Susan Chales de Beaulieu: It has been said that your films are closer to music than to literature and art. Do you agree?
Werner Penzel: Perhaps insofar as music places the irrational on an equal level with the intentional. . .
Nicolas Humbert: Or one goes for certain images, not because of the images themselves but because one hears the music inside them. I believe that pictures in their very essence are connected to music.
WP: The way we cut is closer to music composition than to writing a story. It's more to do with time and rhythm, sudden breaks and pauses.
SdB: It seemed to me that Middle of the Moment makes a film out of many stories, whose endings were left untold.
NH: At the beginning we tried via montage to bring each story to its conclusion, but this hindered the flow of the film as a whole. It was the film itself which showed us that the volatility already lies in the subject matter and that this must be transferred to the structure. So there was a recurring conflict between our intentions and the film itself. It began to take on a life of its own, with its own persistence and tempo. We all tend to want to get things finished, to reach a conclusion, complete the circle. The material showed this over and over again. As things progressed, it became clearer that the film itself had to search for and collect the material, as we were doing. I suppose that's the reason for the many sudden cuts in the film, despite the relative length of most of the shots. Watching it, you keep being pushed away from a picture just as you've settled down. That's where form and subject have grown together. The film freed itself in the montage of the expectations we had of it. The conclusion of a story is obviously closely related to settling down in a place. This settling down is an impossibility. Even when you live in one particular place. And paradoxically nomads have very close ties to places, but when they leave, nothing is left to show they've been there. When all traces have been removed, the place itself vanishes, and so becomes accessible to the next person. The territory creates itself anew each time, and vanishes again. It's almost instinctive. . . All this is perhaps connected to the fact that in a sense the episodes don't have endings.
WP: It's like the way our characters tend to linear thinking, which influenced our methods and stories. Instead of moving from here to there, as we would naturally do, we came closer and closer during the cutting to a circular movement. Just as the nomads don't go from A to B, but move in a circular way through the cycle of the seasons. In this great circle, as in life, there are lots of smaller circles, whirlpools which pull you one way and another.
SdB: It sounds as if you began with a clear idea of what this film should become for you.
WP: There are always different ways to achieve what you want to do. You enter a process which is constantly changing. Even though the film is finished now, it's still changing, because it changes within you, the viewer. That's what one hopes more than anything, that the film isn't rigid, closed up, but rather sets in motion something in you and leads somewhere else. Film actually has a lot more to do with hypnosis and dream than with storytelling. If you see the film two or three times, you'll find lots of different things in it, depending on where you yourself are at that time. Like a magic carpet.
NH: I think at some point you have to stop asking yourself questions in this film.
WP: At least, normal ones. The best thing is if you start asking yourself other questions. If you can free yourself, while seeing and listening, from the desire to know where you are and what you're supposed to look for there, then you can start discovering something else. Something which lies behind the film and at the same time in yourself. The pictures serve as a vehicle for the inner journey. So just as the real journey which we set off on was something which changed us radically, so the pictures experienced in the cinemas are basically the door to your own inner pictures. Instead of asking, 'What sort of story am I being told?' the question becomes, 'What is really going on in my life?'
SdB: I remember very clearly waiting for the camel to be born and the accompanying dialogue--that soon something is going to happen but they have no idea what. And I remember the old man who talks about how spirits attack him in the night and want to kidnap him. That clearly embodies the way in which possibilities are given scope, as far as I can interpret it.
NH: Moving around with people who are constantly on the move, you learn that nothing is fixed, in the way we know it. The space is open, and anything can happen, though there's a great security in it for people who live with this vagueness. To deal with such open situations, in which at first everything seems possible, was an enormous learning process for us while making the film. You become more flexible, you can react to what's happening, and you try less hard to realize your plans. For example, we really did wait a long time for the camel to be born. When the moon was full we were sure it would happen that night. But it simply came when it was ready--flung at last into the hot sun in the boiling midday heat, exactly when we didn't think it would arrive. Whereas the Tuaregs had predicted the birth for each day as it came, and didn't try to fix a date. And then it was all over in a quarter of an hour. What you see in the film, that's more or less real time.
SdB: Then it was born, and straightway it began to walk, forced to move, because movement is obviously a matter of survival. Was the idea of movement as survival so clear to you at the time?
NP: The young camel has to stand within a day, otherwise its life is in danger, so you understand the apparent roughness with which it's forced to support itself on its own feet. At the same time, you can see the attachment people have to what's around them--and the security of their contact with it. In this, people and animals are very close. That really moved us. There's something similar in the scene with the Greek shepherd who gives his horse water to drink--the harmonious choreography between animals and people. You sense at moments like those how far away we are in our own culture from what surrounds us in our lives. And the film's about that, too. That is, something that's really there, not in our ideas. It's there and we live it. It's not extinguished and it can't be extinguished. Perhaps in that lies the hope which this film contains for us.
SdB: To be in the middle of the moment--what do the words evoke for you? Do they contain the feeling that a moment flies past, is almost impossible to grasp, yet resonates and appears in new forms?
WP: The title really describes something impossible. The middle of a moment--where would that be? You might think the moment is something static, something you could hold on to, something which we could avail ourselves of. But that isn't true. The moment is something constantly flying past, like a film. You can't stop the film, you see the picture and it's already gone. If you try to force the moment into an understanding, you'll just be behind it always, and not understand it. People usually try to explain everything to themselves, so as to be on the safe side of life, as if you could eliminate death by explaining life. That's why the film is sustained so fundamentally by the unexplained.
NH: And film is of course a glorious invitation to a consciousness of the moment. You're freed from everything around you, and hopefully can really give yourself to the moment, understand its transience. Perhaps that's truly home, if there's such a thing: it's not places you return to but this feeling, this awareness of the moment, this resting in a feeling of the world and of yourself. Maybe that's the nomads' home. And that's hugely utopian: to be able to release Home from all ideas of territory or ownership and still not to be lost, but basically always to have your home where you are.
SdB: Yes, and the sand, which was wiped clean of all traces, seemed to me to be like the connection between us and the world.
NH: We can clearly see here the fateful thinking of our own culture--and that concerns us too, as filmmakers--which is that as a person you are valuable only when you manifest yourself, when you leave behind a lasting sign. Something which is continuing and a reminder of yourself, the crude attempt to approach immortality. And of course that is doomed to fail.
WP: The immutable fact of your own finiteness, your own disappearance, can in fact be very liberating. Faced with the inevitability of your own death, quite a lot of what you consider important becomes irrelevant, a tiny passing moment can be extremely intense. To experience this is a great gift. . .
NH: And to know that at the same time in this transience the huge circle keeps turning. When you get to the end of the film, and the tent is taken down in the drizzling rain, you've basically gone back to the beginning again. It snows, and the journey goes on. The individual disappears, but all around him moves a much bigger circle which keeps on turning.
WP: Film is basically a very technical thing which demands very clear, practical, good sense, so you can operate the complicated film equipment. And at the same time something happens which is beyond this control and which is, actually, what you're looking for: something quite opposite to the equipment, because it's made up of thousands of small things which happen every moment. Sometimes one flows into the moment, becomes a part of it, which is noticeable in the pictures. And it's just as noticeable when one's not a part of it. Then one's a stranger in the situation. Achieving balance is what makes the work so fascinating. Not to say, 'We want to control everything, it has to look like this', but rather to leave the door open for everything that might happen unintentionally and which is possibly closer to the essence of things than something constructed. Film as a window into your own imagination, your own life--the same way that later an interaction is needed between audience and film, so that the true film emerges between the screen and the audience. And that is again something other than what can be seen on the surface of the pictures.
Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews