Rory MacLean meets Boris Hars-Tschachotin
‘As a child I couldn’t move in my bedroom without bumping into cardboard castles, forests made from sticks and hanging Sphagnum moss,’ Hars-Tschachotin told me when we met in Berlin. ‘I loved creating worlds which I could shape and care for, and my grandmother loved it too. Whatever crazy scheme I devised - like building an erupting volcano in the sandbox – her response was always, “I think we can do that.” And then we did.’
Her enthusiasm fired Hars-Tschachotin’s young imagination and – while earning a master’s degree in Art History, Philosophy and Theatre Studies at the Humboldt-University Berlin – he became a feature film location scout. ‘I’d always had a weakness for old houses, for crumbling forgotten worlds,’ he said. ‘In the pre-production stage I’d help directors to find locations, to realise their visions.’ At Studio Babelsberg he met and worked with great directors like Jean-Jacques Annaud, István Szabó, Richard Donner, Wim Wenders and Volker Schlöndorff. ‘I’d listen to them, learn from them, and be inspired by them.’
His experience enabled him to begin to create his own worlds on film, starting with Lurch. ‘While at university I was taken into the storerooms of Berlin’s Natural History Museum,’ he recalled. ‘Hidden away in the vaults was the museum’s collection of thousands and thousands of glass jars containing preserved creatures, many of which are now extinct. I was struck by both the wonder of them and by the craziness of Man saving them while hunting them down and destroying their environment. I simply had to capture the dichotomy.’
Lurch is an elegant and beautiful short fictional film that brings to mind the work of the young David Lynch. Creepy and atmospheric, the camera swoops through rows of jars and the dusty cellars to tell a story of a living past, and the taste of preservative alcohol!
For Hars-Tschachotin the past was also alive through his grandparent’s stories. All his life they had told him of the family’s many adventures, especially those of his great-grandfather Sergej Stepanowitsch, a friend of Einstein and opponent of the Tsar, banished from Russia in 1905, foe of both Communists and Fascists. ‘As I grew up I chewed on their stories, on the words, like sweets,’ he recalled.
In time he transformed his fascination into Sergej in the Urn, a remarkable feature-length documentary that consumed seven years of his life and was shown across Germany last year. ‘As I grew older, I wanted to create my own picture of my great-grandfather. It seemed as if he’d left behind his many families with a great deal of trouble.’ At the start of the project he interviewed an uncle with a handheld camera, walking around the older man’s apartment, asking about one or other family heirloom.
‘And what’s this old vase?’ Hars-Tschachotin asked his uncle.
‘That “vase” is your great-grandfather’s burial urn and contains his ashes,’ revealed the uncle.
Sergej in the Urn documents the story of Hars-Tschachotin’s great-grandfather, and his own attempt to give him a final burial – 33 years after his death.
‘My interest in the stories goes far beyond family ties. To me the history of the twentieth century, with its events, its contradictions and its possibilities, are all mirrored in this complex family saga,’ he said. ‘Yet while working on the film, I came to understand that the networks and boundaries in each of our families are perhaps the most archaic and – at the same time – the most stable,’ he said. ‘These are the true networks and boundaries, the ones we must navigate our entire lives, ones which we may not relish but cannot escape.’
Hars-Tschachotin’s work on movies both historical and contemporary, combined with deep-research into his family’s history, has ‘changed my relationship with time’. He explained, ‘I realised that one hundred, even two hundred years is not such a long time in a family’s evolution. Passions and traumas that aren’t satisfied or resolved within one lifetime are transferred to the younger generation.’
His animation of the past led to the creation of what is perhaps his most dynamic installation. Makroskop is an interactive construction of 77 narrow hi-tech canvas panels, arranged in the shape of a huge sea shell, onto which some of his great-grandfather’s thousands of black-and-white photographs are projected. As the public enters the spiral, and touches the panels, the images and sound change, unfolding a maelstrom of comings and goings, suggesting questions of family and society, the individual and the masses.
‘With Makroskop I tried to realise something which is arguably a contradiction: a decelerated and fragile whirlwind, at once extremely dynamic, sweeps up everything in its path, yet the images are relayed in extreme slow motion. In a way it’s a slowed-down, domesticated cyclone.’
His passion for filmmaking, and for it to be treated as a fine art, led him to Los Angeles and the Getty Research Institute. While helping to conceive the Institute’s Art on Screen initiative, he found the time to write Der Bildbau im Film: Metropolis, Dr. Strangelove und Troy, a definitive work on the importance of production design, in which he interviews many of the industry’s top designers including Alex McDowell, Sir Ken Adams, Nigel Phelps and Dante Ferretti. Der Bildbau im Film will be published in November by Editions Imorde.
‘Production designers shape the aesthetics of film but the artistic process of creating cinematic space – especially their drawings -- has been largely overlooked in film studies and art history,’ he said.
Now back from Los Angeles, Hars-Tschachotin has initiated and co-curated an exhibition of Brian O‘Doherty’s multi-faceted oeuvre at Berlin’s Galerie Thomas Fischer. He is also working on a new installation as well as on a feature script entitled Songs of Silence, a fictional, modern-day story that follows the rise to fame of an isolated, musical American family in a media hungry digital world. It is a movie about music as an escape from isolation.
‘This film for me brings everything full-circle: the investigation of tradition and family, the exploration of simultaneous but contradictory worlds, and the dynamic of silence and speaking.’ He added, ‘Silence can end where music begins.’