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The Reflection of Stars: An Interview with Johann Lurf

Viennese filmmaker Johann Lurf’s latest film “★” is a moving and surprisingly whimsical gem of cinematic archeology of the heavens.
Viennese experimental filmmaker Johann Lurf’s latest film ★ is a moving and surprisingly whimsical gem of cinematic archeology of the heavens. It is an astral archive of the stars throughout 115 years of film history and a rapturous celebration of the scope of our imagination to capture that which will be forever beyond our reach—the clear nighttime sky dotted with those blinking specks of eternal light. Beginning in 1905 and continuing into the present day, Lurf has extracted shots of clear starry night skies from mostly feature films, organizing them in chronological order while keeping the original sound and shot length, resulting in a truly transportive cinematic experience that takes us on a voyage not just across the infinite terrain of the stars, but also through the endlessness of cinema itself. And just as the universe is expanding so will the film, with Lurf intending to update it annually—a dauntingly bold yet beautiful project that could potentially (though theoretically impossible), result in cinema’s first infinite film. With the most recent version clocking in at 99 minutes, Lurf’s comparative collage of starry sky images reveals the fruitful gap between the actual and the virtual, between the seemingly unchanging position of the constellations and our multi-varied attempts at representing them on screen. A film of simultaneous histories compressed into every image, with each successive depiction of stars also doubling as a wander through the advancements in sound and image technology, ★ is a a linear journey through editing and visual styles spanning different countries and epochs resulting in a kind of inner harmony of film history.  
Those fictional illuminations encased in celluloid and pixels are at once intimately familiar—after all, we’ve been directing our gaze upwards for thousands of years—and boundlessly strange, for they are also images of ourselves. As in all works of found footage, with each shot severed from its original context, ★ opens up and creates new fields of meaning: the sky becomes a palimpsest upon which we write and re-inscribe our hopes, fears and ambitions; the film a record of our vertical gaze, a tabulation of our feverish dreams of the starry night sky as imagined by filmmakers across the decades. ★ possibly contains a kernel of that elusive ‘ecstatic truth’ as disseminated by that other star of cinema, Werner Herzog. A truth bound up with our desire to make the infinite graspable and within our reach using the tools that cinema has provided us.
Above all, though, the act of watching Lurf’s film in a cinema, preferably in the first row (as I did), is a physically transformative experience, a real adventure of perception inspiring a mode of seeing and hearing untethered to previous ways of ingesting image and sound. It is constructed out of extreme oscillating shifts in rhythm:  moments of lingering calm wherein we are allowed to look soothingly upon a star field abruptly erupts into a quick succession of visual collisions, zaps of light, jumps in perspective, kaleidoscopic bursts of color, a beat dancing succession of single frames causing afterimages to continue to swirl on the inside of the eyelids, all resulting in a new form of cosmic image-poetry. Lurf’s adherence to the original sound and language of each clip also means that he generates new soundscapes and melodies with sonic clashes and echoes, moments of awesome silence and aural voids followed by explosions of audio, cut-ups and scraps of musical scores, dialogue and voiceover glued together offering at times serendipitous flashes of humor, absurdity, but also tones of foreboding.   The overall effect of ★ is that of a work that can make you grow an additional pair of eyes and ears, a rare feat, which for me makes it one of the most exciting works of cinema to come out in a long time and I hope to be able to re-watch the film as it grows and expands with new stars with each passing year.
I had the good fortune to sit down with Johann to talk about his experience of making the film over coffee and tea the morning following the UK premiere in London.  

NOTEBOOK: Does the image or the view of a starry night sky have a particular meaning for you?
JOHANN LURF: Maybe not a particular meaning, but it might stand for something. For me it's a blank canvas, a very early and simple image. I like to compare the starry sky to the cinema itself. It's a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional space—that is also something that cinema does. It too only shows a part of the whole, you only have one perspective, and at the same time it's an image or a sight that combines different times. Some of the stars still exist, and others have died and have been dying for millions of years, but we can still see their light. So it's this transformation of time within one image that is something that film also does, and I think that is quite interesting to compare. I really see the starry night sky as the earliest form of cinema. I think even Alexander Kluge said recently that the Paleolithic man watched the sky as we watch the cinema today. So maybe that is something I can refer to. 
NOTEBOOK: While watching the film I became aware also of the space of the cinema itself.
LURF: I think that the actual space of the cinema has the possibility of taking our attention and putting it and us into another world or another space. Cinema is really a vehicle. So I see this film really in the sense that you are traveling through space. Certain moments of the film are fixed images, then we move, and you end up with another fixed image that might be from the perspective that you just saw. We are constantly moving through space itself, and, of course, you can hear many little aspects of the cinema itself—you hear the different sounds coming from the back, from the center and this activates the space and makes your attention grow and helps you to understand the mechanisms of the cinematic space at the same time. Also because of the hard cuts in the film you are made aware of that. The film is not a lullaby that you are being tricked into and that you can't escape the content of the film. Your attention is always being pushed out into different directions.
NOTEBOOK: I want to go back to the very beginning with a basic question of how this project initially started.
LURF: I was a student of Harun Farocki back in 2005 at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, and in his class ‘Kunst und Film’ [Art and Film] we watched many films, and also re-watched those films to analyze them, to go deeper into them. Re-watching films makes you understand single images better: each shot, the way a scene is shaped through costume, camera angles and camera motions, the editing, et cetera, and I really enjoyed that. I understood that you could analyze any kind of image, even an image that is as simple or abstract as the starry night sky. And in order to understand this one image I thought I needed to understand other images of it as well. So that's how the idea of comparison came into the game.
NOTEBOOK: Was there one particular film, or image of the starry night sky that started it?
LURF: Yes, I saw Stromboli by Rossellini, and there is one scene with Ingrid Bergman where she looks up at this beautiful image of a starry night sky, and at the same time it looks very unreal, which, of course, it actually is. So I started to think about this image that you accept in the course of a film, because in the context of the film it does make sense, it fits the style. But outside of that context you can see that it's not a scientific representation of the impression of a starry night sky that we have with our eyes. I started to look for those images in other films, and I realized that there is a huge variety in the way the starry night sky is shown in cinema.
NOTEBOOK: You said that the star in Stromboli is clearly not real. Are there any real stars in your film? 
LURF: Yes, maybe about 1% are actual stars that have been filmed with elaborate techniques, because it's quite hard to capture them with the camera. You have to make a time lapse, for example, but when you do that you are facing problems like the rotation of the earth, so the stars are moving, and you have to work against that. But it is getting quite sophisticated now to precisely create such an image. But if you don't want to be precise and are fine with your own technological abilities than you can create it on your own.  
NOTEBOOK: Did you do any research into the techniques that some of these filmmakers, particularly the earlier ones, used to create these starry night skies?
LURF: Just by watching the excerpts you can often read the methods they used to create those starry night skies. Many of them are very simple, such as superimposition and you can also see how that method develops. Towards the beginning of the film there is a long shot from the 1930s that creates the illusion of traveling into a star field. You can see that there is a hole in the middle so that the camera doesn’t bump into the stars when you move them closer to the camera. If you do that a couple of times you end up with this effect of traveling into a star field. One of the most beautiful and simple ways to do it is to go to a planetarium and stop the motion of the stars and film the accurate images of the constellations. That's what Nicholas Ray did in Rebel without a Cause, which you’ll remember has a scene in a planetarium.
NOTEBOOK: What were the practicalities of putting the project together? Obviously there are a lot of films involved. How did that selection process work? Did you have help?
LURF: It was a very long process. I started the research for the film in 2009 first by just trying to find out by myself what films I could come up with. Of course, I asked many friends who are cinephiles and watch a lot of films to continuously provide me with those excerpts that they saw—so many eyes can see much more than just one pair. And if the people that you ask know your project then their help can be very specific and useful. I also went through different databases and did lots of keyword searches, but, of course, it's super hard to type in 'film' and 'star' because you always end up with movie stars, which the movie really is not about. [Laughs] So I tried to find films through other key words, such as 'astronomy,' 'telescope,' 'star-gazing,' 'comets'—things that happen in the sky that might help to find these starry night scenes. At a certain point I put all the space science fiction films on my list, which was a huge influence as well. Also I realized or understood that posters of films that have a starry night sky in the background mostly keep their promise of showing of such a scene in the film. Maybe a third of the films that have a starry night sky have it on the poster already. So visual research was very important or just going to the library and flipping through books of film history trying to find especially early examples.
NOTEBOOK: Did you have a criterion in your selections, for example only using fictions films?
LURF: Yes, that for sure. It's about cinema so there is no television or especially no TV series, only a very few selection of documentaries and no scientific films. It was always about feature films, and also experimental cinema, because that's the particular area or sphere of cinema that I work in. But I did not try to select or exclude. I put in basically everything that I could find that is an image of a clear starry night sky without any other objects or landscape, so no spaceships, no moons or planets.
NOTEBOOK: You left out Georges Méliès.
LURF: Yes, because in his work the starry sky is framed. It's always on this theater stage and then you have the stars in the background, but it's not a clear starry night sky. I thought that if you have another element in the shot it makes it hard to compare the different images, and my film is about the comparison between those images.
NOTEBOOK: Did this entire process then involve visiting archives, digging for prints especially of the older less accessible works from Japan and Russia?
LURF: Yes, this was the hardest part, trying to find those films that are not so much in the spotlight today. So the first part was to write that list of films that contained stars, and then the second part was to watch those films in any available format from DVD, VHS, YouTube, other online source, and archives. I watched them in the archives either digitized or on print. I traveled to a number of archives, for example the Austrian Filmmuseum. I went a couple of times to the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam, the Danish Film Institute, and the Korean Film Archive. On all my travels, wherever I went for work I always took an extra day off to talk to people who work in the archives, because they obviously know their specific field better. I spent some months in Japan, so I could access lots of films there that were only in university and video libraries, which was very helpful. Then I could identify and watch all these films and write down all the time codes. I have the time codes for all of these excerpts! [Laughs] Sometimes in one film there are 30 or 40 different very short scenes of the sky, and I condensed them so you can see them all in a couple of seconds. But I have the time codes and the lengths written down of every starry sky shot for every single film, because I had to be able to find them again. In the final stages I had to be able to find those shots again in good quality so that they are appropriate to their original appearance on the screen.
NOTEBOOK:  Did this all for you border on the obsessive, or was it more: I am working on this film, and this is just all the work I need to do to carry this out?
LURF: Actually, what you say is right: I would not call it obsessive, but I wanted to respect the material and not change it and also to be able to represent the footage in the best possible way. I did not want to change any frame or aspect ratios. I kept the original sound format and the original language. I wanted it to look as good as possible. I am making this film as an overview of cinema history, and I think it would be unfair to make the earlier cinema look bad only because I accessed some bad copies of them. I'd rather take the effort to make every single scene as good as possible so that we can compare these very fine details in the representation of the starry sky. I decided to only use HD footage, 2K or 4K images so that it looks good on the big screen. I didn't want the comparison to be between low quality and high quality video, because then you end up with a film that makes the historical films look bad, which they never actually did. Maybe they do today because of the difficulty in accessing prints or restorations. So I decided to only use the good quality pieces.
NOTEBOOK: Did this mean you also had to leave films out that you wanted to use but could not, because of the low quality?
LURF: Yes, of course. I have a lot more scenes in low quality that I could not find or afford to scan so far, but I hope I can add them in the future. That's also another reason why I want to keep this project open, because this selection that I have right now I only decided to show because it reached the 90-minute length. I would like to add more films that have starry night skies even from back earlier in history in their chronological spot in the film. So the project is not only expanding at its end, because, of course, next year their will be new starry night skies appearing in works, but also at its beginning and middle. When the films from the past are digitized or I mange to get access to them I want to put them in their chronologically appropriate place into the work. 
NOTEBOOK: I meant to ask that before: Was the chronological structure of the film always there from the beginning?
LURF: It was quite clear to me from the beginning that to make a historically and chronologically accurate film is the most revealing, because then you can really feel the changes in our depiction of the starry night sky, the changes in the language, the musical and editing styles, to capture the mood of the different decades. You can see in the 1930s the people are singing in choruses and the idea is to maybe reach the stars so mankind unites, and in the 1950s you can feel a threat from the outside, from the stars, the images are more eerie and spooky. Also I wanted to reflect on our mood today in the 2010s towards the starry night sky. Of course, its an interpretation and a projection of ourselves, and we are bringing our own voices to those stars, which means that we are not escaping ourselves when we create these images, but are rather reflecting ourselves. Reflecting ourselves through these images. And it made the most sense to show this in a chronological order.  
NOTEBOOK: Also because the film is in this chronological order you can show multiple histories at the same time. How from decade-to-decade, film-to-film, country-to-country the representation of the starry night sky changed or was echoed across time.
LURF: Absolutely. Because the film is moving forward through cinema history, but also moving forward through technological history as well. These visual trends are very interesting to me and for the project as well—it is really showing history in that sense. You don't have satellite imagery in the first half of the last century, but in the second half they start to appear and they become a part of the way that we show the starry night sky. The first satellite film that I found and that I show is a Russian film, and you can hear the Russian voiceover talking very excitedly about these images. Let's see what other things become a part of the starry night sky in the future from our perspective. Of course, we have less accessibility to the stars because of light pollution, and this is already reflected in the film. Some of the scenes only have very few faint stars, because you can understand it is an image that is being shot from a city.
NOTEBOOK: What's interesting to see is the change in the techniques in showing the starry night sky across time from the early "primitive" techniques to today where a lot of it is done with CGI.
LURF: Well, I think there is very primitive CGI even today, and on the other hand I was quite surprised by how advanced the techniques already in the 1930s were to create a star field that looks three-dimensional and that we move through. So this image of the superimposition of a couple of stars floating towards you and you are moving through that star field, I think that image has not changed that much. 
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned earlier an image from the 1930s of a long traveling shot into a star field with a hole in the middle. It’s an image we could also find today. Technologically things are very different, but the standards and structures of how the stars are shown have remained the same. 
LURF: Or the curiosity is still the same, because I think that also has not changed. The beautiful thing is that when we see the starry night sky, we perceive it as a still image. But we know it's moving over the course of a night, over the course of thousands of years, the stars are moving through space, but this knowledge of that motion of the stars is only something that we have in our consciousness. We cannot experience it, but in cinema one of the first things done was to animate the stars, to make that knowledge tangible. I find this really beautiful—you want to make these stars move, to understand them as a three-dimensional space and not as a two-dimensional image. And, of course, that is something that no one will ever reach, because in order to see two stars move in perspective to one another you have to be traveling at the speed of light. So this image of a moving star field is something that came along with moving-image technology. It's something that is very film specific, but cannot be experienced in nature.
NOTEBOOK: I wanted to talk about the sound of the film. You said you left the sound in sync, and unedited, and in doing so you create a new soundtrack with the sounds of the different films interacting with one another. Was that something that you were thinking about as well in the editing, or were you more focused on the editing the image?
LURF: Yes, because I can't influence the sound. I can't influence the image either. I can just make the decision of when to start and when to stop the image. So my editing process was to extract the image of the clear starry night sky, regardless of how long it was, even if it was just 1/24th of a second, a single frame, or as long as two minutes. But the funny thing is that the films already self-censor the amount of time they show an image of the starry night sky anyway, because they want to show off their production value, the actors, the set they have, and the starry night sky is just of secondary importance. They use the image, but then quickly cut back to the real live action. And I was very curious to see what was going to happen with the sound, and I enjoy these jumps in the sound from film to film because it makes you really aware of the differences in usage of sound and the possibilities that there are. I think there are many nice examples and some very nice quotations in the film.
NOTEBOOK: And that's where the humor comes as well, these brief sound bites of music and dialogue, and I was surprised that the film was actually very funny at times.
LURF: Yes, I know the concept sounds so austere, but then luckily the outcome is a very lively collage of sound snippets and pieces
NOTEBOOK: The film has a very lively editing rhythm often moving between rapid cutting sequences to longer more contemplative shots. But if your editing process was solely determined by the little time that the shot lasted of the starry night sky how much in control were you in creating these contrasts in rhythm?
LURF: The thing is I shaped the concept of this film as good as possible and then followed that concept as sincerely as possible. For me that involved accepting all of these tempo changes, which can't go so wrong, because as I said hardly any of the shots are very long. Most of them are shorter than ten seconds, so I was aware that I would have a very lively rhythmic film. But also you have to give the audience a little break, so there are also these longer scenes that last over a minute and I really welcome them as well. You can breathe a little bit and also contemplate about what you just saw. Then you should be woken up again with these sound jolts.
NOTEBOOK: That was definitely my experience of the film: moments of calm followed by great bursts of image and sound.
LURF: I think we can adapt to different dramaturgical structures. It was not important for me to create a perfect climax at a certain point, but rather to have many of these climaxes and little breaks next to each other. But also that speaks to the time, to the decade that filmmakers thought it was important to create something loud. You also see in which cultures you have more time to watch the stars. For example, in the Japanese films they take more time to show the stars, they take it more seriously. I think the starry night sky is very important to different cultures, but they deal and represent it in their own way.
NOTEBOOK: What is it about the jump cut that you liked for this film rather using fades?
LURF: Also, just to continue the thoughts we just had: to take even a single image or a single frame seriously—that is very much connected to my own practice, my way of seeing or understanding cinema. I didn't want to make a time limitation, like only shots that are longer than one second should be included, or I didn't want to stretch time or fast forward anything. I wanted to represent as much as possible how it appeared on the screen. So I took a lot of effort to incorporate single frames, which you hardly ever see. But if there are a number of single frames after another with jump cuts you can create a new rhythm and a new melody out of musical sequences, such as in credit scenes where you have the starry night sky in the background and the names fade in and out. Then many times there are just a few frames in between of just the sky, so I put them together, and then you have the images that appear normal, but you have a new mix of the soundtrack that plays in the background.  I wanted to include those credit sequences, because I think you can read even from a single frame, if you watch the film again and again, you will be able to read those sequences better and understand them more. To see what kind of mechanisms and techniques the filmmakers has used for these title sequences and learn from that as well.
NOTEBOOK: Do you know the source of every single/frame in the film?
LURF: Not every singe one. At a certain point I get confused. I know it for many hundreds, but not for all. [Laughs] I don't know how many shots there are. Through the jump cuts I could sometimes extract dozens of single shots from one film, but it's more than 550 different films that are the sources for these starry night skies.
NOTEBOOK: Are you still actively adding to the film?
LURF: I am. This version that you saw is one minute longer than last year's premiere version at the Viennale. Next year there will be a different version, but I don't know by how much longer.
NOTEBOOK: What is the source of the music during the end credits? Did you work with a composer?
LURF: No, no those are compositions from the 17th century that were recorded in the 1960s and 80s, and I really like that there is this connection between the past and the present and also between the further past and the more recent past. Putting that music nowadays in a film means that you are referring to history twice, which is also what the film is doing. It is looking into the past, through the perspective of different pasts that we perceive in our present, and I really like that notion.

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