VIFF 2017: Michael Glawogger’s Untitled a joyous valediction

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      There are stunning images throughout Michael Glawogger’s cinema, but often they come as moments of serendipity, unplanned and unasked for, as much a surprise to the filmmaker as the audience.

      In his 2011 documentary Whores’ Glory, for instance, in a segment shot outside a brothel in Bangkok, we see an encounter between dogs, two of whom are standing back to back, as part of their mating. They are interrupted by a third dog, who mounts and has enthusiastic sex with one of the two, while the other remains attached: it’s a doggie threeway, an image of blunt animal rutting which serves as a humorous counterpoint to the polite, businesslike negotiations going on indoors. It ends up a standout moment in the film, but, clearly, was captured entirely by accident.

      Glawogger’s final film, Untitled—completed by his editor, Monika Willi, and screening Saturday (September 30)—was, by design, to focus on such serendipities, liberated of an overriding theme. It was a film that, as he put it, it “would never come to rest,” showing whatever captured the filmmaker’s eye over the course of a year’s travels.

      Glawogger is no longer able to answer questions of his cinema; he died of malaria in April 2014, while shooting in Liberia, one of several global locations for Untitled. But Monika Willi—who also edited Michael Haneke’s 2017 VIFF entry, Happy End—is available to talk to the Straight via a Skype connection to Austria.

      Would she agree that Untitled, by virtue of having no overriding theme, thus takes as a theme Glawogger’s own aesthetic, and becomes a very personal project, one that speaks to his way of looking at the world?

      “It is his utmost personal project,” she agrees. “And of course you ask yourself, what could this have been? Would it have been three films, three features? We stopped trying to answer this question. Maybe none of the shots which are there now would have ended up in the final film. But this was really himself; he developed it over years and years.

      Willi began her collaboration with Glawogger with 2005’s Workingman’s Death, which applied his aesthetic to horrifying working conditions worldwide, but which also contains many moments of beauty and surprise. The Nigerian open air slaughterhouse, for example, comes across as a vibrant, lively place, despite the many animals bleeding out in the dirt.

      The overriding question of any sequence, for Glawogger, would be, Willi explains, “if it gives him joy.”

      Over the years, Glawogger and Willi “developed a kind of working method where, he was travelling, shooting, coming back, and he gave me the material from the first episode that he shot, more and more without any kind of explanations, any kind of information. Only the geography was very important to him. And he would want to see what someone who had not been present at the shooting would see in the images, what the images of themselves would tell, speak, show. We would have gone very far with this system: that he would have sent the material to me, I reflected on it, sent it back. It was giving and taking.”

      Glawogger had seen some of Willi’s work on Untitled before he fell ill.

      Filmmaker Michael Glawogger

      “I was really kind of desperate, it was one of those moments, sometimes you get material where you are in front of a work and think, ‘I am not capable to do it.’ Because it started with him sending material, an hour long, of empty roads, bullet-ridden houses… It was really difficult, because I didn’t know where we would cut from in the film, and where we would go. So I developed another kind of way of putting things together, which I called, in German, fläche. It didn’t have peaks and valleys.”

      The exact translation of fläche is difficult to capture but it seems to have more to do with the absence of a horizon than the rather negative connotations of being “flat.”

      “This is so important, because he wrote me back that he liked fläche! It also means to have open endings, it’s a bit like the sea. The dictionary gives me 100 answers. A ‘boundless expanse?’”

      The sequences Willi showed Glawogger were “really rough,” she says. “The only segment that he saw more or less in its completed form involves wrestlers in Senegal.”

      This even had been scored when Glawogger viewed it, with music from Wolfgang Mitterer, who had previously worked with Glawogger on his segment for Wim Wenders’ 3D anthology film, Cathedrals of Culture, for a sequence set in the National Library of Russia.

      The footage Glawogger did see “helped him” in his own ideas of shaping what came next, Willi says.

      “I would say the tragedy is, the moment we would know where this film could go, how it could work, pretty much at that moment, he died.”

      Glawogger’s usual method of filmmaking involved considerable preparation, Willi explains.  

      “This meant he was living with the people, he got their trust, talking with them endlessly, eating and drinking with them, taking photos of them… he was someone they had really incorporated into their lives, and then he came with his crew, for ten days, for fourteen days, and they did the shooting on 16 mm film. And now—it reads so easy to say, ‘I travel with a small team a year around the globe and only shoot what my curiosity and intuition tells me to shoot, and serendipity tells me.’ But it was, for me, very difficult to know the structure of things.”

      While in other documentaries of Glawogger’s, we know clearly where we are, with titles locating us in the Ukraine, or Indonesia, or Bangladesh, Untitled does not do this. We cut from a puzzled donkey in the back of a flatbed, zipping through a landscape somewhere in, perhaps, the Middle East (or Eastern Europe?) to what appears to be people panning for diamonds, perhaps in Sierre Leone. The connections between images are no longer geographical, but intuitive, poetic. Was that always the plan?

      “This was a question always. For sure, travel in itself was never a subject, it’s a topic of no interest. It’s not a travelling documentary.” Nor would chronology have mattered, she adds. But had the film been completed, “every continent would have been touched. For him, geography was always very important, so maybe he would have written the names of the towns, I don’t know.”

      The film also differs from Glawogger’s other works in that it has a voiceover narration, complementing the images. In the version screening at VIFF, this narration is in English, and read in the third person—which may seem strange at first, since it speaks to the filmmaker’s experiences while shooting. However, it was in fact written by Glawogger in the third person, drawn from short stories he was writing at the time, some of which have appeared in his posthumous book of fiction, 69 Hotel Zimmer. (“That is, ‘69 hotel rooms,’ Willi says, “but it has 96 stories, because he likes those films where someone smashes the door and the numbers go around.”)

      Glawogger also had “agreements with two newspapers, German and Austrian, to do so-called travelling blogs, but in these blogs he did nothing but continue this kind of writing, which are not travelling blogs. This is the kind of literature which he started writing, and I extracted sentences from.”

      Some of this narration ends up invaluable, as when the film shows water-bearers wheeling containers of water up a hill in Africa. “I used it because a lot of people really didn’t understand what they see” in that sequence, “and I found it so sad in a way, because I liked the passage so much. Also this passage about ‘freedom,’ this is maybe a bit too explicit, but it is so much Michael, it gives you such a presence, that I dared to use it.  My hope was to say I used for this film only material that was created between  the third of December, 2013” when shooting began, “and the 22nd of April, 2014,” when Glawogger died. “We only used texts he wrote during the shooting.”

      Editor Monika Willi
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      It is very difficult to measure the amount of time and work that went into preparing Untitled.

      “We had to refinance the whole thing, we had to put it back to zero, and the production companies were paid back what we didn’t spend.”

      Over the two and a half years between the filmmaker’s death and the completion of Untilted, “I always kind of worked. No one could have imagined that it would be possible to make a film out of it, it was really just my desire, that I would like to do it.”

      Does she have a favourite sequence in the film, something that speaks the most to Glawogger’s understanding of cinema?

      “Very beautiful is the whole garbage place in Morocco”—a dump, to be more idiomatic, where children, adults, and a plethora of goats vie for choice bits of rubbish. “I will come back to this. When he was in Albania, I got a phone call—we were always two people who talked to each other—and he said, ‘it’s about serendipity, and then there was this idea, ‘Jungle of Eden, Garden of Hell’”, a phrase which appears onscreen in the film. “So these are two major themes in the film. And then he called me from Morocco to tell me he really apologized for sending me material of a garbage place. ‘I did a garbage place for Megacities,’ he said. ‘And I think there are so many films about garbage places the world doesn’t need another. But then I was there, and imagine, those beautiful colours, those plastic bags, those goats, those boys, the old women and the young women… I really had to film it.’”

      She sees this as a key aspect of Glawogger’s project, of “seeing something and thinking it is magic, and this whole thing about the beauty in the ugly, finding beauty in things people find apocalyptically terrible, and being really struck by it, the beauty, the vividness of life… This has a lot to do with him.”

      Our respects to Michael Glawogger—and to Monika Willi, for completing his final film.