Fellini on Film: An Israeli Expat's View of the Director's Wild World Comes to Haifa

Gideon Bachmann developed a close friendship with the Italian legend; his film and photos are part of the Haifa Film Festival.

If you ask Gideon Bachmann, an Israeli expatriate who was a close friend of Federico Fellini for decades, the best description for the Italian filmmaker’s work is “exaggeration,” because everything that happens in a Fellini film is possible but not terribly reasonable: The fat women are very fat, the loudmouths shout extra loud, the frenzied traffic on the roads is even more frenzied than it really is.

Fellini uses exaggeration to create a new reality in which everything is larger than life, says Bachmann, who considers Fellini the greatest filmmaker of all time. It is as if, in his presentation of the comedy of life, reality is being viewed through a magnifying glass.

Bachmann has documented the cinematic genius’ work through thousands of stills and a documentary film, “Ciao, Federico!” which he directed in 1970. At the 29th Haifa International Film Festival, which opens Thursday, the documentary will be shown in a double screening with Fellini’s “8 ½” (1963). There will also be an exhibition of Bachmann’s photographs, as part of the festival’s special tribute marking the 50th anniversary of the release of “8 ½” and the 20th anniversary of Fellini’s death.

Gideon Bachmann was born in Germany in 1927 and immigrated to Mandatory Palestine with his family when he was 9 years old, settling in Tel Aviv. After completing his high school studies, Bachmann worked as a journalist and photographer for Haaretz and the Haolam Hazeh weekly. In 1947, he was sent to Europe to document the concentration camps and the devastation in postwar Europe. A year later, he moved to New York, where he worked as a representative of travel companies and Israel’s Tourism Ministry. Dadaist artist Hans Richter, a distant relative, suggested that he attend classes in City College of New York’s department of cinema studies, which he headed at the time. Bachmann did so and became thoroughly captivated by the new medium. It was not long before he was broadcasting on CCNY’s radio station, hosting a weekly program in which he interviewed people in the film industry. A year later, Bachmann, along with the program, moved to a larger radio station in New York, and he became a well-known figure in the local film industry.

In January 1956, a relatively unknown Italian director arrived in New York. Two years earlier, he had directed the neo-realist drama “La Strada,” but, Bachmann notes, at the time it was primarily known for the wonderful original music that Nino Rota wrote for the film. Bachmann recalls that the director was sent to drum up some publicity for the film prior to the Academy Awards and that the American distributor of “La Strada” asked Bachmann if he could interview Federico Fellini for his radio program.

Fellini insisted that the interview be conducted in his hotel. Afterward, the two sat and talked some more. Fellini told Bachmann about the next film he was planning to direct, which he wanted to call “A Trip with Anita”; in the end, the film was never made. In the background of the tape recording is the sound of someone crying: Suzy, who was Bachmann’s life partner at the time. She cried because of the way Fellini described the story line.

Fellini was supposed to travel from New York to Hollywood to attend the Academy Awards ceremony, where “La Strada” would win an Oscar for best foreign language film. But New York was hit by a heavy snowstorm and Bachmann was one of the few people able to navigate through the snow-covered metropolis, thanks to his old military jeep. So Fellini, Bachmann and Suzy did a tour of the city; his two American hosts showed him the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem and introduced him to Allen Ginsberg, Shirley Clarke, Robert Frank and Susan Sontag, all the Beatniks who were Bachmann’s friends during that period. In the end, Fellini wound up staying in the Big Apple for 10 days. Over the course of his visit, he and Bachmann became good friends and, toward the end of his stay, Fellini invited him to visit in Rome.

In 1961, Life Magazine asked Bachmann to make a whirlwind visit to Rome to photograph Fellini, who at the time was filming “The Temptation of Dr. Antonio,” an episode that Fellini made for the anthology film “Boccaccio ‘70,” and Simon & Schuster proposed that Bachmann write a biography of the Italian director. The visit renewed their friendship, and a year later, when Bachmann attended the Cannes Film Festival, he traveled to Rome afterward, as Fellini was filming “8 ½.” Each morning the director would pick up Bachmann from his hotel and take him to the set. Since Bachmann had his camera with him, he asked Fellini if he could film him on the set. Fellini did not really know what to do with Bachmann, so he gave him a part in the movie.

Running away with a traveling circus

For four months, Bachmann observed the filming of “8 ½,” taking 3,600 photographs on the set. It was like a giant game; it was a marvelous experience and one of the most memorable periods in Bachmann’s life. At the end of the four months, he decided to would remain in Rome, where he lived for the next 40 years. He sent some of the photographs he took on the set of “8 ½” to Life. Writing the biography on Fellini proved to be much more challenging.

He told Fellini that he had a contract to write the director’s biography and suggested that they find some time to sit down so Fellini could tell him his life story. The director suggested that Bachmann should first travel to the seaside resort town of Rimini and speak with his mother, which is what Bachmann did. Each time he spoke to Fellini about the biography project, Bachmann was sent to interview someone who knew Fellini well. In the end, Bachmann interviewed some 70 individuals but he had not even one recording of an interview with the director himself, because the latter was always putting off their conversation.

In the meantime, Fellini began filming the fantasy comedy-drama “Juliet of the Spirits” and, as usual, he would pick up Bachmann from his home in the morning. They would get up early and, since the shooting never began before 11 A.M., they would have coffee and go to the barber’s to get a shave. Each morning Bachmann would ask his friend when they could finally sit down so that he could tape an interview; however, Fellini always found some excuse to postpone it. Once again, the director gave Bachmann a small part in the movie, where he played himself, but this gesture could not dissuade Bachmann from getting his interview.

In the end, on a rainy day that meant the cancelation of the film’s outdoor location shots, Fellini finally broke down and, for five hours, Bachmann taped Fellini recounting stories of his childhood. When the translator and a second person who was in possession of the cassettes threatened to keep the tapes, he asked Fellini for permission to conduct a second interview. Fellini flatly refused and it took Bachmann a number of years before he understood the reason: Fellini had invented tall tales for Bachmann, telling him, for instance, that he ran away from home and joined a traveling circus. His life story was actually a string of fabrications and he was afraid that, in a second interview, he would be unable to reconstruct them.

Bachmann decided to make “Ciao, Federico!” after he abandoned the writing and photography, opting instead for cinematic documentary. What he has created is a film that documents Fellini on the set of the 1969 fantasy drama “Fellini – Satyricon.” Bachmann made his film after directing two other successful documentaries -- “Jonas” and “Underground New York” -– that focus on the film scene in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. What Bachmann quickly realized when he began working on “Ciao, Federico!” was that he was really interested in was the relationships among the creative types he observed on the set, especially Fellini’s attitude toward the people he worked with. In essence, the film, as Bachmann sees it, is a loving, gently critical cinematic tribute to Fellini. In the text accompanying the song at the end of the documentary, Bachmann declares that Fellini has a genuine thirst for people, that he wants to know them, and assist them, with the support staff he keeps around him: all the women, all the gay men, all the dancers, all the prostitutes, everyone. In that text, he says that Fellini does a marvelous job quenching this thirst. Sometimes, Bachmann admits, Fellini can be cruel, just like a child, but he immediately apologizes for his outburst. Finally, Bachmann says in the text, despite the fact that Fellini is admired by so many people, he never shows even one drop of excessive pride.

Before the documentary’s screening, recalls Bachmann, he showed it to a large group of filmmakers and film critics in his home in Rome. He later learned that director Michelangelo Antonioni had told Fellini that the film presented him in a highly critical light. On hearing this, Fellini severed all ties with Bachmann and refused to speak with him for seven years. After this period, their friendship was renewed as if nothing had happened.

In recent years, Bachmann has been devoting his time to filming stills and to a project called “Vox Humana,” whose goal is to record the human voices of important directors and other creative people in the film industry. The databank already contains hundreds of interviews with filmmakers. It is, however, missing one particularly intriguing one -- a five-hour interview with one of the world’s greatest film directors.

Chi Fang
AP
Tai Krige