Wider and Wider Circles: The Films of Sabine Herpich

The festival premiere of a new film showcases the unusual and unsung work by a great contemporary documentarian of societal communication.
Lukas Foerster
The name Sabine Herpich probably was unfamiliar to most of this year's Berlin Film Festival attendees, as Art Comes From the Beak the Way It Has Grown, screened in the Forum section, was the first of her films to be presented at a major festival. But while her previous work often struggled to gain any sort of visibility at all (indeed, just a few years ago, after frustrating experiences with various festival committees and funding bodies, she was almost ready to throw in the towel when it comes to being a professional filmmaker), it is evidence of an unusually consistent and persistent approach to documentary filmmaking. So much so that, while her oeuvre is still small, Art Comes From the Beak the Way It Has Grown already feels like a synthesis, a taking accounts of the heretofore achieved.
Art Comes From the Beak the Way It Has Grown is set almost exclusively at the facilities of Mosaik Berlin, a privately owned non-profit art studio for painters and sculptors with mental disabilities. So like her first two films, Neukölln-Aktiv (2012, co-directed with Robert Stadlober) and Zuwandern (2014, co-directed with Diana Botescu), it deals with the attempts of marginalized people to enter, or at least come into contact with mainstream society. And like her two follow-ups, David (2016) and Ein Bild von Aleksander Gudalo (2018), it is also a film about art.
Herpich's style emerged almost fully-formed with her first film (if one discounts the fictional Wertingen, 2011, an interesting, but misleading false start made during film school): Neukölln-Aktiv describes the daily routines of an eponymous social work program for problem youth in one of Berlin's poorest districts. The program is called an “Aktivierungsmaßnahme,” an “activation measure.” The goal is to introduce obstinate young men into the workforce, but because Neukölln-Aktiv is neither a therapeutic nor a penal institution, the only way to do this is by talking to them, repeatedly and patiently. The film is built around a number of long, unnerving, principally open-ended confrontations between the young men and the program's staff. More than anything else, Neukölln-Aktiv is about the everyday use (and misuse) of language. The answer to a simple question like “What did we do since Monday?” can sometimes reveal (or hide) more of the world than a myriad of sociological papers. Speech as a tool for giving form to one's life—and also for giving form to a film perfectly attuned to its subject.
With her next film Herpich widened the scope of her inquiry—by opting for a more intimate framework. Zuwandern follows a Romanian couple and their children in their attempts to gain a foothold in their new hometown Berlin. Starting out in an abandoned building, with a rat as their only companion, they gradually manage to build a new life for themselves. Herpich isn't interested in recounting a heart-warming success story, though. It's about depicting society as a series of negotiations—with city officials and school teachers, but also with one's spouse, or with oneself. Each negotiation comes with its own inhibitions and possibilities.
Art Comes from the Beak the Way It Has Grown
Made before the latest onslaught of xenophobic sentiments throughout Europe, Zuwandern is a touching reminder of all the mundane troubles migrants face even in the absence of racist mobs roaming the streets. It also brings the political valences of Herpich's cinema closer into the view. Neither detached Wiseman-esque portraits of institutions, nor angry individuals vs. the system treaties, her documentaries can be described as assemblies of process-based acts of communication (with the communication unfolding either between different people or between one person and an artwork) under the framework of mutually accepted, or mutually contested, set of rules. This way, Herpich's observation can stay on eye-level at all times without sacrificing the bigger picture: in her films, society is no outside force weighing down on its members, but more like a potential, realizing itself anew in every single interaction one takes on or chooses to avoid.
Contrary to the more cynical zeitgeist, Herpich's are, to a degree, optimistic films. Instead of portraying contemporary Germany as a neoliberal wasteland, she is more interested in highlighting and analyzing those interventions, that do work out, those structures, that do make a difference. This may also have something to do with the fact that the films themselves are the result of successful collaborations: Her working style absolutely depends on the goodwill and support of the people she is filming, be they artists, migrants or social workers. The modest, unobtrusive form of her eye-level-observations—conversations are mostly filmed in long takes, with as few camera movements as possible—makes it clear that her films are to be thought of as just another kind of output of the social processes she is depicting.
Seen in this way, Herpich's focus on artistic practice in her third and fourth film, David and Ein Bild von Aleksander Gudalo, feels less like a departure from previous interest, than like a continuation and immersion, like a zeroing in on one key aspect of her filmmaking: the primacy of process. Films about art provide a dramaturgic challenge: In order to do justice to their subject, they must never sacrifice the particular, the individual observation for the good of the universal, the fetishized artwork. One way to deal with this would be to disregard the idea of a finished, self-identical artwork completely, but this might also just be an easy way out, because it ignores the reality of art as commodity while celebrating “unbound creativity”—clearly just another, probably more odious fetish.
Herpich is, once again, more interested in artistic success than in artistic failure, but at the same time she depicts artmaking as a continued, layered encounter between an artist and his or her work. While the artwork does provide a natural focal point, Herpich, instead of celebrating it as a singular outburst of creativity, positions it as the result of a series of distinct, meaningful actions. The process-like, artisanal character of art is especially evident in David, because its protagonist, an Israeli emigre living in Berlin, works not only as a sculptor, but also as a shoemaker.
Herpich's cinema changes and evolves with its subjects. Artistic practice demands another kind of gaze, no longer purely observational, more analytical, condensed. The mise en scène separates the artist from his or her hands, the montage subordinates real time to the temporal structure of the artwork. Herpich herself becomes more active, too: While she never steps in front of the camera, in her more recent films she is sometimes heard asking questions, or making conversation. In other words: the process aspects of artmaking are mirrored as filmic form.
Art Comes From the Beak the Way It Has Grown features many artworks in many different stages of creation, from first sketches to full-blown, sprawling works that sometimes, especially in the case of Adolf Beutler, Mosaik's most famous artist, can no longer be contained by a single canvas and start to invade surrounding areas. A centrifugal force that is, once again, picked up by Herpich's film. The focus on an institution rather than on an individual artist allows her to draw wider and wider circles: from the lonely encounter of a painter and his or her canvas to the daily routines at Mosaik to Mosaik's integration into the art market (but also to the tragic biography of Beutler, who, after miraculously having been saved from the Nazi death camps, spent several decades locked away in psychiatric wards).
One of the most fascinating aspects of Art Comes From the Beak the Way It Has Grown is that the film manages to emphasize both the world-bound and the autonomous aspect of art. The painters and sculptors at Mosaik aren't well-versed (or interested) in the jargon governing the discourse around most forms of contemporary artistic practices. Observing how they relate to their own work provides no easy point of entry and feels more like listening in to a private conversation. The most mysterious among the artworks shown in the film is a cardboard assemblage made by Suzy von Zehlendorf with the working title "Befreiung der Skulpturen" (freeing of the sculptures), referring to the classical art exhibited (or hold captive?) at Bode-Museum, one of the most prestigious art spaces in Berlin. The creator of "Befreiung der Skulpturen" doesn't like Bode-Museum. In fact, she hates it so much that she cannot stand the sight of her own recreation of it. Even while working on it, she keeps the work partly hidden behind rags, blankets and barbed wire. An impossible artwork, never to be truly finished, existing only in the never ending attempts to overcome it.

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