I wanted to make a film based on a novel that I hadn’t read. Or, to be more precise, a novel that I could not read as it was written in a language foreign to me and without translation. I know it sounds like a strange idea. It was a matter of trust – and a matter of intuition – but more so, a matter of trust. Today I can tell that I wasn’t wrong; that the Catacomb of Molussia is profoundly of our times.

How can you proceed when you can’t read the script? Simply – always keep things simple…I knew what the plot was: prisoners, sitting in the darkness of a pit in an imaginary fascist state called Molussia, telling each other stories about the outside world like a series of philosophical fables. How to proceed…?

We began by filming that imaginary country. There was no need to go very far. My friend Nathalie and I wandered through landscapes of more or less urban and industrialized landscapes. We would stop here and there and film. But what was remarkable was that, in such a process, what deserved to be filmed appeared so clearly without any project writings to determine it. We started to build machines with my friend Christophe to make the business more complex and the results less predictable, not forgetting to film a few human beings in their most common activity: work – a country is never completely deserted.

My friend, Stefan, gave me a sizable amount of out-of-date film stock. At first, it was so difficult to obtain an interesting image with it that I considered dropping the idea of using it. But after a year of experimentation, I ended up finding an appropriate process and printing procedure: A grainy, rough, atemporal image as fascinating as paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. I persevere. Without an artist-run film lab like L’Abominable and the possibilities it offers, I don’t believe it would have been possible…

Shooting periods follow one another. I learn a bit of German. Months pass; then years. Now I have quite a lot of images and sounds. Molussia starts to take shape. I ask my friend, Peter, to read the book for me. In 2001, my friend, Jutta, had read a copy acquired in Germany, and later my friend in Berlin, Carole, had also read it. The novel was written between 1932 and 1936 by GŁnther Stern, known by the pseudonym Anders (which is German for “differently”) following this conversation with the chief-editor of the newspaper he was working for:

— Half of the articles of this newspaper can’t be signed by a certain GŁnther Stern!
— Well then just call me differently!

All his life as a writer, GŁnther Anders kept this pseudonym indicating anonymity and difference.

Shortly before Hitler seizes power, he finishes a version of the Catacomb and confides the manuscript to Brecht’s publisher. The latter, out of precaution, wraps it in a cover representing a map of Indonesia where he adds an island named “Molussia” to disguise the book as a travelogue.  He just finishes before the Gestapo arrives and confiscates all the manuscripts in his possession. By luck, the censors fall for the trap and return the Catacomb without having read it. In March, 1933, just after the Reichstag fire and its fatal chain of event, GŁnther Anders and his wife, Hannah Arendt, leave for Paris. Now as an exile, Anders feverishly completes the book, tripling in volume. He tries to get it published but finds no one to do so before leaving for the United States in 1938. By the end of the war, he considers it too late to publish. Instead, one will have to wait until 1992, the year of Anders death, for Becks to publish their German edition. Today, the book is out of print without having been translated, although the later philosophical and political works of Anders are widely circulated.

Peter finishes reading the Catacomb and I ask him to choose a number of chapters that he thinks would be interesting for the film. Peter knows me well, having translated in German my preceding film, Schuss! Trust. He sends me his selection and I add a number of chapters that attract me by their titles. With my friend, Nathalie, we decipher all this and roughly translate it so that I can work it out. Then Peter comes to Paris, and after discussing it with him, I make the selection a bit shorter and we record him reading what I have kept. Now I can go on to the editing stage. How should I proceed? Simply…

I start by associating the texts with the sound recordings I have. I focus on the recordings that last a bit, developing in time, almost musically. And at the same time, but in a separate operation, I begin to make suites of images; hypothetical progressions in the imaginary country. Sketches of the film come through. The moment of truth comes when the soundtracks have to be confronted with the images. Curious combinations are born. Sound and image have to “chafe”, without destroying each other. Curiously, there doesn’t appear to be many possibilities. Little by little, however, the number of parts and the images that will remain in the film become evident. From the beginning, I believed that each part could be placed anywhere in the film. But that constraint of a random order made the exercise of editing a bit particular. Eventually it becomes clear that only one excerpt from the book will be present in each part. A visual course, a sound atmosphere, and a text: an unlikely classicism. Than, “differently,” along with the name of that strange country, confirms to be the right title for the film.

Adjusting, moving around, exchanging places, shortening here, adding there — all of this is still necessary. But care must be taken not to betray the luck of sound and image simply put together, without premeditation, in time. Regularly, things are allowed to breathe before editing continues…

But during this time, L’Abominable becomes evictable. The procedure progresses slowly at first, and then suddenly speeds up. The lab has to move. We begin to take everything away except for the 16 mm editing table for the last month of August so that I can finish the film. Yet, in one last twist of things, we are abruptly evicted and the film is confined. To finalize the last cuts, one has to walk through the walls; get locked up in the lab just like the prisoners in the novel; in the very same place I filmed Peter in their depiction…

Nicolas Rey
September 2011

Translation : N. Rey / Kevin Rice

1.  I recently discovered the existence of an Italian translation of the novel published in 2008 by Lupetti.

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