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The Antic Visions of Herbert Achternbusch

Who is Herbert Achternbusch?
Das Gespenst (1982)
“I always have a simple story, but I tell it so fanatically and wildly and tenderly and cursingly and on fire and in need of being loved that you’ll find a slice of life in front of you.” [1]
The first time I saw Herbert Achternbusch he was hypnotizing a chicken in Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Anybody who has seen the film might recall the chicken, but who is Herbert Achternbusch? It is a question that cannot be simply answered. Achternbusch captions his entire artistic output with a paradox: ‘You don't have a chance, but use it’. Trying to make sense of his work, this epigram sounds appropriate.
Matters are not helped by the unavailability of most of his films on DVD. In Germany, a boxset devoted to Achternbusch is now out of print, although two key works—Heilt Hitler (1986) and Das Gespenst (1982)—remain in circulation. Aside from the occasional retrospective there is little possibility of English language audiences becoming acquainted with the artist’s work. Though Achternbusch has produced copious writing, poetry and plays—images and ideas from which feed into the material of his films and vice versa—none have been translated as far as I am aware, which further hinders those without a working knowledge of German. Little critical work has been done to date on Achternbusch either, which leaves him among the few notable figures from the German cinema of the 1970s and 1980s to be almost totally unappreciated within Anglophone film culture.
Herbert Achternbusch
In November 1974, as Herzog set out on foot from Munich to Paris to visit the German film critic and historian Lotte Eisner after she was hospitalised following a stroke—a trip he records in his book Of Walking in Ice—he made a stop just 500 metres from his home. It is the first episode of his journey: a visit to Herbert Achternbusch, himself recovering from a broken leg after jumping from a Volkswagen van. Herzog writes of the visit that Achternbusch attempted to tell his fortune, failing to do so “because he can’t find the paper with the interpretations. There is the Devil, with the Hangman in the second row, hanging upside down.” [2] This amusing anecdote reveals both Achternbusch’s significance to his fellow filmmaker, as well as hinting at the type of upended iconography that suffuses his films.
Herzog based his film Heart of Glass on a story by Achternbusch. The trope of the self-proclaimed visionary is found throughout Achternbusch’s work, as in Herzog’s; the man out of time and place, confronted by an uncomprehending world, mocked or dismissed. The religious connotations of such a character type were eventually made explicit when, perhaps unsurprisingly, Achternbusch decided to portray Jesus Christ.
Achternbusch in Heilt Hitler
The director always takes the lead role in his films. He is often named ‘Herbert’ but usually appears as a cipher for an array of cultural historical signifieds, albeit crude stand-ins—for Christ, a Comanche, or a German soldier to name a few. In doing so he repeatedly points up the absurdity of identification with marginalised, traumatised and suppressed peoples. All the while, in his intensely idiosyncratic cinema, Achternbusch seems to be demanding that the memory of the past be reified continually, no matter how tersely, scathingly or comically it is brought to bear on contemporary German society. Not surprisingly, the horrors of the Second World War loom heavily.
There’s no shortage of filmmakers with whom Achternbusch shares a desire to satirise Christianity. The once-banned Das Gespenst is as ana(r)chronistic as Robert Downey’s Greaser’s Palace and Peter Medak’s film of Peter Barnes’s The Ruling Class—resurrecting a messiah figure and dropping him into a modern, sceptical world. The crucifixion imagery is equally profane, startling and hilarious in all three films. The additional image of three ‘crucified’ frogs in Achternbusch’s film, however, mocks this Biblical episode with still more viciousness.
The wordplay, blasphemy and toilet humour in the conversations between characters in Das Gespenst also bring to mind the work of Samuel Beckett; the police officers Poli and Zeitsi in particular are reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon. An unrepentant, bleak humour characterises these works, unquestionably reducing their potential for popularity with a general audience.
There are glimmers of the cinematic past, foremost the slapstick of Chaplin, Keaton and Lewis—all acknowledged inspirations, whom Achternbusch wrote about during a period as a film critic—but seemingly no desire for respectful homage, nor even all that much prodding subversion of Hollywood tropes. Acthernbusch rarely opts to shape a film according to the commonplaces of the medium as a popular artform: clear narrative arc, character psychology, linear editing, genre. Confusion is wilfully generated, as characters and matters of action are at odds, or move in circles—try, for instance, to grasp the genealogies that only several actors embody in Heilt Hitler.
“In the cinema I want to experience myself. A film that does not reassure me of my emotional existence is of no use to me. I want the cinema for survival. Too much of my life has wandered off into dreams.” —Die Atlantikschwimmer, 119 [3]
Margarethe von Trotta in Das Andechser Gefühl
Although Achternbusch’s films might appear unsophisticated in terms of technical realisation, and expressive formal qualities such as mise en scene, lighting, camera movement and editing might be hindered by the evident low budget of the productions, the director and his crew manage some extraordinarily enchanting and frightening images.
Achternbusch makes effective use of sourced music as well. The use of Judy Garland’s ‘Do It Again’ in Hick’s Last Stand (1990) gives a sense of yearning to the grey, overcast skies of the USA’s west coast—with another Garland association, two rainbows side by side, to boot—despite the ridiculous image of the director in white cowboy boots and cheap Native American head dress thumbing rides.  In Heilt Hitler, Dvorak’s New Morning lends the dissonant image of a hobbling Nazi soldier alienated in a Germany trying to move on and live after the horrors of Stalingrad an unexpectedly mournful tone.
Achternbusch’s interest in shooting natural landscapes, not only in Bavaria, but elsewhere in Germany and overseas leads him to terrains of luscious colour and rawness. The images of Greenland in Servus Bayern (1977) and the changing aspects of the American Midwest in Hick’s Last Stand reflect Achternbusch’s itinerant disposition; his desire to trace his ideas and interests far beyond the provincial backwaters of his native state, much like his friend Herzog. He has remarked: “I write books until it hurts to sit, and when I want to move I make films.” [4]
Achternbusch regularly guides the action like a Passion play through the streets of Munich, or to a hilltop bar in Andechs, giving unrehearsed reality a chance to break through his fictions, captured in the puzzled amusement of onlookers. The episodic, theatrical character of many of the scenes in Achternbusch’s films are characteristic of a playwright, but they are matched by such bravura cinematic displays as those at the Oktoberfest in Bierkampf (1977), and the fourth-wall-fracturing, extended straight-to-camera confrontation of a poet’s female lover in Servus Bayern.
The regular emphasis on spoken language—relentless, arcane and punning—can avert our attention from the clever visual humour; especially where that very language is transformed into a satirical image. Thomas Elsaesser, one of the few critics to write about Achternbusch at length in English, also draws attention to this, noting an example in Servus Bayern, in which the protagonist leaves Germany for the icy wilderness of Greenland: “a persecution fantasy becomes both the parody of a heroic myth about exile and the occasion for acting out the literary cliche of contemporary Germany traversing the ice-age of political life.” [5] Autobiography is dissolved for the purposes of turning a character—even one with the same name—and one’s body, into a vessel for references, formal possibilities and visual poetry, as well as self-effacing clownishness.
Achternbusch in Bierkampf
In Bierkampf the acted drama gives way to outbursts of very real aggression and violence among attendees at the peak of Munich’s famous beer festival. It is thrilling to watch the split-second changing reactions of the drinkers; from half-drunk good humour, or curiosity, to counter-attacks and pissed-off grappling. The long unedited shot towards the end of the film, which sees cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein following Herbert’s antics, pratfalls and scuffles—undaunted and with his camera unproblematically accommodated by the crowds—is a masterclass in confrontational performance, athleticism and mobile camera technique.
Acthernbusch collapses chronology, subjectivity, styles and spaces. Slapstick, poetry and absurdity co-inhabit with ancient history, literary surrealism and post-war trauma. There’s no formal or conceptual neatness. Though the effect is often baffling, the desire for meaning and a sense of longing is usually enacted in these works, described by the characters. Like the ‘Andechs feeling’ that troubles the protagonist of Achternbusch’s first feature film, in which he plays a teacher who stares across the landscape, clutching a glass of beer, and longs for communion with a beautiful actress (played by Margarethe Von Trotta) to feel that he is not alone. Always a melancholy, or solemnity beneath the hilarity.
A certain disorder reigns; a devilish, offensive impropriety that Achternbusch throws back at the classical and highbrow pretences of his fellow filmmakers and the prevailing conditions of the art form. Of one public discussion in the US about the New German Cinema, at which he appeared alongside Sohrab Shahid Saless, Achternbusch once recalled: “We were supposed to be representatives, against the background of the film festival of the rejects, we were meant to be the third line, show that there is a lot more territory around the heroes and the stars, prove that the German cinema has unlimited potential; we, the two nihilists, who every time we make a film barely break free from the slimy embraces of all the forward-looking assholes, those know-alls without a spark.” [6]
My thanks to Thomas Elsaesser for providing the following reference materials, which include his English translations of extracts from Achternbusch’s writings: ‘Herbert Achternbusch’, first published in Discourse (Berkeley) no 6, Fall 1983, 92–112 (the first essay in English on Achternbusch) and ‘Mourning as Mimicry and Masquerade’, from German Cinema - Terror and Trauma: Cultural Memory since 1945 (New York: Routledge, 2014), 215-243. 
Notes:
[1] Gerd Gemünden, Framed Visions: Popular Culture, Americanization and the Contemporary German and Austrian Imagination (University of Michigan Press, 1998), p. 112 
[2] Werner Herzog, Of Walking in Ice (Free Association, 2007), p. 1
[3] Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Herbert Achternbusch’, Discourse (Berkeley) no 6, Fall 1983, pp. 92–112
[4] https://www.iffr.com/professionals/persons/herbert-achternbusch/
[5] Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Herbert Achternbusch’, Discourse (Berkeley) no 6, Fall 1983
[6] Thomas Elsaesser, ibid.

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