“I am no writer, I am somebody who writes” – Thomas Bernhard on Thomas Bernhard
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).
From a starting distance of 500 feet, by the end of filming the cameras closed in to a mere 20 inches. (Georg Vogt)
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).