A Man in The Mirror

Filmmaker Virgil Widrich explores the nature of identity

On The Town | Otar Shalikashvili | November 2008

Johannes Silberschneider’s character meeting his alter ego in Copy Shop, a film by Austrian filmmaker Virgil Widrich

"To conduct an experiment is to embark on a journey without knowing where it ends; adding contradicting ingredients that seem not to work well together," Virgil Widrich says. A filmmaker and a digital artist, he has been experimenting with the cinematographic medium since he was a child.

Copy Shop, Widrich’s widely acclaimed short film that won him an Oscar nomination, is original in its technical resolve; it was shot with a digital camera, printed on thousands of papers, and animated. While the story is not completely new, it brings a fresh touch.  "This is the story of a man who multiplies – not new, print something on paper and animate – also not new," he concedes, "but the combination of the two, there we’ve got something new and interesting."

Copy Shop is an optically appealing, perplexing exploration of the concept of identity, seeing what is the same, duplicated and repeated in endless sequence. One day the hero, brilliantly played by Johannes Silberschneider, who works in a copy shop, accidentally leaves his hand on the machine and has it photocopied. The trouble starts when the machine does not cease printing; the next print shows the hero making a copy of his hand. The one after depicts him watching himself make a copy of his hand. The mind-boggling and visually thrilling sequence continues with the hero pulling out copies with each depicting him holding and examining the previous page. The sequence is the incarnation of the artist’s concept of a "film-mirror". Just as a mirror reflects and multiplies our image, cinema mirrors our identities. When human identity is filtered through a camera lens, the boundaries between the subject and the object blur.

Roland Barthes, the French philosopher and photo critic, said he felt a certain paralysis each time he was photographed; the vivid sensation of the camera lens capturing his image induced him to perceive himself as a subject and an object simultaneously. The hero of Copy Shop wakes up, enters the bathroom and washes his face. The hero of Copy Shop wakes up, enters the bathroom and sees himself washing his face. The subject becomes an object. Likewise, the viewer in the dark theater is furnished with an identity of the hero not only to accompany him on a journey, but to become him.

Now the concept of identification with the hero is as old as Aristotle, but Widrich has his own, rather postmodern take on it. The hero of Copy Shop multiplies to a point where the original loses its identity and importance. Chased by his copies across the rooftop and at the same time awaited by more of his copies on the ground, he jumps to end it. This idea is reminiscent of Baudrillard’s prophecy of Simulacra, when everything in the postmodern world is replicated incessantly, with the original robbed of purpose and significance.

"Identity is an illusion, [but] one that we desperately need to stay sane," Widrich says. He does not believe in a single, stable identity. He rather thinks that throughout their life cycle, humans assume and abandon multiple identities. "Humans are in fact identity machines, who like to think they are someone else. Cinema offers a chance to slip into another identity for 90 minutes; it is a safe way to be someone else, to be crazy for a limited time."

Human beings gather identity by apprehension and imitation. "People believe that they are the way they are from within," he says, "but had they been raised somewhere else, they would have had a completely  different identity."

Undoubtedly, the surroundings played a vital role in the molding of Virgil Widrich’s identity. The artist grew up in Salzburg, in an old house on a hill, where filmmaker Peter Handke was a neighbor and German director Wim Wenders a frequent visitor.

Another acclaimed work, Fast Film, is also an experimental short that turned into a mainstream success. Here Widrich resumes the exploration of the concept of identification.  Fast Film is a visually stunning celebration of the cinematographic art form, encapsulating the entire thrill of cinema. The animated heroes of the film are literally ephemeral, they appear and disappear, blend and clash, interchange; yet we identify with them immediately. We don’t know who they are, or how they got into trouble, but Widrich’s magical montage of images and sounds seduce us into empathizing with them right away.

Virgil Widrich is young, just turned 41. His gaze vacillates between tense and concentrated. Monotonous, deductive speech reveals his intelligence. His eyebrows relax for a split second when a smile appears on his face, before he carries on with the serious talk. He remains calm even when the conversation touches on intimate topics, abstract as well as physical. Surprise is one of his greatest affections, and he has his own way of delivering it. He works for many hours, often many years on the projects.

At the age of fourteen, Virgil started working on an animated short, which he completed after a year of daily, intense work. "I know it is a little unusual for a fourteen year old kid to stay focused for such a long time," he says smiling, "but I always loved surprising people with my work."

The longing to dazzle spectators is a great motivator. Ten or fifteen minutes of the audience kept on the edge of their seats, thrilled, confused, excited, with a thousand question marks about the fabric of the magical threads the director has woven - that’s what it’s all about for Widrich.

"I love George Melies – a magician who opens the curtains and says ‘I got you on a ride for 15 minutes.’ Art is a lot about that. I love it. I miss it."

The thrill of generating solutions to problems that seem irresolvable is another driving force that keeps him going on for years until his brainchild is completed and ready for presentation. Not the search or the communication of the ultimate truths, but the thirst for grabbing the viewer along on a wild rollercoaster ride motivates the director.

"A good film," he says, "is everything at the same time." The jewel of a cinematographic masterpiece is designed from stones of aesthetics, ethics and amusement. "The greatest films work on many levels".

His heroes never search for the truth, simply because Virgil Widrich does not believe in absolute certainties. Moreover, he believes that "it is very healthy to apply relativity to yourself, because you will not become fundamentalist." Unlike the modern existentialists who fell into anguish when they arrived at the conclusion of absence of objective reality, Widrich thinks that relativity of being is worth rejoicing. Relativity of being, together with the inexistence of a permanent, singular personality provide grounds for Widrich to assert that the less importance an individual assigns to himself the more he can identify with others. "Being empty gives a chance of being filled with other things. A good actor is always what he plays, and this reveals the truth about life."

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