Das Helmi: Reisebericht — Block 1

While I was in Zürich working with Das Helmi and Theater HORA on Mars Attacks!, Florian asked if I’d like to help on the Helmis’ next production, a project with the Dahlem Ethnological Museum – one of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin of which I am lately possessing a Jahreskarte for unfettered access. I said, “Yes!” because working those weeks in Zürich had been such a pleasure, and having known Florian for something over a year find him one of the interesting and admirable directors.

Last Saturday then, after a previous week of meetings, discussions, researching gear and equipment, trips to the camera hire shop, we began moving everything in. I spent some of Sunday messing around with the camera (a Canon 5D Mark III, which I knew) and a couple of lenses (which I didn’t). After the first day’s rehearsals and shooting, I swapped the lenses, and ended up using a Zeiss Planar T* f1.4 85mm for most of the remainder of the week (as well as writing a gear list for what I think will work for the next block).

Shooting puppets – specifically Helmi puppets – for film or still image is a bit like shooting macro images from far away while on a trampoline. The space they occupy, handled as they are by full-size humans, is obviously full-size human, yet the smallest puppets are hand-sized, and using a manual focus lens while shooting hand-held (actually a shoulder-rig I rebuilt to hang around my neck like a Fig Rig) was at times a long exercise in out-of-focusness. Lucky it’s digital and not film.

By the end of the week through trying many variations, I’d found the beginnings of something that actually worked, the Helmis had a rough work running around 25 minutes, puppets, props, sets, light and other bits and pieces were finished or being built, and days were approaching a calm length. For me, very enjoyable to be working in theatre and with a group I think are one of the smartest (definitely the funniest) around. So, here are some stills from various days, from a very quick pass through six days of filming.

As for Herr Jacobsen, The Museum in the 1880s, The Inuit, Aleut, First Nations of the North-West Coast of what’s now Canada and Alaska, it’s a troubling story that makes me uneasy even while I’m laughing as the Helmis perform their usual humour autopsy. Jacobsen returned with some 7000 artefacts, some of them plundered from graves. Contra that, the devastation the nations of North America were undergoing meant he probably saved something of their cultures from complete loss, though all but a few of those thousands of items remain to this day boxed up the the museum archives, so it’s nevertheless ambiguous. For me, having been born and grown up in Canada – admittedly far from where Jacobsen went, either around Baffin Island or Alaska – it’s something of a churning over of very faint and distant memories, as well as more recent ones, as I’ve seemed to deceive myself into paying attention to Canada over many years without being aware of it (Meech Lake Accord, anyone?).

We return to the Alte Kantine Wedding for the next round of Jacobsen in July after Heppenheim.