One of the most joyous moments I’ve had thus far in quarantine was my conversation last month with Halina Dyrschka, the German director whose debut feature, “Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint,” ranks among the best films I’ve seen in 2020. In response to my four-star review of the documentary, published this past April at RogerEbert.com, I was invited by the Gene Siskel Film Center to participate in a virtual Q&A with Dyrschka to discuss her movie, which is scheduled to complete its enormously successful seven-week run at the venue this Thursday, June 11th.
You can watch our complete hour-long conversation in the video linked here, where we explore the extraordinary legacy and relevance of her film’s titular subject, Hilma af Klint, the criminally under-appreciated pioneering painter whose much-imitated abstract artworks were the first of their kind. Not only was af Klint’s imagery ahead of its time, it reflected her forward-thinking beliefs regarding gender roles (she knew marriage wasn’t her destiny), vegetarianism, spirituality and gender identity (she sought to portray how “many a female costume conceals a man”). Her theosophist faith that all religions spring from the same source led to her embracing intuition as a guide when painting. This approach resulted in a wealth of staggering artistry that provides us with a new method for comprehending our world, while reawakening our sense of awe about its limitless complexities.
Dyrschka brilliantly utilizes rack focus to show what unseen wonders reveal themselves when we adjust our gaze after achieving stillness in thought and feeling, an invaluable exercise in the era of COVID-19. Upon her initial viewing of af Klint’s work at curator Iris Müller-Westermann’s 2013 exhibition, “A Pioneer of Abstraction” in Berlin, Dyrschka knew she had found the subject of her first feature-length film. Since so much information about af Klint remains unknown, the director’s research process was akin to detective work, just as it was for Pamela B. Green when making “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.” Among the most stunning discoveries was the revelation that af Klint’s abstract art was first exhibited in 1928, a landmark event that had been forgotten to time until correspondence resurfaced 90 years later.
This year also marks the tenth anniversary of Dyrschka’s marvelous prize-winning short film, “Farewell nine and a half,” about two brothers coming to terms with the death of their pet hamster. Once I saw that movie following our Siskel Center Q&A, I realized that my interview with the director was in need of a second installment. A few weeks ago, we had the following chat via Zoom, and it left me feeling as exhilarated and inspired as I was after watching “Beyond the Visible.” I hope it will do the same for you…
What initially brought you into the realm of filmmaking?
I was classically trained in theatre and had the opportunity to perform in big venues, but I discovered that, for me, it was very anachronistic and male-dominated. Germany has a very good theatre system, but it is also ancient. The same is true of classical literature. You really have to search for the good female roles. Even in the case of Shakespeare, what do you have apart from Lady Macbeth? There’s Ophelia, but she dies after two scenes. I was also studying classical singing, and the opera is actually something that I would love to direct next. After I had shot a bit for television and film, I wanted to go from the beginning of a project to the very end, because someone was always telling me what to do.
I studied film production first because I thought I probably needed a production company to start with. That experience culminated with me directing my first short film, “Neuneinhalbs Abschied” (“Farewell nine and a half”). It was geared for children and it worked really well. The film ran in over 40 festivals and won lots of prizes, so that was the start of my film career. I guess I always like to change my profession, but I do really love filmmaking, not only because it enables me to create my own projects, but it provides me with the opportunity to work with many people who have taught me so much. I had to learn about the camera in the beginning, and on the Hilma af Klint movie, I was able to meet and work with wonderful people.
When you are telling a story from a child’s perspective, you can say things more bluntly than you would in films for grown-ups. That was especially true in the case of this film and how it dealt with the issue of death, which is still a taboo for many people. Even today, everyone is obviously afraid to die, but I wonder why we feel that way. Death is with us all the time, as Willa Cather illustrated in her great novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Children who saw this film appreciated how it portrayed death in an honest way. They liked how the film took them seriously, and their response to it was wonderful.
Both Ben and Tim Litwinschuh are exceptionally good in the film, drawing upon their real bond as siblings.
The most important thing for me in casting the film was that the children wouldn’t have been in front of a camera before. The big difference with child actors in America, in contrast with those in Germany, is that they are often very professional and properly trained. Many child actors in Germany are not very good because their training is more obvious. I needed to have children that the audience believed were brothers. I went with Ben and Tim for a walk, and we made some plays together before we started shooting. I explained the story and the scenes to them, but I didn’t let them learn their lines because children are so smart. You tell them what to say, and within five minutes, they’re ready to film. They probably won’t keep the lines in their mind for tomorrow, but for the next half an hour, they have them.
The line that resonated so strongly with me from “Farewell nine and a half” was, “Not everything people say always has to be true. It’s enough if it could be true.”
This was one of the reasons why I liked the script so much. I didn’t know the screenwriter [Guido Schmelich], and I was looking for a first film that I could do as a director. I always like a story where the philosophical side comes in—not just philosophy in a theoretical way, but in how life actually is. We worked a little bit on the script, and I noticed that we needed something at the end. He decided to repeat that line you mentioned, and it was a perfect way of making the story more rounded. It’s a good sentence because it questions what we really know. We always think that we have to teach children—of course we have to teach them about things we know by having lived longer on this planet—but they know a lot of things by themselves. They have an intelligence that is sometimes really funny, but it always has a deep truth in it.
Just because the couple in your short film “Opera Buffa” remains in their house doesn’t mean they aren’t also at the opera—in their minds. It’s true for them.
I thought it was the perfect “corona” short film. [laughs] I was between projects and wanted to shoot something. The idea actually came from a postcard where an old couple is sitting together, dressed for the opera, but in their living room watching television. We shot the film very quickly, over a weekend, and you can see that. But I really liked the idea that they get dressed up and make everything beautiful. Why not? It’s a question of how precise you are looking at things, and how we teach ourselves the awareness of our lives. Why does everything have to be as we think it is? It’s just invented by us—by people. Nothing is as bad as we think it is, and probably nothing is as good, but you always can find your way when you don’t take things too seriously.
There’s great peace that can be found in that sense of unknowing, which is what Hilma appears to be conveying in her work. I’m reminded of the Einstein quote shared in your film by German historian of science Ernst Peter Fischer, “If light is simultaneously both a wave and a particle, then we no longer know what it is.” Nothing seems to illuminate connections between disparate truths quite like art.
That’s true of art in all its forms. I remember reading a quote where someone claimed that art is the only important thing and everything else is a nightmare. Life can really drive you crazy sometimes, but it’s not life as it is—it’s the everyday life that we have invented. You think that you are stuck in this system where you have to perform certain tasks and earn money. Art is about opening ourselves up to a large truth. When I began “Beyond the Visible,” I was astonished by the arguments against Hilma af Klint because they were so pathetic. People would say, “This is spiritual art! She didn’t know anyone at the time! She was not in contact with Picasso or Kandinsky!” Of course, none of this changes the significance of her art.
The system in which we exhibit and judge art is extremely narrow-minded, whereas the artists themselves strive to open up the world. Picasso was someone who tried to go further and look at the world in a different way. You want to create work that helps us understand our lives, and then this system comes in and only allows you to do it within certain borders. If you don’t know the right people and don’t have your work exhibited and sold, then you are not an artist. That’s basically what they told Hilma. If that’s true, then Van Gogh is not an artist either. Art allows you to go beyond any border, but I like to remind people that they can do this all the time. I discovered Hilma so late in my life and her story reminded me about what is most important.
I included Mr. Fischer in the film because he provides a depth of knowledge about physics, which Hilma sought to portray in her work. There are times he would explain things, and my editor wouldn’t understand him. She was relieved when I told her that it wasn’t necessary to comprehend everything he’s saying, because that’s his message, in essence. You can’t really understand quantum physics because its form of logic doesn’t fit together with our version of reality. I think it is absolutely marvelous when a scientist sits there and explains to us that we can’t explain our world, and that we have to invent it. You have to invent the things around you. We don’t perceive many things if we have so much light and only allow ourselves to focus on one small bit of it. Who are we to say that someone who talks with spirits or sees energies is delusional?
Hilma’s theosophy is analogous to the parable about the blind men and the elephant. Each man sees a fragment of the truth—as represented by the animal’s differing parts—and defines it for themselves.
As humans, we feel compelled to put everything in coherent pieces, like the trunk of the elephant—in order to help us conquer the fear of life. Hilma taught us that it’s okay if we don’t see everything. We know what an atom looks like when we look directly at it, but when we look away, it doesn’t look like anything. It’s totally insane. So many things are uncertain in both science and spirituality, but if you are stable and brave enough, you can go further just as Hilma and Picasso did, without being harmed in any way.
It’s natural for human beings to fear the unknown, and I think that you can approach this fear by being relaxed and thinking that nothing will harm you. Nothing will harm us, actually, apart from humankind, which is making a mess for everybody. We shouldn’t judge people just because they are taking a spiritual route that’s off the beaten path. That is one of the reasons why Hilma was neglected for such a long time. Museum curators were afraid that someone would come along and say, “Oh god, you’re showing her? But she saw spirits!” So what?
You visualize the texture of Hilma’s abstract imagery by incorporating its potential influences—nature, horizon lines, rippling water, ship masts, sea atlases, etc.—in your cinematic canvas.
When I was standing in front of Hilma’s paintings on the first night that I attended her exhibition, I saw life coming out of them, and it somehow took the form of nature. It wasn’t so much that I had the feeling that I was sitting near a lake or something, but I could sense the nature behind the images. It could also be the universe. Nature was here before humans began walking on two legs and learned how to speak, and it will probably be here after we are gone. It was quite clear from the beginning that I needed to look at it in an abstract way, instead of merely seek out beautiful, romantic landscapes. I wanted to go from the outer forms of nature—what we see, such as the horizon lines—and then dive in to find the deeper and inner forms of nature.
For some time, I was without an editor, which was quite good because I had to organize all my stuff. I thought about how to bring it all together, and I started to try with dissolves. I didn’t want the film to look cheesy or kitsch because that would take away from the beauty of the art, so I took a very plain approach that worked. As a filmmaker, everything in your mind looks even better. Nothing is better than it is in our fantasies. Yet my intention with the film was to make visible what I believe Hilma meant to convey through her work, and that was the idea behind diving into her life and the paintings at the same time.
To what extent did the power of stillness, as advocated by Hilma, guide your year-long editing process?
The stillness was probably the most important thing, though I was very impatient. [laughs] I started with one editor [Mario Orías], and it was clear that he had a limited amount of time to work with me. Another editor [Antje Lass] came in later, and I had some months in between without them where I had time to learn the editing program myself. It really helped me to get my ideas clear and to get a look at what was working and where I wanted to go. That really helped afterwards with Antje when we sat working for half a year, and figured out how to fit it all together. Mario had an awareness of the spiritual subject matter, which helped a lot in the beginning, while Antje brought an objective perspective. It’s good when someone comes from really far away, because after half a year, you are so deep into the woods that you don’t see the trees anymore.
The staged scenes are more like impressionist paintings than reenactments. You also artfully express the extent of Hilma’s influence by showing a drop of paint as it spreads through a glass of water.
I would love to have gone on shooting those reenactment scenes for weeks, especially with the water and the drop. First you just see the glass of water, but it’s so close to the lens that you don’t know what you’re seeing. That was also true of Hilma’s artistic process. She didn’t really know where she was going until her work was complete. With the reenactments, I was trying to capture moments of poetry. The sunset is not kitsch just because it’s a sunset, it’s because of what the photographer has made out of it, but there’s still beauty within the details of the image. I also shot her paintbrushes from above in such a way that you probably have to look twice to see what it is. I don’t like reenactments very much in documentaries, especially when you have a photograph of the person, who is then played by an actor who looks completely different. That’s why I always kept Hilma in the shadows, framing her from behind so that the audience can still have their own fantasy about her.
Opera can also convey the essence of the story through the music and abstract staging even if you don’t understand the language.
It’s first and foremost the music that attracts me to the opera, because it is a universal language that goes directly to the heart. It’s completely direct and it’s true. Here in Berlin, a lot of directors are given the opportunity to direct operas. They don’t like them, but they do it because it’s good for their reputation. This results in us getting operas that don’t look at all beautiful. I also love the beauty of opera. I know that not every moment in life is beautiful, but if I have two hours, I can’t just make it all ugly without any regard to the music. People might find the beautiful images in my film to be kitsch, but that didn’t stop me from using them. It wouldn’t have made sense because that’s not how I look at the world, and I suppose that’s why I’m interested in the arts, especially film and opera. After my experience with Hilma af Klint, it would be very interesting to utilize abstract settings onstage in a way that fills in the story. That just came up in my mind as we were talking. There are operas where you could do that, such as Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” You can view it as a fairy tale, but it also has a deeper spiritual meaning that is fantastic.
One of my favorite things you said during our previous conversation is how leaving behind what we’ve learned breeds positivity.
I’m trying to connect that idea with my own life, and it’s really hard work, but I truly believe that it’s a process that can do a lot for us. Every day, it’s important for us to question what we’ve been told to believe. I have the feeling that Hilma af Klint went very far with that, and without any compromise. She knew that this was important for her, and after practicing this myself, I have found that life feels a bit easier. In the beginning, nobody wanted to fund a movie about Hilma af Klint because nobody knew who she was. Eventually, we got the money we needed, and it was all worth it. But even when the film was finished, it was turned down by the big festivals, beginning with Berlinale, where it would’ve been a perfect Forum film.
I remembered what my mother always said to me: ‘You have to decide for yourself who is allowed to criticize you, in a good and a bad way.’ You wrote such a great critique of my film that I could put it on my wall. It clearly connected with you, just as it has with so many people whom I met while touring with the movie last year. When I looked into their eyes, I could tell how deeply touched they were by what they had experienced. You are criticizing yourself when you are in the process of making the film, but after it was finished, I realized that I was content with it, and that is a good achievement. People can think whatever they think about it, and I shouldn’t be too happy about the nice reviews or too upset about the bad ones. Your sense of self-worth shouldn’t be bound by what other people think.
Hilma couldn’t have created what she did if she had paid much attention to the opinions of others. That is what I love about her story. She really went her own way without explaining herself. She is also dealing with the topic of death, which I obviously like, as you saw in my short film. I like to look at death because then you have to look at life. You realize that what’s happening now won’t be going on forever, and it makes you ask whether you are content with your life. A lot of people repeat those sayings about the importance of forging your own path, but I don’t think many people are doing it, because if they did, the world would look completely different. Then we wouldn’t have systems that define how genders or families should look or what religions are deemed acceptable.
So many of these religions are more concerned with the reward you will receive in the next life rather than the life you are living now.
Everybody wants to have a happy life—the question is how do you achieve it? The ways we are currently attempting to acquire it are often unsuccessful. If someone doesn’t like you or your work, you are unhappy. But in the end, the most important thing is that you are happy with it.
Apart from operas, what projects are you looking to tackle next?
Before I started the Hilma af Klint project a decade ago, I was working on a film that I would like to complete next, though it will take some years to finance. It’s about a German artist and scientist from the 17th century, Maria Sibylla Merian. I don’t know if she ever went to school, but she was very well-educated, and her stepfather was also an artist who taught her how to draw. She loved caterpillars and butterflies, and her documentation of their metamorphosis was enormously influential. She was collecting bugs and caterpillars in 1680, when they were still burning the “witches” in this country. In 1699, she went to Dutch Surinam in South America, and spent two months on a boat simply so that she could watch the butterflies.
She had a very interesting life that also involved religion. Like Hilma, she was a strong woman who had faith in herself and her story serves as an antidote to the overabundance of victim narratives. The 1988 French biopic about Rodan’s lover, “Camille Claudel,” is a good film, but it’s also one of many stories about a woman who went crazy because the world didn’t want her. We need more movies about women who lived in the 17th century and were not only known but successful. You can reach a wider audience with films because they are a little easier to consume than books.
Maria and Hilma had fathers who supported them, and there were other great women who had men in their corner. Very often, it didn’t happen, but it happened more often than it is told. I could’ve put even more names in that shot from “Beyond the Visible” where I list all of the accomplished female artists who are equally deserving of being the subject of a documentary. Some of them were famous during their lifetime, but have either been forgotten in the last fifty years or written out of history. Hypatia of Alexandria was taught by her father about mathematics. She dressed like a man and went to the university, where she ended up teaching men. Stories like these are possible and should be told more often.
Could you see yourself directing a biopic about Hilma starring Saoirse Ronan someday?
I really love that idea, but Lasse Hallström is already planning to do a film about Hilma. He just posted on Instagram that he’ll be trying to shoot it next year. Lasse directed “Chocolat,” along with many Hollywood movies since he’s been living for many years in America. I met him last year because he loved my movie and wanted to tell me about his plans for a feature film. If he succeeds, then he will be the one who directs the first narrative feature about Hilma af Klint.
And yet, there are so many ways her life can be explored on film.
That’s true, and I really like your idea of casting Saoirse. She has a fabulous face, but we would also need someone to play an older Hilma, because it’s the second part of her life that is more interesting. Her first abstract paintings were created when she was in her 40s, around the same age I was when I started making the film. It wasn’t my initial intention for it to be a documentary, but I quickly realized that it had to be since so much of her life still exists in a kind of fog. She destroyed so many traces of her private life. During the research process, new facts emerged and things are a bit clearer, yet we may not know enough to make a narrative feature about her. Perhaps we should wait a few more years.
I’m really happy that the film touched you so much and that it really spoke to you. I had a friend who told me, after seeing the film, “You know, I think I have to change some things in my life,” and I thought, “Great idea!” [laughs] That’s what I thought when I was standing in front of those paintings! My focus began to shift.
One last thing, Matt: even if you are at home right now, remember this—just because someone can go out and travel the world, it doesn’t make that person open-minded. You’re not cosmopolitan because you’re traveling. You’re cosmopolitan if you have an open mind. I always like the story of Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher. He lived his whole life in Königsberg [now known as Kaliningrad], except for one week, when he traveled 100 kilometers away from it before returning. He basically spent his whole life sitting at one point, but where did he go in his mind? He had thoughts that affirmed just how far he traveled, and I think we have to keep that in mind. There’s an inner freedom we can achieve, and though it requires a little bit of work, it’s possible.
“Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint” is currently scheduled to screen virtually through Thursday, June 11th, at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center. For more information about Halina Dyrschka, visit the official site of Ambrosia Film.