My thanks to Stephen Lan for arranging for Chris Kraus and I to sit down to discuss his latest project and to Sebastian Keismueller of Bavaria Film International for access to the film's production stills, including Jim Rakete's portrait of Kraus.
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Michael Guillén: You have been working on The Poll Diaries (2010) for close to 14-15 years: from the original idea, through development and pre-production, to the actual filming. That's an unusually excessive amount of time to be working on a project and—since people change over time....
Chris Kraus: Yes, that's true.
Guillén: ...how was that for you? Did your approach to the project change over the years, as I assume you changed? Can you speak to the pros and cons of having such a length of time to develop a film?
Kraus: I like this question, I must say. I never thought about it but it's true. In 1995, I wrote the script because in 1993—shortly after the freedom of Estonia—I traveled to Estonia and visited Poll. The story went through an interesting process because at the beginning I just wanted to give the script to another director. After a while, I became a director and—after all my efforts to bring the script to another director fell through—suddenly the possibility developed that I could work on it myself.
At that point the script itself went a little bit darker. Over time it became darker. That was the process. At the beginning, it was a story about a girl's adventure where at the end the anarchist escapes and she grows up; it was a coming-of-age story. Nothing really changed except the community in which the story was set. By the time I decided to direct the story myself, it had darkened, there was more tragedy, more pain. In retrospect, I'm glad that this film wasn't made when I was a young guy because now it's filled up with the ambivalency of being neither good nor bad, which is a theme of interest to me. Also, the idea of how luck can bring a person to the right decision and not the wrong. Allowing the script to mature to incorporate my personal interests was better for the project.
Guillén: This tragic shadow that fell over the script over time, was it truer to the source memoirs of German-Baltic author Oda Schaefer (1900-1988)? Or were these tragic concerns more in league with your own personal development?
Kraus: Yes, absolutely, because when I began writing the script based on Oda Schaefer's memoirs, I felt that there was something wrong with this woman's story, like something was missing. I felt something had happened that she hadn't included in her memoirs. So I decided to create the world that she never talked about in her memoirs. Admittedly, my creation of Oda's world was incorrect—Poll was never destroyed and some of the information at the end of the film is incorrect—but, I wanted to play with this balance between fiction and non-fiction. Though the character of Oda Schaefer is real—she was a famous lyric writer in the 1950s—she is almost unknown today, though she remains real for my family. During her time at Poll, Oda Schaefer discovered her own identity. So perhaps it's safe to say that the way of her story and the way of my own story are not so far away from each other.
Guillén: That you both became writers surfaces as a common element? I'm aware you studied literature at the university, but what prompted the shift to scriptwriting? At what point did you choose film over literature?
Kraus: There's not a direct link. Yes, I started at the university studying two years of literature; but, then I did a lot of other things, my life was mixed up, I stopped my studies, and only ten years later was lucky enough to study four years at a film school. To make a long story short, I decided to be a writer because I came from a background of writing. In those days at the film school everyone wanted to become a director. I never wanted to become a director. I had children I had to feed.
Guillén: Well, I'm glad to say you became a director, I'll put it that way.
Kraus: You're very charming.
Guillén: In your director's statement in the press notes, you state: "I wasn't interested in a world of the past, but in the onset of a period that we live in to this very day." Can you expand on that? What are the characteristics of this period we now live in that were introduced by the historical precedent of your story?
Kraus: I'm not sure. Your questions are very complex and with my limited English I'm not sure I can be on the same level; but, I'll try. I don't believe the connections are details of time. It's more a feeling of insecurity that has been passed down to us from that time. Further, the changes in time from then to now are not as big as we think. On one hand, when we think of 1914 it seems almost the same as considering the ancient Romans—it seems so far away—but, on the other hand, all of the emblematic characteristics of the 20th century were already there in 1914: science, the cars, the beginning of psychology, all of those aspects of modernity were already in place. What I meant in my director's note was that 1914 was just the beginning of a modern age that we experience moreoreless today.
Guillén: To return to your earlier comment regarding your concern with the ambivalency of right and wrong and how seemingly straightforward events can lead to right or wrong decisions, what I found difficult to watch in The Poll Diaries was the characterization of Oda's father Ebbo von Siering (in a disturbing performance by Edgar Selge). Here is a man desperate to be acknowledged within a mainstream academic community who begins to scientifically experiment on human beings, which—historically, of course—we know led to the heinous practices that occurred during WWII. But it comments even further on the genetic splicing being explored today. That scientific impulse of experimenting with the human body, once started, has never stopped and I was wondering if this was the "onset of a period" that you were referencing? Or as Cameron Bailey phrased it in his program notes: "Posing a range of ethical questions, the film offers a compelling commentary on a morally bankrupt brand of reasoning that would come to underlie some of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century."
Kraus: I wanted to choose one part of the early turn of the century that would tell us about ourselves today. I chose science. I could have chosen other things as well. I could have chosen psychology, for example. The real existing Ebbo on whom my character was based was actually a journalist and—though he began his writing career with some interesting pieces—he was eventually unsuccessful as a writer. Filled with hate and resentment over his failed career, he became anti-Semitic. I gave that lack of success to my character Ebbo as well to show how he became more and more radical and extreme. When a man is not successful in life, he feels pressured and begins to resent and hate the times that work against him. I chose science as a way to articulate this theme of conflicted modernity. As a filmmaker, of course, you choose what will allow the most imagery and I felt I could do more with Ebbo as a scientist than I could if he were a journalist.
Guillén: One of the things I found most compelling about The Poll Diaries was precisely your directorial intent to create a historical drama that speaks to modern audiences. I'm continually intrigued by what makes such a historical drama contemporary. Do you feel The Poll Diaries is a contemporary film?
Kraus: It's hard for me to answer that; but, I think the characters are modern. Do you know what I mean? It's like trying to imagine what it would be like to live in the 16th Century or—in the specific case of The Poll Diaries—the transition from the 19th to the 20th Century. For me, as a German, with a family background in National Socialism, what I imagine as modern is what it would feel like for me to be this adolescent girl Oda? Although I never met her, I liked her a lot. It was forbidden to talk about her in my family.
Guillén: Oda Schaefer was your great aunt?
Kraus: Yes, she was my great aunt and—because of that—that's the modern connection. The same family dynamics occurring during Oda's adolescence in 1914 are the same dynamics occurring in my family today. I'm pretty sure my family doesn't like my film.
Guillén: I was going to ask you how they felt about your championing the black sheep of your family.
Kraus: No, no, no, they are absolutely against this film.
Guillén: They didn't want anyone to know about her, right?
Kraus: No, that's not exactly right. They're not really interested in her; but, they're interested in the status of her own tradition and because I show a German-Baltic who is a bad guy doing bad things to people. Actually, I don't think of him as a bad guy. He's an ambivalent personality. Maybe he could have been a good guy?
Guillén: If he'd been academically successful?
Kraus: Maybe? Or maybe Oda could have turned out to be a bad girl? Because I've staged that ambivalency, my family is totally against this film. I'm sure no one in my family could have imagined this, coming from an aristrocratic background with its tradition of pride. But to return to your question: this is the modern thing. This is what's contemporary about the film. The attitudes of my family. We even tried to work with German-Baltic organizations but it wasn't possible. They read a small treatment of the script and rejected participation. That reaction alone tells me that there is something in this story that is not just a fairy tale.
Guillén: At a large international festival like TIFF where I'm watching so many different movies from different countries—which is such a compressed, almost artificial way to watch movies—one of the welcome delights is how certain movies begin to speak to each other. Your film The Poll Diaries speaks to two others I've seen at TIFF: Lee Changdong's Korean feature Poetry and Aleksei Fedorchenko's Russian feature Silent Souls. All three films concern individuals who—in their struggle against social constraints and personal tragedies—become poets. And though all three films are stylistically different, it's through the tragedies of their individual lives that their poetry emerges. In The Poll Diaries Oda is encouraged to become a poet through the influence of the Estonian anarchist "Schnaps" (handsomely played by Tambet Tuisk). Is this one of the fictional elements you added to the life of your great aunt Oda Schaefer?
Kraus: I thought about the character of my great aunt and wondered why she was not like the rest of the family? The answer is: because she became a writer. When you're a writer, you're never sure of the conditions of living and have to live with a certain insecurity. You have to be content to ask and perhaps not know the answers. When you begin to ask questions, when you begin to think about things, perhaps at the end of your questioning there will be no answer; but, because of all the questions you have asked, you maybe learn who you are. If you're a slave to family traditions, you will never find yourself. Speaking personally, that's the tragedy of my own family. So many members of my family have been so far away from themselves; but, my great aunt Oda tried to find herself. She spoke honestly of her feelings and that made a difference. That's also what interests me in other people.
Guillén: The Poll Diaries is sumptuously filmed. It's visually beautiful. The entire production design is stunning. I was bemused reading the production notes that most of your production team is female.
Kraus: [Laughs loudly.]
Guillén: Your director of photography Daniela Knapp, your production designer Silke Buhr, your make up supervisor Susana Sánchez, your costume designer Gioia Raspé, your editor Uta Schmidt, your original music by Annette Focks, your casting director Nina Haun, even your producers Meike and Alexandra Kordes: all women. This is somewhat unusual and commendable. I respect this. What was this like for you to be surrounded by such an ensemble of feminine creative talent informing the film?
Kraus: I like to work with women! They add another sensitivity. The truth is that most of my team began with my career. We have grown together. It just happened.
Guillén: I appreciate that you use the term "sensitivity" because the voice that comes out of this film, this young girl's voice, is a strong, feminist voice. The role you have given Paula Beer to play possesses admirable agency. It's a great debut performance for a young actress. I'm curious if the fact that you have such creative women working with you has helped develop and strengthen that feminine voice, not only here in The Poll Diaries but with your previous feature Four Minutes?
Kraus: It's just the way my life happened. When I began with my first film Scherbentanz (Shattered Glass, 2002), it wasn't that I said, "I only want to work with women." It just happened. I've planned a trilogy of films about my family. Scherbentanz was about my mother and The Poll Diaries about another female character. I think today that's very modern. Female characters now are more interesting because today they can do things; they're not victims anymore.
Guillén: Which reflects the central theme you're admittedly interested in of how an individual can find him or herself against all odds and despite opposition from the social environment.
Kraus: Yes. For men, of course, in our male world, it's normal; but, for women it's a challenge. Even for a woman to become a cinematographer is a challenge. Your question reveals to me that this is a theme in my work and I apologize for laughing so loudly. Why did you look at that? Why did you check that out?
Guillén: Because I personally relate to that feminine struggle for independent agency. I am one of those men who believe that the emancipation of women sets us all free. And I've met enough people in the film world to know how difficult it is for women to get a toehold in the industry; thus, I admired your production ensemble, which has served you well. Four Minutes was internationally successful.
Kraus: Yes. I see.
Guillén: Returning to the production, this house that serves as the main location in your film, this incredible Palladine-style manor, is an incredible presence in your film. As Cameron Bailey described it in his program notes, it's "a character in its own right, a hulking, neoclassical manor that hovers on stilts above the sea." Can you speak to how you and your production team came up with this structure?
Kraus: The decision to build that house was mine. It was the only possibility to bring it alive. Even though at first we looked for an existing structure in Estonia. But the details of the house, its construction, was the work of Silke Buhr.
Guillén: Who, again, worked with you on Four Minutes, as well as on Florian Henckel von Donnersmarcks's The Lives Of Others. This house that Buhr designed, I'd never seen a house like this before.
Kraus: That's because it doesn't exist.
Guillén: So it was more an aesthetic concept rather than an architectural reconstruction of a historical structure?
Kraus: It has more to do with imagination. It's a house that could have existed. We thought about how we could bring it alive and it depended upon a character who could imagine such a house. A king in the 16th century, let's say, might say, "I want a mosque as a house" and he would have it built. Silke Buhr and I thought, "Okay, 100 years ago there might have been a grandfather in Alaska who wanted to bring a Palladine-style manor to Alaska." We decided that—though such a structure didn't exist—it could exist, especially if we had a character such as Ebbo von Siering who was crazy enough to build it. Thus, this somewhat fairy tale house came alive. I heard today, in fact, that some people found it admirable that we had found the house in Estonia!
Guillén: Speaking of Estonia, what was it like to film there? The Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival has become one of my dream destinations. I've heard their cities hold the old world charm of Prague? Was it a special experience for you to film there?
Kraus: Yes, it was a special experience; like filming here in the wilderness of Canada. We filmed in a nature reserve away from civilization. I haven't seen much of Estonia. I've mainly just seen its forests. When we filmed from the helicopter, it was amazing to see nothing but wilderness as far as the eye could see. This is uncommon for middle Europe so I was delighted to use this footage. For me, Estonia was archaic. That would be the word: archaic.
Unfortunately, with regard to the old world charm of Tallinn, they have polished it up. It's too new now. It's very nice; but, when I saw it in 1993, everything was wonderfully wrecked.
Guillén: It had character?
Kraus: Unbelievable character. It was like stepping back into the past 100 years. But it's not like that anymore.
Guillén: Can you speak to how you worked with your director of photography Daniela Knapp to create the pastoral atmosphere of The Poll Diaries? The look of the film is gorgeous, all that late afternoon low-angled amber light reflected off the surfaces of things. If I walk away from a movie with even just one image seared into my mind, I am happy and with The Poll Diaries it was that amber light glinting off of spider webs wavering in late afternoon breezes and those busy black ants trafficking over the coarse bark of trees. I'm sure you didn't place those spider webs or anything; but, I admire how your DoP had an eye for such pastoral detail.
Kraus: Though The Poll Diaries was my fourth film, I wasn't able to work with Judith Kaufmann who was my DoP on Four Minutes. Daniela arrived in Estonia five weeks before shooting began so it was just a process of bringing her into the project. And though, yes, you are right, we did not place the spider webs on the set, the ants were placed by four people who brought them in.
Guillén: [Laughs] Ant wranglers!
Kraus: Yeah, really. [Laughs.] Absolutely. I think it was wonderful that Daniela had the same vision. She contributed some very good ideas. But sometimes communication doesn't have to do with speaking. Of course you talk and all that, but you also communicate on another level and, perhaps, this is again that special thing of working with women. It's easier. With men, something else happens. You never have such problems working with women. You have other problems; but, not the ones you have with men.
Cross-published on Twitch.