a film by
    Ulrike OTTINGER


Cinema of attractions
Interview with the director

With PRATER, you take a leap from the cinema of stations to the cinema of attractions: In your previous films, the alternation of standstill and motion was a structuring element, but now your journeys no longer take the viewer to China, Russia, or the labyrinthine underworld of Berlin. Instead, everything plays out in a single place - the Prater in Vienna. What fascinated you so much about this site?

What you call a leap is for me a balancing act connecting things. And to stick to Prater terminology, these tricks of creating relationships between things that on a first, superficial glance don't seem to have anything to do with each other are my specialty. The Prater's visitors, too, follow a dramaturgy of stations, because one wanders as if in a procession from one attraction to another. The Prater is connected with downtown Vienna in a direct line via Praterstrasse. From the Ferris wheel, you can see St. Stephen's Cathedral and vice versa - an image of the connection between sin and penance. And so it is traditional to go directly from one's confirmation in St. Stephen's Cathedral to celebrate in the Prater. Many generations of Austrians followed and still follow this ritual of dual initiation.

Although the Prater is in direct proximity to the downtown area, it is an exterritorial place. Here almost everything is possible. The poor encounter the rich, the country the city, the foreigners the native Viennese. For well-to-do tourists, especially those from India or the Emirates, a visit to the Prater is a "must" on their European tour. Perhaps their new travel guides have copied the old Baedekers, or they have a spe- cial predilection for this kind of amusements.

A few months before his sudden death, Oskar Pastior told me a Prater story that he actually wanted to tell in the film. He traveled with his mother from Romania to Vienna. When they sailed up the Danube back then, people said proudly: "We are traveling to Europe." Oskar Pastior was about 13 at the time; his mother was an enthusiastic Charleston dancer. Stolid Hermannstadt was sometimes a bit too nar- row for her unconventional zest, so she especially enjoyed her rare excursions to the metropolis. They went to the Prater on their first day. Their goal was a funhouse called "Hotel Mysterious". It had stairs with moving steps, carpets in which one sud- denly sank, floorboards that shifted as soon as one set foot on them, and blowers that produced the famous Marilyn effect. So with a pounding heart little Oskar entered the "Hotel Mysterious", this place of sensory deception, with his mother. His mother not only brilliantly mastered all the skill challenges, she also entertained the crowd with Charleston performances, while Oskar stumbled after her like a little oaf. All this could be seen by the crowd standing below, which always gathered to watch people at the funhouse. Their little show was so successful that the owner of the attraction offered the two of them free admission any time they wanted. As the world's oldest amusement park, the Prater was a constant component of a program of amusement and also, in the broadest sense, of culture. The Prater was the model for Coney Island in New York, for Budapest, and also for the old Treptower Park in Berlin, which the emigrants I interviewed for EXILESHANGHAI still waxed enthusiastic about. What's fascinating about this place is how history, the cultural history of amuse- ments, becomes astonishingly visible across classes, social strata, the spirit of the times, fashions, and technological developments and inventions. A250-year histo- ry that began when the former imperial garden and the aristocracy's hunting grounds were opened up to everyone: as a recreational part in the "Green Prater" and as an amusement park in what was called the "Wurstelprater", after "Hanswurst", the tomfool character.

With your film, you recreate an old connection: the amusement park and cinema. Adescendant of one of the Prater dynasties recounts how his forebears discovered the movies as an attraction for the Prater and turned it into a movie house chain. The next stage for the family, after the destruction of the Prater in 1945, was to offer the first bumper cars: a ride. You take the viewer into this world of experience, for example when you mount the camera on the cars and let it shoot into the air with the car, when you trigger visually the physical pleasure of amuse- ment park attractions. What role do enticement and attraction play for you as a director and photographer?

The attractions here are called "illusion businesses", and that's true of cine- ma as well. It too works with the strategy of enticement, to which the viewer must add his own imagination to make it work. With this film in particular I thought anew about the themes of illusion and imagination, imitation and simulation, or techniques of simulation. Early cinema was a cinema of attractions, and it was born in the trav- eling carnival. It has much more to do with the Siamese twins of illusion and imag- ination than today's cinema does. The latter has become primarily a cinema of sim- ulation, analogous to the arcades whose products are derived from aerospace research and pilot training. The ventriloquist who seems to make his dummy speak is more of an imitator in the old sense, like the animal voice imitators in nomadic or hunting societies. What is illusion? Is it a hobbyhorse with which a child leaps about in a wild gallop? Is it a snow paradise in an air-conditioned mall in the Emirates, where one can climb to a summit or ski with high-tech equipment and clothing? Is it space travel, a flight in a fighter jet, a racing boat, or a ride on a motorcycle with the aid of new simula- tion technologies? Does this originate in the wish to create something one would like to have but, because of cost or for other reasons, doesn't have? The old amusement parks were able to fulfill people's wishes in an imaginative theater of illusion or imitation. The desire for a trip around the world was satisfied in elaborate panoramas through which one rode in fantastically illuminated scenes. At the World's Fair, one could stroll on an afternoon from Constantinople through Cairo to Kyoto and take a detour through New York or Sydney on the way back. In the wax museum, one could stand eye to eye with the great figures of the world, satisfy one's desire for sensations with a delicious shudder vis--vis a notorious murderer, and view the disreputable with a good conscience under the mantle of education.

Interesting for my image composition was the possibility of using attractions like Starflyer, a huge merry-go-round; Super-8 Bahn, a roller coaster; the Blumenrad Ferris wheel; the haunted house; or the giant Ferris wheel for tracking shots. The effect is that of extremely elaborate tracking shots. And of course they are difficult in terms of securing the camera, because you are dealing with tremendous cen- trifugal force. For camera motion, I used only these trackings; that was my aesthet- ic principle. Otherwise I used a tripod, especially for the Prater architecture, and a few hand-held camera scenes with people I spontaneously followed. Acamera was mounted in the Ejection Seat, an extreme catapult attraction that flings those who dare ride it into the sky; the camera was connected to a monitor for spectators. People always gathered around it, fascinated by the cries of fear or pleasure. Later a video recording of this flight through the air could be bought. I used this possibil- ity and connected our little HDV - and so we were there, "live".

There is another aspect of enticement when Veruschka von Lehndorff, who played Dorian Gray in one of your earlier films, forgets the world around her while engrossed in playing with the distorting mirrors. The viewer sinks with her into these visual experiments. Not only does Veruschka appear again, we also see excerpts from FREAKORLANDO, which tells the world history of freaks in five acts. To what degree do the cinematic possibilities, the play with illusion that your theme permits you, have to do with your earlier films?

The mirror, but even more so the distorting mirror, has great significance for me. It appears in most of my films, especially in the Berlin Trilogy. I have executed thousands of photo studies with Tabea Blumenschein, Magdalena Montezuma, and also some with Veruschka from the early 1970s to today. It is a disturbing or grotesque, sometimes also funny and very expressive image for distortion, trans- position, metamorphosis, transition, or fusion. DORIANGRAYINTHEMIRROROFTHE YELLOWPRESSwith Veruschka as Dorian Gray operates intensely with these possi- bilities. InTICKETOFNORETURNwith Tabea Blumenschein, mirror images dissolve when they are splashed with liquids. In FREAKORLANDO, metamorphosis is the means of alienation. In this connection, it startlingly occurs to me how, on my first trip to India, at the foot of temple stairways or in interior courtyards, I encountered beggars, lepers, or people deformed by elephantiasis - like those I had staged a year earlier in the medieval episode of FREAKORLANDO. It is a fright when your own world of images encounters reality. When I was making FREAKORLANDO, from 1980 to 1981, beggars were not such a familiar daily sight as they are today, when in par- ticular poor people from southeastern Europe kneel with folded hands on every cor- ner, the way representations of benefactors are seen in the lower margin of old pic- tures as part of the scenery.

Your films were always world theater: in the documentary films like CHINA - THEARTS, THEPEOPLE, in which the picture frame gives reality a stage space, as well as in your feature films, which are full of artificial figures surrounded by an opu- lent, often stagelike setting. In PRATER, too, the fictional, sometimes very artificial aspects stand beside several documentary scenes: you observe a group of young people testing their strength with the hammer and bell; a lonely woman sinks as if into a trance alone on the dance floor in the evening; an Indian family disguises itself before the camera for a photo. Fiction and documentation are closely inter- woven.

Yes, like in all of my films. The fiction comes frighteningly close to reality, and reality is a construction, sometimes an illusion.

Veruschka appears as Barbarella, i.e., as an artificial figure, who visits the Prater and thereby takes us by the hand for a short time. In another episode, Elfriede Jelinek, a representative of literature as a site of fiction, takes us through the Prater. The voice-over is a mixture of reportage and fairytale, spoken by actor Peter Fitz. What role do these figures play for you in a documentary film?

The Prater is a time machine. That's why, in addition to my new footage, I also worked with all kinds of quotations. Veruschka as Barbarella or as an evil Barbie doll is also a quotation. Elfriede Jelinek wrote a personal and simultaneously analytical text for the film. She reads this carefully worded text with its complex meaning. So she quotes herself. The film is self-referential, with documentary and feature film excerpts from the turn of the century to the 1960s. From an incredible wealth of great literature, I quote Elias Canetti, Felix Salten, and an unpublished typescript by Erich Kstner. Among the many photographic documents, Emil Mayer is especially remarkable. He captured the Prater in photographs from the turn of the century until the 1930s, with a predilection for the viewers' observations. Music from mechanical music automats, fair organs, orchestrions, pianolas, punchcards, mechanical dolls, music boxes, and the catchy tunes of the various periods are all quoted. These quo- tations, in combination with the new images, not only display history, they also form an amalgamation that clearly makes visible an astonishingly constant structure of amusements through time.

The Prater is a leisure amusement for the masses, and at the same time an image of social structures: during the day it is open for families with children, in the evening for adults, couples, groups, and at all times for young people. And yet the theme of loneliness also emerges in your film: Veruschka in the hall of mirrors, a woman's genuine fear in the ejection seat just before her flight, the woman danc- ing alone, and even the solitary camera that observes the group of young people. What function does the Prater have as a social site?

Like EXILE SHANGHAI before it, PRATER too reports on a site that is exterritorial. These places are miniature models of the world. Just as Shanghai of the 1930s and 1940s focused the global political situation as with a magnifying glass, because all the parties involved in World War II, on both sides, were present in Shanghai. Colonialism was slowly coming to an end, an incredible spectrum of Chinese reform movements was virulent, and the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek battled the Maoists. All the precarious social and political banana peels were present in one place, and everyone slipped on them. The Prater is also a model that is subject to changes in time, fashions, and technology. The developments toward an urban society and then a global village with its changed living conditions are especially legible in the Prater. What the spirit of the time finds attractive is offered. The enthu- siasm for outer space brought the Ejection Seat, the Mozart Year brought the Mozart Flip, the hand-operated carousel developed into high-tech centrifugal attrac- tions. Tests with astronauts designed to determine their resilience and limits under acceleration or extreme braking brought the Prater the newest extreme attractions.

You do not travel to exotic worlds with this film. But the faraway was staged in the Prater, brought close, so to speak. The visitor to the Prater could write postcards from Little Venice to those left at home. In 1896, an Ashanti village was reconstructed. Its inhabitants, who were shipped in from Africa, lived there as if in a zoo: the visitor could take part in this Big Brother-type scenario. Over time, the peo- ple on display came into close contact with the Austrians. What is your view of this "openness to the world" that the Prater put on display and that arose from a some- times touristic, sometimes colonialist imagination?

Along with the Ashanti village, there were also Kabyles, Fiji Islanders, Hottentots, Native Americans, and minature cities that the public could view. I think it had to do with an encyclopedic view of the world. At that time, almost all European countries had colonies and among the societies that regarded themselves as "civi- lized", hegemonic thinking was a general consensus. At the same time, there were life-reform movements whose slogan was "back to nature" and that saw their ideal of a "natural life" embodied in these "wild people". There were artists who journeyed to exotic countries, writers or poet-anthropologists, whose work and imagination was greatly influenced by these cultures. The gaze at the anthropological displays was an extremely contradictory one and often characterized by ignorance and unfeelingness toward unfamiliar people and peoples.

In the film TAIGA we hear the following song of the shamans, which could easily stand in the opening credits of PRATER:

Sky above
earth below
See my herd
from the north
See my horses, from the south.
Look, see, come.

P.S.: The film has just been completed. I'm sitting in a Viennese coffeehouse over my third caf au lait answering your questions. Where in Germany is there a public space where one can sit, think, write, and dream so comfortably and undis- turbed and without a hint of pressure to consume?

The questions were asked by Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, January 2007.