Did your previous film on Gerhard Richter’s stained glass window for the Cologne Cathedral inspire you to make this one?
My interest in making a feature length documentary about Gerhard Richter did indeed start with the Cologne window. I’d seen a photo of some sample panes in a newspaper in 2005. It looked absolutely beautiful – the coloured squares, backlit. I immediately thought it should be documented, and I called Richter’s studio. Ms Ell, his studio manager, promised to talk to him, and I was amazed at how easy it seemed. And she actually did call back two hours later: Mr. Richter was interested, but he himself would not be available for the project.
It was ten months before I finally met Richter for the first time, during a site meeting at the Cathedral builders’ workshop. That’s how things gradually progressed.
How did the full-length film come about?
Working on the cathedral window film gave me the opportunity to delve deeper into Gerhard Richter’s entire body of work. I knew, of course, that the material presented a wealth of possibilities and different angles to think about. Richter had been approached by filmmakers before, and I believe he knew there would come a time when he would be ready to agree. In 2007 I’d completed the cathedral window movie and Richter had approved of it. That gave the impetus for considering another collaboration. It was a fluid process.
Did Gerhard Richter have a personal objective – for instance, an interest in seeing his own work process from the outside?
I don’t know. I think it was more about finding out whether a film could work at all: Can I work with a camera behind me? Maybe he didn’t give it much thought at all. It didn’t become clear until much later that the film is also a record of the genesis of a series of paintings – which were first shown at the Marian Goodman Gallery in NY. It’s difficult to recall every stage in the making of his paintings; they are so extremely complex.
Was it clear from the outset that you would film Gerhard Richter during the production of a series of large abstract paintings?
I started shooting outside the studio, official stuff: A site visit at Museum Ludwig before his exhibition Abstrakte Bilder in 2008, and then the opening. But it was clear from the start that the film should focus on the production of a series of paintings. I wanted to film how he paints. I was not at all certain it would be possible, though. His assistants Hubert Becker and Norbert Arns occasionally discussed it with him. I didn’t know when he was going to start a major new series. In the end I waited 1 1/2 years. In 2008 his assistants told me they were mounting blank canvasses, which we duly filmed. Then nothing happened. That, of course, had to do with the fact that when Richter is preparing for an exhibition he pays meticulous personal attention to everything that needs doing. That takes up a lot of his time, which means he is rarely at unconstrained liberty to paint, as you ideally probably should be.
In March 2009, after big shows in Cologne, Munich and London, I heard his assistants were about to start mixing paint. Then I met Richter by chance at a private view, and he said: I’m starting a painting tomorrow, you can come along.
Did you have to try to be “invisible” in the studio?
There’s no way to be invisible in that studio. There’s nothing in it. If there is any doubt about the willingness you immediately feel you don’t belong there, so Richter’s support was vital. There were situations where I felt the mood wasn’t so good, strained somehow. I didn’t leave though, just hung on. That gave rise to conversations and situations, like the one in the film where he interrupts the work on a particular painting. Of course, he was well aware of our presence. That comes out in the film, when he says: “When I know I’m being filmed I walk differently; something changes.” He didn’t pretend we weren’t there and neither did we.
Did you make specific prearrangements with Richter about the concept, the size of the team, scheduling?
We planned from one shoot to the next. Individual days, never a week at a go. Usually we shot for two, maximum four hours, which is long with this kind of work. I said from the beginning I wanted to keep the crew to a minimum. The very first time we shot in the studio in 2008 there were, in fact, only two of us – the cameraman and me. We filmed him working on the “Sindbad” Series. During the second period of filming Richter turned to me spontaneously, and a conversation began. There was a fine balance between watching and talking.
When did you get the idea of installing a camera in the studio?
I had the idea straight away. For a while we even thought we could make do with just that camera to avoid distracting Richter. We considered installing a camera he could adjust to suit himself. The problem was, he usually works on several paintings simultaneously. So how do you maintain continuity with several paintings at once? They changed so quickly, sometimes beyond recognition within a morning. We had to be really careful with our film material, to ensure each phase could be clearly assigned to the appropriate painting. E.g. for every close up of a specific stage of work we had to make sure to get a corresponding long shot. I also realized that the fixed camera on its tripod didn’t really do justice to the physical dimension of how he works. You could see how the paintings changed, but you couldn’t see Richter contemplating them. That’s why we decided to use a hand-held camera after all, starting with the yellow paintings. That worked really well – it became indispensable for me. There’s physicality to Gerhard Richter’s pictures, because he really works the paint on canvas, and the layers and movements of colour are so beautiful. And Richter himself has a strong physical presence when he’s painting. The way he works with the squeegee, the elegant sweeping motion, his assessment of the paintings – we could capture all that better with the hand-held camera.
Did you concentrate on particular paintings in the series?
I knew it would be an entirely unpredictable process; that it was impossible to predict how each painting would develop. We started with four paintings, which you see in a take early in the film. They were actually destroyed later due to problems with the wooden backing. We simply tried to shoot as much as possible so that we would end up having the entire work process of several paintings at least.
Watching your film, the paintings seem to become protagonists in their own right. Was that intended?
I wasn’t aware of that at first. But as soon as I stood in the studio I started relating to the paintings. There you are, with this heightened sense of awareness: What’s going on now, what’s happening on the canvas, how is the relationship between the artist and the painting developing, what will he do next? Sometimes I looked at a painting and thought: Its good like this. But then came the next step in the process, and what I had perceived as a finished picture would be destroyed before my very eyes; just painted over. It’s not easy when your ‘protagonists’ are constantly disappearing. And there is one scene in the film where you get the feeling that the paintings are staring at you.
You mentioned the scene where Richer interrupts his work and challenges the very idea of the film. How did you cope with that?
Things came to a head one day when he was working on the yellow paintings. He wasn’t sure he would be able to continue working while being filmed. That’s when he stopped the scene. We discussed the situation. That’s how we coped. He told me when something bothered him. Then we took a break so everyone could go away and think about it – tidy up, listen to some music – and then continue on. Gerhard Richter is able to overcome a lack of enthusiasm once he’s set his mind on something. His scepticism is part of the overall dynamics of the situation: By articulating doubt he is upholding the continuity of the collaboration. Richter has an exceptional capacity to persist with something and question it at the same time.
Did you ever feel at risk of losing the necessary distance to your subject, due to the long shooting period and the intimacy of the studio situation?
I don’t think I ever lost the necessary distance. I never knew when and how things would progress. The only way I could find out when the paintings were finished was to keep going back to the studio. So I was always in a state of inquisitive suspense that kept me from getting too comfortable.
Did you ever consider doing conventional interviews as well?
Initially I told Richter he wouldn’t need to talk at all. I knew he rarely does interviews and he didn’t know me. Then I thought of including people he knows, like Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. I asked questions as they arose out of a situation. Richter never soliloquises; that’s not him. He and his assistants are always provoke active engagement: They’re not giving a speech, they’re speaking to someone. That’s why I left my voice in the film, asking questions.
Your focus does not seem to be on exploring theoretical positions in modern art.
My interest was to show Gerhard Richter at work: How he moves, how he applies paint to canvas, his compelling squeegee technique. The purpose of the film was not to reflect the art historical discourse. It’s not that I didn’t have such concerns in mind, but I didn’t want to use the film to interpret the paintings. Books are a better medium to articulate theoretical positions. And the actual act of painting is hard to describe in words: The way Richter mixes primary colours on the canvas, generating such a complex colour system. How layers are built up and submerged, how sculptural they appear on canvas. The most important thing for me in this film was to show something uniquely visual.
To what degree did that aspect influence the editing?
Initially we assembled long sequences of the genesis of two paintings. We had 80 minutes of the yellow paintings in the rough cut alone, which, of course, had to be condensed. The most important thing was for the viewers to be able to follow the development of the paintings, to shift their focus from the painter to the paintings. You have to allow time for that. We also included archive material from a 1960s interview. It shows that Gerhard Richter has always taken a very considered approach to speaking about his art.
How did Richter react to the finished film? Had he seen rough cuts?
We had agreed that he would vet the film before its release – that goes without saying. You are really asking a lot of someone when you feature them in a documentary. But he wasn’t in on the editing process. He first saw the film shortly before its completion. He viewed it with great interest and did not suggest any changes.