If we can trust French film critics – and, more often than not, they have historically proven to have impeccable critical sensibilities – then it appears that we are currently in the midst of a German film renaissance. Cahiers du Cinéma, among other French publications, even coined a name to designate this event: the “Nouvelle Vague Allemande”. And by now other countries have begun to take note of this development as well. For the first time in ages, new German films are being discussed with admiration in Spain, in England and, ever so tentatively, even in the United States.
In Germany itself, the general mood within the film industry and amongst film critics seems to be sunnier than it has been in a long time, even though it bears mentioning that the specificities of the industry’s self-assessment of the current renaissance of German film significantly differ from those of a number of influential German film critics writing for the most important German newspaper feuilletons. The former bathes in the recent success of German film productions at awards ceremonies, such as the Academy Awards and various European film festivals, in an undifferentiating way; that is, the film industry and its official and unofficial spokespeople do not distinguish between the success of big-budget mainstream productions such as Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004) and the smaller films that provoked the French to take note of contemporary German cinema to begin with. The industry simply appropriates all of them as its own, no matter how little support it actually provided to non-mainstream film productions over the past two decades.
In contrast, more æsthetically discerning German film critics know only all too well that the real innovative force within German cinema today comes from a generation of critically-minded, artistically innovative, young filmmakers who are looking to enliven German film culture by making films that talk about Germany in cinematically fresh and concrete ways. Gone are the days of the so-called “German fun-culture” comedies that dominated the screens at home in the 1990s, with almost any German film looking as if it could have taken place just about anywhere; now we find a host of new films that display a distinct interest in specifically German locations, stories and socio-political circumstances. Among these filmmakers, one group stands out with some particular distinction: namely, the so-called “Berlin School”, a group of filmmakers that emerged with little fanfare in the mid-1990s, but today is attracting increasing critical attention both inside and outside of Germany. One of the key directors of this group is Christoph Hochhäusler.
Hochhäusler initially made a name for himself as the co-editor and publisher of the German film magazine Revolver (1997-), a refreshingly unconventional print-magazine that provides space for a film discourse that simultaneously promotes a critical point of view and displays a tendency to praxis-oriented issues. Actively promoting a different kind of German cinema – different to the mainstream productions that dominated the German film landscape for the last two decades – Revolver regularly features interviews with the “Berlin School” filmmakers as well as an older generation of German and international directors whom the Revolver-collective regards as positive predecessors or allies. In addition to interviews with, and discussions of films by, “their own”, therefore, the magazine also features original interviews with the likes of Lars von Trier, Wong Kar-Wai or Werner Herzog, and reprints of interviews with someone like Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Arguably performing the role of the polemic spearhead, Christoph Hochhäusler has gradually made himself a name as one of the most critically astute, intellectually challenging and provocative writers about the contemporary German film scene.
As if paralleling the careers of the original French New Wave directors, Hochhäusler eventually directed his first feature-length film, Milchwald (In this very Moment, 2003), which he subsequently followed up with his most recent effort, Falscher Bekenner (Low Profile, 2005). (Prior to his feature-length début, he made five short films.) Milchwald, co-written by Hochhäusler and Revolver-cohort Benjamin Heisenberg, loosely translates the classic German fairytale of “Hansel and Gretel” into a tragic family story set in the dismal border landscape between Germany and Poland.
Shot in precisely framed images by a mostly static camera, the film examines through the context of an unstable family dynamic the socio-psychological cost of the political and economic transformations Germany underwent since its reunification. Living in a house that looks as uninhabited (an impression emphasized by the seemingly permanently shut blinds) as its interior is uninviting, with its sparsely decorated rooms and cold colours, however, the family presents a unity only by legal denomination. Having recently re-married, the middle-aged father appears to desire to turn over a new leaf in his life but may be pre-occupied with working long hours in order to pay for the new home. His new, and younger, wife seems mostly left to her own devices and is in over her head with the two young children her husband had from a previous relationship.
On a shopping trip across the border to Poland, the mother loses patience with her nagging stepchildren and momentarily abandons them in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. When she eventually returns to pick them up, they have disappeared. From that moment on, Milchwald depicts the children’s journey into the forest where they encounter the “other” in form of a Polish blue-collar worker, as well as the stepmother’s apathetic attempt to conceal her actions from her husband. What could have easily turned into a clichéd melodramatic film instead confronts the viewer with calm yet unquiet images of people who are lost in multiple ways. Unable to communicate with each other, the adults live emotionally repressed, zombie-like existences that eventually culminate in a real death.
In turn, the film depicts the children in an unsentimental way (think François Truffaut rather than Steven Spielberg), showing them in a sympathetic light while never shying away from also revealing their crueller aspects. Yet it is the film’s very precision with which it depicts the emotional paralysis of its characters that succeeds at rendering a sensation of movement – the very thing that the film refuses to “represent” as such. That is, while the film is defined by a relentless absence of movement in terms of its cinematic æsthetic as well as plot, the sensation produced in the viewer’s nervous system by the film is actually one of mobility – an effect that is affectively produced by the camera’s intensity with which it clinically observes its specific psycho-geography.
This sensation of movement is also generated by Hochhäusler’s follow-up, Falscher Bekenner. When the film’s unemployed, late-teenaged protagonist, Armin (Constantin von Jascheroff), approaches the viewer in the film’s first shot that shows him slowly walking at night on the emergency lane of a non-descript part of the famous German Autobahn-net, the viewer is instantly alerted through purely cinematic means that once again Hochhäusler’s film is about to examine the specific conditions of a social paralysis that appears to define contemporary Germany.
Indeed, we discover that Armin suffers from a sense of un-belongingness, of finding himself in a state of uncertainty defined, on one hand, by his loving, yet at times overbearing parents and, on the other, by a social environment that views him – if it actually does take note of him – only as someone who does not appear to be compatible with the Neo-liberal demands of the transformed German labour market. Yearning for a level of attention that neither his family nor the socio-economic institutions he comes in contact with can provide him, Armin seeks recourse in what may or may be “real” or merely fantasized homosexual encounters with a group of leather bikers who regularly stop at a non-descript service area restroom on the Autobahn only minutes away from his family’s home. This desire to be touched – and thus to find some sense of selfhood outside of what is afforded him by traditional German institutions – eventually mutates into a series of actions that explain the name of the film’s German title (“Falscher Bekenner” literally means “false confessor”): Armin falsely admits to having caused a series of events, such as a car accident, out of a desire to receive some level of attention that exceeds the loving yet stifling confines of his most immediate environment.
In the end, Armin seems to be “rewarded” for his confessions at the very moment when the police arrest him. The film leaves us with an image of him in custody, his facial expression suggesting a certain amount of satisfaction, if not happiness, triggered by the anticipation of the firm grip the state’s hands will now have on his body, however momentarily.
Though æsthetically quite different than his début film (the relationship between Falscher Bekenner and Milchwaldcan be described as being somewhat akin to the relationship between Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) and Blowup (1966) in that in both pairs the films display an interest in precisely framed images and predominantly static use of the camera, while the respective later films nevertheless offer a few more nods to mainstream narrative conventions), Hochhäusler’s second film once again manages intensively to foreground the sensation of mobility – of an affect felt by the viewer precisely because it is so desperately yearned for, yet absent in, Armin’s life.
If one were to re-frame the specificity of the way with which Hochhäusler renders the sensation of mobility in his films onto the more general context of post-Wall Germany, then these films emerge as highly charged socio-political commentaries on, and, really, æsthetic experiences of, what may arguably be one of the defining issues of contemporary Germany: to wit, its notorious resistance to any form of change or mobility out of fear that the last remnants of a once well-functioning and now nostalgically mourned-for social welfare system will disappear as well. The beauty of Hochhäusler’s films – and in my view they share this quality with a number of other films made by the “Berlin School” – is that they accomplish what is anything but a small feat without coming across as announcing themselves to be “political” films. Hochhäusler does not claim for himself the subject position of a messenger with a tough-love message; rather, as a result of the images’ particular cinematicness through which they manage to assume a certainly level of æsthetic autonomy, his films offer his viewers a specific æsthetic experience that is capable of affecting viewers so that they are made to register its political impact on the level of sensation (rather than mere consciousness).
Hochhäusler is not a film theorist and, indeed, displays a healthy dosage of suspicion about a purely theoretical mode of discussing film. Yet perhaps pace his own thinking on this subject, I see his films (and the “Berlin School” films at large) as engaging in a political project that might be productively described with reference to the thought of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, namely as pursuing what one might call a viral politics – a politics that attempts to encounter the desires circulating on the neoliberal plane of contemporary globalisation on its own terms, on the level of desire: that is to say, on the level of affect. In other words, unlike a more traditional politics of consciousness-raising, the politics of these films tends to appeal directly to the nervous system by affecting viewers through submitting them to a modulation of intensities to which we have no choice but to respond. Individual responsibility, qua response-ability, becomes thus reconfigured as a collective enterprise – shared by viewers who may otherwise have nothing in common at all. Producing a community of those who have nothing in common, Hochhäusler’s films, as well as those of his “compadres”, offer an alternative contemporary German cinema that is not only addressed to an existing audience (habituated by mostly stale, mainstream æsthetic storytelling devices) but simultaneously attempts to create an audience that is yet-to-come, one that through its performative response to these films become-other to themselves – become, that is, the potential for a future transformation of the social itself.
My desire to talk to Christoph Hochhäusler directly emerged from the thoughts his films provoked in me – thoughts that are mine and are by no means to be viewed as representative of the director’s own positions. Because of my personal interest in contemporary German cinema, however, our conversation reflects a tension between more traditional interview questions and attempts on my part to find out how Hochhäusler might respond to some of my speculations about his – and post-Wall German – films. The result is the following interview, which we conducted in Berlin in February 2006. The interview originally appeared in German in Filmtext.com (May 2006), with whose permission it is reprinted here in a translation provided by myself.
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Marco Abel: Could you please talk about how you developed an interest in film?
Christoph Hochhäusler: I’d say unusually late. I grew up without television and come from a family that hardly ever went to the movies, except for going to see Disney films with their children. Only once – I was 17 or 18 – did I go with a friend to the movies. At the time, I thought of my friend as being unhealthily addicted to the cinema, and I more or less intended to save him from his addiction. Shortly thereafter, however, I had become infected myself and subsequently watched many films.
As long as I can remember, I wanted to become a painter. From early on, I drew and as a child I was obsessed with a kind of counter-reformation in art. Back then, I really was a little snob: Rubens and Tiepolo were my idols! I think one could say that they were actually cinema pioneers, given their creation of illusionary special effects. When I was 16, I realized that this fight was impossible to win, that contemporary art had to follow different paths. As a result, I turned towards architecture, not the least of which because I was interested in finding an art form that had a direct purchase on the real world. I then began studying architecture in Berlin and, simultaneously, experienced significant filmic epiphanies, especially with Italian directors: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962) really impressed me, Bernado Bertolucci’s Il Conformista (The Conformist, 1970) struck me like a sugar rush in all of its decorative overload, Luchino Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963) and many others. All of these films have a certain relationship to the baroque. And then there was David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990). I felt unprepared for this film perhaps more so than with any other. A milestone for me.
After two years of studying architecture, I realized that I’d prefer making films. I therefore quit my studies, worked as an assistant in various film productions, and started studying at the Munich Academy for Film and Television.
MA: How would you describe your studies in Munich?
CH: Disappointing. I already knew a lot of film students and was thus aware of what I could expect, but I was nevertheless disappointed. Mainly because we never discussed the basics of the medium and instead focused mostly on film technique and organization. Theory was a foreign word in Munich. When I say “theory”, I don’t so much mean film theorists like Gilles Deleuze as simply the conscious reflection about questions such as: “Why do we tell stories?” and “What is the basis of cinema?” We didn’t engage such questions in Munich. In the final analysis, I believe that such active reflecting is the only justification for a film academy. Everyone can buy a do-it-yourself book and a camera and teach filmmaking to him- or herself. But, if film studies were to provide a space for thinking about the medium, then it would make sense. In this sense, we – that is, Benjamin Heisenberg, Jens Börner, Sebastian Kutzli – suffered from an unquenched intellectual thirst, which was one of the main reasons for founding the film magazine Revolver. (1) This was our allergic reaction to our experience at the Academy. The advantages of attending a film school are, of course, very concrete, but back then we had nothing but contempt for such advantages. For in the end it comes down to connections. The academy is simply a networking operation, and you can profit enormously from the school and its infrastructure – but this has nothing to do with talent! We always fought this, since we believed that the emphasis should be on quality, not on whom you know. Nevertheless, I obviously profit from having studied in Munich as well.
MA: Did you read film history and theory on your own?
CH: There were introductions to film theory, but they were not very demanding. Our professor for film history was very good, but he didn’t have an easy time at the Academy. Neither students nor most professors took film history really seriously.
CH: The Academy in Munich, and the film industry in general, attracts people who are primarily interested in the image that is associated with film. My sense is that there are plenty of people who want to be associated with film but who don’t want to make film. I think this is true everywhere. It’s a magnet for assholes! For many of my fellow students, the oldest director they knew was George Lucas! Yet, in a place with that many people, there are inevitably some that are different. I myself am not very competent in film theory, but I’ve seen many films and believe that I am justified in saying that I have intensively thought about the question of what it means to make films under various circumstances. The discourse we organize in the context of Revolver is very much praxis-oriented. This level of discourse continues to inspire me to think about film. The distant model always remains the question that François Truffaut asked of Alfred Hitchcock: “How did you do this?”
MA: Which films were influential for your development as a director?
CH: All of the films that truly had an impact on me were made before 1970. Of course there are contemporary films that I think are brilliant, but Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932), Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1942) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) are, in my estimation, unsurpassed. The question we ask ourselves with great regularity is why these milestones are so old and whether this is the case because we don’t recognize such films as milestones in the present or whether these films are qualitatively simply better. One needs to discuss this from various angles, but I think that back then film was still a different medium. Of course, finding out whether we can get back to this moment – not to that kind of æsthetic but to such relevance – is of utmost interest to us.
MA: That’s an interesting selection of films, which are æsthetically quite different from each other. When asked which film is irreplaceable for me, I tend to answer, perhaps a bit out of routine, that it would have to be Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). But whether I truly believe that this is the best film of all time? Well, perhaps not really.
CH: My personal Scorsese favourite is GoodFellas (1990). Taxi Driver in a way marks a historical moment when art cinema, which tends to have its premiere at Cannes and similar festivals, still had a real spectacular force to it. That’s less common these days. Unfortunately, the gap has grown larger. Those films that we discuss with great enthusiasm today are rarely the films that are being seen by a broader audience, which is a shame.
MA: You were born in 1972. Were you aware of any German films in the 1980s (other than the insufferable “Otto” films or Bernd Eichinger productions, etc.)? (2)
CH: I never saw this crap! Maybe there was one or other German film I liked – though I saw those later (in the 1990s) – but in general German cinema had no lasting impact on me. The exceptions are Lubitsch – but mainly the films he made in the U.S. – Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. Directors such as Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Volker Schlöndorff were never important to me. I certainly thought that some of their films were very good, and I have no doubt that the New German Cinema of the 1970s was the most important film period in German cinema after World War II, but I cannot say that those films really affected me at the bottom of my heart. The film I liked the most was Hans Jürgen Syberberg’s Hitler – Ein Film aus Deutschland (Hitler – A Film from Germany, 1977), which I think is unbelievably good. But this is an entirely different kind of cinema, and I wouldn’t want to make it myself.
That there cannot be any succession, that German film is so discontinuous: that I always experienced as a deficit. Not just since 1945, but throughout its existence. If you examine German film history, you see a series of disruptions: the fight of the bourgeoisie against the cinema [during its early years], which resulted in those stupid theatrical prestige dramas; World War I, which meant the breakdown of the world market for German cinema; then the emergence of sound film and the bankruptcy of the UFA in 1927; and, of course, the Third Reich and the Gleichschaltung. There are always these breaks and when you look at the discussions about cinema in the 1920s, you realize how closely they resemble the ones we have today: people looked to America, suffered from an inferiority complex, yearned for a different kind of professionalism, etc.
MA: Interestingly enough, someone like Christian Petzold does have a connection – a subterranean connection, if you will – to the New German Cinema in form of his friendship and collaboration with Harun Farocki, who began his career in the larger context of the New German Cinema. (3)
CH: Yes, I also think that one can sense in Petzold’s work the influence of his teachers – or, perhaps better, father figures – Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky, for whom he also worked as an assistant. I recently saw Bitomsky’s VW Komplex (1989). The film is characterized by a certain kind of technological lyricism that has a lot to do with what we see in Petzold’s work. (4)
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MA: Please talk a little bit about your film magazine, Revolver. Why did you found it? Were there any models that inspired you, and why do you do it as a print magazine rather than an online site?
CH: We run it as a print magazine because I believe that a book allows a different kind of concentration than a website, where the reader moves more like a wasp around a cake. It’s a little bit like television vs cinema. The concentration is different. I have nothing at all against online magazines, but I don’t like reading them that much. In the end, you take what you need. It’s a bit a-social – that is, it’s more service oriented – and that’s a tendency under which film journalism has greatly suffered over the last years. I am not interested in this discourse of recommendation that functions like the sales strategy of Amazon: “If you like this film, why don’t you watch that one as well.”
We – that is, Jens Börner, Benjamin Heisenberg, Sebastian Kutzli – started Revolver in order to promote a different kind of cinema, one that had it difficult in Germany at the time. We always felt marginal in Munich. We always had the feeling that the real cinema is Spielberg and the false cinema is what we like.
This is also a question of communication when you’re surrounded by American culture, on which German culture depends a lot for obvious reasons. It is rather hard to maintain one’s self-confidence in order to say, “Yes, this is partially wonderful cinema but not what I want to do or what speaks to me.” I think the crisis of cinema – especially that of European cinema – has a lot to do with this lacking self-confidence. American cinema, which isn’t all that great right now either, profits from the fact that it has self-confidence: they ask themselves, “We’ve already done this and that, so why not do this now?” There’s a tradition of success, but, of course, also a perspective oriented towards success. It’s funny.
I was at the Director’s Guild in L. A. as they showed a film by Max Reinhardt. It was A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), which I believe is the only one he ever made in Hollywood. Back then the film was a tremendous flop and had to be really costly. The sets are superior to those of the The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001, 2002, 2003) and The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999, 2003, 2003) trilogies together; it’s unbelievable how well they’re done. The moderator who presented the film – its production designer was being honoured – began with a long apology for showing a film that was a commercial failure in its time! Most attendees probably didn’t even realize this, but for me this was very unusual, since in Germany, at least within the context of high culture, we still have the attitude that what is valuable is that which is rare.
But to return to Revolver, our model was, of course, Cahiers du Cinéma, especially the fact that, at least in the 1960s, they did not make a big difference between making films and reflecting on them: we always liked this self-confidence. John Boorman’s magazine Projections was another model.
MA: What often tends to get forgotten is that back in the day Cahiers promoted a “politique des auteurs”. That is, Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, etc., tried with the help of their criticism to forge a new path into their national film scene. They attempted to create the possibility for making a new kind of cinema through their writing.
CH: Although I think that it might be a little bit reductive to consider their writings only as polemics, as a means for them to be able to make their own films. I don’t think that back then they already knew that they would end up that way. But it is very important – for me as well – to articulate who one is. That’s the question of art as well: where do you stand, where are you? If you can answer this, you can make a good film. Every lack of clarity, that’s true for every job, leads to insufficiencies. But the question of identity is a difficult one. The “politique des auteurs” is being misunderstood 100 times a day. You have to understand that it was a pointed and daring defence of industrial cinema! After all, they said that Howard Hawks, the old warhorse, is the real artist, not Marcel Carné. This is first of all quite frivolous, and it was in their specific context rather obscene: of course the French directors worked much more “artistically” than Hitchcock and John Ford, in the sense that the former had cultured writers who wrote scripts, and the directors themselves lived artist-lives. In contrast, someone like Hawks was more like an athlete who despised people who worked for too long on a film. I think it was revolutionary to recognize this or to even perceive these films as art. It was this process that ended up leading to the big phenomenon of “pop culture” – a process that didn’t just produce benign results. For, after a while, people began to equate the “politique des auteurs” with every film in which director and film merge in a personnel-union, which has nothing at all to do with the original idea!
MA: Historically, this has something to do with Andrew Sarris who imported the “politique des auteurs” into the U.S. – but without the politique. He sold the concept as pure auteurism, which ended up being institutionalised as a theory, even though the “politique des auteurs” was never supposed to be a theory. Are there by now reactions to Revolver, perhaps especially in the established German feuilletons? (5)
CH: Yes, newspapers that published friendly articles about Revolver include the Neue Züricher, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Tageszeitung and the Frankfurter Rundschau. The industry itself also began to notice us. But in our view it took a rather long time until we saw some effects of our work. Our expectations were a bit illusionary. We thought that we would make one issue that would be so fantastic that it would create a fire right away. But if you don’t have sufficient market power to release your project with a Big Bang, then it takes 5 to 10 years until you begin to see positive results.
MA: What’s your print-run these days?
MA: I assume the fact that the Verlag der Autoren is now your distributor helps. (6)
CH: Well, it was important to professionalise our subscription operation. In the beginning, we bagged the issues ourselves, whereas now the publisher does the work for us. This helps. But in the end our circulation is so small that it remains a magazine for aficionados.
MA: Volker Schlöndorff once wrote in Die Zeit (2003) that the current malaise of German cinema – and I think he referred to what the American film historian Eric Rentschler called the “cinema of consensus” (7), that is, the German comedies of the 1990s – has to do with the fact that there’s a general resistance among German filmmakers against theory – that is, against any theoretically-informed debate about the medium itself and its relationship to its social, cultural, political and historical context. How do you respond to his speculatively diagnosed relationship between film theory and film praxis?
CH: We always said that a cinema that can reflect upon itself in an intelligent manner is going to improve itself. I always understood theory – and this is quite important to me – as an ancillary science. In every aspect. Theory is supposed to make life better by allowing us to understand it better. In this sense, I always understand theory as praxis. Unfortunately, there’s an academicism that’s completely severed from life and researches whatever, without any desire to introduce it to the world. And then there is academic culture itself with its inflexible rules, and that has no relation to film praxis whatsoever. This is a shame and we always wanted to avoid this. Of course we can cover only a very small aspect of that which we would like to see. I think we’re missing a magazine that exercises critique on a really high level. We are currently contemplating whether or not we are able to run such a magazine in addition to Revolver. But we’re not sure that we have enough time to do this.
But to get back to Schlöndorff’s analysis, I want to say that I think it’s a bit too easy simply to condemn these comedies. By now everyone uses them as a target. Of course, many of these comedies were really bad, but not all off them. And, in any case, they all wanted to be good! I actually can understand the impetus to say that we should make some comedies when all you ever get are Wenders’ films. Generally speaking, I am for a very pluralistic cinema.
MA: I find it astonishing, however, how many of these comedies display a really low level of craftsmanship. It’s not that often that you see such a low level of craftsmanship in Hollywood, even though they make a lot of terrible films.
CH: But Hollywood produces a lot of films that display inferior craftsmanship as well. In the past, one could perhaps trust that the artisanal level would be solid, no matter how good or bad the actual film was. I don’t think this is the case today. Take, as an example, one of the biggest successes of the last summer, David Dobkin’s Wedding Crashers (2005), which has a certain charm. I understand why it became such a hit, but, in terms of the craft of comedy, the script is incredibly poorly done. The film harvests so little of what it seeds that one has to wonder what ever happened to all the know-how for which Hollywood used to be famous.
But, yes, Hollywood obviously has a lot of great craftsmen, no question. And this lack of solid craftsmen was certainly a big problem in Germany. They wanted to make industrial cinema, but they had to accomplish this with the means of the Autorenfilm, and this simply doesn’t work. (8)
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MA: Could you talk about how you conceived of your first feature-length film, Milchwald (2003)? I don’t just mean in terms of the story idea’s origin but also, and especially, whether you thought of the film as emerging form a specific context, be it political, film historical or æsthetic.
CH: A number of different people told me that they sense various influences, but I had never intended to make a film like this or that one. Of course we watched some films when preparing for the shoot. For me, one of the most important films in terms of æsthetics is, as I already mentioned, Antonioni’s L’Eclisse. Although we watched the film in advance, we didn’t attempt to photograph our film in the same manner. There’s a specific range of cinema that I was interested in back then. For instance, I don’t like a moving camera all that much. Even though this might sound odd given the end result of Milchwald, I like to avoid that the viewer becomes conscious of the camera. Of course, a film dominated by long takes is always being discussed with regard to the camera work, in so far is my claim a bit ironic, but I think that you can always see the narrator if the camera is moving (leaving some exceptions aside). My ideal would be a camera that disappears after a while.
MA: Personally I love the long takes. I think what you mean with “disappearing” is something akin to the viewer’s ability to enter into the picture in an affective manner, if you will, a way of entering that is being created by this specific use of the camera. But it is a different kind of disappearing than the type of invisible editing often practiced in Hollywood. They, too, want that the camera disappears, but for different reasons, and they achieve this with different æsthetic means.
CH: Many of today’s films are especially characterized by the fact that the actual realization is divided up into too many separate parts. For me, this is an indication of a kind of inferiority complex: you don’t have the self-confidence to say, “I can actually show what I want to show in one continuous image.” At the very moment when I deconstruct everything, I obviously can manipulate a lot. When you look at John Ford’s films, that’s quite different. The danger – and I think we occasionally made this mistake in Milchwald – is to confuse the image with the gaze. I strongly believe that cinema works by means of the gaze. The gaze is something that goes into the room. The image, in contrast, is two-dimensional. As a result, static compositions tend to be perceived as an image. The consequence is that a certain kind of insulation occurs, including on the emotional level, which I generally tend to think is wrong.
MA: What you describe here already becomes visible in your new film, Falscher Bekenner (2005). When I first saw it, I was a bit surprised by how much it differed from Milchwald. When watching it for the second time, I did see some connections, but, visually, this is an entirely different film, which undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that you shot it under different production circumstances: you shot the film digitally in only 19 days – that is, much more quickly than your first film. But to stay with the latter for a moment, did you and Benjamin Heisenberg, who co-wrote the script with you, have some sort of awareness that the film somehow responds to what has happened in Germany in the past decade or so?
CH: Sure. I think the political level is even more important for me than for Benjamin. I take great pleasure in reading signs. For instance, the unfinished house in which the family lives, etc.: all of these are signs that the viewer is supposed to read and that one can and should read politically. Germany changed a lot as a result of the reunification and the liberalization of Eastern Europe. By and large, I think this was stimulating, but at times frightening as well, and it led to a lot of pain, since every change is painful to some degree. I also perceived it as an awakening, and in any case you can see this transformation affecting German cinema. There’s a new interest in locations, in social backgrounds and, of course, in the fact that many people feel afraid of the future – something that by now is about to become a new cliché. My new film is going to be completely different!
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MA: Your name is frequently mentioned in the context of the so-called “Berlin School”. Could you comment on this? Who, in your view, is a member of this school?
CH: Rainer Gansera, a journalist, invented this term, and at the time he specifically had in mind Christian Petzold, Angela Schanelec and Thomas Arslan. (9) For me, the term made more sense then than now. All three of these directors studied at the dffb [The German Film and Television Academy Berlin], knew each other and had similar models: Philippe Garrel, Robert Bresson, etc. For a long time, they were completely alone. That’s why I understood the term, though I never used it. And then I was accused of, as well as praised for, knocking on the “door of the new contemplatives” with my film Milchwald. This claim was factually erroneous insofar as I did not even know their films back then. It was more the case that I subsequently discovered with pleasure that there were others who work in the same vein as I do.
When I moved back to Berlin – I had studied architecture and did my civil service there – I was enthusiastic about the fact that there are many people here who are cinematically of interest to me. I then worked hard to create a small network, ensuring that we would meet each other, that we would do something in the context of Revolver, that we would hold discussion rounds, etc. These activities had effects on our films, although I believe that the similarities between them primarily existed before we got to know each other. I didn’t know Ulrich Köhler before he made Bungalow (2002); I only met him through his film. Henner Winkler and Ulrich already knew each other quite well; Benjamin and I knew each other from Munich; and Jessica Hausner from Vienna introduced me to Valeska Grisebach: in essence a bunch of likeminded people came together. (10) I always advocated that we would create some sort of term for ourselves, but this attempt was met with too much resistance. Henner, Ulrich, partly Valeska, and perhaps Benjamin as well had reservations, fearing that the creation of such a term would resemble too much marketing operations and define us in much too narrow terms, etc.
MA: But you did intend to do something along the lines of a manifesto?
CH: I never had a manifesto in mind, but I did think in terms of film politics, and we are still discussing whether we should not move in this direction a little bit more. But I think that the kind of cinema we make must not and cannot remain so marginalized, since we would otherwise not be able to go on making films. Hence, I think that we have to publicize our efforts in some ways. I don’t mean this in the strict sense of marketing; rather, I mean this in the sense of creating understanding for what we do. Anyway, this hasn’t happened yet. We had various discussions of this topic. For instance, long before we were invited to come to Cannes, I suggested that we should do something together in Cannes. (11) Once we took a trip together and founded something like a group, but we never communicated this group to the public because many of the others are quite cautious, and most of them do not have the kind of positive experience with groups that I have. That’s how it came that the label “Berlin School” was perpetuated and took hold in the critical perception of us, even though we never influenced this usage. Now, everyone is considered a member of the “Berlin School” who makes films with long takes, which is rather ridiculous. This really is not what connects us with each other. But I would say that Ulrich Köhler, Henner Winkler, Sören Voigt (12), Benjamin Heisenberg and myself stylistically feel more or less at home underneath this umbrella term. Then there are some people whom we feel close to, such as Valeska Grisebach, Maren Ade and Elke Hauk, whose work, however, is rather different from our æsthetic. (13) They pursue more something like a “tender realism”, or whatever one wants to call it, which in my opinion is miles apart from what Angela Schanelec or I do. Yet they were incorporated into “Berlin School” as well. In the end, it’s a group of people who know each other, who frequently communicate with each other, and who like each other’s films. But that’s it for most. Now, my relationship with Benjamin or Nicolas Wackerbarth (co-publisher of Revolver since 2004) goes further. There are work relations within this group, but they are not programmatic. In fact, I think this is never going to happen, for I also believe that we will never be again as alike as we are right now.
MA: In 2005, the so-called “Ludwigshafener position” emerged. I noticed that neither you nor anyone else from your group signed it. The position is a little bit thin, but in essence sounds somewhat like the Oberhausen Manifesto (1962). (14)
CH: Yes, just like Christian Petzold and Benjamin Heisenberg, I was asked to sign. The director of the Festival of German Film, Michael Kötz, already wanted to have a manifesto two years ago, no matter what the content would be. In the end, he simply wants to raise the level of his festival’s significance. This was quite transparent. He believes that it would have a positive effect, as a strategic position, if you will. I always considered this a bit absurd. The final text is in my view totally ridiculous. It doesn’t mean anything, not only because it lacks substance but also because the people who signed it neither know each other nor made films that somehow have something in common with each other and actually exemplify the content of this position. I criticized the text, but my critique wasn’t passed on. In principle, however, I could imagine approaching the public with texts written in the name of a group. Ulrich Köhler and myself already did something like this in the context of the Film Academy, even though in this case it was a very pragmatically-oriented effort, since its purpose was to take a political position against the “privatisation” of the Federal Film Prize in the mould of the Oscars. (15)
MA: According to you, what, concretely, would have to happen for German cinema to find its feet again?
CH: First of all, the films simply have to get better, and to accomplish this we have to be able to develop. Any other demands I might have are only applicable to myself. There’s a famous sentence by King Ludwig I who said that he wanted to turn Munich into a city that you have to have seen if you want to say that you have seen Germany. If applied to world cinema, and you say that you have to have seen German cinema to know something about world cinema – today one can only reject this claim. You do not need to see these films. There are some excellent films – Schanelec’s Marseille, Grisebach’s Sehnsucht, Köhler’s Bungalow and Montag kommen die Fenster, Heisenberg’s Schläfer, etc. But our films do not yet have the quality that one could claim that, on one hand, they crystallize the Zeitgeist and are able to speak for the world and, on the other hand, are so innovative that these films affect or move world cinema. For this reason, our films did not yet play in the main competition at Cannes and haven’t won any Golden Palm, etc. But I think this is going to happen if we are only allowed to continue to develop. In order to do this, we need a climate of interest, and this is partly the problem. In Germany, home-grown productions are treated with a certain measure of disdain, which is a shame. But, in the end, we have too many enemies. I do not mean this self-pityingly – as in, “Woe is us who are attacked from all sides!” Rather, it’s a matter of culture being something that grows together from many different directions, and, in this sense, German film culture is underdeveloped: cinema does not play a significant role for most Germans. I don’t mean to say that they don’t go to watch movies. But, by and large, they don’t care how these films are made. The public cares about content. In Germany, film discourse is driven by content. No wonder that so many German films turn to the Nazi period and the like for their topics – boring films that are not noteworthy as film. A film such as Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) is mediocre craftsmanship. But its topic – the reunification of Germany – hit the Zeitgeist. Because of this all the world wanted to see it, since the combination of the fall of the Berlin Wall and comedy is imminently sellable. These days, nations are reduced to these kinds of trademarks. If you want to have a film from The Netherlands then you need some cheese in it; if it’s supposed to be from Argentina, then we need a dose of tango. Of course I exaggerate a bit, but not a lot. These ethnic stereotypes are relevant for German films as well: they’re always supposed to be about the Nazis or, of late, about former East Germany, and that’s more or less it. Every once in a while the R.A.F. is revisited. (16) But these trademarks have more to do with content and marketing than with film itself.
MA: I think it’s interesting that you said that German cinema isn’t yet good enough so that it could speak for the world. If you take a look at, for instance, contemporary Korean cinema, then you realize that those Korean films that are popular in Korea are not necessarily those that are popular here or in the U.S. The latter are frequently rather violent films that one automatically tends to consider representations of the relatively repressed Korean culture – i.e., as something very specific.
CH: Yes, the universal is always in the specific. If it’s the other way around, it becomes a cliché. We want to see an Iranian film that treats the circumstances in Iran with precision, as far as we can judge this. In the end, I think, cinema is about the ability to recognize people. You want to understand who we are and how we are. That’s always the question: Who are we really? How do we function? These types of questions express an urge to assume a point of view external to oneself, since we are incapable of looking at ourselves [from within our own subject position]. Hence the need for mediation – the mediation of others, of cinema, of literature, etc. The truly great films are all about human beings. That’s why I am always inclined to say that Jean Renoir was a greater filmmaker than Stanley Kubrick and John Ford a more important master than Quentin Tarantino or whoever – because, in their best films, the human always assumes centre stage.
MA: In my view, the specific aspect of the best German films has currently something to do with the question of the “mobility” of Germans, or Germany itself, in the post-Wall era. In some sense, though, this appears to be a contradiction, since most of the films that I consider the better ones are films characterized by a certain degree of slowness. That is, their plots don’t feature much action and æsthetically these films are usually rather quite. What I want to suggest is this: I think that many of these films present viewers with an image of movement precisely because these films do not attempt to “represent” movement or mobility – be it social, cultural or political. Put differently, these films somehow manage to present images that in this way are currently perhaps unavailable to the viewers in their own German reality – images that allow for movement to present itself precisely because they do not embrace the clichéd neoliberal dreams of global mobilization. And that’s why I think that this cinema perhaps ought to be viewed as specifically political after all, even though – or perhaps because – it doesn’t make so-called “political” films.
CH: I understand your thesis, but I think it’s too complicated for it to be true. Of course it is the case that art always operates on the border of that which is possible at any given time. Its task is always to expand upon concepts that are about to become stale. It’s a hopeless fight, since the very use of such concepts eventually weakens their potency, which means we have to find new forms on their edges in order to describe and understand what we do. In the end, we consume images all day long: that is, we consume descriptions of how the world is, how we feel, where we go, etc. The world we live in is very narrative-oriented. Good cinema manages to provide figures and plots, as well as atmospheres that can be charged from daily usage. Very rarely does someone succeed at making a film that is capable of doing this even 50 years down the road because of the precision of its encounter with human beings. In this sense, I think you are quite right to suggest that what is good about the films you have in mind has something to do with the fact that they provide new images for new circumstances. And stylistically this has indeed a lot to do with movement, insofar as it is being narrated through its absence. Which is, however, a complementary reaction to Hollywood narration: where the latter would show the explosion, we depict the reflection of the explosion, all the way to creating the cliché of this opposite. I think, for instance, that what Petzold does at times borders too much on method. Of course he doesn’t think so, and we argue about this. It is a different kind of convention that nevertheless narrates its opposite. This omission, this de-dramatization, of course narrates the dramatic, that which is not shown. And, insofar as I agree with you, that it’s not a coincidence that this slowness occurs in a time of extreme acceleration.
MA: What I find really beautiful about your films, as well as those of the “Berlin School”, is the precision with which these films create their images. The objects that they show are being shown as objects – not so much in the vulgar Marxist sense of “reification” as in the Adornian sense of assuming æsthetic autonomy.
CH: This would be my ideal: to make a concrete cinema. Such a type of cinema presupposes a self-confident viewer, someone who is confident in his or her ability to read signs. This is what I find so great about Lubitsch: his self-confident way of dealing with his viewers. He provides the viewer with self-confidence: he assures them that they are capable of reading his signs. I think this is a truly great quality to have. For, in the end, there is always the utopian desire for liberation, from dependence, in the sense of the Enlightenment, and this is pretty much the antipode to the cinema of seduction that the Americans are practicing, if one wants to simplify the matter in this way. Even a Scorsese admits that he wants the viewer to look first exactly this way and that that way. In contrast, I am interested to encourage the viewer to look around. Of course this is, to some degree at least, also deception, for it is still the director who decides where the gaze of the viewer can go. If you will, there’s an illusion of liberty.
MA: Nevertheless, with André Bazin we could say that a style such as Neorealism, with its long takes and deep focus photography, explicitly invites the viewer to become an active viewer.
CH: Yes, he can move with more self-confidence; he’s not being directed quite as strictly. There are good and bad ambivalences. There are those that emerge because someone narrates in an imprecise manner and those that come into being because someone narrates in a concrete manner, with the result being that the viewer participates in this narrating of concrete life. This would be my hope, and I thematise this in my films, if you will, because I am interested in how we tell stories. You have three things, and the question you posit yourself is how to narrate them? Everyone does this differently, according to one’s one devices. After all, we are strongly being manipulated by our own interests.
MA: In Falscher Bekenner, we are confronted with an example of such a strong ambivalence, if I understood your film correctly. I’m thinking here of Armin’s nightly trips to an Autobahn restroom where he gives himself over to homosexual encounters. This ambivalence – whether this “really” happens or is simply his fantasy – of course resonates with another ambivalence, namely that of his confession to deeds that he did in fact not commit. The film never resolves this ambivalence.
CH: Indeed, this is what I intended. It was very difficult to leave it in such an ambiguous manner, but for me what’s at stake is the dissolving of reality. At the very moment when you break the contract because you say, “It was me”, it is you who determines causality … Reality is a social process. We communicate about that which we tell each other. At the moment you reject this and say, “I’m going to tell myself what happens”, everything resolves. There’s this fantastic sentence, “Without trust everything is fiction.” The question, in other words, is: What is fantasy? Does Armin not live in a reality that is fantasy, or is his fantasy reality? And then there is this break in the film when his parents come home: at this point, things do not come together anymore, as only one or the other can be true. In the end, I was interested in finding a world that lies on the other side of his family’s tolerance. Somehow like Indians in Westerns, if you will: the foreign, the wild, for which one yearns – after all you want to be martyred! – while simultaneously knowing that one has to fight against this urge. There are very realistic Westerns, but the Indians are always depicted in totally unrealistic fashion. And this has its purposes. When asked, “Who or what do these bikers represent?”, I always answer, “These are the Indians! They follow a different code that we do not understand.”
MA: Both of your films are also about German families. Are there particular reasons for this? Do you see yourself somehow in a line with directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Oskar Roehler, both of whom have also posited the question of the family in connection with the question of homosexuality?
CH: For me, the question of how to define one’s sexuality is one of the limits of our freedom. You can choose your sexuality only to a certain degree. That’s why I also wanted to deal with sexuality in Falscher Bekenner. It appears that we can choose everything else, which, of course, isn’t entirely true, but you can at least give yourself over to the illusion of free choice. But I think you can’t choose your sexual orientation. But whether or not you can choose it, the fact is that sexuality is a crucial aspect of the process of finding your identity. In today’s German society, it is still a significant moment when you discover that you are homosexual (or decide to be one). From that moment on, you exist in a different sphere, with a different concept of masculinity, which subsequently realizes itself in extreme forms. Like any other minority, homosexuals have to act in a more exaggerated way as well. Armin suffers from being invisible. His confession to what he never actually did allows him, in a best-case scenario, to be touched by the body of the state – that is, by everyone, like in Bentham’s Panopticon where you are being seen by one eye for that which you have done. You are being perceived, even if this comes in form of a negative perception. But you feel yourself to exist in the difference itself. And I think this is very much Armin’s story. In the end, the erotic and his being arrested melt together. There is the figure of the policeman who appears, and at that moment we don’t know whether or not he is one of the leather bikers.
MA: Is there in your mind an explicit connection between both of your films? Milchwald ends with two children as they walk along on a street towards the horizon; and Falscher Bekenner begins with a long take of Armin slowly walking towards the camera on the Autobahn. I almost had the impression that this beginning was the visual continuity of that which you had left behind in your previous film. I don’t mean to suggest that one gains the impression that Armin is really the older version of the male child in Milchwald; rather, it is as if there is an associative connection, which is being emphasized through the visual aspect of both scenes: extremely long takes with characters on the road, etc. And then there is the fact that both films are also about the relationship between parents and their children. Did you have the sense that there were still unresolved issues in the first story that you wanted to pick up on in the second?
CH: I understand what you’re saying, but, no, for me there was no connection. The end of Milchwald is more like something from Chaplin. I always liked the principle of the road: someone comes at you and a story begins. This is very archaic: the encounter as the beginning of a story.
MA: And encounter, I think, is for you specifically related to the question of communication. Based on one or the other Revolver preface you wrote, I gain the impression that you think of communication in somewhat utopian terms.
CH: I strongly believe in speaking, though less as a form of communication between A and B than as an activity in which you encounter the other. That’s something other than “understanding” each other.
MA: That is, not communication in Jürgen Habermas’ sense, in which communication gets reduced to a matter of “understanding” and isn’t accounted for, or positively valued, as an encounter in and of itself.
CH: Yes, the activity of speaking becomes a matter of tenderness. I believe that in this context cinema plays a crucial role, since cinema has overtaken all other topics as the number one conversation focus today. It functions as a vehicle for communication: people speak with films and encounter each other that way. When you ride the subway, you realize how people are constantly discussing films. But they are not really concerned with this or that specific film when doing so. It is more the case that talking about random films enables them to talk to each other – and this is what interests me about film: films as a vehicle of and for communication.
- In addition to their role at Revolver, all three are also filmmakers. Whereas Börner and Kutzli have yet to make their feature-length debut, Heisenberg’s first feature film, Schläfer (Sleeper, 2005), is one of the key new films of the so-called “Berlin School” that is currently gaining more traction with critics and audiences in and outside of Germany. For more on the Berlin School, see below as well as my Senses of Cinema essay on contemporary German films. You can find out more about Revolver, which is arguably one of the most important current German film magazines, through their webpage.
- “‘Otto’ films” refers to a series of lowbrow comedies starring the German comedian Otto Waalkes. Bernd Eichinger is the most important German producer of the past two decades. Actively rejecting the New German Cinema of the 1970s, he favours an unapologetic commercial cinema. Among his most successful productions are Die unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story, 1984), Der bewegte Mann (Maybe … Maybe Not, 1994), and Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004). He most recently produced Oskar Roehler’s Elementarteilchen (Elementary Particles, 2006), an adaptation of Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel.
- Petzold is one of the directors usually associated with the “Berlin School.” He has directed such important contemporary German films as Die innere Sicherheit (The State I’m In, 2000), Wolfsburg (2003) and Gespenster (Ghosts, 2004). Farocki is one of the most acclaimed international avant garde filmmakers whose career started in the late 1960s.
- In addition to being a filmmaker since the 1960s, Bitomsky, like Farocki, also teaches as the dffb (The German Film and Television Academy Berlin), which is arguably the most intellectually rigorous film academy in Germany. In the 1970s, Bitomsky and Farocki were editors of Filmkritik (1957-1984), perhaps the most important German film journal of the post-World War II era.
- The majority of film discourse in Germany traditionally takes place in the feuilletons of the most respected over-regional German broadsheets.
- The Verlag der Autoren is one of Germany’s most important publishers of theatre plays; it also publishes a small number of books that engage film from a theoretical perspective.
- Eric Rentschler, “From New German Cinema to the Post-Wall Cinema of Consensus”, in Mette Hjort and Scott MacKenzie (Eds), Cinema and Nation (New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 260–77.
- Autorenfilm is the specific German inflection of the cinéma des auteurs. Its most famous proponents are the directors of the 1970s, such as Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
- Schanelec’s films include Plätze in den Städten (Places in the Cities, 1998), Mein langsames Leben (Passing Summer, 2001) and Marseille (2004); Arslan is the director of film such as Geschwister – Kardesler (1997), Dealer (1999) and Aus der Ferne (From Far Away, 2006).
- Henner Winkler is the director of Klassenfahrt (School Trip, 2002) and Lucy (2006); Köhler also directed Montag kommen die Fenster (Windows on Monday, 2006); Grisebach has directed Mein Stern (Be My Star, 2001) and Sehnsucht (Longing, 2006); and Jessica Hausner is the director of Lovely Rita (2001) and Hotel (2004).
- Hochhäusler’s Falscher Bekenner and Heisenberg’s Schläfer had their world premieres in the context of the prestigious “Un Certain Regard” series at Cannes in 2005.
- Voigt is the director of Tolle Lage (The Perfect Site, 2000) and Identity Kills (2003).
- Ade directed Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen (The Forrest for the Trees, 2003) and Hauk made Flügge (2001).
- The Oberhausen Manifesto is generally viewed as a watershed event in the history of German cinema, setting in motion a transformation of the German film landscape that eventually culminated in the New German Cinema of the 1970s.
- The privatisation of the German Film Prize, perhaps the most important annual award given to a German film (not the least of which because of the prize money that’s considerably more substantial than for most other awards), happened in 2003. Not surprisingly, Bernd Eichinger was one of the driving forces behind severing the prize’s traditional connection to the federal government in favour of turning it over into the hands of a newly founded non-governmental organization, the German Film Academy, which patterns itself on the American Academy of Motion Pictures, Sciences, and Arts.
- The R.A.F (the Red Army Fraction) was the infamous left-wing terror organization that was responsible for a series of killings. It had emerged out of the student revolution in the late 1960s, and repeatedly attacked key German institutions in the 1970s and 1980s. In the so-called hot autumn of 1977, the group’s hijacking of an airplane, the Landshut, pushed the left-liberal federal government to make a number of morally difficult decisions that eventually ended in the successful liberation of the plane in Mogadishu, Somalia, the death of the terrorists that kidnapped the plane, and the suicide of imprisoned members of the R.A.F that were supposed to be exchanged for the kidnapped passengers.