Photo © DEFA-Stiftung, Wolfgang Ebert
Roland Gräf: In Keeping with the Need for Truthful Stories
An interview with director Roland Gräf, by Manfred Beckmann for KINO DDR.
Why did you, after ten years behind the camera, decide to work as both a cinematographer and director?
It was not the idea from the beginning for Mein lieber Robinson (My Dear Robinson). It emerged unexpectedly shortly after we started shooting. But you have to admit that Klaus Poche’s scenario was very well suited for this kind of interpersonal union. The somewhat impressionistic structure of the scenario longed for a style that used the possibilities and means of the camera to formulate the concerns of the film. My Dear Robinson is not what you’d call a film for the actors; it is more like a film for the camera. That’s one reason why both leading actors were amateurs.
But if the question is why, after so many years working as a cameraman, I now also decided to work as a director, then I must say that this decision was of course not sudden. It was the result of a long process that, while it did not necessarily aim in this direction, also never excluded the possibility. From the beginning, my interest in film content was as great as in its photographic translation. The craft of the cameraman only ever made sense for me in connection with a content-based intention, with a story whose concerns I could make my own. This was the reason I preferred to make certain kinds of films as a cameraman and avoided everything else. Robinson made it possible for me to do everything I was interested in myself—things I had only ‘participated’ in until then. ‘Doing it myself’ meant on my own say-so and according to my ideas, down to the last detail.
What roles do the visual imagery and the spoken word play for you in a film?
If this is a question about possible priorities, I must first answer: everything is possible. I know fascinating films in which speaking is reduced to a minimum or entirely eliminated—for example, in the movie Hadaka no shima [The Naked Island, Dir. Kaneto Schindô, Japan, 1960]. I also know films in which the optical aspect is reduced to minimal information and the actors’ dialogue represents the dramatic force—like in the movie Twelve Angry Men [Dir. Sidney Lumet, USA, 1957] or, a more recent example, Premiya [The Bonus, Dir. Alexander Gelman, USSR, 1974].
The relative proportion of each depends on specific stories and the personal aptitude and talents of the authors and the directors. But I gladly admit that I prefer films that are sparing with dialogue to films that are wordy. It may be related to my training as a cinematographer, but it’s definitely related to a general skepticism with regard to the spoken word that’s grown over the years. Sometimes I think our language, including my own, actually means what it says less and less often. Language often hides more than it gives away. In film, language should always help reveal this contradiction, help find the actual meaning behind the word, whether identical or contrary. I mean, the interview films that have recently become fashionable (not simple reports), are almost always problematic, because they constantly urge me to take whatever some person or other says in front of the camera at face value—although it obviously applies only to the moment, if at all. Language always remains only half the proof, if it isn’t supplemented or commented upon by attitudes, situations, events—in short, by images.
After three films, how do you evaluate yourself as a director? Are your films shaped by Roland Gräf, the director or Roland Gräf, the cinematographer?
We’re not really talking about directing, but rather about directing films, which especially requires—in addition to everything else: the content and dramaturgy, working with the actors, the auditory element—the ability to think in images. This is a fundamental precondition for this profession, regardless of whether or not you were a cinematographer first. From this perspective, every director should be his or her own cinematographer, and every cameraman should feel a bit like the director. If I had to say that my three films are mainly, or maybe even decisively shaped by the cinematographer, I wouldn’t even start making a fourth one, because it would mean that I did a bad job as a director.
Your work to date, including your work as a cinematographer, is dominated by contemporary issues (excluding one fairy-tale film). Are you especially interested in films about the present (Gegenwartsfilme)?
Personally I don’t believe that any historical film can have as much power, in terms of its effect on a wide audience, or say as much about contemporary issues as a film that deals directly with the present. (This said, I am not against historical films; the best of them are marked by time-reference, by present issues in a metaphorical sense and by a contemporary point of view.) My nearly unconditional preference for films about the present is a result of this feeling, but of course it’s even more an outgrowth of my actual interest in us and the time in which we live. And it also comes from the hope that films about the present are most likely to have an impact.
What characteristics must a DEFA film have in order to find a large audience here and also pass muster internationally?
Difficult question. I’d like to say: The film has to be characterized by finding a large domestic audience and also international success.… If we knew how to achieve this, who wouldn’t jump up and try to make one? The problem is that we only know one or another element that might contribute to success, that if we’re lucky with certain projects we can fulfill some, or even many of these elements, but the ideal result rarely comes to fruition. Unfortunately, you can’t calculate success—except for a certain type of commercial entertainment film, which we don’t have here anyway for financial reasons. You can’t calculate success for the simple reason that it depends on factors that are beyond the expertise of the people who make films, factors over which they have no influence. In order to run 100 meters in 9.9 seconds these days, you’d need to have not only outstanding natural ability and masterful skill (although you must have both), you’d also need a stimulating audience (the fans have to want you to break the record too!), strong competition and favorable weather conditions, which means preferably no unfriendly, chilly, damp weather or headwind, but rather sunshine, warmth and the wind at your back.…
Whatever. To give you an answer: I think it can only be a film about contemporary issues; the need for honest stories about our lives, about our private and public conflicts and problems characterizes by far the largest part of our potential audience. It would have to be a film that presents its story and characters without prejudice and without superficial or—what is basically the same—hidden moralizing. People want to come to their own conclusions. And it would have to be a film that engages its viewers sensuously. At the movies the main thing you want is to experience things, to see and hear, laugh and cry, love and hate. Out of concern for our social duty and its formulation, we often emphasize knowledge of the world over experience of the world—and this inversion, this shifting of the proportions occasionally makes the result of our work abstract, weak and boring and blocks the path to the audience, as well as international recognition.
This interview with director Roland Gräf was published in the East German monthly magazine, KINO DDR (10/1977), and coincided with the theatrical release of the film Die Flucht (The Flight). Comparable to today’s press kits, KINO DDR focused on new national and international movie releases and included synopses, information about the productions, interviews and photos. PROGRESS Film-Verleih, the East German film distribution monopoly, prepared the texts (with film historians and journalists) and published and distributed this magazine to the East German media.
The DEFA-Stiftung holds the rights for KINO DDR; we are grateful for permission to use this interview.