Thomas Bernhard: Three Days Review
The latest DVD from Index, Austrian specialists in predominantly homemade experimental film and video, sees them turning their attentions to Ferry Radax. For those unaware of Radax and his work, he’s a filmmaker best known for his collaborations with members of the Viennese Art Club (poets, writers, artists) and the documentaries, shorts and features that resulted. In 2007 five of these films were collected onto disc, seemingly with English subtitles, by the Hoanzl label, with a focus on his sixties output including the key work Sonne Halt! made in collaboration with Konrad Bayer. (Bizarrely, an excerpt from this 25-minute short can be found on the NME’s website here.) However, by 1970, the year in which Thomas Bernhard: Three Days was made and first shown, Radax had moved into German television and his films were beginning to take on more diverse subjects, as his subsequent portraits/drama-documentaries on the likes of James Joyce, J.S. Bach and Ludwig Wittgenstein demonstrate.
This combination of work for television and artists as subject matter prompts a British connection, namely in the form of the BBC arts series Monitor and specifically those pieces directed by a young Ken Russell. I’m thinking here primarily of those which attempt to match their subject in the manner in which they were filmed, such as Portrait of a Goon and its madcap ‘day in the life’ of Spike Milligan or Pop Goes the Easel being as ‘pop art’ as the works of those it captured (Peter Blake, Pauline Boty, et al). Even those 52 seconds from Sonne Halt! linked to above wouldn’t seem out of place in one of these Russell films; I could easily picture it being snuck into The Debussy Film without too much of a shift in tone or style being detected. Indeed, it’s hard not to imagine Three Days being shown in its entirety - this being a 50-minute documentary portrait peppered with experimental ideas - as part of the Monitor strand.
However, Three Days initially started out as an entirely different project. As Radax discusses in the exhaustive interview from 2006 which also appears on this disc, he originally intended to approach Thomas Bernhard through fictional means as opposed to documentary. The author’s 1967 novel Gargoyles, a day in the life portrait of an Austrian country doctor as he goes from patient to patient, was to be the source, with Radax getting to the draft script stage and approval from Bernhard himself. The German television company WDR were more hesitant, however, and instead suggested tackling the author in more conventional means, i.e. through a documentary portrait. But again, complications were to ensue as Radax’s conception of a nine-day shoot with complex staging proved too trying for Bernhard and so was stripped down to the more basic format we see in the end product: three days of the author, alone on a park bench, delivering a monologue that encompasses self-analysis, stories from his childhood, discussion of his work, and details of his approaches to and theories on writing.
As such a description hopefully portrays, we see that Radax eschews the conventional interview means of getting Bernhard to open up to camera. There is a sense that the subject was simply left to talk about whatever he desired with the form later coming through in the editing process. Indeed, the manner in which he talks is more akin to a vocalising of ideas as opposed to telling a story (fitting, perhaps, as Bernhard refers to himself as a “story destroyer”) and so our grasp on him comes in fits and starts. He will shift from recalling a butcher’s shop from his youth to comparing his method of writing to the manner in which a child plays with a toy. Moreover, he addresses neither the camera directly nor Radax offscreen - he speaks in a grander fashion, arguably erring at times towards performance, which gives his words, and the pauses in-between, greater weight and authority. Initially this can come across as a little daunting (and no doubt all the more so for those viewing the film with little or no prior knowledge of Bernhard), yet Radax is fully aware of such concerns and so approaches the construction of Three Days with this in mind.
The main reason behind Bernhard dropping out of Three Days when it was in its ‘Nine Days’ stage, as it were, was a reluctance to be in the front of camera, especially within the complex environment as originally conceived, complete with actors and constructed sets. The switch to the far simpler park bench and nothing more set-up was a means of creating something more relaxed for the author, though Radax knew that ‘stage fright’, even in mild form, could still pose an issue. As such the three days of the title represent not only a period of time but also a progression. The initial shot, over which the opening credits play, sets up the conceit: from a distance such that Bernard becomes part of the background rather the subject, the camera slowly zooms until he occupies the frame. Essentially, albeit without actually utilising the zoom function, this is what Radax did over the course of these three days. Initially he would have the camera on its tripod at some remove from Bernhard, but gradually, as the days progress and the author become more relaxed in its company, he would get closer and closer; the final shots becoming so close that we focus on nothing more Bernard’s sock and shoe. Moreover, this relaxation is aped in the audience reaction: as we increase proximity we are also getting to understand a little more, the portrait of Bernhard as told in his own words is beginning to fall into place and get ever clearer.
This connection between Radax’s techniques, Bernhard’s words and the audience’s response is key throughout Three Days. At times the film becomes almost a surrogate for the viewer as when the visual element fades in and out during the early stages in a manner akin to an audience member nodding off. And this isn’t merely a facetious interpretation on my part - Radax discusses it in exactly these terms during the 2006 interview. Indeed, he seems fully aware of the potential issues caused by such a lengthy monologue and so it at once accommodating of the audience’s needs (in the manner in which he acknowledges them) and playful enough to toy with them. On the one hand Radax is completely respectful of Bernhard and his words; the simple clarity of the set-up and the lack of any score leaving only the author’s voice and occasional birdsong allow us to fully concentrate on what is being said. Yet on the other Radax also likes to be disruptive, going as far as to incorporate breaks into the edit, for example catching Bernhard on some downtime as he and the crew watch a football match on the monitor or leaving in those moments when he is removed from his monologue. We capture a shrug or a wry smile as he sits there awaiting his next thought or thinking through the next passage. Most surprising is an entire segment devoted the arrival of a fire engine that will ultimately be used for a single overheard shot. Here we get a huge break from Bernhard that both leavens the cumulative weight of a film entirely devoted to the words of a single man and produces just a little bit of tension as we arrive at the monologue’s final stages. Moreover, each of these interruptions also contributes to the overall sense of Bernhard and the portrait Radax is creating. He no longer becomes simply a man tied to a bench and the words he is speaking - and for all his attempts at seeming relaxed, from the hand in a pocket to the crossed legs, you never really sense that this is entirely the fact - but someone a little more rounded. If the delivery of the monologue at times hints at performance, or at least a heavy self-consciousness, then the glimpses of Bernhard watching a bit of football or the playback of a sequence filmed moments earlier provide something of the real man.
Ultimately, it is hard not to conclude that Bernhard himself concurred with Three Days and its portrait. The monologue was later to be adapted and published alongside his 1971 short story The Italian. Furthermore, the same short story would also provide the basis for his next collaboration with Radax, in this case a feature film (also named The Italian and released in 1971) thereby allowing the pair to eventually satisfy that need originally created by their plan to film Gargoyles. Of course the proximity of Three Days and The Italian would suggest that the pair make perfect bedfellows, something that was recognised by the German label Absolut Medien when they issued both onto a single disc in April of last year. Unfortunately that set contains nothing in the way of English subtitles, thereby making this particular disc from Index all the more welcome (it also features the Radax interview not present on the German release). However, lets hope that Three Days marks only the beginnings of their focus on Radax with The Italian to swiftly follow suit.
Thomas Bernhard: Three Days comes to English-friendly DVD in a manner typical of Index’s previous releases. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio and with original mono soundtrack, subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish, the disc is coded for Region 0 and comes with a 20-page bilingual booklet (English and German), in this case containing an essay by Georg Vogt as well as the usual brief biography and filmography for Radax. Picture quality is typically fine, here presented in a 4:3 ratio as per its original screening on German television. There are instances of damage on the print owing to age but nothing overly distracting. Otherwise the image - which was shot on film but also utilised some video work - is crisp and presents no issues. Indeed, there is little to suggest that what we are getting here is no different to that which appeared on the Absolut Medien or, for that matter, anything other than the best materials available. Similarly the soundtrack is just as acceptable, coping ably with Bernhard’s monologue.
A welcome addition is the 40-minute interview with Radax conducted by Vogt in 2006. Given the length Radax is able to talk at length about Three Days, taking us through his initial reactions to Bernhard upon reading one of his early works (1963’s Frost), the aborted adaptation of Gargoyles, the manner in which Three Days came about and its various stylistic approaches. Furthermore, Radax makes for affable company and speaks with an eloquence that allows him to get through this various points sharply and succinctly. It really is an excellent piece that, combined with Vogt’s booklet essay, tells us all we need to know.
For further information on Index DVD and details on how to purchase Three Days and their other releases, please visit their website at www.index-dvd.at.