The Art of the Situation: conversations and characters studies on the photographic film Geschichten eines Jungen, einer Frau und eines Soldaten – an insight into the process of filmmaking.
“Stories are always formed in the mind. Regardless of whether they are real or invented. What matters is their truthfulness.”
Director Franziska Pflaum realised her first photographic film as part of her fellowship: Instead of 25 frames per second, which creates the illusion of movement, we see individual photographs: sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, they constantly change their rhythm.
In a room at the Akademie der Künste in the Hansaviertel district, three actors begin to tell their story. We travel back in time and dive into their memories. Individual scenes come together to form a story that increasingly interweaves the fates of all three protagonists: When Reza’s parents are killed in a bomb explosion, he decides to leave Afghanistan and go to Germany. German soldier Matthias is no longer able to cope in his homeland after being deployed to Afghanistan; his own life has become foreign to him. Stefanie is the caretaker at the Akademie der Künste; why her son became a soldier she cannot comprehend – she tries in vain to be close to him.
Geschichten eines Jungen, einer Frau und eines Soldaten, 2020, photographic film, trailer
INT. STEFANIE’S APARTMENT. KITCHEN – DAY
Stefanie is sitting alone at the kitchen table. Matthias is suddenly gone. There are two cups of coffee in front of her. She looks sadly into the void where Matthias was sitting.
Sometimes I even make coffee for
the two of us. I am trying to
remember, but his face. I can’t
get a clear image
of his face. It’s always a
little bit blurred.
INT. STEFANIE’S APARTMENT. HALL – NIGHT
Stefanie is wearing a dark dressing gown with big flowers on it. We see her from behind. She walks around the dark apartment.
This Afghanistan changed him so
much. There were 2, 3 more
moments. These, as with this…
When he was standing at the door
unexpectedly: He had a shirt on
that I did not recognise and I
thought man, look at that,
he bought himself something new
to wear, he is looking
forward and not backward.
INT. STEFANIE’S APARTMENT. MATTHIAS’S ROOM – NIGHT
Stefanie switches the light on in Matthias’s room. His things have been neatly put aside and packed away. You can see that Matthias moved out long ago. Stefanie uses the room as a sewing and laundry room now. She goes over to a picture hanging above a chest of drawers.
And he had this
open look again and spoke about that
boy. About Reza.
The photo is of Reza and Matthias. They are in Afghanistan. Reza is proudly holding a football in his hand. Matthias has his arm around his shoulders.
Excerpt audio recording, character studies for the film Geschichten eines Jungen, einer Frau und eines Soldaten, August 2019 at the JUNGE AKADEMIE Open Studios. During the performance, the actors met each other for the first time. Everyone knew who he or she was and loosely how they were connected to each other. But the dynamics and the specific relationships between the characters only developed in front of the audience during the conversation between the actors. At the same time, the spectators were encouraged to take part in the conversation with the fictional characters and ask questions.
Excerpt audio recording in the run-up to filming, the actors assume their roles and hold improvised conversations with the fictional characters or allow two characters to construct a past together (without audience).
Filmmaker Franziska Pflaum and Berlin gallerist Florian Schönfelder put the focus is on the process of filmmaking and raise the question as to which concepts and formats such as participation and “constructed situation”, mainly used in performance art, can influence the development of characters and stories. How are stories created and under what conditions?
Franziska Pflaum: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, Florian. We first met in August 2019 at the JUNGE AKADEMIE Open Studios. At that time, I was working on a film that I had developed during my fellowship and realised at the Akademie premises in the Hansaviertel district. I used the Open Studios to present a work step in the form of a performance – thus revealing the process. Afterwards, we talked to each other. As a gallerist, you did not position the presentation in the world of cinema, but rather in the context of art. The change of perspective was very exciting for me and raised certain questions that I would like to discuss with you in this interview.
Florian Schönfelder: I had already been attending two other events that evening and thought, I’ll go and have a look in on the Open Studios at the Akademie der Künste. So I saw your performance by chance, which is still very present for me now, eight weeks later. There was a freshness that immediately appealed to me and has stuck in my mind. But maybe you can first explain how you approached the work, and I will add my thoughts on this.
FP: The work is not centred on the performance you saw but rather on a film called Geschichten eines Jungen, einer Frau und eines Soldaten. I did not approach this like a conventional film, writing the screenplay first. Instead, I started with the development and casting of the film’s characters. This means that I asked three actors to assume the intended roles respectively and then we developed the characters together. During the performance, the actors met each other for the first time. Everyone knew who he or she was and loosely how they were connected to each other. But the dynamics and the specific relationships between the characters only developed in front of the audience during the conversation between the actors. At the same time, the spectators were encouraged to take part in the conversation with the fictional characters and ask questions.
FS: This is the first work in which you, as Tino Sehgal would say, worked with a “constructed situation”?
FP: I have worked like that on all my films to date: In the run-up to filming, I ask the actors to assume their roles and then hold improvised conversations with the fictional characters or allow two characters to construct a past together. But we had always done this without an audience before then, i.e. the audience only saw the final product on the screen.
FS: Here, the story more or less ran its own course. You set the parameters, brief the actors so they know their roles, but then give the whole thing space. The outcome is open.
FP: Exactly. I only developed very loose constellations of characters. The actual story that bound the three together emerged more and more during the conversation with and between the fictional characters. That was very exciting for me.
FS: What is your film about, what content interests you?
FP: It’s about people and their attempts to deal with our reality here in Europe. At the same time, they are almost always characters that are hardly seen or not seen at all – whose problems are not seen. In this film, the war in Afghanistan is what draws the fates of three people together here in Germany. The Afghan boy who must find his way in Germany. The soldier who is torn by the discrepancy between everyday life in Germany and fighting a war, finally withdrawing into this internal war. And his mother, who is unable to understand her son and ultimately loses him completely. Each of these fates is sealed by a war that hardly comes up in everyday life in Germany and Europe.
FS: I already mentioned Tino Sehgal. I see some parallels to his work. He instructs the actors, who then activate the spectators. Among other things, it is about specific topics, but with you, I would almost say that it is more content-loaded. You discuss family matters, political backgrounds and current topics such as homelessness, refugees and society’s lack of perspective. At the same time, as with Sehgal, it is about the activation of spectatorship. So not only is something offered, like in theatre for example, but the people are allowed to participate. Being involved like this brings the performance very close to those drawn in to participate. You can’t hide behind the role of the observer, but rather take part in the conversation and can affect both it and the story that develops. You also bring the space in, and here we are talking about minimal art. This means that you work in a site-specific manner. The biographies of the characters are linked to the Akademie der Künste: The boy meets a homeless man here and gets to know the caretaker. The characters move exactly in the cosmos within which you present your performance to the audience.
FP: Yes, of course that was also a result of me spending the summer at the Akademie studios in the Hansaviertel district and the people I was able to observe and get to know in and around the building. I find it incredibly exciting to make the people who keep an institution such as the Akademie going visible as they work in the background.
FS: It was also fascinating that the acting during the performance was so authentic most of the spectators were fully convinced for quite some time that they were real characters telling their own stories on the stage.
FP: I was also surprised by that. Especially since I repeatedly pointed out – for example in the introduction to the performance – that the situation was constructed.
FS: Yes, but that’s how humans work. You want to believe that it’s real. When the soldier, who sits at the table full of life before everyone’s eyes, suddenly starts talking about his death, of course it causes a rupture. In principle, it is a shifting of truths.
FP: I’m playing with the idea of starting the film with a text fade: “Stories are always formed in the mind. Regardless of whether they are real or invented. What matters is their truthfulness.” That is very explanatory for sure – perhaps I won’t include it after all. But what I like is the question posed here about truth. This project is about perspectives, and a change in perspective always means another truth or a shift in the perceived truth. At the same time, we also leave the level of the characters and generally ask what a story actually is, how it is formed and under what conditions.
FS: There really are so many threads that converge here. So we have the question of the medium itself, the social issues and then the philosophical question of truth. I think these are all things that move people, and that’s why I believe the performance has stayed on my mind so much. Did other visitors also see it like that? How did they react?
FP: The work is located at the interface between cinema and art. I think that it is easier to receive if you are interested in this area. For people who have nothing to do with film and the working methods used in film, it is perhaps more alien, perhaps even disconcerting because they find it more difficult to categorise.
FS: I couldn’t really categorise it either. Thoughts on this only came afterwards. But I don’t think this is a bad thing. It simply stuck in my mind – I found that remarkable.
FP: Thank you. I’m glad to hear that, of course. What are your thoughts, as a gallerist, on how I might continue here?
FS: Let me make a suggestion: I will set out thirty chairs here tomorrow, and you put on a performance. (laughs)
FP: So, are we in business?
FS: You started it. But let’s get back to the work. You see yourself as a filmmaker but also said that you found the performance to be thought-provoking. In what way?
FP: I did not see the performance as a separate work; that was not my intention. It was intended as a step ultimately leading to the film, which I saw as the actual work. I had only come up with the idea of holding the conversation with the characters in front of an audience when the JUNGE AKADEMIE asked me to present my work processes and practice as part of the Open Studios. So originally, it was an experiment. Now I am wondering whether I want to continue to develop this approach. It’s so wonderful to be able to take the space I otherwise would not have making a film, and to focus on the process of filmmaking. I began studying visual arts at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna in my early twenties. For me, the transition to film was a form of liberation after my studies, because art often seemed far too arbitrary and asserted to me – the obligation to fill an empty space overwhelmed me. The film that is created to convey a story, a contemplation of the world, gave me a framework. But perhaps it’s time to leave the framework again, at least with some works.
FS: Yes, you are leaving the framework by asking what film is and how stories are formed. The audience watches as a potential end product is being created. At the same time, they become part of it through interaction. Whether it ultimately leads to an end product plays no part in that moment, it is the process itself. In this respect, I find it very exciting to continue with the performances – or you could also say happenings. Marcel Duchamp said that the art of the future would be an art of the situation.
FP: I have thought long and hard about how to describe the presentation of my work: For me, it’s an improvised conversation with actors, in their fictional roles, with the involvement of the audience. For the sake of simplicity, I call it performance here, but perhaps it’s simply an art of the situation.
FS: How is the film to continue? What are your plans?
FP: A 20-minute long photographic film is to be created. This means that the film does not consist of 24 or 25 frames per second, which generate a flowing movement, but of individual photographs. They can be played in quick succession or allowed to stand still for several seconds. On the soundtrack we hear conversations and atmospheres, as we are accustomed to from conventional film. A gap is left between two photographs, a space. That is what it is about for me. It urges the spectators to fill in the missing information between two photographs using their own imagination.
I recorded and transcribed the conversations that took place before the audience. A screenplay has now been created from this. What was special about the screenplay was that I didn’t invent any dialogues or situations but was instead able to take the text from the improvised conversation between the characters. So it’s a collage of material that had already been developed.
FS: This is exciting. On the one hand, the screenplay is created retroactively and, on the other hand, you are working with a patchwork-like form of rearrangement.
FP: Yes, that’s definitely a direction I would like to follow. Not always having to create something by yourself but putting the collaborative work at the start and being able to continue working with the material that arises. Yes, the offer is there. If you work out the characters with the actors, they also have a lot to say. Stories and situations emerge that you as the author could never have come up with yourself. Usually, there is no space for this in feature films, so I have to fight to take this space for myself anyway. I would definitely like to make this happen.
FS: In general, what topics interest you? Not just for this project. What projects are you working on?
FP: I’m currently working on my first full-length feature film. Very traditional, a comedy for cinema. Still, I think that through my studies in visual arts, I have developed a relatively large interest in breaking with conventions. This begins with the fact that I not only see the story but also the camera angle, the audience’s view of the protagonists as political. I am not saying that my films are super complex, but I aspire to make films that can also be considered on a formal level.
The comedy is about five people who have too little money to live the way they want. They are all threatened or affected by poverty. Using the most bizarre means, they try to improve their situation. Then there is the idea of making a film about a Romanian 24-hour nurse, and so on and so forth. There are quite a lot of projects.
FS: Then I wish you good luck with all your plans.
FP: Thank you for the interview.
Florian Schönfelder studierte Kunstgeschichte, Philosophie und Volkswirtschaftslehre, sammelte Erfahrung bei Marian Goodman in New York und war lange als Unternehmensberater tätig. 2019 eröffnet er in den ehemaligen Räumen der Galerie Arndt auf der Fasanenstraße 28 seine Galerie. Die vertretenen Positionen erstrecken sich von jungen, vor allem in Berlin lebenden Künstler*innen, bis hin zu arrivierten internationalen Namen wie Sarah Alexander, William Cordova, Jacqueline Diffring, Marta Djourina, Alizée Gazeau, Lucia Kempkes, Guillem Nadal, Timo Nasseri und Manuel Stehli.
Franziska Pflaum about her first encounter and collaboration with Ali Reza Ahmadi
Ali and I met on a project organised by magda Caritas Youth Centre in Lichtenberg. I worked with young people there on the short film Im Universum geht keiner verloren. That was in the summer of 2017. Youths from the neighbourhood had the opportunity to participate in the film on a voluntary basis under my direction. Ali was 11 years old then and was living with his family in the neighbouring refugee accommodation centre.
Im Universum geht keiner verloren, 2020, trailer
Ali was involved right from the start: He not only wanted to participate as an actor, but also to contribute his own texts to the film, which he wanted to perform as a rapper. I was impressed by his commitment, but not only that. His texts had a certain depth. At that time, Ali had already been trying to process his experiences in an artistic context, and as already mentioned, he was only eleven. I was thankful that he allowed me to share in his experiences. A text that is very close to his heart was not included in the film back then because it was too personal and did not fit the planned scene – but Ali has allowed me to publish it here.
A TEXT BY ALI REZA AHMADI
I’ve been living in Germany for a year,
I walk down the street – say, what a country.
Everything was different at home back then.
The things we saw, who can handle that?
I had to leave everything behind,
I still can’t believe it.
My friends and countrymen all gone.
I feel like I’m living in dirt.
It wasn’t so long ago, now I’m here,
but I miss my home so much.
Back to war, that’s not an option now,
A little peace is what I need.
I learned to live with fear.
If everything were different, I would go back.
But I have to think about my future,
that’s why I have to keep on living here.
This is my story that I’m telling you.
Stop the war, no one will win.
It is only your goal.
We want peace for those left behind.
Nobody is illegal, but you don’t care.
We are people, whether black or white.
Whether a foreigner or someone with a German passport,
you look and think it’s all a joke.
I’m a foreigner because I don’t speak the language.
I see new faces and a foreign culture every day,
my life runs like a wall clock.
I see lots of people, they are all stubborn.
We were happy to get a little bit of bread.
It was not easy to take this path,
you should see it all through my eyes.
My father, who was always there for me,
but no one knows, I miss him so much.
The wonderful times we had together,
I wish he could hold me in his arms again.
Lots of people are very sorry about the war,
yet many say: go back to your own country.
But what these people don’t know is
I love Germany and my home Afghanistan.
In 2019, I received the Berlin fellowship from the JUNGE AKADEMIE in the Film and Media Art Section. Before that, I had been trying for quite some time to get funding for my first feature film and was working as a scriptwriter. After many years working at a desk, I longed to film and finally direct again. I decided to use the fellowship to realise a new short film project: For a long time, I had the idea of making a photographic film, because this format fascinated me. I asked Ali if he would like to work on material together. It was to be a film about him. Ali suggested not filming his own personal story but rather developing a character that was similar to him. So we started working on it: improvised and deliberated. I suggested allowing the fictional character – a boy of his age who we had invented – to meet the caretaker at the Akademie der Künste. Then came the figure of the soldier; the caretaker’s son. The story gradually came together.
We met numerous times in my studio at the Akademie der Künste on Hanseatenweg, which I was allowed to use as part of the fellowship. The summer I spent with Ali was wonderful and exciting, and at the end of it we had developed the foundations for the photographic film.
Ali’s interest in our artistic cooperation impressed me – Ali impressed me, his perseverance impressed me. Shortly before we were to start filming, he had a court hearing: It was to be decided whether Ali’s family would be allowed to remain in Germany. As the proceedings had taken a heavy toll on his mother and stepfather, in the end it was Ali who sat alone in the courtroom, and whose statements about permission to stay were to decide the fate of the whole family. It is sad that a boy of this age has to take on so much responsibility and at the same time it is tremendous how Ali handled this situation. And yes: Ali and his family found out after three years that they could not be deported for the time being. Three years during which Ali opened the postbox every day in fear.
Every time another film funding rejection flutters in or things don’t go well in my private life, when I have to cope with setbacks and losses … then I often think of Ali and try to use his courage and zest for life as an example.
He is currently working on his own screenplay. I am excited.
Reza: Ali Reza Ahmadi
Stefanie: Christina Große
Matthias: Nico Ehrenteit
Regisseurin: Nathalie Seiß
Obdachloser: Mex Schlüpfer
Concept: Ali Reza Ahmadi, Franziska Pflaum; Script & Director: Franziska Pflaum; DoP: Niki Waltl; Editing: Friederike Hohmuth; Sound Design: Christoph Kozik; Film Score: Jachym Kovar; Gaffer: Gregor Cunningham; Best Girl: Antonia Lange; Lighting Assistant: Leon Vonderau; Sound: Oscar Stiebitz; Sound Assistant: Conny Lewandowsky; Set Design: Rafael Loß; Set Design Assistant: Julia Müller; Costume Designer: Johanna Pflaum; Makeup: Nuria de Lario; Unit & Set Manager: Balthasar Busmann; Set Runner:Catherine Periscal Julien, Noah Göllner; Coordination AdK: Miriam Papastefanou, Luise Pilz; Colour Grading: Perdu Film; VFX: Michael Gülzow; Title Design: Weltraumgrafik; Production: Maximilian Haslberger, Balthasar Busmann
An Amerikafilm, Junge Akademie der Akademie der Künste, Berlin and Franziska Pflaum Production.
*1987, lives in Vienna and Berlin
Franziska Pflaum studied visual arts at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and film directing at Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf, Potsdam-Babelsberg. She has made several documentary and fictional short films, which have been screened at film festivals around the world. She won the German Short Film Award in 2014 and the advancement prize of the Carl Mayer Screenplay Award in 2016. Pflaum received a doctoral scholarship from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the Start scholarship from the Austrian Federal Chancellery and the Berlin fellowship from the Akademie der Künste, Berlin. Her first feature film Meerjungfrauen weinen nicht is to be made in 2020. She is currently working on two episodes of the TV crime show Tatort and on a series as a screenwriter for the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF).More about Franziska Pflaum