Humboldtians in private

Me During Filming at Berkeley

By Olga Holtz, recorded by Lilo Berg

In the photo it looks as though I’m bossing the team around. But that wasn’t necessary. We had an intuitive understanding from the very beginning, especially my producer, Petr Sweezer-Jankular (far right) and I, and the cameraman William Green (you can only see his back in the photo, unfortunately). We filmed “The Zahir” in four days, an 18-minute film based on my script and under my direction. It is set on campus at Berkeley where I usually work as a professor of mathematics.

Foto: Hamid Shafie Zadeh
Foto: Hamid Shafie Zadeh

“The Zahir” is my first film. Even as a little girl at home in Chelyabinsk I dreamt of making films – my passion for maths came later. Then, at Berkeley, I suddenly had the opportunity to do a directing course. I’d already written the script and had a few thousand dollars seed money. The Junge Akademie in Berlin gave me some more and the rest came from crowdfunding. At USD 35,000, “The Zahir” really is a low-budget film.

My inspiration for the film came from a short story of the same name by the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, which he wrote in 1949. It’s about magical people and things that cause individuals to become so obsessed with something that they can’t rid themselves of it. My film script tells a story set in an academic context. The basic idea is the same as Borges’: only if we are passionate about something will new worlds open up for us. “The Zahir” is a metaphor for this passion, the longing for deeper understanding.

Sometimes people ask me if I’m going to trade in mathematics for movies. “Why should I?” I ask them, “my research is going really well.” With my group at Berkeley I’ve developed algorithms that allow us to run supercomputers on less energy. Google has already been round to see us and other companies have expressed their interest as well.

We are now submitting “The Zahir” to international festivals, including the Berlinale. With a bit of luck it’ll soon be out in the cinemas. Then perhaps we can make enough money to produce the next film, a dark love story. I’ve already got the script in my desk drawer.

published in Humboldt Kosmos 101/2013
Mathematics professor Olga Holtz commutes between TU Berlin and the University of California, Berkeley, USA, every six months. A Sofja Kovalevskaja Award brought her to Germany in 2006.