In a series of elaborate set-pieces, Cate Blanchett speaks glorious, declamatory words, fragments of manifestos.

It starts with a spark, in darkness. A fuse burns elegantly out of focus to the words of Marx, Tzara and Soupault. Who is Soupault, one might ask. Well – a Dadaist turned Surrealist; 1920s. And so starts a daisy chain of intellectual and artistic movements, in no particular date order.

Manifestos and declamations, by Situationists, Futurists, Dadaist, Vorticists, Abstract Expressionists, Surrealists, Minimalists. Artists, poets, writers, filmmakers, architects. The sources are heavily skewed towards the early 20th century, then the 1960s, and then to conclude, a smattering of injunctions from late 20th century filmmakers and, finally, a few words from architect Lebbeus Woods.

Among the filmmakers quoted, Stan Brakhage is the exception, with a career starting mid-century – and the most creative, interesting, norm-defying and poetic of them all. One can only love a film which quotes Stan Brakhage – regardless of its other merits or demerits.

The film is based on a conceptual art installation dating back to 2015. The artist, Julian Rosefeldt, created a space where thirteen screens would play simultaneously thirteen different scenes – scenes filmed with very high production values, visually stunning each time, regardless of the location. Each scene features Cate Blanchett; she plays different roles in each – impersonations. She is variously a homeless person, a broker, a utility worker, a CEO, a punk, a scientist, a teacher, among several other roles.

In one scene, she plays two roles at once – a news presenter in a studio interviewing a reporter in a downpour. In another scene, she plays the role of a conservative mother, saying the oddest kind of grace – Claes Oldenburg’s 1961 Art Manifesto, while her husband and children (played by her real-life husband and children) sit and wait with varying degrees of patience. Claes Oldenburg’s text is so funny and incongruous – as is indeed his work – that at one point two of the children puff with laughter.

In the film, the thirteen simultaneous pieces are stitched together into a 95-minute linear feature length work. Rosenfeldt has said that he always intended his installation to be turned into a film. This shows. The visual aspect is designed for the big screen. The film was lavishly shot in various locations in Berlin over a period of only twelve days, for a rather modest budget – allegedly around €90,000 to cover the production costs. This is an impressive achievement.

The film is visually striking, carefully composed, the camera moves are noticeably deliberate. Production designer Erwin Prib’s work on the locations is noteworthy. The formal elegance of Nils Frahm’s and Ben Lukas Boysen’s soundtrack is of a piece with the film. And it all very Berlin, through and through. Blanchett, whom Rosenfeldt has met previously through the Berlin Schaubühne director Thomas Ostermeier, fits right in too – it feels as if she could be one of the great actors of Berlin, born and bred. There is something universal about her. The film is a great demonstration of her extraordinary talent.

Within the set-piece structure there are some enjoyable narrative devices – for example the mise-en-abîme of the interview between Blanchett as newscaster and Blanchett as sodden reporter, where they discuss the nature of conceptual art – as it happens, exactly where their characters find themselves embedded. The rain stops, and as the piece-to-camera – within the set-piece – ends, the camera draws back to reveal further artifice – there was no rain, not even within the fake world of the set-piece. Even there, the rain was fake – a sprinkler, switched off as soon as the fake interview ends.

Those are neat games, and ones that have a natural home in three-dimensional exhibition spaces, where visitors can walk from one screen to the next, listen here and there, trace back their steps. With each simultaneous piece lasting only a few minutes, there is a chance to come back time and again to the same words, listen to a manifesto of their choice, parse the text.

The challenge with stitching the pieces into one linear feature length film, in a cinema space, is that the opportunity to parse is lost. There is not enough time for reflection and repetition, and no room for autonomous physical engagement. The feature film is still a very interesting work, but it is fundamentally different, very separate, from the installation work. The experiences are not comparable.

The manifestos then serve as fragments, not thoughts, not concepts – unless one is already familiar with the texts. For an art school graduate, or a critical theorist, the pleasure would be in re-visiting, in recognising. But the ideas will be in the main opaque to non-initiates, because the flow of the film and of the words make it difficult to hold onto a thought before another rushes by.

All the wonderful ideas, all the fun, the effervescence of all those manifestos – their essence evaporates as soon as they’re gone. It is all fun, and great to watch, but the transition from art space to mainstream cinema creates an opacity which is perhaps also a bit cruel.

Director: Julian Rosenfeldt
Cinematography: Christoph Krauss
Production Designer : Erwin Prib
Music: Nils Frahm, Ben Lukas Boysen.
Cast: Cate Blanchett

Originally published on, 24th November 2017