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On the occasion of the Viennale 2022, director Claudia Müller presented her documentary Elfriede Jelinek – Language unleashed, focusing on the figure of the famous writer, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Cinema Austriaco had the opportunity to have a chat with her and learn more about her work and career. Interview by Marina Pavido.
Marina Pavido: How did the idea of making Elfriede Jelinek – Language unleashed come about?
Claudia Müller: I wanted to make a film about Elfriede Jelinek for years, but I also knew that she does not give interviews. I made short works for television and then, three or four years ago, I met two editors for whom I had worked for a long time and they said: “Now you have to make a film about Elfriede Jelinek”. I have known her works for a long time and I have always considered her an extraordinary artist. I knew it would be difficult to approach her work, but I also knew that the time to start this new project had come.
M. P.: In your film, Elfriede Jelinek’s biography is only briefly mentioned. Was this your choice even before you started filming?
C. M.: Yes, I already knew from the beginning that there was a lot of footage about her in the ORF archives and I was also aware of various notions concerning her life, such as, for example, the difficult relationship with her mother – who influenced her a lot psychologically – as well as numerous clichés. What interested me was only briefly mentioning her biography so that some of her works could be better understood. I did not particularly want to focus on the psychological aspects, but rather on the emotional impact of her works. That is why I simply recounted a few essential events, such as her difficult relationship with her mother, her education in a Catholic school and her father’s Jewish origins.
M. P.: In your film, much attention is paid to places and spaces, particularly when the off-screen voices read texts by the author. What do these places symbolise, especially when they are open spaces?
C. M.: The landscape in my film is almost considered a background, a projection canvas. In this case it is mainly Styrian landscapes, where many of her works are often set. In addition, she spent a lot of time in Styria as a child, since her grandparents had a house there. These are landscapes that in some way played an important role during her education. However, by using these landscapes as a scenery I did not want to create a kind of “illustration” of her texts, but rather to create an open space in which one can listen attentively to her texts.
M. P.: In the documentary you can only see Elfriede Jelinek in archive footage, no interview was made for the occasion. Was this your choice from the beginning?
C. M.: Elfriede Jelinek has long since retired to private life and I knew that she no longer gives interviews, so I did not want to focus mainly on that. It was only after I had finished some essential steps with the film that we were able to talk, as I still had some open questions. But I never thought of going to her and filming her directly, that was not in my plans. I wanted to make a film that focused mainly on her work and only at the end of the film did we have another interview, but only to clarify some of my doubts. And anyway in the archive materials I had already found many interviews that she had given in recent years.
M. P.: What were the most difficult aspects during the making of the film?
C. M.: The choice of the texts. There was so much material available. And editing the texts in sequence was also quite difficult.
M. P.: You only met Elfriede Jelinek once before you started filming. How did your meeting go? Was she a little afraid of the idea of someone wanting to make a film about her?
C. M.: Yes, she was a bit worried at first, but then I told her that I did not want to make a film about her private life, but about her work. Before I met her I was very excited, but also a bit worried, but then she calmed me down and was very kind. I explained to her what I had in mind, I also explained to her that it was not going to be a work entirely based on interviews she had given. There is already a lot of that kind of material and she herself has told so much over the years. I was mainly interested in highlighting her work and what she has created over the years.
M. P.: Let’s talk a little about your career. Are there any particular directors or film movements that have been almost a model for you?
C. M.: At the beginning of my career, I often worked with Peter Greenaway, who taught me a lot about frame composition and inspired me a lot with the paintings he used to make for his sets. Peter Greenaway is also a director who is greatly influenced by painting. I once did for him a research on Saskia Rembrandt, Rembrandt’s wife, and it was very interesting. He was always inspired by a certain iconography and that inspired me a lot, just like the slow tracking shots he does. With him I learnt to take great care of the aesthetics in my films. At the same time, I was also inspired by many painters. Once I made also a film about VALIE EXPORT and her experimental films inspired me a lot, as well as her way of working. Let’s say that in my life I have been inspired by many sources, not only by filmmakers, but also by the world of painting.
M. P.: You have often made films about important artists from all over the world. Is there a particular artist you would like to make your next film about?
C. M.: I don’t know if this will work out, because I haven’t started the project yet, but for about seven years I have been trying to make a film about the American writer Carson McCullers, who wrote a very interesting book, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, probably her most famous book. She is not very famous in Europe, but in any case I am interested in making people aware of artists who are less known or who have been forgotten, but who have made extraordinary works. This book by Carson McCullers is about racism and marginalisation and is set roughly in the 1930s or 1940s. These are themes that I find particularly interesting and that are still very topical today.