MUBI's retrospective The Captive Man: Roland Klick's Neo-Genre Cinema is showing September 2 – November 8, 2019 in the United States.
Every film culture, probably, has that one maverick genius defying induction into the national cinema pantheon—that one auteur seemingly every generation has to re-discover. Well, that's the wrong word, really—re-embrace feels better, more to the point. In the Federal Republic of Germany, that eternal wild card would be Roland Klick: the master without pupils proper, the director who wasn't able to create a career for himself. The latter is actually meant to be understood in double-edged way: as it is an interesting question whether the obstacles put into his pathway were simply too huge to push aside, or whether Klick, due to his character, was his own stumbling block. About the former we can say: While his contribution to Young German Cinema was officially cherished by certain cinephiles and audiences alike, the new powers-that-be did have some very serious problem with him.
(It is funny to imagine that Klick's extraordinary looks could have been one of those; Roger Fritz, back then and still today quite a dangerously attractive guy himself, suggested that idea with a savagely funny grin in Dominik Graf and Johannes Sievert's diptych about the more exciting fringes of FRG film culture from the 60s onwards, Verfluchte Liebe deutscher Film and Offene Wunde deutscher Film, 2016 and '17 respectively.)
Let's start out with the second-most remembered incident in Klick's professional life. The story goes like this: Back in 1970, Klick's second fiction feature, the Can-score-driven existentialist acid Spaghetti Western desert noir Deadlock (1970), got invited to screen in Cannes's competition; the film, it seems, hadn't been submitted for consideration through the official channels—it was the festival itself that had shown an interest in Klick and communicated with him sans interlocutors. Apparently, some folks back home freaked out when they got wind of this, especially when Cannes did invite Deadlock to represent the FRG smack in the festival's spotlight. Then, legend has it, this happened: A group of people claiming to represent the Young German Cinema complained about Klick's selection and demanded that his invitation got revoked, as per them Deadlock wasn't a fitting example for Young German Cinema's general character. Cannes, to its eternal shame, complied, and replaced it with Peter Lilienthal's portrayal of an anarchist, Malatesta (1970). Let's just say this: That a clique of (mainly) filmmakers would behave exactly like official FRG politics in the 50s—when, most notorious-cum-shamefully, the nation's embassy to France had in the government's name voiced objections to the screening of Alain Resnais' Night and Fog at Cannes' 1956 edition saying that the film could be the cause of diplomatic frictions between countries, meaning that it didn't reflect the FRG's official position on matters of WWII and the Holocaust (there were similar incidents before and after)—is troublesome enough, and extremely disgusting; but that the festival didn't have the nerve to stick to its guns and yielded to that clique's demand: that is, besides beyond disgusting, deeply puzzling, for what kind of pressure could those people have exerted? Should this be read as a sign for the rapid rise to the film cultural top of Young German Cinema—or at least that it was dealt as the hottest ticket in town?
But maybe that's not the most interesting point here; more important might actually be that Deadlock is the avant-garde, very internationally minded version of a popular genre movie, while Malatesta was a heady art-house film (one might find it ironical that both works relate to Italy—Klick's in terms of style and form, Lilienthal's in terms of content). Which is to say that Young German Cinema at that point in time was not allowed to be popular, at least not in terms of self-promotion, popular image—for there were enough directors interested in various ways in the idea of popular cinema, and who made quite a few films that kick ass still today; but: the new film subsidizing system the Young German Cinema's self-anointed leaders were working hard on institutionalizing depended on the idea of producing artistic films—a cinema that doesn't work without state support as it wasn't targeted per se at general audiences, and that was willing to allow lots of space for experiments which at some point might lead to something for once commercially viable. This concept was based on the experiences made by Young German Cinema's first generation, of which quite a few members suffered bankruptcy (or were threatened by it) because their films failed at the box office. To be represented by a film like Deadlock in a moment when Young German Cinema had to look difficult and obviously artistic and prone to appeal mainly to a few especially refined souls was probably a nightmare for the subsidizing system's architects—just imagine if it had done well and scored nicely on awards night, then gotten sold like sliced bread and made a lot of money!—politicians would have said: Why don't you make films like that? In the end, the situation was a deadlock itself, as those who wanted to protect their embryonic subsidizing structure were probably mighty right if indeed they feared that a film like Deadlock would send the wrong signals to a bunch of power jocks reluctant to fork out money for movies and only willing to do so if it furthered the nation's glory (which the likes of Herzog, Wenders, Kluge, et cetera did by making films that could easily be aligned with certain clichés about German culture ranging from wildly irrational via romantic to extremely rational—doesn't mean that's all there is to the films, quite the contrary, but those aspects, mere morsels of tone and meaning sometimes, certainly made them appealing to the rest of the world). On the other hand, they destroyed what in hindsight turned out to be Klick's best shot at a career different from what he ended up with—same way that in the long run their subsidy creation meant to help produce the unusual and searching turned into a creature that seems to be all about destroying talents and re-enforcing mediocrity: a bureaucracy destined to prevent troublesome originality; due to which Klick would have today as many problems as back in his years, just different ones.
There's also a tragic irony to the fact that Deadlock remained in terms of tone and style a total exception in Klick's œuvre. Everything else––even his lone other adventure in a more manly vein of genre: the 1976 bestseller-based espionage melodrama Lieb Vaterland magst ruhig sein; even his goofy way-too-late comedy Schluckauf (1992); even his pseudonymously done episode for the TV-series Drei Damen vom Grill; and most definitely his fabulously wide-eyed while tongue-in-cheek documentary essay about sports and rituals apropos Louisville (KY)'s annual horse racing insanity, Derby Fever USA (1979)––was closer to the heightened realism of his mid-length masterpiece Jimmy Orpheus (1966) and his debut feature Bübchen (1969); and, yes, in an off-beat way that also includes the hysteria of his punk'ishly apocalyptic look at the world of popular music, White Star (1983), a film in many ways a ruin as Klick couldn't properly finish the production and had to work with what he had, which makes the movie into even a bigger miracle than it already is––but also because of its feel of willful fragmentation, a disinterest to add up totally, a need to just let it rip and let something give, finally go.
The latter came into being after the most remembered incident in Klick's career: His sacking from the production of Christiane F. - Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (Uli Edel, 1981) by the film's producer Bernd Eichinger—or his leaving behind of a project he couldn't believe in anymore due to excessive interference. In hindsight, this was a sign—or to be more precise: a signal. No more director-worship—the hour of the producer-as-star had come. If Klick is to be trusted—and for all his gleeful delight in self-mythologizing he still seems more trustworthy than Eichinger and his surroundings ever could be—the problem during the pre-production of Christiane F. - Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo was one of leadership: whom did the team follow, the actors in particular, many of them amateurs? Klick says that he had developed a strong bond with them that excluded Eichinger et al., for he wanted the youngsters to react to him and him alone; while Eichinger, in his first big production (that became the blueprint for things to come: preferably famous source material, classy look, emotional simplicity, conservative morals for all its siding with unorthodox figures; only the stars were missing here), could probably deal even less than what would become usual with the idea of not being in absolute control of everything. This is also why Eichinger could never really work with directors and other creative personnel who had a vision and the ego to protect it after this seemingly traumatic experience with Klick (instead he got himself gofers like Edel, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Sönke Wortmann, Oliver Hirschbiegel, et cetera).
Read: Inside ten years Klick had turned from being seen as too popular-commercial to being seen as too artistic-individualistic.
In fact, Klick just did what he did: He made his films, following the idea that cinema is a mass medium that should engage the audience emotionally and intellectually in as complex a fashion as possible––for this is what the people deserve. Klick believes in every person's willingness to behave in a socio-politically helpful fashion; and each of his films tries as hard as humanly possible to offer viewers something that talks to this side, part of one's character. Klick might be wild and unruly, but he's not that different from the rest. And that is remarkable: That his films consider human beings as very special and precious as such.
There's a humanism to his cinema that's shattering once one stops obsessing about those damn crazy bad-ass zooms in Deadlock, the glorious gun-play in the film that might nail the essence of his art best, Supermarkt (1974), or the awesomely hellish ecstasy of Dennis Hopper going nuts in White Star.
Bübchen is arguably still the film if one wants to get an idea of what the late 60s looked and sounded, felt and smelled like from a working-moving-lower-middle-class point of view. Here, especially in the performance of the incomparable Sieghardt Rupp (as a father wanting to protect his little son who out of bored stupidity killed a little girl), is the vibrancy and cheek, the lust for life of a generation that grew up in destitution, that knew hunger, that knew human existence at its most basic and then less; these are the people that would in many ways carry the status quo for it had offered them ample opportunities to leave misery behind; these are the women and men those who deemed themselves politically enlightened and radical would consider the enemy—more maybe even than the upper echelon, for they were more, much more. And if Bübchen looks like a pietà for that generation, Jimmy Orpheus is its ribald, rowdy nativity with its chico-hombre Kristoff, who could be, say, the younger brother of Bübchen’s father, going through the proletarian ritual of growing up through the hard knocks of the desire-power-play lost to an echt St. Pauli-hooker—which for all its macho posturing has an air of adventure, getting-to-know-the-wide-world that remains enchanting for being so free-spiritedly carnal. Willi, the youngster with big dreams and zero cash from Supermarkt, then, could be a grown-up son of that father who, in a lull between the birth of left-wing armed insurrection in the FRG (which happened around the time Bübchen got made) and its first generation's violent apotheosis in the autumn of '77, got ideas in his head that taking matters in one’s own hands looked mighty sensible, and a Tommy gun looks like just the right tool (which also Paul thinks in Klaus Lemke's eponymous monument from—1974; it must have been the year for those thoughts.). Yet mind that the most telling gestures in Supermarkt have nothing to do with violence but need—how he steals food, or how he tries to offer some warmth to a hooker not much older than he is, and possibly still underage; these small gestures performed by amateur Charly Wierzejewski with a sense of knowledge too depressing to contemplate for too long add up to a desperate tenderness at times almost unbearable—one understands: this is rock bottom, this is what it all boils down to, this is the essence. And Charly Wierzejewski knows.
"I want my celebration long before I die," sings Marius Müller-Westernhagen on the soundtrack of Supermarkt. The track is called Celebration and should be sung as the anthem of all things Roland Klick, which is not only one man's cinema but a whole idea of cinema behind which creatives souls as different as Dominik Graf, Klaus Lemke, and Robert Schwentke can unite. Directors from other nations may gladly be added, for the genius of Klick is one not German at all, but international, cosmopolitan—it's the best in all of us.