Boy scout with strange dreams - "Tintin et moi"

It was a minor sensation when Danish director Anders Østergaard was given access to the Tintin archive in Brussels. Now he has made an ambitious documentary, "Tintin et Moi", that delves into Tintin's subconscious and explores the correlation between the comic strip and creator Hergé's psyche.

Af Claus Christensen
Publiceret i FILM #32, November 2003

Director Anders Østergaard. Photo: Jan Buus
Anders Østergaard.
Photo: Jan Buus

Framegrab from "Tintin et Moi" (picture from "Tintin in Tibet").
"Tintin in Tibet". Permission from Moulinsart.

"MRKRPXZKRMTFRZ! That was my whisky, you drunkard! ... Boozer! ... Baboon! ... Hunchback! ... Idiot! ... Liquor thief ! ... Lushhead! ... Subject! ... Toper! ... Tramp! ... Wino!"

It was the last straw. On an icy mountainside in Tibet, up to his neck in snow and far from any signs of civilisation, Captain Haddock discovers that the Abominable Snowman has emptied his bottle of whisky. "Billions and billions of striped catfish! ... Come and get what's coming to you, you yellow coward!" shouts a furious Haddock, who is promptly punished by a falling avalanche. Soon Haddock and friend Tintin make an even more shocking discovery. They find the scattered remains of the plane that should have flown Tchang, Tintin's old Chinese friend, to Kathmandu.

"This wasn't the first plane crash in a Tintin album, of course," says director Anders Østergaard. "In "The Black Island", for instance, a plane comes chugging along and boom, it plummets to the earth. In a comic strip, no less! In "Tintin in Tibet", the crashed plane is a wreck blown to smithereens - a plane seat is lying in the snow, very realistic and very shocking. I have always felt that this image, and all of "Tintin in Tibet" for that matter, was hiding something. This album from 1960 emanates a new intimacy and severity - almost a spiritual force, you might say.

Emotional drama

When Anders Østergaard started to study Hergé's life story, it also turned out that the Belgian cartoonist (whose real name was Georges Rémi, 1907-1983) was in the midst of a personal crisis in those very years when he was drawing "Tintin in Tibet". He was having strange, white dreams about skeletons and mummies and he dreamt of being buried in snow. Hergé - who was Catholic of upbringing, a boy scout in his youth and who started his cartoonist career by drawing for a Belgian scouting magazine - started to go to psychoanalysis and realised that he had to have it out with the white demon: virtue and purity.

Hergé was divorced the following year and moved in with a woman 28 younger than he, threw his inhibitions to the winds and took on the anti-authoritarian values of that era. When the next Tintin album, "The Castafiore Emerald", hit the streets in 1963, Tintin was still a dragon of virtue in plus fours, but the story bore no resemblance to any previous Tintin adventure. It consisted of an absurd series of scenes in which the opera star Castafiore in particular tries to make Captain Haddock's life miserable.

"And that's my prime interest: the relationship between life and art," explains Anders Østergaard. "Hergé's inner psychological drama makes its way into the comic strip in spite of the very tight form. If you delve into the psychological layers of the stories, the hallucinations and the dream sequences, you realise that Hergé is obviously not a man with a stable personality. He is a highly sensitive, nervous person who is absorbed by impulses but who tries to maintain control and wisdom at the same time. The comic strip is influenced by Hergé's personal maturation process; he transforms his life, and the Tintin universe is never the same again."

Music & journalism

Anders Østergaard has been fascinated by the abundantly detailed Tintin universe ever since the early 1970s when he received his first Tintin album, "King Ottokar's Sceptre". "Children were left more to their own devices back then, which meant we had to provide our own entertainment. And the middle-class suburb of Virum north of Copenhagen where I grew up was rich in 'stimulated boredom' so to speak. I strongly identify with the suburban experience. You get lost in your dreams to kill time, and this undoubtedly stimulates creativity," says Anders Østergaard with a smile.

He had originally wanted to be a musician, but as Anders Østergaard is also interested in societal conditions, he studied journalism - just like Tintin! His interest in investigative journalism was aroused at the Danish School of Journalism. He worked for a while at Central Television in London and was later affiliated with "Fak2eren", the documentary flagship of Denmark's TV 2. He made a film about the upheaval in South Africa entitled "Johannesburg Revisited" / "Gensyn med Johannesburg" (1996) and a Danida-supported film entitled "Malaria!" (2001) about the pharmaceutical industry's lack of interest in a serious third-world illness.

But Anders Østergaard ultimately united his musical and journalistic talents in "The Magus" / "Troldkarlen" (1999), in which he made a name for himself in earnest as a personal, original film director. The film is a gripping portrait of the late Swedish jazz musician Jan Johansson. We get an insight into the music - why music is such a powerful, communicative medium - and Johansson is magically brought to life through copious archive material.

"No film about art can have used so little rhetoric, and none has more authoritatively established how the artistic process in making music feels," wrote Michael Rabiger, director of a large US film school, about this unusual film.

Uncensored

"The Magus" helped to pave the way for Anders Østergaard's new film, "Tintin et Moi". Hergé's heirs are notorious for zealously guarding Tintin, but after seeing "The Magus", they extraordinarily gave the Danish director access to the Tintin archive.

"They could probably tell that I'm basically driven by taking pleasure in a piece of art - and not by a desire to denude or expose a famous personality. The fact that I didn't come from Belgium or France probably helped, too. I wasn't a member of any particular clique and didn't belong to a Tintin fraction. And lastly, many central and south Europeans view people from the far North as somewhat pure and innocent, and no-one would ever suspect us of having shady motives," says Anders Østergaard. Yet to keep things open and above board, he had to write a manuscript, which the Tintin Foundation approved.

The biggest scoop made by Anders Østergaard in the Tintin archive was a stack of cassette tapes containing a 12-hour interview with Hergé from 1971, an interview that was shrouded in mystery. Numa Sadoul had made this interview and even published it as a book, but the written version had been heavily edited by Hergé.

"The oral version of the interview is also much stronger. The rhythm, the pauses, and the tone of his voice are lost in the written version - and they tell a lot about Hergé. And Hergé gets more down to the brass tacks in the uncensored version. He talks openly about his Catholic background that controlled most of his adult life, about the war and about the trauma of being arrested and branded as a collaborator because he had worked for a newspaper with Nazi sympathies during the occupation."

Through Hergé's eyes

"Tintin et Moi" touches on this thorny period of Hergé's career, and in a similar vein, the imperialism of the debut album "Tintin in the Congo" and the primitive anti-communism in "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets" are given a knowledgeable tongue-lashing by comic strip experts. Østergaard placed a high priority on examining Hergé's life and showing the consequences of living in a dream world, but emphasises that he was not aiming for any 'social truth' about Hergé or trying to probe the details of Hergé's specific actions or choices.

"It would be more correct to view "Tintin et Moi" as a sort of 'documentary of the mind'. I'm trying to portray a consciousness and generate pure empathy: we have to view the world through Hergé's eyes. What is the psychological context of the sublime visions in "Tintin" in which Tintin and a mad professor float around on the high seas in a sarcophagus, or when Haddock is transformed into a centaur? I'm trying to find the aspects of his private sphere that we can identify with. We can't identify with Hergé's background as a wartime collaborator or the punishment he suffered for it, but we recognise the escapism and the disillusionment and being forced to grow up overnight."

"Tintin et Moi" had a budget of DKK 7 million, and the film was shot in high definition. The greatest challenge was to create convincing imagery. How should a sound interview without pictures be used in a film? Anders Østergaard chose to reconstruct milieus and to film historical events as a shadow play, so to speak. Hergé's old office, for example, was reconstructed to the last detail, but instead of using actors to play Hergé, the camera dwells on objects in the room - such as Hergé's glasses on the table - we merely sense the presence of the master. Other shots are filmed through glass, so we only see the outline of some people.

Innovative

Anders Østergaard thought it was necessary, however, that Hergé is seen speaking once in a while. He used a new revolutionary technique for this purpose.

"Everyone seems to have a movement pattern of roughly sixteen standard gestures, and we speak our sentences in a reasonably fixed rhythm. So by gathering seven or eight different Hergé interviews from 1967 to 1979 and making a rough graphic processing of the images, we used computer manipulation to get Hergé's mouth movements to fit in with the soundtrack from the taped interview. It was actually a rather bold move, but I think it works."

The most magnificent visual effects in the film comprise a 3Dlike opening shot in which we move into the comic strip panel with the crashed plane in "Tintin in Tibet" and walk through two hundred metres of snow. And in a gigantic, multicoloured mosaic, we see the 1428 pages of the 23 Tintin albums laid out like the pieces of a puzzle in an area the size of a tennis court. Hergé's complete life work in one incomparable picture!

"Hergé fuelled the dreams and hopes of millions of European children. Considering the visual strength that pervades his work, he deserves to be portrayed in a film with high cinematic ambitions," says Anders Østergaard, who adds that the primary goal of the film is to make people feel like rereading "Tintin" - preferably from a different perspective.

"Tintin is a boy scout, but in reality the Tintin books are not about the Tintin character. They're about the milieu surrounding Tintin: the plots, the places, the dreams, the hallucinations, and the many minor characters, all of which are the vibrant features and have actually inspired our childhood worlds."

"My favourite character is Captain Haddock, because he is funny without being an outright caricature. He's no fruit cake, and he only gives people the sharp end of his tongue when he's had enough. This tells us something about Hergé's psychological accuracy. At the same time, the Haddock character serves as the comic relief: he deflates the events if they get overly serious or complicated. By contrast, Tintin is a hole cut out of cardboard through which the reader can insert his own head. Tintin is a perfect point of identification: the more boring he is, the more he makes the supporting characters come to life."

ANDERS HØGSBRO ØSTERGAARD Born 1965. Graduated at the Danish School of Journalism, 1991. While studying he worked as a copywriter and as a researcher on documentary programmes. His documentary films include "Gensyn med Johannesburg" / "Johannesburg Revisited" (1996), "The Magus" / "Troldkarlen" (1999), which was awarded Best Documentary at Odense Film Festival, and "Malaria!" (2001).










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