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"No film is an island"

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Peter Greenaway • Director


- BERLIN 2015: Cineuropa talked to Peter Greenaway, the director of Eisenstein in Guanajuato, which is screening in competition

Peter Greenaway  • Director

British director Peter Greenaway has presented his new film, Eisenstein in Guanajuato [+see also:
film review
film focus
interview: Peter Greenaway
film profile
, at Berlin. Cineuropa talked to him about his protagonist, Sergei Eisenstein.

Cineuropa: What is the central topic at the heart of the film?
Peter Greenaway: The film is a celebration, it’s joyous. It’s a man trying to find his identity in so many different ways. He was curious about his own sexual identity. There were indications way back when he was an adolescent: he didn’t quite feel that the normal gender preferences were necessarily his. So there is evidence - I could show you the evidence. I did not make this up.

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Indeed, he had this ten-day stormy affair with Palomino Cañedo, and then they parted ways. I can’t say, of course, that they necessarily parted in the way I indicated, but I believe that there is no such thing as history; there’s only historians. 

How do you think Eisensteins time in Mexico changed him as a director?
Let’s suppose that we all mature and that our characters develop, and I imagine that characters basically, as we get older, get more sympathetic. So it might have happened anyway. We all know that when you’re abroad, you behave differently, you take risks. And here he is in a completely foreign country, 3,500 miles away from Moscow. And he doesn’t have Russians looking over his shoulder all the time, especially Stalinist Russians. There’s an opportunity to break away; he allows his curiosity to expand to a much greater degree. It was a culture shock meeting these extraordinary people who are so different from him. I think all this freedom eased up what was already there, so my thesis is that his first three films are full of ideas, but ideas on mass - there are no individuals. If you look at the last three films, he gets interested in people and relationships; they are much more developed, much more understanding and contemporary. I believe that outside the country, outside the culture, responding to things that were deep inside him, he began to take a much greater interest in the individual, rather than the mass idea. 

Is it coincidental that this film was made at a time when gay rights were more at stake than they had been previously?
This isn’t a gay film; it’s a film about a man who had a love affair with another man. It would be extremely naive to deny all these associations. Any historical film is as much about now as it is about then; it has to be like that. Yes, there is an association, a whole series of ripples.

As you can imagine, I’m not very popular at all in Russia, at least officially. I’ve had a lot of hate mail, but nothing dangerous. 

What was the key to finding the cast?
You can see the problems we had: there’s a huge amount of Eisenstein footage in the world, and I wanted to use it. So I had to find somebody who at least looked vaguely like Eisenstein. We looked everywhere. Then, almost by accident, we found Elmer Bäck, and I’d like to think that he was perfect for the part. 

Besides Eisenstein, do you have any other favourite filmmakers?
I’ve always been interested in Eisenstein, but maybe over the last 20 years I’ve become even more interested in him because he’s been tried and tested; he's stood up to the test of time, and what he’s produced is really significant.

I have a whole raft of favourite filmmakers - we all have our heroes, of course. The film is full of quotes. My favourite film is Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, and they do the Marienbad game at the end. Another favourite film is The Rules of the Game by Renoir, which features Renoir bouncing on a bed, and I’ve stolen that as a quotation for what Eisenstein does. There are references to rather banal clowns, which is, of course, a Fellini reference. You know that famous John Donne phrase, "No man is an island"? Well, I would say, "No film is an island." Every film repeats in a sense. Most art is about art; it’s not about life, it’s about looking at art. 

How has your own filmmaking evolved?
We’ve now made 15 feature films, and they all tack about in different directions. I can’t go on making the same movie exactly the same way, over and over again, but they’re basically all about the same phenomena: the primacy of the image, notions of visual literacy that I believe are so important, and the importance of the outsider, the alternative. It’s very pompous, but what I want to do is to make non-narrative, multi-screen, present-tense cinema. It’s on its way, whether I like it or not, and whether you like it or not, it’s on its way. 

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