For the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Oberhausen Manifesto, the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen seems to have deployed an expected reminder and canonization: a retrospective. But the reality is far from this conventionality. Instead, the festival has activated a series, sequence and near-simultaneity of films programmed by Ralph Eue and Olaf Möller called Mavericks, Mouvements, Manifestos that form a complex, varied and nuanced international constellation of absolutely necessary, engaged and reactive short films from the 1950s-1960s. It is not a look back, as most retrospectives inevitably are, but a bracing engagement with a reality, both historic and contemporary, that proves to be still absolutely crucial to our understanding of the world and its cinema.
The opening ceremony of the festival capped an endless series of introductions—which included an unexpected but moving reminder of and plea about the economic ghettoization of cultural workers—with a startling film whose power reverberated through the festival, my time in Germany, and afterwards. That would be Walter Krüttner’s Es muß ein Stück vom Hitler sein (That Must Be a Piece of Hitler, 1963), a caustically sardonic documentary in the form of a mock-info-travelogue of Hitler’s mountain retreats Berghof and the Eagle’s Nest at Obersalzberg in Berchtesgaden. The footage could, perhaps, be from an official document of tours and tourism around the location, but the narration undercuts every moment, from the onset framing the visit—the camera’s and that of the multitude of international visitors we see—as a tour of a site that the government has “officially” “destroyed” in order to discourage neo-fascist veneration, souvenir taking, etc. Yet physical structures, even in ruin, remain, objects are removed, slogans are graffitied, admissions are charged and paid tours are given. In fact, everything requires payment, official transportation, donations; and the impression is that despite supposedly official condemnation—and not just condemnation but sanctioned destruction—a public fascination remains for the architectural ruins of Hitler’s lifestyle. The narrator observes that a more accurate understanding of the Third Reich’s policies, history and function would be better served by tours through Dachau and Bergen-Belsen rather than Eva Braun’s bombproof bedroom (for a fee), creating an extra-historical irony for the envelopment of the Holocaust into the dangerous ambiguity of contemporary tourism.
From this beginning, the retrospective of German films moved bodily between the pursuit of the past in the present and the discovery of the future there, too. Obsession with the vertiginously fruitful present was a predominant motif, one as aggressively combative as Germany’s Nazi past in this retrospective. The series introduced this first, unintentionally, subtly, with the sheer multitude of people and local institutions that descended on Hitler’s ruined mansion in That Must Be a Piece—international tourism and a fascination for rather than repulsion of Germany’s history a sign of a new era.
But these black and white documentary images couldn’t prepare one for a present so amazing that even the production of styrene irresistibly calls for the hard candy-coloring, comic book framing and excitedly eager camera movements of Alain Resnais’ Le chant du Styrène (1957). Included in the first of several national cinema surveys that helped contextualize the Oberhausen Manifesto internationally at the time, Resnais’ film makes cutting-edge industrial process so hyper-vivid as to appear as science fiction. While Jean Mitry’s blazingly fast and giddily abstract three-image haphazard industrial collage Symphonie mécanique (1955) paid homage to Gance-Napoleon and the wild, industry-enamoured art-docs of the late 20s and early 30s, Resnais’ film points forward, and specifically into the program organized around the idea of FRG documentaries passing off, through cinema, the “real” as science fiction. The best example of this would be that program’s opening pairing that started with Herbert Vesely’s Autobahn (1957). This short renders the German superhighway as a place of ambivalent and unmotivated expressions of speed that quickly evolve from a tone of jocular amusement to disturbed, ambiguous threats and darkness—a motorized form of courtship segues into vehicular stalking that points direct lines to Crash and The Vanishing. Six years later, Edgar Retiz’s Kino 1. Geschwindigkeit (Cinema 1. Speed, 1963) has pushed any sense of narrative potential in this modern technology to abstraction, with the Cinemascope camera, attached to a speeding car, exhilaratingly unable to contain the passing landscape in anything resembling the pictorial. The passing images quickly break apart into the abstraction of stuttering foliage, the sheer planes of black and white, and, disorientingly, 360 degree camera pans, which, in ‘scope and operated while the camera itself is racing along, renders the roadway and passing country as an impossible, mutating oblong space.
Reitz further pursues the glory of sensually brittle material fragmentation in Kommunikation – Technik der Verständigung (Technology of Communication, 1961), for me one of the real finds in a giant pile of finds in the retrospective. Despite its title and inclusion of only imagery of modern communication mechanisms—switchboards, mail sorters, telephone/fax wires, handshakes, etc.—Kommunikation begins and remains in narrative abstraction. It appears first like the opening to a Lang film featuring discrete spaces and sinister events shown in a complex network of communications and virtual-techno-control—think of the openings of Dr. Mabuse and Spies—except these messages go nowhere, accomplish nothing, are decidedly not connected. Shot spectacularly in what I believe is Agfacolor, styled to a degree worthy of Dario Argento’s color experiments, it is a manic and exasperatingly frightening flurry of all the latest technical innovations, items and actions perceived as tying society together but isolated, jumbled, removed from context. Its images of the present become so perverse and overwhelming one gets the impression of a sequence beamed from a dystopic techno-future, all signals and messages and no connection or results.
This semi-speculative, semi-industrial tone was not uncommon in the series. Two films by Ferdinand Khittl exemplify other possible variants. Das magische Band (The Magic Ribbon, 1959) is supposedly a documentary on the creation of and use for magnetic tape, but is told in the vein of Resnais’ film on the French program—super rich color palette and cartoon imagery. Syrupy images of liquid production of magnetic tape give way to an enumerated listing of applications, one of which lands squarely between Jerry Lewis's technical invention and Godard’s Passion: we see woman talking melodramatically to a man, Khittl’s camera moves back to reveal we’re watching a television rehearsal on camera, on set, the camera keeps going back and as the scene wraps the actress and director move to a video monitor and proceed to play back the performance we just witnessed—and this is done all in one take. Der heiße Frieden (The Hot Piece, 1965), a key centerpiece in the retrospective, sees this playfulness and runs with it, taking the form of an argumentative but highly general and oddly digressive docu-essay on the evolution of scientific invention from the thousands of years it was discouraged by the state to the current times when corporate-state interests all but monopolize, control, profit from and yet restrict and condition research and invention. The points are provocative, as is Khittl’s mise-en-scène which changes on a dime from animation to black-box lectures by a grey-suited professional to on-site tours of unnamed corporate monoliths. Yet the whole thing seems to dance around dense observations and supported conclusions, which leads, as many of these films seem to, to a tone of speculation bordering on the paranoiac-fantasy. The world couldn’t possibly be this cohesively, vaguely sinister, could it? Khittl and Reitz pitch their documentaries forward into a disturbing future, so that while all the images and many, if not most or all, of the words may be true, they remain so sheer and inhuman that what we’re seeing must be fiction and not, simply, surveys of the current state of things.
These, then, were the least forceful, the strangest of the films. (If the more abstract of the retro’s films lacked a certain sense of anger or argument, this is more than countered by seeing the present in terms of continuation into—or conjuration of—the future.) There was no floating sense of speculative fantasy in the retro’s opposing films, the analysts of history, whose granite-like punches to the gut were closer to the form and wryness of That Must Be a Piece—filmed proofs, architectural and otherwise, of the continuation of the past into the present. For example, Alexander Kluge and Peter Schamoni renders the monumental fascist architecture of the Nuremberg Rally site in Brutalität in Stein (Brutality in Stone, 1961) as totemic and without time; it is not even a ruin like Berghof but rather a memorial tomb dedicated to itself, with images of drawn plans and Nazi footage of scale models designing a future proliferation of this fascist architecture, scoping out a Europe covered in such grave sites. Yet if one were to think of these Nazi structures as immiently immobile, dead emblems of the past, Kluge also looks at a living example: in Porträt einer Bewährung (Portrait of a Probation, 1965) he schematizes the daily routine and briefly sketches the biography of a German policeman who consecutively served under five different governments, including those of the Weimar, Nazi, and Occupation powers. Profound gaps are left in the man’s narration of his history, with Kluge’s sharp use of archive footage shades in hints of the dark shadows cast by his story. It is unnecessary to say or imply more, the audience can do this itself when presented with a story that initially seems so surprising; that is, until the detective pleads against a decision for forced retirement by saying all he has ever done is serve the will and desires of his nation and its people. Bernhard Dörries’s disturbingly simple Stunde X (The Hour of Reckoning, 1959) gets right to the point of Kluge’s studies, which include his brilliant dedication to the culturally disrespected and politically hounded profession of teachers (Lehrer [Teacher], 1963): there is an unexploded bomb laying in the middle of Germany and it is in the process of being ritually removed. Dörries ends his film before we find out what happens to the bomb; the final cut to black after the camera scans unperturbed apartment and office buildings the bomb is being escorted past serves as its own exploding punctuation.
Kluge’s policeman was the capper of a series of films throughout the retrospective that focused not on technology, progress or the past but the people of the present. Jahrgang 1942 – Weiblich (Generation 1942 - Female, 1962) by Hans Loeper takes the early-60s, Chronicle of a Summer-like approach of polling youth—twenty year old girls born in ’42—on their current train of thoughts about life, jobs and romance. A single take scans the individual faces of a group of women in depth, and as their answers are narrated—interestingly, Loeper keeps off camera the actual subjects of the words—the accompanying footage vacillates between images of this generation in the workplace and on the walkway, at home and at the café. No single theme or answer emerges; it seems a generation, as usual, caught in between, with some pushing forward and others curling up in safety. With all the documentary’s semi-staged public observations, the film is suddenly opened up, as at the end, when it catches what seems the look of a real young woman out the real world in Germany, thinking to herself. No words are necessary.
The generation gap suggested by these various junge Frauen is hilariously mocked deep into the 60s with Ulrich Schamoni’s masterpiece Für meine Kinder - von Vati (For My Children - From Dad, 1969), which takes the form of a very convincing mock-amateur film of a former Wehrmacht soldier recording a 16mm message in his home to his kids. The message, is, essentially, they never knew who their father was—everyone has two sides, two faces. And—shocking!—the father’s “other” face was a preference for telling jokes, playing cards, singing songs and balancing a chair on his chin, all of which he discourses on or actually performs in Moullet-like lofi direct camera address. The profound mildness of the whole thing is the joke, a satire of the necessary truths that need to be communicated from one generation to the next—via film!—that come out only as a portrait of the inadequacy of such revelations, the medium, the attitude, and the personal willingness.
The humor here was somewhat rare for the series, which saw its comic highlight, to my great shock, in the middle of a Straub-Huillet-Kluge-Farocki program with an insane bit of tomfoolery by Werner Herzog, Maßnahmen gegen Fanatiker (Measures against Fanatics 1968). This starts as, seemingly, a documentary on the eccentric characters who protect horses at a racetrack (a location already the subject of a another film in the series), only for each documentary tableaux-interview to progressively be intruded upon by increasingly obvious degrees of bizarre fictionalization. All the things Herzog gets accused of now in terms of the supposed crime of staging documentaries and exploiting unsuspecting colorful locals (please mentally add quotation marks around every one of those verbs, adjectives and nouns) is on vivid display here but taken to a degree of presentational surrealism not usually seen in Herzog’s later work. Yet the film was an inspired intervention into a program that included Machorka-Muff (Jean-Marie Straub/Danièle Huillet, 1962), Porträt einer Bewährung and Nicht löschbares Feuer (Inextinguishable Fire, Harun Farocki, 1969). Despite being the most irreverent of the group, it pulled out from these three seriously brutal and unforgiving visions of Germany’s National Socialist past living still in the present the perverse dark humor of these films—think of the Straub’s lickety-quick ironies in the rapid-fire voice-over, Farocki’s American industrial complex as cardboard sets and Z-level acting styles, and both of these film’s techniques coming together in Kluge’s detectiveman film. More importantly, however, was Maßnahmen gegen Fanatiker’s idiosyncratic revelation—and herein lies an observation that plays across all of this retrospective—that neither fiction nor documentary film forms can properly and precisely analyze these subjects, and that the most nuanced and rewarding explorations are reaching for a (perhaps impossible) cinematic form that lays between these poles. Thus, tucked in-between the knife-like incisions made by the more angry and aggressive filmmakers surrounding it, Herzog’s film crystallized an almost pure expression of something very much at stake between these films and indeed perhaps all films.
This uneasy but necessary balance saw its most profound instance in the shocking film which opened the French program that included the Resnais and Mitry, Oflag XVII A (1954). The film was directed by a group of French inmates in a Nazi military prisoner of war camp in Austria shot and on 8mm film smuggled into and out of the camp. The silent footage, to which the ‘54 release understandably appends an explanatory voiceover narration, primarily consists of two things: documentary footage of life in the camp and reenactments of both the processes of escaping the camp and the making of the film. In other words, stuck in prison with a secret camera, the inmates not only courageously document their situation extemporaneously as situations permitted, but also have the gall and ambition to document their documentation by staging, inside the camp, pseudo-documentary scenes of what they were actually doing at the time.
The complexity of filming reality—and specifically a reality totally informed by a near-immediate historical past—was undeniably at the heart of the Mavericks, Mouvements, Manifestos retrospective, whose programming weaved between simple, core examples (including failures both experimental and the most basic) and far more complicated works which ducked and weaved between registers, forms, histories and realities. Each needed the other—thus the triumph of the programming—and all need a far more in-depth exploration than I am allowed in this brief festival report. I sadly have to leave out two national cinema programs—American and Japanese—I was stunned by, and two—Swedish and Hungarian—I missed. Luckily, many, though not all, of the German films will soon appear on a region free DVD from the Austrian Film Museum label, which will hopefully allow home viewers to see a selection of this program and this moment in film history that we at the festival were lucky enough to experience, for the most part, in 35mm and in restored prints. If only all festival retrospectives were so ranging and instructive.