Poetics of Cinema: On the Difference between Nothing and Something

Danish docs are coming out in force at the Sheffield Doc/Fest, including films by Max Kestner. FILM took the opportunity to explore the cinematic poetics underlying the Danish filmmaker's work.


I have a desire to control, but I have no desire to control the characters. I don't stage actions. I stage situations that give birth to actions. If the characters have no motives of their own to be present – and, naturally, it's preferable that they do – I have to provide them with motives. I never give them actions to perform. I know that the film's life comes from the characters' ability to be alive, and controlling them too severely drains the life out of the film. The lifegiving element is connected to the actions and the way they are performed. The way the actions are performed precisely has to come from a character's subconscious, innermost core. Perhaps that's what's known as personality. For that reason, I like to work with a very high degree of chaos concerning the characters.

"I have made an image that I think belongs to the film and I try to hold onto it. I know that, if I change the image, the story disappears. The image is the story. And the story is the image."

"I have made an image that I think belongs to the film and I try to hold onto it. I know that, if I change the image, the story disappears. The image is the story. And the story is the image."

Often, I haven't even met the characters before I start shooting. I might want to know how many they are. What kind of clothes they might be wearing. And I like to know their motives for being where I will be filming. But I don't interfere in how they act. It's not that I don't care about what they do. I know that's crucial, of course. But I don't interfere in it. I feel I need to have unknown conditions. Some things have to be unpredictable.



Born 1969. Graduated in documentary and television from the National Film School of Denmark, 1997. Lecturer at the National Film School of Denmark. Worked for DR TV, where he made "Partiet"/"The Party" (2000) and "Supergeil" (1997-1998). "Rejsen på ophavet"/"Max by chance" (2004) chosen for First Appearance at IDFA Amsterdam and received a GulDok for Best Short Documentary at cph:dox, 2004.

I try to regard the characters as part of reality – which, strictly speaking, they are – on a par with chairs, guitars, bicycles or hand grenades. I try to reduce them to lines or shirts or other physical attributes. I don't look at them as stories. I actually don't think there are stories to be found in the characters that are just waiting to be told. I think that's a misconception that thrives in documentary environments, like a misguided respect for reality.

Reality does not carry stories. Not a one. Reality is a mess. That's the most important thing for a documentary filmmaker to realise. Our big problem is that we're easily fooled by reality being indistinguishable from a set with characters and props. After all, we do not, like fictional storytellers, start with an empty space without words, light and movement. We start from everything. They add in, we leave out. It makes us especially susceptible to working unconsciously, according to a bias of how a film should look, when there is no empty space demanding answers of us.

Verden i Danmark2 framegrab

"The World in Denmark". Framegrab


Selecting from reality is part of my personal gaze. If I succeed in casting off all biases, my honest interest will remain. Then, sensing what's in and what's out is no problem. This is where control comes in. The control is in my gaze. Maintaining my way of seeing, I create order in chaos. My gaze creates stories, so others can look into chaos with my eyes and perceive meaning.

Control of the cinematic language makes reality's indifferent events stand out like scenes in a film. I must not stray from my language. I have made an image that I think belongs to the film and I try to hold onto it. I know that, if I change the image, the story disappears. The image is the story. And the story is the image. That's all there is. Well, there's sound, of course. But that's it. Image and sound.

I never successfully invented a language to suit a subject. Although I've tried. On the other hand, I might start with a language and later discover what the film is about. Ideally, form and content should be one and the same. The image itself should be the story. It shouldn't be an image of the story. It shouldn't communicate the story. It should be the story. It seems to be against the innermost laws of the film to separate form and content. It's as if the film, in its earliest conception, should be both. Born as images and sound, as form. Not as content and form.

I can feel if the film is going to be healthy. The pieces fall into place. Everything is just so. There should be a hierarchy of rules. Some things controlling other things. And that which is controlled naturally conforms. At the top sits the most important image in the film that contains the germ of everything else. These rules are invariable, because they are the film's cohesive force. They are what turns reality into a story. Magically, the rules allow reality to change in front of my eyes and become moments of a special kind: narrative moments.

In this way, I feel, I can provoke situations that cannot fail, that will always beget a scene. If the rules that form the basis of the film's language are boring, the scenes may be boring. If they are challenging, the scenes may be challenging. But scenes will result under any circumstances, if I stay faithful to the film's language and trust chaos to do its job.


What the cinematic language allows me to experience, I think, is small shifts in relation to my expectations. After all, I know the world, reality. I have been in it for a long time and I know what it usually does, which is rarely anything surprising, whereas the way it does it can catch you unawares. But reality's way of behaving can only be revealed by a gaze.

I experience reality's chaotic material as consisting of icons. The icons seem meaningless, because they don't rouse any feelings in me. I recognise them without experiencing them. They simply are what they are, without characteristics. Just a guitar. Something has to make me experience the familiar anew. And that is what the language can do.

I believe that the only thing we, as storytellers, can bring to the world, is a language. Reality is simply our material. Like a painter's pigments and canvas. Or a guitarist's guitar. The guitarist and the painter, they are what's interesting, not the canvas or the guitar. What matters is how they paint and play. A guitar. after all, is just a guitar. An insignificant part of reality.

I'm not talking about the difference between good films and bad films. I'm only talking about the difference between narrative and nothing. The difference between nothing and something.

Max Kestner foto Erik Molberg Hansen