How many times can we return to a place, to a time, to a mood? Each time is different, since we ourselves are different, although we usually look for the same: similar people, experiences, feelings; a complex blend of novelty and repetition, the endless fascination of being at home elsewhere, as Play-Doc organisers perfectly know after nothing less than seventeen editions. Year after year, they have created a small local festival for a huge global community in Tui, a border town between Galicia (Spain) and Portugal that has become a friendly meeting point for non-fiction and avant-garde filmmakers from the Iberian Peninsula and beyond. This year, for example, the competition included five feature films and six short films, among which the jury decided to reward three stunning works: Argentinean feature film Esquirlas (Splinters, Natalia Garayalde, 2020), a chronicle of the public and private consequences of a planned accident at a munition factory – the Rio Tercero explosion in 1995 – from the filmmaker’s private collection of home videos; Portuguese short film Fruto do Vosso Ventre (Fábio Silva, 2021), a piece of autoethnography about a dysfunctional parent-child relationship; and Galician short film Os Corpos (The Bodies, Eloy Domínguez Serén, 2020), a sensory record of several carnival street parties filmed right before the confirmation of the first cases of Covid-19 in Galicia. Beyond the competition, the festival continued to vindicate lost, unknown and forgotten filmmakers such as Bette Gordon, Walter Saxer, Wolf-Eckart Bühler and Manfred Kirchheimer, who finally had his first international retrospective at the age of ninety years old.

Dubbed “the greatest documentary maker you’ve probably never heard of” by Sukhdev Sandhu in The Guardian,1 Kirchheimer is a survivor, a man who has always been there, in New York City, filming its people, streets, buildings, trains, bridges and rivers since the late ‘50s. Born in Saarbrücken (Germany) in 1931, he moved with his family to New York when he was only five years old, fleeing from Nazism. Once there, he grew up under the spell of a city in constant transformation until becoming a modernist filmmaker influenced by both the tradition of street photography and the legacy of the avant-garde, which he inherited from Hans Richter, his mentor at the City College’s Institute of Film Techniques. There is no wonder therefore that many of his best-known films, such as Claw: A Fable (Manfred Kirchheimer & Walter Hess, 1968), Bridge High (1975) or Stations of the Elevated (1981), are actually late urban symphonies filmed at a time of urban crisis – the time that goes from Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) to Camilo Vergara’s The New American Ghetto (1977-1995).2 In those years, Kirchheimer developed a gaze at the city that combined abstract formalism with social concerns, in which geometrical compositions concealed allegorical criticism: he was especially gifted at finding pure forms in the cityscape and turning them into a political statement, but also at capturing fleeting moments of unexpected beauty that still retain all their spontaneity.

Claw: A Fable

Aware that there was a story in every corner, he began his career filming street scenes and architectural shots with Walter Hess, his creative partner in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, with whom Kirchheimer shared a reverential respect for Frank Lloyd Wright’s ideas on urban planning and a profound rejection of the glass box architecture that was then in fashion. Between 1957 and 1960, they filmed 45,000 feet – about 20 hours – in order to make a film on post-war urban renewal, but they did not get to complete it at the time. Instead, they agreed to use that footage as a shared archive to which Kirchheimer has returned again and again for sixty years, as he explains in his screening introductions for his retrospective at Play-Doc: those images appear in Claw: A Fable and Bridge High, but also in TALL: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan (2006) – Kirchheimer’s expository documentary on high-rise construction before and after the Chicago School – and especially in the recent tetralogy formed by Dream of a City (2018), Free Time (2019), Up the Lazy River (2021) and One More Time (2021), four archival films in which Kirchheimer faces the past through his own images in a never-ending process of reviewing, re-editing and rethinking the archive and the city. Thus, as times goes by, the same visual motifs – cranes and skyscrapers, rivers and bridges, workers and idlers – become increasingly uncanny and moving: the visual remains of a vanished city.

Like most urban symphonies, Kirchheimer’s films usually start at sunrise, far from the city, as happens in Colossus on the River (1965), Claw: A Fable, Bridge High or Stations of the Elevated, to immediately afterwards enter the cityscape by boat, car or train, establishing a dialectic between nature and technology based on the contrast of scales, textures and colours. Within his cinematic city, the slightest detail reaches epic proportions, while massive volumes appear to be miniaturised in a game of shifting perspectives. Film after film, Kirchheimer turns everyday experiences, such as docking an ocean liner, crossing a bridge or watching the subway go by, into aesthetic experiences in which the abstract meets the sublime. These experiences, however, have changed radically over time: nowadays, there are neither ocean liners on the river nor graffiti in most subway trains, but we still enter the city by all kinds of means of transportation. Kirchheimer’s films, therefore, become time capsules that convey urban experiences associated with different generations and social classes: the experience of immigrants like himself who arrived in New York by boat (Colossus on the River), the experience of middle-class commuters who daily crossed the border between the suburbs and the city (Bridge High) or the experience of a marginal youth who found a creative way out of the ghetto by writing and painting on subway cars (Stations of the Elevated).

Bridge High

Abstraction does not prevent Kirchheimer from creating characters from inanimate objects: in Colossus on the River, for instance, the ocean liner SS United States and the herd of tugboats surrounding it perform a delicate dance full of suspense while approaching the pier; then, in Claw: A Fable, the faces of the sculptures carved in old buildings play the part of a Greek chorus, as if they could comment on the destruction caused by the mechanical claw that names the film and seems to move of its own free will; and the faces painted on the billboards in Stations of the Elevated establish a game of glances, first among themselves, like members of an exclusive club of affluent consumers, and then towards the words and figures painted on the passing trains, which the billboards seem to despise due to their rough appearance. In this latter case, although both billboards and graffiti belong to the same iconic sphere, they actually make explicit the class differences between their respective producers and recipients: while billboards are intended to seduce consumers, graffiti summarise the anger and despair of ghetto life in a few threatening keywords – ‘blade’, ‘slave’, ‘hate’, ‘hell’ – with which a new generation of frustrated youngsters aimed to ‘bomb’ the city. Right before the release of the early hip-hop culture films, such as Wild Style (Charlie Ahearn, 1982) or Style Wars (Tony Silver, 1983), Kirchheimer had already realised that these kind of artworks were a cry from the ghetto that expressed its unbearable violence and sent it back to the city in the form of moving murals, as a way of saying “hey, we’re still here and still creating, despite poverty and despite everything”. In this regard, Stations of the Elevated does not only show the painted trains, but also the places where they come from: both the rail yards where the trains wait to enter service and the playgrounds where ghetto kids try to escape a possible ominous fate, which is suggested through a disturbing soundscape of gunshots and police sirens. 

Stations of the Elevated

Beyond his fondness for buildings and infrastructures, Kirchheimer has always known that a city is first and foremost its people, its ever-changing communities. For this reason, after thirty years filming anonymous individuals, he finally decided to depict his neighbours and relatives in We Were So Beloved… (1986), a talking head documentary on the German Jewish community of Washington Heights, an area that was dubbed ‘The Fourth Reich’ or ‘Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson’ by the Americans who lived there in the mid-20th century. In order to tell the story of these people from the inside, Kirchheimer, who belongs to “the generation of postmemory”, 3 decided to move from experimental filmmaking to domestic ethnography, introducing a series of marks of authenticity within the footage: he played the role of interviewer before the camera, recorded the voiceover commentary in his own voice and even began the film in the living room of his family home. Over two and a half hours, similar life stories gradually shape a collective narrative: the growing problems in Nazi Germany, the decision to emigrate, the shock on arrival, the process of community building, the impact of the Holocaust, the loss of family members, the generational clash between German parents and American children, and so on. These testimonies led many people to relive their traumas, but they also recovered a particular experience of the city: as these accounts unfold before the camera, the interviewees rebuild the old neighbourhood for all those people who never had the chance to live in it.

We Were So Beloved… is Kirchheimer’s contribution to the cycle of films, like Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985), that attempted to record the stories of the Holocaust survivors before they disappeared. In fact, both Shoah and We Were So Beloved… were screened at the 1986 Berlin Film Festival in a possible case of what Jonathan Rosenbaum has termed “global synchronicity”: “the simultaneous appearance of the same apparent taste, styles and / or themes in separate parts of the world, without any signs of these common and synchronous traits having influenced one another”.4 However, what distinguishes We Were So Beloved… from other documentaries of this cycle is perhaps its unusual frankness regarding controversial issues: many interviewees state that German Jews themselves were strong supporters of German nationalism, and some explicitly despise other migrant collectives, from Eastern European Jews in ‘30s Germany to Latino immigrants in ‘80s New York. Nowadays, these kind of paradoxes may be shocking for today’s audiences, since unpopular opinions are usually removed from most current films, but it is precisely this unwanted sincerity that makes We Were So Beloved… another prime example of a cinematic time capsule that preserves the past as it was rather than as we wish it had been. 

We Were So Beloved…

Although Kirchheimer’s style has nothing to do with that of the Direct Cinema filmmakers, his films also convey “the feeling of being there”, the motto of that film movement,5 or more exactly the feeling of having been there at some point of a past that refuses to disappear. One way or another, Kirchheimer’s films bring the past back to the present due to the haunted nature of its images, and especially to his ability to continue making new films from his old archive: the same kind of images can be seen over and over again from Claw: A Fable to his recent tetralogy, within which Free Time stands out as a tribute to a way of inhabiting the city – “summer living before the advent of air conditioning”,6 as Sandhu has written – that still remains alive in these images. Such effect is even achieved in Short Circuit (1973), an oddity within this retrospective, since it is Kirchheimer’s only semi-narrative film. This hybrid work combines a self-fictional plot about a filmmaker’s family life with a long sequence of street shots – taken once again from his archive – in order to reflect on the unconscious prejudices of the white bourgeoisie towards the black working-class. Nowadays, class and racial relations are still a hot topic, but Kirchheimer had already dared to address them from a healthy self-critical perspective almost fifty years ago.

Throughout his entire career, Kirchheimer never hesitated to point out the city’s unsolved problems, but his do-it-yourself mentality – “I’m a one-man band”,7 as he often states in his interviews – forced him to work slowly and ultimately prevented him from reaching a wider audience. Nevertheless, working on his own had also some benefits, beginning with the freedom to set an agenda based on his own interests: he had been able to choose what and whom to film, and what to do with the resulting footage. Moreover, the very fact that his films are not currently well-known somehow helps strengthen their ability to re-experience the past in the present, especially considering that Kirchheimer’s images were basically made to capture a particular place, time and mood: a bustling city of rust, rubble and dirt that disappeared to make way to a gentrified mirage of what New York is supposed to be. Far from being nostalgic, Kirchheimer does not want to return to that time, but to continue exploring it through digital technology, looking for new meanings in his old footage. In this sense, the past never ceases to amaze us each time it becomes part of the present, both inside and outside the movie theatre, as the Play-Doc programmers strive to convey every year, even during the pandemic.

Play-Doc International Film Festival
22-26 September 2021
Festival website: http://www.play-doc.com/en/ 


  1. Sukhdev Sandhu, “Manfred Kirchheimer, the greatest documentary maker you’ve probably never heard of,” The Guardian, 3 June 2021.
  2. Jane JacobsThe Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House, New York, NY, 1961; Camilo Vergara, The New American Ghetto, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1995.
  3. Marianne Hirch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 2012).
  4. This is not the only case of global synchronicity in Kirchheimer’s filmography: previously, Stations of the Elevated had been premiered at the 1981 New York Film Festival just six days after the screening of another remarkable film on street art, Mur Murs (Agnès Varda, 1981). For more information on this concept, see Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin (eds.), Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia British Film Institute, London, 2003, p. 61.
  5. Without going any further, Richard Leacock’s biography is precisely entitled from that idea: Richard Leacock, The Feeling of Being There: A Filmmaker’s Memoir, Semeïon Editions, Meaulne, France, 2011.
  6. Sukhdev Sandhu, “Manfred Kirchheimer, the greatest documentary maker you’ve probably never heard of,” The Guardian, 3 June 2021.
  7. Soheil Rezayazdi, “In a Way, It Is My Most Gentle Film…”: Manfred Kirchheimer on His NYFF-Premiering Free Time,” Filmmaker, 28 September 2019.

About The Author

​​Iván Villarmea Álvarez is the author of Documenting Cityscapes (2015) and co-editor of New Approaches to Cinematic Space (2019). He teaches at the Universidade de Coimbra in Portugal.

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