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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Portrait of a portrait artist
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image image image Date published: 16/10/02
  image Portrait of a portrait artist
RTD info special "Talking Science"
  A committed freelancer, working for Arte, ZDF, 3sat and Der Spiegel, Gero von Boehm has two passions: art and science. He spends most of his time travelling the continents of the world to meet the men and women who live for creation and research.

Half-tones, beiges and greys, the occasional touch of light blue … minerals, sometimes lead, applied to the surface of the work … patterns, areas of light and shade, nebula, vast empty spaces with fleeting forms – Gero von Boehm turns the pages of an album of recent works by Anselm Kiefer, and talks about this painter who symbolically evokes Germany's cruel past and about whom he is making a film. 'Our brain contains the same matter as the stars… Kiefer expresses this. All his images have a significance, convey symbols, and refer to the myths of different places and cultures.'

The meeting of two worlds
Von Boehm has produced profiles of artists including Giacometti, Matisse, Balthus, Henri Moore and David Hockney, as well as on such figures as Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Luc Montagnier, Harald Zurhausen, French Anderson, Edward Wilson and François Jacob. 'There are very strong links between art and science. Music and mathematics have often been compared for example – even the smallest equation has its own harmony. It is important for me to encounter these two worlds and to work in both areas. When I produce a portrait of an artist, it is always very stimulating visually and it seems to me that subsequently I am better able to translate science into pictures and to find a common aesthetic theme with which to guide my audience, as it were.'

On each occasion, it is a question of revealing a person and a personality. 'If the subject is a scientist, it is a way of showing that research is carried out by men and women who have themselves been beset by many doubts and anxieties. Paradoxically, this is a way of reducing the fear that one may have of science.'

Gero von Boehm finds potential subjects for interviews through his reading (Science, Nature, Journal of Medicine, etc.). 'I discover people and their work. I try to understand why they are interested in particles or the stars or whatever. I telephone them, write to them, and we meet before we start filming. Sometimes of course we do not make a film, but I am rarely disappointed. ' He understands perfectly the doubts scientists may have regarding the media and the prospect of popularising science. 'If I have the slightest doubt I call them. If they think I have simplified some elements too much, we negotiate – sometimes over a sentence or just a word – but we always find the right balance in the end. It simply takes a bit of work. The important thing is to win scientists’ trust.'

Ethics and genetics
Despite this desire to discuss and develop a relationship of trust, von Boehm maintains the critical eye of the journalist: 'Our duty is to show scientists – who do not always have the time to think about this – the fears and anxieties of society and in particular to ask questions about ethical aspects of research.’ Genetics, for example, is a field in which very convincing scientists are 'determined to pursue their research and they are under great pressure from patients – and their families: 'The parents of sick children are a strong force in society and who can deny them hope? But you start with illnesses and then end up with something else. Can you give me one example in the history of science of a development which was not allowed to reach its ultimate conclusion? Science usually presents us with a fait accompli. Today the media and pressure groups are delaying this culmination, for now.'

Gero von Boehm's next project is entitled DNA, the time machine. Through interviews with European and US scientists, this document will try to show how genetics enables us to travel back to the past ('What were Eve's genes? We don't know, but we can analyse dinosaurs') and to influence the future ('Perhaps by trying to improve ourselves, in any event physically, as has happened in the evolutionary process.')

The independence bug
A genuine workaholic with an undying passion for discovery and an unfailing ability to be amazed, this international traveller ('after two weeks at home, I have to set off…) has worked in all media. He started in radio in 1975, then wrote for Die Zeit before moving quickly into audio-visual. In 1978 he founded the company Interscience Films with his wife Christiane, an expert at finance, production and management. He has always been a freelancer and jealously guards the real freedom this status brings ('we always wanted to be independent film-makers, if only to be able to choose who we work with. For the past 20 years we have worked mainly with the same cameramen, editors and technicians.'). Gero von Boehm is now Art and Science correspondent for the German public channel ZDF, as well as producing and supervising the German section of the weekly Archimède and ZDF programmes included in the cultural magazine programme Metropolis for Arte. He has also just started a series of interviews to be broadcast on the cultural channel 3sat, and writes regularly for Der Spiegel.

Television is therefore his principal outlet. However, 'I love the big screen and you clearly have greater freedom with a cinema film than on television. But it is very difficult to get the financial backing to make a film and I am too impatient. I like to start shooting without hanging around for too long.' The fine line between a document and documentary is sometimes blurred, however. Kiefer will be shown in cinemas, for example, while the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art has just exhibited a Gero von Boehm retrospective.

In his film-making he always remembers his training as a lawyer: 'I studied law to acquire structured thinking and it is an approach I have retained. But I never wanted to be a lawyer. I would have liked to have been a writer.' This modest man does, in fact, write regular profiles for Der Spiegel and is the author of a book on the architect leoh Ming Pei, designer of the Louvre pyramid, 'because I like to say things that cannot be expressed in pictures'.

Words and pictures
This master of the audio-visual believes that 'you can be much more subtle with words. Pictures are limiting in the sense that you are always obliged to show something, but it is often only the surface. Pictures can reveal, but they can also conceal.' This is perhaps why the interviews he does for 3sat are face-to-face against a black background, intimate and close-up, almost like a conversation in a café. The interviewees bring along a few momentoes, objects or photos, and speak about their lives and work. Each interview lasts 45 minutes and goes out at 10.20 in the evening. 'That's good,' he says modestly, 'because interviews of this kind are usually broadcast after midnight.' The next subject will be Carl Djerassi, co-inventor of the contraceptive pill and owner of the world's largest collection of the works of Paul Klee. He is a fascinating man, elderly now, and the author of novels and plays. He has written about his life in The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse, the latter being almost science fiction.

'Pictures,' continues von Boehm, 'show a reality, rarely the truth, although truth is a very big word which I do not really like to use. If you are really lucky you can show the reality of science today. To show the reality of a man or woman, of a scientist or an artist, is already a great deal. As to the truth, I have no pretensions about that. One can reflect upon it… You must be modest.'

Modest is a word which crops up frequently in the conversation. Modesty is also apparent when talk turns to making other kinds of films – for example, fiction films. 'All film-makers are tempted by fiction, but when you consider just what a huge undertaking they are… I think you have to start very early.' Yet he aspires to another life, or rather a parallel life in which it would be possible to write screenplays, far from the city: 'You sometimes want to work alone, not to speak or have the telephone ringing, but simply to be and to write. A dream perhaps…'

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Gero von Boehm - ‘The important thing is to win the confidence of scientists.’

Gero von Boehm - ‘The important thing is to win the confidence of scientists.’


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