» Experimental Compositionas Cinematic Principle

Peter-Liechti_portr_2011-01-07_01A masterclass with experimental filmmaker and artist Peter Liechti. 

“You need your brain both before and after
filming, but do not use your brain during filming.
Just film using your instinct and intuition.”
Viktor Kossakovsky’s advice for beginners

At first Kossakovsky’s “advice for beginners” may seem like a rather fathomable precept, yet many filmmakers would admit that its implementation is far more laborious. Deploying Kossakovsky’s prescript as a springboard for discussion, an acclaimed Swiss filmmaker, Peter Liechti, whose work is notable for its imaginative forms, recently held a masterclass on experimental composition as cinematic principle. The masterclass took place in the framework of the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film 2013. Liechti, to whom DOK Leipzig dedicated an homage, cast a light on his personal working methods which he himself continually re-adjusts and revamps.

From the outset of his career, Liechti has rarely worked within the confines of the documentary genre. Prior to embarking on his first film experiments in 1983, Liechti devoted himself to painting and writing which, one might argue, left an imprint on the unique way of seeing in his films. The fusion of different artistic forms has rendered Liechti an experimental filmmaker who unceasingly interweaves documentary material with products of his imagination.

Veteran filmmaker Liechti has frequently stated that overly preoccupying oneself with the intentions of a film could be limiting as it might inhibit surprising elements that are often brought about in the process. According to the director, curiosity, intuition, and the benefit of the doubt are the key elements of an artistic work. Besides, this approach to filmmaking allows indulgence in one’s personal passions when shooting and editing a film. For instance, Liechti’s fondness for landscapes, helicopters, and animals often finds its expression in the form of interpolations, which, as the director notes, constitute “petite distractions or gifts granted to the spectator . . . for they enrich, decorate, and alleviate a film.”

Liechti’s predilection for cinematographic experiments can be traced back to his first internationally acknowledged film: Signer’s Suitcase (orig. Signers Koffer, 1996). Signer’s Suitcase is exemplary of Liechti’s entire body of work. A renowned Swiss “engineer-artist”, Signer is a critical figure in Liechti’s oeuvre, yet the film is neither artist portrait, nor his biography. Far more than a conventional artist portrait, the film is the product of a concerted effort between the performance artist and the filmmaker. The passion to experiment arcs across the film, intertwining Signer’s “action sculptures” and Liechti’s scintillating adaptation of the material. Signer’s actions, which routinely involve day-to-day objects such as chairs, umbrellas, boots, hats or bicycles, often offer a humorous twist to the concept of experimentation, deflecting the beholder’s awe from explosions, collisions, and projections of objects in space. Signer’s lone, at times surreal experiments, serve as uncanny cinematographic moments that forge the composition of the film where the acoustic and the visual coalesce in a symbiosis. Filmed over a number of years in the course of extensive travels, Signer’s Suitcase is designed as a travelogue through Europe. According to Liechti, the selection of travel destinations was motivated both by the immediate interest in their habitat and as a setting for the delivery of Signer’s actions. Hence, the environment in Signer’s Suitcase is as critical as the artistic actions themselves. Every new destination is represented by a peculiar sound, evolved through the complexity of language and music. From the Swiss Alps to Poland, from the Italian islands to Iceland, the film is a rendition of a marvellous plethora of images and sounds, a patch of complex montages. In a quest to find the ideal travelling speed, we pass “along the magically charged furrows of the landscape” (Matthias Heeder). As we nonchalantly dismount onto the exotic land, the atmosphere is satiated by the acoustics of the radio traffic in Icelandic. The scene is overridden by a silent glimpse of the landscape, followed by an increasingly silent action by Signer. Liechti’s personal Super 8 black and white images extracted from his personal travel diary serve as the transitions between the scenes and as the finale. These Super 8 images, or what Liechti calls “my playful little Super 8 side notes,” capture the outer happenings to the left and to the right of Signer’s actions. Thereupon, three creative main stems – Signer’s actions and statements, music and description of the environment, black and white Super 8 images – are at play and compose the film structure. Such a clearly defined yet open film structure allows for kneading elements into a reiterated paradigm. While sudden plunges, abrupt mood swings, and eccentric personalities shape the atmosphere of the cinematic journey and create the rhythm of constant flux, the agreed upon film structure propels us through the film, making this tightrope walk less precarious.

In the first few minutes of a film, I can count on the openness and curiosity of the audience.

Liechti’s passion to experiment manifests itself in his subsequent films. In Lucky Jack (orig. Hans im Glueck, 2003), Liechti parades his personal story of breaking his smoking habit by taking cross-country hikes through Eastern Switzerland. He starts off from his current residence, Zurich, back to the place of his birth, St. Gall. The routes change with every endeavour. “At times he walks along the Lake of Constance, at times over the Alpstein . . . In his mind memories of past journeys come up, Africa and other places that he had undertaken during this period and he ‘walks through’ it again.” (Peter Liechti on Lucky Jack).

WATCHLiechti confesses that filmmaking for him is a process to make discoveries, a way to understand his life, and an opportunity to make personal progress at last. “Telling this story of my own withdrawal, I try to show what is there to be found when one is ready to let go.” An attempt to break free from the burdening vice then becomes just a pretext to enter into a self-imposed ritual of three extended pilgrimages through Liechti’s homeland. Following the filmmaker on his nicotine-withdrawal pilgrimage is commensurate with partaking in an experiment – too many variables with no guarantee of success. “The physical withdrawal not only heightens the agony but also the intensity of perception.

Even the smallest details are suddenly relevant, whole regions turn into huge projection areas. To be exposed to such a situation makes me vulnerable, which I can only support by adhering to a radically honest behaviour at times . . .”

The outcome is an emotionally volatile journey into the landscapes of Liechti’s homeland and onto the states of his mind. The film often evinces surprising, even grotesque, and eerie experiences amid the seemingly mundane settings. That feeling of uprootedness and a form of withdrawal, from smoking or from the ties of his land, impels Liechti to re-invent the familiar world from scratch. The experiment which starts off by placing Liechti at the centre of the experiment, progressively evolves into a treatment of more fundamental topics, transforming the personal experiment into a so-called “auto-ethnographic study” that expands to a (critical, at times melancholic, at times aggressive) reflection on culture and on life in general.

The sound and noise worlds are brought into play not only to amplify the visual world but also to re-imagine it.

Using Lucky Jack as a case study, the director asserts that a simple clarification of the rules of an experiment provides leverage if done within the first few minutes of a film. “In the first few minutes of a film, I can count on the openness and curiosity of the audience,” he elaborates, “. . . once the audience is familiarized with the specific narrative form, they are able to follow me throughout the film as I venture in and out with great liberty; however, if the point is missed from the outset, the audience will quickly get off and remain there for the rest of the film.”

Liechti gives an example from Lucky Jack. Here the prologue, consisting of the opening credits and a title sequence, takes about three minutes to inform the viewer on the content, the formal elements, and the imagery of the film, another minute is then spent on announcing the rules of the experiment; the rest of the film ultimately represents repeated action of the chosen principle.

The director elaborates, however, that such a blueprint is not applicable to every film. In fact, he presumes, strict rules make little sense in filmmaking since each film needs its own game plan and tactics to express the desired theme in the best possible way. Narrative line and dramaturgy are then developed accordingly.

The director notes that while the possibility for improvisation allows him to preserve the ability to stay curious and imaginative, the basic structure prescribes rules and establishes a cinematic direction that determine the boundaries of a film project. “Such a rigid system paradoxically allows for a greater improvisation,” he says, “once a clear structure is set, I am able to work more intuitively and carefree within that structure.” Liechti compares such an approach to the practice of improvised music: in order to be able to improvise, the musicians have to agree on a particular theme, a few fixed lines, and a lucid structure, which offers an orientation and provides some sort of guidance.

The-Sound-of-Insects_1Music, text, and audiovisual elements form a fascinating whole in Liechti’s later film experiment: The Sound of Insects – Record of A Mummy (orig. Das Summen der Insekten >
– Bericht einer Mumie, 2009), a harrowing account of a man’s self-imposed impending death. The film is based on the novel by the Japanese author Shimada Masahiko, yet it is not a mere literary adaptation of the text. Rather it is a cinematic rapprochement of the text which itself is based on a true story. Like in other Liechti films, a premeditated structure is palpable. The film kicks off with Shimada introducing us to the story of the mummified corpse of a man that was discovered by a hunter in remote highlands, along with his diary. The dead man’s diary notes reveal an actual death report, meticulous records of the final 62 days of his life. Then comes the female voice-over that briefs us on the matter in the form of a police report. As the introductory voice-over comes to an end, the film title appears with the following words: “The subsequent scenes are the reproduced records of the dead man”.

Curiosity, intuition, and the benefit of the doubt are the key elements of an artistic work.

According to Liechti, the introduction that is reminiscent of a traditional crime film gives the audience an “objective” view of the action, which is granted only once. This also implies that after the title there is a clear shift – both in time and perspective – from an objective, sober report to the subjective world of the protagonist. Once the shift occurs, the beholder takes up the perspective of the protagonist. It is important to note that Liechti does not approach the protagonist head-on or expose his withering body on screen. Instead, he traces cinematic associations evoked by the subject. The story is presented in the form of a diary narrated in the voice-over that lends the film a semblance of structure, thus allowing for a stream of subjective and evocative images and sounds. The director creates a rich sound design, fusing the natural sounds of the woods with music. Here, the sound and noise worlds are brought into play not only to embellish or amplify the visual world but also to re-imagine it. As the director interpolates lush images of the woods with impressions of the city, he sketches the man’s state of solitude and the process of his deterioration, drawing us into a hypnotic “deadly” experience of the invisible man. Paradoxically, the invisible man, though never really shown, is ever-present in the film through his voice.

Like Liechti’s other films, the world in The Sound of Insects is protean, visually and acoustically rich, and vivid. The protagonist’s monologue is gripping yet devoid of any of the sentiments that are thought to accompany the process of dying, it is “neither descriptive nor retrospective, but deals entirely with the moment. There is no lamentation, no self-pity, no sentimentality. On the contrary, a subliminal self-irony even emerges at times. The text is unobtrusive; it suggests no morals and refrains from measuring value, thereby rendering its impact very direct”. Liechti confesses that the mystery that lies within the protagonist’s monologue struck him immensely when he heard it for the first time. After listening to it three or four times, the director still could not figure out the mystery – the secret was still there. So Liechti decided to make a film to find out the secret. “Now the film is finished,” the director notes, “but the secret is still there.”

Fathers-Garden-(02)This brings us to Liechti’s most recent film experiment: Father’s Garden – The Love of My Parents, 2013 that traces Liechti’s close re-encounter with his aged parents. As Liechti dives into the biographies of his parents who are gradually fading, crumbling slowly, he allows every moment, no matter how mundane, to shed light on the bygone days. “The film does not necessarily tell the parable of the ‘prodigal son,’ but rather the ‘story of parents lost.’” Bypassing the comforts of silence, Liechti resurfaces things long forgotten, and like an “unwelcome archaeologist” stirs up cold ashes, unearthing buried residues of past family conflict that has long run out of arguments. Liechti does not shy away from tackling issues that are particularly sensitive to his parents – religion, love, war, or their unfulfilled dreams. To defuse the magnitude of the confrontation, Liechti deftly utilizes a puppet theatre as a confessional, or what Liechti dubs the “family tribunal”, to let their inner struggles play out on external terrains, timely deploying blaring electro sounds to release the tension that is crying out for relief.

Recipient of the Visions du Réel 2013 Special Prize of the Jury SSA/Suisssimage for the most innovative Swiss feature film, Father’s Garden once again transgresses the borders between fiction and non-fiction, contemplative and frolicsome, prudent and ludicrous. Through the radical juxtaposition of the material, the film achieves its most imaginative potential, which would otherwise have been inconceivable. Liechti notes that there were two main issues that had to be resolved when making this film: first, establishing proxy figures to represent the protagonists; second, installing a triple constellation of father, mother and son as a true “family tribunal.” The director confides that the greatest difficulty for him lay in creating smooth transitions between the puppet theatre and the documentary. However, Liechti asserts, as the mechanism was ingrained at different cinematic levels, the film could move between the genres with immense freedom.

Fathers-Garden_2“In order to express the divisiveness of my own position, the interviews and more intimate family scenes are staged as a Punch and Judy show in which the “ghosts of the past” also make their appearance. The puppet stage represents, as it were, both the home and the confines of narrow-mindedness – then as now. Interspersing documentary observation with a fictionalised family tribunal enables the creation of a very personal cosmos, conveying at all times that a person involved is giving his or her account here. A story which evolved entirely from the ‘synergy of an intricate encounter.’” _


Like in your other films, in Father’s Garden you transgress the boundaries of the documentary genre.
Well, principally, I am not interested in any kind of genre. I am interested in cinema. I try to find the most fitting form for the thematical content of a film. At the beginning, it is often not yet clear what the best means would be. Generally, I don’t care whether there are more fictional, documentary or experimental elements in my films – I just have to find the most suitable formalistic media to express myself.

In one of your interviews, you mention that when it comes to your film work, you like to think in musical structures…
Music is the language itself that expresses my feelings, my state of mind. It expresses whatever I cannot express in another way. Especially in this film, music is my voice, my humour. Formalistically, it is very important in my films. I think music is interwoven with picture, it is not just supporting the image – sometimes the image is supporting the music. Among other things, working with music is just so enjoyable to me.

Since Father’s Garden is a film about your parents, what would you say about the distance between you as the director and your parents as the subjects of the film?
Yes, it was sort of difficult because I had a double role: on the one hand, I was the son, on the other hand, I was the director.
At first it was an obstacle to remain sovereign and partial because sometimes it was embarrassing, but then I discovered that it was a big advantage, so I was forced to step back as the son – not to intervene in the discussions and dialogues, not to be the son who is still rebelling and interrupting my father, for example. I was forced as the professional director just to listen, to listen, to listen . . . and to watch. After some time, I realized that it was the first time in my life that I really listened to my parents, that I watched them without any anger, just out of professional curiosity, which was very fruitful for the film.

Give us a comment on the title of your film. What does garden symbolize here?
Garden symbolizes the cosmos of petite bourgeoisie. It is also the cosmos of my parents. My mother’s “garden” is in paradise. My father’s “garden” is there where you can see it. So both of them have their “gardens” where they can escape the reality, the reality of their marriage, of their everyday conflicts. Hence, garden is a symbol to me. It is also a small reference to another film that I made some years ago. It is a film of fiction that is called Martha’s Garden which was also shot in St. Gall. Therefore, Father’s Garden was a small reference to mark 15 years since making Martha’s Garden. 

In one of your interviews, you mention that you always try not to view art in isolation but in a context, by injecting layers of meanings into images, sounds, music, and text. In this film, you use the very innovative approach of a puppet theatre. How did you come up with the idea of a puppet theatre?
The idea of a puppet theatre was there from the beginning, from scratch. I wanted to dig deep, but I was absolutely sure that there shouldn’t be any interviews or interrogation in front of the camera. Hence, from scratch it was very clear that we would have this situation.
On the one hand, a puppet theatre represents childhood to me. On the other hand, it is kind of a neutral space where one could encounter another and tell them everything out in the open. I call it the stage of the “family tribunal” where one is allowed to say horrible and sad things which one often cannot do face-to-face. Besides, having a puppet theatre also helped me structure the film. They were like islands that I could always go back to. Whenever it gets too deep, I can go back to the puppets, I can relax with the puppets, the puppets are funny, in a way. Hence, dramaturgically, a puppet theatre was very helpful to structure the film. The everyday life of my parents, the life of the old people in their apartment, is rather boring. Every day looks the same. Therefore, these puppets were like an adventure and a signifier of something happening.

Tell us about the puppets. Was there a reason behind choosing hares as the representative figures?
Yes, there was a symbolic meaning, but it was not the main reason. In Switzerland, we have a word “Angsthase” which we use to describe a very shy and anxious, but at the same time a very attentive person. That is the symbolic meaning. Another reason was a practical thing. The traditional puppets, the simplest ones that are just a one-hand play, allow very little possibility for expression. They are normally made out of wood and have heads with no expressions. Therefore, I was looking for a puppet, an animal, with the widest range of possible expressions. That brought me to the rabbit. With the rabbit, you can move the ears, you can move the nose – all with one hand. Those two very little expressions can give the whole cosmos of possibilities. You can give them emotions, using just one hand.

The film broadly explores the notion of normalcy in different spheres of one’s life, the role of a woman in marriage and society, the issue of the generational gap, etc. Would you say that the portrait of your family is a microcosm of society and its past?
That is what I told my parents: “It is not a film about you – it is a film about your generation, the time you lived in, the values of your time.” I guess that is very universal. Everybody has parents. Everybody has some problems with parents, which have often to do with conflicts about values, changing values. This generation is very old now, vanishing silently and inconspicuously. I wanted to pay tribute to people like my parents who have never been in the public eye and capture their values and way of thinking before they are gone. This film is their statement even if it is terribly conservative sometimes. It is important for us to hear and remember it.

And the last question for today. In one of your interviews, you say that you understand filmmaking as a process through which you make your personal discoveries. In what ways do you think this film has changed your views?
I wouldn’t say that now I understand everything about marriage, husband and wife, but I understood a lot about myself. I had to delve deep into my own values in order to understand their values. That was the most interesting thing. I had to be very honest with myself, and it was a long process to get there. This film was a like a step for me. I guess if you are still in a conflict with your parents, you don’t really feel comfortable even when you are 60 years old. You want to reconcile and have peace. This film was the way to find this peace for me. You know, my parents actually surprised me. The trust they had in me struck me. After they agreed to this film, there were no more limits. It stunned me immensely because I thought that my parents were much more distant and careful, but they were totally open.

It comes as no surprise to hear that working on Father’s Garden turned out to be a valuable learning process for Liechti. In fact, the director has often expressed that working on a film is “a personal research process that can lead to a certain degree of clarification and insight.” To Liechti, cinema is always about the translation of forms of perception and perspectives. The reality in his films is thus pliable, the very opposite of a simple imitation of real processes. “An interesting film creates a parallel reality to the real world,” the Swiss filmmaker notes.

“It adds to our perception of reality, it reflects, it demands again and again.” Such elasticity allows Liechti to be less concerned with genres at play and more with making sure that he does not suggest certain sentiments or push toward a particular political stance. The director believes that such openness facilitates a trusting relationship between him and the beholder, leaving room for the latter to reflect on his/her own world while letting him/herself get carried away by the stream of images on screen. To conclude this article, I would like to provide some food for thought by returning to Kossakovsky’s rules of filmmaking: “Don’t film something you just hate. Don’t film something you just love. Film when you aren’t sure if you hate it or love it.” In the end, it might just be worthwhile to say: “If you already know your message before filming – just become a teacher.” _


Switzerland, 2013, 93 min.

Poland, 2009, 88 min.

Switzerland, 2007, 50 min.

Switzerland, 2006, 72 / 52 min.

Germany, 2004, 92 min.

Switzerland, 2003, 90 min.

Canada, 1997, 89 min.

Switzerland, 1995, 82 & 52(TV) min.

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