Running Children, Warring Cities: Children in the Films of Peter Nestler

For German documentarian Peter Nestler, children are strong symbols of resistance and reminders of the joy found in life.
Bedatri D.Choudhury

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.

By the Dike Sluice

When German documentarian Peter Nestler sees a glass, he doesn't just see a glass. He sees factories, he sees furnaces that melt the glass and he sees hands that toil and mold it. When he sees a city, he sees the hills, the roads and the sluice, and then looks more intently at the children running on the road, the women carrying their babies to work and the men playing cards in a bar. He sees layers within the unidimensional cinema space and reads the politics, the geography and the history through the people he sees, especially the children. 

His Marxist lens sifts through footage as his eyes try to represent the historic materialist reality of labor that thrives in a North German seaside village on the banks of a sluice in his first film, which he made when he was “as poor as a church rat”. In By the Dike Sluice (Am Siel, 1962), the voiceover poses as the imagined voice of the sluice in the film. On an extremely limited supply of film, Nestler captured the children of the village, as the sluice talks of the joy the floating boats in the mudflat brings to people. Their young faces, in their unadorned rusticity, is symbolic of happiness and of an age that is unmarked by thoughts on mortality and decay. As they play around—running, and fetching sticks—the voiceover talks of an age of innocence that lets men believe they are capable of doing anything in the world, and being whoever they want to be. The sluice is almost indulgent of the naïveté of these little hands and somewhat protective of their innocence that is eventually lost when these hands pick up hammers and get sucked into the drudgery of adult life. The images of children playing are foil to images of the village’s stagnation, leading to the images of adults who grow up to forget their histories. The sluice’s voice is almost a lament for the cultural denigration of the sailor, who too is a child it has nurtured. 

Peter Nestler rarely ever uses his films to say what he wants to say—he lets the water speak, he lets the characters speak, and in Essays (1963) he completely does away with the informed adult voice and lets children read out essays they write for their school exercise. The mediation and enunciation that dramatizes an adult’s speech is replaced by the juvenile monotone of children reading, and is juxtaposed with images of intense activity—we see children skiing, studying, admiring their teacher, drinking milk and fighting in the schoolyard. They talk of friendships, ghosts, fears and the colors of the seasons. In Nestler’s black and white drawing of the children’s lives, their voices are the only reminders of the colors that exist in nature. In the vast stillness of the snow clad Swiss cinemascape, the children are the only moving objects. They become the only reminders of the joys that can be found amidst the mundaneness of wooden desks, white chalk and winter mornings. 

For Nestler, children also seem to be strong symbols of resistance. They are innate resistors—they resist just by being, they defy war just by continuing to live in the face of war.

From Greece (1965) was  made in the middle of the anti-fascist uprising in Greece, with Nestler wanting to find “historical traces” of the German occupation of Greece as a microcosm within the grand narrative of the revolts. The voiceover tells us of the time when a German soldier cut open a pregnant woman’s belly and pulled out the embryo. Nestler’s shots of children playing basketball by the streets of Greece then becomes a brazen display of vitality in a country that was expected to be weakened by its oppressors. With the voiceover reporting the large number of Greek people who formed an army against the Germans, the camera pans over children on the street. They are the future the armies fought for, and it is a future that laughs, runs about and thrives in the face of terror. They are the reason why fascism must be overcome.

Nestler seems to love using children in his portraits of places that have emerged from war. In Mülheim (Ruhr), made in 1964, he explores the city of Mülheim existing in a cusp of post-war modernity and pre-war tensions. The portrait is that of a city emerging from a thick envelope of fog and industrial smoke, and slowly opening up to the light the future promises. There is a long shot of a park where the adults walk straight with caution while children run freely, or move about in strollers—nascent, like this new free country. There is a certain exhilaration in the music score, which gets reflected in the shots of children playing, moving around in groups smiling and asking to be photographed. There is resilience in the way the youth lines up to enter their school, in the way they play soccer in a wide field while the thick fog lifts. The war is finally over, and it is finally a world where parents can bring in children—there finally is an evening where a father can walk down the street holding his daughter’s hand, and young parents can wheel their newborn around in the park. The children thereby become Nestler’s symbol for having overcome war, for the final triumph of life over death. His politics are obvious when the children of Germany and Greece are both shown as symbols of resilience, the promise of life at the end of the war for both the perpetrator and the victim. His stress on the innate humanity that thrives in the face of war on both sides of the battlefield is resonant through his account of the experiences he encountered as a German youth living through the war.  

There is a marked difference between the way the filmmaker documents and the way his grandfather, Count Eric von Rosen, the imperialist, pro-Nazi ethno-anthropologist, documents. In watching Death and Devil (2009) we are acquainted with the many photographs of African tribes—their women, children and men that von Rossen took for documenting purposes in the second decade of the 20th century. They are his “study”—the children in the photographs are illustrative examples whose bodies are measured, recorded and taken note of. This is why Nestler is not a documentarian, nor an ethno-anthropologist even when he makes Pachamama (1995), his exploration of the lives of Ecuadorian tribes. The children in his films are not uni-dimensional images, who are denied any agency in narrating their own history. He is a storyteller who loves to fix his gaze on the layers beneath the surface, which is why his children are not mute documents with fixed gazes, but vibrant breathing beings who are the microcosm for cities, standing in for the future of the world. 

Big thanks and heartfelt gratitude to the Robert Flaherty Seminar, and to Peter Nestler for the films, the support and the trust.

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