Film still »Euphoria«
Film still »Euphoria« | © Julian Rosefeldt

Dear Julian, today is 14 March 2022, day 19 of a war in Europe that we never imagined would break out. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, gave his troops the order to invade Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Work on your new film installation EUPHORIA was abruptly halted. You were in the middle of filming in Kyiv when governments around the world warned their citizens to leave the country immediately. Even if, at first glance, EUPHORIA has nothing to do with this conflict in thematic terms, a second glance reveals how connected this work is to the present events – in a way that the project could hardly have been aware of when it started. But let’s start at the beginning. You had the initial ideas for your concept back in 2013. What was the impulse for this work?

I always find it hard to answer questions about the initial spark for my projects. Most of them have long lead-in processes, research, links with other planned projects. Usually, a lot of time goes by before an idea actually takes on a specific form. Generally, you might say that in my work as an artist, I confront the gaps in my knowledge. I use them to open up sets of topics that set off questions inside me or that I just simply don’t know enough about. The economy, for example, was always a big grey area. I was one of those people who would skip the financial pages of the newspaper, because I didn’t understand them and I found what they were writing about impenetrable and dubious. But the laws of economics essentially shape the world we live in and for that reason, I didn’t want to isolate myself from the world of economics forever. So, I started by acquiring some basic knowledge and read up on the basic principles of economic history. Parallel to this, I started looking for a form that would allow me to engage with these rather dry economic theories in a sensory form. As in Manifesto, Meine Heimat ist ein düsteres, wolkenverhangenes Land and American Night, it has been part of my working method for some years now to work with pre-existing texts that I cut up, collage, edit and make new texts from, which I then transfer to our time and examine the extent to which historical material or present-day material from other contexts can make sense of or be relevant to today.


Do you follow specific criteria in editing together existing material? In your texts you force different, at times contradictory, positions together, so the listeners need to be very alert.

I research very broadly, read all kinds of texts around a particular topic from different periods and perspectives – whether I’m dealing with German history, the founding myth of North America, artistic manifestos or, in this case, the economy. I always try, first of all, to acquire a broad, basic knowledge before I immerse myself in realising the project artistically. Then, I am interested in making contradictory voices smash into each other. In EUPHORIA, for example, both the positions of the neoliberal market economy and of its critics unfold their powers of seduction and persuasion.

Your task, of capturing capitalism, is actually impossible: it’s doomed to failure. This »system« has something all-consuming about it – even criticism of capitalism is assimilated by it. It’s very difficult to see our own position in relation to it, because we’re part of it ourselves. The neoliberal market economy of recent decades is enormously successful, even though its destructive effect on the environment and social cohesion has been clear to see for some time. Have you found any answers in your work to why this system is still so popular?

You’re right. Capitalism, or the most radical form of it – the unfettered, neoliberal market economy – has long since absorbed and instrumentalised its own criticism. Up until now, this system has been so successful and, apart from the failed experiment of Communism, remained without any alternative, because it satisfies the primitive human inclination to develop something: to expand, to grow, to become something better, to compete with other people. Added to this there is the euphoric effect of new material property and other accomplishments. The dopamine that is released in the short term quickly leads us into a dependency that repeats itself at ever shorter intervals. As Philip Slater described back in 1980, we turn into Wealth Addicts. This is also perfectly compatible with sustainability and social democracy, by the way. It can be recycled and donated.
I’m not an expert on economics. So, I’m not trying to explain – even if EUPHORIA might have a certain enlightening and informative character. Instead, I’m more interested in allowing a polyphonic chorus of different opinions to be heard all around us – and that’s also true in a literal sense: there’s a lot of singing in EUPHORIA.

Please tell me how you bring images and texts together.

By freeing the building blocks of text from their sources and recombining them with images and locations that don’t seem to go together, this activates the listeners. They have to find their bearings in the midst of these asymmetries. This is very challenging, especially in this very text-heavy work. But altering the context also creates a huge level of concentration and openness towards the ideas that have been torn away from their original circumstances. This method gives me a great deal of pleasure, because I am generally interested in subverting established narrative structures, both of a linguistic and a visual kind. The familiar cultural »vessels« in which content is usually delivered take away a lot of one’s personal contribution but also distort unbiased perceptions. I also used this practice of giving the building blocks of text new contexts in Manifesto. The montage gave viewers the opportunity to rediscover traditional ideas from the manifestos in entirely new ways: they were not distorted by being weighed down by the aura of the names of their authors, or the visual worlds conventionally associated with them.
In EUPHORIA, I have used fragments of text from 2,000 years of human history; fragments from theoretical, philosophical and fictional texts that document the history of human greed. They open up a view of the genesis of capitalism and its perverted form – the entirely uninhibited, neoliberal market economy that we are experiencing today. But most of the texts I’ve used are from the present. They are spoken by actors whom we encounter in familiar, everyday situations. The characters in these scenes are people who are marginalised by society: the homeless, underpaid workers in logistics centres, children in poverty, taxi drivers – they are all equipped with a great deal of knowledge and discuss the pros and cons of economic ideas, trends and systems. Because – unlike in Manifesto – these are not poetic texts, the difficulty here was to translate these lines of thought into something comprehensible and sensual. It will be a challenge for the viewers, and maybe even annoy them at times.


You are a strongly visual artist. What scenes have you chosen for your new work?

The work is made up of various elements. One of these is the life-sized circular projection of 150 teenagers from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. They surround the audience and take the role of the chorus from an ancient Greek tragedy, commenting on events as society’s conscience. This chorus communicates musically with five screens on which we can see and hear percussionists. Wonderful jazz musicians from the USA and Cuba, who translate algorithms and cash flows into music. They are the driving force. Then there is a main screen on which six different scenes will be shown. In these, for example, you will see a taxi driver drive through New York at night with a silent passenger in the back seat. He delivers a monologue, philosophising about the times we live in. The world outside is no longer intact: something has to be done, weird figures inhabit the city. The second scene shows a group of homeless people who are debating the two great contrasting economic theories: state regulation versus the unfettered free market. In the third scene, female factory workers argue that the origin of the western world’s wealth is a consequence of colonialism and slavery. In the fourth, we find ourselves back in a bank, where we witness a collective, hypnotic ritual that gets completely out of control. In a derelict bus station that is reminiscent of the ruins of the decommissioned automobile industry in Detroit, a couple of teenagers are skating in the fifth scene and come up with ideas for the future that look beyond our time. And in the final scene, we are in a closed supermarket, where we meet a thieving and marauding tiger that argues cynically about human beings.

The tiger is voiced by Cate Blanchett. She was your magnificent protagonist in Manifesto. Virginia Newcomb and Giancarlo Esposito act here, along with many others. You work a lot with film stars. Is this for marketing reasons?

No, I can say that quite definitely. Working with Cate Blanchett happened by chance as a result of personal contacts: we had a friend in common, the Artistic Director of the Schaubühne in Berlin, Thomas Ostermeier. In EUPHORIA, casting Giancarlo Esposito happened as a result of the role. I’m quoting a film scene from Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, where Giancarlo drove a cab with the actual cab driver in the back, played by Armin Müller-Stahl. I liked the idea of putting him back in that cab 30 years later and having him drive through New York. EUPHORIA is an English-language production – the Park Avenue Armory in New York is the main producer – so the casting for some of the roles was done by a casting agent. Then you make an open call and there are 1,000 applications. You invite 100 of them to come in, see them all and take the best ones who are available when you’re doing the shoot. That’s how we found Virginia Newcomb, for example. I didn’t know her before. But I can say that I really enjoy working with very good actors. And so-called stars are often very good.

The cost of EUPHORIA has grown, indeed swollen, over the time that it has developed. Is that in the nature of the subject, where rampant growth is endemic?

I’m afraid it’s more to do with me. I always say: next time, I’m going to do something small. I like lying to myself. Then, once the ideas slowly start to take shape, following the project’s own internal logic, the projects begin growing wildly. My paintbox is the process of film production. I am grateful to be able to work on this scale and I enjoy it a great deal. But it also means that, with all the different trades that are involved in creating a production of this kind, you have to work in a very structured way. And the mechanics of the market economy apply to that. Shooting time is expensive. If you make mistakes, the cost of hiring equipment goes up, workers have to be employed for longer, etc. The work is extremely intense. I rehearse a lot beforehand – that would not be possible in the commercial film business. My projects can only be realised because the people I work with are pleased if I turn up every couple of years with an idea. The people taking part work for below their regular fees, the companies accept different terms. Otherwise, a work like this would not be possible. With an art project like this, the usual commercial exploitation is not likely to happen. EUPHORIA probably can’t be sold anywhere except big festivals, and whether a saleable cinema version will ever be made of it, as happened with Manifesto, is written in the stars. So, we have to ensure that the team gets part of its reward from the collective experience. And it’s always great fun, even if we are all pushing our limits. I’ve been working for years with the same people, over and over again. We’ve become close friends and we look forward to being together when it gets going every couple of years, after all the research and pre-production. I think part of the attraction of a production like this lies in working for something that defies the conventional rules of marketing. This releases surprisingly large amounts of energy.

The scenes are all set in the USA. But you didn’t only film there, but also in Sofia and Kyiv. There was no thematic reason for this.

No, there wasn’t. We could just produce it much more cheaply in Bulgaria and Ukraine than we could in the USA. And there are highly professional film studios and film production companies there. We talked a lot during the production about how we are imprisoned in the logic of capitalism while producing a work that is critical of capitalism. There is no escape. None of us is immune to its temptations, and we are all bewitched by the promises that this system makes to every one of us about what might be possible. Even if, sometimes, this just means, in very banal terms, being able to get something cheaper elsewhere. Kyiv and Sofia also offered motifs and locations that allowed us to tell of a rather different, more fictionalised and more dystopian North America.


»System« is actually a euphemism that shifts the responsibility. We are the system.

That’s true. The triumphal march of capitalism has long since arrived in Russia and China, even if it is sold differently there in ideological terms and leads to great frictions, as we are currently experiencing. And while we’re on the subject of us: we’ve understood, in theory, that our life plan is on the very edge of the abyss, but so far, we’ve not drawn any conclusions from this. I don’t think capitalism is itself inherently reprehensible, but its entirely unfettered and uninhibited perversion, in the form of a neoliberal market economy whose consequences – the blatantly inequitable distribution of wealth and access to education and health, the often quoted, ever widening gap between rich and poor – will ultimately turn against us, from the outside and from the inside. Lack of restraint on one side leads to an abandonment of restraint on the other – and manifests itself in the growing anger of the disadvantaged at those who are profiting, which expresses itself in phenomena such as terrorism, or which opens the door to populism and also, ultimately, leads to this war, which has to be read as also being a war between systems. Because I still want to adhere to the free development of the individual but do not want to accept that such banal amoralities as the accumulation of incredible amounts of wealth by a tiny number of profiteers from the unfettered market economy are insurmountable, I believe naively but firmly in a paradigm shift. So, my battle cry, which perhaps might also be something like a conclusion from EUPHORIA, is: Educate capitalism!

Does the problem lie in how people are brought up? Our education system directs young people towards consum-erism and competition from an early age. It teaches them how to present their biographies in a way that’s attractive to the market, awakens desire and defines the signs of success, which are almost all material. Time to educate the mind is curtailed and an early entry into the labour market sold as an advantage.

It’s absolutely clear: we need to recalibrate our system of values. Soon, it ought not to be cool and sexy to own a lot of things, but rather to act in a more socially responsible way and to share with others. The desire to develop freely should no longer be repressed by the state: nobody wants an enforced sameness again, as there was under Communism. And yet, for me, there is hope in an understanding of values that rates sharing something higher than owning it. Ideas are now being formulated that may still sound utopian, but they don’t have to remain utopian. I’m hopeful. I can see that our children are already on the way in this direction. I can see it in my children. They’ve got a lot further in chang-ing their thinking than I have.

Why is your work entitled EUPHORIA?

This title has been with me for a number of years, while I’ve been gathering texts and ideas for the project. I had been looking for a term that expressed the compelling energy of the capitalist idea, the uninhibited thrill of property and growth that doesn’t just grab investment bankers and company bosses but us, too.

Does euphoria have negative connotations for you in light of the dystopian images that you use to capture it in your project?

The tiger has an answer to that at the end, which I’m not going to give away.

At the beginning, I mentioned that your filming on EUPHORIA was abruptly interrupted owing to the war against Ukraine. Can you describe the situation for us?

We went to Kyiv a total of four times in recent months and we filmed there twice. The first time was the bank scene – we converted the waiting room at Kyiv central station for it. The shoot was a surreal party. While the set was still being built, costumes were being fitted in the hallway, dances choreographed, magicians and acrobats were practising their tricks and moves. Almost 200 people were involved in front of and behind the camera. You could feel the energy everywhere; despite all the effort, it was enormous fun. We then returned to Kyiv for a second time, just before the war began, to shoot another three scenes. We had just finished filming one of them when we got the news – it was the last week of the Olympics in Beijing – that the US intelligence service had information that Putin was going to order an attack on Ukraine within a couple of days. The USA and Britain then called for the immediate evacuation of their citizens; Germany and other European countries followed. Our Ukrainian team members had been living in an information war for the last eight years and, numbed by the constant sabrerattling, didn’t take this warning seriously. But the American and British actors we were waiting for did not travel. Because we couldn’t and didn’t want to accept responsibility for our team, we sent home all the other members of the team who had travelled from Berlin. Ryanair increased the price of its flights – flights that had cost 28 € suddenly cost 900 €. Another example of the proliferation of the unfettered market economy – demand for what might be a life-saving seat on the plane determines the price. Three of us then stayed one more day to at least film a few more spaces and some drone footage with the Ukrainian team. Finally, we left the country too – as it turned out, six days before the air space was closed to civilian flights. At that time, I was still hoping to be able to return shortly afterwards. It felt wrong having to go and leave everything lying there. Today, the family of our Ukrainian location manager is living with us in our flat in Berlin; friends from our team are living nearby and with other friends. More of them will come. And other members of the team, who we were just working and celebrating with recently, who thought this would never happen, are now fighting and we’re worried about them.


Now, when I’m editing the film, I hear new resonances in the texts and I’m shocked at how much of what we’re currently experiencing they deal with and name clearly. So, for example, lines from Tacitus from the homeless scene read like an exact description of the situation: »They have plundered the world and left the country naked in its hunger. They are driven by greed. They lay waste, they butcher, they grab everything for themselves under false pretences. And they cheer all this as the foundation of an empire. And when, as a consequence of this, nothing is left in the end but a desert, they call it peace. « War is a powerful means of enriching oneself, not only territorially but also in monetary form: first, the weapons industry of the attacking country flourishes, and once the country has been destroyed and the battle won, the hostile construction companies of the alleged peace-making aggressors arrive, who then rebuild everything anew. This is another reason why victory is so bitterly contested. We saw this not long ago in Iraq.

In light of these devastating, cruel events, have you had any doubts about what you are doing, your work as an artist? Or do you see contributing to the arts in times like these as a power that can save people?

Powerlessness affects us all equally. Questions about what we do with our lives, where we direct our support, naturally become more pressing. But specifically, in terms of EUPHORIA, we will complete this project with the greatest possible determination, even if it now has to happen somewhere else. Every one of the pictures that we have filmed so far is inspired with the passion and dedication of our team from Kyiv and the Ukrainian performers. Just knowing that all the people who can be seen there are now experiencing the most painful situations is motivation enough to carry on.

Translated from German by David Tushingham

JULIAN ROSEFELDT, born in Munich in 1965, film artist. His perfectly choreographed film installations are exhibited around the world. Their images seem to come from the world of cinema, but Rosefeldt explores social issues, cultural identities and myths in multi-layered narratives, while combining influences from the visual arts, architecture, pop culture and film. His previous work, Manifesto, thrilled audiences at the Ruhrtriennale in 2016. His new work, EUPHORIA, has been created over a period of almost a decade. At the time of this interview, the process has yet to be completed, not least because the pandemic and war have continued to present new challenges to its execution.