The opening minutes of Afterwater, Dane Komljen’s second feature, might fool viewers into thinking they know what they’re in for. At a university, a young man sketches varieties of fishes preserved in jars of glass. A young woman attends class in a lab with microscopes on every table. They don’t speak, their expressions remain impassive. We observe them in static and meticulous compositions, as if they themselves were specimens.
When a character reads from a book about limnology, i.e. the study of lakes, and the word “microcosm” cues a shot of Berlin’s central train station bustling with commuters, the cut suggests a thesis statement about disaffected urban youth familiar from any number of arthouse films. But then the two students, who we realize are a couple, take the train to one of the many lakes around Berlin, leaving behind the city along with our preconceptions.
Afterwater, in a way, does concern itself with contemporary malaise, but the interest in lakes goes beyond simple metaphor. The film represents an effort at transcending hierarchies between humans and nature. Once another man appears, floating in the lake as if materialized from the water, the pair becomes a threesome and this union initiates a gradual merging of their bodies’ movements with the rhythms of the environment. Whereas in Komljen’s similarly Edenic debut, All the Cities of the North, the arrival of a third party was a source of instability, here the triangle introduces an equilibrium with wholly new potentialities.
Without warning, the film relocates to a different lake and a different trio of characters. The crisp digital cinematography gives way to grainy 16mm, which along with the clothes the characters are wearing would seem to indicate a shift to an earlier era. Except that the bleached-out colours of the images and the disembodiment of the characters’ voices—as in the previous chapter, they tell each other stories about submerged cities and watery worlds, but now relayed in voice-over—create an otherworldly ambience, confusing the chronology.
Another transition, another jump along this indefinite evolutionary continuum brings the film to a third lakeside location. The three inhabitants of this world, whose porousness is accentuated by the murky, low-resolution videotape in which it is shot, have all but become a single entity. Moving in a slow, synchronized dance that evokes the sinuous motions of molluscs, they exist in sensual communion with the lush vegetation, their hands sinking into masses of moss and faces caressing the leaves of ferns. Communication has turned telepathic, imparted to us via silent subtitles. They speak of ancestral tales and of cities humming far below the surface, intimating a past cataclysm. But whether this eco-queer “after” is actually a utopia, they cannot say.
Filmmaker: Your film taught me a new word: limnology. How did you get into this topic?
Komljen: It goes back to being at [the film school] Le Fresnoy. Because I’m interested in modernist architecture, I did my second-year project about Brasilia. I found this story about Vila Amaury, a town workers created in parallel with the construction of Brasilia. They built a city for themselves and their families using the discarded materials from the construction sites of Brasilia. It existed less than two years and then was submerged when they created an artificial lake, Lago Paranoá, in order to alter the region’s climate: it was very dry, so they needed this body of water for the new city.
I also made a short, All Still Orbit (2016), partly about Vila Amaury. As people encountered the film, they started telling me these stories about other submerged settlements. One thing led to another and I discovered the figure of G. Hutchinson and learned about limnology. Hutchinson founded limnology and some also say he’s one of the fathers of modern ecology. His discourse seemed to come from a moment before there was a clear division between scientific discourse and, for example, artistic discourse—before the language of science became illegible to those on the outside. There was a presupposition that these texts, these ideas, could be understood by many and could be translated between different worlds. For example, he was also interested in how lakes were described in literature and poetry, how they appear in certain tales across the many sites he was exploring. This really became my starting point for thinking about the different ways one can think about lakes, which are these very particular spaces, very particular landscapes.
Filmmaker: The overcoming, or transcending, of divisions is a central theme of Afterwater. Could you talk about your choice of splitting the film in parts and to shoot each one in an increasingly anachronistic format? That this movement back in time should engender a sci-fi feel is counter-intuitive but it’s very effective.
Komljen: Ultimately, this is a film about fluidity. It’s a fluid film. Once it became clear that it was going to be a film in pieces, I wanted to make each piece a thing of its own and have them flow into each other. We start in one place and flow into another, even though it’s a completely different place, a completely different story, a completely different time.
It was clear that we would do the present with a digital camera, and what we called the past in 16mm. The question was what to do with the future. This science-fiction feel is something we wanted to achieve. But if we used super current cameras—if we did everything with phones, and GoPros, and drones—that technology gets old quickly. In five years, it will already look old. We started thinking about science fiction films from the ’80s. When I watched the new Blade Runner (2017), the special effects looked more fresh, it’s all more polished, metallic and shiny, but ultimately the vision of the future still feels pretty much like the Blade Runner (1982)from the 80s. In general, it feels like the future proposed to us by Hollywood hasn’t changed in decades.
To imagine a different future, maybe we could use a technology from back then—not in the way that films were made, rather in how we saw them. I saw those films on VHS. Their opulent imagery was somehow imploded in the very lo-fi way that I encountered it. I realised I could take this memory and create something new. It’s not about primitivism, but there are all these different technologies available to us. Maybe sometimes going backwards to technologies that are anachronistic can give us the possibility of imagining something more than what we have around us now.
Filmmaker: How did you choose the different lakes?
Komljen: Stechlinsee [in the first part] felt like a lake that brought together many different ideas. At one point, it was the clearest lake in Germany, or in Europe. Even when you go now, it’s this crystal-clear water. There was a book by Theodor Fontane that takes place by the lake. There was a nuclear power plant that was built during the GDR era and is currently being dismantled. There is a lake laboratory: because it’s removed from urban settlements and there is no light pollution, the lake serves as a ground to explore different scenarios around the climate catastrophe. And there were many legends around the lake. It seemed like convergence of many different temporalities. And, of course it’s close to Berlin, which is also great.
The other lake was very much given to us by the story, Miguel de Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno, mártir. It’s one of the first stories about lakes that I collected and it stayed there until the end. The lake in the book is inspired by Lago de Sanabria in Spain, so that’s where we shot the second part.
Filmmaker: That story is one of many texts that are read out in the film, all of which are listed in the end credits. Did you first choose these texts and then write the script, or did it also happen the other way around?
Komljen: Some things were tightly determined, but there’s an essential openness to the whole process. We had G. Hutchinson as a starting point, and also Unamuno and Fontane. Then sometimes I had to go and collect stories. For example, the [Wisława] Szymborska poem. I wanted a text that my actors could speak in their mother tongue and I thought I could find a Polish poet for Jonasz [Hapka]. Maybe Szymborska. She has this poem called “Water,” which one could say is obvious, but maybe that’s OK and it’s actually nice to read a poem called “Water” at the beginning of a film like this. In this case it’s almost like the poem found the film.
There’s a similar background to every quote. With Adorno, for example, I was writing the script and remembered that in Minima Moralia there is a text called “Sur l’eau” [On the Water], in which I found this sentence in French: “rien faire comme une bête” [do nothing, like a beast]. It describes a certain way of living, of existing, that tries to imagine itself as apart from our civilization. This resonates with everything that was there in the third part already, so I used it.
Filmmaker: A constant in your work to date has been the presence of modernist architecture, usually abandoned structures in the process of being reclaimed by nature. Whereas in your earlier films the straight lines of the buildings guided your compositions, in Afterwater the architecture is virtually gone, as if nature had completed its reclamation. Can you describe how this affected your approach to mise-en-scène?
Komljen: The equation is completely different when you move away from framing human-made spaces, human-made landscapes. I was thinking about how landscapes were represented in the history of image-making—in paintings, but also cinema. In the creation of a perspective, human eyes are the point for which landscapes are presented, and there is also this notion that the person viewing the landscape in a way possesses the landscape through the act of observing it. We thought that we could use the camera in a way that is not linked only to the sense of seeing, but more to the sense of touching. The film explores different ways that a landscape can be sensed by human bodies. The question became not about framing, but about distance.
We live in these super interesting times where images are moving away from the eye. If we think about how we use our phones: the camera in our phones is much closer to our hands. The question for us was, how can we touch the landscape with the images that we create? Although we opted not to use phones, this possibility of creating more tactile, more haptic images exists in all recording devices.
Filmmaker: In terms of the actual shooting, did you carefully plan in advance or was your process more improvisational?
Komljen: Very improvisational. I don’t have specific images that I want. Rather, I would like to see certain things. But the images themselves are not a clear idea in the beginning, they come from the process of making the film. For all three parts, there was an outline of what was going to be shot, but the film was created by reacting to the different places we found.
Because Stechlinsee is near Berlin, me and Jenny Lou [Ziegel, the DP] went there regularly. It was very much about learning about the space, thinking about different ways we would film it. Locations that were not originally planned became very important. Lago de Sanabria, we only went there a week before the rest of the crew. The process was the same, only much quicker. We just drove around, finding things that looked interesting to us. It was all created through this dialogue with Jenny Lou.
Filmmaker: Although he’s not among the authors cited in the end credits, you’ve told me that Timothy Morton was important to you when conceiving the film. Can you talk about his influence?
Komljen: The world of the third part was developed in collaboration with Rose-Anabel Beermann, who is an artist, theoretician, choreographer, and dancer. In thinking about the propositions for this world, we were thinking a lot about Timothy Morton. Humankind was an important text, the notion of being already and always submerged in the wholeness of the world. That there is no escaping it, the only thing we can do is feel everything all the time.
When I think of Timothy Morton, for me the idea is that if we want to live in a world that is more kind, let’s say, then it has to be based on pleasure. This whole insistence on behaving in a certain way so that the world will be more kind is false. Because it’s not about duty, it’s not about morality, it’s about pleasure. To be guided by pleasure is to be in a world where we as beings are less cruel to each other. Maybe what this film wanted was to reveal the sensuality in everything. To try to create cinema, or to offer a gaze that sees possible pleasure in everything that exists around us.