Graf Attack!: or The Possibility Space (The Cinema of Dominik Graf)

An overview of the stunning revelations of the International Film Festival Rotterdam retrospective on German auteur Dominik Graf.
Daniel Kasman

Rotterdam this year has offered one certifiable giant discovery in international cinema: German filmmaker Dominik Graf, revealed in a simultaneously introductory and interventionist retrospective programmed by Christoph Huber and Olaf Möller. An incredibly prolific filmmaker beginning in the late 1970s, Graf has interwoven his cinema into the fabric of the German television industry, producing a body of work ranging from television episodes, made-for-TV films, essay movies, documentaries, and a handful of films intended for the cinema.

Yet despite Graf's prodigious output of nearly sixty works, its primarily creation for national television has meant that it has been essentially unavailable to English-speaking audiences prior to Rotterdam's 17 film retrospective. The first film of his I saw was Komm mir nicht nach (Don't Follow Me Around) in the middle of the Dreileben trilogy in 2010, notably another for-television project, but one which had festival and theatrical ambitions beyond German living rooms, perhaps due to the participation of director Christian Petzold. Festival-goers might be familiar with some of Graf's variously ill-fated and sporadic international premieres over the years, including Spieler in 1990 and Der Felsen in 2002; and only one work of his massive television oeuvre, the Russians-in-Berlin crime epic miniseries In the Face of Crime (2010), is actually subtitled on home video in English. The wide ranging program at Rotterdam has stridently tracked down prints and videos and subtitled the unsubtitled to give those outside Germany an essential view into Graf's career-in-progress, including examples from just about every format the director has worked in, excepting his very first post-film school features. I can report back to say this is some of the very best of contemporary cinema.

I recommend reading the notes provided online to the retrospective by Huber and Möller, Huber's separate article on Graf in the print edition of Cinema Scope magazine, and Marco Abel's extensive conversation with the director at Senses of Cinema to get a picture of his work within a German cultural and industrial context to which I don't have access. Notable also in this context is the language used by Graf and his critics about the director utilizing the German television industry as a kind of neo-studio system inside which a craftsman can find a place to be creative. Huber and Möller have also just released a new book on the director which includes an annotated filmography and long interview, published by the FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen (though unfortunately only in German). With all that as background, I would like to give an overview of what I saw at the festival to hopefully return the favor provided by Rotterdam, the programmers, and Graf himself—who attended graciously, extensively introduced many of his films and answered a wide range of questions after screenings—by responding to the work with an English language article.


Above: Spieler (1990).

Graf is a genre filmmaker and a consummate, busy worker—both rare positions in contemporary cinema, one more than the other and together a very special thing. His prolificness and the industry in which it is enabled and embedded understandably creates a strong sense of continuity between the director's work that only someone working so often and with a vivid, continued interest in the tools of the craft and what is before the camera can create. I am reminded of Wellman and Walsh in the early 1930s, Allan Dwan in the 1950s, Kôji Wakamatsu in the 60s and 70s, contemporary Johnnie To, and Takashi Miike at any point in his career; filmmakers from whom you never know what to expect next, and the "next" just keeps on coming.

In Graf's work, there is especially strong sense that each episode or film is part of a larger artistic project of cultural tapestry, a consistent continuation, revision, re-fitting, and re-evaluation of the world in which the films are made, and the conventions through which their stories are told. Genre as an academic concept as well as a colloquial language of conventions is the best place for such a spanning vision, as the very nature of genre is that each iteration modifies and reforms conventions, language, and audience expectations. With Graf so intensively focused on genre—at first rather pure genres, particularly variations on the crime film and policier, but quickly and increasingly on genre hybridity—one can see the flux and play of these conventions within the filmmaker's oeuvre itself, as if it strove to map an on-going, ever re-forming charter of the potential of contemporary genre cinema.

This sense of a continuous process, of films being always a part of and never a contained whole, is an essential facet of what makes Graf's cinema exciting. Every work is an experiment in something, pushing what came behind it further in a new direction. Every project presents new possibilities that send tendrils into the future. Between the works but most especially within them is the profound evocation of a possibility space—room created by the filmmaking's expression and movement of the narrative which allows for a surprising range of options as to what could happen, what will be shown, what is important, what someone might do.


This possibility space is a narrative quality as much as an aesthetic one. The forms these films take are of a controlled tumbling, an aggregation of narrative events and potent details. Where most movies move straight through to their ends in a simple, uncluttered line, Graf's films feel like they are accumulating while they move, creating dense, exhausting filmworlds rife with competing psychologies, flurrying, time-collapsing impressionistic montages, tightly pivoting and re-pivoting plot points, and elaborately researched details of mise en scène. By the mid-point, many of them take on a feverish quality, pumped full of hot blood from energetic accumulation, yet contained by a certain bodily (that is, generic and industrial-economic) restraint and limitation.

Take Die Katze (1988), for example, one of Graf's few theatrical hits. A FRG Die Hard of greater complexity, the film precisely locates and restricts itself to an elaborate bank heist / hostage situation in a semi-circular cylindrical skyscraper complex in Düsseldorf. On the ground floor in the center of the semi-circle is the bank, stormed by two robbers;  in the hotel above them is a floor of police and hostage negotiators; above them is a third criminal, the mastermind, peering down on both police and robbers, controlling the whole situation. Having thus classically determined the space, Graf focuses on the tactical playbooks on each side via the combination of limited viewpoints, technological communication, and spatial movement, jumping back and forth, up and down, inside the complex and out to form a dense patchwork of perspectives and responses to a central situation, none of which are weighted as either the correct or moral one. Graf and his screenwriter give each angle—and each angle of entry—its room to move, develop, and operate fully within the story. Thus the brash, sweaty virility of the robber hero is as alluring as the stalwart perspicacity of the lead policeman is tenacious, and the woman who is the lynchpin of the operation expands well beyond her mechanical use in the plot to become a thinking, feeling, force of agency. Yet all three are, at points, utterly ruthless, and a great deal of the film's forcefulness and surprise comes from the variable levels of control these characters have over the direction of the story, and in how Graf seemingly at will discovers who has or is missing power or attention at any given moment.

Above: A typical image from Spieler.

The spatial-perspectival conceit of Die Katze is Graf's tool of trade across genres to concoct a density, both of narrative and of image. The set design of any of the director's projects is an abundance of texture, detail and research. Each room and each location (and location shooting is particularly sharply chosen) tell a story about its inhabitants, a story inside the storyworld as well as outside it, a kind of clutterbox revelation of how a certain person of a certain class lives, what a certain kind of business looks like, or how a small town bar feels. Another early theatrical release, the zanily nasty comedy Spieler, is essentially filmed in mastershot tableaux that reveal such packed, speaking spaces. These rooms also seem to tell future stories as well, so carefully defining those that live or work in them, or orbit around them, as to drop hints of their fate, their movement through society and space. Thus Graf's cinema seems ever-curious, always looking for the object, the detail that might explain or reveal. His Corsican amour fou melodrama Der Felsen actually opens with a Senegalese street seller explaining a storytelling game where three strangers are challenged to unite unrelated objects together through separate stories. Graf does just that in Der Felsen, but this attitude of discovering motivations, narrative movements, psychological reveals, contemporary cultural anthropology, or just lifestyle bric-a-brac amongst one's possessions is a key force in the mise en scène.

Above: Der Felsen (2002).

It is this force which, to a degree, determines the look and editing of Graf's films. Shooting sometimes in 35mm, often in Super 16, and refreshing his career and his technique in 2002 with a trilogy of films shot on MiniDV in response to the Dogme 95 movement—Der Felsen, the Henry James boarding school ghost story Die Freunde der Freunde, and the searing how-to-be-and-not-to-be-a-pimp satire Hotte im Paradies (2003)—the director's imagery can visually resemble this sewn-together narrative style. The colorwork in a 35mm film like 1994's sprawling policier of personal vendettas and political corruption, Die Sieger, and of a 16mm production like Don't Follow Me Around literally appear like patchwork, with gorgeous blotches of color arranged quilt-like across the screen. Likewise, the MiniDV's grainy smears and some visual schemes (in both the video and film work) are akin to glowing stained glass takes on color noir lighting (including, for example, the Kammerspiel witness protection episode of Der Fahnder shown at Rotterdam, Nachtwache [1990/1993]). The 16mm films can have images that pill up in their grain, and the general editing schema of accumulation means that the screen itself unobtrusively becoming an artifact to be considered by the audience. There is also more than a little passing resemblance to the images of filmmakers who favor deep, complex spaces somewhat flattened by camera distance and lens choice, ranging from Robert Altman to Kiyoshi Kurosawa (whose preference for bisected images and frames within frames is very Graf-simpatico), all of which adds a pictorial density to images, and a complexity to the spaces in which characters interact and the camera moves.

Above: Don't Follow Me Around (2011).

Upon first seeing Don't Follow Me Around, viewing it cold with no knowledge of the filmmaker or his work, I was surprised that inside its domestic, oblique melodrama, I was reminded of Alain Resnais. At the time, I wrote of a “layering effect” at work in the filmmaking, “recalling Alain Resnais' desire to piece together time, space and meaning through fragmented, documentary observation of world details splintered off from conventional understanding.” From this, I feel like in Graf's films the idea of assembly is key both for the filmmaker and for the audience. Assembly of objects into the mise en scène (an installation could be made of this set decoration), assembly of mise en scène into images, assembly of shots in decoupage, of scenes into sequences, etc. This may sound like the fundamental tools of moviemaking, but not only is the detail extraordinary—telling and surprising but never explaining or excusing—but the operating idea is a calculated abundance that increases as films move forward, continually building upon foundations of cinema's expressive possibilities—catching a panoply of psychologies, material details, lifestyle tonalities, records of place both fantastic and historical, social and political machinations and conflicts.

There seems such a teeming of material and meaning to the world, and Graf must connect elements to make sense of it; thus the patchwork effect as a solution to spaces full of possibility. The filmmaker finds strands from the world and from them builds works that are able to move from one thing to the next, one person to the next, event to the next; and in the end, the audience joins in to watch the assembly, chart movements and motivations, find the sources of humanity and evil.


What moves the films of Dominik Graf? It wouldn't be too much to say “Germany.” Like all great prolific genre filmmakers, artisans consuming the world's material and transforming it into cinema at a breakneck pace, Graf's work, at least to this outsider, feels like a direct perspective—or to put in more in the style of his oeuvre, multiple possible perspectives—into his home country, culture and society.

Many of the director's works are harshly critical of the contemporary status quo, which is directly engaged with by protagonists who try to get a grip on the world around them. The retrospective began with Die Katze, whose parallel opponents, villain and cop, seem like a prototypical generic opposition, until one realizes how neither are heroes and even the plot's presumed womanly victim is herself a piece of work. Heroes are, in fact, few and far between in Graf's cinema; every good guy, or at least “protagonist,” seems inevitably to compromise himself and those around him through a flexible ends-justify-the-means morality filled with masks, casual lies, and other self-serving actions. They wrestle with the world with all their might, a fortitude which deserves our respect and admiration, but their survival and success often critically depends on such slippery morality.

Above: a publicity still of Gudrun Landgrebe in Die Katze (1988).

His women characters are usually of even greater strength, complexity and fullness then his men, whose forward drive through Graf's films necessitate a loss of spontaneity and surprising behavior, as well as the guarded, intriguing interiority granted many of the women in primary and secondary roles. The episode of Polizeiruf 110 entitled Der scarlachrote Engel (2005) has at its core a case of rape and violence against a woman whose manifold nuances erupt from the self-sustaining, closely held personality and psychology of Nina Kunzendorf's portrayal. A complex satire of the German trial system classically forefronts the character's unresolved but also undeterred life, and likewise gives substantial time and space for the actress to work her own tact through Graf's possibility space. The power and resolve of these women is showcased again and again in this malleable filmworld, climaxing in the subtle power struggle between two girlfriends aging out of youth and their friendship in Don't Follow Me Around. But they are to be found in all genres and projects, ranging from the mysterious witness in the Nachtwache episode, Anica Dobra's nouvelle vague homage via a newly unified Germany in Spieler, and the lonely plainclothed policewoman seen in photo montage in the city symphony essay film München - Geheimnisse einer Stadt (2000), to such leading narrative-molders as Karoline Eichhorn's increasingly feverish path in Der Felsen, Jessica Schwarz's triumphantly whoring character in Kalter Frühling (2004), and the nun in Das Gelübde (2007), who just by remaining invalided in bed changes the fabric of the entire region (if not country).

Above: a publicity still from Die Sieger (1994).

If Graf's leading characters serve one overarching purpose, it is to consciously ferret out uncomfortable truths about the world they live in—a mission which notably requires some degree of complicity, corruption or maleficence along the way, as if only the partially corrupt can see the world's real dirt. The epitome: 2006's economic conspiracy heist film Eine Stadt wird erpresst, in which only the former East German policeman of shady, Stasi-collaborating past can solve a crime in the present. Die Sieger, despite being considered by the filmmaker a film grossly compromised in both content and production, is a panoramic revelation that slits the underbelly of German political corruption by plunging wholesale into a fiery personal conflict of a single S.E.K. (the German S.W.A.T.) agent. The agent has a ghost-doppelganger, a psychologically deranged former colleague previously thought dead but now glanced at the scene of a crime which spirals out to indicate high level kickbacks in the German government. (And just in case you thought the married-with-children protagonist was a good guy, we learn he slept with his partner's wife soon after his “death” and later enters an affair to gain a key political connection related to the crime.)

Above: Hotte im Paradies (2003).

Genre thus is a skeleton of conventions, fleshed out with an elaborate and varied assembly of realism, that Graf and his great screenwriter collaborators constantly use to imply, expose, and critique the manifold hypocrisies, corruptions, repressed histories, and covered-up transgressions of a unified Germany. The MiniDV-shot Hotte im Paradies is on the one hand a bleedingly saturated dark comedy on the trials and tribulations of operating in the lower criminal echelon of Berlin's pimp culture in the early 2000s, but it is also an undisguised two hours of horrendously nasty psychological and bodily exploitation, black market revelations, and an Inside Story-style vision of cyclical debt-mongering. Like with In the Face of Crime seven years later, Hotte im Paradies makes no effort to portray the Berlin of its era as anything but a sinister network of immoral economies, human suffering, self-delusion, bare efforts at kindness, and a whole lot of filth. These share with the smalltown conspiracy-western Das unsichtbare Mädchen (2011) a fascination with Germany's politico-economic embroilment in prostitution, itself at once an analogy, allegory, and no doubt factual fictionalization of the workings of a certain side of contemporary society. Those two features focus on male protagonists, but Kalter Frühling inverts this look at victimized woman to re-fashion a melodrama of high agency whoring: after getting screwed over by her parents, her father's business, her cousin, her school and her one night stand, the film's hero decides to turn her luck around by literally selling her body until she's crawled from the streets back on top to head both her pseudo-aristocratic family and its lucrative corporation.

These kinds of scathing narratives range in form and focus through the mechanics and iconography of Graf's equally ranging utilization of genres. The focus can be moral-criminal, as in the above examples; they can be cultural, as in the texture of In the Face of a Crime, which tells of the influx of Russians into Berlin and the integration of that diaspora's organized crime into the capital's fabric. It can also be social, as in the wild experimental video melodrama Der Felsen, which follows the momentary dissolution of an affair of affluent German tourist vacationing in Corsica and the consequential feverish amour fou between his abandoned, unmarried secretary with a German juvenile delinquent escaped from a work camp on the island. Only one historical drama—Graf's first—was shown in the series, but what a history it is. Das Gelübde looks at the early formation of the German state through the real story of a recently converted, ex-hedonist poet who travels to a small town to transcribe—and, it turns out, re-write and embellish—the miraculous visions of a provincial nun suffering from stigmata. Near the beginning of the 19th century in this small story in a small town we see the clash between the ascendant, militaristic Prussian government and the comparatively radical Catholic locals who suffer a kind of ideological occupation by the Napoleonic winners. And of course, typical of Graf's style, neither nun nor poet are quite as good as they initially seem.


Above: München - Geheimnisse einer Stadt (2000).

Das Gelübde is not the only film in the retrospective whose smaller story directly works on a broader, national scale. Die Sieger's “dead” doppelganger is a key recurring motif in Graf's fictional and documentary work which has great implications. Two particularly brilliant instances of documentary, Denk ich an Deutschland - Das Wispern im Berg der Dinge (1997), on the filmmaker's father, actor Robert Graf who died when his son was 13, and Lawinen der Erinnerung (2012), an interview and essay on novelist and television filmmaker Oliver Storz, search deeply for lost father figures.

Specifically, these two films look for an understanding of the generation of Graf's father, the returning veterans of World War 2, who had to re-integrate into a radically re-configured society and deal with both their experiences in the past and address that past in the developing present. Which is why the tying of the two men to the creation and evolution of new German television is particularly poignant and incisive, an equal combination of truth and allegory, the creation and use of a new form in an attempt to address German history and the living German present—or the failure to do this, the rise of a new cultural politics in the FRG. Both of these documentaries are as much historical inquiries as they are personal soul searching for Graf, who obviously has picked up the baton from people like his father and Storz by both working in television and directing inquiry at the evolution of the status quo in his country. (And also, of course, working before, during, and after the unification of Germany, the most significant event in the country's history since the end of the war.)

This search for the missing other goes panoramic in the key film essay on Graf's home town, München - Geheimnisse einer Stadt (co-directed, as was Denk ich an Deutschland, by prominent, and recently deceased, German film critic Michael Althen), a film so broadly encompassing of the dark wonders of modern city living that it somewhat dangerously flirts with an unspecific universality. But while its relentless questions about urban space has a dreamy kind of generality—the way city space is mapped mentally and imaginatively, and grows in the minds of their inhabitants starting from childhood, for example—its material is 100% made up of Munich. From this starting point, Graf posits human doubles, missed connections, possible vectors of life's many paths—the possibility space again. At its bravura apex, a rock concert in the middle of the century becomes a nest of crossing glances of boys and girls whose coupling—or possible coupling, thwarted coupling—is projected twice over into the future, where children of couples created by the concert meet and fall in love (or don't) at a concert a generation later, and so on into the future (actually visualized by Graf and Althen!). As Huber and Möller commented in their introduction to this docu-essay, nearly every Graf film can be found in it; the film searches a city—and the director's own experiences of it, or possible experiences—and from its streets, its architecture, its meeting places, its history changed into the present, one can find the branching roots of the director's turning the nation's society into fiction.

As such, several films that follow München - Geheimnisse einer Stadt pick up its thread of phantoms and turn them into fictional fantasy. The MiniDV Henry James adaptation Die Freunde der Freunde brilliantly uses the gauzy, brittle transparency of the cheap video image to evoke the story of an overly trusting boarding school youth who oscillates between two friends—a ghost-seeing bad boy and an alluring, ghost-seeing waif—neither of whom ever glance the other and both of whom, in fact, may be phantoms themselves. Das unsichtbare Mädchen revolves a web of fiction about local level sexual coercion, kidnapping and murder, and higher level political corruption from the real story of the unsolved disappearance of a young girl from a small town. The principal cop of In the Face of the Crime is driven forward passionately and often immorally by the shooting of his older brother when he was a child—a brother who looks very much like himself—and the vaguely incestuous pull his sister has over him through their grief only further embroils this lurking legacy into the texture of the miniseries. After several ingenious slight-of-hand plot turns, Don't Follow Me Around reveals its core story to be that its two leading ladies miraculously were seeing the same man at the same time in the 1980s, neither knowing the other—and the man himself unseen in any form in the film. (Even the title itself could be referring to a tormenting ghost.) 

Above: Die Freunde der Freunde (2002).

Not just through the lens of genre, Graf also looks directly for this phantom in himself and the world around him. In the mirror in Denk ich an Deutschland, when the director takes a shot from one of his father's films of the man shaving and re-stages it with himself in his father's place; and around his home in München - Geheimnisse einer Stadt. In the dying father figure of Oliver Storz, who is interviewed two separate times in Lawinen der Erinnerung and in the second instance looks gravely ill; and it is as if Graf, through the process of making the film, is watching a surrogate or alter ego of his father die, and must capture him, prompt his memories, question his history, feelings, belief.

Yet the most searching film may not even be one for a person, but rather for a world: Graf's short film contribution Der Weg, den wir nicht zusammen gehen to the German omnibus Deutschland 09 - 13 kurze Filme zur Lage der Nation (2009) is a scathing architectural survey of the state of German buildings circa 2009—and through them the state of the State, culturally, politically, historically. The older buildings seem brick and mortar ghosts, and the new ones massacres of effacement and re-writing (ending, it should be noted, with an incredibly concise and moving ode to celluloid, speaking of capturing the particular light and texture of an old wall using a particular film stock). Finding this awesomely biting and inquisitive short midway through the retrospective made me immediately want to go back and re-watch the Graf films I had just seen, as I suddenly realized I had grossly undervalued the director's explicit and carefully calculated use of location work, a quality that blossomed forth subsequently across the series' remaining films. I realized that the phantoms that haunt so many of these films are not just missing persons, elements of the plot, but the material setting, backdrop and indeed world in which those who remain live and through which they travel—often searching for those lost figures, and often missing, as I did, the way the world around them speaks of their condition and their search.


Above: Graf on location for Das Gelübde (2007).

Meanwhile, Graf himself keeps working, keeps accumulating, ever-curious, searching and forming his searches onto a scale that fits the television screen (though I assure you it looks even better projected in a theater), into the language that cinema-goers live and breath, into unforgettably perspicacious stories. The retrospective showed two works from 2012 and the director was already talking of finalizing a film about Schiller for 2013; the programmers even intimated Graf may actually have another project done before that one is shown on German television. When will the next film by the director be shown at a film festival or in a non-German speaking country? Would critics or audiences even care? In the Face of Crime was shown at the Berlinale in 2010, unsubtitled; Dreileben at the same festival in 2011, with the organizers doing all that they could to make that lengthy project difficult to see. This attitude is a combination of a number of factors, it seems: the default marginalization of made-for-television work in the realm of international festival culture and cinephilia; the meeting of failure at festival premieres of theatrically-intended works in the past; the television industry's presumed indifference to non-German audiences for German-language work in general and Graf's television films in specific; and perhaps, more speculatively, the post-studio system lack of audience familiarity with stalwartly regular genrework by directors, where contemporary workers like To, Miike, and Graf seem anomalies celebrated for their rarity, when their artful, prodigious fore-bearers were just some of many, of nearly all workers in a cultural industry.

These are clearly all guesses; I simply don't know why Graf's work hasn't been recognized or more greatly exposed internationally. This is why the retrospective at Rotterdam isn't just an introduction but is also an intervention: by subtitling these works in English (the lingua franca of international film culture) and showing them at one of the most significant film festivals in the world—and notably one not in a German-speaking country—the programmers are admirably taking direct action to right the wrongs tended this work in the past. I can only hope its exposure was as exciting and revelatory to the surrounding audiences in the packed theaters each day as it was to me. Graf, obviously, will keep working, and one must indeed be thankful that this retrospective is not serving as an overview of an aging or deceased master but rather someone in the middle of a vibrant, industrious career. No doubt we can look forward to many more films from Dominik Graf, films which with great agility move around Germany and stitch together beautiful, dense, taut stories of its contemporary lives. But I can only hope that more get a chance to see these films, that this retrospective is the beginning of something new rather than a tantalizing look through a door that was pried open by force for but a moment only to be shut to outsiders once again.

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