Translation: Interview with Robert Kramer

Translated by Christian Flemm

For the December 1978 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, Serge Toubiana, Annie Cot and Marthe Cartier-Bresson met filmmaker Robert Kramer in San Francisco on the release of his Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal, a documentary on the Carnation Revolution filmed between April 1974 and November 1976. The ensuing conversation captures a militant filmmaker in a period of transition. Rattled by his lack of acceptance in leftist circles at home and abroad after over a decade of activity, Kramer attempts to understand himself anew as a filmmaker on constantly shifting political terrain, questioning his reception by Cahiers while castigating the left for its “narrow vision of culture.” Recorded on the eve of Kramer’s emigration from the United States to France, and a prelude to his later, more significantly commercial work (Guns, À toute allure, Diesel), this interview is presented here in its inaugural English translation on the occasion of the filmmaker’s birthday. -CF


Cahiers du Cinema, No. 295 (December 1978)

Interview with Robert Kramer

Taken from a conversation recorded in English on magnetic tape between Robert  Kramer, Serge Toubiana, Annie Cot, Marthe Cartier-Bresson in San Francisco   

Robert Kramer: The few who took what we wanted to do seriously did because of the political, historical, and cultural paths we traveled together. When I read those articles in Cahiers, I realized that you understood our films in the best sense, that is, the closest to our intentions. I’m not exactly sure what happened with Portugal, so I’d like to know the history of Cahiers a bit better. Leftists here were critical of Milestones, as were we. In lieu of trying to understand the film with a more dialectical mindset, finding its strength, very much real, in abstracting political reality, I instead rebelled and attempted to find a means by which I could articulate the same political questions in a more traditional manner, from inside the structures of Marxism-Leninism. This all coincided with Portugal, a film I didn’t really choose to make. Rather I was in Portugal, and there I  found a situation in which I could clarify these problems through a film. To understand  the political problem of Portugal, it had to be made personal; and it was also part of the struggle that was taking place here, in the United States, on the left, around the question of party, around the question of how to describe the role of imperialism. For me, Portugal was the discovery of the class struggle in Europe, in advanced industrial countries, since my previous experiences had only been in the Third World. You had ’68 in France. The sixties here were very different, we’ve never known revolution. So, Portugal perfectly matched my background and I was happy to try my hand at forging the tools to make sense of the situation. 

I soon discovered that you went off in another direction, that you reproached the film for being too closed off, that for you Europeans it was all too familiar. Which surprised me, because in that I don’t see a film that resembles Portugal

Basically, our shared connection – on the work that we made on our history, work that made sense to you in France – was broken with Portugal.

A kind of natural relationship between us that existed with each work was broken there – why? 

Cahiers: When Ice came to Cahiers, I wasn’t at Cahiers. This was in ’68, I was in the communist party. When Cahiers defended Ice, they were all in the PCF (ed. Parti communiste français) movement, and in the review, over the course of the debate, the editors, themselves opposed to all communist positions, accused the film of political adventurism. Those who defended the film did so only as a work of narrative fiction, in the name of Robert Kramer the auteur, etc. When we saw Milestones, this was very important, we took it as a message from America on what we called “post-leftism” and therefore took the least political reading of the film possible. What we liked was its depiction of family, of birth, of relations between bodies, between people, how you filmed with such tenderness, how you created a truly communitarian filmic space, etc. We took the film as: “Here is where the United States’ own generation of ’68 is.” 

There’s perhaps a misunderstanding between us. You say that here the left attacked the film, but Cahiers certainly defended it. Though doubtless not with great political arguments; rather with specific, cinematic arguments. When we saw Portugal, we said “well, this is the sort of militant cinema that we know in France,” that we didn’t find interesting at the time – often it was very uninteresting – so it bared resemblance to what we had seen in militant cinema after ’68, in Oser lutter, oser vaincre for example, a film shot during the events of ‘68 in Flins. Perhaps Portugal is a response to Milestones from the left, but a response from another terrain. Not from within the United States, but from Europe, where perhaps one can pose the same problems in terms of party, of avant-garde, of Marxism-Leninism, of ideology, of organization, of support for  open protest, and film them. 

For us, Milestones was an American film, a film about America, the place, the  experience, its roots, its communities, John Ford, the new world, etc. Perhaps each time we understood you indeed, but not as you’d expected… 

Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal

I’ve plenty of reservations about Portugal, but each time I see it, I like it even more, and I find that it responds to something, especially to people in the Third World. It’s the first time I tried to limit any intellectualism, a particular sort of reasoning which is not that of the PRP (People’s Revolutionary Party). I don’t think that the film should be a PRP film. It stood to reason that at the end of it we identify the PRP as the principal motive force, as that was our analysis. What is very different is to be engaged by the PRP to make a film. 

We began shooting thinking that there would be no discussion of the parties but of the mass movements, and we came to the conclusion that the PRP was the party of the working class, the avant-garde. What they had to say, their contributions to the mass movement, were very important and it was part of our responsibility as communists not to be afraid to pronounce such and such a name. For our part, it was equally a provocation because we thought that the anti-party attitude in general, and in Portugal in particular, was a serious mistake. The prevailing sentiment was that raising the question of the necessity of party politics was sectarian. But I was convinced that a party was needed to coordinate the people’s struggle. There is a lot to say about the film and I think you should see it without the simultaneous translation, which was the case at the screening you attended, as the narration is extremely important. 

What interests me is this: How do you understand cinema? How do I understand  cinema? Why has nobody seen my films here in the United States, etc.? Most of the  time, my films don’t relate to what people believe. Without a doubt this is a flaw in the  films. They all deal with such questions as: how people fulfill themselves and assume a role in history, how do or don’t they rejoin the principal current of history. All this, with  the exception of Portugal, in the context of the United States and of the specific kind of  isolation that we’ve made for ourselves here – we, the subjects of films. There is this  rhythm between political engagement where we lose a lot of things – relations between  people, families, children, nature – not as ideas but as bodily experiences. In The Edge,  we can see the two very clearly. In Ice, it’s in finding a sense of accomplishment in  political struggle. After Ice, there was a very important film, the film from Vietnam, People’s War. Because we had left the United States, this was the occasion of seeing  clearly, for the first time, the limit to our way of asking questions. What we saw in Vietnam was the difference between the people’s struggle and a struggle divided. Then came Milestones, which had always been viewed as “what happened to the ‘60s generation.” But that view is not so, it is another thread that the revolutionary front as a  whole should have woven by asking all these questions: relations between men and women, between men and children, between families, the elderly…  

This division exists within the political movement itself, between strict Marxism-Leninism and a much broader cultural front which includes feminism, utopia, and the notion that our daily existence is itself a political question. How do we go about our lives, eat the food we eat, take care of ourselves and our children…these questions are just as political as Nixon and Watergate or any strategy of taking power. But because these elements have been completely separated from politics in this country, in the films this always comes in a fragmented form. I make a film from one thought, the following from another, but it’s my job to keep this all held together in my films and in my life. If I can’t do it in my life, I won’t be able to do it in a film. This break that exists within myself exists also in society, and it exists in the films. In Portugal, I could forget about all that because I was a stranger over there, and I was free to join the movement of the Portuguese with only a party in my life because my life is here. So this rhythm in the films is truly a reflection of myself, it’s an attempt to resolve this discordance in my life. Ice wasn’t a thesis in favor of armed struggle. It was trying to explain why those people felt that way, the rage they felt, and the consequences of that rage in their lives, understood as something quite negative, indeed as their self-destruction… and however, it was still preferable to daily life in America. Milestones was the experiences of a few people in American society. It’s a deep film but it doesn’t want to pass judgment on the aftermath of the sixties for that generation. Which is how it was labeled, “marketed,” and it was a mistake, our mistake as well because we let it happen. 

What were the arguments the left had against the film? Were some of them just, in your opinion? 

I don’t think an argument can ever be just, given that the films aren’t made to give responses. My films aren’t made for that, but to open up thought, conversation. 

Milestones was made for people saying: “they’re exactly like me,” “no, I would not do that, I would do this,” “here is someone who truly leads the same life I do, and is not  what someone sees in a Hollywood film,” “this person is a lot like me but isn’t me,” to raise all questions of morality. When we said “the film is bad because it is demobilizing,”  perhaps in 1974 people had certain illusions about the situation in which we were living; but now, in 1978, the truth of Milestones is evident. We were in the middle of  demobilizing ourselves. The film did not contribute to this demobilization; it attempted to question it. We also called the film patriarchal, but I don’t agree. There are men in the film who have patriarchal relationships with their children or with others, but I don’t understand why one should blame the film for this. It’s without a doubt partly because of the importance given to birth and to children by men. But there is a lot of truth there! The problem of children was for me one of the most important issues, one of those issues I was trying to understand at the time. But even in this respect, in my opinion, it’s an open question, not a matter of judgment. There are elements of judgment that should allow experimentation, the mélange of all these questions in our heads. I found the criticisms from the left here to be very, very superficial, Jump Cut included, which attacked Cahiers because they supported the film. 

Milestones

From these criticisms from the left, can’t you guess what sort of cinema the left wants? Is it in accordance with the cinema you want to make? In my opinion, when the left wants cinema, it is rarely what Cahiers likes. All the auteurs we have defended to the end, the far left doesn’t understand. This is also the case for the militant film which I was talking about earlier (Oser lutter, oser vaincre)

I don’t know what the left wants in Europe. Here the “hard” left has a very narrow vision of culture. I think that that’s still truer here than in Europe, that the left’s political life has always been truly separate from its cultural life. Leftists love two sorts of films—those which claim to say things that are just (what they are saying is of little importance) and the popular, Hollywood films which have the air of speaking just a little politically like Rocky, one of the most racist films ever made in the United States; they adored it. Blue Collar too, Bound For Glory, Woody Guthrie… 

Among the American films in France it’s Little Big Man, Jeremiah Johnson… 

Oh! Jeremiah Johnson!! Did they like that one? They found it progressive? A man alone among the mountains…no leftist here has seen it – except for me, because I love the mountains… 

I was reflecting on something you said to me the other day: that you didn’t feel  like a filmmaker until eight months ago. When we saw Milestones, we said “what a filmmaker!”, and before that, [Jean] Narboni for The Edge…we have considered you quite the filmmaker for several years… 

To feel like a filmmaker means many things. I always felt quite comfortable in film. I never had any problems translating a feeling or an idea onto film. In that sense, when I came to cinema, I felt completely at home. Before, I’d written fiction, but as a writer I was dead on arrival. I came to cinema totally by chance, and immediately felt very good. I never had the problem of “how do I film this,” etc. 

But in the sense that I am a worker, and I ask myself what is my work in the world, I have never thought of myself as a filmmaker. I was never prepared to take  responsibility for saying: “What I put in this film is truly what matters most to me.” It was always: “I have my political work, I do this, that, and I also make films.” To me, it was a way of not taking any responsibility for my films. There are plenty of other reasons. This attitude also reflects the reality of a political movement, where it is only possible to think as a militant; it is not possible to think in abstractions, as there is work to do. It was only within the last 8 to 12 months that I said to myself: “what is it that I do? The only thing that I truly want to do is to make films. I am not bound to any political organization. What kind of an equivocation is it to say that I make films outside the market?” No, this is really what I want to do, and if I want to progress in my medium and have a little bit of money to make my films, I have to think of myself as a filmmaker. I have to do a lot of things I’d never prepared for, and above all, feel responsible for the release of my films. I have to meet other filmmakers, have relationships with them, my comrades, and feel involved in a community. When I started thinking in these terms, I realized that most of the good things that were happening to me were the result of my films. I didn’t go to Vietnam as a militant but as a filmmaker, and ours was a useful film. I went to Portugal because Milestones was invited to the Festival, which made it possible for me to meet other filmmakers and find the money to make the film. I went to Angola because I had met some Angolese in the course of making Portugal. My films are the strings which tug my life along. It was thus necessary to accept this and to stop playing around.  

Now, I arrive at a third meaning of the word “filmmaker,” one much more worrisome: to be an intellectual of the cinema. It worried me, and I was afraid of spoiling cinema the same way we spoiled literature with all those years of school. I was afraid of discerning a pantheon from which I was excluded. But the film world isn’t like that. It is open to any enterprising spirit that wants to see what he can do. I’d always had doubts about this notion of intense study. It can imprison you within the prejudices of other people, and can limit form. For example, the debate across the history of cinema between those who interest themselves in cinema’s resemblance to painting or the other arts – the formalists: “what is good in a film is that which is not a reflection of reality” – and the other camp, who see it as inseparable from reality and as its instrument… It’s a rather artificial separation and anyway, the story has already been told – like an old Western… 

It seems to me that one should be free to not get locked within the intellectual history of the cinema, in intellectual history all told. I can start in a fairly new condition. I think it is important for me to study cinema seriously, in the same way I study political texts… 

Do you think yours is a singular experience, or that others have had experiences which may resemble yours? 

Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve met other filmmakers who I’ve felt close to. In most cases the closest are American filmmakers. I truly don’t know why, but we quickly arrive at the same difference in the way we envision our work. I related to the issues that filmmakers were having in Angola, where they tried to commit images of this extraordinary revolutionary situation to film with a minimum of experience and money. It seemed a promising site for a new formulation of cinema. That kind of experimentation virtually exists in Cuba, though I haven’t seen many Cuban films, so I can’t truly say, though I know that there in such a limited economy one is obligated to find new solutions to all of one’s problems. It’s an aspect of experimentation that interests me quite a bit: how does one make do with the filmic language with whatever means one has. In a way, one must be capable of making, in this or that event, a film just as rich, just as full, whether with 15 million dollars or with 500,000 dollars. I don’t feel isolated in the sense that I am a filmmaker, I have my own ideas and no one can ever know them. Each time that I see a film I see something new; for example, in Hollywood films one learns how to render the abstract concrete. I feel isolated because if there is even a little bit of money, it becomes so clogged up because there is so much competition. No one seems to consider cinema as one of the greatest provisioners of access in the world. People say: “this film is bad,” “this film is good”…In my opinion, all films are more or less the same, all of them try to open something up for us, something that we can understand in our own lives. Each film represents much more for me than what the critics say. Recently, there was an article on four Portuguese films in the magazine Seven Days. Instead of saying: “here is an opportunity to see four different films which have come to define the revolution in Portugal, for to make such a complete document, no one could do it in a single film…”, which would have been a creative way for a critic to look at a problem, they classified the films with this one as the best, etc. It’s this competitive approach to things that troubles me. I get the impression that my films try to present very simple questions, ideas, and experiences, and that the people aren’t receptive for reasons I don’t understand. There must be something in the energy of the film. Something which, in my films, makes people very defensive. Perhaps they are afraid, I don’t know…

Ice

With regard to the questions you’re asking here, what are your political  associates doing for you? Your friends who aren’t filmmakers, who have a foothold in political practice, do they not help you? 

Some of them do. They may be militants, but we have the same projects, we come from the same struggles, and they understand the films just as I do. Some of them are very worried, they are afraid that I am selling out, slipping into the camp of the bourgeoisie; they find that I spend too much time traveling, talking with filmmakers. They think of filmmakers as workers that are too privileged (and even still: when one considers them workers!), that it’s not a group to be spending time with, that they are politically irresponsible, they haven’t any connection with the base, with the workers. In fact, there is truly a problem if I do not want to change my life, or want my real living conditions to change, when one knows that to make films, to find money, one must spend time with people by talking with them, eating with them, having a social life. To be a filmmaker is a daily reality, and one must therefore assume certain responsibilities. These are the exact reasons I didn’t feel like a filmmaker for so many years. If I understand it right that Comolli is no longer director of the magazine because he spends too much time making films, it is an enormous problem, both practical and theoretical. In this I mean that films have become more and more about other films. One ends up living in a world defined completely by filmmakers, by producers, by the films one sees in San Francisco, etc. I don’t want my films to be about other films. The worldview that comes from living here, in the microscopic global network of Cannes-Hollywood-New York-Cocaine-Sex, etc. I don’t like it. It’s all too soon to know how I am going to continue working, how I am going to preserve my independence and at the same time not just make these little films that nobody sees. It’s stupid to make films nobody sees. Of course it’s on my mind, but…I don’t know how to solve this problem. 

These are more issues of morality than of politics. What is the moral obligation of an artist in a spoiled, capitalist society? There are several possible responses: go to Hollywood, sell oneself and play the game, like Schrader for example. I believe this is a problem shared by all filmmakers throughout the world. They can meet politics head-on but their natural environment, in my opinion, is moral all the same. 

It’s difficult to separate the two. 

Once, Godard said something to me which left quite an impression: that cinema is the freest medium in the world. When you are a filmmaker, you can say to a woman, “get completely naked,” to a boss, “get down on your knees,” to a president, “turn your head that way,” etc. I ask myself if morality isn’t precisely what counterbalances this freedom that all artists generally have, but mostly filmmakers to the extent that filmmakers make a lot of money, or have a lot of people working for them. All the traditional left––except, perhaps, for Brecht––were they not wrong in the way they posed such artistic questions, by connecting them immediately with politics, with power?  Eisenstein himself always worked for power and he still did what he wanted with his images. Brecht was very clear: “I am an antifascist because fascism prevents me from  working, and of course because it also oppresses the Jews, the workers…” 

There was a project for French television on artists in exile – 15 projects. And one was a portrait of Brecht in Hollywood––I wanted to make it. I’ve since heard nothing, maybe they didn’t have any money. Chris Marker was going to do one on migrant workers in Europe, Resnais on Marguerite Yourcenar… As for Brecht on the necessity of cunning, from the Five Difficulties in Writing the Truth…personally, I can’t always navigate it, at times I really can’t. It implies that one mustn’t believe in the truth of personal expression in art, and that silence can be better. It’s a deep question, that of silence or of cunning. It’s an intellectual process… Me, I am much more serious, I am a serious American, pragmatic and emotional! Brecht didn’t have to learn the dialectic according to Marx, he was born into that tradition of thought. Here we still have to fight for that today! Dialectical thought has nothing in common with the American tradition, which is very moralistic, very puritanical, very: black/white, good/bad, failure/success. The dialectic that we have here, now, is one of the best things brought by the left over the past fifteen years – a more flexible way of thinking, perhaps… 

The dialectic is only useful to an artist, a filmmaker, if there is in front of him a  power he must confront. What is apparent to me here is that the power is Hollywood, not Carter. If he has money, the filmmaker is a little less free to do what he wants. In France this is not always the case… 

I don’t agree. It’s a false freedom. If the people make what they want, the question becomes: What is it that they want? Why are they spending all this money? What fantasies do they put in their films? What is the value of this art? Why spend so much money and so much time, if not for something very close to what one believes in life? Why? For who? To serve what idea of the future? To reshape oneself at what level? 

It’s for this reason that Coppola interests me: why spend so much money on a  film, for just a film?…In France no one (apart from Tati perhaps) would risk his life, his fortune like Griffith to make one, or Stroheim…Filmmakers in France are instead cultivated bourgeois, Rene Clair, Renoir…bourgeois who wanted to do literature and who instead made cinema. It was just a pastime for them, they worked, they invented…And today French filmmakers are still rather bourgeois. Not here, I believe…

Not so bourgeois! Today there was an article in the news about the richest man in the world. I had never heard his name before. He has a fortune of seven billion dollars, he is 81 years old, and makes all his decisions himself. He’s just bought a paper mill on the edge of the Amazon, on a plot of land the size of Connecticut! It’s his last big project and it costs him 10 million dollars a month. Why does he do it? He has of course no need for money…other financiers say of him: “He is a marvel of a man!”…it’s his last hurrah. It’s a worldview that is completely incredible and excessive, and it’s truly an  expression of imperialism. Take this article and bring it back to France to remember what it is that filmmakers truly want. Half the filmmakers I know don’t want to make films, but to control life. 

The question of our morals leads us to the specific problem of how to persist under the current conditions in the West, in Europe, and in the United States, which amounts to persisting alone for a while, a long while. The possibility of finding a sufficiently large, good, and rich enough political movement to join and to make one’s community is not for tomorrow. And for those of us workers who produce culture, meeting and working together is very difficult. Film collectives here have not produced much at all. So you have to prepare yourself to be someone in the world who does a little something, who makes films, but who is essentially alone. I try to bond with other filmmakers in a friendly way, to go in the direction of mutual support. Today we complain a lot about the situation, but things will get even worse in the West. 

For filmmakers? 

For people; “les bêtes humaines”! 

It seems to me that San Francisco should be a great place for a filmmaker. With its cultural diversity, its tolerance of opinion, it’s a place without violence, without hatred, a bit of paradise, no? 

You think so? Take down your thoughts next time you’re here, it’ll be interesting! 

Straub and Huillet didn’t like Milestones. They pilloried it, along with many  others, for being a film by a spoiled brat from the United States. I don’t agree, but at the same time, it’s not false, no? 

Indeed, it’s part of the film. And there are even people in the film who think: “we are spoiled children.” I believe that if you don’t share this perspective at the moment, you are missing out on reality. The general privilege in the United States is a privilege  that comes from imperialism. Which I think is very clear in the film.  

I don’t understand Straub’s films so well. I saw Moses and Aaron in Portugal, it was very strange to see under those circumstances… 

I like Fortini/Cani quite a bit, myself. It’s a film about the Palestinian question.

Is it any good? It’s not just a reading? 

No, no, not at all. It’s about the writer, politics, the struggle, it’s really a beautiful film. Politically it’s rather simple as it’s made from Fortini’s text which dates to  1967. I really love how Straub works with the writer, I love his images and how he addresses the Jewish problem. In France, few militant, pro-Palestinian films concern themselves with Jewish identity. 

Are you Jewish? 

Yes. 

Me too. And you’re interested in these issues? 

Not especially. But more so today, more and more… 

Still a forbidden topic, “the leftist Jew in the wrong on Palestine”…


Christian Flemm is a filmmaker and translator. He lives and works in Berlin.

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