Traces: A Conversation with Peter Nestler

An interview with the German documentary filmmaker for his first big retrospective in the Anglophone world, at the Tate in London.
Stefan Ramstedt

The retrospective dedicated to the work of Peter Nestler organized by Tate Modern and Goethe-Institut in London that runs between the 10th and the 17th of November is the first big retrospective of Nestler’s films in the Anglophone world. The program of the documentary festival DOK Leipzig also featured a collection of Nestler’s films, and absolut MEDIEN just put out a DVD box set featuring many of Nestler’s films. This interview, conducted with Martin Grennberger, is a shorter version of the original text published at Magasinet Walden and was translated to English by myself and Kurt Walker.

MARTIN GRENNBERGER: The documentary filmmaker Hartmut Bitomsky has described your thematic approaches and ideological concerns as a product of attitudes that took shape during the 1950s. Specifically, a position which tries to establish a functional critical attitude and a policy based on an anti-fascist stance; but also criticizes what you experienced as a very distinct form of anticommunism that you felt was predominant at that time. Could you begin with talking about the 50s, and your meetings with theater, literature, and the early discoveries which shaped you, and which led up to Am Siel [1962]?

PETER NESTLER: I was 18 in 1955, and I went to sea. I traveled the coastline of Central America, and South America, and saw things that made me develop, and look for new contexts. Arbenz had just been overthrown in Guatemala, and I felt that people were very aggressive towards the U.S.A. The first thing I was asked was if I was a “Yankee.” I told them that I was from Europe, and that was fine. I started reflecting and I heard stories: In Costa Rica, our group was drinking beer with a German farmer, and he told us that on the news he had seen how the German soldiers were marching again, and that it was orderly, that it was straight. This was an emigrated Nazi, and experiences like these were important for me.

But it wasn’t until 1958-59 that I had contact with people in Munich, where I studied at the art academy, and where I got to know people who worked with film. Kurt Ulrich, among them, was at the school for Film und Fernsehen and whom I made my first films with. During my time there, I went to Dachau, which wasn’t a “denkmal” [monument], but there was a restaurant where ex-captives could come to. And in the barracks lived immigrants and homeless people, which I thought was inconceivable, and so I wanted to make a film about that. So I applied for grants, but didn’t get any. This was the first idea I had for a film. But the important thing was that I started dealing with the Nazi era.

GRENNBERGER: In the form of reading literature? Was that something you shared with other German youths at the time?

NESTLER: Yes, young people were interested, because they hadn’t been taught this in school. The history ended with the Nazi era. In restaurants one could sit and listen to old soldiers, perhaps SS, speaking about how they shot Russians coming out of the woods. One could freely discuss experiences of war, even from a Nazi perspective. All this shaped me–Ödenwaldstetten and Mülheim (Ruhr) [both 1964] were informed by these thoughts.

GRENNBERGER: But the step from this revisiting, this digging into the close German history with the Nazi establishment, to the making of Am Siel, a film with a completely different tone… How would you describe this transition?

NESTLER:Am Siel was for me, a chance to mirror Germany in a village, and to gather what affected me. In the village there is this “kriegerdenkmal,”a monument adorned with the Eisernes Kreuz—the Nazi’s medal of valor—with a text that says that they flushed away thoughts about the future and the past with their schnapps.

GRENNBERGER: Already here, there are highly developed ideas concerning montage that run through your 60s work...

NESTLER: Yes, Kurt Ulrich and I were very influenced by Eisenstein's montage and his work with drawings before he filmed, in order to get the images mentally clear. We worked like this with Am Siel, and one of the advantages of this was that we were poor as church rats, and only had some spare 16mm material from Strobel and Tichawski, the documentary filmmakers. We had to count precisely how much we filmed; we had a silent Arriflex where one could see the meters ticking on the back of the camera. It’s like in painting when you only have chalk or coal to draw with, it's another way of working if you don't have the ability to paint with oil.

STEFAN RAMSTEDT: Is this a working method you have continued with, even though you don't have the same economical restrictions?

NESTLER: In Aufsätze [1963] it’s also very strict, but with that one we had more material. I thought that it was very effective to work like this, in it emerged a tension between the sound and the image, which you won’t get when working with direct sound.

GRENNBERGER: You have sometimes been associated with the München Gruppe. A group of filmmakers including Klaus Wildenhahn, Lemke…

NESTLER: No, Wildenhahn was in Hamburg. It was Rudolf Thome, Klaus Lemke, Max Zihlmann.

I didn’t collaborate with any of them, but I had a friendly relationship with Thome and Zihlmann, we watched each others films and Zihlmann for example wrote about my films. I worked with Kurt Ulrich, who had no contact with the others. So there was no München Gruppe. We had signed this paper [“the second Oberhausen manifesto”], and our films used to be screened together.

Above: Ödenwaldstetten. 

GRENNBERGER:Ödenwaldstetten is a film that surveys the gradual changes in a village and its population due to industrial processes...

NESTLER: For me it was a picture of Germany and its history encapsulated in one village. I had done the same thing in Mülheim (Ruhr), a mirror of the society at large, and what had happened. In Ödenwaldstetten, like everywhere in Germany, if you approach the historical, you always discover what happened during the Nazi era. But in those times, if you brought up the Nazi era they called it “to pick in one's nest.” In that way, the films became controversial, in that they directly confronted the Nazi era, so the form received reactionary criticism instead; it wasn’t “professionally done.” In Ödenwaldstetten I used only the farmers' statements. Before I made the film I lived with an old farmer for a couple of weeks, and during the evenings we used to drink beer, and I took notes while he was speaking and his word-to-word quotes became the so-called commentary.

GRENNBERGER: Have you ever worked with written scores?

NESTLER: In Ödenwaldstetten and Mülheim (Ruhr) there are scores. The music has to be something in itself, and have a relation to that which is depicted on screen. Either through what I call points of weld, or that it is perceived as a piece of music that works with the images. You rarely see that filmmakers respect music as it is. Even in films like Ödenwaldstetten or Mülheim (Ruhr), which have written scores, there’s a parallelism to the image and an interpretation of the image, and also something that you perceive as that, and not something that goes right through your stomach.

GRENNBERGER: The Sheffield of Ein Arbeiterclub in Sheffield [1965] reminds me of the German cities in Ruhr, like Duisburg and Essen, so there’s a connection back to your earlier films. What was it that tempted you to explore this milieu in Sheffield?

NESTLER: It was made for the German public service channel ARD and the TV-station SR Fernsehen in Stuttgart, and the head of the documentary film department there, Heinz Huber, told me that in Sheffield there were residential areas like the ones Friedrich Engels wrote about in The Condition of the Working Class in England. And he thought that such an industrial city would be good for a film. I had never been to Sheffield before, only to the coastal cities of England. But I knew what the type of milieu—the steel industry—looked like, and how I could eventually arrange the film. When we got there, we went to this club, and realized that this could be a platform of sorts in the way it branched out into the factory halls, buses, markets, schools and such.

GRENNBERGER:Ein Arbeiterclub in Sheffield is a film that in many ways sticks out from your films of the 60s, not only because of the different geographical context, but the cut-ins, the ways the different image-milieus correspond with each other; the music, the bars and the industrial landscape create an unusual complexity…

NESTLER: Jean-Marie Straub said that this film has more doors. That is, it can be liked by more people than any of my other films, which perhaps can be closed to some.

RAMSTEDT: Is this a problem for you? Would you, considering your political agenda, like to have a bigger audience?

NESTLER: No, it’s important that I make my films in the way I think is correct and to probe what I enter upon.

Above: Von Griechenland.

GRENNBERGER: Let us say something of Von Griechenland [1966], a film about the resistance movement against fascism in Greece.

NESTLER: It is the situation of 1964-65, two years before the coup d’etat which lead to Papadopoulo’s dictatorship. It was a tense period when we got there. I filmed the demonstrations and at the same time we were looking for the traces—the historical traces—of the times of the German occupation and the resistance movements against the Germans.

GRENNBERGER: What was the experience of filming on location? There are scenes where the people are out on the streets, and this was a new way of working for you. At the same time there was a lot of films called “direct cinema” being made.

NESTLER: Sure, but there was no one who worked the way I did. But I liked it, and thought it was an exciting and good way of filming.

GRENNBERGER: Straub has called the film “esthetisch-terroristisch.” How do you tackle a statement like that?

NESTLER: Well, it had such an effect on people that they became very provoked. The voice, pieces of songs, and images without accompanying sounds, was of course very provocative in an era in which direct cinema was on the march.

GRENNBERGER: What made you work in this way?

NESTLER: We had started to record sound during the filming, but we decided to stop. Many things became mute, because we found these letters; the most powerful one being from this mother who wrote to her son who was about to be executed. In the image, I have a tree standing against the water, and the image of the tree was recorded with the knowledge that it was supposed to be standing against this letter.

GRENNBERGER: In Oberhausen they called the film for a “communist botch-work.”

NESTLER: No, that was in Filmecho, the film industry's paper. In Oberhausen there were only attempts to sabotage the screening. Stuff was thrown in the air, and people laughed and caused havoc.

RAMSTEDT: By a group who had seen the film?

NESTLER: No, it was the regular festival audience. But it was a late screening, I think, late at night.

GRENNBERGER: And this film was the end of your German financing, you couldn’t get any more funds, and came to Sweden in December 1966…

NESTLER: I had affiliations in Sweden through my family.

Above: I Ruhrområdet.

GRENNBERGER: Many have emphasized that I Ruhrområdet [1967] is one of your most aggressive films. To quote the German film historian Enno Patalas, the film is “a panorama of defeat." Is that how you see it?

NESTLER: No, the film was shaped by what I read, or what I got to know while talking with people about the history of the Ruhr area. There is a melancholy in that the survivors from the resistance groups were so few. When they walked trough the city after having been abused by the SA, the people they met turned their backs with tears in their eyes, because they looked so battered. It’s very hard to hear a story like that. But I don’t find the film aggressive at all. It depicts a defeat, an uprising, the Red Ruhr army and the resistance movement. It also depicts that there were people who, despite that executions took place, handed out flyers, and swished down staircases and so forth. It was also about writing their history.

GRENNBERGER: Have you felt the urge to search for and tell histories that you feel to be overlooked? Has this been a systematic approach in your filmmaking?

NESTLER: I have not always had that aim, but it has always been an important reason why I make films. Then you always bump into, like in Die Nordkalotte [1990] for example, traces that you didn’t know that much about, like how everything was destroyed when the Germans retreated. The tactic of the scorched earth; one can see exploded concrete bunkers. Everything is still there, but very few know about it, except for the people who live there and those with the special interest.

Above: Die Nordkalotte (The North Calotte) 1990–91 © Peter Nestler.

GRENNBERGER: Was it an experimental and permitting environment at SVT [Swedish television] at that time?

NESTLER: Yes, it was permitting. But sooner or later they put up boundaries, both when it came to form and political statements. I made a film pretty early in called Får de komma igen? [1971] about neo-fascism in Germany and Austria. Before that I had made one film, Att vara zigenare [1970], which I think is an important film. It went through, and then I continued with Får de komma igen?, and there I was stopped. It was taken out [of the program] one day before the broadcast, because by then the board of directors had seen the film. It was a burning point that the social democracy had let the neo-fascism grow, that they didn’t follow the resolutions that were partly taken here in Stockholm: that they would, according to the agreement of the allies, exterminate the fascism at its roots. But during those years, it could live and grow, hence the title Får de komma igen? ["May they come again?"]. Back then there was a policy group on Channel 2 and there was some commotion, but the film still couldn’t be broadcast.

GRENNBERGER: You often work with one object or thing that mirrors a much bigger social structure, or an ontological complexity of problems, which can be traced back to…

NESTLER: But it is already there! I was very happy to hear that Rossellini, as his final project, made a series in 10 parts about the iron industry for Italian television. I made a film called Farlig Kunskap about the development of nuclear weapons represented through the history of art. I thought it was very exciting to cover the whole social evolution in the history of production, which were two things that had previously been separated. How the people who were involved in the production history were living, what kind of living conditions they had, and what kind of constraints they were subjected to.

GRENNBERGER: Could you talk about your use of the still image and the dynamic between the moving image and the still image, the dialectic between the two?

NESTLER: I often create a rhythm with the still image, and I prevent something that could lead to a "recline," in other words, something that awakens. It’s either concretization or a kind of rhythmic sense, but it’s hard to describe, because I also have the view that with still images you sense calmness, an ability to contemplate something; you have the time to think.

GRENNBERGER: But I’m thinking of Väntan [1985] and even Tod und Teufel [2009].

Top: Väntan. Above: Tod und Teufel.

NESTLER: But in Väntan the material consists of still images from newspapers and reports. Concerning Tod und Teufel, I had, long ago, discovered all these boxes with still photographs in the attic at Rockelstad, and I browsed through it and found images from the civil war in Finland, which I quickly became fascinated by since no one had photographed the Reds who later were imprisoned and executed. But he [Eric von Rosen, Nestler's grandfather] had taken these images. He was a good photographer; the bear hunt, the images of Indians were fantastic, and then his involvement with Nazism in the early 30s and mid-30s. I always thought that this was a story that I had to tell some day. But at the same time it was incredibly personal, it was about my grandfather, and I pushed it away from me. I never really systematically dealt with these images, but when I found more articles he had written, I immediately understood that this was a fantastic documentation and then I made the film. There’s only a short scene that I filmed myself: one day I heard that they were going to remove these fells, and so I went to the Museum of Ethnography with what I had, a Sony 100, and filmed it. The next day the fells were going to disappear again.

GRENNBERGER: Please tell us about your collaboration with Zsóka Nestler. Did she record sound? How did you work together?

NESTLER: I was behind the camera, and she recorded the sound. She was immensely important in the relationship to the people we were filming. She later studied to become a psychotherapist.

GRENNBERGER: It'd be interesting to compare the two of you with Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Are there parallels in your way of working?

RAMSTEDT: Is Zsóka there during the whole production? Is she there during pre-production and in the editing?

NESTLER: She’s there during the filming, whereas Danièle has made their films to the same extent as Jean-Marie has. During the filming, Zsóka's and Danièle's work could be comparable. But I edit alone, so it's not quite similar to the way Jean-Marie and Danièle worked together. How they fought at the editing table…

GRENNBERGER: What was your first impression when meeting Straub and Huillet?

NESTLER: I met them because they were going to record a scene in Not Reconciled [1965] in a room in the apartment where I lived. We started to discuss cinema, and they were interested, so I screened a couple of my films for them in some studio in Munich, and that’s where the friendship started. I felt a kinship with them. They were the first who shared the same feelings as me for what cinema could be, and how far one could take cinema.

GRENNBERGER: Did they have any contacts that you could use at the time?

NESTLER: They arranged a screening where Mülheim (Ruhr) was shown. Michel Delahaye from Cahiers du cinéma was there and wrote an article about it. Later Mülheim (Ruhr) was screened in Paris, but that was certainly among small circles, like student film clubs and some small festivals. Through Straub I also had contact with Adriano Apràwho was the head of the Pesaro festival, and they had a small retrospective of my films in 1966 I think, or perhaps earlier.

Above: Verteidigung der Zeit.

GRENNBERGER: Shall we say something about Verteidigung der Zeit [2007]? How was that project conceived?

NESTLER: 3sat wanted to show Quei loro incontri [2006], but only if I could make an introduction; maybe because of the length. And I said, “Yes, I would love to do that.” By then, Danièle had passed away, and I wanted to make some sort of memory film to the both of them, but especially to her.

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