Nina Danino’s Solitude

black and white poster for the film Solitude, a image of two women, divided by a diagonal line, Nico looking up and the filmmaker looking out to sea

Jo Blair interviews LUX artist Nina Danino to mark the launch of her latest feature film Solitude, which will launch as a special event at LSFF on 24 Jan , with live soundtrack from Gagarin (aka Graham Dowdall). Solitude is available now from LUX Distribution 

What led you to make a film about Nico (aka Christa Päffgen, perhaps best known as singer with The Velvet Underground)? What led you to make ‘Solitude’?

‘Solitude’ represents a journey into sublime darkness and asks existential questions about art, life and death and Nico became a fascinating figure for these questions, a mirror if you like into which I could look. The mirror of Nico is a dark one. She holds it up to her face and it reflects the glaring lights of Warhol’s film set-up in the kitchen of ‘The Chelsea Girls’. At the end of ‘Solitude’, we are in the penumbra where spotlights and psychedelic colours flash on Nico’s face and on her tears. Is Nico an icon? An idol? Is she a screen to meditate upon, a surface?


How did your inclusion of poems by the Romantic Poets evolve out of your research into Nico? Why might we read them today?

The Romantic poets bring a different tenor to such topics as death and God which do not feature in how we think today. I like their voices and thoughts on the big questions which suited my state of mind and the times we are in. The Romantic poets speak in a register which is somewhat alien to us as a contemporary audience. I like this otherness of mentality.

Nico thought of herself as a Romantic bohemian and the poetry reflects her true spirit. The poems in the film are not intended to impart particular meaning but rather to create an atmosphere. However, I can go deeper into it. ‘The Palace of Art’ by Tennyson, which is the main poem artery in the film, is a meditation on the Soul’s contemplation on the role of Art and how the Soul who is female and a muse, discourses with herself about her own glorious isolation with Art. Nico was cast as a muse in her early career and in the films that she starred in. In ‘Les Hautes Solitudes’ which is silent, she looks at the camera or is looked at by the camera. At this place in my film, she could be figured as the Soul or muse referred to in the ‘Palace of Art’. The Collector dedicates his Palace to the worship of art but which ultimately, without a higher purpose, becomes oppressive and does not fully nourish the Soul and leads her to aloneness and despair. There is a downfall. This is a very Gothic theme. It is an allegory which has a contemporary resonance given the place of art today. The other poems too are chosen for their evocations and shorter reflections on the shining female spirit, the imagination, betrayal, joy and pain, music, the darkness of the soul and sleepless silence, sorrow and how song can bring release, foreboding of death of course, aloneness and life’s evanescence. These all speak to each person today.

In ‘Solitude’ Nico doesn’t sing, we hear her voice reciting some of the lyrics to her songs. The Romantic poets which I recite could be her meditations as well as mine. These are intersections of the materials which are not fixed.


You have now quite a substantial body of work circling – or spiraling – around ideas about the voice, and often your voice. Where does ‘Solitude’ fit within this?

Over covid and lockdowns I did song/videos including ‘Nocturn’ which is a cover from The Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus in Furs’ and through this song I began to explore (Andy Warhol’s) Factory music and of course the films include ‘The Chelsea Girls’ which I had first seen at the London Filmmakers’ Co-op in the 80s. ‘It Was a Pleasure Then’ was my Road to Damascus. In passing, I heard a high-pitched call that didn’t sound like Nico and which she never sang again. The song is rambling, it seemed an improvised form and the voice is drowned out by Lou Reed’s guitar feedback. I heard this as a cry.

In the film we call to each other at the beginning of ‘It was a Pleasure Then’ – a wonderful song. I recorded the song live with new guitarist James Creed.

‘Solitude’ started as four songs – ‘It Was a Pleasure Then’, ‘Frozen Warnings’, ‘Saeta’, ‘Janitor of Lunacy’. It was challenging to work with such iconic songs and explore how to approach them. I was listening to Nico’s music and reading about her and becoming more and more admiring of her as an artist and as someone whom I needed to think about.

I recorded the songs to my loops and drones at Goldsmiths Music Studios then unbelievably I was able to invite Graham Dowdall (Gagarin), Nico’s band member from The Faction, to do the music for the songs. This is important because Graham Dowdall played them so many times and recorded and arranged with Nico in ‘Camera Obscura’. He said he would keep to the spirit of the songs but not to repeat them but do new arrangements. Gagarin will perform the music soundtrack live in the launch screening of the film.


This seems to be quite a collaborative work- not only in terms of music but also in how you have had to get agreement from archives, licensors and filmmakers (especially Philippe Garrel). How did you find this process and what did you learn about Nico throughout it?

There are five autonomous films in my timeline constructing a single film ‘Solitude’. ‘Solitude’ contains four other experimental films and four iconic songs and the music of legendary musicians. It is a structural film which combines these materials as meditative tableau if you like. They are presented as not-mine and these materials are treated with distance i.e., reverence. In my ‘River Thames’ film it is my shadow cast on the water, it was important for me to be within the reflective space of the film.

The film didn’t change much from its first assembly in 2020 and then it was a question of sending it to rights owners for their agreement. Those who knew Nico such as Richard Witts helped me locate others in her circle, Manuel Göttsching from Ash Ra Tempel who also gave his approval. Philippe Garrel was fully with the films I wanted to use, The Andy Warhol Museum and music publishers collaborated. I asked Philippe Garrel first as his portraits of Nico in his films are a big part of it. Then I approached The Andy Warhol Museum – these are powerful art institutions so naturally I was apprehensive, also about the publishers of the songs. I didn’t know where to start in that particular business as it is so complex. Archive producer Kate Griffiths counselled and guided me in this powerful world. It felt insurmountable. It was a huge task but it is a big part of the film. Obviously, I learnt a lot about production of archive, licenses and rights agreements. Although I have done it for my other films, this was on a different scale.


What did you learn about solitude, yourself, and your work in making this film?

‘Solitude’ is a reflection on film and started as reflection on a life in art when I was existentially facing death. Does a life of making art and films become an existential question when you approach the abyss? Nico talks about it herself “I’ve got close to it, so many times…it’s like you begin to see it. First when you are young it doesn’t exist. Then later, it’s a shadow, indistinct. Then you begin to recognise it as it gets close…’’ (in James Young’s ‘Songs they never play on the radio’)

In ‘Solitude’ I am approaching these questions in a creative spirit of darkness not despair and bringing the imagination to dispel despair, which changes everything. I was grateful to have experience of film as a phenomenon which is a powerful medium, and such powerful materials and how the film is austere and has black intervals and uses duration and time is part of this experience. Graham Dowdall’s comment was that as a portrait it was true because Nico was unknowable and that is how I approached Nico as a screen and surface.

I learnt what an amazing singer and artist Nico was, that she is under recognised, and it happens to women. I hope that my encounter with her will lead others to think about her in this way – not just as a junkie woman but as the true artist and talent that she was. The more I think about her the more I admire her. She is very strong and led me through my own existential crisis which the film is a measure of. Thank you Nico, for calling out to me and stopping me in my tracks with your high-pitched calls in ‘It Was a Pleasure Then’.

I also really admire how she pursued her life in art. She did not receive recognition as a serious singer songwriter. She had the courage to re-invent herself after Paris, for the Manchester and London years that my soundtrack is really about. She came into her own as an artist in those years in my opinion, leaving behind the muse role and becoming the singer songwriter in post punk which she is credited as having created.

It also holds my story as a filmmaker, perhaps singer and artist and reciting famous Romantic poems rather than reading my writing or other prose, was something new. I had to think about the position and inflection of the readings and not to inject them with drama, to keep them even yet to add feeling. I realised that where I read them would substantially make me feel different and render a different performance. I did the readings twice. Once in a recording studio then again, in one take, in a church which provided the right ambience for the performance. It made me reach out to the spirit of the poems better. This also happened with ‘Janitor of Lunacy’ where the studio recording was fine but it needed more somehow, so I went to a local church on my own and up to the choir where the voice resonated from high above in a disordered way, thus in the spirit of the song and performance. It was also cathartic. Thus in ‘Solitude’ the spoken and vocals go in a performative direction and new collaborations.


As your film ‘I Die of Sadness Crying for You’, about the women singers of copla (Spanish popular music which involves a passionate staging of tales of love and loss) is now streaming on LUX Player, can you tell us a bit more about this style of music and your attraction to it please? Incidentally, not having heard this music before, the first thing that came to mind for me was the Llorando scene in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

The song ‘Llorando’ is Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’. It is bizarre and scary – halfway through, the singer faints and the voice continues acapela. I think the mise-en-scène certainly makes the voice an uncanny object. In my film the voice is not an uncanny object but embodied in the figure of the woman recording or performing the songs. The question of emotion in the voice is quite elusive – I am chasing it. Some people like my mother can evoke it. It is like a grain of pain or sorrow. The diva Marifé de Triana is my favourite – she is a powerful performer.

How does the voice communicate profound sorrow? In my film it is connected to the performance too. Copla is a wide genre which includes humour, parody etc., and it is also sung by men. The songs I chose to me are the most tragic, have an existential drama and are sung by a woman protagonist. Those also are the ones that I respond to emotionally. Importantly, the women are not victims but powerful in my framing. They are defiant but not self-pitying. I linked it to profound sorrow through social marginalisation as well as stories of unrequited love. In my film, I trace it to a subjective source to particular songs which filled me with emotion. This is a thread in the film, which is an essay film and is personal as well as giving an insight into the genre and into song as a source of social power and self-empowerment.


What is the political background to this style of music and how does the film relate to this?

‘I Die of Sadness Crying for You’ breaks a taboo in a way because it is a genre which Spanish feminists rejected. I spoke about this at The Seville European Film Festival in 2019 where it was shown. In a way I am reclaiming it. The film startled and pleased the audience there because it brought a new and unexpected feminist perspective to a genre that has always been interpreted problematically, as it was used as a unifying national genre during the Franco era.

Copla however, historically comes from lyrical theatre in the 18th and 19th centuries, so it predates Franco. Also, it is not folk that most non-Spanish people are familiar with as a signifier for the country – it comes from the lyrical strand and poets’ writing and big instrumentation. However, I don’t engage with this history, although it is mentioned. I can’t and don’t want to because I wanted to make an essay film which has a subjective thread and was not a documentary. Also, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to bring a new perspective which, as one review notes scales up the women as tragediennes, as larger than life characters in the songs. I focus on the power of the woman and the story behind each woman. Almodóvar has used copla but possibly in a sentimental and sanitised way.

Women were marginalised, as they speak through the song, (written by men and often gay male composers and lyricists) but they also assert their autonomy and sexuality in the songs too. It is a world which I recognised, which thankfully has disappeared because it has a dark underside which I also approach in my film. But the voice continues with its power to communicate sorrow and profound emotion and to me it is the woman’s voice which has access to this.

Solitude live launch event at LSFF on 24 Jan, 8:30pm, Rich Mix.
‘I Die of Sadness Crying For You’ is currently available to watch on LUXPlayer.


Skip to content