Author: Antje Mayer
Published: REPORT. Magazine for Arts and Civil Society in Eastern- and Central Europe, October 2004

“The Times Ahead in the USA Don't Look Good”

Eric Pleskow in conversation

You have two main passions besides film: your dogs and politics. First of all a question of great interest to Europe and Europeans: How as a well-to-do US citizen, a Jew involved in the production of culture, do you view the present course taken by the government of George W. Bush?
The times ahead of us in the USA don't look good. I have lived in the US for 65 years now and I have never experienced anything like the situation at present. People in politics and in the media lie and insult each other shamelessly on a daily basis.

At the time of this interview the present American President is still ahead of John Kerry in all the polls. Given the current situation many Europeans shake their heads in amazement at this fact. What is going on at the far side of the Big Pond?
How does the Bush government have the nerve to behave in this way? Because it has a great, great deal of money and therefore also a great amount of power, which unfortunately was also democratically achieved – after all, half of the US citizens voted for Bush. Perhaps directors such as Michael Moore have the strength to move things in the other direction.

Doesn't Michael Moore behave in his films in the same populist manner as his opponents, whom he accuses of being heavy-handed?
A shaker and mover like Moore is useful for the media, they need someone who offers them a basis. He does this in a strategically very intelligent way. You know, of course, that Lenin once demanded: “Give me the screens of the world”?

...where you have been far more successful with your films than either Lenin or Michael Moore. One thinks here of “Silence of The Lambs” or “Dances with Wolves” that you produced, as well as many other well-known films. Where did you get your “nose” for the right film at the right time?
Please, ask my wife that one! She reminds me from time to time that I have also had flops. There is no secret recipe for my success. I have a good feeling for a script, a director and the main cast. This “feeling” was certainly also formed by my childhood and youth in Vienna...

...a number of Viennese and Austrians will certainly feel flattered on hearing this...
Also, I am more interested in the content, the statement about the human condition. Basically, the technology of a film doesn't interest me much. In earlier times we produced a film in a few weeks, today it sometimes takes over eighteen months. The entire circus involved is amazing! And then there is the simply unbelievable amount of money spent on a film – it doesn't necessarily improve the quality.

Are you outing yourself as a fan of the European film?
As you know I have, often chosen European directors for my films, for example the Czech director Miloš Forman. Someone like him does not necessarily interpret material like “Amadeus” any better than a US-American but perhaps more suitably.

With regard to Europe: Anger or joy? What went on in your head in 1938, after the annexation of Austria, when you knew that you had to leave Vienna for the USA because you were a Jew? Roughly half a century later, in 1997, your telephone rang and you were asked if you would like to become president of the Viennale.
Ah, you know, I was a fourteen-year-old teenager at the time and, in view of the circumstances, I was happy to get out. But leaving irony aside: for decades there was no longer anything to connect with this city, although I came here occasionally on business. All my relatives, acquaintances and friends had left the country just as “voluntarily” as I had.

A very diplomatic reply, which seems to suggest that you were initially very sceptical?
It was the ORF journalist Gabriele Flossmann who suggested me as President of the Viennale. She had kept in contact with me and I trusted her. But as early as 1971 people from Austria had got in touch with me. I was offered the Goldenes Ehrenzeichen (Gold Order of Merit) of the City of Vienna. I thought to myself at the time, “Why do they want to give me this, only a few years earlier they wanted to kill me?” I left the decision up to my mother. She said I should accept it.

Your mother was born in Budapest, your father in Russia. Two typically Viennese biographies, as a look at the Vienna telephone directory can confirm. What connects you today with the “East”, with what lies “beyond” Vienna?
For me the eastward expansion of the EU is highly important and offers Austria a unique chance. We won't ignore the theme at the Viennale either. Old love never dies. But I would like to issue a warning to nostalgic fans of the days of the Habsburg monarchy: time tends to erase the bad memories and preserve only the good ones. At that time in Austria, in addition to anti-Semitism, anti-Slav feelings were also prevalent.

But at this year's Viennale one notices little of this “old love”? There are hardly any contributions worth mentioning from Central Europe. In the year of the EU expansion into Eastern Europe one could almost interpret this as a statement. Has something perhaps died after all?
The contributions are selected according to quality and not their countries of origin. And in any case it is Hans Hurch who puts together the programme, not I. But I don't think much of rejecting films from this region out of hand, on the basis that at the moment their reputation is perhaps worse than their actual quality.

As President of the Viennale you could surely ensure that more films from the former East Block countries and ex-Yugoslavia are shown?
At next year's Viennale the proportion of films from Central, East and Southeast Europe will certainly be greater. I want to ensure this myself. There is always something new to discover, we must remain open-minded. No prejudices! I find that our new neighbours must have the feeling that they are completely and entirely accepted, and not merely tolerated.

Thank you for giving us this interview.