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Gramophone: An Interview with Pete Berger

Please tell us about your background. What made you fall in love with cinema? How did you become interested in filmmaking and what did you work on before making Gramophone? I understand you also made the critically acclaimed short film LIFTOFF.

I have actually only built up a relationship with the cinema since I made short films on VHS tapes with my best friend (exclusively with me as the actor) at the age of 20 - about 25 years. We always doubled over with laughter. At the same time, I often went to the cinema and was always happy to get advice on good films. When I was 30, I started filming half-naked women. Not completely naked ones, because they were difficult to find. I was able to gain experience with the camera that way. At first, short films without a plot. With time I started to put the films into a short storyline and to write small scripts. Film school was never an issue for me. In my opinion, they are no use to me - on the contrary: which school would have recommended me to film nude models? The important thing is to pick up a camera, go out and experiment. And to specialize in what you do. To this day, for example, I don't use dialogue in my films. If you hear a voice, it's only off-voice. Rather, I try to get the message across in images and improve on it. Before Gramophone, I shot the short films LIFTOFF (2020) as well as The Crow's Head (2018). The latter was the first short film I submitted to festivals. This one encouraged me to continue with my film style.

Which filmmakers influenced you and your filmmaking? Which films have affected you the most?

Every film that I like exerts a certain influence on me. I'm inspired by the films of Stanley Kubrick, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman as well as Dario Argentos's Suspiria. I am also fascinated by Eraserhead by David Lynch as well as The Thing by John Carpenter and of course Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Alien. The 70s are one of my favorite movie eras. I also admire more recent masterpieces like Uncut Gems by Benny and Josh Safdie. It's just a shame that these have become so rare.

What are the themes/issues you try to reflect in your films? What, in your opinion, is the most important quality of a film?

I address socio-critical themes in my films - even if only briefly and gently - and like to depict the interrelationship between real, uncompromising life and the illusionary dream world.

For me, a good film must contain something magical, because magic is probably the most suitable way to let the imagination run wild.

Where did the idea for the film come from? What made you want to tell this story, and set the story in the past?

First of all, I have to specify that the story is not set in the past, but the audience is only cheated. The scenery and the clothes of the protagonist should convince us that we are looking back to the 40s, although we suspect that this is not the case. Some errors like modern electric signs etc. I also deliberately didn't retouch afterwards. That the whole scenery turns out to be a lie becomes clear already at the beginning by the voice of the loudspeaker, which pretends that we are in Schleswig-Holstein. Every person who knows the characteristic double-towered Grossmünster in Zurich is aware of this deception.

The idea for Gramophone (like my first short film The Crow's Head, by the way) comes from Robert Pfaller's book "Adult Language". In both films I try to metaphorically represent white lies (figuratively the two "white" liars in the form of the young black woman and the patriarchal monkey character I play myself) and their naive observers (the audience). The two protagonists erect the illusion of acting for the gaze of an invisible naive spectator. By the way, I touch on this theme in LIFTOFF as well. Therefore, the three films definitely belong to a short trilogy.

Please tell us about the production and your experiences of making Gramophone. What are some of the challenges and difficulties you faced?

In the production of Gramophone, I was able to benefit from the experience gained in LIFTOFF and The Crow's Head. In all three short films, the film crew consisted of only one actress and myself. Done. I also handled the entire post-production in each case. The challenges were obvious: I had to shape the story, indeed the entire script, in such a way that I could direct, film and act at the same time without losing sight of the big picture. In addition, I had to drive away curious gawkers on the set. I had to do this especially in the monkey costume. These people, who were constantly peeking out from behind all the house corners and windows, were a challenge, especially on Gramophone, which was shot on a warm summer day in the middle of Zurich's old town. Admittedly, as a passerby I would probably have had googly eyes as well (however, closing off the filming location would have been beyond the effort). Accordingly, I was completely exhausted after the end of the film shoot, which you can see from my grayish face in the closing credits.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of independent filmmaking and working with small budgets? Does it liberate the filmmaker or limit his or her freedom?

The big advantage is the unlimited freedom. No production company can tell you what to do. As an independent filmmaker, I can do whatever I want. The disadvantage is that you roam around as a loner, like a lone wolf. If you spot other wolves, you get barked at. Although I like the freedom, I would like to be included in other wolf packs. The size of the budget and the technical equipment are not important. What is important is what can be done with the available resources. I learn by far the most in this way.

Tell us about your festival run. Have film festivals provided you with the experience and exposure you needed?

From the beginning, I focused on festivals abroad and not on Swiss film festivals. At international festivals I get the attention I need. Switzerland, on the other hand, is the wrong country to get big acclaim with extravagant films like mine. You know, Switzerland has no film culture. We can deal with documentaries, but that's all. I think that without an appropriate culture, no talent can be discovered and supported. Compared to the past, today's filmmakers have much better means of communication to attract international attention without being promoted in their own country. But it's a long and rocky road.

What was the reaction of those who watched your film? Was the feedback what you hoped for?

The feedback from viewers and festivals is even better than I expected. I also think that Gramophone is a good complement to the previous short film LIFTOFF. But it's clear to me: Gramophone either pleases you a lot or not at all because of its otherness.

Please tell us about your future project(s). What are you working on?

Now, before I start working on a new screenplay, I want to read up on a new subject. So far, ideas for films have come to me automatically and intuitively. I'm curious myself what subject matter I'll get involved with and I'm very much looking forward to continuing my work.


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