In London in November 2012 a retrospective of the films of German filmmaker Peter Nestler appeared for the first time in the English speaking world where, despite having a few vocal fans—Jean-Marie Straub, Hartmut Bitomsky, and Harun Farocki—Nestler was and is still largely unknown. The clarity of Nestler’s films reveals the paucity of the contemporary documentarian’s work; in his films every image and sound counts, every idea is expressed precisely and with purpose, whether it is a history of manual glass making techniques in Sweden, or a look at Hungarian proletariat artists who worked in factories or as farmers all their lives, and now make art for themselves and for their families. Yet, like Straub, Nestler works only with what already exists, his cinema preconditioned on attentiveness to the environment in which he films: his compositions, voice-over, editing, etc, all come after the world and its inhabitants have presented themselves.
“[It] always fascinates me; that the childhood memories of these people have more weight than the current day,” said Nestler in an interview with Christoph Hübner. “[That is why] the film’s title is Time.” Nestler's movies peer into the past, dig into the soil; he excavates forgotten histories of oppressed people and preserves them, like the fragments of the half-uncovered skeleton discovered by a schoolchild in Up the Danube (1969). He presents the struggles for democracy in From Greece (1965) and Chile Film (1973), both of which detail extensively and grimly the history of the proletariat in each respective country. In The Jew’s Alley (1988), after spending months researching the history of the Frankfurt Jews, Nestler set out to make a film protesting the destruction of a part of Frankfurt’s Judengasse, uncovered during construction work, “… probably the only remains of medieval German Jewish culture.” His film uses outrage at the callousness of these men to investigate the Jews' place in Frankfurt. In order to oppose, he must first compile a history.
This year, a season of Nestler’s films returned to London. This much shorter programme was named Reprise, again at the Goethe-Institut and at the Showroom in Sheffield, a combination of important films from last year's retrospective and some other works from his oeuvre that were not included. The first of the newly screened films was Pachamama - Our Land (1995), a travelogue filmed in Ecuador about the history of the country and its people. Like Chile Film, which came later in the season, and My Country (1981), that was shown last year (and also about the coup in Chile), Pachamama exemplifies the qualities of many of his pictures, intertwining them in this film with intimations about the preservation and importance of Ecuador's culture and ecology. Pachamama suggests that Nestler sees his subjects—landscape (the mountains, the river) and people (the inhabitants of Quito, the men and women who build the irrigation stream)—as inseparable or indistinguishable; neither worthy of particular emphasis, both respected in their natural form, and yet representative of a totality (i.e. his mastery of synecdoche).
In this way, despite the importance he places on embracing external cultures and influences, and on allowing men and women to present pieces of the past to the filmmaker themselves, Nestler remains firmly in a tradition of ‘educational films,’ meaning that he works with every fibre of his being to present fact and evidence, like Preminger works to convey dispassion and calculation in his films. “It’s not that he makes the world gorgeous—quite the contrary. Nestler is able to recognise and convey beauty. Hope and brightness, the world’s shining, are also facts of life—information he shares with the audience,” said Olaf Möller, in his essay on the filmmaker In Defense of Time. Few filmmakers have dedicated themselves so thoroughly to their audience, to imparting what they have discovered in the hope that it might change something.
Made in collaboration with his wife Zsóka, Up the Danube has been called the heart of Nestler’s vast output, for it shows very clearly the interest he has in the physical effect the past has on the present. “For me, it was as if in this moment, all of Nestler’s films had been distilled into one,” Bitomsky said about one of the opening scenes of the film in Notes on the Films of Peter Nestler. Following a Hungarian riverboat up the Danube, the Nestlers unearth the history of the river, recognising the importance it played in the historical development of Europe. Together with the constancy of the sound of the boat’s engine, the slow-moving riverboat itself serves as a beautiful metaphor for the constancy in Nestler’s films, suggesting the same feeling of propulsion, in the constant flow of facts and information that steadily move towards an historical coherency. With Nestler a trip up the Danube is also a trip into history.
I sat down with Peter Nestler on the second day of the Reprise, before screenings of two favourites: Ödenwaldstetten (1964) and Time (1992).
CHRISTOPHER SMALL: Last year, before the retrospective, I’d only seen Ödenwaldstetten somewhere on the Internet. And then I came to this show, and it was very important to me, very eye-opening. I started to become very interested in sound. I started to watch a lot more Godard, a lot more Bresson, Jean-Claude Rousseau’s La Vallée close (2000). In your films, the use of sound is very, very distinctive. It is definitely concerned largely with the voice; how voices can be beautiful, how people speak, or even just the quality of the voice.
PETER NESTLER: That’s connected to the confidence—the trust with the people appearing in the films. I always am discussing with the people who the film is about, so it is then a contribution. It is not an interview. It is about what is important. About what is related to the subject of the film. And therefore the people are very free to talk, but often very concentrated—to get it right. But there is no... distance, in this way. They trust what I will do about it.
SMALL: Your films all seem to have this quite distinctive forward movement. I don’t think they are ever very still, in a way that, say, Straub’s films, with their similarity to still photographs—his interest is often in the still quality of cinematic images—whereas with your films I feel like they are progressing all the time. There is that metaphor for your cinema, where you’re sat at a table just showing pieces of information on paper, explaining the facts, bringing the paper back, always moving on with the next one. Bitomsky called it ‘finding, showing, holding.’ It’s quite Bressonian—although I wouldn’t say that you’re a particularly Bressonian filmmaker. This moving forward in every aspect, even with the stories told by the interviewees, with whom you share this bond, means that whatever appears in your films becomes a kind of evidence. Everything is pointing in one direction. How do you conceive all this and bring a project together?
NESTLER: It’s very different for every film. As I have said in the Q&A, with Pachamama it was by chance. You see an exhibition, something you become interested in. It develops in this way. I got interested because more and more for me, the question is how can people turn to brutality, do things really brutal. Who will take a stand for humanity, and who is just lost and continues to do these things?
SMALL: Do you make notes? What are the first stages of your process?
NESTLER: Yes, yes, I make notes. On the process. Every day, almost. And things are in my head too, so I remember how I have to continue, but you, by filming, discover things that changes a bit the direction you had for things...
SMALL: Like with Pachamama.
NESTLER: Yes, though I never did something totally different from the ground idea. But it changes sometimes. And a thing you discover by chance, it can be the main part you focus on, the main part of the film. For example, in Pachamama, the woman who works with the big vase [he finds her constructing an enormous pot out of clay, and soon we realise that, with her children, she has been abandoned by her husband, and must, day by day, climb the mountain to retrieve wood for the fire]. I understood there must be something strong in that, and when I filmed it, it was convincing. And then it has an impact to the other parts of the films. That’s a way to do these documentaries. You have to be open-minded and not just have the goal of your mind.
SMALL: That’s something that Straub always says in relation to your films. He says that you’re not trying to impose a form, specifically, on a subject, that you don’t just have something in your head that you are imposing. You’re just working with the materials you have, the raw materials. Pachamama is something of a hairpin; it ties a lot of your movies together. Ricardo Matos Cabo and Stéfani de Loppinot have said [in their essay on Pachamama, ‘The Sleeper of the Valley’], that the structure is almost circular—the end tying back to the beginning, suddenly. They relate it to the many scenes with music, especially the man with the harp, who returns to close the film.
The scene with the three musicians is like a scene in A Workingman’s Club in Sheffield (1965)—they’re all on the stage, and one of the men is like a cartoon character—it’s a way of showing something very rehearsed that you have found. They are performers. And then there are a few ‘performance scenes’ in Pachamama that tie back to The Northern Calot (1991), which a few people brought up the Q&A, and which has a similar ending, where you have the landscape in the background and women dancing in the foreground. Do you see much of this unity between your films?
NESTLER: I can see it, but I never built on the last, or any other film. I always try to be open to starting from scratch. But when the films are done I can see it. They have relationships, because I’m after certain questions, important questions.
SMALL: In this famous text, where Straub calls you one the great modern filmmakers, he says that your film, Mülheim (Ruhr) (1964), is ‘mizoguchiesque’. You hadn’t seen any Mizoguchi when you made this film?
NESTLER: Not when I made Mülheim, but then Straub told me, so of course… I like him very much. I saw Sanshō Dayū (1954). And I can’t say anything about how much my film is a Mizoguchi film. I’m very honoured if Jean-Marie said it, but because we had a lot of time to think about the pictures and to wait for things to happen within the frame, the scenes become very heavy, nothing is played over, and it’s just the frame, and if the camera moves, a lot is moving. And it’s open to understanding, to see it with full consciousness. To try to put in a feeling without telling it with the images. I will use a kind of film music to not openly say here is, like in Mülheim (Ruhr), a commentary to the picture, a commentary to the story. This music which you hear without just getting a feeling, music that spells out a commentary: I hate this trickery. There Straub maybe was contesting with his own films. He uses the music as a thing for itself. But then it functions and you anyhow have your head clear. You don’t fall in the flurry of feeling, and this makes it beautiful.
SMALL: During Pachamama in particular, I was thinking of Mizoguchi, because he sometimes shows characters simply performing on a stage. He shows it in its totality. There is one of his films with an actress, The Love of Sumako the Actress (1947). You see an entire scene on stage, or the piece of music they are playing in its totality. It’s beauty in and of itself, but it’s also a way of unifying the film. With Pachamama, the music is built into the narrative, there’s a relationship between the narrative and the music. It’s difficult to define and quite ephemeral. But you seem to like to, music included, pull in as many things as you can from whatever subject you’re working with, the place you’re in. It’s like the camera is a part of the world.
NESTLER: Even when they play—it’s called the Indian harp—it is done for the film. We talked to the man about what we want to show. You have the trust, like in other films with people talking, like Being Gypsy (1970), for example; they all knew what story we wanted to tell. They really have no doubt, and that’s the characteristic of all the scenes where they play the music in Pachamama. We never just are there by chance, and found them playing. It was really from the beginning, when I got this disc, where all these groups were in, and more, so we chose, after listening and seeing the text in the booklet.
SMALL: How do you feel seeing these films again?
NESTLER: When I have the projection like this?
SMALL: On film and in general.
NESTLER: It’s really the relation we had to the persons, and so this is touching for me, very much. Therefore, I’m not tired about my own work, because it is so much connected to this experience. But I don’t see them in projection so often, I have no materials. They are in Berlin or at the archive in SVT. I am happy to come here and have the projection, and have people around looking at it.
SMALL: I imagine that because there is quite a lot of other people’s work in your films, like today we were watching Time, which is one of my favourites that we watched last year. You have these amazing scenes where the peasants just show their work to the camera.
NESTLER: And there too was where Zsóka’s work was absolutely… it made it possible to do the film. She had wonderful relation to the persons, so I just had to film.
SMALL: She is Hungarian.
NESTLER: She’s Hungarian, yes. We met in Budapest when I tried to sell my first three short films because someone told me that on the TV it should be more possible. I couldn’t sell but I met her because she’s the cousin of another filmmaker, and the first thing we did… in the day she wanted to show me around in Budapest to see a big exhibition. And she had such a good feeling, and in the way I feel, too. It was a good meeting.
Both life-changing Peter Nestler programmes were organised by Ricardo Matos Cabo and Maren Hobein / Goethe-Institut London. Thank you to Michael Lohmann.