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Visiting Oberhausen to Leave the Cinema

Delving into the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen's special program themed around "Leaving the Cinema".
“Inside the theater he breathed freely.”
–Peter Handke, The Anxiety of the Goalie at the Penalty Kick
Before I attended the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen for the first time in early May, the place-name had already been linked to a handful of geographical-cultural associations in my mind: the site of the legendary declaration of the 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto by a new generation of German filmmakers that announced the official break from Germany’s post-war cinema (‘The old is dead. We believe in the new’ was their dictum); the place where Wim Wenders grew up and shot a portion of his film Alice in the Cities (remember Alice and Philip Winter driving around town and its environs searching for her grandmother?); the city where Peter Handke premiered his earliest play ‘Self-Accusation’ in 1966; and, most importantly, its centrality in the Ruhr Region—the industrial rust belt of Germany. (Ready-made images leftover from Peter Nestler documentaries of factory chimneys billowing smoke, coal mining plants, working-class housing estates, et cetera.) Some of these things were vaguely on my mind when my train pulled into the Oberhausen Hauptbahnhof, where the first thing that I noticed when entering the near empty main hall is how the poster advertising the 64th edition of the festival was dwarfed by the high ceilings and the seven long vertical windows filling the hall with light. It is a fitting image for what I found to be the general relationship between the festival and its environment: a sense of being a part of a very small minority community of cinephiles here to sit in dark rooms to watch ten, twenty, thirty short films a day amidst a larger local populace that looked upon our five day occupation of the town with indifference.
And, of course, the paradox of attending film festivals in a new city or town is that you barely have time to actually see and experience the place where you are, especially at a festival like Oberhausen where just about everything happens at the Lichtburg Filmpalast on Elsässertrasse, a pedestrian street that cuts through the center of town. The result is that you spend most of the time indoors, either in the theater or in an impersonal hotel room, and ‘outside’ becomes merely a term used to denote the trek you have to do from one to the other.  So as much as I wanted to do Oberhausen the festival, I also wanted, for the reasons mentioned above, to see Oberhausen the place, leave the cinema and walk its anonymous streets, its wide tree-lined avenues that open up into parks and see its rich sampling of modernist architecture. But as is always the case, the pull of the screen, of celluloid flickers, the vital whir of projectors was unfailingly too much to resist, thus cutting short my daily perambulations; so that while I did manage to get a scent and feeling for the city, I found my feet detouring three, four times a day back into the cinema, sedately lodging myself in the Gloria Theater of the Lichtburg, (first row, plush red left aisle seat against the wall), where I spent the majority of my movie-going time watching the Theme section, which was appropriately titled: "Leaving the Cinema."
Of course, the filmmakers represented in the program did anything but leave. As the curator of the program, Peter Hoffmann, was quick to point out in his introduction the title, "Leaving the Cinema: Knokke, Hamburg, Oberhausen (1967-1971)," is a playful misnomer: the filmmakers of the late 1960s generation were not so much leaving the cinema as turning away and rejecting the official state cinema apparatus on all terms, experimenting not only a filmic level, but also with regard to distribution and exhibition. Taking the lead from the New American Cinema and the formation of the Filmmakers Co-Op by Jonas Mekas, among others, in 1962 in New York, filmmakers in the German-speaking world joined together to form their own cooperatives, the most influential and active cell being the Filmmakers Cooperative Hamburg formed in 1968, where radical filmic experimentation combined with an equally radical left-wing political schema became the basis of the collective. The type of films they made became known under the official label the Other Cinema (das Andere Kino), a catchall term used to describe any cinema that existed beyond the realm of commercial production and distribution.
The themed section of the festival was intended to give a panoramic overview of the Other Cinema, exploring its multiple faces and tendencies, a showcase of the largely unknown (with some exceptions) independent works produced within the German-speaking world during that time. Given the 50-year anniversary of seemingly all things associated with May 1968 and everything that that now fashionable year stands for, the premise seemed timely and well suited. Yet for me there were lingering apprehensions that many of the films that were to be screened, though surely provocative at the time of their making, would be inoculated by time past, robbed of their radicalism by their having been already absorbed into a standardized avant-garde. Such reservations were rapidly dispelled, the program being rich with little jewels of cinema—of which I’ll mention the most outstanding here—that managed to alter ways of seeing and hearing; films of discreet and irreverent beauty that, because of their level of abstraction, brevity and technical ingenuity elude or resist verbalization.
One such work that has remained the most potent in my mind is the enigmatically titled palindrome Kelek (1969), a film by Werner Nekes. It is made up of five long shots: a walk through a park, a basement level view of a residential street, a building façade, a banal close-up of sexual intercourse, and finally a street corner in Hamburg—passersby and cars enter and exit the frame, children play and dance and perform in front of the camera thus becoming involuntary actors. The shots are alternately sped up, slowed down and intercut with one another. Everything that you see on the screen is simultaneously heavy and light with materiality. The way the children smile into the camera, the two workmen crossing the street, the woman that appears briefly at the window, the old lady passing by in the park, the cars driving down the road. The film develops an internal rhythm, a kind of silent music enters the body, the eyes open wider revealing the essence of cinema: the act of seeing, the poetry of seeing. Kelek is a return to the fundamentals of cinema: a 60-minute Kinofilm that is a direct descendent of those first moving images of a train pulling into a station or workers leaving a factory by the Lumière brothers. The camera lingers soothingly on the surface of the world.  An hour of relaxed uninhibited perception. The gaze is finally liberated of the compulsion to analyze the content or assign significance: eventually you stop to think and just look. The screen becomes a tabula rasa, a space of voyeuristic identification between filmmaker and viewer. A longing to enter the screen.  Simply put: It’s a movie.
A similar level of filmic perception, of voyeurism is at play in Austrian structuralist Kurt Kren’s phenomenal four minute dream of a film, 15/67 TV  (1967)—a work complex in construction that I don’t know how to really write about it other than to meticulously describe it. In Venice Kren films, in five separate shots, the view from within a café of the waterfront promenade: three girls grouped together around a bollard, a man with a child at his side walk by; then a girl wearing a headscarf and her mother; behind them in the background a ship with a crane sails by; inside in the foreground a waiter or costumer passes into the frame obscuring the view. These rhythms of movement occurring at different degrees of distance are rearranged into montaged sections and replayed 21 times according to a pre-established schemata with brief shrouds of black (like blinks of the eye) dividing each section. Each shot, fleetingly caught on film, contains the embryo of a story. But at the heart of the film is this mysterious structure known only to itself, the experience of watching equally as exasperating as it is exhilarating. As in Nekes’ film, we first begin to question the point of it all, searching for clues of significance or meaning. However, soon we see this lithe personal film as a delicate piece of music, a moving image-dance where distance and perception fuse together into a single state of play: that’s tele-vision.
Another Austrian experimental filmmaker represented in the program also concerned with ‘showing seeing ’ under specific self-imposed structural parameters is Hans Scheugl, whose two and half minute road movie Wien 17, Schumanngasse (1967) screened next to Kren’s work. A drive down a grey wintry street in Vienna from beginning to end all captured in a single take in one 30-meter roll of 16mm film, exactly equal to the time it takes to cover the distance: street and film strip, film-time and real-time, the speed and movement of the car and the speed of the camera, reality and its reproduction—all these elements are obscured and conjoin into one. The border between space and time falls away and we are left with is a piece of film-reality. Yet there is more to it than that: if Kren’s film is a tightly sealed hermetic waltz, Scheugl’s is a poignant chamber piece on times passage, on transience, the traces of melting snow that line the pavements, the trams and cars slipping by, the pedestrians that by chance enter the frame than leave forever, the inevitable sense of an ending, a streetscape of sadness, the melancholy of coming and going. Again, there is a return to beginnings here, a Lumière-esque quality that takes us back to basics of cinema. Despite their formal experimentation and their treatment of the film medium as its own material reality, the three films by Nekes, Kren, and Scheugl all share a documentary attention to the concreteness of things outside the film strip, a guiding interest in the sensual experience of world.
Such a return to cinema’s origins as a distinct language and its eventual total de(con)struction was epitomized in the program by the final Austrian avant-gardist I’ll mention—Kren and Scheugl’s collaborator and friend, the inimitable Ernst Schmidt Jr. Definitely the lesser known and the filmmaker imbibed with the most punk spirit of the Vienna-based gang, Schmidt Jr. is a practitioner of a decidedly lo-fi DIY aesthetic shot through with a stimulating dose of mischievousness.  Out of the three films by him screened at the festival, Filmreste (1966) had the most lasting impact on me. The work is like a series of acute shocks to the materiality of celluloid itself, breaking down and abstracting its content to the point of unrecognizability. A proto found footage piece, Schmidt Jr. created a hyper-montage out of the leftovers and scraps of his previous shorts along with different film leaders, amateur footage, and footage of happenings called ‘actions’ staged in Vienna. Heavily manipulating the material through different methods of physical intervention, such as applying paints and dirt onto the individual frames, Schmidt Jr. destroys all clues of narrative or content. The result is a kind of organized anarchic collision of images, a visceral punch to the gut of cinema. Whereas in Kren or Scheugl there remained a concrete link to the world beyond the frame, in Schmidt Jr.’s film that indexicality has been irrevocably severed. All that exists is the frame, the medium itself.  Grafted onto the images is an equally complex and deformed soundtrack—a haphazard collage of Gospel and piano music, radio news snippets (I remember hearing the term ‘Israeli troops…’), static and drones, along with a voice, presumably Schmidt Jr.’s own, announcing seemingly random double-digit numbers (or he is sounding out frame numbers?). The sound feels like its carrying perverse messages; coded transmissions from a dark future. (I later read that Schmidt Jr. called the film a "model for a futuristic newsreel").  The experience of watching and hearing it is like taking in, in one deep breath, an action painting—self-consciously physical and violent, dreaming of its own creation, dead set on its own destruction.
Another film similar in spirit and methodology to this one was Birgit and Wilhelm Hein’s Rohfilm (1968)—the materialist film par excellence. Again, how do describe this film? The technical complexity of the work reaches way beyond my descriptive capabilities. The film, an all out assault on celluloid, exists on its own language plane, inhabiting it own world. The title already says something—film reduced to its raw state. Manipulated film material of different gauges and frame sizes are glued together and projected onto the screen. Identifiable images, such as the Cologne Cathedral, the Rhine River, a bald man smoking, appear regularly, sometimes side by side. Scintillating flashes and flickers of light bounce off the screen and back onto us, wide-eyed and still.  But most of all what we see is film itself, film in action: frame borders, perforations, negative and positive strips glued together and reamed through the projector.  Film material demystified, made visible, freed of the burden of meaning. Film is.  Minutes into it you begin to understand what it means for a film to be made up of images, images that are run at 24 frames per second and how each moving frame is the result of a light hitting emulsion. No magic or mystery, only: time and light. Whereas in Filmreste it is the language of cinema that is being dismantled in order to reveal the medium itself, in the Heins’ work the medium too is set to self-destruct—apparently it was to be projected over and over again until it, quite literally, broke apart or until the audience rioted or walked out of the cinema. Too bad there were no additional screenings, because it is a film that I could have easily watched repeatedly back-to-back.  
These five films that stuck with me the most, though not overtly political, as opposed some of the others less memorable films in the program, dealt in the politics of seeing and hearing. (And if that’s not political, I don’t know what is.) Leaving the Gloria Theater after spending the day there, stepping out of the darkness of the theater and into waning the light, I had a new appetite for the world. Armed with a new pair of eyes and ears, I saw Oberhausen: felt the air rearrange itself, saw the pavement glistening in the twilight, heard the hiss of the trees that line the avenue together with the soft patter of the fountain on the way to the station as one sound. The environment of a film festival is not necessarily the best place to experience a film; the daily inundation of images can leave you burned out, unaffected and exhausted. So I am thankful to Oberhausen for providing the opportunity to encounter these five stunning works of cinema (the Other Cinema, remember) that rewired, if only momentarily, my ways of seeing and hearing. Time to leave.

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