Viaggio in Italia has been criticised a lot, but you have said very little about it. What do you think of it now?
I have hardly ever talked about it – what is there to say? You can’t go around defending yourself, though if you could that would have been the time to do it, because the critics were so aggressive… But you see, this is a job in which you have to take all kinds of risks.
What was the meaning of the finale? Many people thought – wrongly I believe – that it was mystical.
Look, it’s difficult to remember these things ten years later – they’re all water under the bridge now, and once things are over and done with you have to forget about them. That ﬁnale – there was a lot of argument about it, but I thought it was really simple. There were these two great big ﬁgures with a lot of little ﬁgures around them, all of them smaller still because they were kneeling down. What the finale shows is sudden, total isolation. You could say ‘ it’s not clear ’ – I remember at the time they said things to me like, ‘ well there you should have had a long shot showing such and such…’ But I didn’t want a long shot in it. You see, these things are implicit. Unfortunately it’s not as if every act of our lives is based on reason. I think everyone acts under the impulse of the emotions as much as under the impulse of intelligence. There’s always an element of chance in life – this is just what gives life its beauty and fascination. There’s no point in trying to theorise it all. It struck me that the only way a rapprochement could come about was through the couple ﬁnding themselves complete strangers to everyone else. You feel a terrible stranger in every way when you find yourself alone in a sea of people of a different height. It’s as if you were naked. It’s logical that someone who finds himself naked should try to cover himself up.
So is it a false happy ending?
It is a very bitter film basically. The couple take refuge in each other in the same way as people cover themselves when they’re seen naked, grabbing a towel, drawing closer to the person with them, and covering themselves any old how. This is the meaning the ﬁnale was meant to have.
Perhaps I was wrong not to make it completely obvious, to show it as a discovery. But that wouldn’t suit me. I think it is a fairly normal thing in modern society that many marriages are limited companies under another name. People get married because one of them has a job to do, the other has a number of connections, so the wife acts as a public relations officer while the husband is an economics ofﬁcial, to describe it in terms of actual jobs. There is more to life than that. And the couple in Viaggio in Italia are that kind of couple – people who have nothing to say to each other outside of their work, their job, their daily routine. A vacation, more than anything else, is the death of them. Owning a lovely villa in one of the most beautiful places in the world counts for nothing, because they no longer know what to say to each other: if they don’t talk about quotations on the stock exchange or making this or that deal, their relationship is ﬁnished.
The film reveals their secret feelings…
Yes, but it shows Italy as well, which is also a feeling, and an important one at that – Katherine looks at all the documentary stuff and scarcely sees it. It’s a different kind of life, a different ethnic group – there’s an ethnographic encounter too…
You know that many people took the miraculous ending as the dramatic centre-piece?
But it’s scarcely there – there is a miracle, but there’s confusion and hysteria surrounding it. In fact it’s also a human sign, a sign of good faith. What do these two characters aspire to be? Banal as they are, they want to be perfectly rational beings. They’re not geniuses, but the most ‘normal’ beings you can imagine. They are rational because their life is based on things they have to believe in at any cost.
The woman is always quoting a so-called poet who describes Italy as a country of death – imagine, Italy a country of death! Death doesn’t exist here, because – it’s so much a living thing that they put garlands on the heads of dead men. There is a different meaning to things here. To them death has an archaeological meaning, to us it is a living reality. It’s a different kind of civilisation.
The ending of Stromboli has also been criticised a lot.
And for the same reasons as Viaggio in Italia. A woman who has been through the war, through both collaborationism and the concentration camps, and has been clever enough to find all the right answers, comes to a point where she finds herself lost in a maze. What she does is to sit down and cry like a child, and it’s the only sane thing left she could do, the only tiny spark of something human and alive. If a child is crying, if he’s banged his foot. He makes just the same noise – ‘Oh mummy’, ‘Oh God’ – it sounds just the same.
Doesn’t the ending of Vanina Vanini depend on the same kind of fear, on not knowing what to do?
Vanina Vanini has a different setting. It’s a different moment in time. There’s more mysticism. There’s a certain element of mysticism in all of us. The most atheistic man on the face of the earth ﬁnds some reason for transcending himself, even in his atheism. These things too are a part of man.
In your view, is Karin leaving or going back?
I don’t know. That would be the beginning of another film. The only hope for Karin is to have a human attitude towards something, at least once. The greatest monster has some humanity in him. In Monsier Verdoux, when he is about to go to the guillotine, they offer him a drink and he refuses it. But before he is marched off he needs to screw up his courage, so he takes the glass, sips at it and is off: and then he feels the taste of it, turns back and drains the glass – and then away he goes to have his head cut off. It shows an extraordinary human side of him. There is a turning point in every human experience in life – which isn’t the end of the experience or of the man, but a turning point. My finales are turning points. Then it begins again – but as for what it is that begins. I don’t know. I’ll tell that another time, if it has to be told. If things haven’t happened there’s no point in going on and getting involved in another story.
What do you think of the cinema today?
I’m not interested in the cinema as such. You can’t proceed by allusions. So much is now urgent in life that it’s useless just to allude to things. The arguments have to be explicit now. We have to have the courage to admit that in the past hundred years all art has been reduced to complaints. An artist is lesser or greater depending on how much he complains. They call it protest (denoncia). The fact is that it’s complaining, because if it was protest it would be carried out differently, more aggressively, and what’s more, if you become aware that something’s wrong, you have to be prepared to break away from it and put it right. But this eternal moaning and protesting about how much is wrong is something quite different. Anyway it’s not true that everything is wrong, some things are and some things aren’t. The fact is that the main reason for things being wrong is that men are incapable of living the lives they have made for themselves. Real alienation, in the strict sense of being alien to something, is when man feels alienated from his own life. Unhappily today life is very complicated, and to understand it you would need to make an enormous effort, and above all get down to studying it. And because there’s more and more idleness in the world this is never done, and so there comes a point when you are living only on feelings and sentiments, and you moan about it. I agree that there are a lot of people with cause for complaint, but on the other hand there must be many who don’t complain. Complaint, as a rather irrational attitude, doesn’t seem to me to get you anywhere, when you have extremely concrete things to struggle for. The concrete things inlife are pushed aside at every point. We know nothing of them because we don’t get down to examining these problems.
Don’t you think that Viaggio in Italia was a film on alienation ante litteram?
Yes, it was about alienation. But that’s why I say that I don’t even like my own films, because when I began to make that kind of film it was of course in a search for an orientation, but when you realise that everyone has the same orientation, or is engaged in the same search, it becomes an attitude, an attitude of complaint.
But neither Viaggio in Italia nor for example Europa ’51 are complaining films. And they were made ten years earlier…
That’s just the problem – I feel a great responsibility for it. Everyone else has gone the same way since. How can you justify the attitude of art in general today? Leaving aside the cinema, look at painting, which is so obviously an art. Look at the deformation that has taken place there. It’s not just breaking away from formulae, it’s not just a revolutionary movement. It was, but it’s gradually become a kind of escape, a refusal to look at the world. It’s a dramatic change. Now, the world has a right to expect something of intellectuals, and artists in particular. If the artist can’t in some sense act as a guide to point the way, if he is unable to take his bearings and say, ‘today, at this point in time, these are our horizons’, then the function of the artist disappears. For the artist to be an artist only for himself may be very pleasant indeed, but from a social point of view it offers us nothing. It’s useless to go and see an artist’s work so that you can say, ‘Look, how interesting, this man feels so rootless and alienated…’ You can go and look at such phenomena if you want: if you are really interested go and visit a mental hospital. You’ll ﬁnd much more interesting and important cases there, things you’d never imagined.
What you’re saying is that the artist should have a realistic outlook.
Yes. He should be aware of the world he is living in. I think the artist has a very deﬁnite function in this world – it is to clarify things. When culture involved little knowledge, even if it was of an elevated kind – as in Greek thought, classical history and mythology, and the Bible, artists gave of themselves as much as they could, they brought this knowledge to life and made it comprehensible to everyone: it was their civilisation. But tell me, does modem art try to concern itself with everyday things like the motor-car? The movement of art knows no repetitions: this is why I have had to take my distance from that world, why I could only remain a part of it by working in a completely different way. If you make a change it must be a total change. In a period like this there are facts that only the sciences of biology, physiography and demography can supply. Men have taken a billion years to become three billion. In thirty-ﬁve years, in the year 2000, they will be six billion, if mankind goes on reproducing at the present rate – these are amazing facts. What does anything else matter? Men must be strong enough to come to terms with this fact. It arises from their conquests in the ﬁelds of medicine, food production, science and technology. The result of affluence has been that life expectation has risen from 27 to 66-67 years. Alexander the Great was a little boy who would have been soundly spanked today if he tried to do what he did then. Now the world is inhabited mainly by old people, because life is longer. These are the facts: once you become aware of them, there must be some artistic response, and it may be genuine and capable of making such an impression that everyone will be made more sensitive to these great problems. In a very few years, if these things aren’t put right – and however much people complain they aren’t being put right – the time will come when hordes of men will come like locusts to eat us because we have more food than they, or we will be going to kill them because they have taken the food out of our mouths. Well, this is not much of a prospect for homo sapiens, and for good or evil we belong to the species of homo sapiens. We have to ﬁnd out whether we are ‘sapientes’ or not: at least we should try to be ‘sapientes’.
What do you think of improvisation?
If the ideas are good you can allow yourself the luxury of any improvisation. When you come to make a film and it has to be specially striking, when it needs an air of authenticity which it couldn’t have if it was premeditated. Then improvisation comes in, but it must be the improvisation of civilised man, not of the savage.
I think that is what you said about Jean Rouch’s La Punition.
And was Viaggio in Italia improvised?
We never knew one day what we’d be doing the next. Things came together on the spot – there’s a certain logic to things that can’t be calculated in advance. You’re on the set, you have the scene and the actors, and they dictate the course you have to follow, they almost give you the characters themselves. But this doesn’t mean you stand there and toss a coin to find out which way to film.
Europa ’51 is a typical example of ‘character-experience’.
All my films are. I advocated this so much in France, where I have always spent a lot of time; and the young directors, there, who were emerging in the right atmosphere and had had the right kind of education for it, caught on to it at once.
Do these ideas still hold for you?
Yes, but they still belong to the ‘complaining’ school, and this gives me a horror of them. These feelings crystallised in me in the period of ’53-55, the period of Viaggio in Italia and La Paura, when the word ‘denunciation’ was being bandied about so much. That was what made me think. What use is ‘denunciation’? It’s of some use if you have a very definite philosophy and want to carry out a very definite action. If you want to do something useful, you have to be aware of all sides of the problem, and therefore of the positive sides as well as the negative. You have to go back to Jules Verne to find the positive side. The great turning-point of the industrial revolution, a transformation involving so much social injustice, and so many ideas which are now strongly denounced, came about from the moment that man developed science and put it into practice with technical means unthought of before. This was the biggest discovery of all. Man had been a slave: energy had always been supplied by men, with some help from the animals, and then from windmills and watermills: but this was a great advance. Now energy, steam energy and electrical energy, were invented. It was a fantastic advance, introducing a completely new dimension into men’s lives, and transforming their prospects. Prometheus’s discovery of fire, which had begun it all, has been sung by thousands of poets, good and bad, and depicted by thousands of painters and sculptors. But who has tried to describe anything of what has happened this time?
It is an extraordinarily uplifting experience to seize something from nature and make a tool of it. It’s out of proportion to complain because of course energy had made it possible to have factories, and factories have brought machines to make things that are quite useless, or of relatively little use; and that man is somehow subjected to these things… It’s of course quite right that there should be protests, but what I don’t understand is that people have nothing else to say. Knowledge is the most human thing there is, nothing is more human than to know things, and we no longer know anything – I think that’s a basic fact of our life today.
Where does your return to history fit into all this?
Why is there nothing but protest today, if not because we have forgotten everything that went before? To put things to rights you have to put history to rights too. L’età del ferro shows history in this way.
You show history but in the present tense rather than in a historiographical perspective.
History has been written, in all good faith, in order to educate. Education is both a beautiful and an ugly word. It comes from ‘ducere’, to lead – in other words to grab someone by the scruff of the neck and drag him off wherever you please. This is how many of our history text books are written. At one time, for example, it was necessary to uphold the monarchy, and everything was done to that end. Propaganda isn’t an invention of this century by any means. It’s because we can see this today that it’s possible to try to re-write some parts of history in a way that’s much closer to the truth. Mommsen wrote his histories, which are a storehouse of knowledge, to show that the Germans were the only real Aryans in Europe. One person comes out with an idea which looks original – or even is original – and everyone buzzes round it like bees around a hive. And then it gets hacked about and falsiﬁed, and that’s how so many mistakes arise. So even to look at or re-examine history is something of the greatest importance. What we should go back to history for is to re-discover man, and man at his humblest at that. What do the exceptional men matter to us? I’m quite unmoved by the myth of the superman. Viva l’Italia! is a documentary made after the event, and trying to deduce what had happened: it was made with great precision with regard to the facts, using a diary kept by Bandi, who was close to Garibaldi. He was no poet, but he wrote down everything that happened: you have only to read it and you can see what Garibaldi was like. I didn’t make any of it up. Read Bandi. Garibaldi was expecting the arrival of the Bourbon generals to negotiate the surrender of Palermo. They entered his room as he was peeling an orange, and he divided it up and gave a segment to each of them. Someone was there to see it and write it down. You only have to do a little research. All Bandi says about the meeting with Mazzini is what they said to each other outside the door. We don’t know what they said when they went inside as no-one wrote it down, but it was not very difﬁcult to re-construct: it was only necessary to read Mazzini’s letter to his little friend in England. Vanina Vanini is very like Viva l’Italia!, with elements of pure Stendhal. That’s to say, it has a certain critical content, it’s not exactly a straight version of the novel. I borrowed from many other things: Les promenades dans Rome, De l’amour, Napoli Roma Firenze, etc using whatever ﬁtted, and I made the ﬁlm as a work of historical research. Being a Roman, I could easily understand a character belonging to the period of the rise of romanticism – an intense girl, who has only to give her hand to someone to feel herself swooning… Stendhal‘s character is so cynical – a Roman noblewoman who believes in absolutely nothing and satisﬁes speciﬁc instincts, so this is where there is a substantial change in the character. With a different actress the character would have been different.
It is highly signiﬁcant that one of the many regulations at the Congress of Vienna was a ban on wearing long trousers, because trousers were not just a matter of dress… The sans culottes had become a revolutionary movement. When men are capable of such meanness it’s not something you can ignore, it needs saying. It seems incredible, but these are things humanity is made of. It is the little things that strike one, much more than any theories. You have to say things so that everyone can understand them immediately. But again I should make clear what I mean. It is possible to become popular by going along with what is fashionable, but you should instead try to sow the seeds of ideas which are to become popular.
You once said of Stromboli that Karin is a character ‘imprisoned in a geographical situation’.
Her geographical situation is a trap. She finds herself in a maze, not because she chose to enter it but because there comes a moment when the very structure of the world she lives in turns into a maze. I think this is the point which most closely ties in with the needs of the story. It all has a deﬁnite logic. If Karin had not ended up on an island, it would have been quite a different kind of story, with a different twist to it.
What can you tell us about Europa ’51?
As far as the world is concerned Irene is mad. She is someone who wants to make her life profoundly moral and does everything possible to achieve that, but it isn’t what the average person would do. And so she ends up behind bars in a lunatic asylum, with people looking up at her as if she were mad, while she gazes down at them as if they were mad. The unfortunate fact is that what the world lacks today is heroes.
How about India?
It was the discovery of another world, and I’ve learned a great deal from it. I felt a need to go in search of something completely new, to venture into a world I already had a mental image of. The Indian view of man seems to me to be quite perfect and rational. It’s wrong to say that it is a mystical conception of life, and it’s wrong to say that it isn’t. The truth of the matter is this: in India, thought attempts to achieve complete rationality, and so man is seen as he is, biologically and scientiﬁcally. Mysticism is also a part of man. In an emotive sense mysticism is perhaps the highest expression of man. As all expressions of humanity are respected, so too are these. All Indian thought, which seems so mystical, is indeed mystical, but it’s also profoundly rational. We ought to remember that the mathematical ﬁgure nought was invented in India, and the nought is both the most rational and the most metaphysical thing there is. India has a much more complete view of all human leanings, and attempts to preserve them all. This is what’s so fascinating. In a world like ours, where everything is black and white, intermediate shades and colours don’t exist: but the world, and still more the men in it, are made of such shades.
And hadn’t you discovered this before India?
In my own personal attitude towards things, yes I had. But I didn’t go to India to find this out or to get conﬁrmation of it. I went so that I could see a world at the end of one period of history and the beginning of another, perhaps still more dramatic. That’s what drew me there, and when I was there, it was this very complete conception of man that struck me most. I felt the need to break out of the restrictions and limitations here. It was there that I understood the need to embark on a new search and gain a wider consciousness: to be in the fullest sense you have to become conscious, you need to study. And I began to do so systematically.
What do you think of the ‘nouvelle vague’?
I haven’t seen much of it. For a time I was very close to these young people, and we were very friendly, and then they went their own way. Basically, if I did make any contribution to what they have done it was through stressing again and again that above all they should not regard the cinema as something mystical. The cinema is a means of expression like any other. You should approach it as simply as you pick up a pen to write with. What matters is knowing what you are going to write – everyone should write what he enjoys writing. Writing to please someone else would only be insincerity. The absolute freedom these people have with the camera arises from this demystifying of the process of making films.
What have you to say about your experience in the theatre?
You know what it is to have a chance at something? Well, this is a chance I’ve happily seized with both hands. Every new experience counts – they’re invigorating. In the theatre there’s no work of creation, it’s all a matter of polishing up and putting in order, trying to make the script come over clearly.
What relationship do you have with the actors?
It’s a question of the individual personality. George Sanders would cry all the way through the ﬁlm. He moaned terribly and I used to say to him, ‘What are you getting so depressed about, at the worst you’ll have made one more bad ﬁlm – nothing worse than that can happen. I don’t see anything to cry about in that, there’s no cause for despair. We’ve all made good ﬁlms and bad ﬁlms. So we’ll make another bad one. What can you do? There’s no need to tear your hair out or kill yourself over it.’ No, to be frank, you have to make them work for you. You can use anything, even an actor’s temper. You see something, in a moment of temper, a certain expression or attitude, that you can use, and so of course you use it. I don’t in the least believe in collective art. I can’t believe in it. I don’t claim to be an artist but I’ve always hoped that my work is artistically acceptable. It’s no good descending to compromises: you have to get somewhere at any cost, at the cost of quarrels, ﬁghts, bad moods, insults and coaxing, anything you think will work.
Why did you choose Sanders?
Don’t you think he was obvious for the part? It was his bad moods rather than his own personality that suited the character in the film.
How did you come to film the Indian material for TV?
They were making a documentary and I shot the material for the documentary.
Do you think the optics are different in cinema and TV?
I don’t think there are very big differences. The aim is different, that’s all. If you’re making a documentary, you’re making a documentary; if you want to make a film you make a film. Whether you’re doing it for television or for the big screen is of secondary importance…
So you don’t think that the spectator is psychologically conditioned by the means of transmission?
Of course not. What conditions him is who it’s made by. If it’s made by a fraud going round doing scandalously false things, that does affect him. If India was a documentary, it was thought up with the intention of making a psychological discovery, going deep into things and not just looking at the surface. When you make I straight documentary it’s more journalistic in tone, but there is a purpose to that too. A documentary is for giving information, a film is more exploratory, and that’s the real difference.
How did it come about that you made L’età del ferro?
It didn’t start out as such. It started from the need to make a different kind of ﬁlm. I have said this before. 1 There came a time when I felt really useless. I think this is what’s wrong with all modern art. It’s all moans and protests, but never takes account of what the real problems are. It seems obvious to me that these protests are made without knowledge of the world. The truth is that we protest because we are confronted with a world whose structure we haven’t grasped, and that seems to me to be the basic problem. There’s a point at which it’s necessary to have a clear picture, a definite horizon. This is the only way to get one’s bearings and see where we stand in time and space. No ﬁgure in geometry can be drawn, and so no space can be enclosed, without some points of reference. This is why I have gradually begun to work and study to try to understand how things are. Everyone knows that cars exist, but there are reasons for them apart from their being vehicles you buy on HP and then drive along a road. In my investigations I’ve begun to ﬁnd out things which are not only amusing and interesting but which I think can be a stimulus to the artist. What I have been trying to do is to pass on to others an awareness of this cultural need, of the experience of learning and teaching, without detracting from the content. My project has been to research new things and new sources. When you become aware of these things everything develops in a different way. Art has basically always had the aim of understanding as well as expressing things. But what does the art of today learn or teach? It is the expression of a certain malaise, of a state of unhappiness and incomprehension but no more. I don’t think that real human problems are just problems of the impossibility of communicating or anything so subtle – such things belong to psychiatry rather than to man, to be frank they are extreme cases viewed by dilettantes. Man has discovered artiﬁcial energy – electricity, steam, thermodynamics etc. It’s such a great gain that today men travel through space and from continent to continent in vehicles driven by this energy, catch aeroplanes, light their homes at the flick of a switch, use electric irons – it’s an overwhelming victory of man over nature. But tell me who has been moved by it, what artists have dwelt on this amazing fact, which is at least equal to the discovery of fire, in fact greater. We have been indifferent, we have even begun to complain about it. Now if we don’t really develop our awareness of it, how can we have a feeling of the world we live in, the riches this world can have. Above all you have to take the reins of this civilisation and be able to drive it towards ends that have to be thought out quite clearly and precisely. But instead, strangely enough, as science and technology advance – and I mean science and technology in the highest sense, the sense of knowledge which is human in its very fibre – art abandons itself to daydreams in the most irrational way imaginable. You build a rational world and the whole of art takes off into fantasy, fantasy which is always inward-looking because then it becomes a protest, placing a restraint on fantasy itself. Why did I choose the Iron Age? – our historical epoch is known as the Iron Age. It was one of the first things to be dealt with. If you have to start writing an alphabet, you must first work out what are the vowels. If you like, L’età del ferro is there to establish the vowels, and I shall go on from there. These projects must be developed with the utmost rigour of method, if they are to have their proper educative effect. I have drawn up something of a plan, which closely follows my own study programme. As this programme was useful to me in putting my ideas in order, it may be of use to others. This is what my system of pedagogy amounts to. I don’t put myself on the outside or go and think about things in an abstract way. I just recount the experiences I have had.
It is then a plan which has been tested and corrected against reality.
Yes. Another serious mistake of our times is to try and summarise everything: things can’t be summarised. It’s possible to ﬁnd a clear and comprehensible way of saying things that might be obscure, but you don’t understand anything through summaries and digests. It’s a real attempt to impart knowledge as that is understood in the modern world. But it is based on a false view of consciousness, examining things at a distance and fitting them into theories which remain no more than theories and bear no relation to historical reality. It’s a strange way of expressing a theory, a way which commercialises what should be a very different kind of endeavour. One of man’s great struggles has been to subjugate man – there have been endless attempts, with recourse to everything from grace to eloquence, rhetoric and history, to subjugate man to man. Every effort has been made to make this enslavement so far as possible a voluntary act, and this was the least difficult part of it. The best way to keep a slave is when he has voluntarily become a slave, in the belief that he is performing a duty. It’s what in modern terms would be called conditioning. Today this has been rationalised, it has become scientific.
In this state of things the very aim of art ought to be to free men from their conditioning.
This should of course be the great mission of art. But art has also always had the opposite objective. Virgil, you know, was an ‘agitprop’ man for the Roman Empire. This aim is clear in all Virgil’s work – of course he believed in it, but it’s all done to extol a deﬁnite world. It’s quite clear to me that this was the case. And at the same time he was a very great poet. He worked in absolute good faith, he admired his civilisation and designed all his work to further it. Today, when we can perhaps see things in more scientiﬁc terms, and the spirit of democracy has made some advance, much more choice is needed, choice of a genuine kind, with the possibility of choosing true knowledge. But instead choices are always made on the basis of slogans or stereotypes.
You yourself tend towards rationality, though not in a schematic way.
What’s schematic is to limit the realm of knowledge to rationality. Arithmetic is highly rational but it’s not rational as compared to mathematics, if you understand me. It’s all a question of the level of development of thought.
The striking thing about L’età del ferro is the way the sequences you have made alternate with existing ﬁlm or newsreel.
You have to use everything that can make a point firmly and with precision. If you are making a bridge you need so many supports. There’ll be one on the bank, one in mid-stream, but there’s sand and mud there so you put it a bit further across the stream but resting on rock, and then you come to the far bank. So you can’t make supports, the supports for the span of thought and knowledge, in a completely pedantic way. I always run away from preconceived ideas. I don’t fix a style in advance. You have to use everything that will help to carry out your aim. So I jump from film taken from the archives to re-constructed scenes.
What criterion did you use for choosing the extra film?
I have a lot of film that’s exactly right for editing up.
Film you’ve made yourself?
A detail is enough for a particular kind of montage. If I haven’t got it, I just have to do the montage with pieces made for something else. I use them as I want, do the montage leaving some parts blank, and then go and shoot the little bits I need to put the thing together as I want.
But why did you use existing film and not make new?
Look, I did very little. My son Renzo did it all, he’s the director – I only thought the idea up…
It was all found in newsreel film, he used newsreel for the things he needed at that point of the story. Again, I advised him not to look at things with preconceived ideas. You should see the films from which he took the frames he used – they were quite different.
What does the fifth episode mean to you?
The fifth episode is an attempt to end with a poetic comment on this civilisation of ours, made as it is of iron and steel and machinery. There’s a lot of our own film in it but a lot of material from the archives too. There’s documentation of every kind in existence. If there’s material you can use by way of illustration, why not use it?
What’s the relation of this kind of montage to what you talked about in your interview with Bazin?
It’s not montage in that sense. There are some things I need to have which it would take months and months of work to make – I can ﬁnd the same thing on the market, so I take it and use it in my own way – by putting my own ideas into it, not in words but in pictures.
Don’t you think that even before montage the pictures have a meaning that montage can’t completely destroy?
They don’t. You have to give them it. The pictures in themselves are nothing more than shadows.
For example, what about the shots of that strange flying machine in the second episode?
All right, you still have the curious appearance of the machine. But if you take a detail away in touching up the film, the signiﬁcance of the picture changes, doesn’t it?
But it can’t take on an opposite meaning to what the picture represents.
Of course it can. You don’t do this just by selection, but by working on it. Anything you look at is reality for one person but not for another. If I instinctively see a certain reality, without working it out in great detail I place the camera at a certain angle, and film reality in my own way – you see? But if instead I’m using existing film, it’s as if I had the picture before it was put on film: I have to re-work it as with any real object.
Often, even in L’età del ferro, you have been reproached with being too slapdash.
If you make a film in a very finished way, it may have a certain intellectualistic value, but that’s all. What I am trying to do is to search for truth, to get as near to truth as possible. And truth itself is often slipshod and out of focus.
In the fourth episode, why do you have an ‘uncommitted’ hero?
It’s a true story, I haven’t embroidered it very much. The main character is a Piombino worker. The story is very signiﬁcant for me. The war takes away Montagnani’s living. Like everyone else at that time, he’s looking for work. He goes with the rest. It’s no longer just a question of the factory you work in, and all the exploitation that involves. The factory regains its importance as a source of employment, fulﬁlling the dreams of centuries: in that part of Italy they’ve worked iron for 3,000 years.
The fifth episode has been compared to some futuristic experiments. What do you think?
Why, because of a few parallels? The similarity is only technical. The voice off-screen is only a commentary, expressing the need to look at things in a different way. I want to arouse interest in certain ideas. The synonyms, for example, were used not just to explain the action but to express thinking about it.
You seem very involved in the fifth episode, unlike for example in the ﬁrst two, where you take your distance.
The standpoint is different. What belongs to history has become simple, manageable. But we aren’t masters of the world in which we live, you can see that every day. We must make ourselves masters of it. The idea of progress hasn’t really spread very far: the ‘denunciators’, for example, have a retrogressive position.
The pictures in the ﬁfth episode, anyway, are never grand or celebrative, they simply analyse the phenomenon.
The last shot has been taken as meaning that you are inviting us to a general reconciliation.
The last shot only shows men who are able to be in each other’s company. It’s a fact you can test out against reality. They’re coming home from work, and each of them goes off to his own house, they don’t exactly break into song. This is how things are.
What’s the meaning of the refrigerators which are shown at such length?
It used to be the case that to show something grandiose you would show a cathedral, not a refrigerator. It’s a statement of fact, I wouldn’t generalise about it. It’s true there is something absurd about the refrigerator: it’s a luxury, it’s superﬂuous, but it’s also of practical importance. You have to be able to look at things without preconceived ideas to know what’s right and what isn’t. You have to be able to state things. This is exactly what I’ve tried to do in the fifth episode, bringing together a lot that can perhaps point to a clearer way forward.
1 See Conversazione sulla cultura e sul cinema, «Filmcritica», n. 131, p. 131 seq.
Interview by Adriano Aprà and Maurizio Ponzi. Translation by Judith White.
Italian version originally published in «Filmcritica», n. 156-157, April-May 1965, pp. 218-234. English translation in «Screen», v. 14, n. 4, winter 1973-74, pp. 112-126; later in Roberto Rossellini, My Method. Writings and Interviews, ed. by Adriano Aprà, Marsilio Publishers, New York 1992, pp. 153-171