Peter Delpeut interviewed for German film journal CARGO
The extensive interview was published in the paper version of the magazine.
We have created the transcript below in English.
Mr. Delpeut, you have written a book in which you deal with Jonas Mekas: Shiver of Memory is not so much about his films, but about his youth in Lithuania during the Second World War – and his memories of them. How did you come to this topic?
It began with an article in the New York Review of Books by Michael Casper, a young American historian. He is very knowledgeable about Lithuania in the 20th century. In this context he also came across Jonas Mekas, with whom he was very critical: his behavior during the years in World War II. Casper found out that Mekas worked for a magazine that published anti-Semitic articles. He didn’t find anything anti-Semitic from Mekas himself, not a single word. The second point concerned the story of how Mekas came to Germany: Casper believes that Mekas primarily wanted to find safety from the approaching Soviet troops and that he consciously sought protection in Nazi Germany. I’m not so sure how far Casper’s accusations are justified. Mekas may have simply behaved the way one behaves in a war situation. But there is an even more important point. In the village where Mekas lived, Birzai in Lithuania, a massacre of 2,400 Jews took place very soon after the Germans came. One of the many atrocities in the immediate aftermath of the German occupation in the Baltics. It happened in his immediate surroundings, he must have noticed it. But Mekas never mentioned this event. Casper says: It is unthinkable that one would remain silent about something like that, about something that happened in the place where Mekas lived at the time. And for Casper it is all the more unthinkable because Mekas was an artist for whom memory is so important. His argument more or less boiled down to what Primo Levi insisted: one cannot remain silent about what is happening in the camps. Casper was very offended by Mekas’ silence. And the public role he took on after he came to New York and soon achieved legendary status there. Because Mekas increasingly became one of the last survivors. He appeared as a survivor, although he is not, he is a Lithuanian in exile, and a famous avant-garde filmmaker. But not a Holocaust survivor.
What did Mekas mean to you before Casper’s text gave you a new perspective?
When I was young, as a cinephile in the 70s, his films were not easy to watch. I met him through a book: the Movie Journal. This became very important for me. It taught me that love of film can be very comprehensive, that it doesn’t have to be limited to Hollywood and art films, but that there is a whole range of films beyond that. And above all, his approach to criticism became important to me: he said very directly that he wasn’t interested in judging or condemning films. The more challenging task, he wrote again and again, is to describe what is beautiful about films. He wanted to write about films he liked. This became a common thread for my own career. Criticism, especially art criticism, always played a role in my articles and my own films. I wanted to understand why something was beautiful, not why something failed or wasn’t as good as it could have been. I identified with this approach from Jonas Mekas. Then in the 80s his films appeared at the Rotterdam Film Festival and I was able to see them in the cinema. Around 1990 I started working for the Nederlands Filmmuseum (now EYE) and was an archivist for seven years. Of course, his work for the Anthology Film Archive also became a reference for me. He began collecting avant-garde and independent cinema in a landscape where there was little government support. So my admiration for Mekas’ work has three aspects.
How did you become a cinephile?
How do you become addicted? Now this addiction is no longer so strong. Maybe cinephilia is also something for young people. Back then I saw four or five films in one day, today after two films I’ve already had enough at a festival. I want to process the experience. If I like a film, I want to think about it. There was a strong movement in Holland at the time, we could see a lot of arthouse films and there were a whole bunch of cinemas for them. I loved the old classic Hollywood films, the westerns, but also everything from Godard and Antonioni to more recent film artists. Wenders was very important for my generation. In these films there was a double movement: to tell a story and at the same time to tell about one’s own love for cinema. Wenders was a key figure. His newer films don’t mean that much to me, but his early films play a very big role in my memory.
Let’s go back to Mekas. He always idealized the Lithuania of his childhood. Wouldn’t it be plausible that he mainly remembers the positive things about it and “forgets” the traumatic things?
That has something going for it. Despite it. For my book, I focused a lot on the history of Lithuania and the Holocaust in this small country. I also compared this with the history of the Netherlands. Also a small country. 75 percent of the Jewish population of the Netherlands was deported and killed during the Nazi occupation. So I was also interested in understanding more fundamentally what can happen in such a period. Anne Frank played on the square a hundred meters from my apartment. In my neighborhood, 40 or 50 percent of the houses were empty after the deportations. You couldn’t have missed that back then. You can’t forget that either. In Holland we later learned and experienced a lot about the Holocaust. Well, Lithuania was then occupied again by the Soviet Union. But does that outweigh everything else? Mekas was always on the left. But never talking about what happened in his village… His silence disturbs me, and the persistence of his silence. He didn’t want to admit to Casper that it was too painful for him to talk about.
The story is undoubtedly very interesting and I read Shiver of Memory with great excitement. I always wondered why you, of all people, took this topic so seriously that you made a whole book out of it.
At first I just wanted to write an article myself. 2000 words. I started researching and then it became difficult to find an end point. The matter is so complex that I found out more and more, it became increasingly more important than the truth about Jonas Mekas. Today everything often needs to be brought to clear answers, but this matter is not so easy to unravel. I just couldn’t stop. The first version was written even more impersonally. But the publisher advised me: You should take us on this journey. It is important to undertake such trips. Memory is always selective, which was one of the reasons why I wrote this book. I was surprised myself that it grew into a whole book. Some wanted me to condemn him, others defended him. I was interested in everything in between.
In the course of this “in-between” we learn that although Mekas never spoke of the massacre at Birzai, he did remember atrocity scenes. Incidentally, the question of his personal collaboration was not up for debate with Casper either. Collaborations are a major problem for Lithuanian historical politics.
I’m also convinced that he didn’t take part. But he worked for magazines that published really horrible things and that also contributed to many Lithuanians supporting the murder of the Jews. The task force in the area at that time was not much more than 140 Germans, so if you could kill 1,900,000 Jews in a few months, you needed the help of locals and neighbors. It had to be common knowledge back then who was helping the Germans.
Mekas was, above all, a Lithuanian nationalist. This could have had an impact on his relationship with the National Socialists, because he was strongly opposed to the Soviet Union, the first occupying power. I see analogies to Ukraine, where many supporters of the country’s independence made a pact with the Germans, which is still exploited in Russian propaganda today.
He changed a lot as an immigrant in New York, he began a whole new life there as an artist and activist in the 60s. Maybe he was a nationalist, but for me he was above all a regionalist. He was a farm boy who read all the libraries in the area. Through reading he was a cosmopolitan, but at the same time he had a strong connection to the village. I was there once myself, it’s a really lonely area. And he was very young. He was born 22, i.e. 18, when the war broke out. When he fled to Germany, he was 22. His fear of the Soviets was justified, I think. The Nazis also idealized village life. But he was more of a romantic, a young poet. But that’s all interpretation. There is an oral history recording of him when he was already over 90 and completely caught up in the stories he had created over the course of his life. It all boiled down to the fortunate fact that he came to New York. He didn’t allow anything that didn’t fit into this biography. And then this young historian came and started asking questions. It is also tragic that at such an old age he was once again confronted with ambiguities in his biography.
How do you feel about his films today? As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Glimpses of Beauty or Lost LostLost or, of course, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuaniaalso seem to me to contain a program that clarifies its relationship to history, at least to its own.
The strange thing is: when I start watching one of his films, I can’t stop. Til today. Maybe I even like them more than ever. This also requires analysis. If you cancel a person today, you have to give up on them completely. But his films have not lost their strength. I love the melancholy in it, the nostalgia. A story of loss, it’s about a lost present. This feeling means a lot to me. There is no reason to distance yourself from his films. It’s maybe a little different with his texts, they can be very egocentric, but I wouldn’t want to miss the Movie Journal either. I was 18 or 20 when I got to know it, so working with Mekas was also a journey into my own history for me.
How did you become familiar with the counter-cinema that Mekas trusts as a filmmaker and as a critic? The New York avant-garde especially.
This happened gradually. Especially in the 80s, the Rotterdam Film Festival brought us many discoveries. Then at the film museum I suddenly had the early cinema in front of me, I forgot about the art house cinema. So these are wave movements in my life. In the 90s there was a retrospective of his films in Rotterdam. After 2000, everything became much more accessible. Being a cinephile today is very different. In the past, you had to hope that you could find films in a cinema. In Pesaro you saw 20 or 25 Japanese films from all genres in a week. I traveled a lot looking for films. Today that romance has been lost a little. Films are too easy to come by today. I know that sounds stupid, I’m talking like an old man. In the past you had a screening and you usually had to write on that basis. Today, labels like Criterion release the most obscure films. This has changed completely in my lifespan.
What did you do before you came to the Nederlands Filmmuseum?
In the 80s I was a freelance filmmaker. I always say they were the dark times. I graduated from film school in 1984 and the five or six years after that were very depressed because it was very difficult to find money for such productions back then. I was a Bressonian, I wanted to make formally strict films. I only made a few, my final film based on Borges was very successful. The second one was not successful; today it seems extremely formalistic to me. Then at the DFM they began showing films from a collection by a distributor called Desmet, who was active until 1920. His films opened up an unknown area of film history.
This became your film Lyrisch Nitraat.
Exactly. The title wasn’t there at the time. There was a small revolution in the film museum at that time, a new deputy director was appointed: Eric de Kuyper. I was his student at university. He was deeply interested in semiotics and psychoanalysis, and he was also a filmmaker. So you could be both, he taught me: an intellectual or academic, and a filmmaker. He was one of the reasons I studied film. In 1988, De Kuyper became responsible for artistic matters at the film museum. There was a bit of money back then. He asked me if I wanted to work for a year, which turned into seven years, seven incredible years. We discovered unknown parts of film history, we preserved them and began to show them in color; people were not yet aware at the time that these films were viragated. We worked with the festivals in Bologna and Pordenone. Eric then wanted to concentrate more on writing and stopped. I stayed for seven years, time is still central to my life. My films back then were all connected to the film museum. This is a middle point in my life. A core. Memory and archive combined, we began to open the old material to a new audience. This created a new way of writing film history.
You became a star of found footage cinema.
When I made Lyrisch Nitraat, I wasn’t familiar with found footage as a term or as a genre. Suddenly the film was invited to a large found footage retrospective in Lucerne, and that’s when I realized what the context was and what I had done. This was all new to me. I wanted to make a documentary about early cinema, without talking heads and without explanations, just conveying the idea, conveying it with the footage itself. For me, the colors were important, the operatic storytelling, the romance, the speed, which was hand-cranked and could change between 12 and 24 images. I wanted to explain this simply by showing it, by adding a certain music, to show the colors in the nitrate film, the spectacle of those colors. I had no role model, so assembly was difficult. Dutch television contributed money. At the festivals I met a lot of people who worked for almost no money. But Lyrisch Nitraat was fully financed, so that made a difference. When I was able to program for the film museum, I later showed a lot of found footage films because I was now very interested in that. And it gave us a new look at what we had in the archive. A whole movement started in the 90s.
A new film by Fiona Tan was shown at the Berlinale this year. She continues to work with material from the EYE to this day.
She came to us while I was still working there. We also opened the archive to her and she did really wonderful things with it.
The vulnerability of the material is one of the attractions of Lyrisch Nitraat. You can see the porosity of our memories in a material image.
True. Forbidden Quest and Diva Dolorosa have now been digitally restored. I was very happy with the result. I couldn’t have imagined this in the 90s. The quality of digital projection today is such that I can no longer see the difference, so I have changed there too. To this day the films are shown again and again. Today I live more in the history of my works than in my present. Sometimes I think I could have stayed in the museum and carried on.
Lyrisch Nitraat was followed by The Forbidden Quest. That was the film that introduced me to your work. It shows footage from polar expeditions, in a fictional or speculative story.
The film would not exist without the film museum. Eric de Kuyper and I have divided the different genres in the archive between us. I was responsible for the documentaries. There are numerous variations of expedition films to Africa or to the South Pole or North Pole, and there was a lot of material from the polar regions in particular. So I read a lot about these stories and my imagination took on a life of its own. I didn’t think much about the ethical issues at the time. Is it acceptable to use real people suffering from the cold in a fictional film? I made up a story very much in the style of the 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe in particular was an inspiration. He also really believed in a passage from the North to the South Pole across the globe. Poe even financed an expedition, which was of course a disaster. The BFI also had a lot of material restored at the time, but not in color. The ice is much colder when seen in a blue image. I took a month off, wrote a script, and that’s how The Forbidden Quest came about.
It is also very important as a mockumentary.
Again, it wasn’t until later that I realized I had made a mockumentary. You could also consider it a deep fake documentary avant la lettre. WDR bought the film, the broadcaster had previously bought Lyrisch Nitraat, who was an interesting editor back then. The Berlinale Forum did not accept the film because they considered it unbelievable; the title “Ireland, 1943” was still missing, which was a misunderstanding.
It was also the time when the visual arts began to take a greater interest in film. Have you noticed these appropriation processes?
Yes indeed. I always found this to be an interesting development. Found Footage also emerged from the visual arts, but gained much more attention in film circles in the 1990s. Found footage has had many retrospectives, including one in the Anthology Archives.
Diva Dolorosa completes the film museum trilogy. The gender aspect also becomes important here.
The diva films have always been very problematic for me. I liked them, but I wasn’t entirely sure what the attraction was. This whole thing with the female bodies, the strong gesticulation, it was strange. The Italian-American historian Angela Della Vacche approached me because she wanted to write a book on the subject and wanted a DVD accompanying it. We didn’t have that many films, but we had very good connections to Bologna and Turin, we went to the archives in Italy. She introduced me to her ideas, I read Mario Praz, and suggested: let’s make a diva film about iconographic potential. A film with a main character, but who is played by many actresses: a development from femme fatale to hysteric to femme fragile. That became Diva Dolorosa. The Holland Festival was very interested in the project, and the film was eventually presented with an orchestra and live. Angela’s book came out three or four years later, she introduced me to this film. All of these projects found their form through research. Then slowly an idea emerges.
What did you do after you left the film museum?
I became a freelance filmmaker again and I started writing. It’s still unclear, am I a filmmaker or a novelist? I also had some health problems for a few years, which I coped with better when I was writing, because you have to be really strong to make a film.
Also for the extreme bike tours you read about in your biography.
I’m not strong enough for that anymore. We drove along the border with the Sahara, in the Sinai and in Namibia. That was also an alibi to write about. I also made another film in the 90s , Felice…Felice…, which is very dear to me. It’s set in 19th century Japan, we shot it in a studio in Amsterdam, we built all the sets. But finding money for these types of films is very difficult. I find it so tedious these days that I’d rather write a novel on the same topic. I also have more control over what I want to achieve. I have great admiration for filmmakers who can commit everyone to their vision. I sit at a desk and put my ideas on paper. Stories are now a matter of writing for me.
Is it possible to live well with the Dutch market?
You can also get funding for novels in Holland. We really live in a society that is kind to artists. We are a small market. Writing novels or essays largely works with government support. Even if not many people want to admit it openly.
There is a film by Douglas Gordon about Jonas Mekas: I Had Nowhere to Go. What do you think of that?
I didn’t think the film was that good. It was precisely through this film that Michael Casper was introduced to his subject because he found it hagiographic, and this is where this myth of Mekas as one of the last survivors of the Nazi War actually comes from. To be honest, this is a pretty stupid film, consisting of Mekas ‘ text from the diary, and some very difficult to understand footage, and a simplistic soundtrack. And Gordon is a very good artist, which also contributed to my disappointment.
You created an online version of your Mekas treatise for a South African magazine. What are the advantages over the book?
I wanted to know if there was something between literature and film. Combining my two talents, if you like. Writing and image, writing and document. I’m friends with the editor of the internet magazine Herri (herri.org.za) and I said to him: Let’s do three chapters. I wanted to learn this, wanted to experiment with it. The pandemic started, so everyone had time, there was also extra money for artists during this time, and this was work that I could do from my desk. The text is the one from the book and I was looking for ways to visualize it. Today I think that you should work on both, that it shouldn’t just be about illustrating a text. However, the work on the text is very precise, the images quickly become very direct and accusatory. It was a very interesting experience, but if you really want to bring text and images together, it’s a big challenge. I’m not entirely sure what it is. It works?
It works. But you can also see that the year 1942 in Lithuania cannot be reached using digital forensics, as is often used today. Instead, you work with associations. For example with Rossellini.
Pictures from Germany in year zero directly behind the text are very important to me. But many people didn’t understand what I was getting at: a boy in Berlin right after the war. The audience didn’t follow my thoughts.
Jonas Mekas an Edmund?
Yes, something like that. Mekas was in Germany as a displaced person, that’s an association.
Should you make it more clear?
It’s enough as an association that creates a context. Finally, I would like to return to Mekas and his memory. Details are very important for memory, also for dreaming. At one point he talks about children’s heads being attacked with bayonets. How do you rate this memory fragment? Did the Germans even have bayonets? Or does his memory become narrative, fictional?
I don’t know whether German soldiers still fought with bayonets in World War II. What struck me much more is that in Lithuania most Jews were murdered with a shot in the neck. This happened before the extermination camps were fully operational.
But of course our memories and dreams are fueled by tropes we know from films or literature. I think we shouldn’t judge Mekas on such details. His stubborn silence is what makes me sad. It may well be that the pain of the memory was too great. And this is reflected in a veiled way in his writings and films. But Casper’s questions could have been a moment for him to address this, painful as it may be. He went on the defensive. He missed the opportunity to address a blot on Lithuanian history. In this respect he could perhaps have learned something from many German intellectuals.