Things to Come: Interview with Kinemathek Curators

“Things to Come. Science · Fiction · Film” is an exhibition at the Deutsche Kinemathek–Museum für Film und Fernsehen in Berlin which coincides with the theme of the 2017 Retrospective section of the Berlinale. The 2017 Berlinale features 27 science fiction films from around the world, including CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and SOYLENT GREEN. “Things to Come“ is organized by curators Kristina Jaspers and Nils Warnecke, whom Science & Film interviewed over email.

Science & Film: Why did you choose to organize the exhibition by themes of "Space", "Society of the Future," and "The Other"?

Kristina Jaspers: We started this project by asking many questions. Why is the science fiction genre so popular and why is it especially successful since the beginning of the 21st Century? What does it say about the time we live in? What do we hope for in the future and what are we scared of? Is there more to science fiction movies than entertainment? Can they function as a kind of “thought experiment”? Can these films motivate the audience to think seriously about how our future might look?

It became our goal to create an exhibition design that takes the audience into another world. During preparation for the project we watched many science fiction movies from the last hundred years. By watching these films, it became obvious that most of the stories can be divided into sub groups: not only by the narration but also by the location in which the story takes place.

The first chapter is outer space. Far from earth you could ask, where we are coming from and were are we going to? Are we alone? What is relevant in life when there is only us and a spaceship? But beyond these philosophical questions that we are interested in, we also want to make the audience aware of the social dynamics. For example, the way the crews on these spaceships are mixed and how they interact. The crews can be seen as a representation of our society. To watch them is like observing an experiment in a laboratory: Is the crew multicultural (like for example in the TV-series STAR TREK)? Which roles do men and women play in the hierarchy on the ship and how do they interact? This is one aspect of space travel in Science fiction movies. Another is, what are the basic conditions under which the crewmembers live? What do they eat, how do they deal with zero gravity, what does suspended animation do to them, and so on. We did not want to discuss this mainly in the texts of the exhibit–we preferred to visualize all this and to assemble clips from the films in thematic compilations which show the main aspects of space travel. In addition, we show the artwork of production designers and filmmakers who created the look of the future by designing space ships, space suits, and all kinds of technical gadgets.

Nils Warnecke: As Kristina describes, it was a long process. First, we had to find our way through this far-spread jungle of hundreds of films. The different subjects we wanted to focus on can be described as sub-genres of the wide field of Science fiction. Here it was the so-called “Space Opera”. Something that is usually associated with Science fiction. There is no other genre in film that uses the outer space as the main location (apart from historic dramas about flights to the moon). Therefore, it's also a good introduction to the exhibition. The visitor immediately knows where we want to take them when they enters the setting of a space ship. Welcome to the world of science fiction and the questions that can be asked when we leave earth and move into outer space, which Kristina mentioned already. I want to add that we never had in mind to tell THE story of the Science fiction genre from A to Z. Asking questions and guiding the visitor by an intellectual guideline through the show–like Kristina described it–we also wanted to entertain the audience and offer a kind of three-dimensional cinematic space that gives you the illusion of becoming part of the story. It seems it was the right decision because we have gotten feedback especially from people who were not interested in science fiction, who said that the playful walkabout through different staged spaces helped them become interested and enjoy the subject.

KJ: Yes, so for the second chapter–the “Society of the Future”–we decided to take the audience to a futuristic city. Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS (1927) has in it a vertical city with skyscrapers, flying cars, and advertisements everywhere (like Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER). This is a reference for almost all filmmakers who create the city of the future. This image of the “city of the future” is today a reality. Almost all megacities in the world look like that and for many of the inhabitants everyday life is hardly different from the big city life in these blockbusters. Part of our installation is a white apartment for the “the rich” and a dark and dirty space that symbolizes the “ghetto of the poor.” This sharpens the argument about how most of the films dealing with social fiction show the society of the future. How will we live in the future? What impact will the “beautiful new world” of the privileged rich and powerful have on the world of the poor and displaced? Movies like MINORITY REPORT (Steven Spielberg, USA, 2002) gave us an impression of upcoming “cool” technology like touch screens and magnetic cars, but they also show us a dystopian society–a totalitarian regime with drone supervision.

NW: The city of the future, which we thought about in the beginning of the exhibition, was a city of vertical distinction. You find an ugly world of dirt and darkness and violence on the bottom of the canyons between the tall futuristic towers and the bright and beautiful and safe penthouses on top. In the exhibition, we finally had to accept that we could not build a two-story environment due to static requirements and financial limitations. But the colors make the difference between the two worlds very clear. And following up what Kristina said about the possible society of the future, I would go even one step further by asking, is that still fiction or is it in part already reality? The “beautiful new world” for the privileged people and the desolate living conditions of the poor and “displaced persons,” isn't that already a reality for many people on our planet? And thinking of the refugees in our own countries living next to us, isn't it already part of our own reality?

KJ: Yes, this perspective that Nils has described is a guideline for the whole exhibition. What could science fiction tell us about the world that we are actually living in and how do we want to continue? Science fiction considered as social fiction always looks at the behavior of the people. This was also a main aspect of the third part of the show.

The setting in the exhibition for the topic of meeting “the Other” or the Alien is a white laboratory. We show a display of alien designs and costumes made by production designers and costume designers. The origins and the inspirations for these designs for “the unknown” can be found in fantasy literature, and in descriptions of anthropomorphized animals. A question many science fiction movies are dealing with is: what would happen if the aliens were trying to become part of our body or even to become us? What if they look like humans? (A very prominent example is THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS based on a novel by Jack Finney.) Part of the laboratory is an installation with two surgery tables. On one of the tables we integrated a monitor on which you can see scenes from films in which humans dissect Aliens. This tells you how we deal with “the Other”: we want to analyze it but we also want to control the body of the alien because it poses a threat to us. On the second table you can lie down and watch clips on a monitor that is positioned over your head. You see clips of Aliens going into or out of human bodies–like in ALIEN or PROMETHEUS. This is shocking and disgusting, but it also helps to think about what it mean to be “human,” and to discuss, were are the boundaries of the human body?

NW: I would directly jump in on this and would say that, for me it is more about how to make the audience feel very directly and, without any protection, the repulsion and fear we feel when we are confronted with the other (the alien). When it is creeping into us or consuming us like a parasite and then breaking out of us, the alien becomes a symbol for the unknown that tries to overwhelm us or that is even already part of us; maybe this is just the other, dark side of ourselves. Leaving the laboratory at the very end of the exhibition, you enter a last space that is a room that has mirrored walls (that show your reflection) and you see a large projection of a compilation of clips dealing with the question, “what is a human being?”: when aliens have taken possession of the human body, or when humans themselves have added artificial parts to a human body, or have replaced huge parts of the body by artificial parts, or when we are confronted with our own clones, or confronted with humanoid robots that look like us. We wanted to ask this question in the end as it functions as a parenthesis for all three sections of the exhibition.

KJ: So you see the three topics or settings “Space”, “Society of the future”, and “the Other” helps us to show different main topics of science fiction movies, but also to bring the audience in different situations to think about being human, being part of a society, and to reflect about the things that will come…

S&F: In the exhibition notes you ask, "where has reality actually caught up with the future?"–is that why you included the humanoid robot by Manfred Hild in the exhibition? Are there other examples of new technologies in the show?

NW: The confrontation of Science (reality) and Fiction was an important goal for us. It is a simple and at the same time very effective way to visualize the juxtaposition of what we have already achieved and what has been envisioned in science fiction movies. It tells also about the mutual interference. Some films which have foreseen technical achievements might have inspired industrial designers, and some production designers have been influenced by futuristic architecture or fashion. Some have gotten input from scientists who work in special fields of technology. The humanoid robot “Myon” by Manfred Hild is a very good example for this. We display it (or him) in a huge showcase together with robots from films. Myon, who has the height and the stature of a seven-year-old kid, could be used easily in a science fiction movie. Manfred Hild told us that Myons' outside appearance was inspired by movie robots like R2 D2 and Wall E.

Other examples in the exhibition can be found in the “Outer Space” section. We show spacesuits from films together with a space suit that has been used in Russia since the mid 1970s to protect Cosmonauts during takeoff and landing. We show clips from the TV coverage of the first landing on the moon, and Barack Obama’s speech where he talks about the goal to fly to Mars by the 2030s. In the “Society of the Future” section the main installation confronting reality and fiction is a shop window where we display the “Communicator” from the first season of STAR TREK that is nothing other than what we know today as a mobile phone. Next to it, we show the Motorola StarTAC mobile phone that was inspired (the name says it) by the Star Trek communicator.

KJ: MINORITY REPORT (2002) by Steven Spielberg is a good example. This movie anticipated a lot of technology that was not available at that time. In the shop window, we compare the sketches of google glasses and virtual-reality headsets of MINORITY REPORT with glasses that you could buy now. And as Nils said, this process goes in both directions: the filmmakers and designers are inspired by new products and technologies, and the Industry uses these futuristic “objects of desire” for their own commercial interests.

S&F: Given that scientific and technological research has advanced so rapidly, it is interesting to look at science fiction films and see how relevant they are now as compared to when they were made. Did that come up at all while you were putting together the show?

KJ: Yes, science fiction films always say something about the time in which they originate. So you are right, our first idea was to organize the exhibition in two time-lines which would have shown you what has happened in reality when the movies were made and what happened in the time the movie played in (if this time was before now). For example, which inventions from Kubrick’s 2001 were really made in the year 2001? The movie shows computer-tablets like the iPad, which was launched in 2010. Or, how was the sociopolitical situation in the real year 1984 compared to the vision of George Orwell shown in the movie from 1954. This is an interesting aspect and we would have loved to do a project from this perspective... But for our exhibition we choose a less didactic structure.

NW: It is indeed very interesting to compare the vision with the reality. Kristina has mentioned already two examples. Another one is SOYLENT GREEN (by Richard Fleischer, USA, 1973). The film is based on a novel of the same title, and shows us an overpopulated America where pollution has destroyed all natural resources. People living (or better existing) in overcrowded Mega Cities eat artificial food (Soylent Green) that is told to be made of algae. Only the richest can afford real food, real fresh water, and so on. In the end, we learn that the artificial food is made of humans. Made in a time when the “Club of Rome” [a global nonprofit] launched his first report about man-made pollution and destruction of our natural environment, SOYLENT GREEN mirrors exactly the worries and fears people had then. The film takes place in the year 2022 only a couple of years away from the time we live in now. We can learn from it that, at least for our western societies, the prediction was completely wrong. The quality of air and water is better controlled today than decades ago, and we produce more biological foods than ever before. But this is only true for our “first” world of course. And, we deal with threats and problems today that are more subtle and not so visible, but no less dangerous than the loss of our natural resources. It will be fascinating for the next generation to compare the time they will live in with the visions of contemporary science fiction films today.

S&F: How did the 2017 Berlinale Retrospective, which is a program of science fiction films, come about?

KJ: The science fiction project was on our “Wishlist” for a long time. It is a wonderful topic, because on one hand it is very popular and entertaining, and on the other you can discuss very interesting and important social questions and also aesthetical aspects. The Deutsche Kinemathek is also responsible for the “Retrospective” of the Berlin International Film Festival. So when we decided to make the exhibition we discussed the topic at the same time with the Berlinale and also with MoMA, our partner for the retrospective, to bring this together.

S&F: How did you choose which films to include in "Things to Come"?

KJ: Oh, we watched so many movies, because it is such an extensive genre and it was really hard to choose! One of our main interests was to start with the actual “boom” of science fiction films of the last years. We wanted to start with the contemporary movie experience and then to go back in time. To find our items–as we said we are mainly showing art work, models, and costumes–we visited the main film archives like the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, and the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, and we also made research trips to the archives of several film studios like Fox, Paramount, NBC Universal, and Lucas Films. The Deutsche Kinemathek is also one of the main film archives in the world with a large collection of special effect props. We have an “Alien” from Roland Emmerich’s INDEPENDENCE DAY, and the model of the taxi from THE FIFTH ELEMENT. We also have an important collection of set designs beginning with the original drawings Erich Kettelhut made for METROPOLIS. We selected clips from the movies to illustrate all these items and to show them in being used. Here at the Museum für Film und Fernsehen in Berlin, we have a very international audience; more than 50% of our visitors come from other countries so we always try to take an international perspective when we are working on our exhibitions. In this case, we didn't want to show only Hollywood blockbusters. We also searched for movies from other countries, especially from Europe. We were also interested in the comparison of eastern to western productions from the time of the Cold War. But the film clips are not only references, they are the main part of the installations, and they are edited in a way to create an atmosphere and to give you a visual understanding of the topics.

NW: One could also speak about the films we did not select to become part of the exhibition. An important topic in many science fiction films is time travel, but there was no place for it in our concept and no space in the galleries. This is unfortunate, but it's always about “kill your darlings”. A straight storyline, which is to the point instead of meandering around and showing everything, is more effective and satisfying in the end. As Kristina said, we did not just want to focus on Hollywood blockbusters and therefore added some European productions–very early examples of science fiction movies from Europe like LE VOYAGE DANS LA LUNE, METROPOLIS, and THINGS TO COME. But at the same time, Hollywood is the main laboratory from where most science fiction films come or have been co-produced. A lot of stories that are set in the future need big budgets because most of the time, completely non-existent worlds have to be created visually. Another story would be to reflect about the fact that this means that Hollywood has the authority of interpretation regarding the image of our future. Take this dominance for granted and combine it with the assumption that science fiction films have a strong impact on our own image of the future, then this future is heavily influenced by the American film industry. But, this might be a topic for another exhibition in the future.

Nils Warnecke and Kristina Jaspers also curated the exhibition “Martin Scorsese” which is currently on view at Museum of the Moving Image. They have each been curators at the Deutsche Kinemathek since 2001. “Things to Come. Science · Fiction · Film” is on view through April 23, 2017. The Berlinale runs February 9 through 19. Stay tuned to Science & Film for coverage of the Retrospective section.