By Balthazar Klarwein
In the new short film Liquid Moon, directed by filmmaker Balthazar Klarwein for DREAM, time and space together are something like an amorphous fluid. A sensuous piece of science fiction, but one grounded on the familiar terra of Earth, Liquid Moon shifts in time and in space, between a number of dualities, across almost every moment of its 3:28 running time.
Shot on grainy 16mm, Klarwein’s film has an organic texture to its frames, almost like a procession of objects in and of themselves. This look, combined with its character’s androgynous appearance, played by Aaliyah Rosales, calls to mind both Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth as well as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain. A dreamlike quality without the viewer being placed inside a dream.
A certain psychedelic quality pervades the film, but the effect is not animated by any sort of drugginess. Instead, Liquid Moon’s hallucinatory effect is grounded—or perhaps, elevated—by quantum mechanics: how reality can change depending on when and how a person (or even a technology) perceives it. Indeed, like a fluid in motion or the very fabric of quantum reality, Liquid Moon shifts depending on how the viewer sees it.
DREAM: Before we get to Liquid Moon, could we talk for a moment about the type of filmmaking you do?
Balthazar Klarwein: Well, I think lately I’m in a state of transformation. Maybe always, but more so lately. I’ve been changing the subjects I’m working on. I’ve worked a lot in the commercial world in the last four or five years, doing fashion work, but kind of trying to get away from that and experimenting in other areas. Liquid Moon was a good opportunity to explore other subjects.
I like to use all types of film. It depends on what I’m trying to film, and then I’ll decide on film or video, whether that’s Super 8mm or MiniDV, and so on. I think that every film needs its own format. This is a film we shot on 16mm, and I hadn’t shot on it in eight years as I’ve been doing everything on digital or Super 8.
What did it feel like shooting on 16mm? Was it comfortable, or were you a bit unnerved having to expose and develop the film properly?
I felt completely comfortable because with the director of photography, Elías M. Félix, I could really see that he knew his technical aspects of 16mm. And having seen his work before I could tell he had the sensibility and good taste, so that made me comfortable in terms of not having to check the camera all of the time. And because it’s 16mm you also don’t have access to a monitor, so I kind of just let him do his thing, which is strange because I’m used to operating the camera a lot of the times. I appreciate that because you can really concentrate on other aspects of the film like the acting, the script and the tone of the film.
Did this freedom to roam and concentrate on other aspects of the production benefit Liquid Moon’s overall aesthetic?
Yes, definitely. The reason I wanted to shoot on 16mm was that its visual grain would reflect the story’s organic and natural tone.
Speaking of the story itself, what ideas early on inspired the film, and how did you translate these into the film?
I’ve been quite obsessed with sounds that NASA has been recording of radio waves that other planets and moons in the solar system emit. So, a few years ago I would listen to these recordings while working, sort of meditating to that sound, and I kept on having visions of this person walking out of the sea at dawn. The sound of Jupiter has this mysterious drone-like sound, and I don’t know why but I would have this image in my mind when I would listen to it.
This idea sort of faded away. Later, when Cristina approached me about making a film for DREAM, at first I had some doubts about what to do and how to approach it. But at the same time I was listening to a lot of speeches, watching documentaries, and reading books about quantum physics; about how lost scientists are when it comes to understanding how the quantum realm works, because at an atomic or electronic level the things that compose the universe act in such an impossible and surreal way that I kind of found that paradox quite interesting. Just the paradox about how our material world has these set, fixed laws, but when you look at these building blocks of the material world they just act in impossible and crazy ways.
Now, did the quantum realm’s influence on our physical reality manifest in having the moon as a visual or character on the one hand, and a person coming out of the sea on the other? Because in everyday reality there is the relationship between the Moon and the Earth, the influencing of the tides, and so on.
Definitely. The title of the film comes from this famous quote from Einstein when he’s talking to Niels Bohr about how unpredictable quantum mechanics is. Einstein was quite angry about the thought that things might only exist when we’re looking at them, saying to Bohrs, “Do you really believe that the moon is not there when you are not looking at it?”
I also wanted to somehow illustrate that reality, existence, and the objects around us might just all be connected in a way that deep down we are all the same thing. To show that there really is no difference between you and me, or this table or laptop or the moon, because when you look at it, it’s all built of the same stuff that behaves in a surreal way.
Did this idea also manifest in the actress’s appearance. I ask because she appears one way in certain shots, and then subtly different in others.
Exactly. It’s meant to be that they’re two different characters but sharing one specific moment in time, which is on this beach. Initially, I wanted to use a younger girl and an older woman who really looked alike, and have them share this specific moment in time, which is the dawn, to also show that time is also a construct of our reality. But I kind of scrapped this idea because Aaliyah Rosales came along and I thought she was perfect for this film, and I thought it would be even better to play two different roles but being the same person.
Aaliyah has this very special presence which is almost angelic and hypnotizing in a way, and as a person she just felt right for the project. When I first skyped with her to discuss the project, she had just met a person on the beach in the south of Spain the week before. It was one these outsider land artists who was creating these sculptures by balancing stones on each other. All of these little connections also felt right for the film.
So are both versions of the character in Liquid Moon building this single stone sculpture in two different times?
No, just the character with short hair. The other girl in the distance is sort of just contemplating the rising sun. The initial idea was for her to become a stone statue as the sun was coming up as the sun’s rays would start hitting the beach and her body, but it was hard to do this with natural light on a one-day shoot when the weather wasn’t great as well. So I had to scrap that in the edit. You can tell there has been a transformation but it’s not as I would have liked it, but the idea is that she becomes a stone in flames and she’s the final piece to the other girl’s sculpture.
Did the poem that is spoken during the film also come along during the edit?
Yes. I did the first edit and then I decided that I was going to use a voice-over, which is the poem I wrote. The poem is in English, but I decided for it to be translated into Tamaziɣt, which is the language of the Berber people who live across Northern Africa. It’s the oldest language that is written and spoken today, and Aaliyah is from a Berber family, so it felt right. The writing has sort of alien or very symbolic letters to its alphabet, which I also thought fit the film because the whole film is very retro but also has this sci-fi vibe to it that’s non-temporal.
Funnily enough, Aaliyah told me that the Berber people’s ancient religions had a lot of admiration for or connection with stones—a lot of their rituals had stones. For example, in her grandmother’s village in the south of Morocco, on the Sahara side, they would paint all of the stones, which made sense given that in the film we were playing with stones.
I guess this connection between the ancient past and the future with this science fiction elements creates one more double in the film.
Yes, there is a lot of duality in the film. It’s like, I don’t know, a big soup of dualities, and everything is everything else at the same time. Aaliyah felt right because she has this androgynous look as well. I was working on duality the whole time and then she just appeared and was perfect. She sort of encapsulated the whole essence of the film.