• International Competition

If I Fall, Don’t Pick Me Up

Declan Clarke

Berlin, 1974. 32-year-old stage director Walter Asmus assists 68-year-old Samuel Beckett for his first personal production of Waiting for Godot. Soon, their professional understanding turns into a friendship that will last until the writer’s death. It is safe to say that this film is the story of that friendship. It does so in pure Declan Clarke fashion, in his usual way: with still shots, in 16mm, in the present tense, articulating visual and sound descriptions of the places, presentation of archival material, and objective report of facts. The archives belong to Asmus: postcards from Beckett, scripts of the plays they staged together with their own annotations, etc. The locations are places Beckett frequently visited during his stays in Berlin or Stuttgart: studios, restaurants, parks. Sobriety, factuality. But since Declan Clarke is one of those filmmakers who knows how to create feelings while sticking to the facts, If I fall don’t pick me up turns the chronicle into a poignant eulogy, not of a man, but of a relationship and the values that underpin it: loyalty and faithfulness, sobriety and rigor. And because these values have always informed the artist’s life and practice, a strange mutation occurs before our eyes – a revelation even: the world as seen by Declan Clarke is Beckettian. This world of modernity, or what is left of it, these empty, deserted places, these minimalist architectures, form a set that seems frozen in anticipation of a Beckett play. Staged by Asmus. And if the film begins in the Wicklow mountains and ends on the stage of Dublin’s Gate Theatre, it is because this exercise in admiration is also, despite its author, a quite indirect self-portrait. With great decency and restraint. “Hold back!” Declan Clarke, just like Walter Asmus, has learned his lesson from the great Sam.

Cyril Neyrat

If I fall, don’t pick me up follows the life and work of Samuel Beckett, focusing on his relationship with the German theatre director Walter D. Asmus. It chronicles their work relationship on Beckett’s plays and the development of their friendship. Where does this film, and its focus, find their origin? In which intuition, desire, interest?

The film finds its origin in the extraordinary close relationship that Samuel Beckett and Walter Asmus developed over the fifteen years that they worked together. Beckett was 68 when they met, Asmus 32, but they had an immediate connection in terms of how Beckett’s work should be interpreted. Within two years Beckett was regularly diverting people to Walter Asmus when they wanted a Samuel Beckett production, particularly with regard to Waiting for Godot.
Beckett, I guess, could see the clarity with which Asmus can interpret his work: the nuances, the pauses, the tone. Very important. Naturally, their friendship became very close over the years, but I was particularly struck by its initially forming through the work. It was the work that created the friendship, which is something I see as unusually special and worthy of recognition.

So it is not a portrait of Beckett. It is the description of a relationship and of its qualities: faithfulness, modesty, rigour and humour. Do you agree and can you comment on this aspect?

When I first met with Walter and producer Candice Gordon [who brought us together] to discuss the film, I said that I didn’t want to make a film ‘about’ Beckett, but rather a film that Beckett would want to watch. We’ve had plenty of talking head films about Samuel Beckett, his work, his influence, his importance, but I’m not so interested in adding to that particular pile. There’s a quality to Walter Asmus’ Beckett that I’ve not seen in other interpretations. I felt that if I could make a film that captured the tone of Beckett’s work as it resonated with Walter Asmus, and if I could film the places and traces of their working relationship, I could perhaps better capture the essence of the work they did together. I could convey a sense of its source so to speak.

The film relies mainly on two kinds of filmic material: places (mainly built, but not only), and archives (photographs, letters, play scripts). Can you talk about your research, the way you conducted it, selected the material, both in the archive and in the cities (mainly Berlin but not only)?

This was without question the most daunting task of making the film – how I approached it. I revere both Samuel Beckett and Walter Asmus; so how the hell do you work with that? To first meet Walter was an incredibly moving moment for me personally, and then to be standing there in his office looking at his directing copy of Waiting for Godot; the original script of the Schiller-Theater production of ‘Godot’ from 1975; or the original scripts from Ghost Trio and … but the clouds… that Beckett and Asmus worked with in 1977 was mesmerising. Then, Walter is showing me hand written notes that Beckett had left him, and opening up his archive to me, all the while calmly stressing to me constantly how important the work was to Beckett. I was light headed. An extraordinary experience.
I started just by filming as much of the archive as I could, as faithfully and respectfully as I could. When in doubt, film. The camera always knows what’s worth looking at. Then I started to research Beckett’s time in Germany, the places he went etc, through the Bair, Cronin, and Knowlson biographies, and cross referenced these with the ‘Collected Letters’ and through discussions with Walter Asmus. This was how I found the Giraffe restaurant, which had recently closed during the pandemic and was sitting empty and abandoned in the middle of Beckett’s Berlin. It seemed to me, on a freezing winter afternoon, as if a Beckett stage set had been left for me to find and film in. Other locations, such as the former SDR buildings in Stuttgart that are now desolate, seemed to present themselves as metaphors for what happens to the work – particularly with regard to the performing arts – when the directors and actors have gone. Ghost ships of the collective imagination.

Can you talk about the way you approached the sound of the film. There is no archival sound, for example. Only ambient sound of the places as they are today. Can you describe, explain your approach of sound?

Sound is either an artificial distraction or an ambient accompaniment to the environment you happen to be in or adjacent to. I shoot with an Arri 16S from the early 1960’s. It’s a beautiful camera, but it’s very noisy. After I shoot I ask the sound technician to stand at the position of the camera and to look at what the camera just shot. To take that in, to quietly listen.

There is one living figure in the film: Watler D. Asmus, as the old man he is today. You stage and film him in a both very intimate and minimalist way, in a very precise interior. How did you shape his presence, according to which directions?

Samuel Beckett, wisely, never gave interviews. He let the work speak for itself. I feel that the work that Beckett and Asmus did together also speaks for itself, and does so far better than I ever could do on its behalf. When I was preparing to discuss how I might approach the film with Walter Asmus I found a ‘mute interview’ that Samuel Beckett gave to Swedish television in 1969 after winning the Nobel Prize for literature. He was in Tunisia at the time, and only agreed to be filmed for interview as long as there were no questions. It’s about a minute and a half in duration, but perfectly captures Beckett in the moment. If you have a film camera, often, you don’t need words.
I wanted to film Walter Asmus in a mute manner fifty plus years after Beckett had responded to global recognition of his work by so doing. To keep this integrity to both Beckett’s and Asmus’ work in unison, and in silent harmony. They wait together.

Even if the narration covers the end of Beckett’s life, from the early 70’s to this death in 1989, Waiting for Godot plays a distinctive part in the architecture of the film. Can you explain why?

Even though it is his most famous work, Waiting for Godot remains Beckett’s most enigmatic work. Between 1951 and 1954 he wrote Molloy, Malone Dies, Watt, Waiting for Godot and The Unnamable – an extraordinary output. All the work he is best known for. Godot was right in the midst of it all, and the first, and longest, play that he wrote. The fact that it’s for the stage makes it on the surface more accessible, but many people find the play impenetrable, because it refuses to explain itself, or its ‘meaning’.
According to Beckett, the play was inspired by Caspar David Friedrich’s 1819 painting Zwei Männer in Betrachtung des Mondes (Two Men Contemplating the Moon), which Beckett saw in Dresden in 1937. As I choose to see it, Caspar David Friedrich made a painting of Samuel Beckett and Walter Asmus working together on Waiting for Godot 150 years before they met.

You are an Irish filmmaker living and working in Berlin for many years. This new film, although mostly and logically shot in Germany, opens and closes with Irish landscapes. It is tempting to see a very intimate dimension in the film, although the subject matter appears less “personal” than the one of some of your previous films (Saturn and Beyond, How I became a communist). It is even tempting to feel a kind of indirect self-portrait in the way you evoke Samuel Beckett’s life and work in Germany. Would you agree? Could you develop about this dimension of the film?

It’s interesting that you say that, and shows your perception as a film viewer. The previous films you mention are not actually so personal from my perspective, they use personal events to tell quite vast and universal stories. I tried in both films to be as detached and objective as possible from the represented personal subject matter. We all know illness and death, and we all know the sinking feeling of looking upon a political desert that seems devoid of arable potential.
In this film, detached as it may appear on a surface level, I was deeply invested in the significance of the contributions of those involved. My first encounter with the work of Samuel Beckett was when I saw the Walter Asmus production of Waiting for Godot at The Gate Theatre as part of the 1991 Beckett festival. I was deeply moved by the experience; it left me speechless, and had a major impact upon my life. It was at the time, and remains, one of the most significant influences of my life. When I first met him two years ago, I told Herr Asmus that it was because of his interpretation of Beckett that I stood before him as a filmmaker. Since that day in October 1991, Samuel Beckett’s work has been an enduring influence on my outlook, my thoughts, my work.
The landscape at the beginning and end of the film is that of the Dublin mountains that overlooks where I grew up. We would go up there often as a family when I was a child. Beckett grew up on the far side of the Dublin mountains, and used to go for long walks over the mountain with his father when he was growing up. After my mother brought me to see Waiting for Godot she encouraged my interest by gifting me a book about Beckett that Christmas, Eoin O’Brien’s Beckett Country. The second chapter is dedicated to the mountains, and for me when I think of Godot, I think of the Dublin mountains. Perhaps that’s why Beckett’s work has never seemed obscure or impenetrable to me – it seems very familiar. Local almost. As such, I thought it would make sense to introduce the Dublin mountains at the beginning of the film and prior to introducing the stage at The Gate.
Filming the latter was for me a surreal experience: standing on that stage, with that set, directing Walter Asmus – to my mind the greatest living theatre director – around his set of Beckett’s iconic play. Like standing in Monument Valley directing John Ford around a western set. How did I get to do that? Absurd.

Interview by Cyril Neyrat

  • International Competition
14:0026 June 2024Artplexe 2
10:3027 June 2024La Baleine
18:3029 June 2024Artplexe 2

Technical sheet

Ireland / 2024 / Colour / 116'

Original version: English
Subtitles: No Subtitle
Script: Declan Clarke
Photography: Simon Köcher
Editing: Declan Clarke
Sound: Francisco Petrucci, Stevie Lennox, Jamie  Lemoine
Cast: Walter D. Asmus


Production: Candice  Gordon (Embassy of Ireland)
Contact: Declan Clarke

One Power for All the Land / Declan Clarke / 2023 / 47 minutes
How I Became a Communist / Declan Clarke / 2023 / 55 minutes
What Are the Wild Waves Saying? / Declan Clarke / 2022 / 72 minutes
The Museum of Broadcasting and Loneliness / Declan Clarke / 2021 / 27 Minutes
Saturn and Beyond / Declan Clarke / 2021 / 60 minutes
The Hopeless End of a Great Dream / Declan Clarke / 2016 / 60 minutes
Wreckage in May / Declan Clarke / 2015 / 35 minutes
The Most Cruel of All Goddesses / Declan Clarke / 2015 / 60 minutes
Group Portrait With Explosives / Declan Clarke / 2014 / 40 minutes
We Are Not Like Them / Declan Clarke / 2013 / 40 minutes
Cologne Overnight / Declan Clarke / 2012 / 16 minutes