• International Competition


Selma Doborac

A man sits in a room with geometrical architecture and large, paneless windows with a view of the forest. He sits at a table, the surface of which, like a mirror, reflects the vegetation and the architecture. He starts to speak. The shot is static and lasts twenty-five minutes with a monologue in the first person, broken up with very brief pauses. He speaks rapidly and evenly, his voice neutral, his face expressionless. What he is saying has nothing to do with his own life or if he were playing a part. It is the story of anonymous executioners, perpetrators of collective crimes whose statements were taken and kept during the 20th century’s history of concentration camps and genocides. The screen goes black for a second before, another, older man, seated on the other side of the same table, in the same but differently arranged room, begins another monologue. He is not recounting the facts of mass crime; he is trying to ponder its logic, its anthropo-logic. De Facto: facts and their meaning, which defy reason. The approach devised by Selma Doborac offers film an unprecedented capacity to understand mass terror and its dehumanising processes. It works using decontextualisation (we never know which camp or massacre it’s about) and depersonalisation (we never know who’s talking, with the actor’s task reduced to the act of speech, purely reciting the text, its violence and the meditation of it). Simultaneously delving into the deepest depths of the human soul and performance philosophy of the act – the act of telling, the act of killing, the actor’s performance blending with the perpetration of the crime to a dizzying extent – De Facto strips cinema bare to demonstrate, soberly and without effect, its most radical critical power.

Cyril Neyrat

Through means of abstraction and decontextualization, De Facto profoundly renews the filmic approach of mass murder and crimes against humanity throughout the 20th century. What led you to undertake such a project? Which observations, intuitions, premises?

I wanted to say something about perpetration, yet in a way that never re-presents the real individual perpetrator in his uniqueness (which of course does not exist); I considered that the possibility of well-founded witnessing might be easier to seek and develop in the person who carried out the deed, in comparison, for example, to the victim, who has been harmed, humiliated, in short, permanently affected by suffering the deed, which does not mean that witnessing is therefore impossible, the contrary is of course the case, but the disinhibited remnant of the one who was capable of the deeds seemed to me to be interestingly closer to work on when contemplating the true deed and using the means of film bring out what is true in all its truth, to tell it differently, so to speak, as something real and true – that is why I developed two perpetrator personae from innumerable facts and in a strict form, who were to present true perpetrations of recent contemporary history in a completely uninhibited and open manner. I wanted to bring those deeds that are true into a formalised framework and thus through the true deeds let them become real in their re-enactment, so to speak, but always in the absence of the real perpetrator. I also felt that those attempts to engage with perpetrators known to me so far, be they auditory or visual, though not the written ones – the word, compared to images or sound, contains completely different possibilities of independent imagination (that is why I also wrote the characters from the facts, so to speak) – for example, recorded appearances and voices and gestures, or attitudes in court at judicial verdicts, were an inadequate means of reproduction when trying to recreate the truth of the factual elements of the negotiated, judged deeds that are to be understood. In relation to the real perpetrator, it quickly becomes evident how almost every court becomes a stage, every interview a rehabilitation, every publication of a socially rehabilitated perpetrator a misrepresentation, etc. I find re-enactment even more problematic, employing (I say this deliberately) the very person who is supposedly reproducing his true deed in a genuine way – ‘re-staging’ would be a better word; and the danger of such ostensibly genuine reproductions by those who have committed the crimes is worth considering, namely to what extent is another stage (in film) being offered not just to reproduce the crime, that would not be the problem, but to stylise it; no matter how the perpetration or deeds have been negotiated, I have to consider to whom I am giving the stage to reproduce something and thus possibly weakening the seriousness and genuineness and truth of this subject (since it is then acted out – in front of the camera, for the recording device, for the ‘audience’, but then really acted out), thus trivialising and blurring it. This should therefore definitely be done by stand-ins, but they should be able to sustain the thoroughly disinhibited and grave content in a strict manner (in addition, there are further responses); these are once again actors. Then there is also the consideration of creating a formal space for negotiation, in order to arrive at a place where conventional representations of both perpetration and especially its potential as a truth-bearing testimony are not sufficient.

The main material of the film is a series a long monologues made of the montage of testimonies from different origins – mainly perpetrators, but also their hierarchy, witnesses… What can you reveal of the sources? Can you tell us about the process of your research, and of the editing of the text?

The text is a film script; I wrote a film script that is based on the circumstances of crimes that actually occurred in the course of recent history; what it negotiates and what it returns to: actions, witness statements, soldiers’ reports, perpetrators’ confessions, court judgements, philosophical arguments, psychological categories etc. They are all real, but the text has been composed, even if it is underpinned with these facts – and in order that these facts could become tangible and comprehensible, I developed two dramatic (undramatic) characters who present these facts, which form the basis of the discussion of perpetration. The sources are very extensive and I spent three years researching before I was able to write the film script; indeed I wrote it with reference to the sources, but of course I also developed my own writing dynamics and had to evolve the necessary freedom to deal with all the material (for instance in characterisation) that I had worked on and carried with me for years, simply in order to be able to comprehend it and (re)present the situations. It is not about setting one fact against another, or disguising one with another; on the contrary, it is about revealing that, even though the circumstances and eras are different, there is something universal about all of them, and that is the ability of human beings to do unspeakable things to other human beings; how they were dealt with socially, and which conventions of jurisdiction, archiving and witnessing play a role in that, are also essential themes of the film, but the overriding theme is: How do I dramatically recapitulate the real deeds in a way that does not give the perpetrator a stage, how do I comprehend the crime as such, in its sheer intolerability, in order to understand it, how do I transmit the crime committed at the time to the now of the moment of seeing the film (or better still, to its after-effects), and how can I possibly manage, using  filmic means, to give this incomprehensibility a shape, an additional, as yet undeveloped place (the cinema space), in order to recognise something through it (perhaps also to bear witness to it) and possibly to transform my knowledge into an autonomy that I can use next time I am confronted with decisions. It is certainly a matter of considering to what extent film has the possibility of reaching places that conventional methods and strategies, such as witnessing, coming to terms with the past, the unspeakable remains of the incomprehensible, etc., do not reach at all. To indicate the source means to approve the option of knowing oneself supposedly informed by source information, and the danger of this seems to me to be that one might dismiss everything just heard in the film as already known, and therefore not  continue working on it; to guess at the source itself, to imagine it and to trace it as part of the discomfort that I, as a spectator, might feel as an after-effect, and even possibly to verify it, to reflect upon where I recognise a well-known narrated scene from (for example: men hanging next to each other on poles in animal slaughterhouses could be Abu Ghraib, or the description of a football match with inmates of a camp could be Auschwitz, etc.) – this movement of thinking and the unease it arouses probably stimulates my interest in increasing my knowledge about it more definitely; these were my very extensive considerations about not indicating the sources, which are really enormously rich and diverse, and which all exist, as well as about not pretending that the film is a scientific work or a court transcript – because even these are not sufficient to understand how much of what remains of the unspeakable is inaccessible and cannot be told. Film, as a contribution to a series of attempts at corrective action, perhaps arrives there by a different route.

The text is spoken alternatively by two actors, Christoph Bach and Cornelius Obonya, in a way wish clearly forbids any identification between them and the authors of the testimonies. Their performance is impressive. On which grounds did you choose them? How did you work with them to shape such a depersonalized tone and to achieve such a performance?

We worked very intensively and rehearsed in a very disciplined manner every day for months. In a classical way, although I quite methodically and successively guided everything towards an undramatic style, in a desired direction; that is actually the most beautiful work, the shared development of the character and the guidance of the actors. To be ready for every possible question that will arise within the process and to be able to react to it and act upon it, and at the same time to be able to see the needs of the individual actor. The relationship between director and actor is one of trust and then courage. An actor has to be capable of wishing to sustain a character, and be able to do so, and to do that he has to feel well taken care of and accompanied. I do not want to talk too much about my motivation for choosing individual actors, but I think there is always something that one sees in an actor and you pursue that; a character will always turn out differently depending on the choice of actor, not as a whole, but in pronounced nuances; the task is to see what an actor can contribute (to the truth of the character), what he is willing to give for the character, what he can do – and he does not need to know all that himself yet, only I need to know that; then you go there and seek it out together, bring it out, put it into practice – with enormous perseverance and discipline. Each actor will bring his own interpretation of the character, but the essence of what the character is will always remain the same and that is in the text, in the characterisation, as well as in the aforementioned possibility that exists in the actor from the outset to (truly) realise this text and this character – without him knowing, I have to know what truth is potentially there in the acting charter. “Let that become visible which would never have become visible without you.” (here again, in relation to the ‘model’, Bresson); it is a relationship of trust (the actors allow themselves to be led to something they may not know), which is also conducive to the desire to act; the kind of interpretation of the acting, however, is fixed in advance and not hidden, it must nevertheless first be discovered by the actors for themselves, even if it is revealed from the outset; they find it by being allowed to try out everything for a long time in order to arrive at what is already within them, even though they did not know it, or best of all: without them ever doing so; that is decisive for this method of creating a certain wakeful tension and thus of evoking a real and true situation despite the agreed framework conditions of the acting (here this is possible from the outset, in view of the content of the text, the film script, due to its overwhelming content); it is perhaps also very much about being able to learn to use all the means of one’s craft in order to put aside the craft after the process has been worked through and then be free when shooting. A ‘model’ (Bresson) cannot achieve everything because he lacks the craft (for example, to sustain a scene for 30 minutes; there has to be a cut because the performance of truth is not sustainable over long stretches and the truthfulness of the moment quickly evaporates), an actor can certainly sustain and maintain something for a long time by arrangement – yet here, truthfulness has to be invoked again and again; to resolve the paradox, to lead the actor’s craft towards a model-like state and indeed to share the use of the schemata of the conventional means of acting, yet without exhibiting them, that is the challenge, but also a gift for the actor, since it is through this that he first becomes free. Inherent in a game is that its outcome is unknown; even if I know all the rules of a board game, at the beginning of the game I do not know where the game’s dynamics will lead me and thus the outcome is uncertain; getting there is the most important task in the game; not a template, but creating the possibility of arriving at what is unpredictably true, all within a controlled framework. A beautiful paradox.

The setting (both the architecture of the pavilion and the furniture) plays a major role in the concentration of the film on the spoken words. What were your intentions in choosing the location and designing the set, on what grounds did you conceive the filmic space?

I was looking, and for a very long time, for a space that could reproduce, through its light and sound, the natural movement of real time, in order to create an opening on a visual level, to complement and promote the concerted, very tightly defined movement of the figures, but also to open up space. I always wanted to be able to show that this is what was, this is what is being negotiated, but it concerns the now, and now is here and proceeds like this. I wanted the temporal narrative to be as universally valid as possible; not: that was in the 1930s, and that was in the year 2000, rather I wanted the space to appear so formally ‘gutted’ that a temporal universalism becomes possible – and thus generally applicable; not only to a past that has supposedly been worked through, but also as the validity of it today and in the future. The artists who designed the objects sometimes collaborated (West is deceased) and I wanted to integrate this collaboration and what I find convincing about the continuity of their work, although not by exhibiting it, rather as a collaborative element that does not demand anything, but is just there and (through the design and choice of materials, as well as for conceptual reasons) cannot be immediately classified timewise; the objects also function as silent actors, so to speak, because they are works of art; one does not need to know that, because one simply perceives them and if not, then one still does anyway. I do not want to reveal too much about the space in advance, because the reader may not have seen the film yet; but the space is a ‘fortunate’ one in that it allows a recurring statement to be made about what is being negotiated in the film (and towards the end of the film) and to comment upon it critically; I find it crucial to reveal my means in order to say to the viewer: also verify me, who has just told you something for 130 minutes; these are probably the means that I used (this is probably the location that I am showing, this remains to be considered and decided about the film); alternatively, as with Bert Brecht in the theatre: here is the blackboard on which the scene that is about to follow is briefly summarised; so do not let yourself be distracted by the action – because it has all been constructed for you, rather verify what the construction can give you; always know that this is theatre (of course: film), but that there is nothing bad about it, on the contrary: the good thing about it is that someone has made a concerted effort to recreate something that was possibly like this (but not exactly like this) and we are now supposed to look at it together and gain something from it; with Brecht it would go on like this: when the next scene comes, we close the curtain briefly to reconstruct it for you; we do not hide the fact that it is being acted, that this is a space that we have constructed, but the form in which the content is presented in this space is intended to give you something (through the execution, style, acting, language): knowledge and interest, and this form should give you autonomy by making you see and feel that something has been constructed, but is still nevertheless true; you can test me, here are my means. However, since this has already been worked through, I leave out the curtain and the blackboard, so to speak, and go straight into the invocation of autonomy without commenting that I am commenting, because that hurdle has already been overcome. Plus, I think it is good when the resolution is not commented on, but represents, as a matter of course, the manifestation of what is being negotiated without underlining it and thus undermining it. The symbol, which stands for something, is then rewritten and reinterpreted.

Apart from the final one, the film is made of six shots of the actors speaking the text. Some are extremely long. Can you tell us about the shooting? What was your method, your discipline? Did you do many takes?

The shoot was concentrated and we shot everything chronologically: three days for each actor; for example, Actor 1: Act 1, 2, 3 and two or three repeats for each Act, the same again the next day and then the next. Then likewise with Actor 2. Making six days in total. During the shoot, it was important for me to have everything in place that had been rehearsed for months (for example, the stamina never to interrupt a take, which may last for more than 30 minutes, because they are written and conceived for continuous duration; I myself was also always the opposite number of the respective actor). However, the rehearsal method was also geared towards maintaining the intangible residue of a certain unpredictable tension, both when rehearsing and handling the characters (also written in such a dramatically undramatic way) and when shooting. It is about building a foundation so solidly in advance that it can be forgotten when shooting, because one is standing on it and must never comment on the fact of standing on it, but can never know exactly how one is standing today; it is about creating a kind of permanent unpredictability (no dramatically accentuated acting, no physical assignments, no impressions, no commentary, no self-examination of how to interpret the acting), yet at the same time also creating conditions for shooting where it is a matter of now or never, this way and no other. What is possible today suffices because it has been sufficiently prepared and, above all, because what has been prepared has been sufficiently accounted for. Repetition is welcome, but only minimal; once, twice. I can only shoot the sunset once, indeed on three days, but it will only ever be possible to show one sunset. There is the arrangement, there was the preparation, the very disciplined rehearsal, the direction of the actors, which aims to allow the reality that is not actable as a supposed acting certainty, but occurs, to become true and break through; in other words, it was important to reduce the acting charter to a ‘model’ charter in the weeks of preparation for the moment of shooting; see the ‘models’ in Bresson’s work: never use the same ‘models’ twice, etc. Yet here what applies: work with the actors until the acting is chiselled down to model-like non-acting, which is the opposite possibility that Bresson did not attempt. Lead the acting towards non-acting. The actors should have become free in so far as they have become the character – through rehearsals that they have turned into the character, so to speak. No acting at all. The film concept allows for these moments: in such long takes, something previously unidentifiable will randomly occur because something (a word, a mood, a memory, the physical memory, the mood of the day) will overtake the actor at some point and he cannot act away what is true. It was important to maintain this dualism: in every attempt to act, reality ultimately emerges. I always wanted to create a space in which the arrangement and trust are the guidelines, but unpredictability remains a leitmotif – the truth always breaks in, so to speak (through the weight of the textual content, through the duration of the scene, through occurences from outside: natural light, original sound, etc.). In this way, one is unpreparedly well prepared. I always knew, even with three shooting days per actor and one or two repetitions of a take per day, that I would eventually only use takes from the same day, because a day has its own true mood, another day has another; that is how I did it in the months-long editing process (which was a constant viewing process with countless notes): all the takes in the film are takes that were recorded on one shooting day, because I wanted that truth to manifest again.
(We worked exclusively with natural light and only with original sound; I wanted us to record as much as possible from the surroundings; for example, we placed additional microphones outside the set in order to make everything we actually heard audible in the film; the very subtle sound mix is purely what was there; I always thought about the sound design when scouting the location, so to speak. The cameraman and I inspected the lighting conditions on site and thought about how we could include each movement of the day exactly as it comes, without adding light. All the light-sound-time movements are very subtle and develop successively throughout the film, but they always break in and overlay the film, so to speak. It was important for me to include in this film what happens beyond control of a film. Once again, it is not about getting closer to the truth, but about being true).

The work on abstraction is counterbalanced by a strong incarnation: the physical presence of the actors but also the importance of light and its variations, and of the sound of nature. Can you comment on that?

Since the negotiated textual content is quite stringent and based on challenging realities, even though it is dramatically constructed (while of necessity appearing undramatic), it was important to me to create another factor on a visual level – to be accurate: one which is also transcendental and is indeed similarly anchored in factuality, yet like the textual space is of course also formally posited. The passing of real time during the passage of film time is a possible means of identifying the true, which has become real in a different way during the composition of the film; when the true is captured in real film time it not only comes close to the truth, but it is then true – and in this form, the factual (which is, after all, the object of the film) can, as it were, be experienced as true and real and factual and consequently interpreted in relation to what is true. Alternatively, as Schrader says: with Ozu, the first take of the same mountain that returns as the last take in exactly the same way will not be the same take of the same mountain, because there was the film in between. What he wants to say is that the film has done something to the mountain or to the image of the mountain or to my image of the initial mountain, and so on. Here it is not only the film, but also real time that passes (for about 30 minutes as, until and after the sun really sets), and it not only concerns the actual duration of film time, it concerns in particular the duration in real time of the actors’ acting and thus also of the spectators’ viewing; when real time successively shoves its way, so to speak, into the film as a real element of the factual (real time, film time, actor time, spectator time, etc.), it passes as such in the film and will also be felt precisely as this in the film, because that is what it is – and will subsequently tend to lead to the aforementioned transcendence, simply because it has been experienced, endured or sustained as pure time, in its pure essence, etc. There is a difference between whether a cut develops the documentary or real character of the filmic composition, i.e. the character that strives for truthfulness, and whether this is done by means of the pure time plus the time that has really just passed and been endured in the film as film duration. This real and therefore true time is then simultaneously real and cinematically real and will affect the spectator, as well as the actors sustaining this time, presenting it and ultimately transcending it – that is beautiful: the simultaneity of the real (everything that thereby happens unpredictably, because it is that which is to be challenged) also becomes true in the film – and comes closer to accuracy or possible accuracy. It is similar with the sound: the sound space as a real and therefore true narrative, which always contains the unpredictability of this narrative of the real (for example, the occurrence of a thunderstorm, the outcome of which is uncertain). The existing surroundings provide the assurance of being in the here and now and therefore of being at least ever closer and closer to accuracy, in order by that means to return to the real. To make the true real through time and sound, to transmit it (to the film, the spectator, the actor, to the now: film) means to be able to look more closely at what is true and perhaps also means later, as an after-effect, to recognise something about the past that is being negotiated here. Having actually acted out and observed and experienced time, one comes closer to a cognitive interest than if one has not experienced constructed time, so to speak. Or as Bresson says: you have to see and hear the film when you close your eyes (even before you have done it). Alternatively: retouching the actual (I add here: only) with the actual. It is not about something that corresponds to the truth, but about something true. That which is true is perhaps a possibility of cognition. And also an opening: to hear vastness, even if not to see it, is nevertheless to feel and perceive it. Or to bring back something past (the course of events) and anchor it as part of the now (here, today, real). “To bring the past back into the present.”

Interview by Cyril Neyrat






  • International Competition

Technical sheet

Austria, Germany / 2023 / 130’

Rights holders
Selma Doborac

Sixpack Films
Dietmar Schwärzler