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90 min. German intertitles.

Tourism is booming at the Pension Alpenrose. After a dying in an accident, Karin returns as one of the undead. In a cinema owned by a Nazi widow where the past is mourned, she brings the dead back to life.
In her 666-page ghost novel “The Children of the Dead”, Elfriede Jelinek allows the deceased to rise again – even those with swastikas and yellow stars usually so gladly forgotten. Can Jelinek’s themes be adapted to film, not to mention her way with language? The directorial duo from the Nature Theater of Oklahoma were unafraid to try, conscious that the idea might not work. Using amateur actors and Super 8 film in the original Styrian settings, they carried out a transposition, to borrow a musical term: from text to silent film, complete with brass-band music. Or rather a “heimat” film, a home-movie horror, in which the vulgar and the ridiculous survived the shift intact. The viewer is immersed in the universe of the text – and somewhere else at the same time. The parade of zombies in the supermarket recalls the genre films Jelinek herself mentioned as an inspiration, only giving greater credence to the sense that this blend of text, performance, and film, was a terrific idea. (Anna Hoffmann)

Kelly Copper was born in Gainesville, Florida, USA in 1971. In 1993, she earned a B.A. from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and in 2007, she earned an M.F.A. from Brooklyn College in New York City. In 1996, together with Pavol Liska, she founded the Nature Theater of Oklahoma in New York. Die Kinder der Toten is her first film.

Pavol Liska was born in Skalica, Czechoslovakia (now Slovak Republic) in 1973. In 1995, he gained a B.A. from Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and in 2006, he earned an M.F.A. from Columbia University in New Yok City. In 1996, together with Kelly Cooper, he founded the Nature Theater of Oklahoma in New York. Die Kinder der Toten is his first film.

Conversation with Kelly Copper: “Film is a medium of transmission – not only of story, but of spirit”

Karin Schiefer: DIE KINDER DER TOTEN is a hybrid project in which theatre, performance, literature and film merge into one another. It is not your first project that combines performance and filmmaking. What does the medium of film add to your work as performance artists?

Kelly Copper: Film has always been a big inspiration for us, and our connection to it is old and deep. We used to live pretty much next door to Anthology Film Archives in New York, and saw everything from silent films through to the 1960s avant-garde works of Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, Andy Warhol, Tony Conrad, Jacques Rivette, etc. Their work was a continuous reminder that you could have poor means – broken cameras, stolen film, borrowed costumes, untrained actors – and still set a high standard for the work itself. What film gives us in particular as performing artists is a way of capturing and preserving accidents, inspiration, singular poetic gifts of nature, of chance. In theatre, you always have to be able to repeat. Theatre is about trying to keep everything alive in the moment, but you must repeat it from night to night. Working with film has allowed us to capture once-in-a-lifetime moments in time – those magic inspirational things that usually just happen during rehearsals when you are working on a piece that is strictly theatre. When we record them on film or video, we can actually incorporate them precisely into the work itself, and they become part of the content, which is very important to us.

In the case of DIE KINDER DER TOTEN, there is an additional literary layer in the form of one of the major, yet not very accessible, novels by Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek. Were you already familiar with her novels? How did you encounter this text? What were your first impressions?

Of course we had read Elfriede’s work before. We had been reading her for years, but always in translation. Our German skills are not that sophisticated. And there is still no English translation available for this novel, so it must be said that our access to it was special, selective, mainly culled from other people’s accounts of their reading – plus we consulted a partial translation, a work-in-progress of the first hundred or so pages. It was an imperfect access to the book. What was of primary interest to us was the text’s relationship to the landscape. We were invited to make a work in the Styrian countryside. We were looking for a text that had a relationship to the region, and ‘Die Kinder der Toten’ is specifically, deeply grounded in this particular location. The natural world and the landscape is even, I would say, a primary player in the novel. It has an almost antagonistic relationship to the humans. There are landslides, avalanches, torrential rains. You get that sense of menace, the menace of the natural world – when you walk around the Schneealm, there’s so much beauty in the landscape, but there are also signs of natural disasters and death everywhere. Crosses with little poems about how this or that person was killed in a flash of lightning. You hear about someone going out in the snow and not returning. We immediately felt that it was the right choice, just due to the intimate relation with place. Heimat. Another thing we were interested in for this project was exploring specific film genres.
We knew we were interested in the Heimat film as a genre, and the Jelinek text also suggested the zombie film. So we had two genres to play with. In fact, Jelinek says that her novel was inspired by an American B horror film, CARNIVAL OF SOULS by Herk Harvey, which is about this young woman, an organist in a church, who has died but who does not yet realise that she is dead. The fact that the novel, too, was inspired by film, was also attractive to us. If we could somehow take this Austrian high literary novel inspired by an American trash horror movie and, through our work in the Austrian countryside, bring it back to its origin … For us, that was the perfect invitation and a perfect confluence of coincidences.

How did you go about turning the text into a screenplay? Which motifs, characters, atmospheres and events did you choose from the book?

As I mentioned earlier, we were limited to whatever we could glean from the text from talking with people who had read it. We also watched CARNIVAL OF SOULS and Erich von Stroheim’s BLIND HUSBANDS. And we visited, multiple times, in every season of the year, the location in which we would be working, getting to know it in the process. This project really developed over the course of two years’ worth of visits to Neuberg, Krampen and Kapellen, where we visited specific locations mentioned in the book: Totes Weib Wasserfall, Mariazell, the Mürz, the Schneealm … During one of our first visits to Neuberg, we were sitting outside a café when they brought the cows down from the summer pasture on the Schneealm. There were cows and, for some reason, also motorbikes on the road that day – some kind of peculiar confluence of cows and motorcycles. And we met some men who worked at one of the ski lodges in the mountains. We talked about the landscape, the challenges. We talked with the owner of the Gasthaus where we were staying, met the man who runs the local grocery store who is also member of a club for people who collect vintage motorbikes and tractors.
We really tried to discover what was special about the region and its people, and what opportunities were there for us to play, what things take place each season, etc. And we wrote our own screenplay to best make use of everything the town and its inhabitants had to offer. We wrote the cows into our script, we included the local grocery store, we wrote the food we ate into the script, we wrote the Gasthaus into the script …
Some of these things are also in the Jelinek novel, some are in the movie CARNIVAL OF SOULS, and some are just our pure invention from what the place inspired. And then there is also the flip side: the story of what we wanted to film from the novel and could not, like Mariazell. No one would let us film anywhere near that church! But the festival reached out to Stift Rein, another well-known church in the area, and so this is where we set our church scene. There is also a group of characters from Syria who are in our screenplay but absent from Jelinek’s novel. They, in part, were introduced because Syria was in the news every day while we were working on this. And I think there is, in the end, some connection there with Jelinek’s feeling for history and the victims of history that haunt a landscape. Buried history. The stuff you do not want to deal with.

The shooting took place in Upper Styria, a region where Elfriede Jelinek spent parts of her childhood and which serves as the backdrop of the novel. How would you describe the landscape? How did you discover and choose the shooting locations?

The landscape was super inspiring. In particular the Schneealm, which I loved so much – it’s just so stark, so vast, so brutal in its beauty. But also the forests and meadows and the Mürz ... We were lucky to see the locations in all the seasons over the two or so years we were there. The first time we were there was just after a snowstorm, when everything was covered in white and ice. Actually, for one of our first visits, Elfriede Jelinek gave us the key to her childhood home. We hiked up to the cabin in something like a half metre of snow and looked around – it’s tucked back into the mountain, there are hunters’ blinds and trees... It was so special. Later in the year we came back and went hiking up on the Schneealm and saw bighorn sheep, and cows grazing in the mountain pasture. We spent an afternoon just sitting with the cows and watching them and listening to the sounds there. Both Pavol and I found it hugely inspiring.

It is an amazing idea to take a literary work that, among other things, deals with the denial of and the silence around the Austrian Nazi past, and adapt it as a silent movie. How did you come up with this idea?

When we were first looking at the region, we were thinking that what we wanted to do was make a kind of ‘Heimatfilm’. We were interested in this genre, which also has this kind of idealised, romanticised version of rural life. In many ways, the post-war period was also a negation of the war and the unseemly past and atrocities. When we were doing early research, I remember that Claus Philipp, who developed this project with us, showed us archival 8mm and 16mm films from the region, which of course encompassed some of the war period. You could see the swastikas flying near Mariazell, and soldiers marching. It is very strange to see this same beautiful landscape, smiling people – and these Nazi symbols. And you realise, when you are watching the films, some of which are in colour, that it is not so long ago! It is not ancient history.

But you still had to write dialogues. How difficult was that, given that there are no dialogues in the novel?

It was not that difficult. The challenging thing was that, since we were shooting Super 8 film on old cameras, we did not shoot any reference audio. The film is all silent, so we had actors speaking lines in German – and no way to know what was being said! When you get the footage back, you know what you shot, but it is all silent and I have to say that in the edit, when I was working with all this silent material, reading lips in German, that was one of the most challenging aspects for me – to put the correct footage with the correct text. As we worked, we tried our best to document exactly which scenes we were shooting, but sometimes we only had a short time, as we were shooting with two cameras, using cartridges of film that only last three minutes before they need reloading. There was not much time to precisely mark which pages of text we just shot, so in the end it was a lot of lip reading …

The film opens and closes with the noises and images of an analogue film projection. You take the viewers into a film within a film. What were your thoughts behind this narrative framework?

In our version of ‘Die Kinder der Toten’, film is a kind of character as well as the medium through which the dead come back to life. This is not the case in Jelinek’s novel, but it is in our version. So, film is a medium of transmission – not only of story, but of spirit. It is a direct link to the ghost world, to the past. And the projector at the beginning is a way of foregrounding that idea, and of foreground film as not just media, but as a medium. Even if you look at the word for film screening in French, ‘séance’, it is exactly the same word used for conjuring up the dead, which is what it must have seemed like to people when they first beheld moving images made of light. It is magic.

(Interview: Karin Schiefer, January 2019)

Production Ulrich Seidl. Production company Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion (Vienna, Austria). Written and directed by Kelly Copper, Pavol Liska. Cinematography Kelly Copper, Pavol Liska. Editing Kelly Copper, Pavol Liska. Music Wolfgang Mitterer. Sound design Matz Müller. Sound David Almeida-Ribeiro. With Andrea Maier (Karin), Greta Kostka (Mother), Klaus Unterrieder (Forester).

Premiere February 08, 2019, Forum

Photo: © Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur