Interview with Olaf Möller, Part 1. "Don't be afraid to make an ass of yourself"

Dmitry Martov

"Olaf Möller lives in Cologne, writes about and programs films." It's a typically modest blurb that appears at the end of innumerable articles for international film magazines but behind it lie countless texts for festival catalogs, regular columns in Cinema Scope and Film Comment (where Möller has also served as a European editor since 2004), annual festival reports from Berlin, Venice, Rotterdam and Udine, books on filmmakers such as John Cook and Michael Pilz, selection duties for the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen and curatorial work on retrospectives and film programs for the Austrian Film Museum. He also happens to be the Other First Secretary and Minister of Spirituality of the Ferroni Brigade.

There are several qualities that Möller has brought to the proverbial table of film criticism since the beginning of the last decade: a) astute and well-informed writing, with an instantly recognizable style and his own brand of syntax and punctuation, balancing seriousness and humor without lapsing into dry academispeak or empty witticisms; b) unprecedented knowledge of the blind spots of film history and contemporary cinephilia, based on years of indefatigable investigation and championing of the unknown, unseen, ignored and forgotten directors and films; c) a total lack of snobbish territoriality that is all too frequent among some trailblazers; d) contempt for what currently passes as political correctness and politeness, never shying away from strong opinions (some of his favorite targets are cinephilia as a "cult of universal surface," "abstract humanism" and a paternalistic approach to non-Western cultures), even if he occasionally puts off some of his readers and colleagues (no wonder one highly respected Australian critic has called him "Olaf the Mauler").

The following interview was originally conducted for the Russian web resource KINOTE, and its full version — translated into Russian, of course — can be found here. We began the exchange on the first day of 39th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, in January 2010, and continued sporadically over the next several months via email correspondence. Möller had just completed co-editing a collection with Michael Omasta; Romuald Karmakar is out now in German from the Austrian Film Museum.

Dmitry Martov: You have certainly been championing Karmakar's films and his persona in various English-language publications over the last decade...

Olaf Möller: I know. Still, he's something of the odd auteur out — doesn't really fit in with the Berliner Schule, has zilch in common with the cinema of cozy compromise cultivated by the likes of Fatih Akin, is far too complex while politically demanding for an international film culture that fêtes the filth Bernd Eichinger produces and his willing collaborators in our Leitmedien sell as important and truthful. You can't pigeonhole Karmakar, for which reason our consensus-needy film culture — be that in its cinephile-, be that in its middle-brow-ordinary-, be that in its arthouse- or Lalaland-worshipper-guise — will always marginalize him. A good part of the book consists of texts written by Romuald over the years, plus several older interviews, plus a bunch of unrealized early treatments and screenplays, and Michael put an order to this pile of stuff I threw down at his feet. [Laughs]

DM: Do you have any other books coming out in the near future?

OM: Oh, yes. One on Michael Glawogger, whose publication will coincide with the release of his new film, Whore's Glory.

DM: Also strictly in German?

OM: Absolutely. Although Michael argued that it might be more sensible to publish it in English than in German because he thinks he is better known out- than inside the German-language world. And there's some truth to that. At least the academic interest in his work seems greater in Anglophone cultures than here. Maybe somebody will translate it. We will see.

DM: Your texts in English regularly appear in Film Comment, Cinema Scope and Senses of Cinema. Which German-language publications are you affiliated with?

OM: Actually, not that many. I write regularly for Stadt-Revue, which is something like the Village Voice of my beloved hometown. Then there's film-dienst, the film magazine of the Catholic Church, to which I contribute sometimes more frequently and sometimes less, depending on the mood. Besides that, this daily or that magazine runs something by me, occasionally. But the only magazines I'm tied to rather closely are Film Comment and Cinema Scope. Everything else is just on a more or less piece-by-piece basis.

DM: Your column in Film Comment, "Olaf's World," has always struck me as an island of anarchy in that magazine. Most of the texts that appear in Film Comment are tied to a certain event, be it a premiere of some new film, a restoration of an oldie, a film festival, a DVD release, a book publication, etc. Your pieces in "Olaf's World," however, are decidedly unconnected to anything except your own taste. Most of the directors you profile — the aforementioned Karmakar, Cyrus Frisch, Mika Taanila, Sohrab Shahid-Saless, Khavn, to name just a few — probably won't have their films screened in a neighborhood cineplex any time soon and won't get a DVD released by the Criterion Collection. Do you, as a European editor of Film Comment, truly have carte blanche? What are your guidelines, if any, in selection of topics for "Olaf's World"?

OM: I do actually have carte blanche, although I usually talk to [editor] Gavin [Smith] first — seems fair to me; if he doesn't know what to make of my suggestion, I explain to him why I feel the need to do exactly this subject right here and now. Doesn't mean that there aren't a few names and subjects I still didn't get around to have my say on due to this happening or that. Also, I sometimes — very rarely — write on a subject in my column based on Gavin's suggestion, like my piece on Joaquim Pedro de Andrade. But hey, Gavin knows that I'm passionate about Brazilian cinema, so asking me to do this was only logical. Also, some of my pieces are tied to actualities. For example, most of my writings on Hong Kong film history are linked to visits to the splendid Far East Film Festival in Udine. But again, I'm essentially free to do whatever I choose. And seeing that this means something to people certainly makes me happy [and] it does help the filmmakers I write about, or so some of them have told me.

DM: What about Cinema Scope? Mark Peranson's politics seem much looser than Gavin Smith's, but even there most authors seem to focus exclusively on covering films they've seen at film festivals around the world. At the same time, in your "Books Around" column, you again write about something with very marginal relation to dominant cinephilic interests, which, in the case of Cinema Scope, are already quite esoteric and "termite."

OM: Again, it's all up to me. Good thing about film books is: stuff gets done on a rather vast range of subjects independent of this or that film cultural fad. Many books — definitely: too many — have an academic background these days; academia has a rather desperate need for "fresh" angles, which leads to either works on little-researched niches and corners or strange takes on well-known subjects. Meaning: There's always a book around that gives me ample opportunity to write about something I find interesting.

DM: A quote from your very first "Books Around" column: "A few months ago I proposed the idea of a regular column on film books, with one condition: I didn't want any limits regarding the languages in which the books were written. I read around a dozen languages — admittedly, some less fluent than others — occasionally I like to put that to some use.... There are a lot of interesting books published in many different languages, and, thanks to the internet, it's by now pretty easy to get them. And if you don't know the languages, that's your problem. A certain polyglotism is pretty ordinary for me, as it is for a huge amount of people in this world — so consider this column also a reminder of the diversity and richness of our lives. You might not be able to read it, but somebody else will, so you'll have to leave some fun for the others." For you, what came first, interest in languages or interest in cinema?

OM: Languages. I've been an obsessive reader ever since I've been able to read. I love books. I mean, my apartment is basically books, books, books; sure, some DVDs and tapes, and a bed and this and that, but mainly: books. Interest in cinema developed parallel to this, without me really noticing. Watching films was something so ordinary I wasn't even thinking about it. Only when I found out at an age of, like, 12 or 13, that there is — now: was — a cinematheque in Cologne did I start to develop a more educated interest in films. Things got systematic. Which means: I started to go there on an almost daily basis, if finances as well as team handball practice allowed, and I watched more or less everything on offer. I thought: If I want to truly understand cinema, I have to know everything about it and therefore watch films from everywhere made in every genre from the beginning of the art till now. I still believe that, and cinema has never disappointed me. The art continues to come up with stuff that delights and enlightens me. Strange to say, I never developed similar notions about literature.

DM: Were you self-taught in the foreign languages that you're fluent in?

OM: Some of the languages I learned at school — English, Latin — some at university: Japanese, Dutch, Afrikaans, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, old and new. Lots of borderline useless stuff here! The rest I picked up in life. For instance, I learned Italian by being in Italy a lot. And I mean a lot. I still stay there for, like, three months at least each year due to my festival visits. French is also self-taught, mainly via watching films and reading Cahiers du Cinéma, embarrassing as that might sound. Truth is, all these languages, save for Japanese, do come easy if your mother tongue is German and you learned Latin and English. It's all one closely linked linguistic system, really.

DM: You mentioned that once you started attending the Cinematheque in Cologne, your film viewing habits became systematized. Was that a conscious effort on your part, to adhere to a system, or were you just following their scheduled programs that were well-organized?

OM: The latter, although I can't say that they were well-organized. They happened. I mean, those were the Cold War's later days when culture counted for something and every nation was keen on presenting itself through its best and brightest in the arts. Meaning: One month, "Masterpieces of Soviet Film," the next month, "The Complete Works of Kurosawa Akira," then "Liverpool: City of Cinema," the "Retrospective Marco Ferreri," etc. All these cultural institutes! All these embassies! And they all wanted to screen films, often with the filmmakers around! Happy days.

But I guess what you were wondering about is the ever-thorny question of the canon. Answer to that is: I went with what was on offer at the Cinematheque as well as the cultural institutes that had their own screening venues; then I started to dig deeper into everything I felt somewhat closer to, like the cinemas of Japan or Hong Kong. Read: No canon pressures here. Yet I was, of course, aware of the existence of said sad social object, for there was a repertoire cinema that dealt in the canon, now sadly also defunct: the Lupe 2, which showed on a rather regular basis films considered "essential," i.e., the usual Rossellinis, Pasolinis, Bergmans, Eisensteins, Welleses, Antonionis, Fellinis, Godards, etc., so many films that were advertised with lines like, "The best film of the world!" But: As the Lupe 2 showed these films, like, once every six months, you felt that you could skip 'em and skip 'em and skip 'em. There was always something rarer-sounding to see here and there. In the end, the Lupe 2 and the respectable classics were for the summer months when the Cinematheque was closed for holidays. Besides, being so respectable, they also sounded somewhat unsexy; and I'm afraid I have to say that many of them are.

But when I started out as a film critic, there was a time when I tried to find some common ground with the middle-brow consensus by fumbling around with the likes of Almodóvar, Kaurismäki, Kiarostami, von Trier, the Coens, Moretti, etc. In my defense, I can only say that they were vaguely new at that time and didn't make films that were as awful as the stuff they're coming up with these days — nah, bullshit, the Coens always sucked. They only made one film I remember as being not at all bad. Ditto von Trier, who conjured up two agreeable films, ditto Moretti, ditto Kiarostami. Almodóvar started to stink when his films lost contact with the realities of their days. His best films were made during and immediately after the transition, which I think is quite telling, while Kaurismäki... I still have a weak spot for him, probably because of his B-hack airs. I probably wouldn't like him if he hadn't tossed off all these dumb and lovely and sometimes utterly unwatchable films featuring the Leningrad Cowboys. Anyway, I guess that's what you'd call film cultural puberty. Didn't last long, I'm glad to say, for I found out quickly that the cinemas I was and still am really passionate about have little in common with that stuff.

DM: Do you remember the first film or film program that bowled you over?

OM: Nope. My guess would be something by Kurosawa. What I know is: I certainly saw it on TV and not at the movies. TV was extremely important as the WDR in Cologne was doing an extraordinary job back then: Giuseppe De Santis, Frederick Wiseman, Georges Franju, Max Ophüls, Joseph H Lewis, Jack Arnold, Jesse Hibbs, Johan van der Keuken. I got into all of this thanks to their programming, which not only consisted of the films themselves but also quite often specially produced documentaries to accompany them. Now, the stuff Werner Dütsch and Roland Johannes and all the other guys from the WDR film desk did, that was serious film programming. I'm still grateful to them, big time.

DM: Can you recall the exact moment or circumstances when your interests in films and the written word intersected? When and why did you decide to become a film critic? Do you remember your first review or perhaps some other cinema-related text?

OM: Strange as it may sound, I never thought about being a film critic. My background is working class; jobs like that were for others. Doesn't mean that I thought I'd become a factory worker, like my dad — just that I'd do something more... middle-class, i.e., generally respectable and obviously useful, like becoming a scientist or some such. Or at least turn pro in sports. Definitely something that would make my parents proud. Sad to say, I was not good enough in my chosen sport and utterly unfit for science or anything respectable in general. My poor parents! [Laughs] No, in the end, it was my German teacher, Jochen Hufschmidt, who said that I should become a film critic as I went to the movies all the time, had a serious talent for writing and above all sported the right attitude. I could get people interested in things I liked, could argue my case lucidly and didn't give a shit about what others thought or whether I stepped on anyone's toes. That's what he said. I only said, Aha. And then I tried to find out what a film critic actually does...

DM: What critics, texts, books or magazines were your major influences and inspirations?

OM: Difficult so say. Okay, this I can say for sure: I don't have any real paragons. I'm not trying to closely follow anyone's example, emulate a certain style. Which doesn't mean that there aren't any critics I deeply admire. Let's just mention Helmut Färber, Peter Nau, Hartmut Bitomsky and Harun Farocki in Germany, Harry Tomicek in Austria and Raymond Durgnat in Britain. But I don't write like any of them, I think, and I'll never be able to come up with something that's as cultivated, refined and intelligent as their pieces, long and short, are. Compared to Färber, Nau and Tomicek in particular, I'm only a boor who's clumsily fumbling around with words. That said, all my ideas about cinema are rooted in their writings. They taught me how to think cinema; that Färber, Nau, Bitomsky and Farocki have the same background as most of the WDR guys didn't really surprise me. Filmkritik, second generation, all of them.

Here I should also add Hans Schifferle and Ulrich von Berg and maybe Rainer Knepperges, although it's different with them. If Färber, Nau et al. are like fathers, Hans, Ulrich and Rainer are like older brothers whose example encouraged me to... well, let my mischief-happy side get the better of me more often, to really go for the farther shores of taste — to just not give a shit about the middle-brow squares and their goddamn good taste and nicey-nicey humanism which are bland and seem to serve but one purpose: keep folks in their place. Not on my watch.

DM: What, in your opinion, is the mission of a film critic, if there is one? Do you have any words of advice to the rookie critics out there?

OM: Mission: Enlighten and entertain your readers, preferably at the same time, i.e., your writing shall be like a good film. Advice: Follow your own instinct and don't be afraid to make an ass of yourself, for there's no animal wiser than the donkey. [Grins]

DM: After too many pronouncements of the death of cinema, the latest lamented cadaver du jour seems to be film criticism. Is there a future for your profession?

OM: As long as there's art, there's a need to make sense of it. As long as we're talking about a bourgeois culture like the one we — nominally — live in right here and now. It's that simple. Mind: "Make sense of it" is something quite different from having an opinion on it, however well-phrased that might be. Everybody has an opinion, but it's the critic who can argue his, make it his contribution to society's daily work on the common good. Sounds like it's carved in stone. [Laughs]

Continued in Part 2.

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