On the last weekend of the 2010 Berlin Film Festival, the International Forum treated viewers to one last highlight (according to many observers it was one of the few the sixtieth anniversary edition of the festival had to offer). Unusual for a film festival, the organisers decided to include the world premiere of Dominik Graf’s ten-hour long television crime series, Im Angesicht des Verbrechens (In Face of the Crime, 2010). The screening was divided into two five-hour-long blocks, one on Saturday, the other on Sunday. The excitement among the attendees was palpable, and at the end of each episode the audience applauded enthusiastically, giving Graf (and his team) a long, passionate standing ovation at the end of the first five hours. (1) German film critics echoed this immediate audience response in the days and weeks following the screening; many observers suggested that Im Angesicht des Verbrechens was the best offering at the festival, with some even calling it a masterpiece. I write “German” film critics, however, because the screening of Im Angesicht des Verbrechens lacked subtitles, a circumstance that presumably deterred most international festival attendees from trying to get a ticket for the screening(s). Indeed, I want to suggest that the festival’s failure to screen a subtitled version must be considered in symptomatic terms: on the one hand, Dominik Graf is known in Germany as one of the country’s true contemporary masters of the art (2); on the other hand, Graf’s work is almost completely unknown to non-German-speaking film enthusiasts because his work rarely appears at international film festivals and is generally not available on DVD with subtitles. This is an odd state of affairs—one that I wish the Berlin Film Festival had begun rectifying by ensuring that, indeed, the world could have had a chance to fully appreciate the “world” premiere of this highlight of contemporary German filmmaking. (3)
Part of the reason Graf’s work is little known outside of the German-language sphere—reasons that the following interview addresses—is that most of his work is made for German television. Of his more than sixty productions to date, Graf’s career, which is now well into its forth decade, has yielded barely two-handful of films that were actually made for the big screen or were at least shown theatrically. And yet, one of the consistent refrains among German film critics is that Graf’s feature-length work for German television amounts to the best of what German film productions have to offer each year. For instance, one would be hard pressed to find among German cinema productions of the last twenty-five years more compelling melodramas than Graf’s television trilogy, Deine besten Jahre (1999), Bittere Unschuld (1999), and Kalter Frühling (2004) or a more biting satire than Dr. Knock (1997). Likewise, Graf’s relationship comedies Tiger, Löwe, Panther (1989) and Spieler (The Gamblers, 1990) simultaneously anticipated the boom of German yuppie comedies of the early-to-mid 1990s and put the death-nail into this sub-genre’s coffin avant la letter insofar as the quality of Graf’s films remained unmatched by their big screen successors such as Katja von Garnier’s Abgeschminkt (Making Up! 1993) and Sherry Horman’s Irren ist männlich (Father’s Day, 1996). (4) And as far as crime or police films are concerned Graf is in a league of his own: from his early work on the crime television series Der Fahnder (1985-2005) in the 1980s and early 1990s, to his two big screen efforts, Die Katze (The Cat, 1988) and what may be his pièce de résistance, Die Sieger (The Invincibles, 1994), to his many made-for-TV features including Frau Bu lacht (1995), Hotte im Paradies (2003), Er sollte tot… (2006), and Eine Stadt wird erpresst (2006)—these are films for which it is hard, if not impossible, to find a match in German cinema of the last quarter century.
Dominik Graf © dpa – Bildfunk
Ultimately, what makes Graf’s filmmaking compelling and unique within his national context is his unabashed affirmation of genre cinema—especially, though not exclusively, his affirmation of the genre conventions of the policier—as a narrative corset that affords him the chance to tell hard-hitting, uncomfortable stories about Germany precisely because the supra-national conventions of genre compel him to restrain any tendencies he might harbour to superimpose an “artistic” will onto his scripts. Hence, as a director—he refers to himself as a craftsman rather than an artist—Graf belongs in a film historical lineage that includes Howard Hawks, Robert Altman, and Michael Mann more so than world cinema auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard, Wong-Kar Wai, or Michael Haneke, let alone German Autorenkino protagonists such as Alexander Kluge or Werner Herzog. And yet, as the following interview discusses, there is an argument to be made that in the context of contemporary German film Graf’s work is most closely aligned with the work of a group of loosely affiliated filmmakers known as the “Berlin School,” even though at first sight the auteurist films of the latter seem to have hardly anything in common with Graf’s genre films. (5) In the end, however, it may be the case that Graf and the Berlin School filmmakers simply approach the same problem from opposite ends: to wit, the problem of figuring out how to use the cinema without giving in to what Herbert Marcuse famously called the “culture of affirmation,” which, in the age of neoliberal dogma, once again seems to have taken hold of the country’s culture industries. (6)
The following interview with Graf, which I conducted in German and subsequently translated into English, took place July 10, 2009 during a break he took from editing Im Angesicht des Verbrechens at Arri Film & TV Services in Munich, Germany.
Let us begin with your biography. You come from an artist family. Both of your parents were actors. Yet you first studied literature and music rather than theatre or film. When and how did you end up focusing your creative energies on the cinema?
Yes, my parents were actors when I was a child. (7) Later, my mother more or less quit acting and focused on becoming a writer. (8) My father, however, became increasingly famous in West Germany during my childhood, especially because of his roles in what were then truly ambitious television plays. Today these productions, which dealt in often overtly critical ways with what were at the time contemporary issues, are somewhat difficult to watch, but in the 1950s and 1960s they were very popular. Their set design frequently consisted only of a few chairs, a table, and a sign saying something like “Jerusalem 1938”—a very strange style. But this sparseness worked, and this Brechtian epic television-theatre was quite popular at the time. People probably liked seeing that it was possible to make interesting TV productions without relying on elaborate stage designs characteristic of the Ufa films of the 1930s and 1940s. (9) European post-war culture was characterised by a peculiar stillness and humbleness of means: it was art after the catastrophe, as it were. There were musicians whose compositions consisted of just a few notes, and directors such as Robert Bresson filmed in an austere, strictly reduced style. These West German television plays partook in this aesthetics of reduction. At the same time, West German films made for theatrical release continued to produce in the style of old Ufa melodramas and Lustspiele (comedies). Sometimes my parents came home from one of my father’s film premieres and agreed that the film he played in was once again rather banal.
So my interest in the cinema was limited during my teenage years, as it was essentially looked-down upon within my family. Even after my father’s death in 1966, when the Nouvelle Vague had begun to dominate the taste of my peers at the boarding schools I attended, the cinema did not really grab me. Even though we had a lot of film clubs, I was more interested in literature (novels, short stories) and music, especially rock music and opera. (10) I only developed a real interest in film when I was in my early twenties. That’s when I caught up with François Truffaut’s films, though not necessarily his early ones but, rather, the “Antoine Doinel” films, but especially his Les deux Anglaises et le continent (Two English Girls and the Continent, 1971); within a short period of time these films opened for me a whole new cosmos of the cinema. After having studied German literature for a couple of years, I enrolled at the Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen (HFF) in Munich in 1974. They probably were so kind to accept me at least partially because I had such a famous father. For I really had no clue about the actual process of making a film: I had never been interested in photography or drawing and generally don’t think I had much talent for the visual. I was first and foremost interested in dialogue—that is, the words and narrative rhythms—as well as in the music, but not in the images themselves. At the HFF I gradually began to learn how one is supposed to tell a story, including stylistically. It was a strict education, if you will, both in terms of content and style. But it took me a long time before I made a film of which I can say that I would still watch it even today. My early efforts were really pitiful, and I think if someone started like I did back then he or she would not make it very far as a director. At the time, one received more than one chance, which afforded you the opportunity to try again after you failed.
Dominik Graf, Treffer (1984)
Which of your early films would be the one you would still be willing to watch—Treffer (1984) or something even later?
Yes, in my view Treffer was probably the first film that was o.k. in terms of my craftsmanship as a director. It was based on a nice screenplay by Christoph Fromm, and at least I managed not to destroy it. But my earliest film, Carlas Briefe (1975), which I think is completely unknown and exists only as a working copy, was a “Rohmer” film set in the vicinity of Munich and features a number of acting students and the great Loriot in a small role. (11) This film, shot in black and white, was very literary-minded, and it had a lot to do with myself and my own awareness of life; unfortunately I completely botched it, which had the effect of distancing me from my original goals with regard to filmmaking.
At the Academy they always allowed you to make three films, which afforded you the chance to develop as a filmmaker. But after Carlas Briefe I initially did not even bother making a second film. I instead spent some time acting in order to earn some money. But even though I had a few bigger parts in films made at the Film Academy, I never perceived acting as my calling. (12) So I wrote the script for my graduation film, Der kostbare Gast (1979), for which I received support from the Bavarian television network (BR). The BR had a brilliant producer, Helmut Haffner, who also helped directors such as Hans W. Geißendörfer and others from the Teleclub to get their careers going. (13) To my astonishment, he provided me with DM 50,000 to co-produce the film. This was a lot of money, and I had the impression I could make Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959) with this amount. Yet the film was merely a small, intimate chamber play with three actors, and I think ultimately it did not work: it was too slow, too pregnant with “meaning.” To my surprise, however, the film was awarded the first Bavarian Nachwuchsfilmpreis, an award given to emerging young filmmakers. Franz-Josef Strauß handed me a check of DM 50,000! (14) Years later I learned from a member of the jury that there had actually been a dearth of first films by emerging directors; because the Bavarian Film Prize considered it impossible not to award the prize in the very first year of its existence, they gave it to me, almost by default, if you will. During the award ceremony, Volker Schlöndorff sat upstairs to film the event for his anti-Strauß film, Der Kandidat (The Candidate, 1980)! (15) As a result I was able to make my first feature-length film, Das zweite Gesicht (The Second Face, 1982).
I have not seen this one.
Like most of my early work this one is difficult to come by, which is perhaps just as well. It was also made with the help of Helmut Haffner. It is a psycho-horror film, which was produced by the BR. Even though it won an award at a fantasy film festival in Madrid, I don’t think the film was any good. (16) At the time I told myself that I would give myself one more chance to see whether I am actually capable of making films that I would enjoy watching. And the Bavaria afforded me this chance by allowing me to shoot six twenty-five minute episodes for a television series, Köberle kommt (1983), about a Swabian archivist who interferes in ongoing police investigations. It was really a comedy and as such not my real area of expertise. But I took the occasion to try to increase the overall tempo, which was rather difficult, since at the time German actors were not at all fast. If they had to talk fast you had to force them to do so. You could always remind them of the work they did when dubbing foreign films for German audiences; they were quite capable of rendering fast talkers such as Cary Grant, James Cagney, or Louis de Funès, but when you wanted them to be in front of the camera and talk over each other rather than consecutively they balked, claiming they first had to think before they could talk. (17)
But managing to speed up the dialogue’s tempo was fun, even if I had to exert some force. These episodes obtained the kind of speed that was rather unusual for German productions at the time. And this experience ultimately led me to my work on Der Fahnder. (18) I directed some of the earliest episodes of this longstanding series and continued to experiment with actors to change the way they deliver dialogue, trying to make them speed up how they speak. Actor Klaus Wennemann, who played the titular detective for the first ninety-one episodes, was in this regard the ideal partner. (19) It was amazing with what speed he talked through this terrible explanatory dialogue that we had to include to remind viewers of why this or that person had to be arrested or not. He pushed his co-actors, who had to adjust their delivery style to his; they constantly had to catch up to him, which changed the quality of the verbal interactions. So my efforts to learn how to stage a story at a higher pace than was typical of German productions in the 1980s continued beyond Treffer, a motorcycle film, all the way to Die Katze, a heist film, which I still made with the awareness that I had yet to make a film that I really would want to watch later on. Out of this desire I developed my “Bavaria-style,” so to speak, consisting of tempo, an increasing level of craftsmanship, and a certain directness of the characters. This went on for about ten years, until Die Sieger, which constituted a caesura. (20)
I know you do not endorse a strict distinction between films made for theatrical release and television films, as do some of your peers, but nevertheless, is it correct that in addition to Die Sieger the following of your films were made specifically for the big screen: Drei gegen drei (1985), Die Katze, Spieler (The Gamblers, 1990), Der Felsen (A Map of the Heart, 2002), Der rote Kakadu (The Red Cockatoo, 2006), and Deutschland 09: 13 kurze Filme zur Lage der Nation (Germany 09: 13 Short Films About the State of the Nation, 2009), an omnibus film co-produced by Tom Tykwer to which you contributed a short essay film about how post-unified Germany erased traces of post-WWII German history by altering its cities’ appearance, replacing the old architecture characteristic of buildings constructed after 1945 with slick, postmodern, allegedly democratically transparent glass buildings?
What about Treffer?
Not really, but it had a theatrical release, as did Tiger, Löwe, Panther.
And what about Neonstadt (1982), for which you contributed the segment Running Blue?
Neonstadt came about as a result of an idea Eckhart Schmidt had. (21) He was really a film critic (and later became a director) and published a magazine called S!A!U!, in which the filmmaker Herbert Achternbusch was allowed to abuse the German Autorenfilm in the worst imaginable manner—which was something that appealed to us newcomers. The provocations even resulted in fistfights at night in Schwabing! (22) Schmidt eventually had the idea to bring new West German directors together in a film, which became Neonstadt. In addition to myself, there were Wolfgang Büld, who was in the same class with me at the Academy, Gisela Weilemann, Johann Schmid, and Helmer von Lützelburg. The film received money from the Filmförderung and had a theatrical run, albeit a brief one. (23)
You are not a big fan of the Autorenfilm yourself. Still, did you have contact with those filmmakers? And what about the directors of the “Neue Münchener Gruppe” (New Munich Group): Klaus Lemke, Rudolph Thome, May Spils, and Max Zihlmann? (24)
All of this happened later. I have to say I always had problems with German cinema, not just with the New German Cinema of the ‘70s but also with films from earlier periods. There are perhaps a handful of German films I actually like. For me, Max Ophüls was the greatest, but otherwise there was tabula rasa. The only contemporary director we liked at the time, albeit for different reasons, was Klaus Lemke. I was really impressed by how films such as Rocker (1972) and Paul (1974) told their stories: these films include scenes from Germany that I had never seen that way before. Yet Lemke’s films did not immediately define for me what I wanted to do as a filmmaker, since I could never have handled non-professional actors with such ease as Lemke did.
There was a famous bar in the heart of Schwabing, “Die Klappe.” That’s where Lemke, Büld, Schmidt, and others hung out. Even though I never joined them, I had the feeling that this Schwabing-cinema was closest to what I wanted to do. For my goal was to make genre films rather than artsy films dealing with “serious” topics. I always found films that wanted to tell “serious” stories—topical or literary films such as Schlöndorff’s Die Blechtrommel (The Tine Drum, 1979) or adaptations of Thomas Mann novels—horrifying. (25) We thought of such films as the Nouvelle Vague did of the “Cinema of Quality”: as lifeless. But these were the kinds of films the German film subsidy system loved. Lemke, on the other hand, was really the king of the street, the complete opposite of this kind of cinema: he and Roland Klick. (26)
What about Fassbinder, who was certainly influenced by genre filmmaking?
I always liked individual scenes and that he resurrected old Ufa stars. To me he was, next to Lemke and Klick, always the most anarchic and therefore also the most interesting character. His Die dritte Generation (The Third Generation, 1979) was a fantastic film. I thought this film was truly malicious; it turned the entire country upside-down—this compelled my respect. (27) And Fassbinder’s grave at the Bogenhausener cemetery is the nicest there! But what I’m saying here are views I held thirty years ago.
Recently I saw for the first time the Fahnder episode Über dem Abgrund (1988), which seems to me the blueprint for Die Sieger. I think both are fantastic, but I was reminded a bit of Michael Mann, whose Heat (1995) can clearly be traced back to his television pilot, L.A. Takedown (1989).
I only know Miami Vice (1984-1990).
Yes, he was the executive producer for this show, and he also produced and wrote for this great U.S. crime series, Crime Story (1986-1988).
Ah, yes, Abel Ferrara worked on this, too.
Yes. It essentially tells a ‘60s Mafia story. Anyway, it seems to me that on some level Die Sieger actually became your Fahnder cinema-film. Interestingly, though, Die Sieger and Über dem Abgrund had different scriptwriters.
Yes, Über dem Abgrund was written by Bernd Schwamm, who was one of the creators of “Schimanski.” (28) Schwamm, also a HFF student of the first hour, wrote many of the scripts of the Fahnder episodes I directed. The best episodes of Fahnder are, by the way, the last ones, which are available on DVD: one is Verhör am Sonntag (1993), the other Nachtwache (1993). (29)
Klaus Wennemann as Faber in Der Fahnder
When we made these two episodes, in 1990, three years after I made Die Katze, I thought I finally had successfully matured. But I always thought the basic idea for Über dem Abgrund was fantastic—the seeming recognition of an ex-colleague believed to be dead, which triggers the catastrophic opening of Pandora’s box, in terms of both politics and police work. But it was Günter Schütter who realised this idea for Die Sieger. I suspect Schwamm might not have liked what Schütter did, but I knew the latter from an earlier attempt to make a thriller. After my success with Spieler, a producer in Schwabing, Janusch Kozminski, offered to work with me on a thriller for the big screen called “Undercover.” He came up with this idea, which was about cops who investigate the drug trade but draw a supplementary income from their drug connections. The producer gave the idea to Schütter, whom I didn’t know at the time, to write the script. Schütter transformed this into a really hard-hitting script, without compromises but with wonderful nuances that are typical of his work, including a fantastic female character. The script involved cops in Munich who work in the drug milieu and skim off money for themselves; it also involved the American DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), which at the time kept an incredibly watchful eyes on American G.I.s. All of this takes place shortly before the Wende happened, containing everything that one could narrate at the time about American G.I. culture in Munich: “Little Oktoberfest” in Harlaching and the whole American AFN-world crossed with very Bavarian policemen. (30) It was a fantastic script, which I would still love to direct even today. But the production did not receive financing. Out of financial desperation, the producer toned down all of the script’s toughness and brutality and re-applied for funding. I objected to this, however, and told him I would not direct the watered-down script.
So “Undercover” was never realised, but I discovered Schütter as an author and took him with me to Fahnder. The first one we did together was Baal (1992), which was somewhat of a remake of Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962) but shot before Martin Scorsese’s 1991 version; however, they didn’t broadcast this episode at the time because it was perceived to be too tough as well. (31) That was something to be proud of! And the second Fahnder we did is my favourite: Nachtwache. This one became a blueprint for Der scharlachrote Engel (2004) and, in general, a story-model for Günter and me. (32) It was through Schütter that I discovered all these Italian thrillers from the 1970s. Unfortunately, I never saw them when they originally played because back then this was Bahnhofskino. (33) I did not dare go there. These were “cannibal films,” so to speak, which had fantastic posters hanging in the lobby of the “aki,” which was the cinema located in Munich’s central station. Around Christmas time, the Salvation Army always sang their hymns on the steps of the cinema, while behind them you could see the film posters featuring porn-like images dripping with blood! I’m only now gradually catching up to this world of wild films, largely thanks to DVD-culture. But Schütter is the author who pushed me considerably further down the road of genre cinema. With Schütter and our Fahnder work we got closer to realising our utopia—the dream of making a glamorous genre cinema featuring stars, while nevertheless remaining unyielding and resisting any political correctness. And this dream had a name, and it still has this name: Die Sieger. But I could talk with no end about the film’s original version and what remained of it, what we realised of it successfully, and then there is also the longer cut of the final film…(34)
When I watched Über dem Abgrund, I noticed that it contains sentences that literally became part of Die Sieger’s dialogue.
Yes, absolutely. For example, we simply copied entire parts of the interrogation scenes.
And the Fahnder episode Glückliche Zeiten (1987) contains a scene in which the cops chase a female bank clerk that takes place in a shopping arcade that you subsequently used as a location for an almost identical chase scene in Die Sieger.
Indeed, that’s the same arcade where in Die Sieger Melba (Katja Flint) walks through with her red coat. This arcade doesn’t even exist anymore today.
It’s also apparent that you work with many of the same actors within a specific period on film after film. And then you move on and work with different people. But if one notices a certain consistency of actors in your films; and how Über dem Abgrund and Nachtwache end up being “recycled” as blueprints for Die Sieger and Der scharlachrote Engel, respectively; and that you reuse similar camera positions and even characters (I’m thinking here of Peter Lohmeyer’s role in Spieler that seems to pick up on a rather similar role he had played in the Fahnder episode, Der kleine Bruder )—then this would seem to justify considering you an auteur. This auteurist impression is furthered by the fact that your own voice is frequently audible in your films and that you occasionally give yourself cameos à la Hitchcock. When re-watching your films I always found myself waiting for these moments. It is difficult not to apply to you the French “trick” of arguing that auteurs are precisely those filmmakers who leave their fingerprints, their signature, on what are otherwise anonymous, industrially-produced products, and that it is just these products that are the great films.
I never claimed this position for myself, not least because I always felt that I had relatively little input on the making of my films. The one thing I did is to ensure with many very good scripts that they remain as they are and to take care that they will be realised as they were written, that the scenes remain as funny, dramatic, and sexy as I had experienced them when reading them for the first time. I never had the self-understanding of someone who adds something else to my films; rather, I always thought of myself as a craftsman, and the process of obtaining some mastery of the craft of making police thrillers was long and difficult enough. Even today I botch some aspects.
I rely very much on my authors, which were not particularly numerous over the years. In the end I translate their fantasies into films. It would have never occurred to me to make a film about the red light milieu if Rolf Basedow had not written Hotte im Paradies (2002). Of course I try to adapt when reading a script. I aim to realise the script so that afterwards everyone thinks that I must really know what the film is talking about. But I acquire this knowledge through reading. Now, during shooting I notice things and respond and try to stage things as lively as possible. But that’s why for me filmmaking is always a question of realisation: how do I realise this moment, this scene, this sequence?
Sometimes my attempt to realise a script leads to dramas with the producers because I really want to film the whole script and not just parts of it only because all of a sudden they lack funding due to their miscalculations. This doesn’t work for me. I feel indebted to what I originally read and thus also to the author. I will fight to realise the script’s vision as it was originally accepted. I don’t care at that stage: if I feel that this is the path on which we had agreed to go down I will follow this path to its bitter end. (35)
One could argue that to some degree the German Autorenkino misunderstood the cinéma des auteurs. After all, the French developed this theory in response to American genre cinema; in Germany, on the other hand, it seems that frequently auteurism was taken to be the right to express one’s own personal dramas. But when you read François Truffaut, for example, then it’s clear that auteurism had a lot more to do with the actual realisation of the script by the director, or, rather, metteur-en-scène, as the French tellingly call the director, rather than being an affirmation of the ideology of personal self-expression. The demand was really for the director to give himself over to the script, to try to give it life immanently, rather than superimposing his or her personal views on it. It seems to me, therefore, that you could be considered more of an auteur (in the proper French sense) than your predecessors of the New German Cinema.
But I also believe that some American studio directors managed to maintain a continuous signature over the years because they learned what worked for them—what they were capable of and what not. It sounds so disillusioningly mechanical, but in reality it is a slow process of elimination: what am I not made for, and what has worked before? Most of these B-picture auteurs were not necessarily keen on experimentation; in the end they took one step at a time and eliminated everything that did not appear to be their cup of tea. They might try something once but then discard it; I certainly do this, too. Robert Bresson famously said that as a director one must not desire to master too many filmic means.
In an interview about Das Gelübde (The Vow, 2007)—your fictional film about the relationship between the early nineteenth-century nun Anna Katharina Emmerick and poet Clemens von Brentano—you said: “I am absolutely fascinated by artists who no longer want to be artists, who want to get rid once and for all of all the baggage coming with self-expressive filmmaking, of his desire to be an artist, who gladly submits himself to a higher principle but in so doing still betrays himself precisely because in the end he is still an artist and still tinkers with everything, even if it’s the miracles of God.” (36) Notwithstanding of what you just said, might this quote not also serve as a description of yourself and your attitude towards filmmaking? On the one hand, you have no truck with being an artist; you frequently insist on distancing yourself from this attitude towards filmmaking. On the other hand, you cannot help but to affirm your own signature by virtue of how you realise the material you are given to work with, including that which you write yourself. In other words, if we were to substitute “Graf” for “Brentano” about whom the quote is, the statement would still ring true.
No, I don’t think so. This quote alludes to the famous Jean Cocteau statement that one must not have any desire for a signature but that you should not succeed in this disavowal either because this contradictoriness brings everything to a point, so to speak. As a witness of the heyday of the German Autorenfilm in the 1970s, I abhorred the notion of the personal signature. I wanted to make films where one could not detect who made them; I just wanted to make films that are good, that are exciting or suspenseful or whatever. But somehow continuity emerges among the things you work on, almost by default and perhaps against one’s intention. But I always could relate to someone like Howard Hawks who dismissed the very idea of being an artist as ludicrous. In my experience—whether this is in music, literature, film, or wherever—if artists foreground their desire to be an artist to such a degree that they feel like they must mark each and every decision with their own will to art, then the result always ends up being less creative. In my view, an active embrace of ‘artistic genius’ has always foreclosed more than it has opened up. And I think it is this foreclosure-effect that we can see in a character such as Brentano, who suffers from the permanent ups and downs of his explosive nature and who yearns to be relieved of the burden of artistic “creation,” of this Demiurgic need. In addition, what also influenced Das Gelübde and is part of how it presents Brentano’s crisis is the fact that I discovered only very late in my career as a film viewer Roberto Rossellini’s films—that is, a kind of film artistry that exhibits no patience for any sort of “artistic-ness” and instead is thoroughly committed to engaging reality as something that precedes and supercedes any artistic will to self-expression.
And then there is the seemingly totally “un-artistic” that I came to appreciate in the cinema and on TV. There are so many films that critics don’t like or even despise but that I think are great—and not just to spite those who look down on a given film for an allegedly simplistic use of shot/reverse-shot, etc. I often have a hard time to comprehend the criteria based on which some distinguish between artistic and un-artistic films. In essence I think the criteria for this distinction are un-artistic, if you will.
So in any case, I cannot locate a signature of my own in my films. I am glad if someone from outside suggests there is one. What I know is that from scene to scene I mostly fight to realise what is in the script, that I fight to be just to the script; and since I have often the feeling that I should re-shoot because what I shot was not true enough to the script, I do not see myself as having a signature. To me, the best way to make films is to stay close to the script. Every time I begin to concoct something from outside to bring to the script I get uneasy, I begin to notice that now I somehow want to bring across something artistic without actually being equal to the task at hand.
In your interviews and writings on the history of cinema, you tirelessly argue in favour of genre cinema. (37) When you look back at your career, which is now in its fourth decade, do you sometimes regret that you worked so much—perhaps too much?—for German television, given your dream was, and continues to be, to reinvigorate the making of genre cinema in Germany?
I made many mistakes, but having worked so much for TV is not something I overly regret. Genre cinema always offered the most obvious opportunity for a younger filmmaker to escape the business of art. As a result of its strictness and stylistic reduction, genre films offer some measure of security if you encounter them on their own terms and do not always try to make films that exceed the genre. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), wrote somewhere that people always say that he explodes the genre. In his view, however, this is incorrect. Nothing “explodes” the genre, for each renewal, each expansion of the narrative horizon is already contained in the genre. I agree with this. Every time when enthusiastic journalists wrote critiques of my films claiming that I teased out new aspects from a genre, I always insisted that I nevertheless made a genre film, that everything that was allegedly “new” in my film had always been in the genre’s endlessly deep well and merely awaited its discovery. And I know that genre can save directors: it can save him from all those topical films about endangered minority groups and especially from all these boring literary adaptations.
Genre is about plot but even more about characters and dialogue, action and physis, sex, humor, and crime. And each and every time a genre film is about the professionalism and inventiveness with which it is staged, about the need to take care of telling its story in a convincing and suspenseful manner. And if the film is a throwaway production or a pre-prime time series from the assembly line: so be it! Genre always saves you from trying to satisfy some ambitions, which always gets you on tricky ground in Germany (I’d grant the French more leeway in this regard). I always thought German cinema never felt secure in its pursuit of whichever artistic, culturally respectable goals. Sure, there were two or three films per epoch that were great, but most German films that worked did so almost in spite of themselves, like Lemke’s films, which were shot on a mini-budget, with non-professional actors, and a handheld camera somewhere on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg. (38) Or a film such as Helmut Käutner’s Unter den Brücken (Under the Bridges, 1945)—as if filmed in passing: that’s an exception in the entire history of German cinema, where such films are like needles in a haystack.
What the films I like have in common—and what I tried to emulate—is that they are characterised by an explicit desire to restrict themselves to a specific narrative form without trying to do more than this form provides. Of course I made mistakes in my efforts to work along these lines, but this was the basic idea: not to desire too much, just to improve the policier genre a bit. More than this is not allowed for genre filmmakers in Germany anyway. For example, for years we tried to make a Fahnder cinema film, but no one sponsored this idea, even after Die Katze had become a considerable success at the box office. (39) Likewise, when we fought about money during the production for Die Sieger, we always had the sense that genre was just not something that anyone wanted. Hence, I had to work for TV, which is why this was never a difficult decision for me. I always thought that making television thrillers was like making B- or C-pictures: simply the smaller version of working on larger productions. And the smaller version can often be more fascinating than the larger one.
Christian Petzold, who says about himself that he is making films in the graveyard of genre cinema, claims in an interview he conducted with me that he feels “closely related to Dominik, even though we most certainly work and think differently. I think that it does not make much sense to demand, as he does, genre cinema in Germany because genre cinema requires existing genres; you cannot artificially make it or revive it as a retro-event. German comedy of the late 1980s, early 1990s was genre cinema, and perhaps one should have responded back then. Perhaps we should have worked through the genre issue when genre was available to us. Of course, television has absorbed genre cinema, which is why you can’t revive it in the cinema as a retro-event. The traces of genre are like echoes. Graf loves English directors such as Mike Figgis and Nicholas Roeg who went to America out of love for Hollywood, which is genre cinema, to continue the tradition of genre film. Graf likes directors who want to revive and rediscover the conventions of genre. Graf’s Sisyphus work is to keep making a film here and there that reminds us of how wonderful streets used to look in cinema, of how great nights used to look, and of how awesome women looked. I am fascinated by this labor, in which he invests enormous, almost suicidal energy, because each of his films goes beyond well-established boundaries.” (40) In other words, he argues that it is not possible to make genre cinema in Germany in the way you dream of making it. Yet you continue to roll the stone up the hill in the hope that eventually one film will stay up—a film based on which one could develop a neighbourhood with other films that work similarly, including in terms of their film industrial, that is, box office, viability.
Well, I can’t say I really have this hope, for it died after Die Sieger, perhaps even before we started shooting it. The success of Die Katze, which was a different kind of police film than Die Sieger, was largely due to the cast; at the time, you could count on attracting a million viewers just because they wanted to see Götz George, who stars as the master bank robber in Die Katze. (41) But there are reasons that figures such as George don’t exist anymore in Germany, which is why I don’t think I ever harboured the hope to create a prototype, as Christian describes it, based on which an entire industry might catch fire.
But I suppose he is right that while he essentially marauds the graveyard of genre filmmaking I am in hell, where all those old films roast, and I try to inhale some vitality into them. But of course it is difficult to give them vitality because the entire production system affects the vitality of films. I just experienced this once more when shooting my latest series, Im Angesicht des Verbrechens, which is certainly another—a final?—serious attempt to rejuvenate the thriller, action, and policier genres in Germany. It also contains strong melodramatic aspects, that is, family dramas à la The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, 1974, 1990), which also covers multiple genres. It was once more an attempt to stage on film the fullness of life. But what you can do dramatically is limited as soon as you work within the conditions of this system, which provides you with 200 meters-long rows of wagons that obstruct the view of the location where you work. Everything is regulated and bureaucratised; all processes, all opportunities, all freedoms that would be able to infuse the production with oxygen are being cut off. When filming, you need a fairly precise plan, a concept, and a storyboard only in order to overturn everything if necessary. But in such a set of circumstances, if you want to pan in an unexpected direction or suddenly feel the need for zooming, which I like doing at times, then you always have catering in your frame or other things that don’t belong in it. And when you make actors freely cross streets during rush hour without first closing them off, then you run into problems with the insurance. But at certain points you have to insist on filming in the middle of un-staged life, so that no one knows exactly where the camera points. So I place my camera somewhere up high in order to film a chase scene, and then I see some regular passers-by indeed turning around in surprise, and their astonishment is worth more than all extras together.
Im Angesicht des Verbrechens (2010) (c) ARD/Julia von Vietinghoff
Or I stage a scene as I just did in Im Angesicht des Verbrechens at the Kottbuser Tor in Berlin, where a father chases his son whom he wants to catch because he has pumped himself full with drugs. They run through an entire crowd of druggies who really hang out there, and I shot this with a hidden camera out of a car in order to infuse some remnants of vitality, a sense of the documentary, into my films, which, I think, is why they do occasionally point to those old films, which I love and which always featured real life as well. So I do think you can capture contemporary reality that others don’t manage to render sensible because they don’t even try to hide themselves anymore; instead they appear as a team, empty the location by shouting instructions through megaphones, and then fill the scene with hired extras who act accordingly as extras. In Germany extras are really difficult to work with. But everything shrinks as a result of this approach: the disco isn’t as crowded, the sidewalks aren’t as busy, and only a few cars drive up and down the road. By now we have television films where you don’t see any cars on the streets at all because the sound engineer demanded no traffic, so they blocked off the streets! But the production itself has only a couple of cars, so they have one drive up and one down, and that’s it. Which is why I say instead: no, we must keep the traffic open, and we will try our best to avoid having people look directly into the camera. And if a car happens to pass by just at the moment when we try to record a line of dialogue, well then we will record the line later on again, this time merely as sound, and mix it into the scene accordingly.
This is a fundamentally different way of making a film. I do not want to film the graveyard of genres like Tarantino does; that is to say, I do not want to produce mere projections of a cinema that no longer exists. For the things my films are about really do exist, especially the ones written by Basedow—such as Eine Stadt wird erpresst (2006), Hotte im Paradies, or now Im Angesicht des Verbrechens. These stories and characters are taken from reality. There’s a police apparatus that we try to render similar to how the police apparatus was shown in the ‘70s, where the police sometimes do have lone wolves among them such as Gene Hackman’s Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle in The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971); such guys do exist in reality in Germany, as they also did back then in the States. The point is: I first have to invent reality anew for my scenes so that the film, the cinema, will once again be able to resemble a possible reality somewhat more! This is part of my debate with the Berlin School directors. I tell them that I have the feeling—not always!—that they are not doing anything in order to move away from their glass-like, distanced position towards the world and feelings. This does not mean that other German filmmakers, who try like crazy to insert emotions into their films, are any more important than the filmmakers of the Berlin School; of course the films by Petzold, Angela Schanelec, and the others are in some cases for me absolute highlights of contemporary German film productions!
That I find myself allied with them, albeit in dispute, especially with Petzold, has undoubtedly to do with the fact that I know all the films he cites or paraphrases in his productions. And when I listen to his quote, I feel almost like I’m in a tennis match with him that goes back and forth. (42) But I don’t just quote the cinema, so I wonder whether in his assessment of my films he might not take himself as the starting point a bit too much. I do not just reference old cinema when I make my films because with the help of my authors—especially Basedow, who is a fantastic researcher of reality—I really also arrive at new realities. In Hotte im Paradies I could point you to scenes where, when reading the script, I was completely surprised. I could tell that someone had researched the milieu so well that he invented scenes, or encountered them in reality, that are really new, that really provide a completely different, almost documentary, view of this reality.
This sense shines through especially in the various bar scenes that depict how all the pimps are eager to demonstrate to each other how well they are doing by flaunting luxury objects such as gold watches, jewelry, cars—and, of course, women—which they constantly buy off of each other, depending on who is momentarily flush with or short of cash.
It’s as if we were observing a foreign culture, as if we had made a documentary about a strange tribe of “natural people.” They have odd rituals, and how they talk with each other—you first have to be able to narrate this! And this has nothing to do with the past of another cinema, for at the moment when I read these lines all I cared about was realising this scene and nothing else.
Let us for a moment turn to the role of the police in your films, including in the Fahnder series, where it seems to me the cops are very self-aware of the role the police should assume in Germany after World War II. There are many short remarks in the dialogue marking such self-awareness—for example, when Max Kühn (Hans-Jürgen Schatz) tells Faber (Klaus Wennemann) that there is a reason that their office computer is not connected with other computer systems; or when Faber asserts that he believes in the law. Can you speak to your interest in the workings of the police?
The police is a closed system within a larger system, a state apparatus that is in need of permanent interrogation, especially in Germany with our totalitarian histories. This is why it is exciting to make films about this subject: because of the wavering self-understanding of those who do this job. Of course, there is also the history of the RAF and Horst Herold’s Rasterfahndung in the background. (43) At the time the police had fallen into disrepute because West German citizens had the feeling of being subjected once more to a “Big Brother” bureaucracy monitoring their every move, as if no lessons had been learned from the Nazi period. So during the 1980s people even opposed the census because they perceived it as a state operation to control their private lives. However, I do not belong to the generation “68” but to the generation shortly thereafter, and my relation to authorities was always somewhat more reasonable, less disturbed, perhaps also more resigned.
The people in the police films I make find themselves at times in conflict with the apparatus, which imposes limits on their ability to do their job. However, usually the police do not take the law into their own hands, although in Die Sieger that’s actually the case, which results in the erosion of the system from within. These “supermen,” created by the state apparatus, end up abolishing the police and take matters into their own hands, as if they were in a Western. I am no “law and order man,” but in this case the police apparatus, which I think is a socially necessary institution, renders itself ad absurdum. Underlying all of this is of course the identity crisis of the state employees. The film asks the same questions that were already posed by the Fahnder episode that Schwamm had written: who are we, in what kind of system do I work, can I justify this, why are we kept as ignorant as we apparently are, and what are all the things I don’t yet know? This self-questioning of the police I’ve always thought was more interesting in my films than the chasing after criminals.
Rick (Dietrich Mattausch) makes for a strange boss in Fahnder, always wearing his round, completely black sunglasses…
Yes, but it’s also a parody. At times he even shows up in equestrian apparel—that’s of course laughable, but after ‘68 you could not really take the police all that seriously as authority figures, not even as opponents! German television is full of these ambivalent characters, these bosses who always alternate between being a joke on one hand and manifesting state authority on the other—characters who suddenly want to become chummy with you and then, in the next episode, put a stop to an investigation only because it does not serve the purposes of the police administrators. I’ve always found this fascinating. Here, too, West Germany’s ambivalence towards authority figures is reflected.
I know you differentiate between the crime film and the policier, but your prime interest lies with the latter genre because you are interested in the police apparatus itself. My question, though, is whether it is indeed possible in Germany to produce policiers for the cinema? I know that some argue the problem with making genre cinema in Germany is the condition of the German film industry itself—that it does not have enough money, etc. But I do wonder whether there might not be something else at work, especially with the police film genre. Genres, I think, always reflect something about a specific society, which is why some genres have essentially died out, such as the musical or the western, of which only a few are being produced these days, and those that are produced are usually revisionist westerns or pastiche musicals. But the reason that today we essentially have only revisionist westerns has to do with the fact that the myth to which the original westerns of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s responded has vanished. It seems to me the reason the police film still works so well in the U.S. is because Americans or the people who live in the States have a very particular lived relation to their police, a specific way of dealing with their presence: put bluntly, people are generally afraid of the police there! When a cop car passes by, even if you know you are innocent, you get nervous—because of how the cop cars look, big and intimidating, with those gigantic lights, and the cops with their guns, and the brutality they’re known for exhibiting on occasion. You really don’t feel like messing with them, ever!
So I think people in the U.S., when they see cop films, they really experience a physical, affective effect even if they never actually had to deal with the police. It’s somehow in your social DNA, if you will. I think this is precisely not the case for Germans and their relation to the German police. I don’t think I have ever been afraid of the police in Germany. (44) And when I look at, for example, the relatively small, friendly looking green police cars German cops drive (often Volkswagens, sometimes BMWs), then I do wonder whether this does not have a lot to do with the fact that the police film genre has a difficult time in German cinema. Of course we have to point out that historically this genre is one of the pillars of German television, but on the big screen, where you see even in Die Sieger these comparatively small BMWs in which the cops move across Germany—it seems that German society itself first would have to change and develop a different (more fearful) attitude towards its police force before this genre might stand a chance of succeeding on the big screen. It seems to me that German society would first have to obtain a different affective relationship with its police before German viewers might become attracted to German police films on the big screen.
I know what you mean. You think this might still happen. Indeed, our police now begin wearing black or black-blue uniforms, and their friendly green-blue is in the process of disappearing, and even their cars begin to look a bit bigger, more menacing. But by and large the police are still fairly friendly. But this topic is very complex. I do want to say, however, that I always knew that Die Sieger was a film without a basis.
I essentially learned about the police genre through television—American series such as The Streets of San Francisco (1972-1977), later NYPD Blue (1993-2005), but also Hill Street Blues (1981-1987) and others. And in these series the cops were by and large nice guys. They were neither the kind of American cops one knows from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) nor these Heat cops. They were not even like Hackman’s Popeye—they were smaller, more normal, every-day people, who at the bottom of their hearts were democratic, and who were not those lonesome wolves like Dirty Harry, who, when in doubt, would whip out his gun and take care of business on his own. Honestly, I think I could not have started by making a police film for the cinema; in order for me to approach the rules of the genre, Fahnder, with all its casually inserted social-democratic details, was perfect for me. The cops exhibited enormous understanding of and for the criminals, but there was also a sense among the cops that the state does not necessarily have to know everything about their methods.
Die Katze features, for example, Voss (Joachim Kemmer), a “real” cop figure. This cop is, I think, a rarity in Germany—someone who dares order a poisonous gas attack without first getting his action approved by the higher ups. And when you see him the viewer can choose between finding what he does interesting or refusing to belief the filmmakers. Voss looks like all the others with their summer shirts and with his attaché case in which he keeps his lunch; he looks small at first sight. But then he gets started. He first cracks a few jokes but then becomes malicious and hard. He was a cinema cop in the true sense.
Dominik Graf, Die Katze (1988)
Die Sieger began, in contrast, with an idea that could have served as a television series. I had received so much material from these great people at the SEK, I could have told twenty stories. And indeed there were attempts to make such a series. (45)
So what I tried to do was make the ultimate television film. I knew that at heart the story was best for a TV series. The original script was more broadly conceived than the final film; the cops were first supposed to drive from Düsseldorf to Sweden and from there all the way down to the Alps—an enormous canvas. And the story wasn’t about undercover activities in the mafia milieu but about terrorism. But before we handed in the script, in 1993, we were asked to cut the terrorist aspects and to come up with something else because at the time RAF amnesty proceedings were going on. So we cut it. But in the original script the man disappeared into a terrorist milieu where he made all kinds of contacts. But soon thereafter Bad Kleinen happened. So the producer said, thank God we took this terrorist plot out, whereas I said, shit, we should have left it in! At the time this was still virulent. (46)
But I don’t know. Maybe someone in Germany will begin making Schwarzenegger-films as police films, with these big heroes and their sunglasses. But I don’t think I could do this; I would find this ridiculous, which is why I have Rick in Fahnder wear his sunglasses so we can make fun of him. If I had a cop like you describe him in my film then I’m certain he would fall over a banana peel after three steps. I don’t think you could take seriously such a figure in Germany.
Nevertheless, I do think there are German police themes in Die Sieger. Even though the characters are perhaps merely small police heroes we know from TV series, the case at the center of the film actually tells a big story. So I think there was always a mis-relation between the characters and the story of which I was keenly aware. I knew that this mis-relation was bound to lead to a lack of commercial success because the characters were in essence too small for the explosives upon which they sat high up on the mountain in the Alps. And I staged things accordingly. We insisted that their offices had to be as tiny as were those in Fahnder; the cops—petit bourgeois through and through in their private lives—remain these small policemen. Yet they dig up a case that propels them high up in the air, but ultimately the complexity of the case emphasises how small they are in reality. Most of them cave in almost immediately. But most of their opponents are not much more imposing. And the politicians, too, remain silent and look on. We don’t learn much about them, but they are small politicians, as we know them from television—bad actors who somehow try to cover up their lies in makeshift ways.
The diminished nature of these cops is also evoked by the physique of the actors you chose for these roles. They have nothing in common with an Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro—actors who are themselves larger than life and barely have to do anything for the viewer to sense their presence. In France, I suppose there’s Gerard Depardieu. But in Germany…
Yes, look at the new French gangster film with people such as Benoit Magimel in Frédéric Schoendoerffer’s Truands (Police Lockdown, 2007): they are imposing, these are figures who remind us of Jean Gabin, Gérard Depardieu or Yves Montand.
But the reason that the actors and characters in Die Sieger work so well is because…
… they were not written out of their social context. They are petit bourgeois squares from North Rhine-Westphalia with a small house with backyard and children’s birthdays, who nevertheless try to play heroes and villains. It is possible that regular cinemagoers don’t want to see such puny characters. In any case, in hindsight I am proud to have been able to do such a film at least once. This will probably remain the only time, too. I think it was Mennan Yapo, the director of Lautlos (Soundless, 2005), who said that after Die Sieger it became impossible to make such films in Germany; but perhaps we have to be more precise and say that Die Sieger is the ultimate film about the subject so that now, if you try to inflate German gangsters and cops as he did in Lautlos, you have to risk becoming ridiculous.
Die Sieger (1994)… in combat gear …socially presentable in suits … in street clothes, decimated
Die Sieger obviously didn’t work at the box office. The film was very dark.
Yes, that was certainly one of the main reasons, this darkness that affected the film from its first moment. I noticed that even at the premiere thirty people left after the scene with the baby, even though you actually do not see anything. (47) In the first, and best, version of Günter Schütter’s script this was narrated in very different ways. The abrupt, brutal beginning of the film was a direct result of the demands for cuts due to budgetary issues.
And of course at the time Germany was in the midst of its Spasskultur; the film did not fit this mood at all.
Right, Spasskultur. (48)
When I immersed myself in your filmography, I could not help but notice how pessimistic many of your films really are—a sense perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Die Sieger, where a character states that if elections were able to change anything we would not have them in Germany…
Yes, Katja Flint’s character says this with a smile, just before she and detective Simon (Herbert Knaup) demonstrate what they take Spaßkultur to be. (49)
Or how you deal with the GDR in films such as your Die Verflechtung (1993), an episode of the short-lived television series Morlock (1993-1994), or in Eine Stadt wird erpresst, which in my view is one of your true masterpieces. An allegory about unified Germany, made sixteen years down the road, which is when the story takes place as well, the film does not provide a particularly upbeat outlook at all, notwithstanding the somewhat positive character of the detective from the East, who bears some potential for identification as someone who has a problematic past but who is not a pig like his boss from the West, and notwithstanding the fact that the film thematises the issue of solidarity: in the end everything is being blown up!
Yes, certainly not a hopeful outlook at all!
And if we look at your almost ice-cold take on Germany’s affluent society in your melodramas of the late ‘90s, early 2000s—especially the trilogy of melodramas, Deine besten Jahre, Bittere Unschuld, and Kalter Frühling—but also in Sperling und der brennende Arm (1998) where detective Sperling can barely orient himself, can barely map his own city, even though he is seen surveying it from high up in a hotel bar, and his colleague says that it used to be easier to locate where what kind of criminals would spend their time…
Yes, they don’t know where which ethnic group lives in West Berlin and so on…(50)
The point I want to make: even though yours are genre films they are in the end very much about Germany, not least in a political sense: not as thesis-driven films but precisely because they are closely observed examinations of various milieus…
But are these not also the rules of Film Noir? I love this genre. But I guess one could say that I benefit when things are particularly hopeless in Germany. I need this hopelessness that I feel, or that my authors feel, in order to create such coldness. However, in the end this social coldness enables me once more to infuse brief moments of warmth into the characters’ relationships. Think of the moment between the boss and his female colleague in Eine Stadt wird erpresst, for instance: their attraction for each other does not lead to anything, but the fact that they never touch each other is perhaps the nicest aspect of their only half-articulated love relation. You can say the same of Der scharlachrote Engel, where these two lost souls remain lonely and would never develop the idea to begin something together. Even if they did, doing so would immediately mark the failure of their relationship; such beginning would simultaneously be their end. But in the moment where they shake hands, this produces a moment of intense heat in the otherwise frosty environment surrounding them. But in order to render such moments you have to create an almost cynical, sarcastic context, and this context is, I think, not unique to Germany; you could create it effortlessly in any given affluent society today in similar fashion. So I think all of this—this aristocracy of the lonely, as it were—exhibits my love for genre. I think you can introduce brief utopian moments of intense, honest emotions into a film only through this loneliness and the hopelessness of the circumstances. And at the end of both films you have an inferno; I love infernos and their finality, their destructiveness.
Nevertheless it seems to me your films exhibit a very distinct attitude towards Germany—towards what it was, is, and might become. For example, in your essay “Lernt schlechte Filme!,” which deals with Sam Fuller’s 1973 Tatort, Tote Taube in der Beethovenstraße (Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street), you talk about genre cinema and AFN radio. (51) When watching this film, you suggest, we can only dimly sense what might have been possible for German cinema. You also write that back then a different (West) Germany passed one by while driving in one’s car and listening to Californian music—that in doing so different cities and landscapes emerged, but especially a different image of people that one could imagine with the help of these soundtracks. One could imagine a new, different German society, more open and willing to communicate, with people who are willing to make eye contact with each other. So you foreground Fuller’s Tatort film as bearing un-actualised socio-cinematic potential. What happened?
In my opinion the “Schimanski” Tatort episodes and our Fahnder episodes came out of this AFN-tradition. We tried to actualise this potential in Fahnder and some other films: to stage something with vitality, with great female characters, and with a certain reckless attitude, accepting that not every cut would be perfect. What counted was that it was alive, that the characters, plots, and dialogue livened up the place a bit! The attitude was akin to that characteristic of Lemke-films: a feeling of, come on, do it, just do it! This was our attitude when working on Fahnder, to do things differently than they were normally done. I love old episodes of Der Kommissar (1969-1976) with Erik Ode, or the films produced by Helmut Ringelmann and directed by Zbynek Brynych, even the first thirty or forty Derrick (1974-1998) episodes with Horst Tappert. (52) The detectives in these films look so typical of the post-war years, like oak closets, really horrible figures, but somehow Brynych managed to derive an amazing vitality, even happiness, from this. But we first had to change the figures; and the offices had to look different, more American; the cases had to be different, more modern; and we wanted more “street” in the films—more dust, more dirt, more emissions, and fewer scenes set in the living rooms of the bourgeoisie—in order to infuse our films with air and freedom like in Lemke, Klick, or Fuller films.
I think I know what you mean. I recall listening mostly to American radio in the 1980s because listening to Springsteen or Dylan triggered associations of something different, of something the small West Germany was unable to provide, whether emotionally or physically.
The entire ambivalence of one’s attitude at the time consisted of the fact that in our films we drove on small country roads in the Bavarian Forrest while listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” or The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”. This contradiction, this Bavarian America with visits to the G.I. barracks and “Little Oktoberfest”—these were details that quite precisely capture for me an attitude towards life and that also found its way into a small German film wave far away from the pretensions of the Autorenkino. Don’t forget, however, that from our point of view the U.S., after Vietnam and Nixon, had undergone a process of self-purification, just like West Germany had done under Willy Brandt. (53) We were not ‘68ers.
Yet one also really hoped for a different Germany. This hope was part of the texture of one’s life in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Indeed, in an interview, you said that you felt more at home in the West Germany before unification than you do today. But when I hear you talk about AFN radio and Fuller, I get the sense that even in this “better” West Germany your emphasis lies on the hope for a better Germany that one was able to access through those films and songs. In other words, what you are talking about is something like an Ersatz Germany that one accessed via the logic of escapism. But if you try to realise this other Germany cinematically, to tell of another Germany, especially through the police film genre, when you do this at home, on German ground and as a German film, then you are facing the problem that this notion of another Germany might come across as merely a copy. Perhaps this is why it is in the end impossible to make German police films in the American mould, because making American-style genre films does actually not provide you with the opportunity to offer a view of a different Germany; at best it offers you the chance to create a different view of an Ersatz Germany.
Let’s put it this way: I grew up in a West Germany where in the ‘50s and ‘60s on the three Christmas days (December 24-26) all blinds remained shut. Somewhere behind them Christmas tree lights were alit and German families tormented their children. It was a West Germany populated by people who had shut themselves off from one another. You did not know much about your neighbours; no one wanted to know about all the horrible things going on in the apartment next door. I recall a sentence in a police comedy by a friend of mine. The detective, who investigates a murder in one of those typical apartment houses, asks a female tenant whether she was aware of the fact that her deceased neighbour was a “Neger” (negro); horrified, she calls her husband: “Eh, komm doch mal! Wusstest Du, dass der ein Neger war?” (Hey, come on over! Did you know he was a negro?) This brief dialogue nailed the whole misery that characterised West Germany during this time. West Germany was characterised by a certain kind of desolation, isolation, and loneliness. You met each other in sports clubs and veteran clubs and the like; it was just terrible. So the country I grew up in was inhibited and characterised by an inability to communicate with each other. In East Germany things were rather different, by the way. And I have to admit that it was because of the ‘68ers, rather than my generation, that things began to change: the ‘68ers did the preliminary work, who fought with their fathers like the characters do in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976), so that we, the next generation, had the ability to experience more freedom. Suddenly there was sex, actual pleasure in sex; it was no longer the tense, pseudo-liberated rabbit-like screwing with partner swapping of the communes. All of a sudden, between 1972 and 1990, I think there was something like fresh air blowing through the country, years that within the German context were relatively liberated.
That’s when I sensed a different tradition and realised why it had ever been possible in Germany to film such a gentle, revealing love story as Unter den Brücken. Before this decade it was a complete mystery to me how this film could have featured such open characters, with so much humour. I otherwise only knew the uptight comedies of the ‘50s that fit the mood of the country, or the often-terrible films in which my father played at the time, disregarding Wir Wunderkinder and a few others—films that represented exactly how I experienced West Germany at the time. With the New Wave we gained a feeling that things could be different. (54) But it didn’t last. Today, it seems that as a result of the Wende fear has returned to Germany—the distress, the silence; all of a sudden, people once more refuse to look each other in the eye lest the other might beat you up if you look at him for too long. In other words, there is a desire to be left alone, so the blinds go down again.
Of course, 1989 represents a fascinating moment. Together with Basedow I made various films about what happened in former East Germany: in 1992 Die Verflechtung and fourteen years later Eine Stadt wird erpresst, both of which set in Leipzig and its surrounding brown coal areas. (55) I was totally fascinated by the chaos, the possibilities and impossibilities, the lack of order. But I think you are right in suggesting that this openness was but a short dream for us. Perhaps this somewhat different, less inhibited German world, which I have so frequently been trying to depict in my police and “milieu” films, gradually becomes a bit like the world of Paris that Jean-Pierre Melville built in his films: a dream city, a dream world of gangsters with an attitude and a code of honour that never existed, of cool protagonists driving in big American cars that never really drove through Paris like they do in his films. Still, we consider his film dreams as French as Camembert. Somehow he managed to bring everything together so that one is able to see these films as perfect specimen of French-American police films. Of course he had the advantage that there was a tradition of gangster films in France, which I didn’t have; I have to create such a tradition out of brief moments in the history of German television and French films and American films: I build a jigsaw puzzle of a dream-Germany, so to speak.
Dominik Graf, Eine Stadt wird erpresst (2006)
Taken in a political context, perhaps one could suggest that your project has a certain utopian quality. That is, it seems you try to show and render something with and through your films that as such never existed. But what is needed to bring about a different Germany? What kind of films (if any) might be able to participate in this process? Is it a matter of content, where one directly shows: here, this is how it could be? Or is it more, à la Theodor Adorno, that one can participate in such a process only negatively, where you have to show that this very utopia that the film offers is actually not possible in actuality, but that it is precisely this rendering sensible of the impossibility of actualising utopia that ultimately constitutes the utopian core that one must maintain, not (falsely) as reachable, let alone already reached, but (truthfully) as unreachable?
Yes, in a certain sense I think that’s correct. In the final analysis, my films work according to a particular dialectic because they don’t end affirmatively, they don’t leave you with the impression: well, we can live here after all! Think of Eine Stadt wird erpresst, which in the final analysis is a requiem for the Leipzig lowland plains, or Hotte im Paradies, in which the most livable world seems to be that of the pimps and prostitutes during the first half of the film! But the films are not about plots or the stories or the themes or the content; they are about micro-formations, how the characters talk with each other, or about friendship, how friends keep you alive, and the pleasure they take in having sex, at least once in a while, or at least they claim they do. These are tiny islands of the possibility to live differently, perhaps. That they get to a point, a moment, where no one even believes them that it is possible to experience such joy is what makes these films utopian to some extent. I can claim this as a witness of the West Germany of the 1970s and 1980s. But I also know that right now these attempts to narrate such joie de vivre—to provoke and project them retrospectively into our world today—might be rather unrealistic or “retro,” as Petzold says.
In another interview you said that we need again political and intellectual films. What’s a political film in your view?
Well I can speak more easily about intellectual films and forms. I’m afraid that the cinema has almost completely lost levels that you can find in the French cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s, in films by Alain Resnais or Chris Marker, for example. In Germany we witness an anti-intellectualism that by now is practiced in all openness in near Goebbels-like manner by random broadcasting bosses, so that you get the sense that the only thing that counts are the preferences of the mass, of the healthy body of the Volk, so to speak. The right of the individual to an intellectual challenge has been suppressed since 1989: culturally we find ourselves in a totalitarian province. I had to experience this when premiering Der Felsen at the Berlin Film Festival in 2002. (56) It’s certainly one of my most abstract films, but I was surprised by the degree of hostility with which it was greeted only because we tried to put some things kaleidoscopically together, things that at this moment did not seem to belong together in the cinema: i.e., mini-DV images with a symphony orchestra; larger-than-life emotions inflected by an abstract, cold narrative attitude voiced from the off; and added to this the Dogme 95-like authenticity-insinuating aesthetic of the handheld camera. Viewers refused to go with the flow of the film because it didn’t fit their preconceived notions of what such a film should be like. I had the sense that the building I created with this film was completely suspended in mid-air. People did not know what to make of the intellectual level offered by the film, by the off-screen voice that works in relation to what happens in the scenes and sounds like fate speaking from far above—a voice the appearance of which is always juxtaposed to the images’ immense proximity to the characters. This is a narrative system that people simply resisted.
But it’s not like I continued to develop this system further, though it definitely fascinated me. It was a reaction to what this new aesthetic—DV—makes possible while simultaneously insisting that people don’t necessarily have to look like minced liver, as they do in Lars von Trier’s films; it was an attempt to work with DV’s claim to authenticity and still jump miles away from it, into the cosmos, so to speak, where it is completely black and a voice suddenly addresses us. But you could tell from the reaction that something isn’t right because viewers felt that we were not giving them what they desired. They wanted to have a nice feeling and identify with the characters’ emotions and were thus upset that I suddenly jump far away from them and have the narrator talk about the landscape. No one really tried to understand the path we pursued with this film; everyone was preoccupied with his or her own expectations. I thought the aggressiveness with which the festival audience demanded that the film fulfill everyday film expectations was rather scary.
Karoline Eichhorn in Dominik Graf’s Der Felsen (2002)
It seems to me Der Felsen is an attempt to mobilise and develop further what you started with your essay film about Munich, München—Geheimnisse einer Stadt (2000), especially its middle part where you fabulate a science fiction story, speculating what would happen to the story, the city, and life in general if the character went down this path, and then this one, and then…. And I suspect Der Felsen was so aggressively rejected because it violates most expectations viewers have been habituated to share. Viewers associate specific aspects with melodrama, and you didn’t cater to these habituated expectations. Der Felsen is of course not at all free of content, but it’s really a tough film insofar as it confronts the viewer with the fact that one can tell stories differently and that one can look at the world in a different way.
It’s also a formal game, one that marks itself, as did Spieler, incidentally, as a formal game and solicits a response from viewers. It tells them, look, if you want to you can wish for a different film as you’re watching this, but this is what this film is: I’m going to try it along these formal lines.
To me this comes back to the question of political filmmaking, however. You probably know the Godard quip: to make films politically rather than making political films. Your email conversation with Petzold and Hochhäusler contains a couple of really interesting observations along these lines. (57) And elsewhere you said that for you the cinema is a location where you can see something new, something that one has never seen before. Petzold, in turn, writes in one of his emails that the most immediate task is to hear and see something again. And I wonder whether I discern the difference between your two statements correctly or not—that is, on the one hand, it sounds like the point is to be able to see something new, something that one hasn’t seen before and that the cinema can deliver on the level of content, whereas, on the other hand, to me the emphasis seems to be not so much on “something” but on the ability to hear and see itself.
I agree. And this is why one has to admit that the Berlin School is so extremely legitimated, that it was so incredibly necessary. The Berlin School is by and large a generation who is ten, twenty years younger than I am. (58) With them it’s almost like what I said earlier about the post-World War II generation and the German chamber television plays. The Berlin School generation has been bombarded with this cinema of spectacle. And they are responding to this cinema—Spielberg to the nth degree, if you will—by insisting that it’s fundamentally necessary to open one’s eyes and ears again in a rather basic way in order just to see and hear and nothing else: no music, no moving of the camera wildly to and fro, but just to see and hear an image.
As I tried to articulate in the email exchange, I noticed this tendency the most in Angela Schanelec’s Marseille (2005), which I think is in this regard a milestone of a film because it affords the audience the opportunity to hear a foreign city like one hears it in real life. You walk with this character through the city, you hear more than you see, and you “are” with the actress together in Marseille. It’s not like you hear something new but, rather, you simply hear, like you hear in real life. In my film about my father, Das Wispern im Berg der Dinge (1997), my mother describes this desire for quietness and truthfulness in the post-World War II period: at the time one did not want anything elaborate and desired complete reduction. (59) The Berlin School has the same attitude, as if before their arrival on the scene there had been a propaganda war going on that made you blind and deaf: the war waged by blockbusters against the rest of the world. Sometime around 1994, 1995, you had to develop new aesthetic forms in order to hear something else, to see something else. The first response to the relentless assault by Hollywood upon our senses was Dogme 95, after which the Berlin School arrived. That said, I couldn’t be as radical as they are in this regard because I am ten years older and perceive things differently. I am not quite as damaged by the cinema; I know it from before the state of war, so to speak. But I understand where they are coming from 100%, I think: from the early 1990s at the latest, it had become necessary to radically object to the screaming “vanity fair” of all cinematographic availabilities.
Notwithstanding real aesthetic differences between your films and those of the Berlin School (which are also internally different from each other), I think you have in the end more in common with Petzold, Hochhäusler, or Ulrich Köhler than one might think at first sight. It seems to me you all share a particular attitude with regard to the issue of imagining a different Germany: both you and the Berlin School appear interested in using the cinema to engage this issue, but this encounter manifests itself first and foremost in the films’ aesthetic attitude, rather than on the level of narrative, let alone content.
Or characters. However, the characters in their films are logically consistent in how they are characterised by what we might call a crisis-ridden uptightness and lack of identity with what they are, with what they do, and with whom they live. And I think this isn’t the case in my police films. I always like to get across that in my films the cops by and large enjoy what they are doing, that they live fundamentally in harmony with the location where they live, with their friends and drinking buddies, and with their dreams of heroism. But these cops in my films still have a place of work that provides them with pleasure; think of Fahnder: they form a “family.” This is a bit like making films: as long as you work you are part of a family that holds more or less together at least for the time when you work together. At the moment when you separate sometimes one’s identity gets lost, too. Many directors really struggle during the time when they are not shooting. But the definition of one’s identity through one’s work has gotten lost for many people in Germany so that they often appear ungrounded and lonely. But this loneliness is quite different than the loneliness of either Flo (Nina Kunzendorf) in Der scharlachrote Engel, who lives out her erotic fantasies in front of a web cam, or of the one-armed detective Tauber, who, as played by Edgar Selge, at least gives you the impression that he will be the last in his office, staying until 3 a.m. because he’s got work to do. So their loneliness is a conscious choice. They are both “aristocrats” who do not want to associate with the others. Only the characters in the melodramas written by Markus Busch—Deine besten Jahre, Bittere Unschuld, Die Freunde der Freunde (2002), Der Felsen, and Kalter Frühling—strike me as suffering from a degree of alienation that is similar to those from which the characters in the Berlin Schools suffer. (60) I know the protagonist of this filmmaking movement reject this label, but it connotes a lot of things quite precisely: just think of these films’ “Protestantism”…
Isn’t this in the end a symptom of the 1990s and its lasting effects—namely, that there was a lot of talk about unification but not much discussion at all about the most important event affecting the new country: the encroachment of neoliberalism upon post-unified Germany?
Yes, the new market, etc.
And the sense of having gotten lost by having been uprooted produces characters such as Paul (Lennie Burmeister) in Köhler’s Bungalow (2002), who does not seem to have a great degree of self-knowledge and certainly does not know why he acts the way he does—why, for example, he quits, willy-nilly, the military. I think the film’s greatness derives from the fact that its refusal to explain Paul’s actions renders sensible Paul’s own lived refusal (which is different than rejection, as the latter always presupposes a certain degree of intention and consciousness of the subject who rejects something, whereas refusal is in this regard much more affective, that is, pre-subjective). (61) In general, in many Berlin School films it is as if the characters had no ground whatsoever left underneath their feet, as in, for example, Hochhäusler’s Falscher Bekenner (Low Profile a.k.a. I’m Guilty, 2005). Why does the protagonist, Armin (Constantin von Jascheroff), confess to crimes he did not actually commit? Hochhäusler himself claims that Armin wants to be touched by the state so that he is at least being touched by someone.
Yes. But this identity, even though it is a false one, is something he can pin to his chest: it is something. I recall Hollywood films from the late ‘60s, early ‘70s—Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) or Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967)—that had similar characters that were near and dear to me. Their young heroes did not know where they belonged either. When Ben (Dustin Hoffman) abducts Elaine (Katharine Ross) from her own church wedding, I had the impression that this was mostly an external act so that finally something significant would happen with him: an attempt at defining himself. Falscher Bekenner strikes me as similar to these adolescent comedies of the New Hollywood: theatre of the absurd in life. I never had such figures of identification; I needed different ones. Perhaps I chose cops precisely because they keep on doing their work in the face of all odds—even if it leads to their death as in Eine Stadt wird erpresst: heroes of labor, so to speak.
Nevertheless, when watching your films, whether the melodramas or your policiers, even if there is some sort of “happy end” (as when the cops prevail and a crime gets solved according to the laws of the genre), I do not get the impression we are meant to “buy” such an ending precisely because the rest of the film just showed us why accepting, let alone affirming, such seemingly happy endings would be a direct expression of ideology. And I think this differentiates your films from most contemporary German films and aligns them with those of the Berlin School. Of course your aesthetic choices are different than theirs. But the effects your films produce strike me as similar. In any case, your films often put forth a challenge to the viewer, and at times your films are so hard-hitting that you are being asked to defuse the effects of the violence in your films.
Yes, this happened once, with the Der scharlachrote Engel: some of the responses to the film were rather militant, threatening. It is strange how people respond, though I suspect it is worse in the U.S. I also had some trouble with Er sollte tot…, where the Jugendschutz [the Office charged with the protection of minors] called, though the film was shown on national TV as planned.
Edgar Selge and Nina Kunzendorf in Der scharlachrote Engel (2004)
In the case of Der scharlachrote Engel you were even forced to interact with viewers immediately after the premiere screening on the issue of “Violence on the Internet” because of the, allegedly, particularly disturbing way the film dramatises the relation between the Internet, sex, and violence. This institutional(ised) demand for immediate re-contextualisation of what was just broadcast lest people draw the wrong conclusions is, I think, quite telling for how we deal with images in Germany.
Yes, some viewers even threatened the female Redakteur to do to her what happened in the film to the female protagonist! (62) In some sense this response was similar to what happened with Der Felsen. I don’t know why this is the case. I think twenty years ago people were quite capable of forging their own connections and accepted when a film left them to their own devices; now I get the impression that most viewers are not able to be confronted with cultural artifacts that propel them into orbit, so to speak. Everything has to be reducible to what they already know, to what’s familiar; everything has to fit this or that schema, regardless of whether it’s a blockbuster or an “art film.” No matter how much I frequently defend television against its high culture critics, it is certainly responsible for having caused this impoverishment of perception. But other media are not innocent either. By now people simply need guidelines that take them by the hand, so that they know what to expect. But then it is also necessary that the package contain indeed what it promises, which is what makes my work increasingly difficult.
And this matter of how we perceive—how we are made to perceive—is truly a matter of micropolitics, isn’t it? Which means the stakes a rather high.
Yes, though not consciously so. When you have discussions with the scriptwriter, the producer, or the Redakteur, which are primarily about content, you basically proceed in agreement. You don’t sit there and say: oh, the ending is hanging too high; rather, everyone agrees that this is the only way to do it. I don’t know if Basedow really liked the ending of Eine Stadt wird erpresst: it was my invention. In his ending the police fought with the villagers, and then more police arrived and took everyone in custody and that was it. I wanted to push the tragedy of the situation to a final point: the two opponents—both representing the old East Germany, but differently so—blow each other up. Doing so struck me as necessary in order to create a concluding emotion: shocking perhaps, but in my view satisfyingly so, similar to Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), which also features characters who embrace their death.
To return one more time to your email exchange with the Berlin School. If I understand you correctly, your main criticism is that their films exhibit distrust in communication. It seems that for you communication is something important, a demand, perhaps even an imperative. In contrast to the characters in the Berlin School films, yours talk a lot, and at times they do so on a rather elevated, sophisticated level, as in Spieler, some of your police films, but also in Der Skorpion (1997), another of your films that garnered lots of praise. But you also talk in many of your interviews about the issue of communication. Does communication contain for your something of a utopian quality?
Dialogue is for me the warm center of a film, no matter which kind: colloquial language, pointed dialogue, jokes as in Treffer or Die Katze, flamboyant statements as in Hotte im Paradies, artificial poetry as in Der Skorpion or Die Sieger. Language is more important to me than images. Especially humour in dialogue was for me always a strong instrument of communication: with the viewer, with the characters in the film, and even with the films I have seen and love, and which are present in my film by virtue of my admiration of their pointed dialogue. For example, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), a film I love, contains five or six longer dialogue sequences that I know by heart and that I can recite like one can sing melodies. (And I am not talking merely about the one mean line about Eric Rohmer films!) There are so many unforgettable one-liners in films by Fuller, Hawks, Aldrich, and Lubitsch; there is the wonderfully recitative language in films by Truffaut and Jean Eustache; even German films of the 1980s offer great examples of how one can make fabulous use of language in the cinema, as is the case in, for example, Peter F. Bringmann’s Theo gegen den Rest der Welt (Theo Against the Rest of the World, 1980), which was written by Matthias Seelig, and in the films based on scripts by Christoph Fromm. But these times are over. Language as a means for authentic expression for the characters has fallen through the cracks. Today language is almost exclusively rendered in order to demonstrate the characters’ inability to communicate, their speechlessness.
I have a hard time watching such films. And I don’t mean silent films, though I have difficulties with them, too. I mean specifically films that are about protagonists to whom language is something alien. Speechlessness in and of itself, the inability to reach each other through language—this is completely alien to me. I myself don’t talk like a waterfall—at least when I am not being interviewed. But I have the feeling that the style of the German language with which I grew up was very particular, very resistive—just like the language of the RAF was a specific German language. We had many happy Anglicisms, (attempted) punch lines, and patters: we were majoring in colloquial language, as it were. Recall how in Lemke’s films language itself—as improvised by the genius Paul Lyss—is their essence. (63)
I don’t mean to say that I am satisfied merely to film people talking; but when I laugh in the audience then I am satisfied to a certain degree, for I feel a hand coming out of the screen reaching towards me. In Treffer, for instance, when the three guys talk with each other, there is a particular provincial humour involved that allows you to laugh out loud. The way something is being expressed often says more than if you write the dialogue in formal German, which is why I love, for example, the way the Berlin dialect gets used in Hotte im Paradies as well as in Im Angesicht des Verbrechens. I remember one time when the actress Marie-Lou Sellem, who took a class on directing I taught, exploded when I said that German scripts rely on way too many clichés: some sentences are just stored in the computers of scriptwriters and are used over and over. For example, what do you say when you have an argument? The most popular script sentence in Germany is, “Let’s talk with each other.” A typical German dialogue sentence! Insufferable! And Sellem, who is very intelligent and experienced, proceeded to list at least twenty such sentences, some of which you can certainly also find in my films. I was really astonished. This really brought home the dearth of ideas in German dialogue. (64)
So when you meet writers such as Basedow, Schütter, or Fromm you get excited because they all have their own language. Basedow has his very own policemen language; in Schütter’s scripts the characters always talk on the same level, sometimes in a manner that is almost too elevated; and Fromm always had, at least in the ‘80s, this provincial wit, which was also in Spieler, even though this was an abstract film, but still, it had all these jokes. For me this is an indispensable part of cinema.
Hotte (Mišel Matičević) with his women in Hotte im Paradies (2002)
In your films one notices that your characters speak very much as if they really belonged to a specific milieu, so their dialogue grounds them in a specific space and time—not in the sense of “recognition” (where the viewer can say: oh, yes, I too was once in the red light district and I know from experience that people really talk like this) but rather the other way around: the characters do not speak how one thinks they should speak, but the way they do speak is nevertheless believable. The characters in Hotte im Paradies, for example, precisely do not speak in ways that they do in countless other German films featuring pimps!
I certainly hope that we managed to evoke a sense of believability. But how would it be possible to translate the wit of my scriptwriters—their sense of rhythm, the construction of their sentences—into English? Almost impossible. And should I care? Perhaps not. For what I am concerned with is, if you will, freedom of speech in Germany, that is, with the ability to use language imaginatively in a particularly pernickety German film environment in which the use of language is mostly imbecilic. The use of the particular kind of language we use in Hotte im Paradies communicates the illusion of authenticity. Perhaps not every real pimp speaks as eloquently as they do in this film, though I think many of them in fact do. But through the language’s specific succinctness the film affects the viewer with a well-invented authenticity!
But this invented “authenticity” works precisely by virtue of its difference—because it dos not rely on that computer dialogue. When a character says, “we have to talk with each other,” well, you hear this in real life frequently enough—but it sounds fake, unbelievable. Whereas the lines spoken in many of your films are not lines you necessarily hear all that often in real life—and this fact infuses the dialogue with a measure of reality: reality as an effect of artificiality, if you will.
Yes! Which is why even in real life most people talk alike. It is not only the case that a different use of language based on class specificities hardly exists any more in scripts but also that one gets the sense that in real life most people mostly talk in clichés, like in a soap opera. Just like people in German living rooms imitate the sex they see in porn films so they imitate speechlessness. That is, in most films it is always the same person who speaks, just one character: the author who lacks ideas. In contrast to this, with my authors—especially with Basedow, Schütter, and Fromm—I think there are really different languages, codes even, which are sometimes understood and sometimes not, where you realise that the character’s interlocutor does not really understand what the other means, but he responds anyway.
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once suggested that today the “problem is no longer getting people to express themselves, but providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people from expressing themselves, but rather, force them to express themselves. What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, or ever rarer, the thing that might be worth saying.” (65) He argues, in other words, that what Michel Foucault once analysed as biopower in the age of control society, what we might now call neoliberal finance capitalism, functions precisely via communication. Rather than being a disciplinary operation, the imperative of control society is “express yourself”: the more communication the better. You are what you communicate, so to speak. But the point is that such communicative acts are not opposed to the system but operate as its engine.
But this is a different form of communication. This kind of communication does not penetrate anything; these are merely blocks of speech put next to each other. You can write around them and thus produce a different image, like with the script sentences stored in computers.
That’s my point. My sense as a viewer is that your films are very much invested in language, in communication. But it seems to me that your films’ deployment of communication problematises the control society’s communicative imperative from one side, the Berlin School from the other. These are two ways of experimenting with the question of how one can render communication otherwise, how one can turn its control function against itself: either, as in your films, by creating a certain hyper-realism of speech, a well-invented authenticity, as you just put it, that does not serve a representational, signifying function (i.e., its reality-effect is produced by the precision of artifice, not the accuracy of its ability to re-present reality as such), or, as in the Berlin School films, by means of extreme reduction.
I think the Berlin School renders speech as helpless whenever and wherever it occurs in their films. It’s not like their characters remain silent all the time. But when they talk you realise how distant from each other they are. They don’t even have to fight with each other. Each everyday dialogue reveals this abyss between them, and the way the actors tend to play further enhances this sensation. In my films, I think the dialogue is always dialogue that puts the characters in communicative contact with each other. The characters know what to think of each other. Sometimes this ends up in hostility or even enmity, but most of the time one character knows what the other means, or, if he doesn’t, a comic moment emerges. In contrast, in Berlin School films you experience language as an instrument of horror and torture.
However, Im Angesicht des Verbrechens, there is a scene where a son, who sold drugs around the corner, is at home and his parents don’t know how to react, where he has his money from, etc. And while editing this scene I noticed the way they talk with each other and was reminded of how characters talk in the Berlin School films. That is, they talk all the time, but from this permanent communicating emerges a tremendous sense of their inability to come together. When I saw what we had there I initially felt put off because this helpless beating around the bush at night in a living room made the characters appear so oppressively small. While shooting I had the impression that I had never done such a depressing scene before, not even in my melodramas in which by my films’ standards the characters talk past each other a whole lot. But here, at the cop’s home, you truly see the inability to communicate while communicating, if you will. To be clear: I like the scene; it’s well acted and it has drastic consequences for the story. But when I asked the actors to go with it, I noticed how they automatically began to improvise with this “new” German film language, with how actors communicate in the Berlin School films. Doing so created a strong sense of oppression—oppression through language!
So it is as if one had to talk because one is afraid of silence—which reminds me of the problem the people have with the playing of air guitars in your contribution to the Kommissar Süden series, Kommissar Süden und der Luftgitarrist (2008): they are not so much embarrassed by the actual Heavy Metal iconography the silent performances evoke but by the silence itself. (66) Likewise, when I ask a question of my students in class and wait for thirty seconds without saying anything, waiting for someone, anyone to raise his or her hand, a collective sense of unease and embarrassment becomes affectively palpable: students begin sliding ever more into their seats, pulling their baseball caps deeper into their faces…
It seems that today such silence can be experienced positively only in a monastery, or as a wellness experience; otherwise it feels oppressive.
Thank you for this extensive interview.(67)
The following of Graf’s films are available on DVD and can be ordered through, for example, www.amazon.de: his thirteen Fahnder episodes as part of the Fahnder DVD box-sets, Treffer, Tatort: Schwarze Wochenende, Die Katze, Spieler, Die Sieger, Dr. Knock, Der Skorpion, Deine besten Jahre and Bittere Unschuld (available together on one DVD), Der Felsen, Der rote Kakadu, Eine Stadt wird erpresst, Das Gelübde, and Deutschland 09. Unfortunately, none of these DVDs, except for Deutschland 09, contain subtitles. Indeed, my hope is that this interview (which, to the best of my knowledge, is the first available in English) is going to contribute to raising Graf’s visibility outside of Germany so that future DVD releases of his work will be made available with subtitles.
- I was not able to attend the Sunday screening but have since been able to see the series in its entirety.
- For example, Graf has received one of Germany’s top cultural awards, the Adolf-Grimme Preis, eight times.
- Of course, the production of subtitles costs money. Given the sheer amount of dialogue—some even in Russian—it is conceivable that there was neither enough money nor time to furnish a subtitled version for the festival screening. In light of the fact that none of Graf’s work is currently available with English subtitles, however, I cannot help but consider this renewed failure to provide subtitles as indicative of the failure of the German film industry at large to promote more actively the work of one of the few German filmmakers of the last thirty years who has consistently delivered work of high quality and whose oeuvre ought to attract as much if not more interest than the work of, say, Tom Tykwer or Wim Wenders.
- Interestingly, Horman wrote the script for both Tiger, Löwe, Panther and Spieler.
- For a detailed introduction to the Berlin School, see Marco Abel, “Intensifying Life: The Cinema of the ‘Berlin School’,” Cineaste online 33.4 (Fall 2008), http://cineaste.com/articles/the-berlin-school.htm.
- Herbert Marcuse, “The Affirmative Character of Culture,” in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, Trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), pp. 88-133.
- His father, Robert Graf, was one of West Germany’s most compelling actors in the first two decades after the end of World War II, starring in German film classics such as Ottomar Domnick’s Jonas (1957) and Kurt Hoffmann’s Wir Wunderkinder (Aren’t We Wonderful?, 1958), as well as in a supporting role in John Sturges’s The Great Escape (1963). Selma Urfer, Robert’s wife and Dominik’s mother, was predominantly a theatre actress.
- Among her books are Damals. Dort (Munich: Bertelsmann, 1986) and Liebe in Coppet. Eine Erinnerung an Madame de Staël (Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagsanstalt, 1992).
- Ufa—the Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft—was founded in 1919 and produced during the years of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) films such as Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926). Between 1933 and 1945, Ufa was essentially controlled by Joseph Goebbels’s ministry of propaganda.
- Graf frequently composes his own film music.
- Loriot is the stage name for actor, director, and author Vicco von Bülow (born 1923), one of Germany’s most popular comedians.
- He acted in Alf Brustellin and Bernhard Sinkel’s Der Mädchenkrieg (Maiden’s War, 1977), Uschi Reich’s Keiner kann was dafür (1978), and Gabi Kubach’s Geteilte Freude (1979). Since then Graf appeared in many more roles.
- Geißendörfer, whose career began parallel to that of the more famous protagonists of the New German Cinema such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog, is most famous for creating one of Germany’s longest-running television series, Lindenstraße (1985-), a soap with more than a 1,000 episodes that by now has obtained cult status.
- Strauß was at the time the immensely successful (albeit also controversial) minister president of Bavaria. In 1980, he unsuccessfully ran as chancellor candidate for the conservative alliance of CDU (Christian Democratic Union) and CSU (Christian Social Union) against incumbent chancellor Helmut Schmidt (Social Democratic Party) and subsequently reassumed his position in Bavaria until his death in 1988.
- After the omnibus film Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978), this is the second film involving a number of well-established German directors of the Autorenkino who came together to collaborate on a film that describes the socio-political reality of Germany at the time. The other directors were Alexander Kluge, Alexander von Eschwege, and Stefan Aust, who would later author Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 1985), a landmark study of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a group that terrorized West Germany throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 2008, Germany’s über-producer Bernd Eichinger had Uli Edel direct an adaptation of Aust’s book, The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008), which showcases some of contemporary Germany’s biggest stars such as Bruno Ganz, Martina Gedeck, and Moritz Bleibtreu.
- The film also won Graf a “Best Artistic Contribution” award at the 1983 “Mystfest” in Cattolica, Italy.
- Louis de Funès, one of the giants of French comedy, had his greatest success with Gerard Oury’s La Grande Vadrouille (Don’t Look Now: We’re Being Shot At, 1966), which became one of the largest grossing films ever made in France, and also played one of the protagonists, Juve, in André Hunebelle’s Fantomas trilogy (1964, 1965, 1967). Between 1964 and 1979 de Funès films topped the annual French box office seven times. While in English-speaking countries his films never obtained the fame they acquired in France, they were tremendously popular in Germany and continue to be a staple on German TV to this day.
- Between 1985 and 1993, Graf directed thirteen episodes for this crime television series, which ran, intermittently, until 2005 in the so-called Vorabendprogram (early evening, pre-prime-time), ending with its 203rd episode. For an extensive analysis of the impact Graf’s directorial work for this series had on his career at large, see Marco Abel, “Yearning for Genre: The Cinema of Dominik Graf,” forthcoming in Jaimey Fisher (Ed), Generic Histories: Genre and its Deviations in German Cinema; an abbreviated version of the essay can be accessed at http://www.cine-fils.com/essays/dominik-graf.html.
- Outside of Germany Wennemann, who died in 2000, is best known for his role as the German submarine’s engineer in Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (The Boat) (1981).
- Perhaps Graf’s masterpiece, at least until his recent television crime epos, Im Angesicht des Verbrechens, Die Sieger failed at the German box office to such a degree that it prevented Graf from directing for the big screen for almost a decade. Its failure also had the effect of blocking any desires the German film industry might have had to invest in producing crime or police films for the big screen—genres that thrive in Germany only on television. For an argument why the film ought to be made available on DVD with English subtitles, see Marco Abel, “Die Sieger,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 27.5 (2010): forthcoming.
- According to one observer, Schmidt “was one of the first in Germany to discover and write about directors such as Douglas Sirk, Raoul Walsh, Budd Boetticher and Jean-Pierre Melville. In the late 1970s, he published the legendary culture magazine S!A!U!—with its punk tendencies, this was a genuine fan magazine for both high and low culture.” Hans Schifferle, “Eckhart Schmidt: Cinema of Passion,” German Films, http://www.german-films.de/en/germanfilmsquaterly/previousissues/seriesgermandirectors/eckhartschmidt/index.html, accessed May 6, 2010.
- Schwabing, a borough in Munich, was famous for its bohemian scene that included Fassbinder and other Autoren of the New German Cinema. Herbert Achternbusch is one of the enfant terribles of German cinema. He has been involved in filmmaking since the late 1960s. Achternbusch wrote the script for Werner Herzog’s Herz aus Glas (Heart of Glass, 1976), acted in Herzog’s Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, 1974) and Volker Schlöndorff’s Übernachtung in Tirol (1974), and directed about thirty films, such as Das letzte Loch (The Last Hole, 1981), Das Gespenst (The Ghost, 1982), and Heil Hitler! (1986). Having written and produced almost all of his films, Achternbusch never really compromised his anarchic vision in order to secure support from the German film establishment.
- The Filmförderung is a tax-based subsidy system (originally) intended to help German producers make films of artistic or cultural merit, including films by new directors and in genres that market forces do not tend to support.
- The adjective “new” distinguishes the filmmakers of the New Munich Group from other directors who were at the time active in that city such as Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz, who were closely associated with the Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962, which (in)famously declared that the “old film is dead” and is usually considered the beginning of a film historical development that culminated in the heydays of the New German Cinema of the 1970s. Thome’s long, still ongoing career includes films such as Detektive (1968), Rote Sonne (Red Sun, 1969), Berlin Chamissoplatz (1980), and more recently Rohmer-esque films such as Das Geheimnis (1995) and Rote und Blau (Red and Blue, 2003). Spils is best known as the director of anarcho-comedies with German actor Werner Enke: Zur Sache Schätzchen (Go For It, Baby, 1968), Nicht fummeln, Liebling (No Pawing, Darling, 1969), Hau drauf, Kleiner (1974), and Wehe, wenn Schwarzenbeck kommt (1978). Zihlmann wrote a number of scripts for, among others, Lemke’s Negresco**** – Eine tödliche Affäre (Negresco, 1967) and 48 Stunden bis Acapulco (48 Hours To Acapulco, 1967), as well as Thome’s Detektive and Rote Sonne.
- Thomas Mann’s fiction provided fertile ground for the history of German cinema. Between 1975 and 1982 alone, six films were made based on his writings, including Geißendörfer’s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain, 1982).
- Roland Klick directed films such as Bübchen (Little Vampire, 1969), Deadlock (1970), Supermarket (1973), and Derby Fever U.S.A. (1979). He was slated to direct one of German cinema’s key films of the early 1980s, Christiane F.—Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (Christiane F., 1981), but due to creative differences with the film’s producer, Bernd Eichinger, he quit just before shooting was supposed to commence. Uli Edel ended up helming the film. Like Achternbusch and Lemke, Klick, too, repeatedly distanced himself from the German Autorenkino of the 1970s.
- Fassbinder depicts the third generation of RAF terrorists haunting West Germany in the 1970s as acting without any clear political motivation. A comedy/satire, the film is characterized by an altogether different mood—considerably less sympathetic towards the activists—compared to Fassbinder’s contribution to the legendary omnibus film, Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978).
- Co-created by Bernd Schwamm, Horst Schimanski (played by Götz George) is perhaps Germany’s most famous television cop of all time, featuring between 1981 and 1991 in twenty-nine episodes of the long-running German crime series, Tatort (1970-). Since 1997 he has regularly appeared as the central character in the eponymous series, Schimanski (1997-). Schimanski has obtained cult-status in Germany not least because of his unabashed “proletarian” manners that put him at odds not only with his diegetic superiors but also with a long lineage of “white collar” German television detectives. Graf made two films for Tatort: the “Schimanski” episode, Schwarzes Wochenende (1986), and Frau Bu lacht.
- Episodes #89 and #90, both are included on the DVD set of the series’ fifth season.
- The term Wende refers to the unification of West and East Germany in 1990. AFN is the abbreviation for American Forces Network, and Harlaching is a borough in Munich.
- More accurately, the episode was screened only by the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), one of several federal broadcasting channels that make up the umbrella network, ARD, which is one of Germany’s two tax-funded, nationwide public television networks (the other being ZDF). The WDR, which primarily caters to viewers living in Germany’s most populated federal state, North Rhine-Westphalia, is generally considered the most left-leaning of the federal broadcasting stations. An ARD series, Der Fahnder was normally broadcast on the nationwide network, rather than through the ARD’s federal broadcasting channels.
- Der scharlachrote Engel is one of two films Graf shot for the crime series Polizeiruf 110. The other one is Er sollte tot… (2006); Graf has recently finished shooting his third Polizeiruf 110, Cassandras Warnung, which is scheduled to premiere on German TV in 2011. Polizeiruf 110 originated in 1971 as an East German crime show intended to compete with the West German Tatort. Having survived unification, the series continues to this day. One of the characteristics that differentiates the series from most other German crime shows is that it places great emphasis on police procedure rather than foregrounding the heroics of individual cops; this procedural aspect is a hallmark of most of Graf’s policiers as well.
- Bahnhofskino refers to the disreputable, often seedy theatres one could still find in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Germany’s metropolitan train stations, before the forces of (post-) modernization revamped them into travel-hubs-cum-shopping-malls.
- For an extensive discussion of these issues, see Hauke Hückstädt (Ed), Dominik Graf, Verstörung im Kino: Der Regisseur von Die Sieger im Gespräch mit Stefan Stosch über die Arbeit am Film (Hannover: Werhahn Verlag, 1998).
- Controversially, Graf recently refused to compromise on the agreed-upon budget for Im Angesicht des Verbrechens. The production company, Typhoon AG, had to declare insolvency, and the series was ultimately finished only because the ARD ended up contributing funds to allow the shooting to continue with the original budget. For more on the production of the series, see Johannes Sievert (Ed.), Im Angesicht des Verbrechens: Die Entstehung einer deutschen Fernsehserie (Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2010).
- Thomas Neubauer, “Ein geistiger Liebesakt,” www.arte.tv/de/Interviews/2059738.html, accessed May 12, 2010. In 2004, John Paul II beatified Anna Katharina Emmerick (also Emmerich; 1774-1824), who was said to bear the marks of stigmata.
- Graf’s texts have recently been collected in Michael Althen (Ed), Schläft ein Lied in allen Dingen (Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2009). An indispensable book for anyone interested in Graf’s work, the assembled texts, all of which originally published between 1997 and 2009, reveal a remarkable sense of cohesion notwithstanding the fact that he wrote them for publication in daily newspapers and monthly film magazines.
- The Reeperbahn is Hamburg’s legendary red light district.
- To this day his greatest commercial success, Die Katze attracted more than 1.3 million viewers to the big screen, making it the fourteenth biggest hit at the German box office in 1988.
- Marco Abel, “‘The Cinema of Identification Gets on My Nerves’: An Interview with Christian Petzold,” Cineaste 33.3 online (Summer 2008), http://www.cineaste.com/articles/an-interview-with-christian-petzold.htm.
- Germany does not have many bona fide stars. At his peak in the 1980s and 1990s, George was one of the few. Incidentally, the main female actress in Die Katze, Gudrun Landgrebe, was at the time a star in her own right as a result of the fame she acquired for her role in Robert von Ackeren’s Die flambierte Frau (A Woman in Flames, 1983).
- Intriguingly, this tennis match is about to move from the level of theory to that of practice (if one wants to maintain such a distinction). Petzold, Graf, and Christoph Hochhäusler, another director associated with the Berlin School, have agreed to extend their conversation about film aesthetics (cf. note 57) by making three feature films narrating the same crime: Petzold as a love story; Hochhäusler as a chase film, and Graf, whose contribution will be called Dreileben—Komm mir nicht nach, as a police film. This collective project (all three films will have “Dreileben,” meaning: three lives, in the title) is supposed to have its theatrical premiere in 2011. Furthermore, Petzold and Hochhäusler collaborated on a short film essay in which they deconstruct frame by frame the first interrogation scene of Graf’s Er sollte tot…, which is included in Alexander Kluge’s eleven hour-long Früchte des Vertrauens project (2009).
- Herold was the president of the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), the German FBI, from 1971 to 1981. As a means to track down RAF terrorists, Herold developed the Rasterfahndung, a controversial profiling tool that allows for the systematic sifting of massive databanks (such as those of public electricity providers, housing authorities, or local car registration agencies) with the help of computer networks based on predetermined characteristics attributed to the targets of an investigation.
- It is important to acknowledge, of course, that what I am describing here with regard to the relation between the police and Germans primarily pertains to the experience of “ethnic Germans”; immigrants of, say, Turkish descent are bound to have a fundamentally different experience of the German police.
- A Sondereinsatzkommando (SEK) is a special response unit of the German state police, akin to American SWAT teams. Graf used real SEK men as advisors on the sets for Die Katze and Die Sieger and gave them small roles as well.
- On June 27, 1993, the GSG9 (Grenzschutzgruppe 9 is an anti-terror unit of the German police founded after the events at the 1972 Olympics in Munich) caught two suspected RAF members, Birgit Hogefeld and Wolfgang Grams. The former was taken into custody, but the latter died, as did one of the police members. The exact circumstances of their deaths remain controversial.
- Barely five minutes into Die Sieger, the film’s antagonist, Heinz Schäfer (Hannes Jaenicke), murders his still incubated baby. Although, as Graf correctly points out, we do not see the act as such, the filmmaking is more than successful at rendering the horror of the situation sensible so that viewers remain affected by this moment well past its occurrence.
- The term, meaning fun culture, was in film historical terms most directly manifested by the success of what Eric Rentschler termed the German “cinema of consensus,” which included a number of yuppie relationship comedies such as Abgeschminkt, Sönke Wortmann’s Der bewegte Mann (Maybe, Maybe Not…,1994), and Rainer Kaufmann’s Stadtgespräch (Talk of the Town, 1995), which were among the most successful German films during the first half of the 1990s. See 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. 260–277.
- Before disappearing into her and her politician husband’s hotel room, Melba gives Simon, a married man and father of two small children, a quick hand job, much to his astonishment and, of course, pleasure. This first sexual encounter between the two will eventually translate into one of the film’s two passionate sex scenes (the other is between him and his wife after he had sex with Melba, something of which his wife is intuitively aware because, as she puts it, one knows way too much about one another after having been together for such a long time). Later on in the film, Simon’s physical knowledge of Melba has a crucial plot payoff. In an elaborately organized cat-and-mouse game staged by Simon’s former partner, Schäfer, who abducted Melba’s husband to squeeze the state for a hefty ransom, Simon is the only one able to recognize that the real Melba is suddenly replaced by another woman who merely pretends to be her. Simon’s intimate knowledge of the real Melba’s body, that is, gains him a crucial advantage over the entire police (surveillance) apparatus, from which he and his SWAT team colleagues were recently expelled because Schäfer successfully raised suspicions of criminal wrongdoing against Simon.
- Sperling und der brennende Arm is Graf’s second feature-length episode he directed for Sperling TV series (1996-2007). The first was Sperling and das Loch in der Wand (1996), the series’ first entry.
- Dominik Graf, “Lernt schlechte Filme!,” Die Zeit November 8, 2007, http://www.zeit.de/2007/46/Lernt_schlechte_Filme, accessed May 6, 2010.
- Derrick is the most successful crime series in German television history and has been sold to more than 100 countries, more than any other German television show. Ringelmann produced all 281 episodes, of which the Czech-born Brynych directed thirty-seven between 1975 and 1994.
- In 1969, Willy Brandt became West Germany’s first chancellor from the politically left-leaning SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany), who were able to govern in an alliance with the FDP (Free Democratic Party of Germany). In 1971, he was awarded the Nobel Price for Peace for his so-called Ostpolitik—his efforts to improve relations with Eastern European countries, including the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Poland, where, in December 1970, he famously knelt down at the Warsaw monument dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.
- Graf is referring to the “New Wave” of the late 1970s, early 1980s that took place in popular music, including in Germany with bands such as Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft (DAF), Fehlfarben, and Grauzone, rather than the French Nouvelle Vague or the New German Cinema.
- Die Verflechtung looks at the seedy underside of the process of how, during the immediate years after the Wende, businesses formerly held by the East German state were privatized, mostly by selling them cheaply to investors from the former West; Eine Stadt wird erpresst dramatizes the still existing animosity between former East and West Germans, even fifteen years after unification. Graf made a third film set in the former East, Die Reise nach Weimar (1996), which also depicts the conflict between East and West Germans, albeit by using the romantic comedy genre. Finally, Graf’s Der rote Kakadu takes place in Dresden during the days and weeks leading up to the building of the wall in August, 1961.
- After the commercial disaster of Die Sieger, this film marks Graf’s return to the big screen, albeit in form of a DV-shot, small-budget film that has more in common with the early Dogme 95 experiments than with Die Sieger or Die Katze.
- I am referring here to a thirty-page e-mail exchange between the three directors. The exchange took place in lieu of Graf’s participation at a public panel session on the Berlin School. In the fall of 2006, the Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb), Germany’s most intellectual film academy, had invited most of the directors associated with the Berlin School; Graf was asked to participate as someone who has been critical of the aesthetic associated with, and promoted with the help of, the label “Berlin School.” The German film magazine Revolver, which is edited by, among others, Hochhäusler, features the exchange in its sixteenth issue (2007); the second part of the exchange can be accessed online at http://www.revolver-film.de/ by following the “Mailwechsel ‘Berliner Schule’” link in the sixteenth issue. For an interview with Hochhäusler, see Marco Abel, “Tender Speaking: An Interview with Christoph Hochhäusler,” Senses of Cinema 42 (January – March 2007), http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/07/42/christoph-hochhausler.html.
- Petzold, the oldest of the Berlin School directors, was born in 1960, Hochhäusler, as one of the younger ones, in 1972.
- This film is part of a series of films made under the motto: “Denk ich an Deutschland” (When I think of Germany). Other films responding to this prompt include Fatih Akin’s Wir haben vergessen zurückzukehren (2001) about his immigrant parents who “forgot to return” to their homeland, Turkey, and Andreas Dresen’s Herr Wichmann von der CDU (2003), a documentary about the unsuccessful run of a conservative politician for parliament. For an interview with the latter director, see Marco Abel, “‘There is No Authenticity in the Cinema!’: An Interview with Andreas Dresen,” Senses of Cinema 50 (April-June 2009), http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/09/50/andreas-dresen-interview.html.
- Busch also wrote the script for Das Gelübde.
- For an elaboration of this distinction, see Marco Abel, “Intensifying Affect,” Electronic Book Review (October 2008), http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/fictionspresent/immersed.
- The Redakteur is the responsible editor, employed by a broadcasting station, who oversees a film project, rather than the traditional editor who edits the footage. Redakteure have considerable power in German television, as they perform very much a gate-keeping function and as such have enormous influence on what ends up on the small screen, both content-wise and aesthetically. While there is a minority of Redakteure who are committed to pushing the possibilities of television, arguably the majority of them exhibit a more conservative attitude, chasing after the lowest common denominator in order to achieve the requisite ratings for their respective time slots.
- Paul Lyss appeared in Wim Wenders’s early short film, Alabama: 2000 Light Years (1969) and subsequently in Lemke’s classic films, Rocker, Sylvie (1973), and Paul.
- Marie-Lou Sellem is a well-known German actress who has appeared in more than fifty productions, including Tom Tykwer’s Winterschläfer (Winter Sleeper, 1997) and Schanelec’s Marseille.
- Gilles Deleuze, “Mediators,” in Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter (Eds), Incorporations (New York: Zone, 1992): 280-294, here 288-289.
- Graf’s film was the second—and to date final—installment of this ill-fated TV series, which the producing German TV network, ZDF, prematurely terminated due to insufficient ratings.
- I want to thank Dominik Graf’s agent, Kerstin Boeck, Eric Rentschler, and Christoph Wahl for providing me with copies of many of Dominik Graf’s films that are commercially unavailable.