Helena Wittmann’s second feature, Human Flowers of Flesh (2022), sails out to the Mediterranean Sea on a small boat chartered by the stoic, determined Ida (Angeliki Papoulia). The specifics of her crew’s mission are ambiguous, but they are driven by an unequivocal need to search and question; the anthropologist at the heart of Wittmann’s debut feature, Drift (2017), takes to the sea with a similarly all-consuming yearning. To that end, Human Flowers is a powerfully sensory experience, at one point plunging us into a literal deep-sea-dive sequence into the unknown.
Without academic pretensions, the film meditates on the nature of physicality, time, consciousness, and even the porousness of cultural borders; according to Wittmann, the film originated with her futile attempt to make eye contact with a member of the French Foreign Legion at a base in Marseille, which also shapes Ida’s wanderings. Immersions in nature sit alongside quotations from Marguerite Duras or Claire Denis, which delicately expand on the original texts—most spectacularly when the specter of Beau Travail (1999) is invoked by a cameo from Denis Lavant, in character as Galoup. These affective collages are something of an invitation: Wittmann seems to propose that the life of a work of art can only begin when it reaches the viewer, open to its mysteries, willing to traverse its open waters.
Ahead of Wittmann’s retrospective at Metrograph—which includes both features, four of her earlier shorts, and an experimental lecture—I spoke with her via Zoom from her home in Hamburg. We talked about her exploratory spirit, her year-long crash course in cyanotypes, and what we might learn from the “creature” of the sea.—Chloe Lizotte
Human Flowers of Flesh (2022)
CHLOE LIZOTTE: How did you go about crafting Ida’s character in Human Flowers of Flesh? The fact that she’s driven by curiosity is well defined, but any background context is left open to the viewer.
HELENA WITTMANN: Until we were shooting, Ida remained to be found. Many of the other characters were inspired by people I’d met at some point. [But] Ida… It was clear that Ida is a strong woman, but when I was looking for someone to embody that role, I got many suggestions from people, mainly these tough women. I realized, yes, there is a certain concept of “strength,” but it was not what I was looking for, really. When I met Angeliki, I knew. I was not so interested in her as an actress than in her as a person. There was immediately this openness to make this adventure—to go in without really knowing where it would lead, even though there was a script and it was precise. This openness, it was permeable. It’s more by listening and seeing, and having no expectations of the others, and therefore giving them space. It enables a new way of living, of coexistence.
It’s something I don’t see a lot, with men, too, but especially with female characters. So it’s my little utopian moment. She’s not lost; it’s her decision to go [to sea]. When I was writing her, it was like freeing her from all these traps. For example, in the script, it was more defined that Vladimir [Vulevic] would come aboard and follow her. When I was editing, I realized that this was impossible. When you give a hint of some romantic possibility, you want to follow that. But it would limit her freedom. I had to take that out in order to enable something else.
CL: I was struck by the film’s focus on forms of intimacy that are not straightforwardly verbal. You find more expressive ways for the crew to share something personal with each other: sharing a quotation, or the scene where Ida retrieves a piece of coral from a dive and offers it to another crew member.
HW: It’s very close and intimate, all the relations. Especially because there’s not so much need to talk to each other. People give stories to each other, but it’s like a gift that is given. I think the cool thing is: when I read you something, I don’t expect anything back from you, but it’s this moment that we share. There’s something created that is, for me, so tender; it has more to do with generosity.
When you live in such a limited space, there are not so many words needed in daily life. This can be, again, very liberating. It’s not that I have anything against talking, but in this situation gestures have more importance. How you stand, how much space you give to others, how much silence you can feel comfortable with; it’s so much about receiving, listening, and observing. There is so much that enters these bodies, with all the senses. Each of them experiences, in these moments, something very particular, sometimes small. When you really can be in the moment, it’s intimate because you open up; you are in the world. It sounds easy, but it’s not. You have to create these situations.
CL: There’s a stunning interlude that transitions into blue-tinted, cyanotype photography; we see the crew’s routine juxtaposed with images of microscopic organisms. The images have this splotchy, scratched tactility, as though excavated from the sea. How did the idea for this sequence come about?
Human Flowers of Flesh (2022)
HW: This film had a lot to do with matter: the matter of the sea, and all that goes along with it. On the one hand, the sea contains all information on this planet: genetic, microbiological, chemical information and material. But it is also free-floating; it’s not chained to a bodily form. Sometimes I think it is also this big creature, in a way—it’s something else!
Then it was clear that this had to be shot on film. It’s a chemical process, and I wanted to have some coherence in that, [but also] embrace its randomness. The grains are always different sizes; they are never the same, and it’s vivid. The camera also moves the image, it’s 16mm, so it’s never super stable. It seemed more organic. Life is not so clean, so I wanted to avoid this pureness. Then I went on thinking, going into these different spheres. When I got to the plants, the first cyanotypes I saw were by [the 19th-century botanist] Anna Atkins. She developed this process to perfection. When I saw these images, it was crazy how much it related to an underwater world because of the color, but also because of the abstraction.
Early on, I had this idea to transfer this process onto blank film, but I had to find the process myself. I found manuals, people doing it on glass; I thought, “Okay, if you can do it on glass, you can also do it on plastic.” I had to experiment a lot, with gelatin and different temperatures. It took me one year—not every day, but I was working on it constantly. In the meantime, I had finished editing the film. I had been using this placeholder [version of] the same scene. Then I finished the real cyanotypes and put them in—I thought it would not change anything, but it was, like, a bomb! It didn’t work—it was so vibrant, and so much was going on. I was talking to Nika [Son, Wittmann’s frequent sound designer], and she said, “I’ll work on the sound; let’s try to find a way.” And she did, she rescued that.
The solution [had to do with] the two spaces we have in these images. On one hand, you have the scenes that you see: Ida taking a shower, for example. Then you have the materiality of the film, which is like another story. In the sound, we have these two spaces at the same time, these very concrete, very close sounds, and this wide space behind it, which then drops it somewhere else. In the film, before we get to the cyanotype sequence, you see Vladimir waiting for the cyanotypes to be developed in the sun. Then it flips: what we see in the film becomes the carrier, the medium itself.
CL: In your earlier feature Drift, the shots of the sea are quite precise; there’s something complex about the play with perspective, the shifting light. Did you always have a clear sense of how you wanted that to look and feel, or was it more trial and error experimentation along the way?
HW: From the beginning, I had this desire to have a long sea sequence where the sea becomes a character. But I didn’t know if this could ever work. Often in my films, there’s a strong notion that if it works, it could be very interesting, but it’s risky. I wanted to observe as much as possible and try to understand the ocean as a space, in the most concrete way, without metaphors, without all of these projections. We are here, land is far—what does it mean? What is it? I had never been on the open sea until then, so I didn’t know, but I wanted to find out.
We had 15 days, and I realized I had to make some decisions very quickly for the form. On the second day, I made the decision to only film from the tripod, because the boat was already transmitting the movement. And then, moving on this boat, and as you said, understanding what happens with these different perspectives, both to an image and to the movement—and to the rhythm, that was amazing. I was a little addicted. Everything was ever-shifting from one second to the other—but when do I make the decision to film? Editing was the most complicated part. There are so many different movements in one shot. You have these deep dunes, then you have the boat, the light, the smaller ones. You’re watching and watching and watching, and thinking, “Okay, maybe this might work with this,” and “Why do we make this decision for this shot?” It’s not so easy to analyze with language, but then it’s so concrete. It’s pretty astonishing.
CL: Many of your short films are set in apartments, which are temporary spaces by design. In Ada Kaleh (2018) people are on the verge of moving out, or in 21.3°C (2014), in the fixed frame, you sense the small changes in light over time, and hear other worlds in offscreen spaces. I was wondering if you could speak to this idea of liminality, or transience, that’s present in your work. Why do you think you’re drawn to film to explore this?
I wanted to try to understand the ocean as a space, in the most concrete way, without metaphors, without all of these projections. We are here, land is far—what does it mean?
HW: Film includes so many forms of registration. You almost have to be more precise because you’re handling something so concrete. It’s nothing like how when you’re reading, you read slower or you read it again. I like to be forced to be clear, and also to ask what is really important. I share this with Nika when we start working on the first draft of the sound. It’s quite big—thinking about something, laying it out—then we start reducing, reducing, reducing… until it’s the subtlest possible.
Maybe it’s this moment of very deep concentration. It’s something I enjoy so much while making a film. In 21.3°C, it’s just this apartment, and this view out of the window. It’s simple. Then when you work on it, you realize that it’s not simple at all. But that’s great! You have to work on it and make so many decisions, even though it’s one fixed frame. I was also looking for this reduction in narration. For me, it’s not a structural film, it still has a narration. It’s not mathematical; each shot has a different duration, even the [blackouts]. To find out how, and why, and what it does—that’s what I’m curious about.
Maybe it gets to Human Flowers of Flesh: different perceptions of time, this decentralization. Even though we are in one apartment, you can never really orientate yourself. Things intermingle. You have more layers.
CL: Especially there, with the temporal layers—a moment in time can almost feel like a trance. Toward the end of Human Flowers of Flesh, Denis Lavant, as Galoup, suddenly turns around to face Ida, and it feels like being woken from a dream. I’m always aware of those transitional moments in concentration in your films: the way that attention snaps or is held.
HW: Yeah! For example, in 21.3° Celsius, there’s this moment where the flower falls. It’s nothing, of course—it’s just a flower, it moves a little bit—but I call it “the action scene.” And then, in Human Flowers of Flesh, there’s this thing where Galoup seems so rigid, his belief in being so disciplined. In the film we see very different bodies: they are lying down, horizontal, very soft, so it’s a completely different physicality. And then we have the city [of Marseille], with more graphic shots. Again: how to find this; how to underline an important moment, but not make it too explicit, with just a few choices.
CL: Do you feel like your relationship with this film changes as you share it with different audiences?
HW: My relationship doesn’t change but I always get new perspectives. People relate to the film in different ways: what they pick out, or what moves them. For example, there was one woman who found [Human Flowers] unsettling, that all of these characters had left something behind. I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Then I understood; I have this structure where we’re always in the moment: the past is blurry, or is not of so much importance. For me, this liberates something toward what is about to come.
Chloe Lizotte is the managing editor of MUBI’s online publication Notebook. She writes on film, new media, and comedy for Reverse Shot, Vulture, and other outlets.