Ranveig Eckhoff
Norwegian journalist and a regular critic at Modern Times Review.

Director Corinna Belz goes on an exclusive house visit to Peter Handke.

Do we finally get a close and personal look at this shy, multifaceted author?

I’m in the woods – will possibly be late. Thus goes the title of Corinna Belz’s documentary film about the writer Peter Handke. She found it on a note he had left on the iron gate. The message was written with a pencil, most likely one of the countless crayons Handke always has at hand. Belz, an award-winning German filmmaker, is among the few who’re allowed to set foot beyond the iron gate in Chaville, outside Paris, where Handke lives. Even more exclusive is Handke’s approval of her film project. After months of waiting, the question Belz had to answer when they first met was: “But what do you want to film? To write is something you obviously cannot portray the way you can portray a painter’s work.” This was clearly the hardest nut for Belz to crack. Judging by the result, Belz largely wanted to capture die Weglassarbeit – a word coined by Handke translating roughly as “the effort of discarding, of not dealing with something.”

From angry young man to recluse

Those expecting a complete Handke-package from A to Z will feel sadly cheated. The Handke-universe encompasses more than 60 books; novels, essays, poems, plays, movie scripts, news articles, translations; a 75-year long life of writing with a broad geographical and thematic scope. It spans a long arch from angry young man (writer colleagues were dismissed as purveyors of “impotent, stupid and silly prose”) to a shy recluse whose main aim is to live in the language, to keep refining his form of expression, to always seek himself in the imaginative. (“To be able to create from the imagination isn’t normal. It’s rare.

«Wie soll man leben?»

Without vision it can’t be done.”) Corinna Belz has narrowed down this vast universe to a series of close-ups of a taciturn, though still smouldering man in his cave, with his colour crayons, his embroidery, his sofa and, hanging uncommented above it, a large painting depicting Asians on a river journey. We’re shown a slender figure, his unruly hair combed backwards, struggling to thread a needle, peeling mushrooms – both sounds and images feel extremely close. The trips foraging for mushrooms in the woods are important to Peter Handke: “I’m a Pilztrottel” – a mushroom idiot. This, too, he has naturally written about. “This little world. It’s my salvation.” Salvation from what? The quiet answers can be perceived like shimmering specs of dust caught in a ray of light. “Have you ever experienced a successful day (the topic of the essay Versuch über den geglückten Tag – «Essay about the Successful Day».)?” His deep, existential struggle has provided him with four quiet words: Wie soll man leben? How shall one live?

Bin im Wald – kann sein, dass ich mich verspäte by Corinna Belz

 Little to grab the hold of

As should be clear, this is miles away from being a talking heads-documentary. The only other people interviewed in the film are his second ex-wife, Frenchwoman Sophie Semin, and his daughter Amina. Through her father’s polaroid photos, the latter also makes an appearance as a child. Sophie talks about the Handke project Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht (My Year in No-Man’s-Bay) and her (ex-) husband’s need to be alone while writing. Writing is something Handke does more or less continuously. A conversation around the table shows us father and daughter discussing a slap to the face – we can sense some uncomfortable tensions. We’re also presented with old recordings where the young, confident beatnik Handke, already a literary celebrity, is interviewed on stage and insults the audience as part of the play Publikumsbeschimpfung («Offending the audience»). Not much to grab the hold of, really.

«To create something of importance requires solitude, often at others’ expense, constant self-examination and ruthless self-discipline»

Piquant stories, like his hotel sojourn with the French movie star Jeanne Moureau, is skipped over. Even Belz’s own medium of movies, in which Handke has written screenplays for among others Wim Wenders, is left unexplored by the director (with the exception of some short footage with Hanna Schygulla). Why? Perhaps because she above all sees Peter Handke as an adventurer of the inner world, something he incidentally carries as a badge of honour. By all means, he has never shied away from burning political issues. This made him particularly controversial when he wrote about his views of the war in the Balkans and was attacked for his alleged defence of the Serbs, and in particular for his presence – and his speech – at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic.

Bin im Wald – kann sein, dass ich mich verspäte by Corinna Belz

Corinna Belz was an avid reader of Handke from an early age, and appears sotto voce in the film, beyond the eye of the camera. In an interview (http://www.bin-im-wald.de/interview.php) given in connection with the launch of the film, she says: “I wanted the viewer to get the chance to feel the desire to reading; that was the starting point for the film. To me it felt like coming home, and at the same time discovering a world where I didn’t belong.” She thus commits to the daring venture of letting words perform the leading role in what is a visual medium, letting the writer’s readings and quotes appearing on the screen.

Corinna Belz

To Norwegian-language readers, the fact that very little of Handke’s writings have been translated after the Serbia row is a small handicap. But something exists, and the book Wunschloses Unglück («A Sorrow Beyond Dreams: A Life Story», 1972), in which the author writes about his mother’s suicide, has gained many readers. It’s a relatively short text, written in an uncharacteristically realistic style and with many autobiographical features. In the words of his admirer Karl Ove Knausgård: “Handke describes his mother without trespassing on her integrity, on that which was her own, while himself consciously seeking the emotional, the sentimental.”

The space where language is created

Corinna Belz’s idea is to portray literature using a writer as a medium. She wants to open up the space (whether it’s in the living room or in the woods) where his language is created. As so often with great artists, we search in vain for answers to the Great Secret, the source of inspiration; that which, in this case, makes Peter Handke one of the greatest German-language writers of today. But as we may as well admit right here – if we had been able to reveal this secret, we would either have a mass collection of geniuses, which by definition is a contradiction, or we would’ve had to recognize that a genuine secret remains true to itself. But this much the film makes crystal clear: To create something of importance requires solitude, often at others’ expense; constant self-examination and ruthless self-discipline; it often leads to conflicts and entails prioritizing yourself in a way that others will often perceive as egoistical. Or as Ibsen put it: “To live is to battle the demons in the heart as well as the brain. To write is to preside at judgement day over one’s self.”