Translated by Heike Reich and the author
For a Romuald Karmakar filmography, click here.
At the end of the 1980s and beginning of the ’90s, anyone who raised the topic “German Film” in a cinephile conversation would inevitably find a few people grinning, giggling or simply laughing out loud. Actually, it wasn’t just a few, and usually you had to break off the sentence (because of embarrassment – or because you started to laugh yourself).
Of course this was unfair. But it reflected the perception of German films in various fields, from the general public to hardcore specialist circles. The label “German Cinema”, as promoted by lobby groups, distributors, publicists and other mouthpieces of the industry, was obviously rather thin and weary and also somewhat ridiculous. These mouthpieces didn’t really know whether to still emphasise the international acclaim of Germany’s auteur filmmakers (as they had done in the ’70s and early ’80s) or to go with the new cultural ideal of a ‘commercial home product’, which was aggressively anti-auteurist and oriented towards broad comedy. World relevance for German art cinema was, by 1990, a chimaera, and the desire for commercial clout on the home front created nothing but poor and un-exportable films.
The actual strengths of German fiction film during this period – small realist work by Michael Klier and Uwe Schrader – were just as ignored (at least internationally and in the rhetoric of a national cinema identity) as the more radical interventions by an older, sharper generation: Herbert Achternbusch’s Wohin? (1988) and Hades (1995), Straub/Huillet’s Der Tod des Empedokles (1987) and Antigone (1992) or film essays by Hartmut Bitomsky and Harun Farocki. Even less remarked upon were films by the youngest generation, which, in the late ’80s, began to reclaim a number of film-culturally discredited issues such as politics and history. In a decidedly punk manner, they took up the threads of a bond which had been broken by Fassbinder’s death (1982), Kluge’s slow withdrawal from cinema (until 1986), the introduction of private television, and the neo-conservative strategies of Helmut Kohl’s government (starting in 1982). I will name just two, perhaps the most important representatives of this generation: Christoph Schlingensief and Romuald Karmakar.
That which now – 12 or 15 years later – provides the German cinema with expressive depth, precision, analytical intelligence and/or genuine enthusiasm, is almost exclusively connected to filmmakers of this generation, born between 1959 and 1965: Das Himmler Projekt and Manila (both 2000) by Karmakar, Die Unberuehrbare (2000) by Oskar Roehler, Die innere Sicherheit (2000) by Christian Petzold, Dealer (1998) and Der schoene Tag (2001) by Thomas Arslan – as well as some highly successful commercial-cinephile examples, such as 23 (1998) and Crazy (2000) by Hans-Christian Schmid, Lola Rennt by Tom Tykwer (1998) or Sonnenallee by Leander Haussmann (1999). Even Christoph Schlingensief is still doing Cinema – albeit since 1997 in the realms of theatre, television, public art and politics.
Overall, this list makes for a genuine film-stream of the moment, fed by a 1980s mentality of deconstruction and transition as well as the problematic experience of the ‘Wende’ and German Unity which followed around 1990. It is fed by new social influences such as métissage (the in-between culture of second generation Turkish immigrants) as well as the new subcultural energies (a lot of Super-8 and egomania), which were promulgated in the mid ’80s by ‘crazies’ such as Karmakar and Schlingensief. It is certainly no accident that since his move to autonomous television work, Alexander Kluge has created numerous thrilling programs with these two young men.
Mercenaries and Mavericks
In October 1993, I experienced Romuald Karmakar ‘live’ for the first time. He was a guest presenting his film Warheads (1992) at the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival, which I was then running together with Wolfgang Ainberger. During the Festival, Karmaker was part of a small ‘band of four’ of young German directors who felt connected by their public role as agents provocateurs; and they all shared a certain anger towards the German film establishment. Apart from Karmakar, the group included Winfired Bonengel (who attended the Festival with his documentary Beruf Neo-Nazi), Christoph Schlingensief (Terror 2000 – co-authored by Oskar Roehler) and Joerg Buttgereit (Der Todesking and Schramm, whose lead actor Florian Koerner von Gustorf later produced Die innere Sicherheit). Of all the other guests at the Festival, it was the two‚ outsider artists, Dario Argento and Terrence Malick, who appealed to them the most.
During a hefty panel discussion about documentary film and the representation of ‘evil’, both Bonengel and Karmakar were confronted with doubts as to the legitimacy of their portrait work. “Have you really kept the necessary distance? Weren’t you ‘led astray’ by your main characters, the ‘enemy’?” In short, are the Neo-nazi (in Bonengel’s film) and the mercenary killers (in Warheads) not far too appealing? The fact that German Public Television and the subsidy board of Northrine-Westphalia had turned down Warheads, judging the film as militaristic and gleefully violent, helped to heat up the debate.
Warheads, a three-hour epic (which Karmaker later reworked as a radio play and an oratorium on CD), concerns two mercenaries: the German ex-foreign legionary, Guenther Aschenbrenner, and the younger English soldier of fortune, Karl. It is not the professional national servicemen but rather the ‘free agents’ whose biographies and lives in the world of armed conflict are being portrayed here – more or less by the participants themselves.
Thinking back to Warheads and the Vienna Panel discussion, it becomes clear to me what constitutes the ‘scandal’ surrounding Karmakar: The people he films don’t appear to be ‘classified’, neither on first impression nor with hindsight; they are not carefully placed into moral or political categories. He doesn’t wrap his characters in a filtering veil of correct angles (attitudes), even though, as a filmmaker he continually chooses the right angle (camera position). This is exactly the problem that a pedagogic idea of cinema always has with artists who, first of all, look at the world with wide-open eyes; who let themselves be led astray, not by evil but by the contradiction and profusion of a ‘different’ way of life and thought, which lies outside pedagogical respectability. In Warheads, while demonstrating irritant-gas, a mercenary trainer tells the film team: “The stink is so strong, you’ll get a whiff of it too”. Then he turns to the keen student adventurers in his camp and says in English: “You can stand it. It will sting you, but you can do it.” This utterance somehow relates to the all too concerned cinema audience as well.
His basic attitude – the genuine interest in ‘intolerable’ people and life-forms – connects Karmakar to certain American directors such as Sam Peckinpah, Monte Hellman and John Cassavetes. These filmmakers were considered mavericks, rarely choosing to adhere to the rules of the film industry. In this, too, Karmakar is on their trail. Among his short documentaries is a video-interview about Cassavetes (Sam Shaw on John Cassavetes, 1990) and one about Monte Hellman (Hellman Rider 1988, together with Ulrich von Berg). Hellman’s masterpiece, Cockfighter (1974), is based on the novel of the same name by US author Charles Willeford, himself a maverick. Karmakar dedicated his own film about cockfighting, Gallodrome (1988) to Willeford.
A fairly rough video, Hellman Rider is clearly the work of a fan. Karmakar controls the camera, while Ulrich von Berg asks the questions. However, on one occasion, as the late afternoon sun falls through the windscreen onto Hellman’s face, Karmakar manages to get a word in: “You look good with sunglasses.” Hellman replies: “I can certainly see better with them”. This fleeting moment, which in passing also forms a nice commentary on seeing and appearance, calls up the classic form of the cinephile ‘teacher-student relationship’ as it once existed between John Ford and Peter Bogdanovich or Fritz Lang and Jean-Luc Godard. The (wise) dinosaur and the (inspired) baby.
Among other things, mavericks can be identified in that they take heart from a hostile world of disapproval and humiliation and create new energies from it. For Romuald Karmakar, the experience of disapproval and hostility towards his work is an important part of building an identity as a filmmaker in Germany. Right from the beginning, the tension-filled relationship between his films and the various subsidy boards or television stations are central to his method of work.
I first heard of Karmakar in 1989. There was talk, with raised eyebrows, that Enno Patalas had offered an unknown 24-year-old filmmaker a full retrospective in the renowned Munich Film Museum. In the same year we saw Kluge’s first Karmakar program on TV. The body of work was small, and Karmakar was seen by most critics as simply a ‘born documentarist’. In fact, the short documentaries, Gallodrome and Coup de Boule (1987, about the impact and power of soldiers’ heads), as well as the medium-length, Hunde aus Samt und Stahl (1989, about pit bull terriers and their owners), are complete ‘anticipations’ of a wide-ranging cinema concept, which hardly concerns itself with traditional genre boundaries.
Abstracting conventions of verité through framing, montage and sound editing, avoiding all commentary, and using techniques such as repetition and overstretching (the camera ‘hanging on’ after the supposed ‘point’ of a shot), these films push the aspect of artistic creation very clearly to the foreground. This is also the case in the later documentary and fictional works: one is always aware of the ‘created’, but paradoxically this awareness strengthens the pull and maelstrom effect of the events and stories that are presented.
Although, at first impression, Gallodrome is reminiscent of Georges Franju’s classic, Le Sang des bêtes (1949), the impetus is quite different. It is not about the blood of animals and the dialectic of civilization. Driven by a seemingly icy curiosity about games of stress with animal and human bodies, Karmakar wants to know and show how exactly these battles look, but he is also vehemently interested in that which leads to the battles, and what remains afterwards.
The head butting of the French soldiers, the cockfighting and the pit bull enthusiasts can later be linked to the action artist Flatz, (Demontage IX, 1991: Flatz’ naked hanging body rings like a bell between two steel plates) and to the amateur boxers in Infight (1994). In the latter, Karmakar’s narrative model of before/during/after-the-fight can be studied in a particularly beautiful way. There are no triumphs to report here (not even in the case of a victory in the ring). Instead, we are shown those soft or ‘crazy’ places, which in all the best mens stories stand contrary to the social ideal (or self-image) of hardness and rationality. Monte Hellman’s games of competition, the car race in Two Lane Blacktop (1971) or the cockfights in Cockfighter serve, amongst other things, to show the Warren Oates characters as not completely ‘hardened’; to contrast their absurd will for victory with awkwardness, sadness and wounds in the armour. A strong echo of this can be found in Manfred Zapatka’s macho figure in Manila. When he tells how he once assisted at an execution in Saudi Arabia (and failed sexually thereafter), he cites a further violent game with animals: It was “like a bullfight: when it gets serious”.
Taking a cue from Infight, it could be said that Karmakar’s work is not – as is sometimes maintained – ‘martial’ or ‘mythically masculine’, but an exploration of defeat and an analysis of slipping. Stated in terms of boxing movies: Karmakar always shows the moments of truth – when we were NOT kings.
In October 1995, Romuald Karmakar was a guest at the Viennale for the second time. His debut feature film, Der Totmacher (1995), with Goetz George in the role of real-life (1920s) serial killer Fritz Haarmann had just excited a lot of interest at the Venice Film Festival. George, son of a famous Nazi era actor, major star of German cinema and, since the end of the ’50s, the emblematic figure of continuity in the film industry, had been awarded the Coppa Volpi as best actor, his first major award on the international scene.
At the Vienna Festival, George didn’t so much appear with Karmakar, as against him. This was already noticeable on the trip from the airport to the hotel. At the get-together before the film presentation and afterwards during the public discussion onstage, the friction was openly evident. Behind this conflict was the question of who the actual ‘author’ of the film was and therefore who was responsible for its success with critics and public alike. George imagined himself to be the central creator and viewed his director as a kind of apprentice, who was allowed to observe (and arrange for a few of the necessities), while a ‘historically given’ text, an unchanging space and a virtuoso actor started the fireworks.
However, the main method by which Der Totmacher – and numerous other Karmakar films – operates is certainly not that of the actor. It is the method of vigilant reading, selection, sounding, reworking and scenic construction of existing text elements, of real ‘speaking parts’ and of historical materials for the purpose of their “fulfillment with the present”. One can imagine that George wanted to rescue Historism from Walter Benjamin’s modern view of history; choosing to be the kind of historian-actor who feels his way into the past and into the part in order to mimetically recreate a long-lost whole (which, of course, never existed in the first place). This methodological contrast between the main actor and the director creates a specific inner contradiction, which Der Totmacher can never quite throw off. Nor does it aim to.
The processing and dusting off of the layers that have accumulated around text documents and their political and cultural contexts is a significant element of Karmakar’s cinema.
He selects and dusts off – records of the pre-trial psychiatric examination of Fritz Haarmann, on whom the Peter Lorre role in M was based (Der Totmacher); the 3 hour long speech Heinrich Himmler gave to the SS generals in Posen, only small snippets of which are ever cited despite its notoriety as an unequivocal call for mass murder (Das Himmler-Projekt); and the letter exchange between Friedrich Nietzsche and his mother shortly before Nietzsche’s descent into mental derangement (Der Tyrann von Turin, 1989-94).
He invents and dusts off – a fake document, the supposed report by a Munich friend of Adolf Hitler about their wild times together in the ’20s (Eine Freundschaft in Deutschland, 1985).
And he finds and dusts off – literary texts like Joerg Fauser’s radio play, Fuer eine Mark und acht, which forms the basis of Karmakar’s fine television film, Frankfurter Kreuz (1997), set in a single location like Der Totmacher. Even the screenplay for Manila, co-written with novelist Bodo Kirchoff, has similar characteristics: real life dialogues, overheard, accumulated and broken up again into movie dialogue for a more precise portrayal of how Germans put emotions in linguistic motion.
In Karmakar’s films, the actor is a kind of sonar or sounding device (Kluge uses this term to describe Manfred Zapatka in the ‘role’ of Himmler), a probe sunk into the text, in order to make it speak to us. This necessitates a delicate form of half realistic, half highlighted manner of acting and speaking which corresponds to the realistic artifice of the factual texts and their literary compression (with Fauser and Kirchhoff). In this regard, Manfred Zapatka is probably the ideal Karmakar actor (like Warren Oates was for Hellman) – a supposedly run-of-the-mill TV actor who in Frankfurter Kreuz, Das Himmler Projekt and Manila develops an unbelievable yet transparent intensity. Seeing these films, we should assume that – not just because of Zapatka – Karmakar reveres and in a certain sense desires his sonar-actors: ‘You complete me’ is the line used by melodramas and love songs at this point. The rejection by Goetz George after the shooting of Der Totmacher is therefore not necessarily an exception to the rule from Karmakar’s perspective, but more like a battle of hegemony typical of the identification industry. An actor who would be (and remain) king, who refused to complete anyone and who attempted to be not the messenger, but the message itself.
At the beginning of Karmakar’s Super-8 work, Eine Freundschaft in Deutschland, one reads a simple sentence, which may be applied to his entire creative output: “In this film, everything documentary is real and everything fictional is not necessarily false”.
Karmakar, not yet 20 years old, plays Adolf Hitler in this film – we get fake home-movie scenes, narrated off-screen and run through the projector by Hitler’s ‘friend’. A few years later, Christoph Schlingensief also shot a Hitler movie (100 Jahre Adolf Hitler – die letzte Stunde im Fuehrerbunker, 1989) as well as a wildly funny remake of Veit Harlan’s 1943 death wish melodrama Opfergang (Mutters Maske, 1988). “We have to change history in order to get to other material” says Alexander Kluge’s voice in his film Die Patriotin (1979). It seems that Karmakar and Schlingensief took this sentence more seriously than anyone else. (Coming from a different direction, Herbert Achternbusch presented his own Hitler film in 1985: Heilt Hitler. This was at the beginning of his Super-8 phase; three years later he employed Karmakar as an assistant director on Mixwix).
The second, equally important attitude informing these films is Punk. Super-8 (or a ‘supereightish’ surface) is the corresponding format, signalling – as did the New York and Berlin film scenes – a trashy severing of previous aesthetically and/or intellectually ‘correct’ approaches to politics and history. When questioned about what had brought him, a self-educated artist, to the cinema, Karmakar says: “Punk, football, the Werkstattkino [Munich's trash arthouse/cinémathèque] and the Munich Film Museum”. When, at the end of Warheads he inserts the Croatian cover version of an Iggy Pop hymn – ‘Bang-Bang (Vukovar)’ – we can hear the echo of this assertion.
Next to the fake text and fake amateur films, the documentary aspect of Eine Freundschaft in Deutschland is equally important: immobile shots of actual Hitler locations in Munich, everyday places and houses, as they look today (1985). Later, Karmakar uses the same approach for Der Tyrann von Turin: Super-8 images of Turin, filmed in November 1989 (the director was a guest at the Turin festival ‘Cinema Giovani’), accompanied by Friedrich Nietzsche’s letters from and about Turin dating from the end of 1888 to the beginning of 1889. When, in the letters on the soundtrack, there is mention of a wonderful alley along the bank of the Po or of the red and gold autumn light in Turin, we see a ‘cover-version’, recorded exactly a hundred years later. History is not reconstructed, not ‘made whole again’, but rather ripped up into a concurrence of bio/topographic fragments of now and then.
Karmakar’s images conjure Hitler and Nietzsche as ghosts, in order to make them everyday figures in an everyday world: “after the film about Adi, now we’ll have the film about Fritz”. Completely cynical in the first case and almost lovingly in the second, these titans become “an optical state and an acoustic movement” (Olaf Möller) and can thereby be recognized as building blocks for multifaceted discursive constructions: Media-Lego, History-Lego.
Expanding these strategies, the issue for Karmakar with the reworking of documents is not just an examination of the past as a then-present but rather what they indirectly tell us about the period’s aftermath. “The Himmler Projekt”, he says, is “actually a film about the post-war Bonn republic” – the SS Generals who had all listened to the Himmler speech kept it silently alive through their successful, unchallenged biographies, well into the 1970s and ’80s. In Warheads, a young Munich woman who has returned to her homeland, Croatia, at the end of 1991, fully prepared for war, says about a number of colleagues at the front: “there are crazies there, who go to sleep with their rifles. What will they be doing after the war? I am more afraid of the time after than now. It isn’t going to stop that quickly.”
Mercy in Manila
In the late summer of 1999 I had the opportunity to see, in Munich’s Bavaria Studios, a rough cut of Manila, which was finally completed in the year 2000. How controversial this film would be in Germany was not clear yet (and is still not understandable). My perception, drinking the film rather that seeing it, simply was and is: shattering, magical. Manila will remain.
After the screening, in a Munich beer-garden, Karmakar and author, Bodo Kirchhoff, spoke about the production: about how expensive and difficult it was to build a complete airport waiting lounge in the film studio (that’s the only location of Manila); about the characters who are based on real travel acquaintances; about the stand-out cast, from Margit Carstensen to Sky Dumont, from Elizabeth McGovern to Manfred Zapatka; and about the endless maelstrom of the final chorus, which is conducted and sung by the waiting passengers. It is the prisoners’ chorus from Verdi’s ‘Nabucco’, but with new German lyrics: “ Poli-zei-stun-de ken-nen wir nicht” (‘We don’t know the closing hour’) – just this one line, over and over, and growing more regressive every time. Kirchhoff explained how even this scene was based on a real observation: once, at Lake Garda in northern Italy, he experienced how, at the end of a party a group of newly rich Germans had bawled out this line for half an hour.
The wonderful thing about the scene is that it remains completely ambivalent: beautiful and cramped, passionate and horrible at the same time. Here Karmakar stands further than ever from emotional, moralistic or national clichés. Scenes of singing and dancing sometimes allow for such experiences in the movies, wavering between utopia and ideology (and German cinema has, in this respect, a particularly grand tradition: the fragile songs in Peer Raben’s and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s oeuvre). The length of these scenes must not be allowed to run too short: In Warheads, for instance, at a meeting of the ex foreign-legionnaires in French Guyana where every single stanza of a particularly gruelling Nazi-song is struck up: “In einem Polenstaedtchen, da wohnte einst ein Maedchen…” (‘In a Polish town, there once lived a girl…’). Or, at night’s end in Frankfurter Kreuz, when a sudden pair of lovers in a pub is seen swaying endlessly and in self-absorbed fashion to current pop music. And a further instance in Manila when a local hit can be heard on the radio and the mildly threatening early-retiree, Franz, unexpectedly breaks into dance with the Philippine bathroom attendant, Mercy, in the toilet foyer.
Karmakar’s relationship to Germany, his consistent ‘work on what is German’, is characterized by a strong, almost irritated feeling of foreignness – and at the same time by a serious claim to truth, by super-exact knowledge of the details, and by the will to independently articulate oneself in this ‘whirlpool’. This can be felt in the films just as in discussion.
I think that Karmakar, who undertook his schooling at the German Gymnasium in Athens and his military service in the French army, feels he belongs to a world of legionnaires and exiles right in the middle of Germany. In this world, one encounters fragments from other biographies of foreignness. Maybe fragments from the life of Christa Paeffgen, daughter of a soldier euthanised by the Nazis, star model in Berlin, Paris, Rome, singer with Warhol and the Velvet Underground under the name of Nico, later to ripen, via drug-and-death-music, into the Marlene Dietrich of post-68. Or fragments from the life of Guenther Aschenbrenner, the ‘hero’ of Warheads, son of a Nazi family, who joined the foreign legion early on and became a paid fighter in other people’s wars. Or fragments from the work of Peter Lorre, Austro-Hungarian, who, via theatre and M in Berlin and via Hollywood exile, made his way back to Germany in 1951 in order to create the ultimate film about foreignness, Der Verlorene.
All of these are of course constructions, but radical construction is after all the point which Karmakar’s work – next to ‘being led astray’ and ‘sounding out’ – has always aimed at. The figures in Manila are built, layered and poetically condensed from real, historical, and linguistic elements. Constructed Germans, far from home, who – in singing and dancing, in sudden bursts of stress and in looking at images of self and the other – experience both the hardness and the mercy of their constructor. They certainly tell (also thanks to the actors’ artistry) about real people, even though they are not ‘somehow improvised’ or conceived in a ‘documentary’ manner. They are like ‘whole sentences’, like the condensed, carefully built sentences of Romuald Karmakar, regardless of whether he finds himself in front of Kluge’s camera, in private discussion or opposite the cinema public. Whereas, for example, Christoph Schlingensief tries to tear himself out of control in order to generate new situations, Karmakar strives for concentration and control of his (filmic as well as linguistic) expressions. From these are created new aggregates of sound/image and thought.
In situations which mainly revolve around the ‘imprecise’ (eg. public discussions after film screenings), both methods can lead to controversy, spontaneous breaks, or misunderstandings. In our peacefully commodified connoisseur culture, however, there are far too few of these anyway.
1985 Eine Freundschaft In Deutschland
1987 Coup De Boule
1988 Hellman Rider (co-made with Ulrich von Berg)
1989 Hunde Aus Samt Und Stahl
1990 Sam Shaw On John Cassavetes
1991 Demontage Ix, Unternehmen Stahlglocke
1989-94 Der Tyrann Von Turin
1995 Der Totmacher
1997 Frankfurter Kreuz (TV)
2000 Das Himmler-Projekt