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“I am no writer, I am somebody who writes” – Thomas Bernhard on Thomas Bernhard

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Why in fact did I come to write, why do I write books? Out of opposition to myself, suddenly, and against this condition – because to me, as I’ve said, resistance is everything…I wanted exactly this tremendous resistance, and that’s why I write prose…

For portions of three consecutive days in June 1970, the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard sat on a park bench in a Hamburg suburb and gave an impromptu monologue for the camera of filmmaker Ferry Radax, a fellow Austrian. In the 52-minute film that resulted,  Drei Tage (3 Days), Bernhard is restrained, self-contained, and utterly eloquent in the enforced brevity. His monologue wanders from his childhood to the problematics of writing to the pleasures of solitude to the literary figures that influenced him. Part of the charm of Radax’s engaging film is that it as much about the art of filmmaking as it is a brief portrait of Thomas Bernhard. At times, the camera shows members of the film crew at work or watching on a portable monitor the very film they are making, while at other times the camera ignores Bernhard entirely and settles for a minute on a tree rustling in the breeze or on one of Bernhard’s shoes as it calmly bobs and dips while Bernhard talks on. Drei Tage can be seen in two sections on YouTube: here, and here (in German, with no subtitles).

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From a starting distance of 500 feet, by the end of filming the cameras closed in to a mere 20 inches. (Georg Vogt)

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Blast Books has just issued a terrific little book that documents the film: Thomas Bernhard 3 Days: From the Film by Ferry Radax. It contains a transcript of Bernhard’s monologue, scores of film stills, a brief statement by Bernhard, and a short history of Drei Tage by film historian Georg Vogt. From Vogt we learn that Bernhard, unhappy with Radax’s vision for the film, temporarily withdrew his cooperation on the film on the first day of shooting (a move that will not surprise anyone familiar with Bernhard’s reputation for being difficult).  “He did not want to become the actor of his own person as conceived by someone else.” But ultimately Bernhard and Radax reached a compromise that included reducing the number of filming days from nine to three. In the end, Bernhard was so impressed with Drei Tage that he not only approved the film without changes, but he also promised to gave Radax a script for a future film. One year later, Radax produced Der Italiener from Bermhard’s text (brief trailer here).

For a Bernhard aficionado like me, 3 Days is a gold mine of pithy quotes and insights. “I am a story destroyer…” “Only alone can you evolve…” “In essence, isn’t a book nothing but a malignant ulcer, a cancerous tumor?” “The difficulty is to begin.” “The brain needs resistance.” “When you open my work, here’s what: you should imagine yourself in the theater; with the first page you raise a curtain…” “Maybe melancholia is the ideal or the only useful remedy…” “This is daily life, from which you must distance yourself. You have to leave it all, not to close the door behind you but slam it shut and walk away.”

There are several more films of Bernhard on YouTube, but I recommend Das War Thomas Bernhard, a nice 49-minute anthology of his television and film appearances between 1967 and 1988, with English subtitles. It includes a three-minute segment of Drei Tage (starting about 9:50), the section in which Bernhard talks about his literary influences (see pages 129-131 of 3 Days). And here is a short film interview of Radax himself conducted by Georg Vogt (in German).

 

 

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Some works about Bernhard are as interesting as the works of Bernhard himself. I will purchase the book as soon as possible. I had been aware of the film but since I know no German I was not able to understand the version that is in youtube. Have you read “Counterpoint” by Don DeLillo? It is some sort of essay about Berhnard, Glenn Gould and Thelonious Monk. It is usally published with photographs. I think it was originally serialized in a magazine. In Spanish it was published in a very beautiful and small book. I found a blog that has it and I believe it is the complete text: http://songosmeltingpot.blogspot.mx/2015/02/don-delillo-writes-about-thelonious.html

    Iván O.L.

    November 10, 2016
    • Ivan, Thanks! That’s a terrific essay. And, thanks for making a link to Vertigo on your blog https://elestadiodewimbledon.wordpress.com/
      (Someone needs to translate Del Giudice’s novel into English.)

      November 10, 2016
      • Yes, it would be great. Enrique Vila-Matas was heavily influenced by that novel when he was writing Bartleby & co. I think he mentions it a couple of times in the text. I thought that the succes of Vila-Matas in the States and the UK would help in the re-discovery of some of the writers he writes about. The second novel by Del Giudice, Atlante Occidentale, was translated into English some time ago, although with other title. It is also an amazing novel, very different from El estadio…

        November 10, 2016
      • Ivan, I’ve just order Del Giudices “Lines of Light.” Thanks for the tip.

        November 11, 2016
  2. Thanks so much for your splendid review, Terry. I’ve passed it along to Ferry Radax’s son, Felix, to share with Ferry, and to Georg Vogt, who was here in NY for our Anthology Film Archives screening of the film and celebration of the book. They are most appreciative, as am I. As I said at the screening, Ferry Radax has said that a film portrait should portray a subject the way he would portray himself. I found his film so successful, I was compelled the moment I first saw the film to put it into book form so that readers can pick it up anytime to read and see the images. Thanks again for your great review.

    November 11, 2016
    • Laura, I am thrilled to hear from you. Thanks for the kind words. I learned more about Bernhard from this film than from his own autobiography “Gathering Evidence.” Congratulations to Blast Books.

      November 11, 2016
      • Thank you, Terry. This is such a significant film–it predates Bernhard beginning to write what became a 5-volume autobiography over several years. Radax has said the film is what gave Th. B. the impetus for the autobiography. By the way, if you wondered about the crane scene, as many do–Radax talked about it in his interview with Georg Vogt–it’s a nod toward Mie in Japanese Kabuki theater, a radical break to create tension between the penultimate and ultimate scene, and a furtherance of his extreme distance and closeup technique.

        November 11, 2016
  3. My own translation of the text and Bernhard’s note about making the film is from the Suhrkamp Taschenbuch German text and it is authorized for publication by Residenz Verlag and the Bernhard estate. Our book includes more than 160 images from the film licensed by filmmaker Ferry Radax, which do not appear in the Suhrkamp book, as well as an afterword by Georg Vogt, and an appendix.

    November 19, 2016

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