Between the Waves: An Interview with Helena Wittmann

The director discusses the unique shape of her film "DRIFT," intimacy between women, and its porous boundaries between inside and out.
Phil Coldiron

An Image of Complicity. Films by Luis Donschen and Helena Wittmann is showing May 23, 2018 at Berlin's Volksbühne in collaboration with Acropolis Cinema.


Two young women go on vacation; the weather is bad. They return home. Josefina departs for Buenos Aires, Theresa wanders, by car, boat, and train, in her absence. In the end, they are brought back together, if only briefly. Sketched as such, Helena Wittmann’s first feature, DRIFT, might be taken for the sort of film à la short fiction perfected by Eric Rohmer in the 1980s. It is not this. The activity I have condensed as Theresa’s “wandering” in fact comprises nearly two thirds of the film, and much of it, particularly once she boards a boat crossing the Atlantic, is seen in such a way as to force us to consider whether we have locked entirely into her lonely gaze, or if she has disappeared from the film altogether. Put more plainly, for more than half an hour, DRIFT consists of nothing but images of the ocean, rolling and roiling under a wide range of light—the water cerulean at noon, near black in the moonlight—and shaped by the growing insistence of Nika Breithaupt’s score and sound design. The film returns to shore through one of the more astonishing transitions in recent memory, and concludes shortly after in a shot which confirms both Wittmann’s emotional acuity and formal rigor: as Theresa and Josefina convene over video chat, separated by the same ocean on which the film floated and gazed for so long, the camera zooms through this moment of distant intimacy in a miniature remake of Wavelength. Where the photo which was Snow’s destination was taped to a wall surrounded by windows, Wittmann’s is affixed to the window itself—memories, after all, are constantly sticking to our views onto the world.

We spoke with Wittmann over e-mail about her film’s unique shape, the particulars of intimacy between women, and the porous boundaries between inside and out which her film lives in and explores.

NOTEBOOK: The bulk of DRIFT takes place between two shots of Theresa at her laptop, both of which refer to Wavelength—obliquely in the former, directly in the latter. Snow’s film seems to me to serve yours primarily as a model for handling dramatic activity. (I mean, for example, that the relationship between Theresa and Josefina exists at a similar level to the murder plot which fills up the space in Snow’s film.) How did the shape of DRIFT come to be what it is?

HELENA WITTMANN: The shape of DRIFT came to be with the process of making this film. We shot it over the period of about two and a half years. Whenever I had new material, I first watched it obsessively in order to grasp its meaning and potential. Then I started to build sequences, which I would change constantly with the proceeding in understanding the material and the shooting of new parts. The prologue with Theresa and Josefina on the island in the North Sea was the first part to be shot and edited. It now introduces not only the protagonists of the film, including the ocean, but also its form of narration. Your observation is adequate. The main part starts with Theresa working on her laptop and ends with her having a skype conversation with Josefina on the same device. Both scenes were conceived and shot in the very end, when all other parts already existed. In all other cases I reacted to our surroundings and situations in order to concentrate the relevant aspects into a scene. The two framing scenes you mention were conceived in response to these existing parts and shape the narration for the film as a whole. Wavelength by Michael Snow sneaked back into my mind while thinking about the missing parts that were the ones you name. This thinking was less conceptually rather than intuitively. But I am sure it came back to my mind for a reason and not by coincidence. In both films, the passing of time is shown as something inevitably. In this time things happen, it could be many things. These situations are very concrete and become relevant when you decide to include them into a film, they structure our time. But time still passes and is not impressed and definitely not changed by this dramatic activity. There is a quote by Christa Wolf, that I like very much: “Time does what it can; it goes by.”

NOTEBOOK: On a more micro level, once you had that shape, how did you go about ordering the various wave sequences? They start to take on a sense of narrative implication after a certain point.

WITTMANN: That is a good question and very difficult to answer. The wish to shift the narration towards the ocean in the center part of the film was there from the very beginning. There was a hidden promise in this imagination. But for a long time I didn’t know how this could even work. And in the editing it was definitely the most complex and complicated part. One difficulty was the transition between the minimal, but still more conventional narration to this much more abstract part (again in terms of narration, for me it is very concrete in itself). The other difficulty was to really understand the ocean shots. I watched them so many times, again and again. For days, for weeks. And at some point they “spoke to me”. This might sound cheesy, in fact it does. But for now it is my only way to describe it. With this connection I started to edit and this meant to find the most expressive parts and to decide on the right duration. That was a delicate work. As all other scenes, the single shots tell very different aspects. I tried to treat them in an equal way to these other scenes. And then there is Nikas work on the sound. We collaborated very closely on every single scene, but we knew that the sound for the ocean part would play a very special role. This again shaped the narration very much, the composition would influence the order and duration of the shots as much as the other way around. It was a working phase of constant feedback between Nika and me in order to find out how the material tells what it now tells.

NOTEBOOK: At the risk of being overly literal, when the waves spoke to you, what did they say? Put another way, I’m curious about how you worked on the ratio between those sequences and the more “traditional”—I use that term very loosely—character-based moments. How you found the right level to allow Theresa and Josefina’s relationship to reverberate through the ocean. It easily could have seemed as if their presence was just a pretext for abstraction or like the ocean was a very heavy symbol, but you’ve found a perfect balance where each informs the other very precisely.

WITTMAN: The waves informed me about very different aspects. There is the sunset, filmed from a very low position, close to the water. Throughout the shot, the sun goes down several times as the horizon is shaped by the movement of the waves in the foreground. I needed to wait some days to get this shot, as it only works with a cloudless sky. It tells me a lot about spatial relations and the fact that it is always related to our perspective. This can be transferred directly to the relationship between Theresa and Josefina and the distances between them, but it obviously doesn’t need to be read like this. Through the perspective that I bring into the cinema, every viewer is put into this position and becomes part of this particular relation between space and time.

In the beginning of another shot we see a dolphin very briefly coming to the surface. In the film, this dolphin gets the role of an ambassador from the depth. For the reflecting characteristics of the water’s surface, this dimension is not visible from above. Therefore it is only the sound and, in this case, the animal that make us recall the space underneath the vast surface of the ocean. This is also a good example for how I chose the extracts within a certain shot. There is more than one dolphin in this unedited shot. But I was very aware of the fact, that animals as well as human beings immediately attract attention. If the dolphin would appear in the middle of that shot or was followed by a second animal, it would gain much more importance and therefore shift the meaning. It would no longer be an ambassador with a delicate message, but become another protagonist.

I could talk about every single shot, but I will for now end with the longest one, that is the wavy ocean at night, illuminated by a full moon. For me, the potential of this shot was obvious from the moment I shot it. Strangely enough it is much more difficult to translate its “story” into words. Let me give it a try. The ocean appears like black ink, oily, moved by the strong wind; the boat runs quickly through it (this again is our position when we watch the film; and it is not a quiet one). Whenever a bigger wave pushes the boat (and with it the fixed camera) to the side, the sky opens up and seems infinite. The moon serves as a huge indirect spotlight that provides a natural vignette inside the image of this enormous space and the bright cool moonlight always focuses our gaze as it travels over the waves and modulates their ever shifting forms. The story is probably about the tension between this overwhelming vastness and the feeling that it could offer us a kind of shelter. A story about us feeling very small on this planet and a hidden memory of us growing up in a womb. Surrounded by water, safe and warm, but never being independent. It is as extremely beautiful as it is extremely unsettling. We lose control.

NOTEBOOK: I’d like to bring some of these threads of thought back onto dry land. That “vastness” in the ocean scenes you’re describing seems to register even more strikingly to my mind because it is surrounded by interior scenes that have a very marked sense of closure, which nevertheless opens out onto the world—windows figure prominently in both the opening (which accentuates the severe geometry of the hotel) and closing (a looser, more casual domestic space). Is that movement between openness and closedness important to you?

WITTMANN: It definitely is. In most cases the quality of a space is the starting point to develop a scene. That is nothing I have decided upon. I suppose it just follows my personal understanding of relating to this world with the tools I have. You can see this throughout my whole work. In DRIFT, we can see very different relations between indoor spaces and the outside. In the scenes that take place in Germany, on the island in the beginning as well as in Josefina and Theresa’s apartments, the indoor spaces are much more enclosed than, for example, the house on Antigua. Here, the windows have no glass inside their frames, which allows the outside sound and the air to enter the room. The border between the inside and outside is more permeable, it’s fluid. The balconies present another form of threshold. Then we have the vehicles: the bicycle, the car, the boat and the train. Each of these determine a particular relation to its surroundings. The car is the most private and excluding space, in the train Theresa is exposed to others, but not to the outside, on the bicycle she is exposed to the outside but not so much to others. The boat is an interesting space. As its body is resonating and distorting the sounds from the outside as well as from the inside, and as it is constantly moved by the external influences, the borders between the inside and the outside become very vague. In the cabin one feels enclosed and exposed at the same time. It somehow mirrors the tension that I mentioned before.

NOTEBOOK: That vagueness between inside and outside also seems to define the viewer’s understanding of Theresa and Josefina’s relationship—we get, through often glancing means, a sense of their intimacy without being overburdened by anything other than the broadest narrative of their lives (i.e., that they are close and moving apart). How did these characters, and their relationship, come to be what they are?

WITTMANN: Theresa and Josefina are friends in real life. And it happened to be that Josefina decided to go back to Buenos Aires after having lived in Germany for five years. We decided to include this into the film and it became a main part. Therefore I could build on what was already there. We had also decided to fictionalize everything, which gave me the opportunity to leave things out without having the feeling of trimming my friends’ characters. In general I am very much interested in situations themselves and not so much in how something leads to this situation or how it could be interpreted on a psychological level. The relationship between the two women can be read as a romantic relationship as well as a deep friendship. It doesn’t matter to me how the audience reads it, as both forms include love and care. And these are the important aspects for me. This openness or vagueness in terms of interpretation is wanted. It reflects my attitude in relation to how I feel and think. The audience might fill the space between the lines and will position themselves as well. But I won’t tell them which is the right position, as there is no right or wrong.

NOTEBOOK: Could you speak a bit more about the process of working on the sound? Are you editing and then sending sequences to Nika, or are the sound and image being worked at in unison?

WITTMANN: Nika and me have collaborated on many other films before, which means that we know our ways of working and our understanding of sound and image very well. We see the roles of image and sound in cinema as equally important and powerful. The fact that we know each other for such a long time also enables me to think about the sound as soon as I develop a scene in a very detailed way. Sometimes the sound even starts my imagination. Then I would talk to Nika about it. For DRIFT she recorded all sounds by herself, she was always with us (generally Nika, Theresa and me), from the research shootings to the well planned scenes in the end. We watched and listened the materials together, and this often led to new ideas. Some sequences were very clear, some others, like the ocean part, needed more time and feedback between us throughout the process of editing and composition. We have no rules and follow the needs of a film very organically. But we never work in the common way that would mean to provide a “picture lock” version and then add the sound design.

NOTEBOOK: I’d like to close by asking your feelings about the effect of surprising the viewer. Both DRIFT and your short film 21,3°C include moments—I won’t spoil them for those who haven’t seen the films—which suddenly force us to consider that what might have seemed loose and observational has in fact been intricately arranged and designed.

WITTMANN: My feeling is that a strong framework enables deeper observations and a more delicate perception. This starts already with the working process on a film. When the most important parameters are clear and formal decisions have been made, it is possible to rely on them. This gives me the free space to perceive all the details that lie beyond the surface as I don’t have to think about the essential questions all the time. With the finished film, I hope to transmit this confidence to an audience, I really hope for them to trust the film. With DRIFT this is essential as it becomes an experience only when you are able to surrender yourself to it. It is also true for the moments of surprise. As soon as I place them at a certain position inside the film, they become something that is decided upon. It becomes irrelevant if these moments just happened during the shooting or if they were arranged. The surprises in these films are not shocking, they don’t betray the audience. At its best, they allow us to broaden our imagination and sharpen our senses. They still remain surprising to me. And I love to be surprised.

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