Go backBack to selection

Peter Greenway, Rembrandt’s J’Accuse

It is not uncommon to describe filmmakers as “true artists,” however in the case of Peter Greenaway it is literally the case that he brings an artist’s sensibility to work on the big screen. Born in Newport, Wales, in 1942, Greenaway grew up in London and studied to be a painter at the city’s Walthamstow College of Art. In the late 60s, Greenaway began to explore his fascination with cinema, embarking on a series of documentary short films which he continued throughout the 1970s that set out to capture the peculiarities of the world (or the world from a peculiar standpoint). He made his feature debut in 1980 with the faux-documentary The Falls, about the victims of an unspecified disaster, but first made an impact with The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), a 17th Century drama about art, sexuality and class, and how they intersect. Greenaway solidified his reputation as a visually and thematically sophisticated filmmaker with his next two films, A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) and The Belly of an Architect (1987), while two contemporary, more accessible films, Drowning by Numbers (1988) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), established him as a household name. He began the 1990s with the lavish period pieces Prospero’s Books – his 1991 riff on Shakespeare’s The Tempest – and The Baby of Macon (1993), before making two sexually provocative modern day dramas The Pillow Book (1995) and 8½ Women (1999). Beyond filmmaking, Greenaway has written opera libretti, recently explored multimedia projects, such as The Tulse Luper Suitcases (which includes in it a trilogy of films), has begun VJing, and is currently working on an ongoing installation project called Nine Classical Paintings Revisited.

The first painting Greenaway chose for his Nine Classical Paintings Revisited installation was Rembrandt’s iconic 1642 portrait of a group of militia soldiers, The Night Watch. His fixation on the picture, in turn, lead him to make the 2007 feature Nightwatching, about Rembrandt’s creation of the masterpiece, and subsequently the documentary Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, which goes on release this week. The latter movie is the outlet for his exhaustive research into and close examination of Rembrandt’s painting, information which Greenaway weaves together into a vigorous and playful cinematic essay. The central thrust of Rembrandt’s J’Accuse is that the visual deconstruction of The Night Watch can unlock a murder mystery, with Greenaway contending that Rembrandt employed iconographic elements of the picture to incriminate two of the soldiers in the portrait in the death of one of their own. Segmenting the film into 30 questions, Greenaway’s lively documentary literally puts the picture together piece by piece, allowing even today’s “visually illiterate” audiences (as he provocatively calls them) to ultimately see what he sees.

Filmmaker spoke to Greenaway about finding a murder mystery in Rembrandt’s picture, why cinema is a “finished” medium, and a life-changing childhood moment at the movies.


Filmmaker: Tell me about how Rembrandt’s J’Accuse came about.

Greenaway: Well, there’s a huge amount of information. Rembrandt is an extraordinarily well-documented painter, and I have lived in his city, Amsterdam, for 20 years. We virtually know which streets he walked along and which brothels he went to and where all his children are buried and where his wives died of the plague, so just as Paris is Godard’s city and Manhattan is Woody Allen’s city, Amsterdam belongs to Rembrandt. Unlike his almost-contemporary Vermeer, who we know almost nothing about, there’s an overload of information [on Rembrandt]. When we made Nightwatching, I was very keen to posit this; not only to talk about a painting or a painter, but to talk about the milieu and the emotional and political ripples. [I was] making a very thorough investigation of a singular image, which primarily is of enormous importance to the Dutch but I think is set very squarely in the end period of the 17th Century Baroque and has all sorts of connections to – at least in my subjective understanding – artificial light. (And what is cinema but the manipulation of artificial light?) And the suggestion indeed that cinema did not begin in 1895 with the Lumière brothers but was a manifestation already anticipated by those extraordinary painters who were the first to paint artificial light, those four giants of Caravaggio, Velasquez, Rubens and Rembrandt. These sorts of notions of sharing the ground of 8,000 years of our painting tradition, which belongs to us all and brought us to the pitch where we are now, and the concepts of a remarkably new and, I now think, finished medium called cinema.

Filmmaker: I definitely want to return to the idea of cinema being finished later on, but I’d like to ask first about why you chose Rembrandt and this picture in particular?

Greenaway: Fashions in art change very quickly and very rapidly, and each generation has its take on all these things. We might not have thought about Rembrandt in this light maybe two generations back and we might not think him significant two generations hence, but for the moment he ticks all the right boxes. He comes out of a democratic republic, and we all pretend to be ideal democrat republicans nowadays. I think that he’s very anti-misogynist: he never ever paints a degrading image of a female. (He might paint ugly women, but he never paints ugly portraits of women.) To use fashionable contemporary terms, he’s definitely post-Freudian and he’s certainly post-Modernist. People have painted emotion on people’s faces for years and years, but for the first time with Rembrandt, there seems to be a correspondence between the inner and the outer man. And I think he’s non-judgmental and he obviously has a non-recidivist attitude towards history which is wry and personal. For those democratic, cultural reasons, I find the man very, very interesting. I don’t particularly like Rembrandt very much – I think he’s too repetitive, often goes for the cheap effect, often a bit too Hollywood for me – but I don’t think you can ignore him. He’s a colossus who stands astride a whole series of post-Renaissance, post-Baroque paintings. He can be noted as deeply influential to all the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists, and they are the entry into huge experiments in the 20th Century, so there’s a continuity there. If you’re really serious about painting, you ignore Rembrandt at your peril.

Filmmaker: How unique and groundbreaking is your interpretation of The Night Watch as such a specific and damning message?

Greenaway: A whole series of extraordinary people, often very articulate, have looked at [the painting], so there’s a huge body of information and opinion about it. A lot of the particular characteristics that I examine one by one are part of the Rembrandt art history phenomenon. But I think I have discovered a number of new ones which offer new interpretations, and I have brought forward some of this critique phenomenon with a lot that art history either wishes not to talk about or maybe regards as irrelevant to the actual investigation of the painting itself. All this concern for the homosexual relationship between the two major figures, which seems to be part of the satirical intent to either laugh at these characters or degrade them in the public eye, gives me credence to believe there’s much antagonism here between Rembrandt and his subject matter, which ultimately leads for me to make this design and create this scenario where there’s both a murder and a conspiracy in the painting. But I think along the way there’s sufficient sense of black humor and deliberate exploitation of the critical method within this film to allow for the truth, the half truths, the apocryphal truths and the downright lie. It’s really about as much as the critique and the individual examination of the image here as it is to end up with a set of theories of ideas that are provable or unprovable.

Filmmaker: How would you describe the complementary relationship between Rembrandt’s J’Accuse and Nightwatching?

Greenaway: I think, initially, I have to come clean: there was so much information and so much that was fascinating, in a sense I couldn’t fit it in into the Nightwatching scenario as a drama, where I had to rely on the suspension of disbelief. I began my career as a documentary filmmaker and I’m still fascinated by the metier, especially by the recent in which documentary has made a big comeback all over the place. I think it’s very interesting as a form of delivering information.

Filmmaker: The is extremely dynamic and active, both visually and intellectually, and you really invigorate the documentary medium.

Greenaway: I have a great interest in contemporary editing language and I enjoy the quick nature of a visual medium, playing with visual tricks. Some of them are straight tricks, but I hope they are taken sensibly and seriously in order to elucidate a point, to draw your attention. There’s something self-reflexive about that: if we’re going to talk about images, let’s really talk about them in terms of how we understand images can be manipulated post-television in the 21st Century, so that would be part of the game. I think I am also treating my audiences very intelligently as people who can think as quickly as the film surface can think. That should be part and parcel of communication in the information age.

Filmmaker: In the film, you talk about the “visual illiteracy” of the world and “an impoverished cinema.” And at the start of the interview, you called cinema “finished.” Can you explain more fully your thoughts on this?

Greenaway: Well, we have a text-based cinema and I don’t think we’ve seen any “cinema cinema,” or if we have it’s very rare. The very best painting is non-narrative and it communicates its meaning by its ability to organize the sense of representation and the image. The big things that happened at the start of the 20th Century (that seem extraordinary in retrospect and that people like Rembrandt would have been astonished by) were things like where harmony could legitimately be seen to disappear from music and figuration could be seen to disappear from painting. In a sense, painting and music were never impoverished by either of these apparently essential revolutionary disturbances. I think cinema is a very poor medium. I think cinema knows this, which is why it always goes back to the bookshop, and this is why we have a text-based cinema. I could not possibly – nor could any other filmmaker – go to a producer or a film studio with four paintings, three lithographs and a book of drawings and say, “Give me the money.” We don’t have cultural confidence in the image, strangely enough, and often I think this is as much true in the cinema as it is outside the cinema.

Filmmaker: How do you see cinema moving forward then?

Greenaway: I think the text is, in a sense, at the center of how we all communicate. Umberto Eco has said that we’ve had 8,000 years of the text masters who’ve given us our holy books and jurisprudence and told us our moral agenda, and it’s all been based on text. But Eco would argue that the digital revolution, which in some senses is incredibly visual in its formatting, is going to suggest that all the text masters have to move aside so all the image masters can come forward. But if people are visually illiterate, if they feel uncomfortable the manufacture and reception of the image, then we’re in for a poor time. If civilization is going to be rewrit, reconsidered, refabulated with the primacy of the image when most people are visually illiterate, how are we going to cope with new sophistications? One would have thought that cinema would be the ideal educator to move us into this position, so maybe we should thank the Lumière brothers for laying the ground. Maybe the 114 years we’ve seen is indeed the prologue, and now we can get in with the real business of making sensible, coherent, sophisticated communication via the image.

Filmmaker: How do you see yourself as functioning as an artist within this “finished” medium?

Greenaway: Well, the two buzzwords are “interactivity” and “multimedia.” Rather facetiously, I give a date for the death of cinema and its the 31st of September, 1983, when the remote control was introduced into the living rooms of the world. Previously, the passive medium of cinema demanded that you sit back in the dark, looking in one direction. The introduction of the remote control, however primitive it might have been in 1983, was the beginning of a cultural democracy. In Athens in about 300 B.C., there was one artist for a million people. By the time you get to the Second World War, there’s probably 250,000 artists for a million people and surely the way things are going, soon there will be no difference whatsoever between the notion of the maker and the recipient. I don’t think we need to be anxious about notions of quality, but I’m talking about the apparatus of cultural receptivity and creation. I think the greatest thing that’s happened in the last 10 years was the invention of YouTube: finally we’ve got rid of all those middlemen, the elitism whereby someone else has told us what we can show and what we can’t show. That means that, I’m sure we all agree, YouTube is 97% crap, but that’s always been the case. Whatever period is high cultural activity – Versailles, the Weimar Republic, etc. – it’s always been the same: 97% crap and 3% shining, valuable, desperately important substance.

Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?

Greenaway: My grandmother was an old age pensioner and she could go to the cinema free on a Thursday afternoon, and she used to take me along with her. We used to watch westerns, and I was always not fully engaged and not prepared to involve myself in the suspension of disbelief, but I remember there were all these characters wandering around with raspberry juice on their heads. It never occurred to me that it was anything other than raspberry juice, and then suddenly one afternoon I realized I was supposed to believe that raspberry juice was blood, and I ran screaming out of the cinema. That was a pretty mind-shocking experience.

Filmmaker: When did you last do it for the money not the love?

Greenaway: Oh, my God, how honest can I get? I’ve got to put food on the table, I’ve got children. There’s always a financial angle somewhere, but it’s certainly never been my major priority, which also means I’ve never been a very rich man. I live a satisfactory, English-language-spoken, bourgeois life with all the amenities and all the lifestyle that most people in the Western world enjoy, so love of the project, love of the idea, love of the continuity has certainly been the prime effort and it’s been the thing that keeps me going.

Filmmaker: If someone gave you $1m dollars that you had to spend it within a week, what would you do?

Greenaway: One of my dreams, a very bourgeois dream, is to build a bedroom with an enormous, beautiful bed inside a library inside a garden, and there are no roofs anywhere so it’s open to the sky. I don’t know if I could spend the money that quickly to get that, but I’d do my damndest to find one somewhere.

Filmmaker: Finally, what was your dream job as a kid?

Greenaway: I’m going to be very boring, because the dream job turned into a real job. Ever since I was six or seven, I wanted to be a painter. I have no evidence of anything like this in my family, so it really came out of the blue. To be a painter was what I always wanted to do, and I sort of kept that up until I was 28 and then, maybe unfortunately, I discovered cinema.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham