“Luminato & TIFF go to the Movies” and we go with them. The program accompanies the Luminato Festival’s artists and productions this June – among them Robert Wilson. German filmmaker Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s 2006 documentary Absolute Wilson tries to get at the notoriously elusive man behind the scenes on June 8, 7pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
For half a decade, Otto followed the globe-trotting theatre director to create an intimate portrait. Their friendship and collaboration began, as the NYT reported anecdotally, when the world-famous stage innovator bummed a cigarette from Otto at a 1998 gathering in the Hamptons. “Don’t you hate these cocktail parties?” she recalls him asking her. “I absolutely do,” she answered, “especially since I’m the hostess.” Wilson commented matter-of-factly: “We just seemed to get along.” (so much so that Wilson attended the birth of Otto-Bern’s first son). This quality and closeness sets the well-received Berlinale-screening film apart from other artist biographies, while also opening the field for criticism of over-interpretation and lack of critical distance.
Perhaps not surprisingly did this relationship develop between the American theatre force and the otherwise unknown German filmmaker. Wilson is a star in Europe (with a Golden Lion from Venice), especially on German stages from Berlin to Hamburg. His home country never quite warmed up to his vision in the same way. "Death Destruction & Detroit" premiered at Schaubühne Berlin in 1979, followed by his collaboration with German playwright legend Heiner Müller on” Hamletmaschine”; then came Wilson’s productions of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly" and Wagner’s "Parsifal", all in Hamburg. The crowning rock-star glory was the Wilson-Waits-Burroughs production “The Black Rider”, which sold out the Thalia Theater for years and won the German Critics’ Award. After that he spent nearly a decade on productions with Lou Reed, again all in Hamburg.
Despite his close relationship with Germany --Luminato’s new also-Hamburg-native AD Jörn Weisbrodt used to run Wilson’s Watermill Center until recently--, Wilson keeps a critical distance: "Germans read so much into my work, they are always looking for reasons and motivations” (Spiegel). For Süddeutsche Zeitung he acted out this little scene, not unfamiliar to anyone who has worked in the German arts world: “Do you know how a German actor plays? (Wilson gets, up, holds his head as if in pain, distorts his body.) They can’t stop thinking! What the hell are they thinking about all the time?”
Katharina Otto-Bernstein shows the breadth of his oeuvre, from old footage of early dance experiments to his big international successes. She says it worked to her advantage that she knew little about his influential early years. “This way the audience discovers with you the man. If I had known all these things, I think it would have been more academic. I would have concentrated more on the work than the life.” (NYT). In the 60s he started out working with disabled children and was then hospitalized after a suicide attempt. “I’ve never talked so much about my personal life in public … I’ve tried to let the work speak for itself. In this case, I thought, ‘Why not?’ I felt Katharina was the right person to have the dialogue with.” This survey of his life’s work proved therapeutic. “It’s like cleaning house.” (NYT)
Otto-Bernstein wrote, directed and produced the film that includes David Byrne, Susan Sontag, Philip Glass, Tom Waits among others. She herself had taken the opposite route from Wilson’s: in 1979, the same year Wilson started out in Berlin, she moved from her native Hamburg to New York to study philosophy and political sciences at Columbia University (and acting on the side). In 1993 she returned to Columbia to finish her film studies in writing and directing.
Watch a trailer, see the film. Absolute Wilson is a documentary rich in detail on a charismatic and influential artist that oscillates between interview, photos, footage of his work and commentary by his friends and colleagues. "He is a living contradiction", Katharina Otto-Bernstein told Spiegel magazine. Only ever having seen "Einstein on the Beach", Wilson’s 1976 seminal Avignon Festival hit, on German stages, I just got my Luminato tickets to see the show in Toronto in 2 weeks.
by Jutta Brendemühl, Goethe-Institut