Director: André Schäfer (Switzerland). Year of Release: 2022
Martin Suter is in his 70s, has slicked back hair, and usually wears a black suit and a tie. He speaks German (and occasionally French) with a thick Swiss accent. He is a phenomenally successful novelist, and the fact that I didn’t know this says much more about me than about him. Listening to the extracts of his novels, of which this film contains many, they sound more like short stories – more interested in setting up a mood than in inticracies of plot.
Maybe this is slightly unfair. Suter’s novels often seem to latch upon a concept – the man who got lost in the supermarket and couldn’t find his way out, or the pair of men who tried to turn back time so they could be reunited with their dead wives. There are some recurring themes like ageing and the loss of intellectual control (another novel is based on a drug trip). For all that some critics may dismiss Suter’s books as lightweight, they aren’t afraid of taking on ideas.
We accompany Suter to various places in which important events of his life have taken place – to Marrakesh where he has a second home, and Heiligendamm on the North-East German coast, where he took family holidays. We see him with his wife Margrith and their adoptive child Ana, watching home movies of Guatemala where Ana grew up. They watch the film once a year, on the anniversary of the death of Ana’s brother.
Much of the film consists of re-enactments of Suter’s novels, often with him lingering in the background. The thing you notice more than anything is how incredibly well paced they are. Each word fills you with anticipation, wanting to know where we’re going here. The words have a poetic quality. Even if you don’t speak the language, you’d be carried along by the rhythms. The film really does make you want to go out and buy a copy of one of Suter’s books and read it through.
This is not entirely a good thing. I often had the feeling that film is not the best medium for what we are viewing. The written words were so evocative, that acting them out seemed at best superfluous and at worst to get in the way. I kept wanting to tell the actors on screen to tone it down a little, as all their gestures were getting in the way of listening to the words.
And then there is the question of the film’s flirtation with truth. Suter is very interested in the relationship between documentary and truth, something which is reflected in the film’s title which can be roughly translated as “Everything about Martin Suter. Apart from the truth.” The film is a biography, of sorts, but Suter clearly states that biographies are the most fictitious books of all – well maybe the second most fictitious after autobiographies.
What does this mean in practise? Is Suter simply saying that all historical and biographical drama is made up, so you might as well be open about it and admit that you’re making it all up? This sounds nice as a piece of populist philosophy, but surely it does matter whether the footballer Bastian Schweinsteiger appears in the film because Suter is writing a fictional biography of him, or because the director fancied making a film with Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Apparently Suter really did write that book (Einer von Euch, available in good book shops). But there are other occasions where it matters much more whether we are being shown fact or fiction. Suter say that the story is much more important that the truth. But it does matter whether they adopted a Guatemalan boy, who died, and whose memory they acknowledge by watching old films of him. If that were just made up for the cameras, it would be slightly distasteful.
Maybe a better medium for these stories would be a live concert. There are a number of scenes in the film featuring songs by the musician Stephan Eicher – songs who’s lyrics were written by Suter. Eicher’s tuneful songs, sung in a thick dialect, complement Eicher’s words far better than the pale imitations that appear on screen. Listening to the songs, you realise just how melodic Suter’s choice of words is.
As the closing credits roll, we hear Eicher singing once more:
“That was a film about Martin Suter
Does one really know more about Suter?
What is true, and what made up
From the one and a half peaceful hours?
Can one describe him so?
Let’s leave it so, yes let’s leave it so
A secret that must remain.”
These eloquent words tell us much that is enjoyable and much that is frustrating about the film. Just what is the point in showing a biography of someone who is not interested in telling you about his life? The director is too close to his subject to throw any light on his life. And yet, inasmuch as the film is an intellectual exercise, a joke even, there is some sense of fun. Maybe the joke’s on an earnest public who is too preoccupied with facts when they should just listen to the melodies.