On the occasion of Film & Fernseh Juwelen’s Blu-ray release of Sohrab Shahid Saless’ Utopia, hitherto only available in a borderline unwatchable condition, I present to you the English translation of a text written by Saless himself after making Utopia. The text is mainly concerned with the conditions of the German film industry of the time, but aside from film historical insight, it also gives us a glimpse into Saless’ character and worldview, his constant struggles with the establishment, commitment to a certain kind of cinema, and unwillingness to compromise. This translation was made using both the Persian translation as well as the German original. -AB
Hollywood in Germany or: Culture as Currency (1983)
by Sohrab Shahid Saless
Translated by Arta Barzanji, with assistance from MLP
I’ve made a film. It’s called Utopia. I went in and out of TV stations for five years. I took the script to government agencies time and time again and was declined funding every time. The film takes place in a brothel, but it’s not erotic. I went back and forth so long and so persistently until, when the time came and the film was made, it had to be as long as my patience!
Having lived in the Federal Republic of Germany for almost nine years, inevitably I have an idea of the prerequisites for the production of the films that I or my colleagues are planning to make, films that are fit for export, so to speak. I have sinned in ten narrative films, “far from home.” Many will say: but he was lucky. Unfortunately, that’s not true. People like us who make dark and difficult films are out of luck. They write letters, treatments, and scripts that are never filmed, and eventually, a righteous soul will lay eyes on them, and — as in Kafka1 — will say: now it is your turn. You may enter.
Strange things occur from then on. Since I am a “foreigner,”2 I’m not allowed to produce anything. I have to find a producer who will oblige me and work with me. Fortunately, it’s the TV networks that provide half of the funding. As I’m sitting there, almost paralyzed, the production company makes its calculations. Real figures! Fair wages for the employees! You start filming and suddenly realize that cuts are being made. They keep lowering the budget and ultimately it’s the film itself that suffers. Whether the film is good or bad is no longer the issue. Never. It’s not expected of a somber film to be a popular hit [in any case]. And the people who watch the film on television will either doze off or switch the channel. Why? That remains a mystery!
No people are more sniveling than producerfolk.3 You, the filmmaker, work your fingers to the bone, complete the script, find a television partner, and at the end of the day, you have to listen to how generous the producer has been to you. Unfortunately, that is far from true. Independent producers are businessmen. They have to get their money’s worth. But at what price? Sometimes it happens that, for whatever reason, an additional co-producer, with a negligible amount of investment, becomes a partner in your film overnight. You don’t have the right to choose or reject this co-producer. And since these secretive games can never be made public, it’s the producers who are the victims who atone for losses and directors who are the ruthless and difficult hangmen. Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that certain things are going completely wrong in our profession — ‘cinema’. The Hollywood-Illusion has caused a lot of destruction here.
The masters of Expressionist cinema never followed the Hollywood template. And yet, a “classical German cinema” did emerge.
You can’t just produce a show like The Streets of San Francisco here. Fortunately, it has not yet come to the point where people kill each other under the blue sky. A film like Jaws can’t be copied here either. Hollywood is a store that manufactures ham after ham, like a company that produces insect repellent. There is no tradition, culture, or image of real American life in these films. Because it’s constantly being ignored.
Unfortunately, more and more the reality of everyday life in the Federal Republic of Germany is kept hidden. The excuse is that it doesn’t make any money. It’s not economically viable. Culture is culture and business is business! Didn’t you know?
It also often happens that some resort to classical literature or take dead geniuses out of the grave to reconstruct them. So many young people running around without a job, turning to drugs and alcohol. So many divorced women raising their children on their own. Children who instead of one father, have five uncles, whom they call dad one after another. Are these not issues? I think in a democratic state such as the Federal Republic of Germany, criticism should be permitted. One should be allowed to tell bitter stories taken from real life. The audience is always receptive, keen to learn more about the society in which they live.
Of course, there has to be entertainment too, [like] Peter Alexander4. Naturally, one has to think of the elderly who need distraction. But why should they not tell their own stories? To make a film is to push through a story,5 and at times, so strange as to remind one of The Myth of Sisyphus.
I say openly and without regard to the possible disfavor into which I might fall, there are perhaps eight producers here in the Federal Republic who will back a filmmaker to fulfill his original vision. And there are very few TV executives who are brave enough to fight for the material, to go to the trenches, so that a realistic film can be made. Two of these executives, as we saw with Utopia, are at ZDF.
This is intended as information for my younger colleagues who are making their first films. If I’m no longer able to find work in the future for writing this radical text, then I will have enough time to write the history of German cinema for the Germans, and not for Hollywood.
That is all there was to be said.
1: He is referring to the gatekeeper from Kafka’s “Before the Law.” (AB)
2: In the original, Saless does a remarkable small wordplay here, as the word for foreigner is literally ‘someone from outside the land’ in German, made from the prefix ‘aus’ (out) and then ‘länder’ (countries). It’s one word: ‘ausländer’ (foreigner). And Saless writes ‘Aus’-Länder. (MLP)
3: Although ‘producerfolk’ sounds strange in English, we opted to preserve to some degree the idea that Saless’ original text refers to ‘Produzentenvolk’, as if they were their own nation of people: a country of all producer people, with an unusual culture. (MLP)
4: Austrian actor and singer, well-known for musicals in the 1950s and 60s. (AB)
5: The German word “Geschichte” can both mean “story” and “history.” Hence, an intriguing alternative translation is possible here: “To make a film is to impose a history.” (AB/MLP)