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.

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