The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan. Courtesy of the filmmaker.
It’s rare to come across such a humble yet cogent body of work as that of Manfred Kirchheimer. His career stretches across six decades but it would be a mistake to reduce his films to mere historical records, for they can enclose enthralling stories of ordinary New Yorkers or celebrate the beauty of urban structures all while confronting head-on layered questions on class, race and identity. Throughout the years, his subjects have fluctuated from workers pushing carts through New York’s Garment District, the docking of a transatlantic ocean liner or a community of Jewish émigrés in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. As modest as his filmography might seem, one shouldn’t oversee its substantial contribution to American documentary and independent cinema.
During a recent conversation, Kirchheimer told me he had recently retired as a teacher at the School of Visual Arts (SVA), where I first met him six years ago. He taught an introductory production class in which students learned basic filmmaking techniques, the nuts and bolts of shooting with a vintage Arriflex 16 mm analogue camera, and how to put it all together in the editing room. Even though he doesn’t teach anymore, Kirchheimer has managed to keep himself fairly busy, still making his own independently produced films at the age of eighty-six. In addition to currently working on his next film, his latest feature, My Coffee with Jewish Friends, will have its premiere at the Museum of Modern Art on February 3rd, followed by a week-long retrospective of his work.
But Kirchheimer hasn’t always enjoyed the recognition he so terribly deserves. His career has slowly evolved from being virtually overlooked to becoming a more modest yet steadily growing success. Early last year, The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation awarded a fellowship to Kirchheimer. “Good things are happening," he told me enthusiastically, like in 2014, when his 1981 tour de force, Stations of the Elevated, was rediscovered and later restored thanks to programmer Jake Perlin. Stations of the Elevated is a beautiful, jazz-infused homage to street art, colorfully graffitied onto New York City’s subway cars throughout the 70s. Kirchheimer credits Perlin as an instrumental figure for his recent career boost, “He called me about Stations and wanted to represent it, he bought the music rights, and in 2014 it played at BAM and ever since then, good things are happening to me—ever since Jake got involved.”Perlin is currently one of the head programmers at Metrograph and is one of the interviewed subjects in My Coffee with Jewish Friends.
Kirchheimer, born in Saarbrücken, Germany, escaped the Third Reich with his family and arrived in the U.S in 1936, settling in Washington Heights. Even though Kirchheimer has been making films in New York since the 1950s, he’s been remarkably prolific in recent years. Some of his more recent work, like Canners (2015) and Art is…the Permanent Revolution (2012) will be featured in the MoMA retrospective. These movies are so strikingly unpretentious and so stunningly straightforward that it’s easy to imagine how they might throw off some avid contemporary documentary film viewers. And while the films are often conceptually simple, Kirchheimer’s ability to engage with nuanced political discourse is matched only by his deep sensitivity to the beauty of everyday life. In both filmsKirchheimer examines several working-class subcultures, whether they are bottle and can collectors scavenging through New York’s recyclable garbage for a scanty income in Canners or the lithograph and woodcut printmakers who devote their work to the long tradition of populist protest artwork in Art Is…the Permanent Revolution. My Coffee with Jewish Friends, however, is literally what its title suggests, and while benevolent as the film might sound, Kirchheimer does not shy away from delving into more tendentious political questions. “I do think of the politics, very much so,” he says, “I don’t allow a film to go out of my hands without its political point of view.” In My Coffee, Kirchheimer fleshes out some weighty ideas on Jewish identity, Israeli politics, and religion with some of his Jewish friends and a couple of acquaintances. Heartwarming and honest, My Coffee centers purely on fascinating conversations—often amusing with just a couple of upsetting provocations by one of Kirchheimer's more right leaning friends. It’s the first film where Kirchheimer completely puts aside montage sequences and focuses purely on conversation. Much like the printmakers, who held onto techniques that dated back to Goya, Kirchheimer’s previous films retained the early methods of silent montage films, dating back to Soviet pioneers, Alexander Dovzhenko and Dziga Vertov. And just like those printmakers, Kirchheimer is a pure craftsman, careful, patient and meticulous in his art. His commitment to the early silent documentary modus operandi is found in his earliest films like Claw (1968) Bridge High (1975). Kirchheimer laments what he considered a premature arrival of direct cinema in American documentary filmmaking—à la Robert Drew, Albert Maysles or D.A. Pennebaker. “I think cinéma vérité came too fast. I was determined to carry forward the older type films.” But the introduction of portable sound recording into the field drastically transformed the way documentaries were made. “The Nagra changed all that,” he said, referring to the battery operated sound recorder.
Canners. Courtesy of the filmmaker.
Kirchheimer is often described as a one man band—often producing, directing, photographing and editing his own films. Like a painter, a sculptor, or a photographer, he enjoys controlling his own work without the outer pressures of a studio or a deadline. But his self-sufficient methods are not just practical, “I recommend it to others,” he says, “I recommend it to my students: I recommend that they do films that are possible.”
In 1973, he dabbled with some fiction, using actors (including his son) to make one of his most riveting films, Short Circuit. “Before I taught at SVA, I was teaching at the NYU Graduate School, and all my students were making fiction films…I was jealous of them.” While Short Circuit is fiction,Kirchheimer incorporates elements of his own life. The film deals with a day in the life of a middle-class documentary filmmaker as he picks his son up from school, and goes back to his Upper West Side apartment (Kirchheimer’s apartment) to a loving wife. Yet, he is prompted by his maid, doorman, and neighbors (all African American) to abruptly examine his own white privilege manifested in an astounding montage sequence where he looks out his window onto a long-gone multiracial Upper West Side neighborhood. Interestingly though not surprisingly, Kirchheimer’s idea for Short Circuit came to him while reading The Autobiography of Malcom X. “As I read the autobiography I thought of my condition, I was in an island among minorities, particularly blacks and Hispanics. It’s based very much on my life and my form of liberalism in which I feel close to my black neighbors and at the same time, there’s a distance between us.”
While many directors have helped canonize New York City as cinema’s quintessential urban backdrop, few have captured the city as genuinely and as wholeheartedly as Kirchheimer. Perhaps his bona fide gaze of New York and its people is rooted in the fact that Kirchheimer himself has lived in New York since 1936. But it was never the director’s intention to set out and make a portrait of the city, “You have to notice that these films are all quite different from each other,” Kirchheimer warned me, "and the city is in them almost incidentally. I didn’t go out of my way to document the city, it wasn’t my intention.” However, New York is inadvertently prominent in films like Bridge High where his shots of the Whitestone Bridge’s suspension cables are paired with sounds of tug boat horns, bells, and jazzy piano underlined with some slick guitar riffs. The structural forms and figures of the bridge are framed tightly, and quickly get lost in blissful abstraction. Similarly, his extraordinary film Claw is a lyrical essay about the perils of urban redevelopment and the demolition of New York’s old buildings to make way for glassy, corporate skyscrapers before the Landmarks Preservation Movement. However, Kirchheimer emphasizes that his New York movies are a product of feasibility, “I live in the city and I rarely got money for my films…so I had to work cheaply and working cheaply means doing films in your own backyard.”
On a more personal note, Kirchheimer was an incredibly influential teacher. And so it was particularly special to me hearing from the filmmaker about his own mentors, like Leo Hurwitz, with whom he collaborated on films like The Sun and Richard Lippoldz in 1966 and Discovery in a Painting in 1968 which Kirchheimer completed in 2014 (both films will be screened in the retrospective). One of Kirchheimer’s teachers was the Dadaist filmmaker Hans Richter, who was Kirchheimer’s instructor during his days at City College. “I said, ‘Professor Richter, are there any opportunities in film?’ He said, [in a German accent] ‘Ja, opportunities there are plenty, but no jobs.’ He was wrong of course, there were plenty of jobs, just few opportunities.”