Up the Danube
Beginning Saturday, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is bringing to American shores the work Peter Nestler, one of Germany’s finest filmmakers. Arranged in nine-parts, the extensive series is a major effort to make Nestler’s work better-known in the United States, where it has rarely shown. Nestler is a singular filmmaker, one for whom I have great affection, but also one who came to making films in a time and place singular in and of itself. The movies Germany produced for roughly the fifteen years after the reformation of the country after World War II is a period often misunderstood by cinephiles and, at least until recently, underrepresented in retrospective programming outside of the country itself. In the 1950s and 1960s, German leftists were outraged by the continuing presence of Nazis in the government of the young Federal Republic, and by the way that polite society did not seem all that bothered by the invisible progression from one generation of militarists to another, beginning at least as early as when the Bundeswehr was formed in 1955. This concern with the way the past infiltrates the present evolved into something of a form for filmmakers: show the rituals and traditions of the present with clarity and simultaneously expose their reactionary, even fascist underpinnings.
For a generation of filmmakers, this preoccupation with the past colonising the dominant culture (and even the government) of the day was something like an overriding concern, particularly in the German Democratic Republic but also, in less commercially prominent circles, in the Federal Republic. To the East, there were films like Slátan Dudow’s The Captain of Cologne (1956), a DEFA satire about an unemployed waiter who gets mistaken for an ex-Nazi Captain at a officers’ reunion, that suggested that rather than a post-war dismantling of fascist structures, it was only the Adenauer Republic’s shifting costumes and superficial appearances that had changed. While struggling to fund their film about J.S. Bach in West Germany in the early 1960s, French exiles Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub produced Machorka-Muff (1962), their first film, another satire of rearmament, from the short story by Heinrich Böll. Unlike Dudow’s satire, the Straubs worked in a pared-down, elliptical manner, emphasizing the absurd rituals of the efforts to clear the name of disgraced Nazi General Hürlanger-Hiss, culminating in a foundation laying ceremony for a newly formed military institution named for the General. Straub later said that, as with all the films he and Huillet strived to make at the time, it was a film “no German could have known how to make.”
It is hardly surprising, then, that Straub considers Nestler one of the great European directors of the last half-century. A notable influence on filmmakers like Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky, he exemplified this particular form of leftist critique; in a lifetime of making films alone and later with his wife Zsóka, this central preoccupation with the colonization of the present by the tyrannies of the past stretched beyond the specific time-period in which it emerged—the young Federal Republic of the late 1950s and early 1960s—and persisted through era after era, region after region, conflict after conflict, struggle after struggle. The American assault on Vietnam. Rivers in South America, Eastern Europe. Workers, painters, sculptors, tug-boat captains. Nestler even made a notable film in my own country, Great Britain, where I first saw his work several years ago.
In films about material objects and acts, Nestler cuts right to the beating heart of things; with his lucid, poetic eye, he criticizes like no other, attacking the forms of political reaction as well as, you might say, the explicit content. But he is also a productive filmmaker in the sense that he both provides a vision of resistance, to borrow the phrase used to promote this program, as well as points calmly to beauty as well as strife. A radical formalist, he experiments with the separation of sound and image, and often counters the didactic quality of his voice-overs with the joy contained in what is on-screen.
In Up the Danube (1970), made in Hungary and while the filmmakers worked mainly in Swedish television, the Nestlers—Zsóka and Peter—contrast scenes of workers and boatmen with a spoken history of the various historical conquests and pillagings associated with the river, a clear-eyed conflation of history as it once was recorded, entering the official histories, with a living history as it is being recorded by the camera. In one scene, Nestler speaks to Captain Kiss Jenö, who has been working on ships on the Danube since childhood. He opens with a shot of Jenö speaking, no audio. For a couple of seconds, we ponder the man’s expression in silence. Nestler, speaking on the soundtrack, provides some biographical information. He then cuts to a shot of the river, silent again, and then the river-captain’s voice is heard in Hungarian. Slowly, Nestler’s translation supersedes Jenö’s narration, which fades away after a couple of seconds. Watching these films, which, at this time, were made largely for the purpose of education on television, we become aware of an overriding intelligence, a guiding hand that studiously partitions material so that we might have a better chance of pondering it as a whole.
In this sense, both sound and image in Nestler’s movies is a pliable material object. But he is distinguished by this scrupulousness in approaching his recorded data; dividing up the formal elements in this way means that there is no risk of any part becoming intermingled with another, and each element retains an integrity that might otherwise be jeopardized when re-contextualised. Poetry remains poetic, prose remains prosaic, and images are free to suggest their own meanings. The same film begins with a shot of old hands sculpting clay on a potter’s wheel, at first silent and, after a few seconds, accompanied by schoolchildren singing on the soundtrack. “The wind blows from the Danube, it always hits the poor,” they sing. “Without the wind blowing, there would be no poor.” So Nestler introduces not only the theme of the film—that the only thing more enduring than the suffering of the working poor is the unceasing flow of the river—but also the form: history as embedded right there in the mud, washed up in swathes on riverbanks and later adopted into everyday life as the simple possessions that define us. “Hey, if you had grown taller, you would have been a soldier / The wind blows from the Danube.”
Thanks to Lisa Thomas, Dan Sullivan, and Hannah Thomas.