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Interview | interview

"DEATH, OBSESSION + CINEMA", an interview with MB
by Mike Hoolboom, September 23rd, 1989


MICHAEL BRYNNTRUP is a thirty-year old avatar of super8 who moved to Berlin ten years ago to avoid military service. He is self taught, and has completed over twenty films to date, all in super8, including a feature length version of the Christ story. Casting himself in the lead, he collaborated with filmmakers/groups across the country (including clandestine work in East Germany), asking them to choose a sequence from the biblical narrative and shoot it in their own style. Hand processing all the footage he assembled it to complete »Jesus - The Film«, finished in 1986. The same year he began work on the first of a series of Death Dances, an episodic serial using a skull as a common motif. A prolific, imaginative and obsessive filmmaker, Brynntrup has produced innumerable installations and 'film actions', participated in festivals across Europe and organized screenings. Most of his work is self financed.

PART ONE: Brynntrup and Hoolboom
(NOTE: Owing to a faulty tape recorder on this interview, much of the conversation with Michael Brynntrup was wiped out. Rather than scrap the interview entirely, it's reproduced here in partial and fragmented form, and supplemented by an additional interview conducted by Steff Ulbrich.)

Mike Hoolboom:
People say that Michael Brynntrup is obsessed with two things: the first is death, and the other is cinema. They claim you're racing against death, working obsessively all the time, finishing one film after another.

MB:
I work on two/three films at the same time because I pay for most of the work myself. No agency is waiting for me to finish, so I work on my own schedule. The »Death Dances« began very spontaneously. I had this skull which was a relic from the »Jesus Film«, around which I made »Testamento Memori« (My Last Testament). Should I describe some images?

Mike Hoolboom:
It shows you in hand processed negative -

MB:
And I'm fucking a skull -

Mike Hoolboom:
And reciting a text.

MB:
It's not really German. It's a very old text and I made strange pronunciations so it's not so understandable, but it's about breathing when giving birth.

Mike Hoolboom:
Birgit Hein wrote: "In some of his films, the skull is his partner and his second ego, with whom he talks, plays, kisses, and even has sexual intercourse. »Testamento Memori« ironically describes the birth-death theme. Texts with music about breathing techniques accompany his playing with the skull, in which the exhortation at the end is satirized. ('Please publish after my death.') In this film his talent to create his own new images comes to full expression. His face, his hands, the skull, and a 'Chinese' bird cage dangle in the room like silver shadows on a golden background... The study of death even in his childhood has a deeper meaning. His identical twin brother died in childbirth. Speaking in terms of depth-psychology, the guilt of the survivor unconsciously determines his fascination with questions of death."

MB:
Yes, in another »Death Dance« I had this skull and I hid it under a cloth. This was a kind of experimental film so I started to film and said to my little niece, "Go look under the cloth" and she discovered the skull. She was four years old, and the experiment was: what will a four year old child do with a skull? First, she recognized what it was. She ran right away to her mother, so I had to stop shooting. But five minutes later she started to play with the skull and her dolls, and she went outside in the garden and filled it with water and drank from it. It's an episode and I like to work in this form. In films like the »Death Dances« I often edit in camera. They're very situational, atmospheric films, very condensed and compact. I make my other work on the editing table, not before. They're more like thoughts in motion, more rational.

Mike Hoolboom:
How many Dances are there altogether?

MB:
Eight. They're all very different. They show everything you can imagine doing with a skull. The skull is common to each, it's the motif, the signature. One is very bloody and medieval, another shows a magician conjuring it from thin air and making it float. In »Die Botschaft« (The Message), the eighth death dance, a woman walks through a very old monastery, throwing handfuls of feathers into the air. Eventually she comes to sit by a window where the skull is waiting. Fascinated, she picks it up and kisses it. A second picture roll was made with hand development, abstract solarizations. »Die Botschaft« brings these two rolls together. All of the »Death Dances« have two elements in common: each centres on a performer, and each uses music, there is no synch sound.

Mike Hoolboom:
You often have others make the score?

MB:
Yes. In Berlin the scene is quite close, everyone knows everyone.

Mike Hoolboom:
In music, film, or theatre -

MB:
Yes, more and more. Musicians like to do music for a film, and I make images for their stage shows. Sometimes they use my work as a video clip.

Mike Hoolboom:
Is that partly how you get your work shown in Berlin?

MB:
Not so much any more, it was very big around 1983. Then there were still some squats and they always hosted cultural events with a cafe or bar in the house. Or we had a show in a disco or everywhere. Now there's lots of galleries and small budget shops who often show work. They like to organize super8 weeks, everyone sharing an evening with other friends. The films are shown quite often.

Mike Hoolboom:
I thought these films used to exist in a street environment, but that the scene's moved towards festivals and kommunale kinos (local Cinemas) in places like 'Kino Eiszeit' and the 'Arsenal', that today the life of an experimental film resides inside a film world, with other filmmakers. Steff Ulbrich said he didn't want to make super8 work any more because it's in a ghetto, that the only people who see it are other super8 filmers. Is that so?

MB:
But super8 is cheap and you can do it on your own, at home, and work spontaneously with friends, and collect material without having to use it. To produce super8 films is much easier than 16mm. If you make a 16mm experimental film you have the same problem showing it, but you don't have the possibility of screening it spontaneously in a bar as was done last week.

Mike Hoolboom:
Because the bars only take super8?

MB:
It's easier for the bars. Today we don't have the mission of a few years before, we don't march into cafes and unwrap our surprises.

Mike Hoolboom:
You would show up and demand that the bar play your films?

MB:
It used to happen a lot but not so much any more. This way we reached another audience.

Mike Hoolboom:
You don't do this any more because you don't have to?

MB:
It's a personal development. The people who did it in 1983 aren't interested in doing the same thing. Many haven't continued and are doing other things. With these kind of films there's always a ghetto, a very closed circle.

Mike Hoolboom:
Does that trouble you?

MB:
Not really, because I do the films I want to do, I don't care. I hate this term 'experimental' film.

Mike Hoolboom:
Why's that?

MB:
Because I saw this 'experimental' film in Toronto, at the Experimental Film Congress, and what they showed was not what I mean.

Mike Hoolboom:
How would you characterize what they showed?

MB:
The experimental film they showed is only an episode in film history which began in the early sixties and still goes on, but it's now anachronistic. In the sixties it was worth doing, it was new and had a relation with something outside the circle of film and cineastes because they were dealing with new visions of sexuality and politics, and a new idea of what film could be. But really this is over. In the eighties, there where other films, based on the formal inventions of this time, and the connection outside the films are completely different. Perhaps today's work is a bit more entertaining, but it also has deep connections with the Zeitgeist. I think these films, what friends of mine are doing, and especially those friends I invited to make episodes for the »Jesus Film«, all these living young experimental filmmakers have more to do with early experimental filmmakers like Rene Clair and Lumiere and Bunuel.

Mike Hoolboom:
How do you see that connection?

MB:
They are not fixed in structure, in this formalist stuff. They really want to show something, so they show it. And their mentality, the way they think, has more to do with this strange and fresh - how do you say it in English? (Looking it up) 'Freedom, insolent, cheeky, saucy, impudent...', something like that. They have more to do with that. Sure, it's postmodern, it's what you see in architecture, they make quotations, but they have the freedom to do it without thinking about avantgarde stuff. They all work with the super8 camera, and open the box and take it, and open a book and take a quotation. You open your mind and take it.

Mike Hoolboom:
One of the things that struck me about a number of German filmmakers is that they seemed concerned, even obsessed with this question of the new. There's a lot of festivals in Germany, which allows a tremendous exchange of new work and views to take place beneath a critical scrutiny that's always wary of old styles, old themes. I think the new very quickly becomes old in Germany.

MB:
But if I say 'new', I say it ironically. I don't say, "Here is the 'avant-garde', or 'The Head Of It All'; when you're sailing, the head is the toilet. 'Avant-garde' only exists for historians, retrospectively. If you want to be actual, you have to do your work without thinking of what hasn't been done or taking your place in a line of history. I don't think that every idea is original. The connection which is interesting is that the same ideas grow at the same time in different heads. And my films are a kind of lubricant, they share this sharing. This is really the only point I'm interested insofar as the new is concerned. We don't own our ideas.

Mike Hoolboom:
Do you think that there are common themes characterizing super8 work in Berlin?

MB:
At the moment there are not a lot of films made in super8 any more. Every year from 1983 to '85, 250 super8-films were made in Germany, independent films. Now it's half. Our generation from 25-35 started with the super8 cameras of their fathers, but now they start with video. So there is no real rebirth of the scene. Lots of people in 1983-85 made three or four super8 films and stopped, this is not what they were born for, so it's over. And some changed to video. And when you're 30-35 you think about earning money and not everybody has the drive to go this hard way through the institutions and to be free and independent. So some looked for another job at a TV station and stopped doing their own work. Perhaps they're still dreaming about it.

Mike Hoolboom:
Working as hard as you do, does it trouble you always dealing with pieces of the past?

MB:
I accept it, I speak about it.

Mike Hoolboom:
Because there's already a kind of death there, these images are from a time that's over, that's finished. And to be obsessed, to be surrounding yourself with this dead time, does this trouble you?

MB:
Why should I be troubled? I accept the situation as it is. That's the way of life.

Mike Hoolboom:
No, that's the way of film.

MB:
Yeah okay. But every time-structure speaks about ending, about death, and my »Death Dances« speak of narrativity and on this crypt of cinema. Taken altogether its ribbons make a kind of shroud, a world of doubles already dead. If you like I can show you another Death Dance, no one's seen it yet. (He projects »Death Dance 9«)

MB:
The »Death Dances« are a bit of a lexicon, showing a skull in many hands, many situations. They're playful and serious at the same time, and I always strive for this balance, this place between. There is the possibility that people will think about themselves if you have a balance.

Mike Hoolboom:
In this film, like »Death Dance 8«, you've used a hand processing technique to show the film's material. This charges the work with a strong emotional current which runs throughout the film.

MB:
Actually I have another version with self-developed material but the image was too poor, too grainy. I re-filmed it using two projectors, one showing the abstract roll and the other showing the magician. They ran one on top of the other while I refilmed onto a single strip, gaining the heightened color and grain that comes from re-photography. This was important for its optical sense, its emotion.

Mike Hoolboom:
In traditional art terms one speaks about figures and grounds. The ground is the material, flowing through everything, hand processed and abstract. And the figure is the magician, who conjures up the bird and then the skull, and then makes the skull rise and float. Because you've filmed him in a studio setting, with black behind, nothing exists apart from the world he's conjuring up, the world he's created, the world on view. He's so very much alone in this world. It's a bit existential, everything in it exists by his own hand.

MB:
Yes, the film you saw in Osnabrück,»Death Dances«, was shot outside, in a special location. Then there are three, four films I made here (at home) using studio black.

interview PART TWO: Brynntrup and Ulbrich

(Mike Hoolboom, "Death, Obsession + Cinema (part one)", interview on »Death Dances«, printed in: Independent Eye, N°11, Toronto, Spring 1990)

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DER ELEFANT AUS ELFENBEIN (Totentänze 1-8) | THE IVORY ELEPHANT (Death Dances 1-8)
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PLÖTZLICH UND UNERWARTET: DER ELEFANT AUS ELFENBEIN | SUDDEN AND UNEXPECTED: THE IVORY ELEPHANT
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PLÖTZLICH UND UNERWARTET - eine Déjà-Revue | SUDDEN AND UNEXPECTED - A Déjà-Revue


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