How does democracy manifest in speaking?
In the plenary hall of the Reichstag building stands Joseph Beuys’ sculpture “Tisch mit Aggregat/Table with Accumulator”. Cords connect a black box on a wooden table to two balls, originally formed from soil, on the floor.
A picture of the Reichstag burning on 27 February 1933 in the parliamentary exhibition in the German Cathedral on Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt square. A group of visitors stops in front of it. A tour guide talks about the Reichstag fire. The group moves on.
The Beuys sculpture is seen in the film; the situation in the German Cathedral is not. But during an art viewing, the Reichstag fire appears again in a picture by Katharina Sieverding. The picture of the fire accompanied me while shooting the film, as an expression of the fragility of political systems.
My very concrete starting-point was how democracy is manifested in speaking. Day-to-day politics interested me in that, in the debates happening while I shot the movie, people struggled over democracy, negotiating how to speak with each other; the focus was on their difficulties in doing so.
AGGREGAT is also a film about relationships within a society. The issue is anger, misunderstandings, past humiliations, lost certainties, and insecurity. While shooting the film, I sought such situations in various places, in concentrated form. I was interested in the ruptures that occur in the images of the roles of politicians, citizens, and journalists and in the various ways we speak about society and politics.
I worked as a video editor for television news for several years while I studied at art school. I was interested in how pictures and sounds depict politics in journalism and what rules govern which events are reported. The tension between the production of politics and reporting is also central to AGGREGAT.
The film does not seek balance or completeness. It consists of fragments, observations, glimpses. The goal while shooting was always to find the necessary image and the necessary sound. The film’s form tells about the stance toward and the relationship with what is depicted. The pictures and sounds are not a vehicle for a statement or an intended statement; they stand on their own. We were on location with a big camera; we were visible. There are no cutaways. (Marie Wilke)
Conversation with Marie Wilke: “The news isn’t objective, people make it”
Birgit Kohler: Your film compiles observations from the years 2016/2017, so it is a current historical document from present-day Germany. Beyond the aesthetic strategies, the notes stored or archived here may one day be interesting for historians. Does AGGREGAT also have a historiographical aspect?
Marie Wilke: The starting-point of my film was my basic interest in the structure of democracy and parliamentarianism. I looked for situations in what is currently happening in politics and the media that depict politics and that involved people’s concrete encounters and actions, whose sum characterises democracy. For me, the film also documents a time of upheaval in which the democratic system is being renegotiated. For me as a director, it’s important to approach the object as if it were foreign to me, to take a step back, so to speak, and observe from a distance. At the same time, of course, I’m aware of my relationships to the society I grew up in. Out of these roots grow a large number of the questions I delve into and that have a lot to do with the specific history of Germany. For me, AGGREGAT is a portrait of an excerpt of the German present. At the same time, the film asks questions extending into the past, but also into the future.
The camera casts its gaze at the populace, its representatives and the media. It observes stoically, doesn’t interfere, never drifts away and cannot be distracted. To what degree does that correspond to your approach as a filmmaker?
When we were filming, we were present with a large camera, always visible to everyone around. We were part of what was happening. I am open to people and situations and regard documentary filming as an exchange: I don’t want to shoot any footage against the will of the participants, but I see the camera as an amplifier of the situations we come upon. The camera seeks a stage on which something is taking place. That the camera is static matches my stance as a filmmaker: I’m reserved and I don’t comment. People deal with the presence of the camera and respond to it. For me, that they sometimes try to stage themselves or act for the camera is part of the film. While we’re shooting, the goal is not to find the right image: as Robert Bresson says, ‘not to compose beautiful pictures, but necessary ones’. For me, that means that, again and again, the right shot must be generated out of a process that, throughout the shooting, consists in constantly examining your own distance from the object and your own questions. When filming, I’m constantly asking myself: what’s important? What’s going on here – what’s it about? What distance from the people, from what’s happening, do we want to or can we choose?
The material you collected is arranged in a specific way: the scenes remain unconnected, separated by black screens and hard cuts, neither related to each other with a voiceover nor commented on or contextualised with titles. What led to this fragmentary form?
When I began shooting, I tended to follow the working days of individual journalists and politicians. But I soon realised that this kind of focus did not lead to the situations I’m interested in. I then sought situations and constellations that speak for themselves and in which topics that interest me are dealt with: for example when a politician meets with citizens or a working group of Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, in which the delegates talk about their role as politicians. The fragmentary form corresponds to the content or to my view of the individual parts of society, which just can’t be captured in a narrative or be told on the basis of a character. It also makes it clear that this film is an excerpt and not trying to depict or define the entirety of something. The film’s scenes are connected by the questions of the possibility of democracy and of its structuring. While editing, it turned out that, if their fragmentary form is to be perceived, the individual scenes need the clear separation by black screens. The primary work in editing consisted of giving all the scenes their space and preventing their sequence from giving the impression of a story. It was important to me that the film remains open and does not offer any patterns of explanation. AGGREGAT doesn’t want to be evidence for any particular view of things. It’s up to each viewer how to relate the individual fragments to each other.
The title of the film expresses that in its literal meaning: a whole made of parts that have no intrinsic connection. For me, this also indicates a certain interest in abstraction gained from the concretion of what is documented. Can you describe the relationship between concretion and abstraction?
Documentary observation of concrete events and actions opens my eyes for abstract constructs like democracy, society and institution. By viewing the concrete situations, I also become aware of my own role within the construct of ‘society’ and of the necessity to position myself. The starting-point of my last film STAATSDIENER (public servant) was the question of how people, as police officers, implement the abstract idea of state power. One starting-point for AGGREGAT, too, was the tension between the ideal of democracy and the real interplay of human factors in society. Communication is the connection between these parts.
The film does indeed show that democracy and politics are, not least, also a question of communication and mediation. Again and again, it’s about how people speak and write about society and politics. AGGREGAT itself can’t elude the interlocking that it notes between politics and mediatisation – how did you deal with that?
During my studies at Berlin’s University of the Arts, I worked as a film editor for television news and was already interested at that time in the mediation of politics and events in the mass media. It is a fact that societal communication and political information in a parliamentary democracy play out primarily via the mass media. But the news isn’t objective; people make it – ultimately it’s a construct, like the film AGGREGAT itself. That’s why in this film, without judging, I wanted to give visibility to the processes by which information is produced in the media.
The Reichstag building also contains art. AGGREGAT shows the sculpture by Joseph Beuys that furnished your title; it stands in the lobby in front of the plenary hall of the Bundestag. There is also a painting by Katharina Sieverding and one by Anselm Kiefer. To what degree did this overlap between the realms of art and politics interest you?
The tension between art and politics has always interested me. All the artworks seen in the film deal with aspects of human life, politics or society that point beyond the immediate present and with the theme of transience, including the transience of systems and power, as with Beuys and Kiefer. In Katharina Sieverding’s picture, you can make out the Reichstag fire, which is also a symbol that democracy can be over, as if over night. It was precisely these questions that were crucial for me as well, for the work on this film. I sought them in documentary situations.
(Interview: Birgit Kohler, January 2018)