A Place of Hard Labor: Peter Nestler on MUBI

To show the films of German documentarian Peter Nestler now is to see the world from a perspective that has been rarely taken up.
Mike Opal

MUBI's retrospective on filmmaker Peter Nestler, A Vision of Resistance, presented as part of a collaboration with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is showing in from July 18 - September 1, 2017 in most countries around the world.



It’s difficult to talk about Peter Nestler without talking about historical materialism and the dialectic, which is an interesting problem for a filmmaker to have—interesting, at least, now that his Marxism is in part the reason for his recent recovery in the United States rather than, as it was in 1966, the reason for a self-imposed exile from his home country. Born in 1937 in Freiburg im Breisgau—later incorporated into France’s West German partition—at 18 Nestler traveled abroad (in his words, “I went to sea”), returning for school in Munich. He made his first film, By the Dike Sluice [Am Siel], in 1962, and over the next several years fell in with a crowd of German experimental documentarians who felt commercially excluded by their higher-profile compatriots, who were themselves pushing for a more inclusive, daring national film culture. 

The same year as By the Dike Sluice, the latter group released the “Oberhausen Manifesto” at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. The signatories, including Alexander Kluge, announced the creation of the “new German cinema,” which indeed became the New German Cinema of Fassbinder and Wenders. The manifesto was fundamentally a call for the liberalization of the film industry, a desire for industrial-aesthetic freedom from commercial cinema rather than an aesthetic program per se

Thus in 1965, the year of Nestler’s Rhine River [Rheinstrom], Nestler cosigned the “second Oberhausen manifesto” drafted by Jean-Marie Straub—by this time Nestler’s friend and champion, both of which he remains. Straub wrote the manifesto explicitly against the Oberhausen festival’s rejection of three consecutive films by Nestler: Essays [Aufsätze] (1963), Mülheim (Ruhr) (1964), and Ödenwaldstetten (1964). Straub accused the committee of selecting films that “correspond to its conception of film art: subtle or violent distortion of reality. . . . It suits the Federal Republic, and it will prevail.” Because, in the manifesto’s words, “The bad makes conscience sensitive: honesty becomes affront,” Nestler’s rigorously leftist films, with their materialist, working- and peasant-class subjects and embedded critiques of German anticommunism, were not met with a chilly reception: they were not discovered in the first place. The next year, Nestler left Germany for Sweden, where he began making educational films for public television. 

This history turns his recent, major retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, presented with MUBI and the Goethe-Institut, not a “rediscovery,” as cinephile language tends to call these things. “Rediscovery” suggests that a group who has already discovered a thing, and then forgot it, finds it again. However, with Nestler’s low profile (despite vocal supporters that include not only Straub but the great documentarians Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky) and his subject, to show his films—now—is to see from a perspective that has been rarely taken up.

The program is called “A Vision of Resistance,” which is at once accurate, counterintuitive, and provocative. The singular “a vision” primes us to think that what we are seeing is Nestler’s perspective. However, the director has consistently emphasized method over philosophy. Rather than bring to a certain subject (German provincial life, the schoolday, Greek antifascist struggles, imperialist ethnography) an ideology by which he warps the material, he goes to people, often farmers, students, and assembly-line workers, and talks with them, then turns their answers into the narration. By decoupling language from speaking, even diegetic speech turns abstract at the same time that it becomes explicitly evidential. The camera records material conditions while the voices record their sense of the world, that is, a perspective on those conditions. Even if Nestler had not made a film about English factories described by Engels (1965’s A Working Men’s Club in Sheffield), his approach to film form stages the audio-visual tension into a Marxist dialectic. But he holds these things in tension: his wondrous compositional rigor jokes that cities and landscapes alike are pre-composed, practically set-designed for state subjects. 

When thinking, then, of what “vision of resistance” Nestler presents, I would cite McKenzie Wark’s useful condensation of Marxism to one thing: the labor perspective. If we take Nestler at his word, that he does not present his own ideas but rather uses a method to present other people’s ideas, the vision is not his own. Nestler shows us the world from the labor perspective, a form of vision that, in the past, today, and hopefully not too far into the future, is inherently resistant. Nestler’s global concerns make this something of a controversial commitment, even today. His view expands from the national synecdoche of a German seaside village in By the Dike Sluice to his grandfather Eric von Rosen’s 1911-1912 race-science expedition in company-rule Rhodesia (now Zambia) in Death and Devil (2009, his latest long film). In the dilation between the two perspectives, Nestler disambiguates without glibness exploited domestic workers and imperialism’s forced labor, the distinct but related abuses of industrialization from one end of the supply chain to the other, the racism and fascism that stabilize and transcend political economy. 

Nestler’s attention to the particularities of his subjects allows him to dodge the live criticisms of, on the one hand, direct cinema’s fantasy of unmediated access to reality, and, on the other, a fractal-like view of the world in which one structure is replicated in the same way at all levels. On the first count, his films actively court artifice, not to suggest their inaccuracy but to affirm collective construction. When, in Essays, the teacher leaves the schoolroom and shuts the door behind her, what are we to make of the fact that she locks the camera operator inside? As the children declaim short biographical essays as narration, presumably written as grammatical exercises and delivered like proclamations, the film argues that the representation of life is always mediated—by material conditions, but also by relationships. To describe one’s life in a talking-head is not more real than simply performing a routine for the camera. Nestler undermines such assumptions of documentary form. There is a centerpiece of sorts in From Greece (1965) that only gradually reveals itself as a scene at all. During a long montage of village life, a woman speaks, without audio. In the next shot, she still speaks to Nestler’s now-visible collaborator—the villager emerges from a montage of the everyday without the distinction between life and documentary. During this, Nestler’s narration gives a history, in strictly reportorial language, of the Nazi massacre of Distomo. Is the woman a survivor? The narration ends but Nestler continues to show the woman speaking, as though to tell us that history is passed-off, struck-through, intercessed, ventriloquized.

On the second count, instead of the fractal or microcosm, Nestler’s method crystallizes the world for a brief moment. He takes the smallest thing—say, in Rhine River, a glass of wine—and attends to every process that allows it to exist: the weather patterns in which the grapes grow, the river transport of goods, the low-wage vinter lugging vine clusters to the press, the leisure time that allows consumers to drink. The narration is poetic but rarely figurative, emphasizing precise adjectives over comparison or metaphor, while the hot club jazz that scores a montage of middle-class bacchanalia acknowledges the pleasures of consumption even as the film emphasizes the chain of labor that enables them. Sometimes, this leads to a uniquely unsparing presentation of his human subjects. His systems view abandons any soft humanism. The anthropomorphized dam that imaginatively narrates the portrait of a village By the Dike Sluice criticizes the villagers’ selective memory of the past (especially the Nazi regime) and the course of natural decay in schnapps, cigars, and cards. At the end point of this is Death and Devil, in some way a film without humans: a film about a demonic emissary of white capitalism that denies the status of “human” to the people it measures, erases, unmentions. 

Ironically, what is to my mind one of the most human images in these films does not actually show a person: in Mülheim (Ruhr), two empty chairs and a table sit on a hill, exposed to thick river fog, above a highway crowded with cargo trucks. In a modernizing city of linear geometry, something so aggressively, parodically domestic seems more comfortable than the adults walking along the avenue, on beat with the music, movement that seems from one point of view like dancing, but from another mechanical. The skyline is filled with spinning cranes, about which one could think the same things.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


Peter Nestler
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.