Port speaks to director and artist Julian Rosefeldt about his film Manifesto, a meditation on modern artistic manifestos in which Cate Blanchett plays 13 different characters
Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto, a feature length film derived from an art installation of the same same name, is a tough sell on paper. The film is divided into thirteen sections, each with a different main character played by Cate Blanchett (a la I’m Not There, in which Bob Dylan is embodied by six actors, including Blanchett) who recite excerpts from over fifty individual manifestos of art, from Dada to Dogma 95. Alongside a touring exhibition of the sections simultaneously projected onto separate screens in an overwhelming sensory soundscape, the more conventionally structured film of Manifesto, in which the sections are stitched together into a 90 minute feature, premiered at Sundance Festival in January, and has its general UK release later this month.
What relevance do these artistic credos, some of which are approaching their centenary, have for people not in the art world? “The art world is a bit of a closed circle,” explains writer, director and producer Julian Rosefeldt from his home in Berlin. “We’re imprisoned in a white cube where we always speak with people who don’t necessarily have to be convinced, because they agree with everything we have to say already. We consider these important issues, but we don’t talk to the right people about them.”
In different hands, this cerebral mixture could easily have produced quite a dry film: one to be cautiously admired, rather than enjoyed. Yet, Rosefeldt and Blanchett pull off the impressive feat of making these scholarly manifestos digestible, comprehensible and almost conversational. In Blanchett’s portrayal of a dizzying range of characters – including a homeless man, a single mother and a ballet choreographer – century old texts written almost exclusively by dead, white men, go through a certain democratisation. “I wanted to depict a kaleidoscope of society,” Rosefeldt says.
The film is also tonally diverse. The second section features a wild-eyed homeless man, screaming through a microphone with only a post-apocalyptic wasteland to act as witness. This is immediately followed by a stockbroker extolling the virtues of speed and technology that complicated the Futurist movement with overtly Fascist overtones. In Manifesto’s most arresting sequence, Blanchett presides over a Dadaesque funeral mourning (and simultaneously celebrating) the death of art. This scene was filmed in the dying light of a brief winter afternoon in Berlin, Blanchett nailing the eviscerating speech in just one or two takes.
This palpable sense of unease and impending catastrophe is punctured by scenes of surprising comedy, such as sculptor Claes Oldenburg’s ‘I Am For An Art’ recited with reverence by a Southern mother saying grace. “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum,” she intones solemnly, her three children and husband (played by Blanchett’s actual family) propped up on steepled fingers around a rapidly cooling Sunday roast.
The dashes of humour in the film often arise from such ironic distance between text and situation. A manifesto of conceptual art, parroted by an aggressively made-up, Elnett-haired parody of a Fox News reporter, cannily raises the spectre of fake news: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. All of current art is fake.”
Bar the opening lines from the Communist Manifesto, the texts are artistically apolitical – though between the lines such declarations are always political. “In Q&As after the screenings, people again and again refer to the political circumstances of today”, Rosefeldt explains. “When the first Futurist manifesto was published on the front page of Le Figaro in 1909, it acted as a kind of an ignition, a spark, that infected a lot of artistic manifestos at the time. We are living in a moment that is, in a way, comparable to the tension felt between the wars. The world is upside down and people read in those manifestos a kind of call for action, or an anti-populist call.”
Audaciously, Rosefeldt combines manifestos from decades apart in the same section, bringing Wassily Kandinsky (1912) and Barnett Newman (1948) into conversation. “Of course, it’s quite disrespectful towards the original writing,” Rosefeldt says bluntly. “Within these circles there is as much contradiction as agreement. But in art, as in history and fashion, everything repeats itself. Ideas come up, disappear for a while, and then forty years later have their rebirth.”
In the last section, in which the manifestos of cinema’s auteurs including the Dogma 95 duo Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg are coalesced into a lesson, the lively contradiction between different authors is more explicit. Through Blanchett’s earnest teacher, the director Jim Jarmusch writes “Nothing is original” on the blackboard and instructs a class of ten year olds to “Steal from anywhere”; a sentiment that the firmly tongue-in-cheek Dogma manifesto contradicts in the next sentence. “That’s a bit how I remember school,” Rosefeldt chuckles. “From the same person, you get both complete bullshit, and things that actually make sense.”
Manifesto: Live From Tate Modern takes place across the UK on Wed 15 November. Manifesto goes on general release on 24 November. See manifestothefilm.com for full details.