German actress Sarah Wessendorf, who plays a key role in the film Chain Opera, is one of the few actors in the world who can confidently say that one of their films has been broadcast in planetariums around the world.
An amalgamation of a narrated story, choral music, and filmed material, director Jos McKain’s Chain Opera is an innovative blend of a film and a documented performance, and it’s a main feature of The New Infinity exhibition. Debuting in Berlin earlier this year where it drew more than 23,000 visitors, The New Infinity is a planetarium-inspired immersive art experience that utilizes digital audio and visual technology to create a full-dome experience.
Chain Opera, a major highlight of the exhibition, invites audiences to lay down their traditional assumptions about life – and the movie-going experience – and open their minds to alternative ideas. The film questions the influential power society holds over each and everyone of us, and its far-reaching effects on the decisions and paths we take in life.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Sarah Wessendorf, who’s character in Chain Opera acts as a symbol of society, to interview her about the film. When asked about what drew her to the project, Wessendorf explained, “I was captivated by the topic of how society influences us… which often can prevent us from living out our true passion and our calling in life. If we cannot stop these voices and actually start listening to what is true and what is authentic to us, we might have to come to terms with the fact that we have wasted a big portion of our life either working for someone else’s dream or fulfilling the expectations our parents, neighbours, teachers and society at large… The consequences of this can be far more painful than actually taking the leap and trusting that the universe has got our back.”
For Wessendorf, the power of the film’s message is deeply personal. Though she grew up performing on stages as an actress, she admits that she was influenced by a slew of external forces, including her family and society, to veer away from her career as an actress and choose something more ‘stable.’ It wasn’t until she was falsely diagnosed with cancer several years ago that she experienced a major wake-up call that life is short and you should do what you love. She’s dedicated her life to her passion and career as an actress ever since, and she’s become quite a successful one at that.
Through the film Chain Opera Wessendorf’s poignant performance has been seen by audiences across the globe as The New Infinity art installation continues to tour internationally. Reinventing the wheel in a way, the exhibition has innovated upon the use of planetariums as a venue for science and education, and turned them into a space for contemporary art; and it is slated to be on view in Wisdome LA’s 360-degree dome theatre next year.
CW: Hey Sarah, thanks for joining us! Can you start by telling us a little more about The New Infinity exhibition?
SW: The program series is a collaboration between Berliner Festspiele and Planetarium Hamburg. It has and will continue to feature selected filmmakers, visual artists, sound artists and game developers until the conclusion of its cycle in 2020. Some of those featured include David OReilly, Holly Herndon, Mathew Dryhurst and Fatima Al Qadiri. All of the projects are broadcast in a mobile planetarium that is setup in each new location.
New Infinity is a very captivating project. The idea behind it was to connect humans through the ancient form of coming together, looking past ourselves and gazing into the stars. We as humans have done this for centuries, wondering what is out there, who we are beyond this experience.
New Infinity implies that we, as humans, still crave to look beyond who we are on this world and into the infinite night sky, but have lost touch with this as we have expanded technology and innovation. The goal of the New Infinity project is to combine this ancient longing with modern technology.
CW: How about the film Chain Opera?
SW: In the film, a woman is stuck in a hospital room at the charité in Berlin. she is pained with agony because she realizes that her life goals weren’t her own, they were dictated by society. All her struggles, all her losses on the way, were in vain. She has to confront the fact that her life in the end was wasted by the expectation that society had of her, one that she happily and readily accepted. Society (which I play) shows her the crushing truth of her life, and leads her into an existential crisis– one where, if she doesn’t completely reinvent herself on her own terms she will be forever lost.
This all is shown through either monologues or dialogues with my character, Society. It is a very abstract and artistic film… there isn’t a direct moment to moment story line. It is fear, pain and agony expressed in different pictures, frames and situations.
CW: Did you see Chain Opera in the planetarium? What was that like?
SW: I saw the film during Berlin’s Art Week in the mobile dome constructed in front of the Bethanien Art Institute, an iconic and breathtaking architectural landmark. Just like the concept behind New Infinity, the planetarium reminds you of gatherings when humans were living in times of simplicity, under the night sky, hearing stories, learning and coming together. The impermanence of the planetarium’s construction gave it the unique feeling of both stability and elusiveness, which could be interpreted as a nod to human existence.
Bringing the audience of my generation into planetariums is such a wonderful idea! It reanimates places usually geared toward a specific group of people. Watching almost in a laying position gave the whole experience a calm, meditative feeling. It was a completely new way of taking in a film. Because they were in a dome, everybody sat in circles together… so much more connected than in cinema rows. These showings felt very intimate. I felt involved, captivated… as though the characters surrounded me; I had to look, find, focus on specific parts. It made for an unforgettable experience and it was very inspiring to see the forms of architecture, technology and art come together in that way.
CW: Chain Opera debuted during the Berlin Art Week. Did you attend, and can you tell us a little more about Berlin Art Week as a whole?
SW: Since the early 20s, Berlin has been a city for artists. Even now, in certain areas, everyone seems to be creating, planning and being inspired by art. Berlin Art Week is a week in which Berlin showcases all the amazing, modern art that is created in the vibrant city.
During this festival, artists, museums, buyers, and collectors all come together to connect. Art brings people together, no matter the nationality, religion, or beliefs. If art is not shown to the world, it remains unknown; it is about being seen and experienced! This is why Berlin Art Week is so important.
I was able to attend the festival and see the film debut. It was an amazing experience! I really enjoyed being with my cast members and viewing all the other projects, but also hearing about how our film influenced the thinking and minds of the audience that watched it.
CW: How was working with the director Jos McKain as you mentioned you knew each other from before?
SW: Jos McKain, the director, asked if I wanted to become part of Chain Opera. He and I became very close friends and I could not have asked for a better director. Jos comes from a dancing background, which we have in common. To approach filmmaking from this background helps immensely with intensifying the physical expression and aspect. It made for a very powerful combination of monologue and using the body to portray emotions, beliefs and opinions.
It was a joy working with someone who takes their craft so seriously and is not afraid to take risks. I admired this about Jos very much, and it helped me to give back the same trust and passion while working on the film.
CW: Is there any other story or part of your experience in Chain Opera you’d like to share?
SW: Chain Opera was shot in a historic part of the Charité, the largest university hospital in Europe. The charité is one of the most renowned institutions in Germany, and gave birth to more than half of all German Nobel Prize winners in Medicine and Physiology, including Robert Koch and Paul Ehrlich.
We filmed the majority of the production in an old classroom, with extremely high ceilings and a round shaped room. The room had not been restored; it was almost falling apart but at the same time had kept the essence of years and years of medical teaching and discovery. To shoot the film there felt important and daring at the same time.