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The Glasshouse filmmaker Danielle de Picciotto on the destructive power of fear

Alexander Hacke and Danielle de Picciotto at the Berlin screening of The Glasshouse
Alexander Hacke and Danielle de Picciotto at the Berlin screening of The Glasshouse
courtesy Steve Forker


Danielle de Picciotto relocated to Berlin in the late '80s for a change of scenery and to get away from the violence of New York City, where the artist/musician had been living. In Berlin, de Picciotto quickly became immersed in the rich creative community of the city, and she co-founded the Love Parade, today perhaps the largest and most successful electronic music festival. It was during this time that she met her future husband, Alexander Hacke, who was, and is, in the groundbreaking and influential industrial/avant-garde band Einst├╝rzende Neubauten. The couple is currently touring with de Picciotto's silent film, The Glasshouse , which tells the dramatic story of her final night before moving to Berlin. The film will screen at the Denver FilmCenter on Saturday, May 12 ; David Eugene Edwards of 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand fame will join Hacke and trumpeter Steve Forker to provide live music at that showing.

We recently spoke with de Picciotto and Hacke about the film and its exploration of the fear that de Picciotto feels is pervading the world:

Westword: What was the date of your last night in New York City in 1987, and can you discuss the "bizarre and shocking" events that transpired that night?

Danielle de Picciotto:I can't really tell the story because otherwise I would be giving away the punchline of the movie. I had been living in New York studying for five years. I left because I couldn't stand being scared all the time anymore. New York in the '80s was extremely dangerous, and I had teachers being shot and being mugged and raped. It was a constant, non-stop situation of violence.

At one point I was like, "I can't take this anymore." My mother was living in Germany, and I had been to Berlin. And Berlin was basically like New York except there was no crime at all. I decided to try that out and get a break for a while. So that's what the movie is about. My last night was kind of symbolic. All the violence peaked in a completely strange goodbye dinner. I don't know the exact date, to be honest, but I do know it was in October.

Of all the significant things that have happened in your life since then, why did you feel you wanted to revisit that night in film now, some 25 years later? Did it have anything to do with how you've seen how society has developed since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the USA?

DD: Yeah. Fear is something I grew up with. My father was in the Army, so we were moving around the U.S. until I was twelve. When I first moved to Europe, in Germany there was no fear at all, and in Berlin I was never scared. But in the last couple of years, somehow, I think the rate of fear has risen again everywhere. I find that worrying.

I find that fear is something which is...I don't know. There's a saying that says, "If you're scared, you're doing something wrong." Which goes a bit further than just walking down the wrong street. People all over are scared of terrorism, they're scared of losing their jobs, they're scared of what the economy is going to do. We tour all the time, and we can really say we encounter it everywhere. I think it's time we all think about what we're scared of, how can we change something to stop being scared, because being scared is very destructive. That's kind of what the whole movie is about.

You worked with Paul Browse of Clock DVA for this project. How did you meet him and come to work with him? What do you feel he brings to the project?

DD: I met him in Berlin in the '90s. He came over attracted by Berlin's creative scene, and he became a pretty prominent figure in the Berlin electronic and techno scene. He worked together with a very good friend of mine, Johnny Klimek, and they did a couple of albums together. I did a track with him years ago for a compilation of a friend based on tarot cards. We did a song together, and I never forgot that experience, because I loved the sounds he came up with. He's a real sound-lover. He loves unusual, weird sounds. I thought I would always really like to do something else with him.

When I was speaking to Alex about whom to invite -- because we were inviting different musicians in different places -- Alex was, of course, interested because of the sound experimentation. So we asked him to participate in the European shows that we're doing.

Prior to the showing of the film, you have an art opening in Denver as well. What sorts of work is that exhibit at the Hinterland Gallery showcasing?

DD:This time I am showing a new body of work that I've just finished, Invisible. I thought that would be an interesting subject for a drawing. In a way, it also has a theme I've been kind of contemplating for a long time, about what is invisible and what isn't. Not necessarily to the eye. I think that a lot of things that influence us in our lives are actually invisible; you know, if we're being manipulated, or the emotions that make us do certain things or a thought. Basically the drawings are about that. The invisible things. The things that we're surrounded with or have within ourselves.

It's a really fun subject, and it's a theme I think I'm going to be working with longer. Because when working on it, more things come to you, so it's a theme without any real borders, and once you start going into it, it becomes more and more interesting.

Maybe there's a resonance there with Ralph Ellison's novel The Invisible Man.

DD: Yeah, exactly.

How was the film received when you debuted it in Berlin?

DD: I think that most people in the audience didn't expect the ending to be as shocking. It was sold out, and everybody was pretty quiet at the end. I mean, they clapped, but they were all pretty pensive. It is a shocking story, but I don't think they expected that. I think they expected more of a fun dinner-party story, and it is in parts. But it has this strange turn.

Alexander Hacke: The format is obviously pretty new and uncommon because it is a silent movie with a live reading and live performed music. So it gets you, because it's not like you can hide in the darkness of the cinema, but you have someone who is sitting right in front of you who tells you a story to your face. The music is obviously a little more intense when it's performed live than if it's just coming from the movie itself.

DD: It's an experimental movie, so it has a lot of symbolism.

AH: It doesn't have a straightforward narrative. It's a combination of the story that Danielle tells, the pictures that you see and the sounds you'll hear.

DD: It gets compared a little bit to David Lynch and to Luis Bu├▒uel.

Are you familiar with Laurie Anderson's work?

AH: Well, we do work with language as well; her work is based on language. But there's a more obvious surrealist, psychedelic bent to what we do, and it's a lot scarier than what Laurie Anderson usually comes up with.

For the Denver date, you're working with David Eugene Edwards of Wovenhand. How did that collaboration come together and why did you want to work with him?

AH: I've been a great fan of his work for decades. Maybe fifteen years ago or so, I was asked by his then-manager to play bass in 16 Horsepower. That manager sent that e-mail with his e-mail program that set it to the wrong date, like ten years earlier. So I received it at the very bottom of my e-mail list, so I never got the request.

Anyway, we made friends over the last couple of years, and we've just been working together these last couple of weeks because David has been playing in the new incarnation of Crime and the City Solution. He's great at improvisation, and he has a really good feel for atmosphere, so we're really looking forward to this.

DD: We have a history of inviting guest musicians to various projects, and we're basically always looking for people to ask who are special in some way. I mean, there are a lot of great musicians, but we always kind of ask people that play unusual instruments, because both of us like that very much, or have an unusual sound. David, for me, what I love about Wovenhand is that it has a kind of voodoo atmosphere. He has this kind of drone feeling to it. He has a hurdy-gurdy that I love, so I'm kind of hoping he's going to bring along. Besides him being a fantastic musician, that's why I was interested in having him participate. Sound-wise, I think he'll be able to make noises a lot of people wouldn't be able to with the guitar and with the hurdy-gurdy, or even his voice. He comes up with fantastic sounds.

Steve Forker we asked because we always wanted to play with someone who plays trumpet. For this piece, I think it's especially great for specific scenes for someone that can play that. As he can play different variations of it, I'm curious to see what he will come up with. We have a prepared, basic soundtrack to which our guest musicians can prepare their own ideas. We never tell people to play a preconceived melody. That way, we can also surprise ourselves with what will happen. We sent them the whole movie and asked them to prepare.

What does the format of the silent movie allow you to express that a more conventional modern cinematic form does not?

DD: I like putting odd things together. I like putting together people who have different tastes or come from different countries or are working with mediums that usually don't belong together. Because if you put things together that are not already in one specific set, something is going to happen by them coming together which is unexpected and new. The silent movie does not have a soundtrack, so you only have visuals. If you add music to it, live music and live spoken word, it will be different every time. Because of that, it will create a magic story of its own every single time you perform it. So for a performance, obviously, I find a silent movie much more interesting.

AH: It's more like a freeform template to start out with. The human senses are very easily fooled. We cannot really rely or be certain of the things we see and even less of the things that we hear. Combining silent images with sound opens a whole new spectrum for interpretation and for association and metaphors. Of course, you know, you can talk about how we are all being manipulated by the media and by now we are trained to be aware that we are very awake and that we listen very closely to what we hear along with what we see and we analyze these things. So starting out with a fairly open concept by having no obvious relationship between the visual and audible elements, it's just a great canvas in order to pull into very extreme directions.

DD: It's kind of like making magic.

Absolutely, it's like alchemy.

DD: Exactly. We're going to be recording every performance with every guest musician and we're trying to release a CD/DVD with basically the different soundtracks you can listen to while watching the movie. That's going to come out when we've toured with it long enough to have a lot of interesting variations.

How did you shoot or create the footage for the film and does it follow any sort of narrative informed by your experiences or is it may a more experiential work?

DD: I was working with Super-8 for almost twenty years. Alexander and I have been nomads for two years and traveling all over the world. When I was putting my stuff together to put into storage, I digitalized all of my Super-8 footage, which I'd been wanting to do for a long time but never found the time to do. So I had all that footage and I'd been wanting to do an experimental, silent movie for a very long time with that footage.

So I was thinking what I was going to do and that story was always in my mind. Moving to a new continent and becoming an ex-pat completely changes your life. And to have the evening before that change happens as dramatic as the one I experienced always stuck in my mind. Because I do feel it was the beginnings of this fear and how this fear has changed and become larger and enveloped our whole world, I thought it would be interesting to do something now with all that old film footage together with that story. It mixes the past and present together.

AH: And processed it with technologies that weren't available at the time.

DD: It's very abstract. Some of it is actual film clips from back then from the city. But others are things are things I filmed which are art-related.

The Glasshouse screens at 7:30 on May 12 at the Denver FilmCenter. Tickets for non-members are $20, for members $15. For more information, go to www.denverfilm.org.

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