The Sea Inside: Helena Wittmann on Human Flowers of Flesh

By Jordan Cronk

Among a new generation of German filmmakers, Hamburg’s Helena Wittmann is uniquely elemental, even primal, in her concerns. For over a decade, the 39-year-old artist has been exploring the outer reaches of cinematic storytelling through the medium’s singular ability to transform not only space and time, but also the spectator’s relationship with their surroundings. Human Flowers of Flesh, Wittmann’s follow-up to her mesmerizing feature debut Drift (2017), pushes her formal and thematic predilections towards a vanishing point where narrative dovetails with pure aesthetic elegance. A standout in this summer’s Locarno competition, it marks a major step up for Wittmann in terms of profile and visibility, and carries with it a certain seriousness of intent that harkens back to art cinema’s heyday of the ’60s and ’70s, when ambition and ambiguity were all but inextricable bedfellows.

Starring Greek actress Angeliki Papoulia as Ida, a middle-aged woman and captain of an all-male, mixed-race boat crew, Human Flowers unfolds in waves of slowly breaking incident and exposition. Neither dramatic nor inconsequential, these narrative beats are instead suggestive of larger feelings and ideas which Wittmann frequently gives shape to via striking oceanic imagery and a kind of meta-materialist sense of filmic depth and texture. Shooting in 16mm, with the occasional intravenous-like injection of images taken from under a microscope or printed as cyanotypes, Wittmann (who, as a cinematographer, has lent her distinctive visual style to films by contemporaries such as Philipp Hartmann and Luise Donschen) has fashioned a fully functional aesthetic analogue for an otherwise elliptical narrative built around the wonders of its Mediterranean setting—a distinction unavailable to the digitally shot Drift. Even the stately typeface used for the film’s opening and closing credits speaks to a unified vision and clarity of purpose that more films of its scale should strive to match.

Human Flowers moves freely between land and sea, charting a methodical course from the shores of Marseille to the streets of Algeria, with a stopover along the bustling coast of Corsica. As the film opens, Ida and her crew are on leave in Marseille, where they drink and mingle with the locals by night and wander the city by day. As Ida explores, she becomes intrigued by the presence of the French Foreign Legion and the apocryphal stories she hears about its history. Seemingly drawn in by the soldiers’ expressionless demeanour, Ida is soon compelled to set off on a different kind of voyage—one that, by way of the Legion, will take her deep into the recesses of her subconscious, where France’s colonial past is made manifest and the existential plight of a self-possessed woman becomes increasingly unmoored from present-day matters. A true enigma, Ida is as much a structuring presence as she is an occasional absence, a character as concrete as she is elusive. As the boat’s newest crew member, Vladimir (Vladimir Vulevic), says of her before they embark, “I imagine her life very free, always in movement, fluid.”

Befitting its nautical milieu, Human Flowers doesn’t end so much as complete its course, with Ida arriving in the Algerian city of Sidi Bel Abbès, where the Legion’s headquarters was located until the country gained independence in 1962. Here, Ida encounters an aging ex-legionnaire played by Denis Levant—reprising the role of Galoup he made famous in Claire Denis’ homoerotic legionnaire classic Beau travail (1999)—who she follows through town before crossing a literal and figurative threshold that brings the film’s historical undercurrents to bear on the character’s increasingly metaphysical presence in the narrative.

As she did with Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) in the closing moments of Drift, Wittmann directly invokes Beau travail not to preempt any visual or thematic associations one might make (and which, it should be said, she also doesn’t sidestep), but rather to establish a framework for the film’s deft interplay of eras and energies. And therein lies the distinction: where Denis concerns herself with the way bodies interact with one another, Wittmann is more interested in how the human body interacts with its environment, and how these forces can generate ripples across time and space. In perhaps the film’s most stunning sequence, the camera untethers itself from the boat and dives deep into the sea, eventually reaching an airplane wreck on the ocean floor. In Human Flowers, traces of history are written across every surface, every landscape, in every face and in every memory. Its destination is not always clear, but it’s anchored at all points in something tangible, immediate, and, above all, beautiful.

Cinema Scope: You’ve mentioned that one of the starting points for this film was encountering French Foreign Legion officers in Marseille, and how you looked at them but they wouldn’t make eye contact—something we see happen to Ida at the beginning of the film. What else can you tell me about this experience?

Helena Wittmann: Yes, that’s true. A friend was showing me around Marseille one day, and we came upon this French Foreign Legion recreation centre. It’s on the coast and built high up on a hill, so you can’t really see what’s going on inside. But seeing officers coming in and out of it aroused my curiosity, I think, first, because of their appearance—super-fit and trained men just walking around have quite a presence. As I looked into it, I realized that there’s much more military presence in France than I realized—much more than in Germany, for example. In Germany, for good reason, the military hasn’t really been present in the interior of the country for a long time. So seeing these officers walking around in public provoked a strong reaction in me, in a way I don’t think it does for French people, mainly because it’s so normal to them.

Two years later, once I had begun work on the film, I went back to Marseille to see the centre again. But this was just one aspect of the initial idea. I never set out to make a film about French legionnaires, or even about this encounter with them. Many different threads had come together for me at the time. I was shooting Drift, so I was on the sea, and at some point I made the decision not to shoot the crew, or even much of the boat. You see the boat in Drift, but it’s not really important, whereas in the new film it’s very important—it’s like a character. Also, while reading some books about French history I learned that in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, men from precarious backgrounds didn’t have many career choices, so they would often go to sea, to work on a boat, or else would enlist in the Foreign Legion. That’s when I decided to research it a bit more and observe a bit more, which became its own inspiration, since the Legion itself is so inaccessible. Through the making of the film we were able to gain a little bit of access, but that’s not really visible in the film. At the beginning, the whole thing was super opaque.

Scope: How did the research process take shape, and were there any sources or texts that proved important?

Wittmann: I started by just reading about the Legion online. They have a big marketing apparatus, both to recruit people and to preserve the myth about the Legion. My initial interest was in what the Legion is doing today, because in my mind they were just some organization from the past, when they were working to colonize and keep the colonies going. But French society is still connected to colonization. It’s still present—it’s the same story, in away. It’s just not so obviously aggressive.

But I mostly read online histories, as well as diaries and books by legionnaires. The most important book as it relates to the historical aspects of the film is Gourrama by Friedrich Glauser, which I worked into the narrative very subtly in the opening bar scene. Glauser went into the Legion, I think, in order to write about it. I don’t think he was interested in being in the Legion per se. But he experienced it—he was stationed in Morocco. He fictionalizes the experience in the book, but it’s really interesting how he describes the temporal aspects of the job, the waiting and suspended sense of time, as well as the adopted language and homoerotic dynamic amongst the legionnaires.

It’s interesting, because you could argue that other mercenary groups like Blackwater and the Wagner Group in Russia are based on ideas related to the French Foreign Legion. It’s private, but it’s part of the army, so it’s state-run—ideas like that. The Legion was kind of like an avant-garde iteration of these structures. Glauser’s book also describes how warfare is today, and how the different countries interact. For me, it was a good way to find out about the relations between Europe and the African continent, where the Legion still has stations.

Scope: How did the Ida character come about, and how did you initially think to place her against this larger backdrop of the Legion?

Wittmann: I think everything you see of Ida in the film—her decisions, her way of being—is how I personally got closer to the various subjects. The way Ida follows these traces mirrors the development of the film. From Marseille, I went to Corsica, and legionnaires were everywhere. But at the same time I was also interested in the landscapes and the sea, but in a different way than Drift. In this film I’m more interested in the sea as matter, and how it enables different ways of storytelling in terms of fluidity and interweaving. I thought it would be interesting if everything—the characters, the elements, the boat—was more equal than what you would see in a typical movie. Ida is, of course, the protagonist—she decides the course of the narrative and the film deals with her perception—but she’s not present in every frame. She’s not a classical figure.

So on the one hand she’s based on my experiences, but on the other I wanted to make a very different kind of character. She needed to be old enough so the voyage couldn’t be read as just some trip she’s taking, but something that’s been decided upon. Also, she couldn’t be a mother. I was interested in exploring an independent female figure, personally as well as financially. She’s privileged, clearly, but I’m not really interested in psychologically explaining that—what it means, etc. Suffice to say that within this constellation of characters, she has the financial means to balance out the male presence on the boat. At one point I thought of having a second female crew member, but that would have thrown off that balance, and changed the entire dynamic.

Ida was partly inspired by the main character in Marguerite Duras’ book The Sailor from Gibraltar, which also deals with a woman who lives on a boat with a male crew. It eventually evolves into a kind of love story, but that aspect didn’t interest me so much. I wanted Ida to be free, to not suffer, to simply follow her curiosity, and for this to be okay. Angeliki brings many layers to the character, particularly with her face—you see experience, and also maybe some sadness.

Scope: As the only female crew member, how did you conceive of Ida in terms of her professional life and demeanour?

Wittmann: I wanted Ida to embody an independence I almost never see in cinema. I didn’t want her circumstances to be at all determined by a man, or for her to follow anything other than her own impulses. This is where Ida is different from the character in Duras’ book, who ends up following a man. Ida traverses many social spaces, landscapes, and, in the case of the Legion, an institution. I wanted her journey, like the film, to raise questions but not offer answers, and also to be open to change at any moment—taking the sea as an example for storytelling. It’s fluid, but it dissolves—you never have a stable moment. Ida receives and accepts and then acts, but never aggressively. Her way of behaviour transforms her surroundings automatically.

Scope: Do you find that Ida is connected at all with Theresa George’s character in Drift? Among other things, they both seem drawn to the sea.

Wittmann: I never thought about Human Flowers as a follow-up to Drift, but, of course, yes, I do see how they might be connected. There are certainly similarities, in the way that their surroundings and structures organize their time. Both characters are very much in their own time, which they have the ability to decide on and which is quite something. That’s why I didn’t want Ida to be a mother—not because I don’t like mothers, but because kids automatically take away that freedom and determine your time and responsibilities.

Scope: If I’m not mistaken, other than Vladimir, who at one point dips his feet into a pond, Ida is the only character who goes in the water. Maybe I’m reaching, but that seems to say something about Ida, or at least her relationship with her surroundings.

Wittmann: That’s funny, but it’s true: she is the only one who goes in the water. I didn’t consciously set out to do that, but for me it was important that she is very connected to the water. It also has to do with how your perspective changes when looking at land from the sea. When your body is in the water, you’re in a very special state. Everything gets quieter. You’re more able to concentrate, you hear your breathing—there’s just another focus. You’re more connected with yourself. I wanted that for Ida, but also to show different situations while she’s in the water. Sometimes she’s floating, sometimes she’s swimming like she’s trying to re-enact how a legionnaire trains. At one point Ida brings Vladimir plants from the ocean. That’s because he’s more connected to the land: you see him gardening in Marseille, then walking in the forests in Corsica. So while I didn’t really think about allowing only Ida to go in the water, I did think about Vladimir’s relationship to the land and how that relates to Ida’s connection with the water.

Scope: Can you discuss your writing process, and what the script looked like compared to the finished film? There’s a fair amount of dialogue, but hardly any of it is there to push the narrative along. It’s much more anecdotal.

Wittmann: For this film all the dialogues were written ahead of time. But it’s true what you say, it’s almost entirely people telling people things: someone tells someone a story, or someone reads something to someone. There is some more traditional dialogue towards the end, but it’s very minimal, very reduced. There was some more of this in the script, but I took these scenes out—some of which I really love—just because they were so different. I realized while editing the film that I was more interested in a form of dialogue in which the characters offer something to someone. A couple of people have described the film as “novelistic,” and I think that’s probably accurate. There’s something in it that comes from literature: little stories in the film that convey experiences, motives, images, or sounds. It’s like waves—it just comes and goes. But it interweaves, and eventually makes a bigger picture, which you discover along the way.

Scope: Most of the crew members are of different nationalities, and at least five languages are spoken in the film, only some of which are subtitled. How did this idea come about?

Wittmann: One big thing relates to the Legion: soldiers come from all over the world, but they find a common language. On the sea, particularly the Mediterranean, it’s the same thing: people from all over come and work on a boat, and they find a common language.

Another reason is that I had specific actors in mind for each of the main roles. I knew them, or knew their work, and I wrote for them. In fact, they inspired the characters very much—the real people are in them. And they happen to be from different countries: Mauro Soares is from Portugal, Vladimir is from Serbia, Gustavo Jahn is from Brazil, Ingo Martens and Steffen Danek are from Germany, and Ferhat Mouhali is from Algeria. Actually, in the film Ferhat speaks Berber, not Arabic, which, if you know the history of Algeria, gives you a little hint about his character.

Scope: Beau travail is an obvious touchstone for the film. Can you talk about your history with the Claire Denis movie, and how directly or indirectly you wanted Human Flowers to relate to it?

Wittmann: Well, I like Beau travail a lot. I think the first time I watched it was when it came out at the end of the ’90s, and I’ve seen it many times since. But I don’t work in a manner where I want to reference something as such. It’s similar to the Marguerite Duras text: I quote from it because it’s something I came across while writing the film, and it just so beautifully tells something. So why not take from it? It’s as material as other things—material from elsewhere. But I never set out to reference a specific film or make an homage, per se.

That said, with Beau travail, there are different reasons I use it. For one, it was really the only reference I had for the Foreign Legion before making the film. I had no idea about this institution, but I knew Beau travail, and I remembered the German title: Der Fremdenlegionär (The Foreign Legionnaire). For me, Denis Levant in that film was like an icon of the Legion. Second, there’s something in the film about the times in between, states of boredom or states of being, oftentimes in the landscape; that’s something I associate with Beau travail. But I don’t think of it as a reference so much as a set of common interests that Claire Denis and I share, at least as it relates to this specific film.

And then there’s the character of Galoup, who I decided to integrate into my film once I knew it needed to end in Algeria, and we would be going back in history, in a sense—back to the origin of the Legion in Algeria, where their headquarters were stationed until the country gained independence. The Legion built the city of Sidi Bel Abbès, which is why it looks very European.

During my research I came across many videos of French people, legionnaires as well as ex-legionnaires, and people whose families had lived in Algeria before the independence, praising Sidi Bel Abbès and its past as a kind of belle époque, or golden age—always in reference to this colonized time when the Legion occupied the country. So for me to be able to pick up with Galoup 20 years later in Sidi Bel Abbès was a way to sort of reclaim the country and the era from this idea. When Beau travail ends you don’t know what happens to Galoup, but I could image that character as one who would remain in this mindset and live there many years later.

Scope: How did you propose the part to Denis Levant? Did you two discuss his feelings about Galoup, and was there any hesitation on his part to revisit the character?

Wittmann: I started by writing him a letter. I explained to him the idea, about how it would be a continuation of the Galoup character, and he liked it. I think he thought it was a funny idea, but an interesting one. I guess he also mentioned it to Claire Denis, though I don’t know what she thinks about it. But when Denis Levant and I finally met, it was really nice. At the time I didn’t speak French; now I speak a little, but back then I didn’t speak any, and he doesn’t speak English, so we had to kind of communicate through gestures. But he remembered the original role and the shooting so well—he has this crazy memory. He said he had a physical memory of Galoup, how he would walk and move. At the end of the shoot he mentioned how interesting it was for him to re-embody the role again.

Scope: Did he mention anything about the character, or suggest anything different for the role that you hadn’t written?

Wittmann: No. Everything in those scenes is in the script. We played with the wording a little bit, but nothing much was changed as it concerns his character. However, I did have to change aspects of that part of the script after learning that we wouldn’t be able to shoot in Algeria. We waited a year to shoot the ending, hoping we would be able to do it in Algeria, but eventually we realized, for political reasons, we would have to do it somewhere else, so we began location scouting in Morocco. But by then I had edited the rest of the film. In the first version of the script, Ida didn’t enter Galoup’s apartment in the final scene. It ended with her pushing the door open; you wouldn’t see what happened after that. It was a much more open ending.

After having met Denis, I became more aware of his physicality. I noticed as we walked around Marseille that he was always playing around—he loves to play. So I wrote the scene in the apartment where he juggles the eggs. He comes from the circus, and in all his films he’s always doing so much physically, so I just assumed he could juggle. I figured if he couldn’t do it, then we’d find something else for him to do. But it was perfect: he was so precise, almost like a professional juggler.

Scope: When we spoke last year you mentioned that you had a rough assemblage, but that you were missing an ending. I guess now, having heard that story, you were referring to the last scene, not the final shot?

Wittmann: Yeah, the final shot of the desert was clear to me from early on. One of the things I wanted to explore in the film was the strange kinship between the sea and the desert. I had never been to the desert, but we went to film this one shot.

Scope: The way the sand curves and the way the landscape is layered in that shot reminds me of the sea. It also acts as an interesting bookend with the opening shot of the rocks.

Wittmann: I thought about that a lot: how to frame the opening and closing shots in terms of landscape and scale. I did a lot of preparation by taking analogue photos of these two locations.

Scope: Can you tell me about editing the film? Like Drift, Human Flowers has a loose three-part structure, but it feels much more diffuse than even that film.

Wittmann: It’s difficult to put it in words. In a way, the structure flows a bit easier than in Drift, because of the passage between locations. It’s clear, or at least chronological. But from this foundation of linearity I knew I wanted to layer things in an almost sculptural way. The perception and rhythm of time plays a huge role. For example, in the scene that goes under the surface of the water, even in this one shot there are multiple layers to what’s being told: there’s the depth, but then you see a plane underwater, which might make you think of history. And then as the camera gets closer to the plane it transforms into another landscape, and you see that it’s a habitat for other species. I think in a shot like this you need that time to get there, to be able to see it, feel it, hear it.

These are the things that interest me in cinema: to get into these different states, and to be able to narrate in a very different way. In cinema you have the possibility to leave things out, to jump from one place to another, and enter different states. How you then get into a rhythm that invites the viewer to come along is a different story. For me, it’s through intuition, composition—but never in a conceptual way.

Scope: Materiality plays a strong role in the film: it’s reflected almost symbolically in the title, but it’s also directly in the film through the use of microscope images, and later when the image is printed as cyanotype. How did you come to these techniques and this idea to build the film around these material qualities?

Wittmann: It’s rooted in certain ideas I had to leave out of Drift. One thing that interests me about the sea is the fact that it’s matter, but it transgresses borders. And we’re part of it: salt water is inside the body. Having come to this idea, it was logical for me to integrate it into the filmmaking process itself. For example, the cyanotypes—it’s a pretty simple chemical process, but it required work to figure out how to put it on blank film. You have to do it frame by frame. It took me almost a year of experimenting, and then figuring out how to make these images work in relation to the regular images, since they behave so differently, was a challenge. But like the microscope imagery, which to me looks almost cosmic on film, I wanted to use it because I was interested in matter being part of the storytelling—that it’s not only about something, but it is that something. In the case of cinema, the medium itself is matter: filmmaking is a chemical process. Putting all of this together was a way for me to challenge borders.

Scope: How has your work with your sound designer Nika Son developed over the years, and how did you come to the film’s unique aural construction? It’s a quiet film, but it’s busy with the sounds of creaking ropes and other nautical details.

Wittmann: Nika and I have been working together for 13 years. She’s a musician. She works with sound the way I work with images. For us, the relationship between image and sound is important, but we have different perspectives and abilities. We always try to challenge each other. For this film we worked a lot with concrete sounds. Nika was present for the entire shoot, so she would record the original sound, but also additional sounds in and around each location. With the boat, for example, we wanted it to have a voice. And you hear it in the film—it’s very present. That was all built from recordings made on the boat. Like the edit, it’s difficult to explain, but we think of the sound design as you would a musical composition, and, in fact, Nika contributed an original song to the film. That’s her song in the dance scene.

Scope: Going back to the final act, I’m wondering if your conception of those scenes changed once you realized you wouldn’t be able to shoot it in Algeria?

Wittmann: I thought about how to approach it for a very long time. Once I knew we couldn’t shoot in Algeria I began to think about it differently, because the reality of the situation was not without context. The fact that we couldn’t go to Algeria relates directly to the history we implicitly depict in the film. So I did think about changing the ending, but it just didn’t make any sense. It took a while, but I’m really happy with the location we found in Morocco, and I think the fact that the making of the film also tells a story is interesting.

Scope: To that end, did your conception of the Legion, or anything related to these characters or landscapes, change at all while making the film? I get the sense that you make films not to tell stories, but to experience something through your subjects or the filmmaking process that otherwise wouldn’t be available to you.

Wittmann: I think you’re right. I’ve never made a film just to make a film. When I make a film, I go in with many questions. I love to create situations in order to live them and transform them, and then transform them again before bringing them forth as cinema. That’s why it’s difficult for me to talk about this film right now, because it’s so new—it’s in a super-fragile state.

As for the Legion, I have my political position towards militarization, and that didn’t change. But I did have interactions with legionnaires that changed my perspective. As soon as you look closer, things become more complicated. It’s easy to categorize things, but you have to somehow maintain a distance while remaining open. Sometimes, it’s more difficult to describe things the closer you get to them. Cronk Jordan