4. Dezember 2022

Responsibilities Some Letters about Film Festivals and Film Programming

Von Alexander Horwath und Simon Petri-Lukács

Der folgende Dialog in englischer Sprache wurde auf Einladung der Viennale verfasst. Er ist Teil der Publikation Viennale 60. On Film Festivals, erschienen im Oktober anlässlich der 60. Ausgabe des Festivals.


Amos Vogel mit seiner Frau Marcia und Alexander Horwath auf der Viennale 1993

© Alexander Tuma/Viennale


Simon Petri-Lukács  In her message about the premise of our correspondence, Eva Sangiorgi highlighted the term responsibility, the responsibility of film festivals. You have been active as a curator and institutional director in both the world of film festivals and that of cinematheques, museums and archives. One distinction between a festival’s and a cinematheque’s programme is that the former doesn’t have a «museum dimension»—it doesn’t have to excavate works or represent a deeper sphere, a formative core, a collection—and this shapes its responsibilities in turn. Festival programming should not be assessed like the programme of a cinematheque on the basis of how and what it teaches us of film history. It can be more fragmentary, more associative, in tune with its own fleeting, ephemeral frameworks—unlike the philological effort required to investigate or build a collection.

Let’s take one of your recent projects as an example. While your methodology at the Filmmuseum can be described as «an enactment of film historical reflection», to borrow your own words, a series like Amos in Wonderland, which was programmed by you and Regina Schlagnitweit for the Punto de Vista International Documentary Film Festival in Pamplona, is  more essayistic. It is more about critical thinking than historiography. It contains thematic traces of your institutional work—exile, a second life, liberation—, but it diversifies these ideas and doesn’t aim at an encyclopaedic analysis of Amos Vogel’s life or the history of Cinema 16. This programme associatively mapped out Vogel’s aspirations, convictions and biography and intertwined them the cinematic representation thereof (in the sense that the films were combined in each chapter to evoke, recall or hold the promise of all the past and subsequent chapters ).[1]

This very procedure does, of course, also refer to Vogel’s own disentanglement from traditional groupings of films, and the gesture of diversification or dispersion («auseinanderstieben», as you referred to it) was relevant in your Filmmuseum programming as well. So the two realms clearly can’t be treated as mutually exclusive; the contours of this differentiation between festival and film museum programming are not sharp-edged. But I still believe that the differences between a festival and a cinematheque—regarding temporality, space and resources—have, by necessity, certain consequences: not only in terms of «protocol», but also in view of form and content.

In other words: a festival’s responsibilities are partly specific to current problems, a means to  establish a thoughtful relationship to such factors as: the lack of restraint that characterises current practices; the stream of globalisation and the question of film cultural «roots» (those that remain); the danger of interchangeable festival concepts; the «world tours» of travelling restorations and potential remnants of alterity, etc.


Alexander Horwath  Your letter highlights the programming aspect and how the festival and museum frameworks differ in that regard. I can live with the contours you’ve described, but I’d say that cultural institutions of both types can become truly exciting (and, in effect, responsible vis-à-vis cinema as such) when they manage to a certain degree to include the respective strengths of the other in their own activities—when they allow «fleeting, associative, current» descriptions and critical reflections of cinema on the one hand and a strong historical consciousness and interest on the other, including even «philology», as you’ve called it, to exist side by side. These two perspectives should really be seen as two sides of the same coin. In my own practice, I’ve always had a hard time keeping them apart, as far as the core of my «thinking with films» was concerned. There are obviously very different expectations, histories, burdens and obligations that come with working in either field, but both types of work benefit immensely from a deeper understanding of the other. At least if you’re a festival or a museum that has any ambition of «curating politically», instead of just following current fashions of «political curation».    

But before we investigate the practice of film festivals in more detail, I would like to say two things about the concept of responsibility in regard to cultural institutions. They are probably all-too abstract and general, but they’re important to me.

1. Like all things, responsibility is determined by and intertwined with history and politics, and thus subject to change and antagonistic interpretations. In the case of a film festival, there is almost no responsibility that should be assumed a priori—except a few basic tenets: a film festival shows films publicly, over a limited period of time and in a geographically circumscribed area, like a city or village. Even if the words «film festival» are now sometimes applied to online activities or to projects of a longer duration, I would argue that the vast majority of those who have said these words over the last 90 years have (at least implicitly) been referring to the above tenets. All the other potential purposes, aims, meanings and responsibilities of a film festival differ wildly, for instance between Mussolini’s Mostra of the 1930s and that of the 1980s, or between the present-day Munich Film Festival and Courtisane or Punto de Vista, to pick another example.

2. As soon as I utter the word responsibility, it falls apart into different tastes and meanings. To name a few, responsibility means accountability (Verantwortlichkeit, Haftung) and reliability (Verlässlichkeit); fulfilling one’s duties, missions and functions (Pflichten, Aufgaben, Funktionen); showing competence (Zuständigkeit) as well as commitment (Verbindlichkeit). Allowing these different meanings in all their moral and practical dimensions to dissolve on the tongue, one immediately understands that running a «responsible» film festival is a juggling act with so many balls in the air that our adjective only makes sense if it refers to each of the balls specifically and separately. What I’m trying to say is that—taking all the above partial meanings into account—many film festivals are probably responsible and irresponsible at one and the same time! Some are just irresponsible, of course, and a few might manage to keep all the balls in the air and act responsibly in all these regards. But don’t you agree that encounters with this latter case are pretty rare?

What follows from these two statements is that we might practice our own responsibility as invited correspondents by looking at the many layers through which film festivals «speak». Individual programming choices are one thing (and can be debated endlessly, as we all know), but the discourse that festivals produce in other ways is maybe even more consequential: how they address audiences, filmmakers, the industry, the sponsors; how they deal with the festival’s concrete location in the world and the (hi)stories of that place; which concrete kinds of spaces they use; the organisational and curatorial elements that they stress and those that they consciously disregard; the range of temporalities and durational experiences they offer vis-à-vis different types of works, guests and viewers; the dialogue entertained (or not) with other institutions; etc.

There is a curatorial collective, which was founded in Zagreb and is now in charge of the Kunsthalle Wien, who call themselves WHWWhat, How and for Whom. I kind of like that name, it’s a good starting point to consider what I meant before. The terms you use at the end of your letter—(non-)interchangeability, roots, (lack of) restraint, alterity—already go a long way into that direction, so maybe you could give me some specific and representative examples?


Simon Petri-Lukács  I agree that these two programming practices empower and mobilise one another at best. Just to name two equally honourable ambitions: while «philological» curation may go deeper in monographic shows (which I also like because they impose humility on the curator, blocking flashy tendencies), «fragmentary» festival selections can reflect more critically on today’s viewing and learning modes, denying the illusion of complete knowledge. Both can produce rich constellations of films and ideas, not only in the sense that they «work well» as programmes, but can also be measured against the variety of criteria you specify.

Furthermore, just as there are filmmakers (Leos Carax, VALIE EXPORT, or Samuel Fuller, for instance) who are acknowledged for their «irresponsible», iconoclastic attitudes (towards budgets, social norms, formal and ideological conventions), we should be able to appreciate «irresponsible» programming projects if they defy the kind of tedious reliability expected by a cowardly, profit-oriented or crowd-pleasing mentality. Even «incompetent curating» can sound appealing if it highlights the fact that there is really no safe and stable know-how that can be applied without principles. Speaking about curators’ self-images, you once drew an analogy to Westerns, with a figure like Cole Thornton/John Wayne on the one hand (he turns down the contractor in El Dorado) and, on the other, the efficiently specialised guns-for-hire in The Magnificent Seven. Now Cole Thornton is, of course, dangerously competent too, and the Magnificent Seven gain a certain morality over the course of their story, but the point is that programming is not just shooting at a target. The idea that there are ready-made frames for curatorial work, or that our skill culture can produce quasi-impersonal «programming competencies»—such ideas should be countered or de-emphasized.

This is why I place such value on another aspect you mentioned: the need to engage with locations and their geographical, social, cinematic, institutional and personal histories. To be sure, this can also be done by using dis-location, dispersion, or exile as frames of reference. Just like the Amos Vogel series mentioned before, Miriam Martín’s program about rivers—which also showed also at Punto de Vista, but in 2022—was able to convey notions of displacement, not only in the sense of the sailor whose home is in constant motion, but also by dislocating her approach from solidity, a single city, river or meaning. If such a program took place at the Filmmuseum in Vienna, for instance, it would make more sense to me if it either limited itself to the collection, showing how rivers were seen by filmmakers who are important to the institution, or if it focused on the Danube and the history of the places connected by it.

I’d also like to add a negative example to explain my use of interchangeability and alterity. The retrospective of the 2021 San Sebastian Film Festival, «The Golden Age of Korean Cinema», is exactly the kind of programme a festival should avoid; it’s the opposite of the critical-essayistic-fragmentary concept, but it also betrays the historical or even completist echoes of its title. In effect, it consisted of 10 South Korean films from the 1950s and 1960s, shown with no justification, text or presentation by a festival curator (or by the Korean Film Archive). The ideas behind the selection were not illuminated, so I had to conclude that there were none. The digital files were often unwatchable; information about the state of prints was rarely provided. I attributed this to the fact that specificity, roots or alterity played no role whatsoever in any of the relationships at hand—between films, venues, curators, preservation and presentation, between here and there. It was simply material for a best-of DVD box set suitable for international distribution and accompanied by the gastronomical goods of Korea, which were also present in San Sebastian during the festival. This year, there will be a Claude Sautet retrospective, so it’s hard to detect any «character» in these selections, or the will to establish a thread, to allow any knowledge to find root in fertile soil. In a cinematheque context, I think the sheer presence of collections and the awareness of prints and their historicity would not allow for such a superficial approach. Furthermore, the programme could also be bigger there, it wouldn’t have to compete for screening space with the more «attractive» contemporary and competitive elements of a film festival. But maybe I’m being naïve: if I looked up Nico de Klerk’s book,[2] I’d surely find many more documented crimes of thoughtless and rootless best-of programs in the cinematheque and archive world too….

Since the selection of contemporary cinema dominates most film festival programmes, I wonder if we can look at that aspect along the lines of your listed criteria? 


Alexander Horwath  My criteria mainly referred to the how and for whom. The what is equally relevant to me, of course—what a festival includes/excludes from the pool of available films in the current season; the thematic, historical, monographic programmes it offers; or which aspects of the expanded terrain of moving images are seen as useful for a contemporary understanding of cinema. But I do want to stress the importance of connections—between the layers of a festival programme; between the individual works that are shown; and most of all between the claims made by the programme and the practical, economic, intellectual details of the how and for whom. I believe that a festival’s politics and its historical agency reside there, in these connections and in the robust tissue produced by them—or in the lack thereof: the unacknowledged holes and contradictions that arise when too many (real or imagined) stakeholders and their (real or imagined) pressures and expectations seem to prohibit any real connectedness.

Think of the contradiction at many festivals in European cities (with predominantly local audiences) between the vaguely anti-corporate/anti-consumerist stance of their catalogues and PR and the fact that they very often take place in multiplexes where the consumerist spirit is all-encompassing, no matter which works are being shown. Or the fact that international city marketing and the culture/tourist industry play a major role in motivating the existence and shape of many such festivals (your Korean gastronomy example hinted at this), while the latter still manage to maintain an image as autonomous agents (with gallons of feel-good progressivism and cinephilia to spare). Or, in the case of the bigger festivals, the contradiction between the fetish of world premieres (or of national premieres at most mid-size festivals) and the routine blurb that «the current state of the art» is supposedly on view here—fully hiding the reality of all the smaller and larger power struggles between festivals (for films and their premieres) and the degrees of tacit dealmaking between sales agents/distributors and festivals. When you look at the programme of most festivals, what you see is only partly a picture of the selectors’ tastes. What’s also on view there—indirectly or ex negativo—is a shadow portrait of that hidden reality: «the current status of festival X» in the eyes of the international and local film industries.

Two caveats: I am aware that the film festival world is now mostly seen and practised as a business (just look at how Variety has intensified its global festival coverage!), and that the creative industry types who run most festivals legitimise their individual practice by using the same terms (all the «realities», «necessities», «responsibilities» of their work) that I would claim for a disruptive viewpoint. My second caveat: as a quasi-professional film viewer who tends to be greedy instead of ascetic, I try to make the best of any festival that I happen to visit. I pick the films I want to see, wherever I can see them. But all these experiences, including the times when I was a festival director or contributor myself, have also intensified a wish to re-think what festival could really mean.

In your recent letter, you found a great metaphor for programming, and I would like to extend it to the bigger picture. The sheer ordinariness of so many film festivals; their routine of prioritising administration/communication «needs» and «skills» over individual, maybe even «irresponsible» acts of curatorship (or the tired 20-minute Q&A format over any actual conversation); their narrow, media-savvy concepts of world cinema or diversity-in-cinema—all of this places them within a rubric of social activity that’s literally closer to your idea of target shooting than to any of the feast-like, liberating, time- and space-shifting, passion- and rupture-inducing qualities that the term festival is historically associated with. I guess I do speak as a force of the past here, so I’ll just continue and pick Jacques Tati’s Playtime as a rough approximation of what I’m trying to express. Its first half depicts life as lived under the sign of smooth administration/rationalisation (airport, tourism, tradeshow, modern urban housing etc.), while the majority of its second half (the dinner/restaurant setting) is dedicated to a smooth system that’s falling apart, falling into all those exciting, unpredictable choreographies that the human animal can produce. The film is much more complex than that, of course; it doesn’t comply with the Manichean spin I am giving it. But I also like the example for another reason—Tati’s genius lies in presenting a model of the world (and of film festivals) where radical openness and radical connectedness exist side by side. So many things happen at the same time, in the same space. There are so many—almost too many—different vectors to follow (vectors of seeing, hearing, thinking), but they all relate and speak to each other under one roof with no holes—which is also a supremely «democratic» roof, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has said of Playtime.

To return to my earlier rant: There are certainly other festival models that have been able to challenge the mono-form of uneventful «events»—festivals not completely defined by the shadow reality of the industry. Strangely, this seems potentially easier for those at the ends of the spectrum. One end would be represented by Cannes, and maybe one or two other festivals. At times, they appear to be almost on par with the industry regarding their «framing power»—their (certainly dubious) ability to define «what counts» in cinema. At least ideally, theoretically, they are in a position to communicate to a global (media) audience a few criteria for cinema that are not just based on the zeitgeist or the box office. In practical terms of course, this relatively powerful role has led to an open alignment with the industry. Each side seeks the attention of the other; the forms of mediatisation and the lifestyles they promote are very similar; both are governed by a weird amalgam of aristo-meritocracy; and we can also observe a similar loss of reality—most recently in the choice to celebrate the arrival of Tom Cruise with a show of French fighter jets in the skies above Cannes.

On the other end of the spectrum, some of the «niche» or specialised festivals—Duisburg, Courtisane, DocLisboa, Bologna/Sodankylä/Pordenone or the festivals staged by the Kinothek Asta Nielsen in Frankfurt (to name only a few)—have used their obvious dimensional advantage («small but beautiful», «poor but manageable») to also develop and install a curatorial ethos that reverberates far beyond their original, very local structures. In each of these cases, the conceptual work on how and for whom was probably as important as the what. There are inevitably other kinds of dependencies that come with this model, but I think they can be more easily addressed in an open manner. For instance, as a member of the artistic committee at Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato, I can honestly say that the danger of expansion at the cost of coherence is always part of the discussion—but this very experience has also taught me that slow expansion can work, as long as you don’t fall prey to the illusion of having to represent everything to everyone in every imaginable way.


Simon Petri-Lukács  Your references to power, open or hidden, interests and impact make me think about the autonomy of this very correspondence. Just as a festival’s offering doesn’t simply mirror the selectors’ idea(l)s, my lines here are not «pure” either, for two reasons at least. For the sake of a dialogue, people speak the same «language» and take certain terms and conventions at face value—about a festival’s nature for instance, which is why I find your distinction between various historical and future meanings or purposes of festivals elemental (and I’d appreciate it if you share more about what you would like to rethink about them). Furthermore, it’s impossible to erase one’s first impressions and «moral reactions», so a consideration of festivals is always charged with a certain astonishment at seeing the mirage (spicy kimchi to intensify the aftertaste of The Housemaid, noisy jets to signal the importance of T. Cruise). Therefore, I won’t give in to the subsequent illusion—that all of this (mirage, discourse, surface, distractions) has no relevance at all and that I can fully extract myself from it. It has exactly the ex negativo, imprint-like relevance you describe: it shows San Sebastian’s relation to film within its own succinct frame and duration—and Cannes’ relation to moderation, environmentalism, France’s military history and the hierarchy of guests. These relations are not primarily shaped by the bad taste of individual managers and they only differ in magnitude because of the difference in each festival’s weight. They evolve in the international, systemic, self-propelling, anonymous, «natural» harmonisation of interests—and our discussion can’t situate itself above that. I just wanted to introduce a sceptical view of »the cult of autonomy», as you once put it in a conversation. To keep in mind that festivals which «avoid the industry» by focussing on characteristic tastes and strong curatorial approaches are also subject to personal, practical, political agendas. In this sense, your first caveat is also true for many «artistic» directors of festivals (at least in my experience). Their vocabulary and inclinations can become indistinguishable from that of their business colleagues, so that disruptive viewpoints and artworks are already appropriated and made to conform with the system by the bureaucratic language used to discuss the practicalities around them. 

I agree that the evaluation of a festival is most complete if we look at the interconnectedness of the how, what and for whom and understand the city’s viewing habits as well as its cinema map as part of a larger sociocultural history. I think it’s a venerable mission for a festival to integrate the existing variety of regular film exhibition into its own practice of exhibiting the «state of the art». There is a tendency, even at niche festivals like Punto de Vista, to use cultural centres (like Baluarte in Pamplona) as their main site. These are typical non-places, with little space in between where one might get—productively—lost, and without any attribute relating to the character of the city. This is as problematic as the dependence on multiplexes; it creates its own version of the consumerist spirit. The Viennale does the opposite, I think. It causes the viewer to get acquainted with (at least) the first district of the city and projects a responsible ars poetica—an urban institution existing between its physical sites as much as in them. I find it symbolic that festival visitors often arrive at a unique film venue after passing through Kärntner Straße, Vienna’s signature non-place (sic!), which is both a classic site and a culturalised quasi-mall. Sometimes, a Viennale visitor is more clearly in the city when entering one of the cinemas than on the street! Especially if the what is integrated so beautifully and prominently as in the case of Aufzeichnungen aus der Unterwelt and its «other Vienna» two years ago.

The «Manichean» spin you gave to your Playtime example made me smile, because for me the starting term of our correspondence was always connected to Gregory J. Markopoulos’ 1955 lecture «The Responsibility of the Cinema in Our Age», where he highlights cinema’s «contrapuntal» quality. So I’ll continue to speak about the what, although I do understand your reluctance to travel along the path of personal taste and specific choices.

Don’t you think that the «current state of the art» is inevitably present at a festival, even if there’s little curatorial intent behind the program? What I mean is that the current state of the film cultural milieu in a certain region and the mentality of its participants can always be gleaned from the selections. For instance, what concerns me most right now—based on milieus as different as Pamplona, San Sebastian and Vienna—is the enormous presence of individual, personal stories («ascetic portrait films» in the case of Pamplona, «raw dramas» in San Sebastian or Vienna). I’m referring to types of film which, because of their exclusive preoccupation with their protagonists, don’t stage, excavate, reveal or register any larger backdrop—neither dramatically nor formally. They leave us with various traumas, offences, love stories and lies, which are all irrelevant in themselves. Their presence at festivals is so disproportionate to their aesthetic value that one can only walk away with a defeatist experience in the end: «So this is the current state of our interest in the world...» In the spirit of your Playtime approach, I’ll use an example from recent German cinema as an allegory of this trend: the unfiltered festival dominance of such films reminds me of Jan-Ole Gerster’s Oh Boythe selections become as superficial as the relations they display. Instead, festivals (because of their acute contemporariness) should try and depict current typologies of social behaviour in a critical and comprehensive manner. Allegorically speaking, their program constellations should aspire to the insight and systemic curiosity of films like Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann or Harun Farocki’s Nicht ohne Risiko.


Alexander Horwath  I agree—in theory. But these aspirations do not exist in a theoretical vacuum. At least in Europe, the landscapes of film funding/distribution/journalism/festivals are more closely aligned than ever, economically and ideologically. It has become much harder, I think, to get a film or a festival off the ground which aspires both to a certain size and to a «critical, comprehensive, systemically curious» depiction of the present, as you’ve called it. Still, your demand is valid: we need festivals that make the effort to sketch and discuss the historical shape of the present via their film choices (and by this I don’t mean the shallow ways of attaching one’s programme and PR to the political headlines du jour). I’m repeating myself here, but just as the selection and projection of any «old film» can be conducted as an act for and of the present, the selection & projection of any «new film» can be viewed as an act of historical consciousness. This admittedly angular approach to programming relates to the «contrapuntal» notion you picked up from Markopoulos. Even though he spoke about counterpoint in a more formal sense, deriving it from music (which he saw as film’s sister art), the term is useful for separating the wheat from the chaff in the wide field of mid-size or «city» festivals: between those of the cantus firmus school who tend to passively mirror the common habits and tastes of «arthouse» film producers and viewers (the blinkered, compassionate-but-asocial worldview you describe)—and those who go for a richer, more detached/reflective/polyphonic representation of cinema and of the world.

The following may sound like a bad case of local patriotism, but since you already mentioned the Viennale, I should say that, grosso modo, it’s a pretty good example of the latter type. It has been a robust counterpoint to the «target-shooting» mono-form: not necessarily partisan (like some of the niche festivals), but critically coherent on several levels (size, topography, the relation between cinema’s past and present, the balance of film forms, etc). It’s certainly not a festival that just serves as an ex negativo imprint of the industry. As for the much-debated issue of how festivals (of all kinds) can truly inhabit their self-image as «matchmakers», it should be clear that there’s more than one match or connection to be made: as a festival, you strive for connections to the existing local structures, talents, discourses in your given field and to their (often quite different) international equivalents; you also try to connect the specifics (and the protagonists) of your art form to the specifics and protagonists of the city’s general culture and discourses; and you hope to match the unique character of certain works (and their makers) with an ambience and a timeframe in which they and their audience can blossom together. I think the Viennale’s record is quite strong in those regards, too, but not without some blind spots—including, of course, my own when I was in charge.     

You asked me what I would like to rethink about festivals. I will pick just one example which relates to a big fetish in capitalism—newness—and to one of the above modes of detachment: relativity. I’ll call this festival element the «anti-premiere» or the «right of the second look» (instead of the ius primae noctis or droit du seigneur).

Film festivals deal with various kinds of newness, the hunt for world or local premieres is only the most obvious one. There is no way around the legitimate expectation of seeing a number of «important new works» at a film festival (except for the few that are purely oriented towards film history). But how can the dark secret of The New also be addressed—its enormous relativity and its unpredictable lifespan? The long-awaited new work by Cruise or Carax may already be old hat two weeks after its Cannes world premiere, because it was theatrically released (and eaten up by the media) on the next day in many or most markets. Whereas, for instance, French Exit by Azazel Jacobs was still seen as new—rightly & excitingly so—when the 2021 Viennale showed it a full year and 2 weeks after its world premiere at the New York Film Festival. And what about the fact that some great films, often contrary to expectation, are not released theatrically later on? Again, French Exit is a good example here, because its two Viennale screenings remained the only ones in Austria. For the purposes of my argument (and accepting for once the problem of «personal taste«), my second and third examples are Kamen Kalev’s Février (my favourite film of 2020—three screenings at the Viennale, nothing since) and Alexandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (my 2021 favourite). I use the latter case because, aside from its Viennale selection, the film did have a good distributor and a regular release in Austria, but one that turned out to be absolutely ephemeral—it was gone after a week and maybe 300 people saw it that week. Austrian critics shared the global enthusiasm for this work, but their love was all spent on its Berlinale premiere (March 2021: shown only for press and industry, only online; June 2021: shown mostly to Berliners) and its Viennale screenings (October 2021), so the film evaporated with hardly a sound when it became regularly available for everyone to see in Austrian theatres (April 2022).

I’m not using these three films in order to whine about the sad state of film exhibition or journalism, but rather to give you a concrete example of how a mid-size festival might demonstrate its self-confidence—beyond the hunt for premieres (mostly catering to local ticket-buyers) and beyond the hunt for unique or innovative tributes/sidebars (mostly aiming at international colleagues and the esteem that such programs may bring). As a festival element, the «anti-premiere» could be several things: 1. a decision to simply and literally re-present a great film, just three or four years after its local festival premiere or its brief release in theatres; 2. a path towards those «systemically curious» depictions of the present: film constellations with no hierarchy between the premiere screening of X and the «repeat» screening of Y; 3. a statement about the relativity of newness as such (because to a majority of festival visitors the repeated film would still be new—it wasn’t seen by more than a few hundred in the first instance); 4. a more general attempt to weigh the gains and losses produced by the fetish of newness; 5. a bridge between the «truly» new films (the premieres) and those sunken-and-rediscovered histories of cinema that are the stuff of festival tributes or thematic sidebars; 6. a way of asserting, at one and the same time, the relative autonomy of a film (vis-à-vis its fate in commerce and the media) and that of a festival (vis-à-vis its role in the culture industry).

We must remember, of course, that newness at film festivals has other aspects beyond the issue of premieres. So I’d like to mention at least one case where a festival reacted in a productive and influential manner to a “new thing” in film culture—but I will leave that to my final letter...


Gruppenbild anlässlich der Retrospektive Aufbruch ins Ungewisse (Viennale 1993).

© Alexander Tuma/Viennale


Simon Petri-Lukács  I would like to pick up on what the «anti-premiere» can accomplish.

The premiere fetish doesn’t only impact selection, it is essential to the alignment you bring up, and it even extends to the alignments/relationships between people – so-called colleagues and friends. The quality and negligible influence of a large part of mainstream film criticism, the ephemerality and hollowness of its internationally timed enthusiasm, its indistinguishable word choices (vis-à-vis one another and the film’s press release), the tendency to use excessive adjectives («mesmerising») and frivolous nouns («journey»), these things can all be ascribed—at least partially—to the immediacy of presentation-reaction. Which makes it easier to ignore works that are attuned to different «lifespans» in presentation as well as coverage. Not only do we get poor language and insubstantial observations (and blind distribution at the other end), but the totality of the promotional tone solidifies the idea that the first viewing is sufficient—which, again, reinforces the relevance of the rush, the newness (for the benefit of both ends). Jonathan Rosenbaum’s counter-protocol comes from that same experience. He likes to bring up the nonsense that was published upon the first or single viewing of a film—often referring to Pauline Kael and her ahistorical overestimation of that instant impression with much disapproval (which makes it a different situation insofar as he opposes influential arbiters like Kael, Janet Maslin, Harvey Weinstein, etc.).

Since we also evaluate the for whom and the attendant responsibility of festivals, I’d like to add that this environment is generally not ideal for responsible or serious exchanges about cinema. I have rarely taken part in a festival conversation that wasn’t a victim of the reduced engagement that comes from tight scheduling. More relevantly, most panels dance around the same self-important matters: they too are ephemeral and there is no reason to attend or archive them. Once again, two counter-examples may be instructive here: the Digitale Protokolle archive of the Duisburger Filmwoche which defies ephemerality in its very form; it documents meaningful encounters and allows new ones to happen, even ones that lie in the past—virtual dialogues that appear out of (and thanks to) the archive. The other example enacted a liberation from small talk. In addition to her programme, Miriam Martín organised a walk around a small river in Pamplona, a happening full of incidents, a real urban experience: it’s not something to archive, but it will endure nonetheless. It wasn’t a fashionable departure from the cinema, it didn’t present the river as a continuation or extension of the programme’s experience. Martín simply took the responsibility to «get productively lost» with her audience.

I’ll end my last letter as I began my first one—by briefly touching upon one of the programmes you showed. Because your points about the «anti-premiere» express something that goes beyond the question of premieres. Implicitly, you ask how we can lessen our dependency on immediate reaction and protect the film screening from becoming something to look forward to—the unveiling of an object waiting to be converted into possession. And how, instead, we could try to constellate «anti-premiere» elements and present-day questions into a silhouette within which a body appears, a body of thought, a stance, an experience of being connected—not just in the moment but also with the history of the place we’re in.

For me, a paramount example of that was the 1993 retrospective Aufbruch ins Ungewisse, organised by the Viennale, the Filmmuseum and Synema. It was an exhibition of works by Austrian émigrés and exiles who had fled Central Europe, accompanied by an immense publication and symposium edited and organised by Christian Cargnelli and Michael Omasta. In the words of Amos Vogel (he was one of the invited exiles), it was a «mournful, late-in-the-day tribute.»[3] It was both deeply «interconnected» (in its ideas & protagonists, and in relation to the city) and «autonomous» (e.g. in its relation to film historical terminology). It commented critically on the unsubtle notion of German Expressionism and its Hollywood influence, asserting the greater truthfulness of a wider Central European influence, not just in visual motifs but in film sound and music and other areas as well. The what deserves a larger evaluation. To be brief, the dispersive selection (the inclusion of post-war works, for example) is an essential interpretation of the various temporalities of film, it foreshadows many pivotal achievements from your Filmmuseum work (the Stroheim-Seidl programme or The Case of Lena Smith book, to name two examples). The roots are deep and now part of the larger film culture of Vienna, they meet in fertile soil with other activities, they offer a dialectic about the cult of The Third Man by showing Abenteuer in Wien, and they are there, in the back of the viewer’s mind when he or she goes to see a programme at the Filmarchiv Austria, like Günter Peter Straschek’s Filmemigration aus Nazideutschland or the Jewish Film Noir program from 2019-2020.

Let me also return to for whom, with whom: as far as I can tell from photos and recollections, Aufbruch ins Ungewisse was also a context of meaningful encounters between people, between the invited exiles as much as with the locals. Vogel writes about «flickering shadows on the screen as well as in the lecture hall, as these émigrés, ravaged by age and sorrow, returned smilingly or scowlingly to the city of their dreams and nightmares.» It sounds to me like something that was at once time- and space-shifting and a depiction of the present. A utopian attempt to produce rich counter-images to any simple, monochromatic depiction of the past—and, at the same time, a statement about the impossibility of repairing it or making amends for it. The selection of «unsuccessful films» and the tragic undertone (articulated with painful directness in Fred Zinnemann’s answer to the invitation: «the shadows of the past are still too strong») gain relevance as the event eluded the trap of nationalistic pride or inadequately triumphant presentation. With a final film allegory from the 1993 programme, I think that Aufbruch ins Ungewisse shares the ethos of Menschen am Sonntag: the joy of existing in the absolute present—with menace and lots of labour surrounding that moment from all temporal directions.

To stage encounters like that—and to document the reluctance to participate—is the moving, mournful, generous responsibility I am looking for in the empty and crowded malls.


Alexander Horwath  I’m happy that this event has a place in the thoughts of someone who wasn’t even born then. The only thing I will add is that it was a collective effort of many authors, including most of the invited guests (even if they themselves would not have thought of their contributions as «authorship» of any sort).

In my final letter to you, I will limit myself to the one aspect previously mentioned. Originally, I had thought I would at least list further topics for discussion—like the important development since circa 2000 that has seen festivals become «producers» and «owners» of film culture on a scale unimaginable just a decade earlier (I mean: festivals as producers not only of films, which is a fairly recent development too, but as the co-producers of their own embedded «critical» discourse via «critics academies» and workshops; or as the agents behind new «talent/industry» networks; or—to also mention a commendable aspect—as the political/economic saviours of great but endangered cinema venues). But these topics are too wide-ranging to make sense as a list, and they will probably appear elsewhere in this volume anyway.

So, to conclude our dialogue, I want to mention an example of newness at a film festival that was very productive for me and, I believe, for many artists, curators and cinephiles of my generation (even if they weren’t present at the festival in question). Biographically, for me, it comes right after Aufbruch ins Ungewisse. After this intense experience of dealing with history as an unsettled, living thing, I was now learning to also think of cinema in similar terms, as something that always exists in several aggregate states.[4] My main teacher in this was the Rotterdam Film Festival of the mid-to-late 1990s and the idea of an «Exploding Cinema» that it gave voice to, as the first (and, for quite some time, only) larger film festival that went in that direction. It may sound rather quaint today, as everyone now shares the view that cinema is only one of many moving-image (plat)forms anyway. But in 1995/96, when Emile Fallaux[5] chose to dedicate a full festival section to what he and his staff saw as cinema’s «explosions», it was a really new and productive approach, as far as the film festival perspective was concerned.[6] From 1997 onwards, under Simon Field’s leadership, Exploding Cinema was continued, expanded and further delineated along the art/film, museum/festival axes, not yet tainted by the opportunism of many later crossover proposals from various festivals. Its anti-purist stance was clear, of course (Fallaux came from journalism and TV and had already prominently focused on «Cinema made by Television» in previous festival editions); and now, after all the power-shifts we’ve seen in the media/film/art landscape, I think we need other approaches to re-discover the cinematic arts. But at the time, my understanding of the terrain populated by non-theatrical filmmakers grew exponentially, as did my conviction that it should be taken much more seriously by festivals and film historiography alike. The following story of film festivals’ engagement with this area doesn’t really bear out my assumption, of course, and the opposite approach—from the gallery/museum/new media side of things—wasn’t very satisfactory either. But there might be a tender genealogy of curatorial projects, beginning with Exploding Cinema and continuing as we write (for instance, with this summer’s No Master Territories exhibition/festival curated by Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg at HKW in Berlin), where a plurality of dispositifs is staged with equal respect for all of them, and where the what and the how are again part of one and the same thought. 

I want to add that during the same time (actually starting a few years earlier), and in the same film culture, an important intellectual and practical renewal also took place in the field of film museums & archives—namely, at the Nederlands Film Museum under the guidance of Hoos Blotkamp, Eric de Kuyper, Ruud Visschedijk and Peter Delpeut. Some of its protagonists (including Mark-Paul Meyer and Nico de Klerk, whom you’ve already mentioned) were active on both sides of the archive/festival coin, and some as film-makers too. Which takes me back to where we began and allows me to apply the notion of cinema’s aggregate states also to the festival/archive relationship and to the responsibility issue.[7] Now that the newness of cinema as such can no longer be seriously defended and its long moment of centrality has definitely passed (in the culture industry and in the social dream life), film festivals could try more actively to describe the attendant—and not at all threatening—film cultural shifts. It is still important to look for «new», relevant works and makers and aesthetic ideas, and to rediscover the «forgotten» ones. But it may be the most worthwhile project of all to balance the different «states of the art» for the multitude of viewer generations and viewing positions that are out there and have no more use for cinema’s old ambition to rule the social and cultural surface. They may not represent the masses anymore, but they are heterogeneously informed crowds—and they are more than willing, I think, to contribute to the passage (or the return) of cinema to a place where its political, intellectual and aesthetic capacities are taken seriously. 

In other words: It’s not the «power» or «newness», but the indispensability of cinema as such that can be defended. You may not find proof of this in your social media timeline, but if your search is geared towards non-totalitarian modes of engaging with the world you could do worse than set up or visit a film festival of that kind.

June-July-August 2022



[1] I wrote about this at greater length for a fanzine produced by Lucía Salas at the Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola in San Sebastián.

[2] Nico de Klerk, Showing and Telling: Film heritage institutes and their performance of public accountability, Wilmington: Vernon Press 2017.

[3] Amos Vogel, «You Have to Survive Even If It Kills You’ (Old Jewish Proverb)», Film Comment (New York), vol. 30, no. 2, 1994, pp. 31–36.

[4] I take this term from Volker Pantenburg’s wonderful new collection of essays about the shared spaces of film & visual art: Aggregatzustände bewegter Bilder, Berlin: August Verlag, 2022.

[5] Coincidentally, Fallaux was also the festival director who, with the Hubert Bals Fonds, inaugurated the co-production of films via festivals. And, as I just realized when going through the old catalogues, he and his curators already played with aspects of the «anti-premiere» approach that I proposed so proudly in my last letter!

[6] On an individual basis (or for experts in other fields), the contributions may not have been totally new, but their constellation under the roof of cinema certainly was. There’s not enough room here to go into details, but the elements that met in the slightly chaotic arena of the 1996 Exploding Cinema included SimCity and Bitomsky/Farocki, the art worlds of Zoe Beloff and the Whitney Museum, web-based works, performances and Spike Jonze’s music videos, Gustav Deutsch and John Lasseter, computer games, anime and Craig Baldwin, Ken Ishii and a project called The Consensual Fantasy Engine. I’m not naming the contributions that were poor or silly, because my point is more about the effect of the whole.  

[7] An example which hints in that direction (and gives me the chance to refer to Amos Vogel one last time) is the multi-year project Re-selected conducted by the Oberhausen film festival and the Arsenal in Berlin in the framework of the even larger programme Archive außer sich. These projects addressed many of the issues that have been essential to me since I first began to think about the nexus of presentation/festival/museum and materiality/archive/collections. One of the best things that came from that large endeavour (and the best among many Amos Vogel tributes around the world) was the 2021/22 series curated by Tobias Hering: The gatekeepers exist to be overthrown. It took place at Arsenal, and I’m sure it worked perfectly fine there, but I think it should have been the Berlinale retrospective – it would have been the most significant one in decades.



Simon Petri-Lukács und Alexander Horwath

© Partizán Budapest


Simon Petri-Lukács is a critic and programmer. He studied film curatorship in Donostia-San Sebastian and participated in the programming of the local cultural centre, Tabakalera. He writes reviews and essays for Hungarian journals and organises film cycles in Budapest. He contributed to various international magazines and catalogues. For his thesis, he researched the Austrian Film Museum, and works on an interview book with Alexander Horwath.

Alexander Horwath is a curator, writer and teacher based in Vienna. He is the former director of the Viennale (1992-97) and of the Austrian Film Museum (2002-17). He has curated the documenta 12 film programme (2007) in Kassel and has published widely, including books about the American Cinema of the 1960s and 70s, Film Curatorship, Austrian Avant-garde Cinema and on filmmakers such as Josef von Sternberg, Ruth Beckermann and Michael Haneke. He teaches at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna, and is a board member of the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.