Interview for the newspaper of the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival

Why didn't you approach your new film Eugenic Minds, which is being shown in the festival's Czech Joy section, as a more comprehensive look at the history of eugenics? Although your film places it within the broader historical context, eugenics is more like a key by which the film opens up the period of World War II, in particular the actions of Nazi Germany.

My original creative impulse came from reading a dissertation by historian Michal Šimůnek from the Institute for Contemporary History on the subject of race hygiene and the specialized institutes associated with it that were active in Bohemia during the Protectorate. In fact, Prague was slated to become the Third Reich's city of Nazi science. But I didn't want for this historical inspiration to become the foundation for another in a long series of tendentious films about Hitler's mad visions, and so I went looking for some kind of broader theme. In the end, I hit upon the more universal subject of the abuse of science in the service of ideology – the phenomenon of the intelligentsia as a malignant influence on society, whose cruelest impacts can be found in its combination with eugenics before and during World War II. At its core, the film follows in the footsteps of my first historical documentary, Mr. Pfitzner's Diary (1998).

A related topic is the film's original aesthetic design, which combines the already diverse archival materials and reenacted scenes with a wide range of stop-motion, hand-drawn, and digital animation. Your earlier films, too, are characterized by cinematic experimentation: the mixing of fictional and documentary approaches, a pure observational style versus a more stylized approach, and your experience from working on multimedia projects such as the Lidice Memorial. With Eugenic Minds, you have not only combined your previous approaches, but within the context of Czech cinematic production your film goes the farthest in combining a historical compilation documentary with artistic techniques.

After coming up with the film's theme, the next important question was how to approach it. During the process of collecting source material, I came across interesting visuals related to eugenics that are an inextricable part of this sort of propaganda – sophisticated tables, graphs, anatomical drawings, and other things. Originally, I planned to use this authentic source material in a purely animated film. To this end, I began working with Jiří Barta, which resulted in many interesting ideas. Nevertheless, this plan fell by the wayside because of the financial demands of such an original documentary. After going through a series of animators, I finally ended up working with Xenia Hoffmeisterová. The "German Tower" in the film is the work of Jaroslav Róna.

How is a film like this made in terms of dramaturgy? Was there a fixed storyline from the beginning? What was the artists' role during the film's making?

We had a rough idea of a storyline that we used as our starting point. For the animators, I produced materials on what aspects the film should touch on. These were visual materials accompanied by my comments and notes; but the specific artistic vision and realization was purely up to them. Probably the only basic demand on my part was a minimalist approach, so that the viewer wouldn't feel overwhelmed by what was already a highly concentrated aesthetic. The actual script did not have a fixed shape and was repeatedly rewritten and changed depending on the ideas that kept coming up. We wanted the film to be a kind of essay whose poetic style would have a visual as well as literary level. For this reason, one of the pillars for the film's development was the writing of Patrik Ouředník. We used various citations from his texts, and some parts of his commentary were written specifically for the film.

Ouředník's commentary is based in part on his book Europeana, whose historical chronicle is written in a dense compositional style: "In my books, I try to work with a somewhat different principle, assuming that one can understand the language of an era as being synonymous to the 'truth of the era' – that means, to embrace the possibilities of linguistic automatisms and habits and to force them to act and to be confronted with one another in the same manner as the characters in a traditional novel." Ouředník's work is something like a parallel to the approach you took to the film...

Patrik is a master of succinct metaphors, which he constructs one atop the other on the verbal as well as semantic level and in the end arranges into an all-encompassing whole. Something that originally seemed like an innocent joke all of a sudden turns into a frightful image. A similar layering can be found in Eugenic Minds – both in its metaphorical approach to animation and in the combination of various stylistic approaches. Nevertheless, this similarity to Patrik's writing was not a part of our original artistic vision. Besides, the actual work involved was as long and difficult as it was with the animation, since he lives in France and only visits the Czech Republic every now and then. At the same time, he is a distinctive author and sometimes it wasn't easy to find a balance between his poetic style and the kind of objective interpretation that the film needed.

How much time did it take you to make this demanding film?

All in all, I spent five years of my life on it; roughly two to three years collecting material for the film and securing financing, and another two years for the actual making of the film. Honestly, if I had known all the things that would be involved, I wouldn't do it again – unless I had very generous financial backing.

What is the purpose of the chosen aesthetic style? You could just as well have gone for a more raw aesthetic, working only with primary sources that, combined with an objective commentary, would have been more informational.

Many things happened during World War II that are impossible to understand purely by reason and that are not easily transferred into a purely descriptive language. You can take the side of those who reject the idea of telling the horrors of war as a parable, or you can take the side of those who are trying to find a new key to approaching facts that are difficult to understand rationally. I view visual metaphors and literary essays as legitimate ways of offering viewers not only powerful discoveries but also powerful emotions and room for independently reflecting on the consequences of newly discovered facts that elude a rational understanding.

How difficult was it to find ethical limits and a concrete stylistic approach capable of representing subjects such as the Final Solution?

When it came to the question of the Holocaust, it was me who had the greatest difficulties. I currently have quite regular contact with the subject. For instance, I am involved in the effort to establish a Holocaust memorial in Prague. It is a constantly current and relevant subject. There is the subject of collective guilt, which especially in our country began to be addressed in film much later than in other countries, and it has brought an awful lot of things out into the open. Most viewers don't want to hear another story about the deportation of the Jews, unless the film offers a new point of view. Because of the film's topic it was clear that we had to address the Holocaust, and Xenia and I tried to take a sensitive approach to the subject. For this chapter in the film, visual metaphor proved to be a useful tool for communicating the subject to the viewer.

The various media are combined throughout the film with varying levels of intensity. The same can be said about the varying levels of intensity with which the film erases the boundaries between them. It isn't always easy to identify the line separating the original archival material from the artistic work that has been inserted into it or that sometimes rewrites the archival footage's original meaning.

I have been discussing this issue with many other filmmakers, who argue that archival sources should not be altered; that they are authentic. I basically agree with them – if they are indeed authentic. The subject of authenticity during wartime is a relatively problematic issue, one that I give seminars on. Most of what has been preserved – from documentary films to frontline newsreels – was ideologically commissioned by one or the other side in the war. Especially German propaganda used reenactments in its battlefield reports. It is often very difficult to identify a truly authentic version and a truly authentic source. If a certain level of manipulation helps me to tear down the veil of propaganda and to find the material's original meaning for the purposes of an objective and historically aware analysis that I wish to present to the viewer in a comprehensible and interesting format, I don't see any problem with it. I used a similar approach in The Story of the Castaways from the Patria (1997), where I created pseudo-archival material to go along with the authentic story of the emigrants to Palestine. In brief, I shot footage in the authentic, original locations in order to illustrate the stories from the interviews and diaries – footage that nobody could have shot at the time.

But sometimes it is difficult to figure out what is an original archival source (image, photograph, etching, drawing) and what is the fruit of artistic imagination. How to approach such manipulation?

That was our intent (laughter). Everybody will take a different approach to the film, but I nevertheless hope that, as they watch the film, viewers will eventually lose this need for decoding and will let the story affect them and impart objective facts.

Eugenic Minds features not only rich animation, but also an inexhaustible volume of archival material, some of which looks to be quite a find. How did historian and film theorist Tereza Czesany Dvořáková help you in this regard?

Some archival materials are true rarities; we basically discovered them. Others were probably seen for the first time in a Czech film. Nevertheless, the majority of the footage is something that, in this digital age, circulates throughout the world, and the initiated viewer will probably have encountered it in other contexts. Tereza Dvořáková helped us immensely. For one thing, she is familiar with the archives (and thanks to her linguistic capabilities, with foreign archives as well); for another, she is a specialist in Protectorate-era film. And so we worked not only with Czech archives, but with archives in Germany and America as well.

What will become of the film after the Jihlava festival?

Since this is the film's premiere, its future distribution is still being negotiated. The project has been co-financed by Czech Television, which means that will also be broadcast on TV. We are also negotiating with other domestic and foreign festivals, but it is too early to mention any specific names. It has also occurred to us to present the film alongside an exhibition, since the film's visual approach means we have plenty of original artwork to choose from.