Cate Blanchett is every woman in Julian Rosefeldt’s feature film Manifesto, based on the German artist/director’s multi-screen video art installation, a hot ticket back in December where it lived at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan.
A conceptual art piece that features monologues culled from 20th-century declarations by artists about their visions of life and art: You probably don’t expect that to be very cinematic. But when it’s Cate Blanchett in the persona of 13 distinct, charismatic yet generic individuals in different accents and hairstyles, the effect is so hypnotic she nearly pulls you through the screen.
Her characters spout and sometimes rant actual philosophical and artistic declaration. They are the words of artists, architects, dancers and filmmakers, ranging from Karl Marx, Wassily Kandinsky, André Breton, Claes Oldenburg, Sol LeWitt, Werner Herzog and Jim Jarmusch. The artistic movements include the writings of Futurists, Dadaists, Fluxus artists, Suprematists and Situationists. (The last two movements most people, including me, have never heard of).
Because Blanchett is so busy—she’s just wrapped Ocean’s Eight and Thor: Ragnarok, and also just announced she will star in the stage version of All About Eve in London—a major challenge for Rosefeldt’s team was that they only had 11 days to shoot with her, all in Berlin and its environs. Sometimes, for organizational reasons, they covered two roles in a day, which meant additional costumes and makeup changes for the star.
Some of the scenes are shot in desolate industrial spaces evoking a not-so-distant dystopia. The movie opens with three old women setting off fireworks. Then an unrecognizable Blanchett, as a homeless man in sooty clothes and a scruffy grey beard, traipses across a concrete jungle quoting Marx: “Capitalism, the economic machinery is in decay… Role of the artist is the revolutionary.” Blanchett then transforms into a corporate Wall Street drone in a red wig and dead eyes, reciting from the Futurists: “The suffering of a man is of the same interest to us as the suffering of an electric lamp.”
Featuring 13 vignettes, the 95-minute film concludes with Cate in a school room, quoting Jim Jarmusch to her impassive students: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination… And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.’”
Manifesto is by turns artsy, pretentious, profound and funny. Humor helps, but it’s also eerily prophetic. Rosefeldt’s movie lands itself in a zone between creating art and relating it to today’s political and cultural landscape. He first started shooting the art installation in December 2014. The video installation first opened at the Australian Center for the Moving Image in Melbourne in December 2015 and then moved to Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnof museum in February 2016. The film version of Manifesto first screened at Sundance this year.
Since the art installation’s inception, the political and cultural landscape has shifted seismically. When Blanchett quotes Kazimir Malevich—“art requires truth, not sincerity”—it’s a reminder that art taps into energies of truth. This makes it particularly timely today, as the president, a kind of performance artist himself, creates alternative facts and calls them realities.
Last month Blanchett and Rosefeldt attended the New York premiere of Manifesto at the Tribeca Film Festival. They participated in roundtables and interviews all day, and by the time we spoke to them it was nearly 7 p.m., with the premiere still ahead. They must have been tired, but they gamely spoke to reporters for nearly 25 minutes. Blanchett’s Manifesto characters express themselves loudly and insist on being heard. In person, the actress speaks more softly and has a lot to say. She wore an exquisite suit, almost architectural in structure, that was pastel pink, a color that makes most people look washed out but had the opposite effect on her. Following are highlights from the roundtable.
Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): When you created Manifesto as an art installation, was it also always planned as a film?
Julian Rosefeldt (JR): The reason there is a movie is the simple fact that I needed to finance the installation… I was approached at the same time then by two wonderful women who do art on TV. One is now directing the Munich Film School, and she was collaborating on [Michael] Haneke’s [films]. I asked them if they could help in the financing of the installation and they said yes, they were willing to do that, but they needed a linear version in order to show it on TV. But the basic interest was to work with Cate on the installation, and now I’m very happy we have the film.
Cate Blanchett (CB): And so is the one that’s on the German television the same as this one?
JR: It hasn’t been shown yet.
MM: Cate, to your thinking were you making a film, an installation or both?
CB: It was definitely an installation. It was a 13-channel work that the audience can self-direct. All of the manifestos were abandoned at one particular point and the common points, the points of connection, were made very clear for the viewer because of this pitch, where all of the persona characters, whatever you want to call them, face the audience and intone it. At first I must admit I was a little skeptical of the functional decision of having to make a linear version. But when Julian showed it to me, I could see it had a need to exist in and of itself. And it’s very, very different experience. But also I think it’s a provocation in and of itself to an audience that is used to dealing with a narrative with a first, second and third act. When you see a movie in the cinema, you immediately search for a certain type of meaning, and this really subverts that experience… You have to give over the need to make sense, which is ironic given how much intellectual rigor and application there is to not only the way Julian’s made the work, but to the manifestos themselves.
JR: Adding to what Cate just said, in the art context, you’re ready for any kind of experience. Almost no scandal is possible anymore in the art world, at least not in the Western context. Of course it’s not about scandals, but it’s certainly about encountering something that surprises you. In the movie context it’s all the opposite; you really want the story to be told… That’s the reason we love stories in books and movies. We desperately want stories to be told because we don’t live them ourselves. This filmic version is very experimental, while in the art context it is an almost classic presentation, ably filmed, beautifully shot filmic images. I’m very interested in the mechanics of filmmaking, the myth-making machine that cinema is, and deconstructing it.
MM: How did you decide on each accent and each costume and visual to go with each character?
CB: It was very “night before” random. Because we had to shoot so quickly, there’s obviously an incredible amount of preparation that went into the planning of the work. There was one point when Julian and I were both in New York. We sat down and he’d come up with about 50-60 characters and scenarios. Then we saw which ones would both align and which manifestos would lend themselves more to conversation, to monologue or to an inner monologue. Obviously they all had to be in English because I can’t speak Mandarin, unfortunately, and that might cross a culturally sensitive boundary anyway—but once we found those points of intersection between those three elements, it was like, “OK, why don’t we make this one from here? Why don’t make this one from there?”
JR: Sometimes it was just kind of natural. For the teacher character, it seemed to me we could create a character quite close to Cate herself. So she’s Australian. The stock exchange [scene] of course happens on Wall Street. For the funeral, [we thought] why not have a light Canadian accent? Or the homeless character in Newcastle, and so on? So it kind of evolved organically, although we gave up on many beautiful ideas for scenes. When I’m asked, “Can you tell us about the scenes you didn’t realize,” I have a hard time remembering them all, because once you start doing something you live with what you have. I wanted to do at least 10 [characters]; I asked Cate to do 20, and she said, “Could we do seven or eight?” We ended up doing 13.
CB: But I was frustrated as an actor. There was an exercise in drama school where you did a neutral mask: You tried to get to a point of neutrality from which you could go in any different direction, so that you don’t impose your own energy. You don’t impose your own way of thinking or certain approaches upon on a character, so that the character can be a thing separate from you. I was very frustrated because the inner voice and the connective tissue that’s really clear in the linear version is, “This is my voice. This is my natural accent.” I found that very frustrating. It’s almost like I wanted to make it more neutral, and unfortunately you can never truly eradicate yourself.
MM: In the production notes, it says on certain days you would shoot multiple characters and switch in between them. How challenging was that?
JR: Twice, I think, we had to do that. It was because we had such a short time to shoot this and we were location-jumping for each character so the scenes would consist of seven or eight locations. They’re all in different spots in Berlin… It was a beautiful trip, and we had a lot of fun although all this pressure of time and circumstances. I remember meeting every morning in the make-up wagon with a completely new character and accent, and she was of course already rehearsing the accent. We had about six or seven pairs of different teeth in the film. It was a bit like Alice in Wonderland. From day to day you encounter different worlds, and sometimes you go back to the world that you already encountered. It was very electrifying for the whole team. Sometimes we had only one or two takes. We lost a lot of time in the morning on the funeral scene where DP Christoph Krauss and I wanted to shoot, because we found some beautiful gravestones in the back of the scene. That scene didn’t even make it in the film. Then after the lunch break we just had an hour and a half to shoot the whole thing, and Cate just did it.
CB: In one take.
JR: It just happened. Sometimes the time crunch can be very productive and push you to creativity.
MM: About your singular approach to the characters, did it change from monologue to monologue? How did you adapt to each character?
CB: Having encountered many of the manifestos when I was studying art history at university, I’d sort of had an intellectual, historical response to those… I expected that to be reignited. But given that I was having to make them manifest—to physically manifest the manifestos—the response I had was completely non-intellectual. It was energetic, it was physical. And so I very much saw them not as being characters. This wasn’t a decision I made. It was just something that evolved. It was more about what they did. What was the situation they were in? Often, the way the manifesto was delivered was sort of in a contrapuntal way to the actual meaning of the manifesto, so the content was completely subverted. You were saying something as dialogue that was either nonsensical or completely out of context, and it would never be said as dialogue, so I didn’t have an intellectual response to it at all.
JR: Also they are, as you said, not really characters. There was neither the wish nor the time within the framework of the film—90 minutes and no narrative—to create real characters, so they’re all almost caricatures which together build this portrait of society, these extreme archetypes of society. Some of them are more believable, like the single mother, maybe, or the teacher… others are exaggerated, and all of them use words that sometimes are nonsensical. Sometimes they’re very controversial, but they keep on speaking within the scene with the same attitude… The starting point was to on the one hand [pay] homage these artists as writers and poets, and also to see if their texts could be actually applied or be sensible today in our society. All of a sudden, two years [after the film was made], we as viewers can actually be scared by the texts’ visionary, seismographic energy!