Director Julian Rosefeldt and Cate Blanchett talk about Manifesto

The Sydney Morning Herald dedicates the Spectrum insert to Manifesto, on newsstand November 14!

A whiskery old man hoves into view on the parapet of a ruined industrial building, screaming into a megaphone in what seems to be a Glaswegian accent.

It’s difficult to make out those strangulated words at first, but he’s shouting something about art. His voice drops to a growl and the words become clear.

“Our culture induces total participation against preserved art. It is an organisation of the directly lived moment!” At the same time, you register the face.

It can’t be, but it is: Cate Blanchett in the drag of a derelict. And there she is on another screen, more immediately recognisable as a ballet teacher whose accent and severity announce her as a Bolshoi import; elsewhere, she looks and sounds like her Australian self as she plays a high-school teacher berating a room full of blank-faced students.

“Nothing is original,” she tells them. “So you can steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration and fuels your imagination.”

In his home studio, a long mezzanine overlooking the kitchen in a former schoolhouse – one of those remarkable conversions of forgotten Berlin buildings bought for peanuts by artists when the Berlin Wall fell – we look at the sequences that will make up the installation.

His small son comes in to join in on his favourite Dada line. “From now on,” he hoots in barely accented English, “we want to shit in different colours!”

The whole work, Rosefeldt explains, will consist of 13 screens running concurrently. Blanchett appears on 12 of those screens as various personae – and on one screen as two characters, a CNN-style newsreader and her interviewee – telling us what art should be.

The language is mostly frenzied, delivered by the masters when they were full of crazy youthful zeal. Marinetti in all his fascistic Futurist fury; the self-consciously iconoclastic Tristan Tzara speaking for Dada; pop artist Claes Oldenburg demanding art that will involve cake, turkey and Pepsi: we don’t know who’s who, unless we happen to recognise them, but they are all certainly emphatic.

There are some other elements to the mix: smatterings of Marx and Engels – “of course, because that for me is the mother of all manifestos,” says Rosefeldt – and a section on architecture. A denunciation of capitalism by the John Reed Club is muddled up with pronouncements from Russian constructivist Rodchenko and Guy Debord, the situationist who reminded us that under the pavement lay the beach: the result is the script delivered by Blanchett as the homeless man.

Rosefeldt finds the original John Reed Club text and scrolls through it. “The present crisis has stripped capitalism naked!” is a typical phrase.

“Isn’t it amazing?” he muses fondly; all the writers now feel like the kind of friends who drop in late and argue around the kitchen table. “Written in 1932 just before Hitler came to power and now, 80 years later, we are exactly there.”

Rosefeldt is not aiming to put forward a manifesto of his own, however; the sense of the individual lines doesn’t necessarily matter. He can tell me the provenance of each one, but there are no attributions on screen. What matters, when it comes down to it, is their sound and fury.

One crucial aspect of the work is that Blanchett recites each monologue at a different pitch. At one point, all 12 characters break the theatrical “fourth wall” and turn to look at the camera as the 12 notes combine in a sustained chord; the effect, says Rosefeldt, should feel like a universal humming.

Back in London, Blanchett enthuses about Manifesto in between doing promotional interviews for her two most recent films. It seems a far cry from Todd Haynes’ lesbian melodrama, Carol, or Truth, in which she plays a hard-nosed political journalist opposite Robert Redford.

“It was thrilling, really thrilling,” she says. “It is a really interesting idea, the idea of language being reduced to sound. These manifestos, which are full of dogmatic sets of belief systems and shades of meaning: in a way, when you shout them in the one tone, they become one thing.”

At the same time, the things she was asked to say raised all sorts of thorny questions about creativity that rebound on her own work.

“Can you make something that connects to people without having a belief system? Is art political?” she asks rhetorically.

“Do people – because of their own perspective on the world – ascribe a meaning to a work? Or does the work tell you what to think?”

It’s clear that she doesn’t want answers to any of these questions: an answer is closure, whereas this work is opening doors for her.

Within the cinema world, she goes on, the manifesto that is most familiar is the Danish Dogme vow of chastity. “Those films were so fresh when it came out because they were being really rigorous,” she says. “But art is so fluid. Can it be constrained by an idea?”

Any controlling idea, she says, necessarily belongs to its own time. Future audiences won’t be able to connect to it. Perhaps they find it hard to connect to any belief.

“A lot of these manifestos were written when God existed. God exists, therefore He doesn’t exist. When religion was commonplace, art could have that dogmatic quality. But I don’t know if art could have that any more.”

Blanchett appears habitually curious; even at the comparatively trivial level of a junket interview, she contrives to ask more questions than she answers. When I arrive to interview her about Carol, she wants first to know what word I dislike the most. (Her own choice is “panties”. “They’re undies! Just call them undies!”)

Just two days later, we meet to talk about Truth; she immediately asks how I get my news, do I read a physical newspaper, do I watch Al Jazeera? The third time – we are both at the London Film Festival, where she is something of a feature of proceedings – she just laughs and says she’s stalking me. It’s a funny thing to say, given that I’m so obviously the stalker.

“She’s extremely modest,” says Rosefeldt later. Blanchett’s modesty recurs several times in his story of their collaboration; every time he says the word, he seems just as surprised.

They met a few years ago at a gallery opening in Berlin; they had a mutual friend in Thomas Ostermeier, artistic director of the Schaubuhne Theatre. “Thomas and Andrew [Upton] and I have been talking long about doing something together,” she says. They never managed to coincide during the eight years she and Upton were directing the Sydney Theatre Company.

“I’d still love it to happen; I think he’s extraordinary. Anyway, Thomas and Julian had collaborated on a show at the Schaubuhne and we met and got on.”

Rosefeldt says they discussed her performance as Bob Dylan in her first collaboration with Todd Haynes, I’m Not There. “And then she said, ‘Well, if you ever need anything from me, let me know’.” He laughs. “You know, in her super-modest way. Maybe it was a bit spontaneous of her; I don’t know if she underestimated my persistence.”

His first idea was just that he wanted to make a piece in which a woman performed multiple roles; I’m Not There came to mind, bringing Blanchett with it.

“I think she is very good at diving in to an identity and merging with what she does. So I thought it would be great on the one hand to have her performing many different characters and on the other hand it had to have something to do with art, because her idea of working with me came from her interest in art. Then I thought it would make it easier for both of us if we focused on language as a subject.”

In the end, with the help of an expert hair and make-up crew Blanchett brought with her, they shot all 13 characters in eight days.

All Rosefeldt’s gallery films have been complicated and visually ambitious – three of them will be on show at ACMI along with Manifesto – but he didn’t think about the fact that he would be working with a Hollywood star. The important thing, he says, was that he needed a consummate actor.

“It is an experiment for me to work with so much text, but it is also a big homage to her talent in a way.”

For audiences who associate Blanchett only with mainstream films – with her Oscar-winning turns in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, say – it is an indicator of what a very particular talent she is.

Many actors I interview – probably most of them – shy away from talking about guiding ideas. Their business is to become a character and defend that character, which often means avoiding thinking too much about overall themes, philosophical ramifications or the author’s intentions. Blanchett seems to me to take almost an opposite approach.

Her approach to playing Carol, for example, was to comb the Patricia Highsmith novel on which the film was based repeatedly for clues to her character, like a detective piecing together evidence. When I say carelessly that, of course, you can’t act an idea, she immediately recalls a favourite piece of direction from David Hare when she was playing Susan Traherne in his play Plenty.

“He said, ‘You know she’s England; she is what is happening to Britain’. I thought well, I can’t act that, but that is brilliant. What that does is make your brain go a bit sideways. You are involved in the meta-meaning of the work, which means your performance connects to bigger things.”

No wonder she gravitates so strongly to Berlin, a city full of orchestras, theatres and slackers debating philosophy in late-night bars.

“I love Berlin although, my god, there are more Australians in Berlin than there are in Australia. But it’s a city where, if you took the culture out of that city, the lights would go off, you know. And that’s so exciting, everyone wants to be there.”

It is currently accepted truth that the Upton-Blanchett family is planning a move to Los Angeles in the near future, but she says they are undecided.

“I don’t know what we’re doing. I like it here,” she says, gazing out at the grey London skyline. “I like it in Sydney. I like it everywhere. I just want nine lives. I want to be Jane Fonda. We’ve always talked about having a sabbatical when we finished at the Sydney Theatre Company for eight years – well, Andrew has, I did for five. And you know, often when you’re stable you can make the biggest leaps.

“I feel we have had the most extraordinary eight years, primarily focusing on theatre and selfishly have grown enormously.”

So why not a less predictable country? “Iceland!” she responds immediately and enthusiastically. There is a sense she would be up for anything, provided it sounded interesting. “Everything is up in the air.”