Translation by Roger Hillman and Timothy Mathieson

Leben - BRD

This essay was originally published in German in Der Ärger mit den Bildern – Die Filme von Harun Farocki (Konstanz: UVK Medien, 1998), edited by Rolf Aurich and Ulrich Kriest. The English translation is published here with the kind permission of the book’s editors, publishers and the author.

I think it’s a good thing that they make films separately. The freeway in Farocki’s Wie man sieht (As you can see) is not the same as in Bitomsky’s Reichsautobahn. But it’s as if, beyond the different approaches and beyond the films themselves, they had corresponded with each other (one a James-Joyce-modernist-montage, the other John Ford-contemplative-romanticist).

– Christian Petzold

Harun Farocki, Hartmut Bitomsky, Wolf-Eckart Bühler; Manfred Blank, Ingemo Engström, Gerhard Theuring, Hanns Zischler; Rudolph Thome, the young Wim Wenders of 3 American LPs (W. Germany, 1969) and Summer in the City (W. Germany 1969-1971, with Helmut Färber and Zischler, dedicated to the Kinks), reminiscences of it in Nick’s Film, Lightning over Water (W. Germany/Sweden 1979/80). Various auteurs; unmistakably, individual voices. Nevertheless all of them more or less share something we could perhaps call the Filmkritik-style, just as there was a “Warner”-style or “MGM” -style musicals. (1)

This style is only applicable to those authors (in every sense) who made up the Filmkritik group from the ’70s until its demise in the ’80s: a collective which owned the magazine, even if not all the members were strictly speaking editors or part owners. Rather, the magazine existed as an open space in which whatever the authors considered to be important was written about. Put another way, for the sake of clarity, Theodor Kotulla, one of the leading Filmkritik authors from the early ’60s, by this reckoning doesn’t belong. Why? Have a look at his film Aus einem deutschen Leben (From a German Life, W. Germany 1977), and then at Farocki’s Zwischen zwei Kriegen (Between two wars), released the following year. Kotulla made a ‘proper’ feature film, with lots of money, a star (Götz George), and with a realist style; that is, he told the biography of a man in simple, clear steps. Farocki, by means of a chemical process and the people who are linked to this process, shows how Germany developed in the direction of fascism. With Kotulla, fascism is reactivated; with Farocki, you decide in favour of it after various ’rounds of selection’. With Kotulla the facts add up to a final sum, so that a closed, cohesive picture emerges; with Farocki the contours blur, exposing what is latent in every construction, in every image.

Constitutively, simply put, these authors wrote for the Filmkritik, some only on odd occasions, like Engström, others only for a brief, intensive period, like Wenders. And you were supposed to have not only written for the Filmkritik. You wrote when you weren’t filming, you filmed when you weren’t writing; writing and filming ultimately became a continuous stream in the flow of life. Farocki, for instance, makes Zur Ansicht: Peter Weiss (Peter Weiss brought into view) in 1979, then publishes a conversation with Weiss in Filmkritik 2, 1980 and 6, 1981; Farocki requires more time for the Glaser-project: a conversation with him appears in Filmkritik 7, 1982, whereas Georg K. Glaser – Schriftsteller und Schmied (Georg K. Glaser, Writer and Smithy) only materializes in 1988. Bitomsky, collaborating with Heiner Mühlenbrock, makes Deutschlandbilder (Images of Germany, W. Germany 1983), and writes two issues of Filmkritik to go with it, 10, 1983 and 12, 1983.

The old Filmkritik had a lively involvement in the events of the day; it had a clarity and an unambiguous ideological orientation. Films and directors were judged according to their compatibility with this ideology – which on the odd occasion meant turning a blind eye and accepting that a certain form can be more progressive than its content, as witnessed in the films of the late Will Tremper whom they admired in spite of his total ideological incompatibility with their ideals: c’est la vie (de critique). The new Filmkritik, whose protagonists, ideas, thinking, writing and productions are at stake here, seemed more preoccupied with writing its way into film history, just as the critics of Cahiers du cinéma had done before by becoming the critically accepted core of the New Wave. Selections were not made on the basis of obvious ideological predispositions (which frequently can’t be upheld in an aesthetic discussion), one described for oneself John Ford or Jerry Lewis’ impact on one’s own life.

Hartmut Bitomsky

‘Describe’ is the key word. The Filmkritik authors rarely used purely evaluative words for films by those they loved, esteemed and honoured. Instead a scene is described for pages on end, very carefully, with each word scrupulously weighed up against its implications, its resonance, its role in the logic and the poetry of the sentence and the text. Essayistic webs are woven: Bitomsky begins his unfinished masterpiece of film criticism, “Gelbe Streifen – Strenges Blau” (“Yellow stripes — strict blue”) with a quote from Freud about a case of compulsive neurosis; Bühler finds his way to Jacques Tourneur via the atomic physicist Heisenberg, whose writings echo in Bühler’s text on Irving Lerner, “Tod und Mathematik” (“Death and mathematics”). With the two Lerner-numbers in particular, further common ground emerges between the authors of Filmkritik and the Cahiers: both sought contact with those people they admired, some of the finest issues being solely interview editions. They were also proud of showing their souvenirs when they returned from travels, one example being the lovely Hank Worden photo with the dedication for Bühler.

Now it’s only fair to add that the Filmkritik group never adjusted the arguments of a reactionary director to fit their own. They weren’t blind to the ideological imponderability of John Ford. But, and that ultimately attests to their greatness, they took Ford just as he was: great, imperfect – yet morally beyond all doubt. Their corrective observations were frequently straightforward but not intrusive: “John Ford – Tribut an eine Legende” (“John Ford – Tribute to a Legend”) (Filmkritik 8, 1978, with several Irving Lerner critiques) concentrates on the American Left’s admiration for Ford in the mid-’30s at a time when certain backward people were still able to write with impunity about Ford as a sentimental reactionary and devourer of communists.

If one took all the masters and models through whom the Filmkritik directors explored their own work, and if one looked at selected works in retrospect next to each other, one could very quickly see the points of aesthetic convergence, and through these roughly sketch out the Filmkritik-style. The next step would be to describe the differences between the individual filmmakers. The great unifying figure, the director whom all honour to the same degree, is Jean Marie-Straub. Among the classical masters, they love Rossellini, Renoir, and Ford; they discover Grémillon and Ophüls again (for themselves); they define their work ethos via the pragmatism of Hawks, Tourneur and Sirk among the acknowledged directors, and in their writings seek proximity to Daves, Lerner, Fejos, and Hurwitz. Among their contemporaries they surround themselves with Pialat, van der Keuken, and Nestler.

None of these directors impose their world view on the spectator – they don’t hit you on the head with their visions, leave you lying there paralysed ready for a serious brainwash; rather, they approach the world, describe it. They show people at work and in their free time, and the dynamics of groups. Their pictures remain clear, the style is unadorned; a multiple exposure or a superimposed image is the wildest, manipulating special effect their films admit. They reject the classical bourgeois notion of the functionality of art, in which everything is finally resolved and ascribed its meaningful place.

The filmmaker who is unable or unwilling to completely shut himself off from the market (which only means that he has to create a different, ‘meta’-market, like Straub, or like many colleagues on this journal), but then refuses to do or to reject certain things, is of necessity related to the professional killer who insists on killing only in the manner he chooses, and who only walks over corpses when they’re his doing. (2)

– Wolf-Eckhart Bühler

There’s a lot of collaboration, for example, Bitomsky and Farocki share directing assignments, Farocki also works together with Blank, Engström or Zischler. They act in each other’s films. In moving away from the naturalistic-realism of the stage toward a cinematographic style, these filmmakers see the uninhibited, seamless performances of professional actors as, frankly, an awful thing. They prefer the aesthetic of the untrained actor.

One could ponder the following: imagine the Filmkritik authors as a group of travellers, archaeologists, ethnologists, or criminologists. Apart from the works of Bühler, their travel films, every last one of them, are epics running for hours, films you have to concentrate on, for which the cinema and its specific form of presentation were created. Their travels are “genuine”, they’re documentaries, or else they’re heading in that direction: Fluchtweg nach Marseille (Flight to Marseilles, W. Germany 1977, Engström and Theuring), Beschreibung einer Insel (Description of an Island, W. Germany 1978/79, Thome and Cynthia Beatt), Highway 40 West – Reise in Amerika (Travels in America, W. Germany 1981, Bitomsky), Amerasia (W. Germany 1985) and Vietnam (Germany 1994, both by Bühler). They are rarely purely spiritual: Neuer Engel. Westwärts (New Angel. Westwards, W. Germany 1987, Theuring), Ginevra (Germany 1991, Engström); even though they are texts, mention should also be made of Peter Nau’s works “Voyage Surprise” and “Hotelbrand im (hotel fire in the) Roc’h-Ar-Mor”, both on the trail of Jean Grémillon. (In any case Nau is the odd man out in Filmkritik, the only one who only writes, the only one who never wanted to make films and yet couldn’t resist the temptation on one occasion, who refined his style over the years into a kind of filmic prose, purified of journalistic impurities, which are to be found now and then even in the most finely wrought works of the other authors.)

Engström and Theuring follow Anna Seghers’ “Transit”, Thome goes after memories of Tabu (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Robert Flaherty, 1929-1931) and the early dreams and promises of his marriage, Bitomsky those of Ford and Michael Miller. Neuer Engel. Westwärts hovers as a meta-work above everyone and everything, the quest for the grail, which in its cinematographic spirituality shuns even its own meta-markets.

The reading of many ghost stories has shown me that the greatest successes have been scored by the authors who can make us envisage a definite time and place, and give us plenty of clear-cut detail, but who, when the climax is reached, allow us to be just a little in the dark as to the workings of their machinery.

– Montague Rhodes James

The notion of regarding especially Farocki’s and Bitomsky’s films as supernatural stories tickles the back of one’s neck. The first reaction is a, none too hasty, Filmkritik-pragmatic: “No/Yes”, which at closer inspection becomes “Yes”. Definitely and outright “Yes” to the first half of James’ statement. It is the precision of a gaze on the world, which comes from a world whose precision extends into the finest details. The gaze always remains still, calm, sometimes it has the charm of a police photo – the chalk outline marking the body at the crime scene in Zwischen zwei Kriegen (Between two Wars), the traces one follows in Isaak Babel: Die Reiterarmee (The Cavalry, Germany/France 1990, Bitomsky); sometimes it seems like the researcher looking through a microscope – those serial moments in Leben – BRD (Life – Federal Republic) or Die Umschulung (Re-education).

But then James speaks of the way machinery functions, that it is supposedly never wholly explicable. There he’s referring to two things. Firstly to the spirits themselves: who they are, why they do what they do. But secondly to the description of the spirits and their apparition: the handiwork of the author. One can see how, but why just like this… mystère, magic. Now you wouldn’t think this would apply to Farocki, outwardly the coolest of dialecticians among the Filmkritik authors, the brilliance of his films a result of the integrity and honesty of his analyses. Nevertheless, this has only in part to do with his intellectual achievement, that is to say, his films are not simply brilliant because Farocki has thought up something brilliant. The true brilliance lies in the presentation of thoughts, in beholding the beauty of deeply felt thought. The ghost of Leben – BRD is beauty, sensitivity towards the lives of others; the ghost is the aesthetic surplus value.

Imaginäre Architektur

Ultimately there is, after all, a “ghostly apparition”. In Imaginäre Architektur (Imaginary Architecture, Germany 1994), Bitomsky uses multiple exposures in an attempt to bring into view various gazes in houses designed by Scharoun. It remains only an attempt, and Bitomsky thematises his “failure”. However, these multiple exposures become spectral images, shots of what we can’t see and yet is there, never really tangible, a phantom without circumstantial evidence hence powerfully suggestive.

Living with films, a little the way one lives with music, a little the way it looks in 3 American LPs: looking at the world from a balcony, listening to Van Morrison, who is describing the way things are, then seeing it so.

It’s easy to do that with the Filmkritik films, as a cinephile. A good many have videocassettes with films by Farocki, Bitomsky, Bühler and/or Thome right at the front in the video cabinet, clearly visible, clearly accessible; when they come home at night, alone, yet again, depending on how dark the mood they’re in, they take a look at Highway 40 West – Reise in Amerika, at Kinostadt Paris (Film City Paris), or Leben – BRD. Thome, especially Berlin Chamissoplatz (W. Germany 1980), Das Mikroskop (The Microscope, W. Germany 1987), Der Philosoph (The Philosopher, W. Germany 1988) and Liebe auf den ersten Blick (Love at first sight, Germany 1991), is rather dangerous in such hours of bleak despondency. One holds these films dear, and with them the self-portraits of their auteurs, and their surrounds. Bitomsky’s films can hardly be imagined without his voice, his generous presence; Farocki casts friends and colleagues in roles in his films, in Anna und Lara machen das Fernsehen vor und nach (Anna and Lara demonstrate and imitate the TV, 1979) he films his daughters; Thome began filmmaking after the birth of his first child, in Liebe auf den ersten Blick his most recent young child (for the time being) runs around whooping, occasionally looking at dad who’s standing outside the frame.

We (Farocki and Petzold) then sit in the swimming pool and repeat the dialogues of the women (in Pilotinnen [Female Pilots, Germany 1995, Christian Petzold]). One could say Farocki was my dramatist – a dramatist with little interest in dramaturgy, and more in what we’d been talking about beforehand, in this everyday knowledge such as you find in many thrillers (…). Bitomsky is in any case the spiciest storyteller in the world. By the way, I believe it was music more than anything else that enticed him to the States, a record like ‘Highwayman’ with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. But now he’s written me saying that no-one over there knows this record. That is the sad fact of the matter. (3)

That is undoubtedly true, you simply have to see the composed way Bitomsky goes into an American truckies’ bar and orders a hamburger with everything, or the relish with which he films Gunslinger-Artist. Frequently a slender, very ironic and always absolutely credible sense of adventure is revealed in this everydayness, which reminds one that adventure and mystery exists. It looks different to the way one imagined it, not like Conrad or London, but better, because foreseeable and in the last analysis, accessible. Stories circulate about Bühler for instance, seemingly the most adventurous of the lot, of how he and someone else are running a bar in Saigon called “Apocalypse Now”, and how he is working for a TV station in Hong Kong, delivering reports from round the globe (he was seen in Yemen).

As such, Bitomsky and Bühler come across as more adventurous than Farocki. Bühler, quite clearly, because he travels through distant lands, Bitomsky, because his pathways lead through the wide vistas of film history.

The fatherland of a man who can choose is there where the heaviest clouds gather.

– André Malraux

Farocki’s clouds gather over the Federal Republic. He takes no trips for his films, neither to Marseilles, or America, nor to Vietnam; his travels are at best confined to cycling into some suburb or other to get to a pre-natal assistance class. Where Bitomsky still finds vague traces of a connection to the past in the everyday, Farocki discovers the dismemberment of the present.Bitomsky’s romantic cinephilia has developed from Farocki, whose films-about-films are concerned with Weiss, Kluge, or, over and over, with Straub, and the perspective of his media critical works is deconstructive, whereas Bitomsky’s perspective, while operating in similar fashion, albeit with other themes, is constructive. Farocki always seemed to be the saddest of all, his texts, especially those on contemporary themes, resembled the most corrosive acid. Underneath, despair makes itself felt, certainly, also astonishment at the fact that things are represented in the way they are represented. Once again the chalk shadow on the cobbles: rain which causes the traces to blur, and with this, Mahler’s music. To keep on going without a feeling, without a reason — beyond the simple, rational reasoning — is worthless analysis.

Endnotes

  1. Ed’s note: Filmkritik is a German film magazine, which ran from 1957-1984, and served as a hub for innovative and impassioned German filmmakers.
  2. Translator’s note: in the original German, the expression “über Leichen gehen” (to walk over corpses) has an idiomatic usage in German similar to the English meaning “to take inconsciousable risks”. This of course is lost in translation.
  3. Christian Petzold, quoted in Stefan Ertl and Rainer Knepperges, “Drei zu zwei hitverdächtig. Ein Gespräch mit Christian Petzold” (“Three to two: a future top of the pops. A conversation with Christian Petzold”), in filmwärts 34/35 (May 1995), p. 76 and 75 (first appeared in Gdinetmao, no. 8 Spring 1995)

About The Author

Olaf Möller is a Cologne-born and -based film critic, writer and curator.