Interview with Angelika Levi About Her Film My Life Part 2

     |    Wednesday, der 30. March 2011


(Interview re-published courtesy of the International Forum of New Cinema)

Stefanie Schulte Strathaus: Your last film was made a very long time ago. How long did you spend working on MY LIFE, PART 2, your first full-length film?

Angelika Levi: I began in 1996. I travelled to Chile and began researching my mother’s life. So seven years all in all.

Question: Your film tells many stories. One is that of the life of a multifaceted woman: your mother; a scientist and wife with a Jewish background whose life was strongly influenced by disease. The film tells a wartime and postwar story and a story from the 1960s in which you yourself grew up. It tells the story of an emigration and it is an attempt to address your identity as a member of the second post-Shoah generation. Which of these many levels was at the forefront for you in the beginning?

A.L.: In the beginning, I primarily wanted to find out more about my mother and what exactly happened. But I started asking questions much earlier. I travelled to Chile to find out what was out there, why she and my grandfather had argued and why she had returned to Germany. It’s a question I still haven’t got a clear answer to. There were many factors. My mother died in 1996 just as shooting began, and then I couldn’t talk to her about it anymore. But I also wanted to show how I grew up and what influenced me. At first I focused on how the experience of the Shoah was passed on to the next generation, and noticed that I’m not alone in that.

Question: With what exactly?

A.L.: In having a family in which one parent was persecuted or one part of the family was Jewish, the other Christian. For me, the story of my mother was always very much in the foreground and made a very strong impression on me. My seven-year foray through the archive, the past she left behind, also became a way of finding out something about myself, in both a positive and a negative sense.

Question: Your film is particularly influenced by the difficulty the second post-Shoah generation in Germany has in dealing with the perpetrator-victim issue. Your parents’ marriage was that between a Protestant priest and a Jewish scientist.

A.L.: I think it’s very hard to avoid thinking in terms of perpetrators and victims. I deliberately avoided it while working with the material because I thought it was important to show the complexity of the connections. It was a process. I think I used to want to identify more strongly with the Jewish side and leave out the contradictions. Working on the film helped me to begin seeing things much more precisely. Of course it’s true that you can’t simply talk about the members of my generation as perpetrators or victims. Even so, Jewishness is equated with being a victim, although I refuse to accept this. I only started talking about my Jewish background very late on in life. I wasn’t brought up that way, and I didn’t want to fall into this model victim role that German non-Jews often put you in. This behavioural pattern is actually a reversal, a trick to avoid looking at German history within your own family, at questions like “What did my parents and grandparents do? Were they Nazis or collaborators or not?” I also tried to portray my mother and grandmother not as victims, but as women who fought in their own way (mainly with humour and irony) and developed their own ways of transforming painful experiences into stories, suffering into something bearable. In the film, someone says “Levi” with an “i” is the Aryan spelling. That’s the sort of transformation I mean. It happens very often, and I found it interesting.

Question: How would you describe the role your mother’s illness played in this respect?

A.L.: At first it was an illness, and yet the doctors said my mother was crazy and told her that she wasn’t ill. She therefore found herself battling for survival again, although in a very different way, and this on several levels at once. She was disabled, and suddenly everything reminded her of the discrimination she had suffered under the Nazis. It started when she was six and the school doctor said, “You’re black, aren’t you? Your soul is probably black too.” At the same time, when I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, elements in our society were genuinely anti-Semitic, not just in my mother’s eyes, though it was better hidden than it is today. She often exploded because someone had said something that she wasn’t prepared to tolerate. People thought she was crazy, for instance when she said of some people, “I don’t want to have anything to do with those Nazis.” These were seen as decent, church-going people. My mother saw many things clearly, broke taboos and spoke about them. But that was seen as pathological. And it all ran in parallel with her physical illness: the cancer.

Question: To outsiders, your mother was pathological. She even directed her scientific gaze at herself, through which all the recordings and documents, the protocols of her life and sensations, were created. What was the purpose of all this for her as well as for you while working on the film?

A.L.: I always had the impression that she had intended to publish something herself. The photos and recordings you see and hear in the film are only a fraction of what there is. During the last two years of editing, my main task to find out what material I wanted to use and what I didn’t. They were difficult decisions. I believe my mother needed the scientific objectification and distance. Perhaps her scientific view of things, plants and matter helped her survive with respect to herself. I find her way of writing and arranging everything in proper order – be it plants, her own life, her illness or her pain – truly remarkable. I discovered that this was not something she developed through her studies or scientific work, but already discernible when she was six or seven years old. At a very early age, she began describing everything. She didn’t interpret, but simply described. She also drew very well, which is another form of description.

Question: This media-based way of conveying history enables your film to act as a dialogue between the generations and appears to break the silence we all know so well. The much-loved issue of the communication problems between mothers and daughters is very much secondary in your film. Instead, by showing texts and pictures and playing recorded music, you put the mediatory level itself in the foreground. I very much like the photographs that your mother and grandmother took of each other, in which they both struck up the same pose. How did you try to present yourself in the film?

A.L.: I’m not sure whether I really succeeded. I had actually intended to put myself more clearly in the picture, to talk more about myself, but I gradually realised that I had to hold myself back. After all, I let everyone speak and have to leave some room for the viewer. I tried to leave a lot of things open in the film so that everyone can develop their own ideas and opinions about the materials presented. My attitude can be perceived more subtly. It mainly shows because I place things next to each other, even the sound and the images, which do not relate to one another illustratively. I found the aspect of the search for an identity less and less important. After all, it’s about living your life with all its contradictions, differences and difficulties – which isn’t the same as being ambivalent, as I discovered in Chile, for example, where the Jewish-German identity doesn’t have such negative connotations. In Chile I began having a more strongly political stance, an attitude that can easily be overlooked when you’re dealing with your own past and which I try to allude to with the scene about the elderly Jewish couple in Chile whose point of view I couldn’t share at all.

Question: What role do the name changes play in this? You changed your name to “Levi” – your mother’s name – before you began making the film, and some of your relatives changed their names too.

A.L.: I made my earlier films under the name Levi too because it simply sounds nicer than Becker. After reunification, the decision to adopt this name was also intended to indicate that there was a difference between German history and mine. The name enables me to express the break the Jews and my relatives experienced in Germany.

Question: What did you learn about the possibilities and limitations of autobiographical filmmaking? How did you find the act of walking the thin line between your public and private life?

A.L.: Of course I left many private things out. I was very careful to ensure that the material I used also meant something to other people. It can get embarrassing, if it gets too personal. It was important for me to make the connection between privacy and the public arena, and it was just as important to see the past alongside the present rather than presenting history in isolation. The Super8 footage my father took of my family is probably very similar to that of other family films. If you look very carefully, the images say very personal things. Small things like a drape, a ball, clothes or a stairway are very important, and yet at the same time they refer to a very particular era. I found some beach photos from the 1940s that tell a very different story than those my father took of us in the 1970s or the ones I took in the 1980s and 1990s. Suddenly it dawned on me that I had subconsciously reproduced pictures, photographing my family in wicker beach chairs without realising that they had always sat in wicker beach chairs. Those were the kind of things I only discovered – and then of course highlighted – while going through the material. My family has always documented itself. For a long time, I had assumed that my story didn’t exist in Germany, but then I noticed that everything is there. People constantly talk about the Nazi era. It’s just a question of how you talk about it and to what end. The things people are prepared to talk about in Germany clearly also say something about what they won’t mention.

Question: What role does your voice have in the film?

A.L.: My voice is my position. I’m still wrestling with the mediting because I don’t want to sound like a voiceover. I want my voice to blend in with the others, one voice among many. Let’s hope it works.

(The interview was conducted by Stefanie Schulte Strathaus in Berlin on 19 January 2003.)