FIRST TIME (full name: FIRST TIME [The Time for All but Sunset – VIOLET]) combines two of my favourite interests: minimalist arthouse films and train rides. The sea and sun-kissed U3 in Hamburg, a short circular train line, provides a panorama of the Northern German city; a place for wonder, banality and even romance. Almost entirely a shot of two boys stealing glances at one another on the train, it remains endlessly fascinating even as it seems like nothing happens. One of the standout films at the Locarno Film Festival, where it won a special mention, it re-establishes Nicolaas Schmidt — who we previously spotlighted in our Berlinale 2020 round up — as one of the most interesting aesthetically-minded filmmakers around. Ahead of the film’s Canadian premiere at the Festival du nouveau cinéma in Montreal (6-17th October), we talked to Schmidt about the move up to a longer runtime, capturing natural sunlight, and creating moments of humour that punctuate the arthouse premise.
This is your longest film so far. How has the step up towards medium length been for you?
My graduate film was also a medium-length film of 30 minutes. The division into short and long films doesn’t matter to me, at least not in project development. The film is as long as it needs to be in order to have the best possible effect. Due to the way I work, using experimental/minimal narration, looping and slowing down, I have freedom in this respect.
The fact that a medium-length production is difficult for a distribution process is a completely different point. I am curious to see to which festivals this 50 minute film travels to. For me this experience is new and very interesting. The premiere and winning a Special Mention in Locarno was certainly very helpful. I am very thankful for that.
As a complete circular train, the U3 in Hamburg seems perfect for a short movie loop. I live in Berlin where the Ringbahn is certainly too long; the same goes for the circle line in London. Tell me what attracted you to filming there?
I live in Hamburg, and the starting point for inspiration and motivation is often my own life, experiences or problems. At some point I had also thought of the Ringbahn in Berlin but I could tell this would have been too long for the planned concept.
At the time when the idea manifested itself, I had already ridden the U3 circle line in Hamburg very often at sunset. So I was able to explore all its details and times such as window views (with stations, advertising posters, the position of the sun and the sun’s reflections on buildings). Especially since good sunsets are extremely hard to predict and you need maximum spontaneity.
The division into short and long films doesn’t matter to me, at least not in project development.
At certain points the conventional images go away and we are left with pure colour. Tell me why you chose this moment of abstraction?
These colour frames already existed in my previous film FINAL STAGE [The Time for All but Sunset – BGYOR], FIRST TIME is kind of a prequel to that so both films belong together. BGYOR stands for blue, green, yellow, orange, red which were all included in FINAL STAGE. Violet was still missing there, so FIRST TIME [The Time for All but Sunset – VIOLET] was set to feature that colour.
Those frames have several functions: they take speed out of the film and offer time to process what’s been previously watched/heard. Due to their radical minimal content and length, the next image(s) automatically become more exciting, even without plot-line suspense or a specific sound element to create tension.
There is a great ironic contrast between life in advertisement, with the coke advert at the beginning, and life in reality, on the commute itself. Why did you want to open the film with this cheesy 80s depiction of love?
I liked the contrast that created a field of tension between life in advertisement, with the coke advert, and life in reality, on the train ride. Even the advert itself I find wonderfully ambivalent. I wanted to reinforce this with the everlasting collage of the various advertising sequences – the youth/life/love which I guess was meant to be authentic in the 80s. From today’s point of view, such a stereotypical commercial seems to have a slightly ironic effect but it’s still touching and nice to watch. I love any kind of ambivalence.
Moreover, I wanted to include at least one commercial before the film – for a cinematic experience and reference. I love the subtle buildup of tension and anticipation before the actual film in a cinema theatre. It’s an experience that’s only possible in cinema. Only a few voluntarily watch long commercial blocks right before an online streaming.
With the music on the train and the man with the roses, there seems to be moments of romantic comedy there — even though it is formally an arthouse film. I found them to be quite funny, especially as the romance feels quite thrust upon our two boys. Tell me how you wanted to insert these elements?
Right, that’s exactly what I intended. These are symbolic disruptive elements that are supposed to have an effect. The boy on the right side of the window is perhaps a good example of that. It was not necessarily only meant to be funny, but I really like subtle humour like that.
What was it like shooting on the train itself? Were you worried that someone would walk on and ruin the shot?
The shooting inside the train itself was quite relaxed in that aspect. We had found ways to be unconcerned: our extras in the train helped to block the small section of the shoot.
These are symbolic disruptive elements that are supposed to have an effect.
Tell me about the music, which is also quite minimalist but helps to build up that tension, and the sound mix — which must have been difficult on a moving train?
Both on the image level as well as the acoustic level, I try to play with different spaces a bit. On the one hand, there is the cinema space of the audience watching a film on a screen where two boys meet. Then there is the interior of the train which is both a collectively experienced everyday reality and a subjective world coloured by the music on the headphones of the protagonist: Some kind of musical is taking place, in which different “actors” appear. And then there is the window through which the city can be seen between golden hour and sunset. Like a screen on the train.
The ambient sound was made in a completely separate process. Anne Döring and I, together with the composer Iason Roumkos and the sound mixing engineer Roland Musolff, used genuine background noise and pieces of music in different ways: sometimes the focus is on the sounds of the subway, squeaking of the tracks and rattling conversations of the passengers, sometimes music and Atmos are intermixed, sometimes we are completely immersed in the music and once – at least that’s what I tried – our blood freezes because we suddenly don’t hear anything anymore and are deprived of all illusion. An experience like your mother calling you on the phone while you’re having sex.
The two actors appear to be doing so little, but in fact they are doing quite a lot; sneaking glances at each other, trying not to be awkward, bodies slightly moving; did you give them much guidance?
I really like how the dark-haired boy struggles with himself. It seems to me that he is surprised by the interest in the other boy; as if his feelings are overwhelming him and maybe even frighten him a bit. The blond boy rests a bit more in himself and has perhaps already found his (sexual) identity. That’s how we created the characters. I only gave directions for the gestures at very crucial points: when drinking Coke and eating Kit Kat, for example.
So you won an honorary mention at Locarno that compared your work to Akerman and Straub-Huillet. Do you take them as influences at all, especially the use of minimalism and static frames?
This comparison of the Locarno jury was a great honour for me. In fact, I am interested in lifting banal everyday actions to a higher level through reduction. And certainly, there was a great influence, subconsciously, which took place very early in my studies or even before.
At first, I mainly took photographs and assembled photos in series and books. In order to be able to spontaneously shift my study focus to film, I had decided to study at the HFBK Hamburg, where I had all the freedom and possibilities. My professor for experimental film, Robert Bramkamp, extensively focused on the works of Straub-Huillet. When I discovered these and comparable films, or the works of James Benning, I was above all grateful in the sense of being motivated and so being able to live out my cinematic preferences and ideas in the same way, or at least to try it out.
I am interested in lifting banal everyday actions to a higher level through reduction.
The moment with the kiosk seems perfectly, intentionally framed. Did you know which part of the train you wanted to be on to get the right framing?
Through countless discussions and sunset circle line rides with Ray Juster, who helped me a lot in the development process, we really took into account everything that could be tested and planned prior to the shoot. That was necessary in order to have some security because we wanted to enable things to happen purely by chance. So we tested and defined the exact train compartment and in front of which window everything was set against, as well as the exact position of the camera inside the train as well as the focal length of the lens. Where exactly the subway stops couldn’t be influenced. But some pictures could be framed quite perfectly.
Tell me about your camera and lighting set ups, especially as you had to capture different parts of the day throughout the film.
The fixed one-shot sequence was captured by DOP Julia Lohmann so I was able to control the whole details of setting, extras and timeline. The different moods of that sequence are also created due to the changing light and colours outside. That was very important to me. But in the end, it’s simply a documented golden hour, just before sunset and nightfall.
In the end, it’s simply a documented golden hour, just before sunset and nightfall.
Technically, we shot completely without artificial light or sun reflectors to avoid attracting attention. To have enough dynamic range in the footage we shot in raw data, then we could make details in the sky and the shadow areas visible in post-production.
What are you working on next?
I am working on my first feature film together with writer Anne Döring. It’s the story of two middle-aged people who believe their life is at the end or at least are losing hope that it can get better. But then they make a discovery. The working title is Something New Has Begun.
We want to show the development of characters without either a cynical or ironical distance but also not too pathetic or even worse: moral and pseudo-critical. Things are never simply dichotomic. We both deeply adore the characters in Maren Ade’s films. The German film Toni Erdmann shows how complex and polyvalent relationships and feelings are. The film will again have elements that experiment with our viewing habits and the possibilities of film, using long shots, colours and atmosphere. Music will again play a big role.