Dominik Graf: Against the Times

Subject of a New York retrospective, alongside a German genre films series curated by the director, Dominik Graf finally gets the spotlight.
Olaf Möller

The Invincibles

A decade ago, Dominik Graf was FRG’s (Federal Republic of Germany) best kept secret: The nation’s one grandmaster of cinema whom the rest of the world had never heard of, or not taken proper interest in his work whenever there was a chance to.

There certainly have been chances: his heist thriller Die Katze (The Cat,1988) was big enough back home for even distant observers to notice (in fact, there’s even an English-dubbed print that allegedly got a brief release in New York). His eccentric comedy Spieler (The Gamblers, 1990) screened in Venice’s competition, with seemingly nobody giving a shit, not even the locals—the film looked like some bizarre alien creature in those early post-Wall days when good spirits and humor were the order of the day, not subversive laughter about life’s inherent weirdness. When a dozen plus years on his melodrama Der Felsen (A Map of the Heart, 2002) got selected for the Berlinale competition, the film provoked something akin to a scandal due to the way it mixed digital video images with a full-blown orchestral score, professional craftsmanship with amateur filmmaking (Graf used footage his actors had shot whenever the mood caught them) or so folks claimed—for in hindsight the film’s liberal sexual politics might have been the real reason for folks freaking out. Maybe the tide turned with the TV prestige project Dreileben (2011) which consisted of three story-wise interlinked stand-alone features by Graf, Christoph Hochhäusler and Christian Petzold—and while everybody internationally was hot for the latter’s contribution, Graf’s was the one celebrated in the end. When his modern(ist) heritage film about the complicated ménage à trois between Friedrich Schiller and the sisters Caroline and Charlotte von Lengefeld, Die geliebten Schwestern (Beloved Sisters, 2014), premiered again in the Berlinale’s competition, it was one of the most awaited works selected for that edition, and not only locally. By then, Graf’s massive oeuvre had been the subject of various international retrospectives that were usually met with a Where did t-h-a-t come from?

When this year the Berlinale Classics presented Die Sieger – Extended Version (The Invicibles, 1994/2019), a re-working of his S.W.A.T. actioner political thriller monument-maudite, people were fighting to get into the film’s sole screening which turned into a triumph—a quarter century after what Graf considered to be his darkest hour, when he failed (by his own assessment) to deliver the Great German Film he’d sat out to make—and which he did make, let there be no mistake!—he finally got the vindication he’d longed for so much. One can only hope that Die Sieger – Extended Version will see to a re-visitation of Der Rote Kakadu (The Red Cockatoo, 2006), for of this also a much longer and far superior version exists, whose release would be most desirable.

Times, obviously, had changed, while Graf steadfastly remained true to himself. What before obstructed the view on a filmmaker so complete, so curious about life while at the same time driven and obsessed by certain themes and subjects, a filmmaker so politically thought-provoking cum subversive while emotionally richer than almost any other practitioner of the craft internationally around—what obstructed greater visibility for this director was suddenly gone, lost to the passing of the years and fads.

Polizeiruf 110: Smoke on the Water

By now, the main problem with Graf and the rest of the world is access: Still way too little of his oeuvre is available with subtitles, or available at all; and while many of his major later works can be found somewhere on the internet with subtitles (usually made by fans as companies in the FRG seem to have zero interest in selling their stuff abroad), most of his early films remain appreciable to German-speakers alone. This local quality, while an aspect of great richness for his movies, is particularly a pity for international audiences, as Das zweite Gesicht (1982), Treffer (1984), Die Beute (1988), Bei Thea (1989), Tiger, Löwe, Panther (1989), and Morlock – Die Verflechtung (1993), not to mention his combined episodes for a TV series he co-created, Der Fahnder (1983–2001), are key to a deeper understanding of his world and its development. Graf himself considers Die Beute and Der Fahnder – Nachtwache (1993) as two of his finest achievements (justly so), while Morlock – Die Verflechtung is fundamental for every discussion of his politics, in particular Graf’s scathingly disgusted view of the Berlin Republic’s scorched earth treatment regarding everything to do with the GDR (German Democratic Republic), its memories and remains. 

Well, in all honesty: There is a pretty straight-forward reason why it took so long for Dominik Graf to get discovered in proper style: Almost ninety percent of his output was made for television, even if the works, especially the later ones, don’t look it. And this is exactly how Graf always wanted it: For him, making as many films as possible was always more important than the way people would get to see them; and as the FRG’s film production culture (the subsidizing complex commonly glorified as an industry, which it isn’t) works so slowly that one might be able to make a fiction feature roughly every three years, if lucky, television was the only place to go for a director hell-bent on working, learning on the job. And he’s a restless character: In 2018 Graf didn’t shoot a single film, which drove him nuts—he felt like a cop whose name got struck from the patrol detail roster and sat at a desk instead; in 2019 he’s thus making up for the time lost last year by making three new features, two for television and one for cinema, which is the reason he’s unable to attend his retrospective at Anthology Film Archives in New York as well as an interlinked series of FRG suspense gems from the last half century that he programmed for the Quad Cinema based on his 3 ½ hour documentary diptych Verfluchte Liebe deutscher Film (Doomed Love: A Journey Through German Genre Film, 2016) and Offene Wunde deutscher Film (Open Wounds – A Journey Through German Film, 2017), both done in tandem with Johannes Sievert.

The new TV projects are contribution to two of the most prestigious and long-running German series—and for once one can actually just say German, for one of them, Tatort, originated in the FRG, while the other, Polizeiruf 110, was the format’s GDR version; after ’89, with only one state left alive, they were put into a rotating format, with Tatort and Polizeiruf 110 now taking turns to provide the nation with Sunday evening prime time crime. A vast part of Graf’s output consists of series crime: He directed several of the most celebrated, at times controversial feaure-length episodes for Tatort and Polizeiruf 110—while also creating one sub-series for the latter featuring quietly wild at heart maverick cop Hanns van Meuffels (played by Matthias Brandt), an upper-class version of Der Fahnder’s shaggy mad dog Hannes Faber. He’s also made some stuff for less important endeavors, like the delightfully stuffy-weird Köberle kommt (1983), or Sperling (1996–2007), plus Kommissar Süden und der Luftgitarrist (2008), the second film in a series that got axed after this one. And this is exactly how he wanted things to be: TV be his Hollywood studio.

Graf is the best and brightest amongst a batch of directors who in the late 70s were part of a quiet revolution in FRG television. Some students from an earlier class of the Munich’s Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen (HFF), most importantly Michael Hild and Bernd Schwamm, had forfeited their directing careers and instead accepted desk jobs at the Bavaria Studios; these guys, now, got some of the younger students from the same film academy gigs creating TV series that were different in subject, tone and style—closer to the edgy films from the U.S. and France they liked (and did pay tribute to with many of the shorts and final thesis features they did at the HFF). Relations between the generation of Hild, Schwamm, et cetera and that of Graf et al. were tense: The younger ones considered their predecessors art farts as their works, for all their fascination with film noir and polar, were full frontal underground in attitude—while Graf and his colleagues wanted to make extremely craft-conscious commercial films, in total defiance of Young German Cinema’s lofty ambitions and self-stylization as a mainly inspiration-driven exercise in self-realization. But Graf at least acknowledged that he very much appreciated the films of Hild, Schwamm, et cetera, their experimental swagger and daring, and that he was always looking for a general audience version of it. If one ever had the chance to see Michael Hild’s almost unscreened 1978 Kierkegaard-adaptation Das Tagebuch des Verführers, one might notice Graf’s grateful nods-by-visual-quotes to it in Das Gelübte (The Vow, 2007) and Die geliebten Schwestern, to mention but one way he has shown his affiliation with their set of ideas and values. (Let’s mention here in passing that Wim Wenders was in the same class as Hild and Schwamm. and that his films are something like the Whiny White Guy proto-arthouse commodification of their aesthetics, especially that of their class’ original genius’, Gerhard Theuring and Matthias Weiss; call it poetic justice that no Young German Cinema oeuvre has aged worse and more rapidly than Wenders, while Graf’s commercial films look fresher and more daring by the day.)

Hotte im Paradies

And yet it wasn’t the underground that provided Graf with the tools for his aesthetic experiments—it was the opposite side of cinema, so to speak: the prêt-à-porter flick sphere of giallo, to which he got properly introduced by one of his preferred screenwriters: Günter Schütter. A heady concoction began to brew in Graf’s head. From Robert Aldrich, one of his earliest inspirations, he’d learned the lesson of craft (literally, for that’s what the U.S. grandmaster talked a lot about when he visited the HFF during his stay in Munich shooting one of his greatest works, 1977’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming) while worshipping the sheer guts and bravado of his filmmaking from the far side of paradise. Nicolas Roeg’s visionary cinema of sensual pop and violent fragmentation, perversion and outrage, kickstarted his desire for films more provocative, nervous, searching, almost esssayistic in a Marker-ian sort of way. But it was giallo followed by Poliziotteschi that provided him with the instruments: wild, sometimes disorientating zoom, eye-popping color schemes, an idea of montage jagged and disjunctive, a style of acting that’s expressive and only too flip-happy (but let’s mention also one strictly technical factor in all this: digital filmmaking, editing in particular, made Graf go the whole nine yards; till the late 90s, his films’ aesthetics, however go-for-broke in spirit, retain a certain classical composure—after the 2002–03-DV-triple whammy Der Felsen & Die Freunde der Freunde & Hotte im Paradies, Graf never looked back, pace  the glacially slow Hanne from 2018). And my God does Graf enjoy going all surreal and nutty, even if audiences sometimes go berserk. The web got swamped with hate mail after Tatort: Aus der Tiefe der Zeit (2013), a riff on The Fall of the House of Usher by way of homage to Wolfgang Staudte’s legendary Tatort: Tote brauchen keine Wohnung (1973) with Neo-Ustaše, an elderly trick-shot artists and a GPS going mad in a Munich changing too fast; as well as Polizeiruf 110: Smoke on the Water (2014), a dig à clef at one of the more gregarious figures in recent FRG politics: former FRG Minister of Defense Karl-Theodor Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg, which is chock full with weird horror twists, nutty Science Fiction moment and bizarre directorial moves and ideas. After Tatort: Der rote Schatten (The Red Shadow, 2017), the FRG’s head of state himself felt moved to officially condemn this meditation on history’s long memory cum portrait of a generation still haunted by doubts about whether they did the politically right thing or not. But if it were only this kind of cinema, Graf were little more than a Euro-Tarantino avant la lettre while more talented perhaps than the original.

What Graf less often talks about if mainly because nobody asks him about this is his debt to Éric Rohmer, his first great cinephile love (whom he bowed to with his 1979 mid-length HFF final thesis film Der kostbare Gast). Nor about his literary inspirations, which reach from Henry James (whom he adapted twice with Die Freunde der Freunde and 2016’s Am Abend aller Tage), Guy de Maupassant (whose La Maison Tellier informs the most beautiful parts of Hotte im Paradies), and Patrick Modiano (another master of messing around with time and memory whose traces can be detected in the sparse elegance of Dreileben: Komm mir nicht nach and Tatort: Der rote Schatten); to the various tiers of popular German-language fiction, from Erich Maria Remarque via Johannes Mario Simmel to Heinz G. Konsalik, plus the most Adenauer-FRG’ian of screenwriters, Herbert Reinecker, all of whom he’s tried to film but so far to no avail (well, the fiction feature he’ll shoot this summer, Fabian, is based on a major novel by another widely beloved great of German literature: Erich Kästner, whose indomitable spirit he wants to honor by doing the film in a fashion partly Brecht and partly Punk, whatever that might look like!). Graf is a man with a formidable classical bourgeois education, plus some of the talents that sometimes grow from that, like being an accomplished composer/musician/singer. The world of early FRG film, theater, and television he grew up in having made it all seem natural, with his actor father Robert and his writer mother Selma (née Urfer) looking sternl while tolerantly at him when young Dominik showed a love for comic books and schlager. Graf is very much at home in all cultural spheres and levels, and in his films he loves mixing it all up until it becomes a single shape defying the facile securities of cultural hierarchies. His is not only a cinema where tellingly titled and ironically positioned Italian movie posters can be found at walls (like Ignacio Ferrés Iquino’s 1965 La sfida degli implacabili and Wolfgang Becker’s 1958 Ich war ihm hörig in Tatort: Aus der Tiefe der Zeit), but also one where not-quite lovers give each other novels like Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, anecdote trouvée dans les papiers d’un inconnu, puis publiée as keepsakes (in Dreileben: Komm mir nicht nach), another title that speaks volume of the forlorn future they will not know.

This sense of totality, not only with regards to the arts but life, experience in general, the patience and generosity with which he shows his characters, his deeply democratic, angrily enlightened politics: all that makes Graf’s cosmos so rich and seductive, not to mention rare in contemporary culture.

"The Films of Dominik Graf" runs May 24 - June 2, 2019 at Anthology Film Archives. "Fighting Mad: German Genre Films from the Margins" runs May17–23, 2019 at the Quad Cinema in New York

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