Q & A: PETER VON BAGH (1943-2014)This entry was posted on November 28th, 2014
By Julian Ross
Just two years ago, Peter von Bagh (1943-2014) was the subject of a Signals retrospective programme at the 41st International Film Festival Rotterdam. I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of him before. But the idea of a reverse Pickpocket in the form of Pockpicket eli katkelmia helsinkilaisen porvarisnuoren elämästä (Pockpicket – Recollections of a Helsinki Bourgeois Youth, 1968) intrigued me and I headed to the cinema. It was shown together with his only fiction feature, Kreivi (The Count, 1971), a film based on a man who was engaged with 76 women, which was as crazy as it sounds. After the screening, Peter von Bagh explained he felt the films were products of his youth and nothing more. Members of the audience tried to defend the film but he stuck to his reservations and insisted it didn’t represent him. But why?
I suppose one reason was he did so much more for cinema in the decades that ensued. Peter von Bagh was a film historian, writer, scriptwriter, television presenter, professor of film history, co-founder of Midnight Sun Festival with the Kaurismäki brothers and artistic director of Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna. And most of his films and television documentaries, some of which I got to see during the retrospective, turned out to be essayistic in its contemplative style that engaged with interviews and archival footage – quite a departure from Pockpicket and The Count. Still, these were masterpieces! Slightly confused and overwhelmed by the sheer dedication he had committed to cinema, I nevertheless took the opportunity to interview him during the festival.
I didn’t feel our conversation went as well as I’d hoped. It was probably because I only had a chance to see a few of his other films before speaking to him. Maybe it was my insistent enthusiasm for The Count – you can read me trying to stick on the subject of the film clash against Peter’s desire to move on. At the end of the interview, Peter von Bagh smiled and gave me a number of his films on DVD, suggesting I find him if I had any more questions. I guess I’ll have to regret not taking him up on his kind offer.
Desistfilm: You were involved in writing the script for Ruusujen aika (A Time of Roses, Risto Jarva, 1969), a film that bears a similarity to Vertigo despite being a sci-fi film. Your first book was a monograph entirely dedicated to Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958). [Hitchcock: merkintoja Alfred Hitchcockin elokuvasts vertigo (Suomen Elokuvasaatio, 1979)]. Could you tell us a bit about your book and the film’s influence on your work?
Peter von Bagh: A Time of Roses was made exactly at the time when I was writing my book – in many ways it was directly drawn from Vertigo. It’s an overwhelming film – as Chris Marker feels, it is the only film worth mentioning – but I don’t feel it has had a consequence on what I’ve done since.
The book was about Vertigo and how it remains a mystery. It’s about how it’s a film with no end, because every time you see it you get a new itch and a new perspective. Nothing is clear at first sight. The book is of mediocre value and it wouldn’t have any meaning now.
A few days before going to Copenhagen to shoot Topaz (1969), Hitchcock visited Finland to location scout. He was interested in visiting the Finnish-Soviet border to shoot The Short Night, which would have been his last film. Although he had announced he would not talk to the press, I got the number of his hotel and tried giving him a call. Miraculously, he answered himself and I knew I only had a few seconds to explain myself, but luckily he agreed to meet. The meeting was only supposed to be for five minutes but we talked for over an hour.
When I mentioned this story to my friend many years later, we realized Hitchcock must have given his time because I had written the first book-length study of a single film in the world. Although writing an entire text on Vertigo felt like the most natural thing for me to do, it wasn’t done in the 1960s and perhaps Hitchcock understood this. Maybe he thought it was something special, while also thinking to himself, “Who is this idiot?”.
Desistfilm: Before you got involved in The Time of Roses, you also shot some of your own films. Could you tell us a bit about them?
Peter von Bagh: The first film I shot was an anecdotal film called Pockpicket – Recollections of a Helsinki Bourgeois Youth (1968), which was film that put Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) in reverse. It was a very modest beginning. If I had continued to make shorts, I think I would have made political films on contemporary issues.
Instead, I shot The Count (1971), a film that is not exactly a documentary but a portrait of a real-life man.
Desistfilm: Although The Count has some resonance with contemporary European new waves at the time, the film also seems embedded in the Finnish film tradition. It recalled the films of Teuvo Tulio, in particular The Song of Scarlet Flower (1938), because of the frivolous main character and the narrative being shaped around his brief affairs with the many women with whom he was engaged.
Peter von Bagh: Yes, the coarseness of the film. Perhaps it is the infantilism of the narrative – it is so empty of any nuances – as well as the countryside tradition and the primitiveness of life.
Desistfilm: Although your filmmaking style is quite different now to how you approached The Count, I feel there are certain affinities. For example, your interest in real-life figures seems to persist across your work regardless of whether it’s a documentary or a fiction.
Peter von Bagh: I’m interested in a phenomenon – a person that can also be a phenomenon. I have equal interest and sympathy for the lowest level of Swedish life, such as Pertti Ylermi Lindgren of The Count, who comes from a culture of poor taste, idiocy and mediocrity of ordinary life; on the other hand, I’ve also taken on noble subjects, such as many of our best Finnish writers and composers who are doing the most dignified work. The whole range is important. In that way, filming The Count was no different.
Desistfilm: You worked at the Finnish Film Archives for 15 years. Is this where you discovered the found footage that you’ve used for your compilation films?
Peter von Bagh: I was especially active writing during that time – I wrote a huge text called The Elokuvan historia (History of World Cinema, 1975), which was the first of its kind in Finnish. I think it’s still the only one in Scandinavia. It’s still my dream to do it in ten volumes – I want to be the last madman to do the whole thing.
Desistfilm: Was it the experiences at the film archive that drew you to compilation filmmaking?
Peter von Bagh: No, I didn’t get any help from there at all. Quite the contrary, they kept an eye on me and made sure I wasn’t away from my workplace.
Desistfilm: What triggered your interested in working with archive footage?
Peter von Bagh: The decisive point was when I saw In the Year of the Pig (Emile de Antonio, 1968), which drew me towards that direction. But there were other films of its kind that impressed me deeply. Mikhail Romm’s Obyknovennyy fashizm (Triumph Over Violence, 1965), for example, in particular how Romm commented with his own voice about history. And I’ve always liked Chris Marker’s films. Nevertheless, I felt there were some things in the genre that had not yet been done. I thought the potential for complexity had been ignored and decided it might be something for me to try.
Desistfilm: Do you start with the idea and research, or does the idea come out of going through the archives?
Peter von Bagh: We’re in a very privileged position in Finland. I’d done most of my work as a freelance filmmaker, never as an insider, at the Finnish television company Yleisradio (YLE). One of their cleverest moves was to buy all the big Finnish production companies and all their films, which means they have hundreds of important Finnish films and newsreels. The resource has been very helpful, as it has meant that my films are very rich in scope but still very cheap to make.
I only learnt little by little about Finnish film history. It seems it is always the case with any country, as local critics overlook their national production. In the U.K, Robin Wood and others published a famous imitation of Andrew Sarris’ pantheon of filmmakers and drew up the most ridiculous list of British directors that missed the point entirely. In the case of Finland, we simply hadn’t seen enough and had been underestimating the qualities of our films. Piece by piece, I began to discover Finnish film history and figure out a truth of the country as well as its false consciousness. More than facts or truth, I think it’s important to find something that lies between. Perhaps I took the idea from Jean Rouch in Chronique d’un été (Chronicles of a Summer, 1961), where he tells Edgar Morin the lies are as important as the truth. I’m not searching for the truth but what goes in people’s heads and why they might avoid the truth.
Desistfilm: In the process of going through the archival footage, when do you decide on a topic or theme for a film?
Peter von Bagh: I think the criterion to start a film is that you must have a flash. Emotionally, one of my favourite films of mine is Vuosi 1952 (The Year 1952, 1980). I went to the swimming hall and decided I would not come out until I figured out a subject. 45 minutes later, I arrived at The Year 1952. The film was already there – I had the name and that was it. It’s a scope of one year and it’s like… life. Four seasons – just like life: the good things; the bad things; the comedy of life and its tragedies. Yet it also becomes a reflection of much more. I started to compile materials but never had more than ten lines of script – never any more than that in my life, and even for my 14-hour projects. If you have a prescribed plan, you’re translating things instead of allowing the material to form organically.
Desistfilm: What motivates the editing? How do you decide to cut one section into the other?
Peter von Bagh: It’s always a long search. For some my films, I would work on it for three months but come out of it with not a single edit. I wouldn’t be able to figure out how the images could match. But after the first edit is made, a meaning is suddenly discovered. If everything is clear from the outset it’s not likely that it’ll become an interesting film. It’s better that it’s totally confused and in the dark area… then it might have some secrets.
Desistfilm: You combine interview footage with archive footage in your compilations films, such as in Viimeinen kesä 1944 (Last Summer 1944, 1982). Can you describe your approach to interviews?
Peter von Bagh: I’m a specialist of interviews. I regard them as works themselves and I don’t feel directing actors is anything different. You have to get them into the right mood and you have to hypnotize them into that mind frame. It’s pretty close to fiction as you have to get them to write and go back into time through their memories. People are figures of fiction if you can encourage them to get lost in time. The complexity of works involving interviews with subjects can equal the most complex fiction films.
It’s always very clear from the outset whether the film needs interviews or not. I would never realise half-way through the editing that I’d need some interviews. One day I’ll make a film that will be entirely of archival footage but with interviews as voiceover.
Desistfilm: My experience of watching Lastuja – Taiteilijasuvun vuosisata (Splinters – A Century of an Artistic Family, 2011) was quite chaotic at times. I heard multiple voiceovers and there was an abundance of images fading in and out of each other. Could you talk a bit about the voiceover and its relationship to the image?
Peter von Bagh: The voiceover should never give a literal reading of the image. Never. It should be something like a musical background. Splinters, as you noticed, has a tremendous amount of text – an overkill. It’s somehow surprising that we managed to pack it into the film. It might be best to produce a dubbed print so foreign spectators can concentrate on the images. It’s next to impossible to take in the images because you’re reading the subtitles the entire time. It is the images that require most attention in all my films, but especially for Splinters, as it shows the beauty of the paintings and photographs.
Humphrey Jenning’s Listen to Britain (1942) shaped my filmmaking entirely. I’ve seen it more than any other film. Other films with voiceover commentaries that I like include A Diary of Timothy (Humphrey Jennings, 1945) as well as Le Joli Mai (1963) and San Soleil (1983) by Chris Marker. For twenty years or so, most of the films that I made did not have any voiceover commentaries – I borrowed the idea of not having any commentaries from the American director Emile de Antonio, who was among my best friends and with whom I corresponded for twenty years. But now I’m starting to get interested in commentaries – I’m sort of enthusiastic about that. I’ve started to develop my writing of oblique commentaries that I hope enriches the visuals.
Desistfilm: In Splinters you discuss film having the capacity to bring together other art forms.
Peter von Bagh: In my film Helsinki, ikuisesti (Helsinki, Forever, 2008) you find the same principle. I also found the principle in probably my most important film Blue Song – The Song of Finland (2004), which is a history of a century of Finnish art in a 12-hour TV series. While making this, it became obvious that all arts come together and it becomes the history of the country. There I found to have the dialogue between the arts is very endearing and important chance to touch the rarity of times. When somebody was filming on 35mm, somebody else was painting or composing without being aware of one another. So instead, I arrange the dialogue. The idea of dialogue between art works is also present in Sodankylä ikuisesti: Elokuvan vuosista (Sodankylä Forever: The Century of Cinema, 2011) in the way that I put together 25 years of film discussions. These films are still talking with one another and their conversations will continue forever.