Gerhard Richter Painting
Did Richter have any personal objective in making the film?
I think it was more about finding out whether a film could work at all; about asking: “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, later shown at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York. It’s difficult to recall every stage in the making of his paintings, because they are so extremely complex.
Was it clear from the outset that you would film him during the production of those paintings?
I started shooting outside the studio: a site visit at Museum Ludwig before his exhibition 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, but I was not at all certain it would be possible. His assistants occasionally discussed it with him, but I didn’t know when he was going to start a major new series. In the end, I waited one and a half years. In March 2009, I met him by chance at a private viewing 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 was any doubt about his willingness to have us there, we wouldn’t have felt like we belonged. 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 arrangements about the details of your shoot in advance?
We planned from one day to the next, shooting for two to four hours at a time. I said from the beginning that I wanted to keep the crew to a minimum. The very first time we shot in the studio, there were only two of us. During the second period of filming, Richter turned me me spontaneously, and a conversation began. There was a fine balance between watching and talking.
When did you come up with the idea to install a camera in the studio?
I had the idea straight away. For a while, we even thought about trying to make do with just that camera in order to avoid distracting him. We considering installing a camera he could adjust to suit himself, but he usually works on several paintings simultaneously. So how do you maintain continuity? The canvases change so quickly, sometimes beyond recognition within a morning. We had to be really careful to ensure that every close-up of a specific stage of work had 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 to me. There’s physicality to these pictures, because he really works the paint on the canvas; the layers and movement of color 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.
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 panting and thought: “It’s 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.
You mentioned the scene where Richter 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 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. He is able to overcome a lack of enthusiasm once he’s set his mind on something. His skepticism is part of the overall dynamic of the situation: by articulating doubt he is upholding the continuity of the collaboration. He 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 that he wouldn’t need to talk at all. I knew he rarely does interviews, and he didn’t even 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 soliloquizes; that’s not him. He and his assistants are always provoking active engagement. They’re not giving a speech, they’re speaking to someone. That’s why I left my own 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 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 for articulating theoretical positions. And the actual act of painting is hard to describe in words — especially the way Richter mixes primary colors on the canvas, generating such a complex system. The way layers are built up and submerged, and how sculptural they appear on canvas. The most important thing for me in this film was to show something uniquely visual.
To what approach 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 viewer to be able to follow the development of the paintings, to shift focus from the painter to the paintings. You have to allow time for that. We also included archive material from a 1960s interview, which shows that 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.