Sundance Film Festival 2023. Short Talk with Matthias Sahli and Immanuel Esser

Matthias Sahli and Immanuel Esser have been talking to animals for years now while studying film. Sahli studied in Zurich (ZHdK) and Esser in Cologne (KHM). In their location-based approach to filmmaking, they explore worlds that are very similar to the one we live in, but are distorted slightly by surreal elements. They are co-writing their first collaborative feature.

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Tara Karajica talked to Matthias Sahli and Immanuel Esser about their short film, “The Newt Congress,” that premiered at the 2022 Locarno Film Festival, the short form and what they are up to next.

What made you want to become filmmakers?

Immanuel Esser: The cinema is a really weird place, right? You go into a dark room and sit down and then a world starts to exist in front of you and you have no idea what is going to happen. It is like a very different way of thinking and seeing is thrown right at you. And then, you have to think about what that means to you, to your world, to the way of thinking you bring with you into this special experience. And, maybe adjust your way of looking at the world or develop it further to integrate what you just saw. And, we love that process. And, we especially love when that other world is a world that really challenges our experience of our own world.

How did The Newt Congress come about? Can you talk about adapting Karel Čapek’s book War with the Newts?

Matthias Sahli: We were both individually working on film ideas that involved talking animals when we came across Čapek’s book by chance. It lay there on a shelf of a bookstore. The beautifully designed cover and illustrations of the newts inside the book was what attracted me to the book in the first place. In the few images illustrated by Hans Ticha, the newts already came to life and with that, the tragedy, humor and sympathy for these creatures. I sent a book to Immanuel and we both read it with delight. There was this novel written in the ‘30s that we had an immediate connection with. It had a humor that was very similar to ours, it had a beautiful absurdity and this fascinating allegorical structure. Čapek writes a tale about humankind’s discovery of giant newts that are able to speak and then get exploited as labor workforce and get mass bred by corporations. And, in the end, they push away the human race by their sheer numbers.

I.E.: We saw so many layers in this book. The book was written shortly before the WWII. And, you can imagine him writing against this oncoming catastrophe of nationalism and militarization. It really moved us to feel this connection to our world that is racing toward ecological collapse. And, it is a book compiled of essays, newspaper clippings, reports and scenes and that also made it possible for us to think about adapting it. We felt free to create something very different that built on the ideas of the book and we adapted this world-shaking book to one setting, that of a congress, where the humans meet to discuss the exploitation of the newts.

The film satirizes science, capitalism and the exploitation of animals among many other themes. Can you elaborate on that?

M.S.: Yes. We hope it opens up a lot of questions about several power dynamics. One of the ideas we like very much is that the newts and what they really do is hidden below the surface of the water. Many of the dynamics that are structuring our world are just like that. The climate crisis that we are in, for example, is something that we can only see indirectly. But even though it is difficult because of this kind of distance to our immediate experience, it is imperative that we deal with it.

You explore a world that is very similar to the one we live in, but distorted by surreal elements. Dystopian, but not quite. Can you comment on that?

I.E.: The Newt Congress is very much a film that is set in our times. The way people dress and behave, the objects in the film. It feels close. But by having just one surreal concept in there, namely the newts, everything about this world changes and we have to make sense of it as if it were a place that we know nothing about. We love this process of orientation and of irritation. Our world is a strange place and too often do we accept things as “natural” that are not natural at all – on the contrary, most rules of how the world works are constructs made by human beings that disguise themselves. And, we should radically call that out and question these rules. And then, hopefully, change them. So, these surreal elements are a starting point of this for us.

Can you talk about the making of the production design, of the puppets as well as the shooting process?

M.S.: We chose a different approach to the film than the usual one. The idea was to create the newt puppet first and be inspired by the process of making it. We started working on the script for the film only later. For the puppet, we took almost a year from the first drafts to its final form. The newt was designed by Lisa Bruggmann and the mechanics were constructed by Fabian Lüscher. It’s a silicon mold with a steel skeleton inside and hydraulic tubes for the movements. The Hellbender salamander was one inspiration for the look of the newt. From there, we started to simplify and unify the design. We wanted the newt to look like a puppet and a realistic animal at the same time. It was this ambivalence between artificiality and naturalistic style of the creature, that interested us. To have the illusion on the one hand, but also remind the audience that this is a film requisite. In the process of making the puppet, it also became clear that we wanted to have the puppeteers present in the film. We find it really sad that most films hide the puppeteers, since this is such a beautiful art, which we did not want to withhold from the audience.

I.E.: And, we liked how the puppeteers opened up a whole set of questions. Who is steering the dynamics of the world? The movie is about the newts, but also about what it means to create a fictional world and the tricks that are used to create the illusions involved in that. The choice of 16mm film was part of that too. Because you can actually see the physicality of the material on screen that was used to capture these images. It is not just a window that allows you to look into another world; it is also a screen that you look at. The ambiguity of this is something that fascinates us.

What do you think of the short form today? How is it in Switzerland?

M.S.: We love the short film as a medium, because almost no rules apply. It’s much more open for experiments. And, they can be done in a short time and for small amounts of money and so, they can react faster to the world around us. They have a sort of immediacy that we really like. There are, of course, problems with the short film – outside of festivals, there is a very limited visibility and almost no revenues exist. Switzerland has a very lively short film scene, with several film schools that are amazing spaces for making shorts with a high amount of artistic freedom as the funding by the State gives you the possibility to think outside of capitalist logics. And, with Locarno and Winterthur, there also great institutions to show and discuss them.

What are your next projects?

I.E.: We are writing a feature film together. A world built around surreal objects again. It’s stones this time.

M.S.: They are flying and teleporting. But we don’t want to talk about it yet!

Photo credits: Courtesy of Matthias Sahli and Immanuel Esser.

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