Photo: Alexi Pelekanos

by Vladimir Seput

Johann Lurf (Vienna, 1982) is an artist and filmmaker whose fascinating experimental short films have been shown in cinemas around the world. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and Slate School of Art in London, and graduated from Harun Farocki’s Art and Film Studio. Besides Vienna where he is based, he lived in Los Angeles and Tokyo. His first feature film “Star”* has been shown at Viennale 2017, and this year’s Sundance and Rotterdam Film Festivals, and has just won the main award at the Innovative Cinema programme of the Festival of Austrian Film Diagonale in Graz. At Diagonale, we sat down with him to talk about his compelling feature “Star” and the ideas that preceded it.

Desistfilm: “Star” is your first feature, impressive work that collages excerpts from 553 films. Can you tell us little about when you started working on it?

Johann Lurf:  In 2009 I was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and I was at Harun Farocki’s class for film. We watched a lot of films, and one of them that we saw as students there was Rossellini’s Stromboli. We analyzed it, talked a lot about it and there was one scene at the end of the film when Ingrid Bergman wants to escape the island. She is desperate, standing on top of the volcano, she breaks down and cries and prays to God. It’s night so you have a shot of the night sky which looks somehow sweet because it’s clunky, there are big stars, and it’s not really a night sky you would expect to see, but it’s the matter of technology from the 1950’s so you can see it’s a fake, made up sky. That made me think about the ways night skies are depicted in cinema through the course of years. I wanted to see is it possible to recognize, for example different geographies or northern and southern hemisphere. Then I realized that it’s an image, which is constant through time, constellations won’t change in a thousand years, at least not perceivably. However, through our perception and representation of them we are interpreting and stylizing those starry night skies even if the image should look more or less the same.

Desistfilm: Sort of uniformed…

Johann Lurf: It should look that way but it’s doesn’t. So I started to get interested in that aspect, where you can read a little bit from what or how it is being depicted, what is being said and what are the sounds that accompany the very moment of that specific film part.

Desistfilm: We find different layers of time that are represented in the work fascinating. There’s a time of recording and the time of the content of the particular excerpts since we can recognize that some film parts depict, for example, Christ’s birth from the past or Kubrick’s depiction of the future in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course, there’s also a spectator’s sense of time during the time of projection. Were those layers something you consciously tried to explore?

Johann Lurf: To a certain extent. I think that the starry night itself is a predecessor of cinema. It’s a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional space, same as cinema. Also, the time factor is very interesting because all those different stars have different ages. We perceive them in our present moment but some of them are already dead for millions of years and light finally arrives here so we are able to see them. This transformation of time, what we unconsciously see in the starry night sky also somehow unconsciously happens in cinema. We have that preservation of a time capsule, taking something and transporting it to a different time period to represent it there. Usually it’s the past, sometimes it can be the future, like in science fiction films. Transporting that on the two-dimensional screen where it appears as the filmic time that we perceive in present moment as an audience. What is this moment representing, what is it analogue for, and what is it being used for? This film is a moment of contemplation, of self-reflection, and sometimes it can be very eclectic. Obviously, there are few sets of mechanisms that the starry night sky is being used for.

Desistfilm: The film is also a relationship to film history?

Johann Lurf: Of course.

Desistfilm: You have collected works from 1905 to 2017 and ordered them chronologically. How did you do that so accurately? What if the films were made in the same year, did you research about which one was made earlier?

Johann Lurf: Yes, I had to research all the premiere dates. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew it should be chronological. For me, the film is also about understanding the feelings around a certain period, the 1930’s or the 1940’s. How the language changes and how the music develops. I knew that it should be chronological but I thought I could maybe be roughly chronological. Then I realized that if I start to shift around, or put films from the same year alphabetically (sometimes there’s 30 films per year) it would be jumping up and down too much. I didn’t like that idea so I realized that the film should be historically accurate. It took me some time to research all the premiere dates and now it feels much better because we travel through those starry night skies and we see them the way they were lined up on screens worldwide. Sometimes the films are somehow connected to each other or there is a historical relevance. For example, Spielberg’s ET was released just before The Thing by John Carpenter. I believe that The Thing is a much better film but at the box office it didn’t perform well because everybody wanted to have a good alien. Right now, these two excerpts are next to each other, ET is first and then The Thing and for me it makes sense to put them in a way they originally premiered.

Desistfilm: Was there any selection process or you decided to put anything that depicted starry night sky?

Johann Lurf: That was connected to the length of the film. I had to find out what is the best length for this film. Since you can continue to research and to add films, which I also want to do in the future, the question was when do I release it. I had a different test version and I made test screenings for half an hour and an hour versions and I realized that in the case of a short version too much is missing. I decided that I will start showing the film when I reach a 90-minute version and I will add more material in the future. It’s a film historical work and it should always end in our present. For the concept, there’s no reason why I should stop at this or last year.

Desistfilm: We noticed you decided not take excerpts from documentaries. Was that part of the concept?

Johann Lurf: I had to shape the concept in the best possible way and I didn’t want to go with documentaries. My main sources were feature and experimental films.

Desistfilm: There are also some animated films…

Johann Lurf: Yes, I was very skeptical about it in the beginning because I thought that I won’t be able to use them since they are so stylized. After a while, though, I realized that the stars in animation look pretty realistic, but in feature films they look like animation. It’s hard to distinct which sky comes from which type of film. The ones that look most fake are the ones from feature films. In animation, starry night and the soundtrack are very realistic, quite conventional. Everything else is made up. I didn’t want to include documentaries because then you have an expert explaining endlessly about starry night sky. As I said before, I am more interested in the interpretation of the image and not the actual representation. There are only few real starry night skies in the film, most of them are made up.

Desistfilm: What about the sounds that you mentioned? You kept the original soundtracks?

Johann Lurf: Yes. It’s a film historical work so you can notice that the formats are changing, I didn’t want to interfere in that since that is also part of the history. Soundtrack is a very accurate depiction of the history of sound in cinema. In the beginning there is silence, then mono for few decades, then stereo, three channel sound, four channel, 5.1 and 7.1. I want to represent how the sound grew and developed. For example, all of a sudden, subwoofer wakes up which didn’t exist before. It’s important to enter the sphere of how cinema sounds like.

Desistfilm: How did you standardize the quality of the image? Was there a situation in which you didn’t include a film because the image wasn’t good enough?

Johann Lurf: Yes, I chose only HD, 2K and 4K. In my research I found many more starry night skies but I wanted to have a theatrical presentation of it and DVD quality doesn’t match high standards. If I would include that, then the clips would jump from bad to good to bad. I think that it’s a bit unfair to try to represent something in a technically insufficient way, and especially if you are comparing it one to another. Therefore, I had to leave out quite a number of films from early cinema or from geographies where it’s hard to access films in good quality. I got in contact with a number of archives so they made scans for me, especially of early cinema since it looks fantastic if you preserve it well or if you treated it technically good. Early cinema is a great material and it shouldn’t look bad in comparison with today’s works.

Desistfilm: The films were so far shown at festivals around the world (first version at Viennale and then in Sundance and Rotterdam). Since you work as an artist in Vienna, did you ever think of showing the film in a gallery space?

Johann Lurf: I could only picture that if it’s a cinematic set up. You need multichannel sound, seats and a cinemascope screen.

Desistfilm: Could it work conceptually?

Johann Lurf: It could, it would give a different perspective on film. I don’t want to force people to sit through it but I see it primarily as a cinematic work. Sometimes the gallery context works out fine because it can be surprising how long are people willing to sit and watch a film, even in a gallery space. If it’s well made, of course.

Desistfilm: It seems to us that it could be pictured as a contemporary art piece as well…

Johann Lurf: Well, yes, I did study arts and film is one of the forms I work with but I wouldn’t want to restrict myself to only one medium, it’s important to stay open enough and not to classify myself.

Desistfilm: So you will continue working on it? At the end it says To be continued…

Johann Lurf: Yes, this is the second version already. At the Viennale last year there was the October 2017 version and right now I am showing the January 2018 version which is only one minute longer. When I get clips in the future, I will put them according to their position in film history. And, of course, add new films from 2018 and later.

Desistfilm: What will happen to the old version of the film as the new ones emerge?

Johann Lurf: I plan to show only most recent versions, so you won’t be able to see the old ones after the new one is made. I think that’s important for this piece cause the connection between today and history should stay visible. Otherwise, the film itself will just get older and there’s no point in that, why should it just stop.

*The film original title is represented by the star icon. Sadly, our engine doesn’t read the character properly.