It is demanding to write about Ema Kugler’s films. Our attempts of interpretation are predestined to fail (as Kugler is not concerned with the story) and if we try to describe them, we end up at best with a successful ekphrasis and at worst with a dull transcription of onscreen movement. Therefore, her work should not be approached from the conventional point of narration or genre classification. After all, such “grouping” in her eyes only serves film sales.

But it may be interesting to analyse some fundamental laws of film imagery in Ema Kugler’s work, such as the creation of cinematic space through frames juxtaposed with cuts. In the above-mentioned conventional analyses (when these apply to similarly conventional films) such laws are often accepted as self-evident. The classical concept of a shot (one that presides in the majority of narrative films) is (approximately) that its space and time are continuous and realistic. This continuity can be threatened by every cut which can if it does not observe the strict rules of maintaining continuity (for example, the forbidden jumping of the line, matching the looks of the characters, etc.) create a feeling of having moved into a completely new (disconnected) time and space with a single cut.

Since the rules of continuity are essential for the supposedly uninterrupted narration that wishes to conceal the constructedness of its cinematic space, it is to be expected that continuity and realism of time and space in Ema Kugler’s films should deviate from the described. The space in her films is no longer literal (a character’s walk from one point to another is not merely a walk) but metaphorical, associative and symbolic – instantly reminding us of theatre space where the actors can cross long distances in time, in minds, and between worlds by walking across just a few metres of the stage. If, for example, walking is literal in a conventional film, then every stage movement is metaphorical, choreographed, and symbolic. It is precisely that which characterises Kugler’s cinematic space and movement – she has no need for cuts to achieve metaphorical and associative jumps in time and space. With the use of atmosphere and character and camera movement in each shot, she appears to break the continuity of the image and tie it into a new formation, which is why her characters walk across different periods, archetypal meanings, and sounds already inside each shot. 

The creation of theatre space inside a film raises another question: what status does the body in a theatre space have when the latter appears in film? Even in its most radical avant-garde form and regardless of the metaphoricality and symbolism of the theatre space, the theatre was always inevitably faced with the literacy of the body. The literal body was always the inerasable last border which the theatre could reach. And it was precisely this border and the fact that a body consists of flesh and blood and cannot be metaphorically bent and twisted as desired and needed, that was examined by body art and conceptual art in general – from Marina Abramović and Ulay’s body crashing to Chris Burden’s crawling through glass. But digitalisation offers the film image a new meaning and potential. The body that is still inescapably literal in theatre and performative arts can be by digital manipulation metaphorical and symbolic in film. Such coexistence of metaphorical (theatre) space with the symbolic (cinematic and manipulated) body is one of the most intriguing harmonies in the works of Ema Kugler.

In her films, the body keeps reappearing, never in a literal and experimental sense but always as an archetype and a metaphor. One such most fascinating example can be found at the beginning of Station 25 (1997), which will be screened in this year’s Instant kult. A woman opens her dress and the digital manipulation reveals the insides of her womb. But the inside that we see is not bloody, moist or pulsating but woven. The womb is made not out of flesh and blood but of red fabric. The body that is the initial and final point of the avant-garde theatre and performative arts precisely because its literality is impossible to surpass is crucially different in Kugler’s films. Her bodies are sewn, woven, and embroidered. As we can see in Menhir (1999), available on the DIVA portal, the body is not the essentiality of a human being from which everything else originates. The real body is, in fact, a dress, a costume one yet needs to put on. It is a dress (often of flesh and blood) Kugler incessantly takes off the characters so as to fashion out of their bodies a new body – one bent according to her wishes and ideas.

Oskar Ban Brejc