On the occasion of the Viennale 2020, directors Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel presented to the audience their newest film, Notes from the Underworld (original title: Aufzeichnungen aus der Unterwelt), already selected at the Berlinale 2020, within the Panorama section. Cinema Austriaco had the opportunity to meet them and learn more about this new work and, more generally, about their career and their way of relating to the seventh art. Interview by Marina Pavido.
Marina Pavido: How did the idea of making your Notes from the Underworld come about?
Tizza Covi: Rainer had the idea in this case. He is Viennese and has always been interested in these kinds of stories about the underground world and, specifically, stories about the illegal card game Stoss. We, however, never liked Novomatic either, which is a legal game, which ruins a lot of people and which is one of the richest companies ever. For our part, however, we have always wondered how it is that those who just play for themselves and only manage to earn a few pennies have always had so many problems. For a long time, then, we looked for Alois Schmutzer, who ran this illegal game. We did not know where he lived, whether in Vienna or outside Vienna. But then the musician Kurt Girk told us that Alois went to the market every Saturday to buy fruit and vegetables for his animals. So Rainer started going there every Saturday to try to meet him. The only thing we knew about him was that he had very big hands. So for months and months Rainer went to the market to try to find him, until he did. From then on, many years of interviews and meetings followed and we got to know his wife as well.
In any case, all our projects are born out of our own interest, regardless of whether we want to make a film or not. What interests us most is to see what is ‘behind the scenes’. And this is especially true for minorities as well as for those we only know through a newspaper article.
M.P.: The project, however, started about ten years ago, right?
T. C.: Yes, with Kurt we started working about ten years ago, and with Alois about five years ago.
M. P.: In Notes from the Underworld you tell of an underground Vienna, the so-called Stoss and Wiener Lieder (Viennese folk songs) world. Can this world ever survive in the future, even if people like Kurt Girk are no longer alive?
T. C.: This world, with every person who dies, is fading away. Even simply going into a club and going from table to table singing folk songs is part of an old tradition that no longer makes sense to young people. Young people today mainly go to concerts. Then, on the other hand, it is not only those who sing these songs who die, but also the audience who knows these songs, who, once the musicians are at their table, know the lyrics by heart and sing along with the musicians themselves. Certainly this is a world that is fading away and we filmmakers, since we love it so much anyway, do everything we can to at least have it on celluloid.
M. P.: What were the most difficult aspects to deal with in terms of production?
T. C.: When we started making the film, we were not sure whether or not Alois Schmutzer was willing to tell his story in front of the camera, especially after having been in prison. And he himself had up to that point only had negative experiences with the newspapers, which, for their part, stated the opposite of what he had always said. The same applies to Kurt Girk. During his life he wrote very long autobiographies, but, when it came to his experience in prison, he devoted at most one line to it. He didn’t like to talk about these things. So when we started, we didn’t know how willing they would be to talk in front of the camera, but when we finally got started, everything went well.
But then something else happened: during filming Kurt Girk became seriously ill and we could no longer continue with him. This was a further difficulty we had to face.
Rainer Frimmel: By the way, Kurt and Alois are two completely different people: Kurt is a very open man, it was easy to find him and get to talk to him, also because he himself wanted to take part in the film afterwards. Alois, on the other hand, is much more reserved, partly due to the fact that the press had treated him very badly in the past, back in the 1960s. Basically, he had withdrawn totally into private life and it was not easy to either find him or make him feel comfortable and have his trust. We made him understand that this project was very important to us.
Then, of course, Kurt’s illness was a bad setback, and we tried to manage the time as best we could in order to work with him as much as possible, but it was the most complicated thing to manage during the shooting.
M. P.: Why did you decide on black and white in this case?
T. C.: The idea of black and white came to us because our characters tell of the past, of a difficult, brutal past, in which there was war and little freedom. We, for our part, wanted to best render the idea of a time gone by, without additional elements that would deviate attention to something else. Similarly, we opted for a colourful ending, as we talk about freedom and talk about the present. And, especially with regard to the many years in prison that some of them have spent, the use of colour further emphasises this newfound freedom.
M. P.: How many hours of footage did you have at the end of the filming?
T. C.: Since we had interviewed many other characters, including two policemen, some prison guards and other people from the underworld – and we met with each of them several times – we had about twenty-five hours of footage in all. And for us, who shoot on film anyway, it means having a lot of material at our disposal.
R. F.: However, generally, when we have the opportunity to talk to a character, we usually dedicate an hour to them, because, generally, after an hour they all get tired and can’t continue, especially if they tell something important to them, that moves them. After a while they feel exhausted and we have to meet again. With Alois, for example, we filmed six or seven different times, whereas with Kurt, we have so much more material that we could have even made a film exclusively about him, but leaving Alois out would have been a shame.
M. P.: You, however, always shoot on film.
T. C.: Yes. For us, film represents a different way of expression. First of all, aesthetically speaking, we get a very high quality of images, but then, just because we have little time, we concentrate even more, even better, when we are about to shoot something.
R. F.: Then, with film, you can’t see immediately how a shot came out, you have to wait a while, and precisely this waiting, this having to wait to see the results, is something magical for us. It is a totally different medium than digital. At the same time, however, with digital you can make a film with a very low budget and in a very short time. If you want, you can even shoot a film with a mobile phone.
T. C.: But we never work quickly or ‘secretly’. I mean that we never capture certain situations without anyone noticing. We also want to give our protagonists the impression that our work is meant to become something bigger in the relatively near future. Intended to last in time.
M. P.: What are the best memories you have from the set?
T. C.: During filming, we happened to meet ten or fifteen more characters in addition to what we see in the film. We heard such unbelievable stories that you can’t even imagine. However, during the editing phase, we realised that if we had spent too much time on these stories, we would have lost sight of the focus of the story, namely this beautiful friendship between Kurt and Alois. At the end of the day, we had to decide whether to make a five-hour film about Vienna’s past or to focus exclusively on the friendship between Kurt and Alois themselves. The bizarre thing is that, in their case, even the policemen speak well of them, who, although considered criminals, still keep their own honour and dignity. We, for our part, became aware of their honour and their loyalty when, when we gave them an appointment for a certain day at a certain place, they arrived there on time, even though they had no telephone or other means of communication. We have never had such precise protagonists.
R. F.: Listening to so many points of view was, however, the most beautiful thing we experienced. We got to know so many truths. And initially the project was born precisely with the intention of telling so many truths. In any case, it is always beautiful when, at a certain point when we are shooting, it is as if the camera was no longer there, it is as if we were no longer shooting a film, but the characters were totally relaxed, as if we were almost their confidants. A very deep intimacy is created.
M. P.: You often tell of worlds that are in danger of vanishing forever, such as the underground Vienna of Notes from the Underworld or the circus in Mister Universo and La Pivellina. Can this particular focus on the past and on these realities that are in immediate danger of no longer existing be considered a constant within your filmography?
T. C.: Yes, absolutely. We can also state that each character involved brings with him an important cultural background that is in danger of disappearing. Almost all of them, however, are part of minorities, sometimes they are treated almost like outcasts, nobody really knows their world. This is precisely why we like to ‘look behind the scenes’. For example, many people have been to the circus, but nobody really knows circus life. Everyone thinks that the people who have lived in underground Vienna are all crooks, but, in reality, that’s not true at all. This is what interests us most, and by learning to get to the heart of things and getting to know new realities, we also grow as human beings, becoming better people.
M. P.: You have been collaborating for many years and have also founded the Vento Film. How did your collaboration start and what made you decide to found your own production company?
T. C.: We studied photography together and started working together on some photographic projects. So we realised that our collaboration worked very well. We, however, not being a business, but only two of us making films, always consider our works as small artworks. We take care of everything: from production, to directing, shooting, editing and so on. We take care of practically every aspect. We feel outside the real film industry. And we had the idea of starting our own production company because we wanted to be as independent as possible. We don’t want at all costs to make films intended to make a lot of money. What interests us most in our projects are the characters. We have a very long list of characters we want to work with. And on each story we want to tell, we have to invent a new approach each time, depending on the character. That’s why having our own production company makes us free and independent. Then, by the way, since we have very low budgets at the production stage, we can’t live off the money that comes in when we make a film, so having our own production company allows us to earn money through the rights of our own work.
M. P.: Were there any authors and directors in particular who were an inspiration to you when you started your job?
T. C.: We were certainly very influenced by Neorealism. For example, even in Shoeshine you move around the city of Naples going to taverns where people hid, you filmed in real places. This impressed us a lot. In any case, in portraying a character we prefer to deal with real people and not with someone who has studied a particular role for months. Regarding other inspiration sources, we certainly considered Werner Herzog’s film Stroszek, where Herzog himself worked with real characters, or Jacques Becker’s The Hole, in which the director worked with three real prisoners.
Rainer Frimmel: We are also very interested in experimental cinema. Even, for example, Andy Warhol’s films have always caught our attention, especially when they focus on certain characters.
M. P.: Are you currently working on any new projects?
T. C.: We are working on two projects. We were supposed to shoot a fictional film in Rome in March 2020. We were to work with Vera Gemma, Giuliano Gemma’s daughter, a person to be discovered, who is totally different from the image she gives of herself. In this case, too, then, we are ‘looking behind the scenes’. Since, however, we cannot make this film at the moment, we have started another project here in Vienna about a great blues musician in his seventies. We want to focus on his story, which has some very interesting aspects. For example, he never wanted to adapt to what the audience demanded, but always went his own way, while producing almost anachronistic music throughout his life. And that’s something we really like. Now, however, we will see, also depending on how this pandemic evolves, which work we can focus on first.