INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTOPHE CLAVERT
by Andy Rector
Christophe Clavert is a filmmaker, editor, and cinematographer from Paris. He has shot eleven of Straub's films on video and assisted in their editing. He's taken on various other roles in collaboration with Straub, including as an actor in three recent films. We conducted this interview over April and May, 2022, via email.
Clavert and Straub on SCHAKALE UND ARABER (Jackals and Arabs, 2011)
KINO SLANG: Your work with the Straubs coincides with their first use of digital video in 2006. I believe you were an assistant to Jean-Claude Rousseau on their first MiniDV picture, the cine-tract EUROPA 2005, 27 OCTOBRE. What was your background in cinema at that time, and how did you come to meet and work with the Straubs, and Rousseau?
CLAVERT: I had finished my first short in 2001, which I showed to Danièle and Jean-Marie, who liked it and proposed to show it before IL RITORNO DEL FIGLIO PRODIGO / UMILIATI (2003) for the film's Paris release. After that we spoke to each other periodically on the phone and met when they were in Paris (at the time they lived between Paris and Rome).
Regarding Rousseau, I discovered his film LA VALLÉE CLOSE (1995) at the Chaillot Cinémathèque in Paris on the occasion of a retrospective of the Straubs, who programmed it as part of a carte blanche. Some time later, we did a radio program on cinema with friends (instigated by Lili Hinstin) once a month on a little community-run radio station, and some of us (Mehdi Benallal, who will later be an assistant on LE STREGHE, FEMMES ENTRE ELLES , and Adrienne Bavière) decided to do an interview with Jean-Claude around his films. After that we would meet regularly.
In spring 2006, I received a call from Jean-Marie asking me if I knew where the death of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré (two young boys who were killed on October 27, 2005 in Clichy-sous-Bois, electrocuted inside a power station while hiding from the police) had taken place. I answered that I didn’t know exactly, but that I'd try to find it. So I went to the place, made a drawing of the power station area, and brought it to Jean-Marie and Danièle's place. I think they told me at this moment that the Italian TV channel RAI 3 had commissioned them, among with other filmmakers, to make a little film which would be a sort of sequel to Rossellini’s EUROPA '51. They asked me if I wanted to come along with them and that Jean-Claude Rousseau will be shooting the film with his MiniDV camera. So we went to the place. During the shoot I was sitting on the ground, holding Jean-Claude's tripod so that it wouldn't move during the pans. (Jean-Claude made a film from the rushes of EUROPA 2005, 27 OCTOBRE for Jean-Marie's 85th birthday called UNE VIE RISQÉEU, which can be seen here.) Jean-Marie and Danièle asked Jean-Claude to do the editing, which he did by himself, and he proposed to them the film as we know it, as five versions of the same sequence of 2 shots. Jean-Claude asked me to finalize with him the two headlines appearing at the end: "chambre à gaz"(gas chamber), "chaise électrique" (electric chair).
KINO SLANG: What's the title of your 2001 short you said screened with IL RITORNO DEL FIGLIO PRODIGO / UMILIATI?
CLAVERT: It's called LES FAUX-MONNAYEURS OU LA BONNE AFFAIRE (THE COUNTERFEITERS, OR THE GOOD DEAL). I’m actually restoring it (it was originally shot on Super 8mm, edited on Beta SP, then the Beta SP master transferred to 35mm...) with the help of Olivier Boischot who makes all the restorations of Jean-Marie and Danièle's films.
KINO SLANG: I just watched LES FAUX-MONNAYEURS OU LA BONNE AFFAIRE (the unrestored version). I liked it very much, though without subtitles I didn't quite understand everything... it's very fast, like NICHT VERSÖHNT! It has one of the funniest, quickest gags I've ever seen in a French film: A bizarre dog freely struts across the screen, from east to west, a stray dog we assume; a man suddenly charges into the frame, walking south to north, between the dog and a woman strolling behind it; he violently trips (spilling all of his business) on a leash between them made invisible by the high contrast photography! The question is, will the leash be visible in the restoration?
CLAVERT: No, we won’t see it, it's indeed an invisible leash!
KINO SLANG: Before working with Straub and Huillet, were you greatly influenced by their films?
CLAVERT: Influenced, I don’t know... I discovered their films during the Paris release of VON HEUTE AUF MORGEN and LOTHRINGEN! in early 1997, so it was all very new to me when I shot LES FAUX-MONNAYEURS in the Spring of 1999; even if my discovery of their cinema had been very important, it was in the sense that there's something we think exists, but that we don't truly know yet. I rapidly saw most of their films in the cinemas (there were several small retrospectives in the following years). But the only conscious influence on my short was Fritz Lang's last film (DIE 1000 AUGEN DES DR. MABUSE, 1960).
KINO SLANG: During the making of EUROPA 2005, 27 OCTOBRE, did Huillet or Straub have much to say about this new tool, digital video?
CLAVERT: As far as I remember, they didn't say anything about digital video. They knew what it would look like through Jean-Claude Rousseau’s films (since LETTRE À ROBERTO in 2002) and also through Pedro Costa’s films. And it was an easier way to shoot image and sound, lighter than the usual 35mm shoot.
KINO SLANG: There's a bit of Straub's biography, not well-known, worth noting around CORNEILLE-BRECHT: in 2008-2009, just before the making of CORNEILLE-BRECHT, I understand that Straub, while crossing the street with his usual mad energy, was either hit by (or himself actively charged at!) a Vespa around Place Clichy... An accident that required surgery and kept him in the hospital and at home for some time. Was CORNEILLE-BRECHT made during his recovery? Do you think that the idea to start making films in a few small corners of their Paris apartment, and with MiniDV, came about as a result of his confinement after the accident, and considering the loss of Huillet (in October 2006), or were they heading towards this anyhow?
CLAVERT: CORNEILLE-BRECHT was shot after Jean-Marie's discharge from the hospital. I think he was then fully recovered. I also think that Cornelia Geiser (the main player in CORNEILLE-BRECHT) had long expressed that she would love to work with him on a text, and that during his stay at the hospital he proposed that she work on the two Corneille excerpts and on the Brecht radio play. So they worked on them, and after being back at his place he decided to shoot, with her, what they had been working on, without the precise idea of making a film of it. In Jean-Marie's mind, it was an experiment.
He asked me if I could come shoot with my camera and we shot it over a couple of days in his apartment with Barbara Ulrich there. Jean-Marie told me later that he first asked Jean-Claude Rousseau but then changed his mind; that’s the reason why Jean-Claude is mentioned in the credits. Shortly thereafter we did the editing at Jean-Marie's apartment too. I don’t remember exactly but I don’t think it lasted more than 4-5 days. Barbara Ulrich was there during the editing and Jean-Claude Rousseau came to see, also Philippe Lafosse (who instigated and organized first French DVD edition of the Straubs).
Regarding MiniDV or choice of digital for shooting, I think the case of CORNEILLE-BRECHT is a bit special because, as I said, Jean-Marie thought of it first as an experiment. But for the following films, I think the fact that Danièle was no longer here to manage the whole 35mm process, and all the organization that comes with it, lead to Jean-Marie's choice of this lighter and much cheaper way to shoot, and to edit. And even if Renato Berta was totally against it (I think he didn't want to use MiniDV considering it was not a prestigious enough format), Jean-Marie imposed the MiniDV on UN HÉRITIER (2011) and L’INCONSOLABLE (2011). As we got along well with Straub during the shooting and editing of CORNEILLE-BRECHT, we shot both films with my camera, with me assisting Berta.
KINO SLANG: Was the Brecht radio play The Trial of Lucullus used in CORNEILLE-BRECHT a text the Straubs had wanted to film for a long time? I believe that was the case with the Kafka parable Schakale und Araber, a text that Huillet translated into French in 1987 for the Cahiers du cinéma (no. 400), and that they may have wanted to film as far back as the 70s, after MOSES UND ARON and their shoot in Egypt. But SCHAKALE UND ARABER was filmed only after Huillet's passing, in 2011, also shot by you in the Paris apartment.
CLAVERT: I don’t think it was an old project. Barbara told me Jean-Marie first proposed to Cornelia to work on the two Corneille excerpts and then remembered Brecht's play. And he asked Martina Muller, Werner Dütsch's partner, (Werner Dütsch helped finance many of the Straubs' films through the German TV channel WDR) to send him the radio version in early 2009.
KINO SLANG: Were there any problems, surprises, or special discoveries during the shoot of CORNEILLE-BRECHT? Was there much discussion about Geiser's recitation of the text, any changes made tout à coup, or was it mostly done in the preliminary work?
CLAVERT: No particular surprises, no changes and no discussion about Corneila’s recitation––they had worked a long time on it during Jean-Marie's stay at the hospital, so she was perfectly ready.
KINO SLANG: Was there much discussion of the light, the timing for those particular rays of sunlight in the apartment and the placement of the camera?
CLAVERT: Jean-Marie knew perfectly well where he wanted the camera to be, and at what time of the day he wanted to shoot. After, there is always discussion about what will be in and out of the frame. But it's always a quick discussion.
KINO SLANG: And the many wardrobe changes of Geiser?
CLAVERT: Jean-Marie used to make fun of them in (French) films. So I think it was a way to push the principle to its limit, make it to become an element of the mise en scène and not only a caprice.
KINO SLANG: Brecht wrote The Trial of Lucullus quickly, in two weeks while in exile in Sweden in 1939, as if out of historical necessity... And later, in 1951, when he and Paul Dessau were working on the East German opera version, The Condemnation of Lucullus, they ran into production delays when the GDR Ministry for Popular Education accused the libretto of formalism and pressed for revisions; Brecht wrote: "i'm against this (delay). the subject is important just at this moment, when the americans are issuing such hysterical threats," referring to Truman ordering American troops into Korea in '50-51 under cover of the U.N., after North Korea's invasion of the South, while General Douglas MacArthur was advocating for the use of atom bombs against Korea. It's clear why we would show CORNEILLE-BRECHT at this particular historical moment (including the very moving ending, about a mother losing her son to cynical war, to which Brecht was so sensitive, as in MUTTER COURAGE UND IHRE KINDER...), but in 2009 was Straub's use of this text aimed at a particular situation, a particular outrage, or the general one?
CLAVERT: From what I know––but perhaps Cornelia Geiser can say more about this––there was at this time no particular situation. But there is always a war going on in the world so Brecht's play is unfortunately always topical.
KINO SLANG: I'd like to ask you about the making of SCHAKALE UND ARABER (2011), which is for me a small masterpiece, condensing this massive, world-historical fiction about hatred (from Kafka) into this tiny space and trio of elements. The film seems a more complex shoot than CORNEILLE-BRECHT: three actors (Giorgio Passerone, Barbara Ulrich, and Straub), a very precise division of space and shot relationships, yet still in the minute confines of the apartment, with a lot of exteriorized but very exact emotion in the faces and gestures of the actors. There's even a violent action (besides the speech itself): "The Arab's" (Passerone's) boot kicking the scissors... The video is extremely raw; the sun is not sweet but burns the image. The movie isn't beautiful, but shocking, like a Sam Fuller film. Can you describe what the shooting was like?
CLAVERT: As always, very simple. It was done in a family atmosphere. Arnaud Dommerc was an assistant, as Dimitri Haulet, who did the sound on L’INCONSOLABLE and UN HÉRITIER was not available. I brought on Jérôme Ayasse (who had just done the sound on my short LA FUITE DU JOUR (2011) and went on to work on the following two Straub films) as sound engineer.
Jean-Marie didn’t want any lighting and the camera placement he asked for, in the dining room of his apartment, went against the light with the building across the street reflecting the sun in the early afternoon. I warned him it would be very raw, but he wanted it like that. (The film has just been restored––I originally captured the MiniDV tapes from the camera to do the editing and now I've done it with a professional MiniDV video recorder, in RGB, so the image is much better now. In fact we––Olivier Boiscot and I––have restored all of Jean-Marie's MiniDV films shot with my camera and I think now the image is much better and beautiful.) It was a four-day shoot––April 22nd, 23rd, 24th and 29th, 2011––plus one day of re-shooting––May 1st!––as the tape from day four had a problem.
KINO SLANG: We don't know much about how LA FRANCE CONTRE LES ROBOTS (2020) came about, how it was made. Can you tell us about that and your work on the film, which was as an actor in this case...
CLAVERT: If I remember well, Jean-Marie had been talking about making something with the Bernanos essay (which he knew since his youth) since 2018, after GENS DU LAC. Giorgio Passerone and I began to select some excerpts of the text. First we proposed seven excerpts. Then after talking with Jean-Marie we reduced it to four, on which I began to work. After that I went to Rolle two or three times to rehearse with Jean-Marie and talk about what the images would be with the text. From the beginning he hesitated about the excerpts, wondering if the first one was not enough. Finally, shortly before the shoot he decided that the first excerpt was sufficient. The shooting lasted one afternoon. We made 14 takes. Two of them were quite good with completely different atmospheres. I proposed to make two versions. It finally ended up being one film with the two versions in a row.
KINO SLANG: About LA MADRE (2012)... The filmographies list this movie as having been shot on the Panasonic AG DVX-100, but I was certain when I first saw it that it was shot on a Canon 5D (it was the 5D epoch), with its shallow depth of field (exceptionally so for a Straubfilm), and its more aquarelle-like colors. Anyhow the cinematography is astounding, it's one of the most beautiful of the videos, and with Giovanna Daddi and Dario Marconcini it has the intensity of some of the dialogues in DALLA NUBE ALLA RESISTENZA (1979). Technically, how did you shoot LA MADRE?
CLAVERT: I don’t know which filmography that is, but it’s obviously a mistake; the film was shot with the Canon 5D MarkII, as are the following films up until KOMMUNISTEN (2014). As to how I did it: I pushed the button! No joke. We only had to put reflectors up to help when it was too dark. And the sun made the rest.
An anecdote about the shooting of LA MADRE, which was in early September 2011: The film was shot about twenty miles from Buti in a place called Acciaiolo, in Pisa, at Giovanna and Dario's family house. One evening, after the shooting, we were looking at the rushes and the tip of the microphone was showing at the top of one of the shots, then in a second one. Jean-Marie got very angry. The sound engineer Jérôme Ayasse and I made ourselves as small as mice. Jean-Marie calmed down and suddenly, as another take of the shot appeared on the screen, he got angry again and said: but the frame has changed! I said that the frame was the same but the light was different. Jean-Marie said: but if the light changes, the frame changes! It was full of bad faith, but I must admit, the remark was true.
KINO SLANG: Of the films you did with Straub, which satisfied you the most, or was the greatest experience? If there's anything you'd like to share about the movies we haven't talked about––L'INCONSOLABLE (2011), UNE CONTE DE MICHE DE MONTAIGNE (2013), LA MORT DE VENISE (2013), DIALOGUE D'OMBRES (2013), À PROPOS DE VENISE (2014), KOMMUNISTEN (2014), LA GUERRE D'ALGERIE! (2014), L'AQUARIUM ET LA NATION (2015), GENS DU LAC (2018)––please do...
CLAVERT: Every shoot was a great experience! The ones I prefer in terms of photography are CORNEILLE-BRECHT, À PROPOS DE VENISE, and L'AQUARIUM ET LA NATION.
The last thing I can share is about editing. It was always surprising to see that the editing choices––where to start and where to end each shot, and with the structure of the film always there before shooting, from the text––was guided solely by intuition and musicality. There was never any systematism.
CORNEILLE-BRECHT (2009) can be seen on Kino Slang here. We've extended its run one more week, until May 16, 2022 !
immense merci à Christophe et Barbara