March 2014, arsenal cinema

Peter Liechti Retrospective


Peter Liechti (*1951) is a solitary figure in Swiss cinema– a radical eccentric and a true independent spirit, someone whose work combines a blatant disregard for limits and a joy for experimentation. Over the past 30 years, he has worked on around 20 films as a director, scriptwriter, cameraman and producer, which move between documentary, essay film, experimental cinema, art, music and fiction in terms of form and cannot be reduced to a common denominator. However, all his films – the early Super 8 experiments, numerous projects with the performance artist Roman Signer, his music and travel films and autobiographical works – bear testimony to the fact that for his cinematic poetry the other arts and their techniques are of fundamental importance: Contemporary music and jazz, visual art, as well as literature, poetry, texts, language. His film essays emerge in the space between multilayered images, the spoken and written word, as well as music and sound – which are all elements on an equal footing. Liechti's narrative approach is always personal, his view is one that does not presume to understand the world from the outset and take it for granted. A central motif is being on the go. Whether in Africa or eastern Switzerland, in the mountains or on a lake – his thought processes and very singular perception are always present. He frequently allows himself digressions and opens up unexpected associative spaces. Opinion and reflection go hand-in-hand, as do seriousness and humor, irony and empathy, critical self-questioning and sarcastic Swiss local history and geography. Liechti's interest in experimenting, his questioning of familiar patterns and his constant search for new forms of expression have created a great abundance of form in filmic narration. Arsenal is presenting a comprehensive retrospective of Liechti’s multifarious œuvre, taking in seven feature-length and six shorter films from 1985 to 2013, which include both internationally celebrated works, as well as some less well-known titles yet to be discovered here in Germany. We are particularly pleased that Peter Liechti will attend the opening weekend in person and will take part in Q&A sessions with the audience.

HANS IM GLÜCK – DREI VERSUCHE, DAS RAUCHEN AUFZUGEBEN (Lucky Jack Three Attempts to Stop Smoking, Switzerland 2003,14.3., in the presence of Peter Liechti & 23.3.) On three treks from Zurich, where he lives, to St Gallen, where he grew up, Peter Liechti tries to kick his nicotine habit. Although he never used to be able to stand hiking, he pushes on, along Lake Constance and then over the Alpstein. He is always alone and on foot, with only a camera and notebook for company. Excerpts from his travel diary are voiced by the first-person narrator, sometimes disgruntledly, sometimes downright fondly. The strict smoking ban entails excessive thinking and the withdrawal symptoms open up the eyes and ears. Liechti's experiment with himself not only leads to a conflict with his ego but also with Switzerland, his homeland. A wonderfully open and funny travel film that always returns to the basic questions of life and death.

AUSFLUG INS GEBIRG (Alpine Forays, Switzerland 1986,14.3., in the presence of Peter Liechti & 21.3.) A mountaintop rap on the soundtrack: "Moths, Stollen, dead Alps, iron manure, Metzgertobel, Nonnenalp and Ritzenspitzen, Schmalzberg and Saustein, Höllritzeralp and Kackenköpfe..." Someone makes an excursion into the Austrian Alps, wanders around and rants about the "shit-slopes", the dull weather, the monotonous landscapes. A mountain tantrum, an aversion to having to enjoy nature, an anti-Heimatfilm impulse and a rotten temper; even raspberry cake can do nothing to help. "The mountain saps my brain." The rough Super 8 and video images thwart the standard sleek pictures of the Alps, the po-faced facetious voice-over monologue transforms into a criticism of civilization and a reflection upon the very activity of making film.

SIGNERS KOFFER UNTERWEGS MIT ROMAN SIGNER (Signer's Suitcase On the Road with Roman Signer, Switzerland 1996,15.3., in the presence of Peter Liechti & 25.3.) The Swiss performance artist Roman Signer blasts ribbons over the Stromboli to see how they survive the heat. He tampers with fuses and rockets. He catapults stools out of hotel windows and walks along beaches with fire crackers at his feet. He broadcasts his snoring from the tent. Explosions, collisions the art of Roman Signer plays with the four elements, uses gravity, thermodynamics and pyrotechnics. Peter Liechti accompanies Signer across Europe, from the Swiss Alps to Poland, from Stromboli to Iceland, and to Bitterfeld. It is a tightrope walk between whimsy and melancholy. Local bands signal the change of location; sometimes Signer talks about what he is moved by shyly. This is not a portrait of an artist but a joint work by two accomplices art demolition experts.

VATERS GARTEN DIE LIEBE MEINER ELTERN (Father's Garden The Love of My Parents, Switzerland 2013,15.3., in the presence of Peter Liechti & 30.3.) Peter Liechti's elderly parents are fundamentally different, they have completely opposing views and interests, yet they have been married for over 60 years. Alongside conversations that shift from slapstick to insanity and observations of daily life in his petty bourgeois parents' cramped apartment, Liechti creates a puppet theater as a second location. This forms the stage for reenactments of scenes with the mother and father being played by rabbit figures. As a puppet, the son can also react explosively. Wild sound effects and music function as a commentary. This is a very personal film that transcends the private to convey the feeling of life and sense of self of a dying generation. Unsentimental, yet full of empathy.

DAS SUMMEN DER INSEKTEN BERICHT EINER MUMIE (The Sound of Insects: Record of a Mummy, Switzerland 2009,16. & 26.3.) Based on a literary text by the Japanese writer Masahiko Shimada that itself drew upon a true incident, this essay film chronicles a suicide. A man goes into the woods to starve himself to death. Recordings of the diary which meticulously log the man's slow demise and describe what he experiences, sees and feels can be heard on the soundtrack. A plastic sheet in the woods becomes a surface onto which the dying man's inner images, diverse memories and hallucinations are projected. The man himself is never seen. In conjunction with the soundtrack of noises and music, the associative image and sound montage creates a hypnotic maelstrom that attempts to make visible a dying man's stream of consciousness. A meditation on nature, life and death.

SENKRECHT/WAAGRECHT (Vertical/Horizontal, Switzerland 1985,18. & 24.3.) How far can a person walk horizontally on a frozen pond until it cracks vertically? In Liechti's experimental Super 8 film, the performance artist Roman Signer puts this question to the test. Later on he drops a stool from a bridge. Signer's actions can be understood as sculptures in time and space. The coordinates are vertical and horizontal.

THÉÂTRE DE L'ESPÉRANCE(Theater of Hope, Switzerland 1987,18., 24. & 28.3.) This short essay film reflects the staging of an important political event and media spectacle: Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev's 1985 Geneva Summit on reductions in nuclear arms. It is a montage of Super 8 footage shot on site and TV footage of the event that Liechti has edited, as well as recurring scenes from a suitcase performance by Roman Signer. Elvis Presley and Sun Ra provide the music.

KICK THAT HABIT (Switzerland 1989,18. & 24.3.) A "sound film" featuring the Swiss musicians Norbert Möslang and Andy Guhl who recycle scrap electronic equipment to create innovative sounds this is all but a conventional portrait of musicians. Recordings of studio rehearsals and concerts are combined with images of a train journey through a wintry landscape, of an excursion to Lake Constance and into the mountains, as well as visual associations that follow their own poetic logic and shape the film's rhythm. Shifts between noise-music and silence, velocity and calm, an unending stream of images and sounds, no discussions. Instead of only documenting avant-garde sound art, Peter Liechti allows it to communicate with his imagery. The smooth synthesis of a visual and acoustic form of expression.

NAMIBIA CROSSINGS SPIRITS AND LIMITS (Switzerland 2004,18. & 22.3.) Twelve musicians and singers from Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Switzerland and Russia form the international ensemble, the Hambana Sound Company, which Liechti accompanies on tour across Namibia. Pictures of magnificent landscapes, observations of everyday life and musical scenes alternate. The musicians "back to the roots" project that involves local artists and seeks to create a sound portrait of Africa proves to be problematic. The legacy of colonization and the differences of opinion with regard to the fusion of African and Western sounds are too profound, stronger than the feeling that cultural differences can be cancelled out through music. Liechti's road movie uses montage and a voice-over to question his attitude towards the continent.

HARDCORE CHAMBERMUSIC – EIN CLUB FÜR 30 TAGE(Hardcore Chambermusic: A Club for 30 Days, Switzerland 2006,19. & 27.3.) Hardcore chamber music what sounds like a contradiction in terms has been practiced by the renowned Swiss sax/cello/percussion trio Koch-Schütz-Studer for over two decades. In 2005, the group staged a music marathon in a purpose-built Zurich club: For 30 days, it improvised two 40-minute sets every evening at the same time. Condensed to 70 minutes, Liechti's film shows mainly close-ups of the musicians, their facial expressions and gestures and above all their art, as they improvise freely and play (together). The shifts between music, short statements by the trio and gazes into the audience create a fascinating impression of the process whereby music arises.

MARTHAS GARTEN (Martha's Garden, Switzerland 1997, 20. & 29.3.) Karl Winter lives reclusively in his apartment. He loves domestic order and silent hours in cafes. One night on his way home he meets a woman bent over a corpse. He is immediately fascinated by Martha. A love affair with fatal dynamics begins, throwing Karl off course. When love enters his life, so does something uncanny - he loses his bearings and eventually his mind. Insanity lies dormant beneath the surface of humdrum bourgeoisie. Liechti's only feature film till now is a winter film in black-and-white, with dream imagery, different levels of reality and the hero's inner voice off-camera, somber, abysmal, Kafkaesque a combination of madness and wit.

GRIMSEL EIN AUGENSCHEIN (Grimsel – An Eye, Witness Report, Switzerland 1990, 21. & 28.3.) The planned expansion of the Grimsel-West hydroelectric plant in the Bernese Alps that would include a gigantic new dam is controversial. Should humans create an artificial nature if it means that real nature is destroyed in the process? Peter Liechti dedicates his film to the landscape and its inhabitants, and tries to explore the uneasiness that surrounds such exploitation. Discussions with locals, fascinating footage of the mountain environment and shots of pylons and concrete walls that are hardly less impressive alternate. This is not militant agitprop but a complex reflection on the experience of nature and the excesses of civilization, or technology.

TAUWETTER (Switzerland 1987,25.3.) Snow and icicles melt. Bright plastic buckets filled with water attached to the brackets of a ski-lift make their way up and down a slope in Appenzell. Suddenly the smooth movement turns into violent swaying and shots ring through the air. The performance artist Roman Signer was there, with live ammunition. And the water flows. (bik)

Two books by Peter Liechti published by Vexer Verlag in St. Gallen "Lauftext – ab 1985" (2010) and "Klartext – Fragen an meine Eltern" (2013) are available at the box office.

In conjunction with SWISS FILMS and with the kind support of the Swiss Embassy.