
Renate: I stopped then…I’ve looked at it from time to time but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, I’d run out of ideas.
Ute: Had you studied Hanna Arendt before?
Renate: Yes, that was the starting point.
Ute: I’d like now to go back to the question about your identification as a filmmaker: for Pavese, which was an important film for you, you received money, TV money too – did that change anything about your identification as a filmmaker, did you then ask yourself, “What will my next film be?”
Renate: No, I never thought about it like that. I always had something ahead. I was always writing scripts…submitting treatments, making calculations. The themes and subjects suggested themselves: Hans Kohlhase, Jane Bowles…
And then in the meantime, I always worked for other people, both in order to learn and also because I noticed that if I only made films that were dear to me, I wouldn’t be able to live from them.
Sometimes, I would take out the story “A Woman Gets Out of Prison” again…the title has since become “Life, An Adventure” or something similar – it changed. I spent a lot of time writing scripts and, at the same time, always shooting with the Super 8 camera and different digital cameras too. When I stopped submitting things for funding, I simply kept working that way. Broadway May 95 was the last film for which I applied for film funding.
Ute: Then you began filming digitally. Wasn’t Liane Birnberg a commissioned work?
Renate: No, I had seen an exhibition of Liane’s and I really liked what she had done. I still had the idea of making a film about women painters.
So, I visited her in her studio and was so excited by it…again in connection with the portraits of friends, the space was still a topic: how do I shoot a space – and here, the space simply forced its way to the foreground. Then she gave me the text by her father to read. It was a very strong story – I wanted to bring it together with the footage of the space – long shots with text and short ones without text: text and no text – finding a rhythm – that’s how this film ultimately came about, Liane Birnberg’s Studio and the Story of Her Father Baruch David Birnberg.
Ute: Can we go back once more to Schutzfolie from 1981?
Renate: I’ve already told you how a few women in the Verband der Filmarbeiterinnen often met and had discussions: what do we want, what could we interest a TV producer in? At the time, a few men had made a so-called omnibus film, Germany in Autumn, and the women thought they could try that too. We took atomic power as the central topic. Ursula Ludwig of the Literarischen Colloquium was enthusiastic. She became executive producer and Jürgen Tomm from SFB (public television) was also involved. And each person could basically do what she wanted. Ebba Jahn was involved from the start and she asked me if I didn’t want to participate. Yes, wonderful.
I had just met a singer at a party, Ramona, who sang a few songs accompanied by a small accordion. I was especially fond of one song, a song about all-encompassing love, but I was excited, above all, by her voice and I had her in the back of my mind when Ebba asked me – I thought, this had to be part of it. Next came the Minister’s call to use aluminum foil for protection in case of emergency. The pieces of foil are folded up in a small package and it takes a while to unfold them, and they sparkle and shine – one side is silver, the other is gold. It looks very beautiful.
At the time, I often took walks in Jungfernheide with my mother. It’s the woods of my childhood and a lot of memories are bound up in it. I thought: the woods have to be in the film too, they have to be saved too. And I had the idea that a young man first wraps up a few shrubs and then himself and that a young woman is singing a song. And when I had brought the three things together – the woods, the wrapping, and the song – I was really happy.
The film is done in one shot and there is a pan at the very end.
Ute: How did you get the idea to shoot the film in one shot?
Renate: I don’t know anymore.
In any case, I wanted to do the pan myself. A long take, the singer leaves the frame and the camera follows her after briefly hesitating. Ingo helped me technically, measuring the light, etc. The timing of the pan was very important: when the singer leaves the frame, how long to wait, if she perhaps comes back…
Ute: Schutzfolie and the drive in With Pyramids are both filmed in one shot… You filmed your film One Year at home in your kitchen always from the same angle but over the course of a year…
Renate: Yes, that was the film One Year. I started it one year after I moved in there. For one year, I sat at the window seeing the wall and the tree – and not seeing them. And suddenly I saw how different this wall and this tree were depending on the time of day and year and whether the sun was shining or it was raining or snowing – I saw the pattern. I chose a particular position and placed the camera there, and since the camera has a zoom, countless shots can be chosen, and I could also switch from color to black & white and do dissolves. I kept the sound and so you sometimes hear the washing machine, sometimes rain falling on leaves, sometimes music from the room next door, or a distant bell ringing. And it is always the location sound.
The next film – also shot from one position – was At Lietzensee.
I live in the middle of the city and not far from my apartment is a park with a small lake. I go there when I want to stretch my legs. I have a favorite bench as well and this bench became the camera position of my next film. A friend had given me a gift of a small HDV camera. The picture was in the widescreen format, with which I had never worked before. I sat on the bench, let my gaze wander and thought, this is exactly right for this camera, this wandering gaze. That’s the reason for the panning, slow and fast, with small, irregular pauses in between – over an entire year. The camera has a zoom lens and so I filmed with different focal lengths, sometimes very close, sometimes very wide, only broken up by short, single images. During the editing, I sometimes removed the sound.
Ute: In your work, technical attempts and theoretical considerations and decisions are closely associated…
Renate: One could say that aesthetic decisions are determined or at least influenced by technology. The films you make, for example, could only be made with a Bolex.
Ute: And the very small short films that you’ve made in the past few years…
Renate:…are something like impressions. There’s no concept behind them…
Ute:…but the desire to make…
Renate: Yes, I feel free and open. When I was in Japan, I looked out the window: children were playing, a woman lit a cigarette…I saw the bandaged trees in the garden…the couple at the sea in Yokohama…
Ute: Did you have the idea to film Venice before going there?
Renate: Only when I was there. Before, I thought it would be impossible with all the images that already exist of the city. But then I woke up in that hotel room, saw the colors, the combination of stripes, the curtains, the wallpaper – that’s how it started.
We went to Venice because Liane Birnberg had an exhibition there and Barbara Kasper and I showed our films in connection to it – and then I went through the city and without much thinking shot this and that: the foggy lagoon, vaporettos at sunset… And during the editing, I repeated the one shot of the approaching vaporetto silently and in this moment, something everyday becomes for me something unreal and fantastic.
Then came more portraits with friends, excursions, trips… It’s actually a really beautiful format – with friends in one place…
Despite everything horrible, the world is beautiful!
 They were film students at the German Film and Television Academy (DFFB) in Berlin.
 The Rote Hilfe was a group supporting political prisoners.
 Brot und Rosen was a women’s group – including several artists – referencing one of the demands of unionist Rose Schneidermann, who had declared in 1911: “The woman worker needs bread, but she needs roses too.”
 Founded in 1997 as an interest group for women working in film.
 The women artists program of the Senate Committee for Culture and Europe in Berlin exclusively funded projects by women photographers and filmmakers.
Translation by Ted Fendt.
Open City Documentary Festival’s In Focus: Renate Sami programme is the first survey of Renate Sami’s work in the UK. Book tickets to the screenings at the links below:
Renate Sami 1
Thu 9th September, 18.30
From the Cloud to the Resistance
Friday 10th September, 18.15
Ciné Lumière – Institut français
Renate Sami 2
Fri 10th September, 20.30
Renate Sami 3
Sat 11th September, 14.00
Renate Sami 4
Sun 12th September, 13.30
In collaboration with the Goethe-Institut and with thanks to the Deutsche Kinemathek