„Grenzgänger“ of Cinema: Thoughts on the Work of Peter Zeitlinger
Why are you acting so strange? - I am just looking at the river
(from a scene of My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done)
In German, the language Peter Zeitlinger had to learn as a young boy after leaving Czechoslovakia for Austria with his mother in 1968, the word “Grenzgänger“ (literally: border walker) either refers to someone who crosses borders, to someone moving between different fields of work or to someone who goes to the limit. All of these definitions also apply to the cinema of Zeitlinger.
I admit, when I first came across Zeitlinger’s name, it was merely as “Werner Herzog’s cameraman“, a limiting attribution many great workers of cinema who collaborate with so-called auteurs experience. While still in school I would travel to Munich to see the premiere of Rescue Dawn, still in awe of Herzog’s very own mythopoeia, not paying too much attention to the way the camera moves through the jungle in restless movements alternating the intensity of close-ups with the impuissance of total shots. The camera’s tendency to be very close to the ground in a film about a pilot escaped me, it seemed to me as if Herzog was alone in this adventure. I was very wrong.
The Act of Seeing More With a Camera
It was a surprising and wild moment in the beginning of Cave of Forgotten Dreams that changed this perception for me, even if the film is very much Herzog’s. In one of the first sequences of the film the camera travels with a group of scientists about to enter the Chauvet caves. They walk along the rockslide and we can hear Herzog explain how the caves came into being when Zeitlinger turns his camera around and gives an upside down view of the space that somehow, I don’t know how exactly, encapsulates thousands of years of history. Suddenly we can see the rock and not the people passing it. We realize that we are just tiny figments in the eyes of this rock, the fleeting time of us is ridiculous in comparison to the deep time of the rock. It’s a shot that works in 2D as well as in 3D, a shot that has almost nothing to do with the exceptional work of making a film inside a cave. It is the shot of someone who believes he can see more with a camera. Moments later in the film, Zeitlinger crosses another border, this time between our world and the Underland but also between life and cinema.
Since then I’v tried to pay attention to the films Zeitlinger worked on as a cinematographer. It’s difficult because my interests and tastes narrow down too quickly and like most cinematographers Zeitlinger doesn’t work in one region of cinema alone, he shoots a Hollywood film and then a small European production, a documentary and then a fairy-tale, a commercial TV series and then an art film. What’s the vision of somebody making images? It’s certainly more blurred that with artists working mainly as directors and it’s more difficult to find coherency but I discovered a filmmaker who intensifies the visions of those he works with. As opposed to many of his colleagues Zeitlinger did never move up a regular budget ladder where each film has to be more expensive than the next. He can and does work in different budgets. As he has not only worked as a cinematographer but also as director, screenwriter, producer, editor and with visual effects, Zeitlinger really qualifies for a „Grenzgänger“.
There is always a change, both real and imagined, whenever we cross a border. The end of one world merges into the beginning of the next and in all their arbitrary, violent and unfair modes of being, borders still hold a promise, a tragic promise mostly as we know from daily news. What we rarely see on television or the internet is the passage, the transgressive movement of time and space that gives borders their metaphorical meaning. It’s precisely those changes between night and day, silence and noise, movement and stillness or life and death that inspire Zeitlinger’s camerawork.
As he himself began life as someone who had to cross a border, the actual border between what is now the Czech Republic and Austria plays an important role in his oeuvre. I live quite close to Langau and Šafov, the two border villages portrayed in Ulrich Seidl’s Mit Verlust ist zu rechnen and even if capitalism and wealth have reshaped the places, one can immediately sense the triste absurdity of Zeitlinger’s rain-soaked images when walking along the small border road that once was called an Iron Curtain. Like in many of his films, the images of Zeitlinger in Mit Verlust ist zu rechnen contain a mood, they give a taste, especially when there is movement. It’s less about seeing it all, more about being there. Though Seidl’s curiosity to look right through the facades of the most intimate spaces prevails, the camera work in that film does not give in to the temptation of voyeurism like its protagonist who spies at other people’s homes with binoculars. Maybe the best example for the taste given to a film by Zeitlinger is James Franco’s Pretenders, in which the cinematographer employs a rush of lens flares, soft focus and bright lights against dark backgrounds and thus immerses the film in an other-worldly state of desire.
In Tunnelkind, an Austrian production Zeitlinger not only shot but also co-wrote, it’s again the movements between one side of the Czech-Austrian border to the other that fuels the dramatic conflict. As it has always been an ideal of cinema to make us see like it was the first time. Borders offer a chance for a sensation of novelty and curiosity, danger and an affirmative approach to the other. In the latter we can also find different borders relating to ethics and the danger of exploiting those whose story one tells. Especially when working with directors like Herzog and Seidl there is always a thin margin between being close and being too close. In general, we can find a lot of confrontational shots in Zeitlinger’s work. He is a master of the close-up that can feel a bit off in the sense that we see parts and twitches of faces we wouldn’t have expected. Nevertheless his shots never feel morally wrong. No matter if filming on death row, in private homes or in foreign countries, a cinematographer is in many situations in which little adjustments in focus, light or movement can change the way we look at people and the world. One of the greatest assets of Zeitlinger in that regard is what US-american film critic Manny Farber has attributed to Herzog, too: “(…) his touch with the medium is unpretentious and he puts awkwardnesses together rather than going for the big, detailed performance (…)“ Even in Hollywood productions Zeitlinger doesn’t shy away from a simple or unsteady shot as long as it serves the film. There is a truth that knows and a truth that reacts. Zeitlinger’s is the second.
Pushing the Limits
The people he films are very often „Grenzgänger“ in their own right. Eccentrics and traumatised wracks, dreamers and explorers have appeared in front of his lens. It seems that an image truly begins for Zeitlinger when we can see something we haven’t seen before or see somebody who can’t live like everybody else. Torn and sad souls seeking liberty inside their bourgeois prisons in Mikado by Silvia Zeitlinger Vas, blind Ester giving refuge to a persecuted Chinese boy in Vienna in Verfolgt – Der kleine Zeuge or Dieter Dengler, the heroic Vietnam pilot who seems to explode with warmth, life and hidden traumas reenacting his imprisonment in the jungle of Lao People's Democratic Republic. “Running“, Dengler says in Little Dieter Needs to Fly “might chase the demons away.“ I often thought about this sentence when I watched the many accelerating movements of Zeitlinger’s camerawork. I get the sense that he films actors as if they were wild animals and wild animals as if they were actors.
As for the “something we haven’t seen“, Zeitlinger can be compared to the pioneers of early cinema. Those travellers who were send by the founding fathers of this art form across the world to still the hunger for images and stories. It’s true that most of them wouldn’t have shot an episode of German TV-series Das Traumhotel in order to make images of the Caribbean but nevertheless there are very few cameramen who have gone as far as he did to make images from the end of the world. Here, we enter the realm of “going to the limit“ when it comes to definitions of our Grenzgänger. It’s not only the remote and seemingly dangerous places he filmed at but also how he approaches them. Zeitlinger is an inventor of sorts, he uses technology in all its facets, 3D, flying drones, crazy constructions that allow a camera to register light in dark places. Furthermore he uses the power of lenses, focus and grading to the fullest, always depending on the film he works on. Zeitlinger both embraces analogue and digital images according to the demands of their respective mediums. In his student days Zeitlinger idolized so-called experimental filmmakers like Michael Snow or Peter Kubelka, both testing and pushing the limits of the art form and working with the materiality of the medium. I detect openness in many different films of Zeitlinger. He loves to pan the camera for more than 180 degrees if possible and thus to show us that the spaces are real. How to transcend visions bound to merely remain representations? There is no final answer but much of Zeitlinger’s work can be read as a manual to find a true experience of film. All of this just to look, to see more than before.
However, cinematography is also the scent of burned light bulbs, molleton fabrics and sweaty bodies standing close to each other holding their breath for as long as it takes the world to begin and to end. With Zeitlinger you can feel the energy and innovation, the risk and possible failure of each shot. Cinematography is not only seeing or telling a story with images, it’s movement, physicality, gravity, philosophy, ethics, lovemaking, fear and loneliness. Herzog once described that dance with his collaborator: “More recently, with Peter Zeitlinger, I would put one arm around his chest from behind or my hand on his belt. Each of us knows perfectly the movements of the other, and if I observe something unforeseen and it interests me, I push the cameraman towards it with a nudge or a whisper.“ Even if the image of the director holding the cameraman leads us back to an auteurist idea of cinema, let’s not forget, it’s also the other way around, and like with every dance, you can lead as much as you want because if there is nobody to dance with, it doesn’t make any sense.
Before finishing this text I wanted to walk along the border between Austria and the Czech Republic once more. I drive to the little road connecting Langau to Šafov and while a step from one country to the other and back again, look at Austria, look at Czech Republic, move, always move, sometimes jump or stumble, sometimes forget about it all and just stand their dreaming, I understand for a second the flickering juxtaposition of light and darkness so integral to cinema. And I understand why a „Grenzgänger“ like Peter Zeitlinger has found a home in this art form.