It is difficult to escape the feeling of being an interloper when listening to intimate letters spoken aloud. In the claustrophobic first few minutes of The Dreamed Ones, the director, Ruth Beckermann, plays upon such discomfort. The audience is presented with prolonged closeups of the actors, Anja Plaschg and Laurence Rupp, as they communicate the early correspondence between the poets Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann. Then comes a break. A technician enters to adjust their microphones and the frame opens outwards to reveal a spacious recording studio with high wooden walls, a piano in one corner, a red sofa in another. Out of this informal rehearsal setting two narratives unfold: the intensely affecting letters of a turbulent post-war relationship spanning across Europe and almost twenty years, and that of the actors as they attempt to understand and respond to the letters in pauses between takes. The understated, unfinished quality of The Dreamed Ones – caught in the process of becoming – makes for a mesmerising and highly imaginative documentary.
The two met in Vienna, 1948: Celan, a successful poet and survivor of a Jewish labour camp in Romania, whose parents were killed in a concentration camp in Ukraine; Bachmann, an Austrian poet at the start of her career and the daughter of a Nazi. The dark scars of the recent political past are never far from their letters and poetry, as in Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’, which he tells Bachmann symbolises the “grave and epitaph” of his mother. Plaschg interprets Bachmann’s negotiation of this grief at the centre their relationship as a movement from sympathy for his pain, to “her own pain, back to understanding [his] again”.
The documentary equally moves from the poets’ story, to the actors and back again, so that Rupp and Plaschg’s bond emerges out of the poets’ silences. This patterning of beautifully crafted letters, each word fraught with meaning, and the actors’ awkward, gentle conversations about scars, tattoos and cigarettes gives the film a wonderfully varied texture. Beckermann’s original concept for the film was that the recording of the letters would be interspersed with dreamlike sequences shot at Paul and Ingeborg’s homes. This would have concealed the powerful way in which the poets’ tragic lives become imprinted on those of the actors, as it appears in its final form. At one point, Rupp articulates his frustration that Bachmann did not send some of her most tender letters to Paul, wishing for a moment “where she just really tells how she feels” – echoing Celan’s own attitude. In turn, Plaschg defends Bachmann’s deliberate decision to withhold the letters. The tensions felt in the poets’ relationship are reproduced in Rupp and Plaschg’s own conversations. Bachmann writes in one of her letters that “I live and breathe only through them”, referring to Celan’s poetry, so too, as The Dreamed Ones progresses, do the two poets find life through Rupp and Plaschg.
Beckermann uses the pauses between letters to experiment beyond the fixed position of the actors behind their microphones. The camera follows the actors’ trip to a café, filming from outside the sliding door as it opens and close repeatedly – the conversation of the actors unheard. They smoke together; Plaschg plays the piano; they listen to James Brown lying on the floor and Plaschg takes Rupp to an orchestral rehearsal. Like the documentary itself, the emphasis is on the process of creation, rather than the polished finished product. The repeated trope of the actors smoking between shots takes on a darker significance by the end of the film, when it is revealed that shortly after Celan committed suicide in 1970, Bachmann herself died from burns received in a fire at her home, believed to be started by a cigarette.
To not let Celan and Bachmann’s story be romanticised beyond the words of the letters and to not draw sweeping, cinematic swells around the two figures is what makes The Dreamed Ones so remarkable. The framing of the actors’ narrative never takes away from the force of the letters. Instead, it complements and reinforces their tragic poignancy. During a moment of despair in one of her final letters, Bachmann prays: “I hope we find the words”. In this film their words are found again and given the space to ring out beyond the silence of their deaths and through the actors that speak them.