An Interview with Merle Kroeger and Philip Scheffner Watching Ourselves Watch

Collision © Merle Kröger
© Merle Kröger

The Havarie/Collision tour leads the author of the multiple award winning book by Merle Kröger and Philip Scheffner, who recently won the German Film Critics Prize of 2017, through the United States with film showings and discussions. 

Merle and Philip, when sitting in the audience, it is easy to perceive oneself as a voyeur. In Havarie, however, we are voyeurs who are left entirely on our own; there is no intermediary narrative. In this situation the voyeuristic element becomes less pronounced and we become more like observers. Where is this tension between voyeur and observer supposed to guide the audience? 

Philip: Into a cinematic domain in which the extreme viewing hierarchy that is written into the visual material begins to blur, possibly putting the audience on an “equal footing” with those they are watching for a few moments – without hiding the fact that this viewing hierarchy exists and that we as spectators are part of it. In this sense the film takes us into a utopian realm.
 
Merle: First and foremost, we are observing ourselves when we are watching Havarie. Or, to put it a better way: we are watching ourselves watch. For me, that is less voyeuristic than having an extremely close-up view of people in rubber dinghies, which ignores the fact that this proximity is not politically desired in reality. The waiting, the impatience and the drifting of one’s thoughts – these feelings are in my opinion a pretty good reflection not only of the real situation in which two ships collide but also of the state of our society. Havarie allows us to reflect upon this in a communal setting. 

The “boundless” ocean as an escape route at a point that can be precisely pinpointed using coordinates. Whatever happens is filmed, observed and communicated. Only the refugees remain nameless – in the film. That is not the case in the book, where their destinies are presented; was that something that had been agreed in advance? How closely do you collaborate?

Philip: I would say that the film (and I believe also the book) presents not so much destinies but rather fragments of biographies that collide at precisely this definable point in the ocean. The real people in the small dinghy in the film remain somewhat ghostly figures – we did not talk to the real people in the dinghy. We searched for them, but then for various reasons ended up abandoning the search. We spoke to others who we met during the course of our research and who had had similar experiences. The voices we collected during our research are overlaid upon one another and in the film create a kind of ether, a space for imagination – while in the novel the collected voices become fictitious characters that develop a different level of imagination. The film and the book offer different opportunities; after researching both at the same time, we then pursue these opportunities in the respective medium. We collaborate very closely, in other words – though I believe that I am less involved in the books than Merle is in the films.

Merle: My aim in the book is not to present destinies but rather, by showing the collision of biographical fragments from multiple perspectives, to generate points of intersection that often become lost in the political agenda of “us” and “them”: the land art sculpture of the artist Dani Karavan in the Spanish border town of Portbou, which commemorates the death of Walter Benjamin, addresses the fate of the many nameless people who reached the Mediterranean while fleeing from fascist Europe. I make such connections, and the film does this too, but in a much more cognitive and – in my view – more holistic manner. The text of the novel is more direct, more resonant and perhaps more striking – I wrote this book with a feeling of great rage in my stomach. 

Water – travel – cruise ships – refugees? Is that not a rather bizarre yet familiar association?

Philip: Hmm…I’m not quite sure what you mean?

Merle: The ocean is a liquid space into which travelers from all walks of life embark, and which refuses per se to allow itself to be appropriated or have boundaries imposed upon it. In other words, it is actually a kind of “free domain” that is being increasingly restricted by political decisions taken on land and controlled by surveillance technology, ultimately forcing people into rubber dinghies that cannot be detected by radar. In turn, the cruise ships simulate a safe and self-sufficient cosmos; gated communities of the oceans for people who appear to be like-minded or equal. However, we also experienced the cruise as a powerful metaphor for a globalized world dedicated through and through to capitalism and committed to no national labor or consumer rights whatsoever – one that is ultimately nothing but a shopping mall in which we live, lead our lives and consume. 

I was already completely absorbed by Havarie by the end of the first paragraph. I began reading faster and faster, and had to catch my breath. The book is quite different to the film in terms of its structure, or do you see parallels? 

Philip: I think Merle should answer first.

Merle: The parallels are of course initially to be found in the joint research that forms the basis for any formal decision. This provides the foundations out of which the film and the text grow. A second parallel is the temporality of the real encounter and the radio communication between the cruise liner and the Spanish sea rescue service, which gives structure to this 90 minute sequence. Like a dome of sound, this “ether” is spanned over the foundations and provides a context for the events that take place. On an internal level, however, the film and the book adopt very much their own narrative rhythms: the film’s is the concentration and the almost physical experience of real time in which the dome is gradually filled with the voices of the travelers, while the book presents a whole host of memories, concerns and urgencies that as it were fight against this temporality, countering it. As such, we experience the 90 minutes as brutally long in the one case and brutally short in the other. And both are equally true.

Both projects are political works that are a long way from agitprop but nonetheless have a very clear agenda. What range of audience reactions did you experience? 

Philip: Fascination, enthusiasm, concentrated silence, incredulous amazement, physicality, comparisons with drug-taking experiences, impatience, boredom, rejection.

Merle: A desire not to leave (the cinema, the book) - a great compliment. A sense of confusion that is productive but also very much felt to be unpleasant; the sensation that something is being held back from one. 

“Truth is stranger than fiction” – does this apply to your work?

Philip: I believe that fiction is an integral part of our experience of reality – in my view the two cannot be separated, so any attempt to make a distinction between truth and fiction is not really helpful.

Merle: One person's truth is the next person's fiction – our work aims to break with this classic distinction, as who would want to decide on this? For me, political realism is a term that can encompass many fictions from multiple perspectives, the poetical and the abstract, the experimental and the improvised, while nonetheless not losing sight of what is happening around us.

You work both together and individually – could you say a few words about your work that was not the product of collaboration?

Philip: I would say that there isn’t really any work that was not produced at least on a closely coordinated basis.  

Merle: Our intellectual “home” is the 1990s in Berlin’s Mitte district, when we were part of various interdisciplinary groups and collectives and attempted to create temporary and artistic utopias: be it in the form of a club, exhibition, action art in the public sphere, a film or a TV program. This was when we began our practice of constructing a common space for thoughts and ideas that would then give rise to various projects, either alone or with others. In case of doubt we are happy not to concern ourselves with defining precisely who came up with the original idea. However, when the child needs a name, we give it one. 

And now I’d like to ask you a personal question: if you had to listen to just one piece of music every day for the rest of your lives, which piece would it be?

Philip: PS: This question scares me so I won’t answer it. I feel that if I gave an answer I would be imprisoned for ever in a room in which this one song would be played – welcome to hell.

Merle: The sound of blackbirds singing on a warm summer’s evening? Could we perhaps agree on that?