Claus Drexel Interview: In search of people ‘on the edge of the world’

The Bavarian-born director Claus Drexel has spent most of his life in Paris. He has worked as both a sound engineer and cinematographer for production companies in France and the U.S. Drexel has also directed opera performances and cinematic works of fiction. ‘Au bord du monde’ (‘On the edge of the world’) participated in Cannes last year and has since travelled to numerous festivals. Flix recently caught up with Drexel and discussed his new film.

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When and how did you get the idea for this film? I suppose it’s natural to start thinking about how one ends up living on the streets, but apart from curiosity, what motivated you?

The idea of making a film about the homeless people in Paris had been on my mind for a long time. There are so many homeless people in Paris, all over the place. We see them everywhere but never hear much about them. So, my idea was to make a film where we would give them the opportunity to speak out, without interfering or altering their words and without the addition of a commentary or analysis.

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How long did it take to make the film (including research, preproduction etc.)? How would you say this period changed you?

In order to get in touch with these people, you need a lot of time. That’s why we took an entire year to shoot the film. But as far as the rest of the production is concerned, thanks to my fabulous producer Florent Lacaze, everything went really fast. We even started shooting right away. I didn’t do any research in advance, because I didn’t want to be influenced by previous experiences of others. I wanted to discover this world by myself, to make this odyssey with the eyes of a child, a bit like the Little Prince. So altogether, it took us a bit more than a year. Because we started to edit very early, the film was completed approximately 2 months after the end of the shooting. Of course, this experience changed me a lot more than I thought it would. Meeting such nice, friendly, open-minded and generous people on the street, made me understand that the important things in life are not money and economic growth, but respect, friendship and love.

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The film has a very distinct aesthetic approach. Was it something that you had in mind before you started talking to the homeless or a decision that was made along the way?

To have every shot look like a painting (with a very carefully elaborated sound design) was the central starting point of the whole film. There were many reasons for this. The obvious one was to show the incredible contrast between the beauty of Paris and the situation of these people. I really wanted to strike the audience with that. That’s why I chose to work with photographer Sylvain Leser. I knew he could film these people and our city like no one else. By the way, the film takes place in Paris, of course, but I prefer to see it as an archetypal “city of gold”, representing our declining Western civilization, rather than the actual capital of France.
You chose to film only at night. Why?

I really like the idea of Werner Herzog when he says that in the fine arts, in music, literature and cinema, it is possible to reach a deeper stratum of truth. This poetic, “ecstatic” truth is mysterious and can only be attained through stylization. As the homeless people are very lonely and have somehow become “invisible” to the eyes of the Parisians, we decided to shoot at a time of day when the streets of Paris are totally empty, except for the homeless. This happens at night, after the subway is closed. Furthermore, this very quiet atmosphere enabled us to have very long and intimate discussions.

The film is strangely beautiful. In a way this somehow collides with the expectations one would have for the subject matter. Were you looking for beauty in this world, or did it just manifest itself?

Making a film involves making decisions. It’s always the responsibility of the filmmaker to decide how to make a film look, and – unfortunately – over the years, now it has become a norm that when you make a film about poor people you have a poor image. And I don’t think that’s right. It’s all a question of conventions – and I really am not a fan of conventions! I mean, if someone were to make a film about people that are dear to me, I would like that film to be beautiful, regardless of their wealth. And when Rembrandt or Goya painted poor people, no one expected them to make an ugly painting. Basically, the reason behind this aesthetic choice is that when I direct a film, I want to use all the tools at my disposal to reinforce the essence of the film. When a painter paints the backdrop behind his subject, his idea is not just to paint something “nice”, but to express the inner life of the person he paints. That’s exactly what we tried to achieve. We tried to show the great inner beauty of these people through the magnificent images of Sylvain Leser. Besides, what I really like in your question is the word “strange”. Indeed, I try to give all my films an uncanny atmosphere, something “Unheimlich” as Freud put it. This is often achieved through the use of three elements: loneliness, darkness and silence. This is another reason why we shot the film at night.

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How easy was to approach these people? One would assume that they would be hesitant to appear in a documentary, but here they are, unafraid and straightforward. How did you convince them to be a part of the film?

What these people need most – far more than money or anything material – is human contact and the feeling that they exist as human beings in our eyes. Therefore, if you approach them with dignity and respect, it’s easier to establish a relationship with them than you’d expect. They agreed to appear in the film when I explained that – unlike television newscasts – we would take our time: that I wanted to meet them over the course of an entire year and that I would not ask them a list of questions in front of the rolling camera, but would talk with them for several hours each time. In the end, what you see in the film are not answers to interview-questions, but excerpts of long discussions between friends.

What would you say was the most difficult part of making this film?

All my friends tell me that it must have been tough to shoot for a whole year, during the night, in the cold and rain. But, by far, the most difficult moments were at dawn, when we would finish shooting and wrap up our equipment to go home and had to leave the homeless sitting on the sidewalk.

In the big cities of the western world, homeless people are something of a given. After a while it seems that people stop noticing them altogether. Is this something that surprises you? Do you see it as lack of compassion or a “survival mechanism” for the lucky ones that have roofs over their heads?

I think it depends on the person. Of course, you can get used to everything and for some people compassion simply erodes with time. For others, it’s a way of protecting themselves. As Victor Hugo already put it: extreme poverty is an inevitable byproduct of our rich bourgeois society. The fact that we’re seeing more and more homeless people is the consequence of other people becoming richer and richer. I don’t think I’m excessively pessimistic when I say that the situation will get much worse. So, I totally understand it when people, who still have a roof over their head, look away when they see homeless people, because they are afraid of being in the same situation. And everyone knows that politicians are telling fairytales when they promise a job and a roof over everybody’s head. This will be less and less the life standard in the near future. So, I think it’s time we change the way we think and stop believing that a person is valuable only when he or she contributes to economic growth. If we believe that, soon we will be more considerate to robots than to humans. We have to understand, that regardless of the situation, every person has the same value, no matter if he or she is rich or poor, ugly or pretty, a president, a doctor, a movie star or homeless.

Read the review of ‘Au bord du monde’ (‘On the edge of the world’) here