Collective Movements and Solitary Thrusts: German Experimental Film 1920-1990

Christine Noll Brinckmann

Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews


längere Passage über Wyborny


For the time being the start of new cinematic orientation in Germany did indeed lie elsewhere. The two independently produced outsider-films--Herbert Veseley's Nicht Mehr Fliehen [Flee No More] (1955) and Ottomar Domnick's Jonas (1957)--are only marginally associated with experimental film. They attempt to disintegrate conventional narrative structures, work surrealistically and subjectively, with ellipses, absurd moments, and a poignant camera; but they also remain bound to narrative concepts. As such these films may have contributed more to a renewal of feature film than to a new experimental thrust. The same holds true for many early works of later directors who emerged in the Sixties and paved the way for New German Cinema. Drawing a boundary between genres is often difficult in this restless epoch, as in the case of radical, innovative and fictional auteur films such as Jean-Marie Straub/Daniele Huillet's Nicht Versohnt [Not Reconciled] (1963), Ula Stockl/Edgar Reitz' Geschichten Vom Kubelkind [Garbage Waif Stories] (1969-70), and Werner Schroeter's Eika Katappa (1969).

A demarcation from essayist works is just as difficult. Parallel to experimental narrative film, a movement in German short film began which was politically motivated and mostly used the 16mm format: the goal was to produce outside of and in opposition to the film industry. A forum for such works was the West German festival "Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen," where the "Oberhausener Manifest" was presented in 1962, proclaiming the move away from worn-out post-war cinema. Shortly thereafter, the Institute for Film Design in Ulm was founded, a school that concentrated on innovative narrative film and the creative use of documentary. In the course of the Sixties, experimental elements crystallized out of the short format which were partly anarchistic and subversive, partly satirical or playfully formalistic. Although their drawing attention to bungled cultural situations was often stronger than the aesthetic quality of the films, the intervention was occasionally transported so cleverly that message and aesthetic were equal. The films from Lutz Mommartz, Hellmuth Costard, Adolf Winkelmann, and Helmut Herbst belong in this category.

A special position is occupied by Vlado Kristl, whose destructive humor definitely suits the mental landscape of the Sixties, yet whose irrational radicalism repeatedly threw him off the cultural tracks. At first sight, Kristl's early film Madeleine, Madeleine (1963)--prize-winner at Knokke and Oberhausen--has a narrative flavor. It portrays a tennis game interrupted by a sudden cloudburst and choreographs a number of figures in the context of this event. Yet without consideration for continuity or narrative aspects, the minimal plot is brought to waver and dwindle, giving way to redundancies, confusion, and stupefaction. The film is both shrill and flat, yet also very elegant; it eludes and baffles the viewer without communicating any comprehensible message.

Kristl's later work retains much of this strange quality--for example Autorennen [Car Race] (1965), Der Brief [The Letter], 1966, and Sekundenfilme [Secondfilms] (1967/68): "Polemic, unjust, full of imagination", as Alf Bold describes him (in Das Experimentalfilm-Handbuch, Frankfurt am Main, 1984); Kristl is an "uncompromising anarchist," an "obstructionist like Valentin and self-centered like Achternbusch," the inventor of the "no longer conceivable Nothing." (Thomas Brandlmeier in Cinegraph). He later developed a "Theory of the Non-film" and ended up obstructing himself as he did not want to create anything constructive. He raced through all possible genres and media (feature and animation film, painting, video, expanded video), was occasionally regarded as a social case, became a professor, renounced filmmaking but began again in the Eighties. Tod Dem Zuschauer [Death To The Viewer] (1983) is a feature-length 35mm film with the motto: "Let's slay the viewer so we'll have culture." Belonging neither to feature film, nor belonging to any other category, Tod Dem Zuschauer engendered a great deal of perplexity.

At the turn of 1967/68, the fourth International Knokke Festival took place. While German participation during the legendary third meeting in 1963/64 had been limited, a large number of German filmmakers suddenly gained recognition or were at least present and made contacts. A few even received awards: Lutz Mommartz with Selbstschusse [Cocked Shots] and Hellmuth Costard for Warum Hast Du Mich Wachgekusst [Why Did You Kiss Me Awake], both full of original humor and formal innovation. Yet compared to contemporary American works--the aesthetic seriousness of a Michael Snow or the shock structure of a Paul Sharits--their work appears somewhat lightweight and essayist.

The new beginnings of an experimental film movement and its mushrooming activities proved to carry more relevance:

Screening centers are established, festivals organized and the attempt is made to break into established festivals which exclude experimental film out of fear of scandals. In the spring of 1968, Xscreen in Cologne and the Undependent Filmcenter in Munich were formed as the first independent projection houses to exclusively screen underground films. Crucial is the fact that these organizations take the financial risks upon themselves alone and, regardless of the event's success, guarantee the filmmaker a fixed fee. (Editorial in Xscreen, Cologne 1971)

Based on the American-international model, at this stage the talk is of the 'Underground;' the movement regards itself as militantly political. At issue is an undermining of culture and society using aesthetic means. Already excluded (from the film industry and from bourgeois society), oppressed (through censorship, non-recognition by the establishment, denial of financial means), film artists decided to turn the marginality of their status to an advantage. Renouncing middle-class society, they began to build an underground network of their own. Partly based on friendship and mutual artistic respect, partly on collective political commitment, they developed a lifestyle that proved to be attractive in its own way. German counter-culture of the Sixties is characterized by a specific balance between effectiveness and utopia.

Wilhelm and Birgit Hein, who were already represented in Knokke with the early work S&W (1967) and were founders of Xscreen, soon became internationally known in experimental film circles. In addition to their experimental work, they gained special credit through their articulation of theoretical principles and their documentation of the movement. Especially Birgit Hein achieved excellence here: her book Film im Underground. Von seinen Anfangen bis zum unabhangigen Kino appeared in 1971 and was the first German-language publication to provide an overview of international filmmaking.

For their collaborations, W and B Hein initially worked in the vein of materialist/ structuralist film in order to develop a radically disharmonious style, anti-representational, anti-luxurious, sensual and aggressive, and non-auteur in bias. Rohfilm [Raw Film] (1968) can serve as an example of the Heins' approach to filmmaking and their attempt to raise the viewer's awareness of the projected work's material qualities. Birgit Hein describes their production processes and effects:

Particles of dirt, hair, ashes, tobacco, fragments of cinematic images, sprocket holes and perforated tape are glued onto clear film. This is then projected and re-photographed from the screen, since the conglomeration of strips and glue technically allow only one projection. During this process, the original gets stuck now and then in the projector gate, so the same image appears again and again, or film frames melt under the excessive heat of the projector which is running at a very slow speed. The ensuing film is put through all kinds of reproduction processes, projected as video, appears on the editing board and on a moviescope and is filmed again in order to capture the specific changes engendered by the processes of reproduction. Other pieces from various positive and negative strips and from 8mm and 16mm strips with their different frame sizes are also glued together and re-filmed. 8mm film is run without a shutter through the viewing machine and re-photographed so that frame borders and perforations, in other words the film strip as material, become visible. (Film im Underground, Frankfurt am Main 1971)

Grun [Green], (also 1968), 625 and Work In Progress, (both 1969), and the Materialfilme [Material Films] (1976) all work in a similar fashion with the medium's concrete sensual properties. At the same time, the Heins use impulses from American Structural Film, preparing their material according to previously conceptualized construction plans and investigating new technical effects. Birgit and Wilhelm Hein also experimented with multiple projections--for example the cinematic 'happening' Sichtbarmachung Der Wirkungsweise Optischer Gesetze Am Einfachen Beispiel [Making The Mechanisms Of Optical Laws Visible With A Simple Example] (1970), and early on they turned to found footage compilation, home movie reflections, expanded cinema and multimedia performance.

In the Eighties, all these elements coalesced into longer, more essayist and radically personal works. W + B Heins' Love Stinks--Bilder Des Alltaglichen Wahnsinns [Love Stinks--Images Of Everyday Madness] made in 1982 in New York, disturbingly exhibits their own (married) sexuality, making the private relentlessly public against the background of an equally unrelenting city. Verbotene Bilder [Forbidden Pictures] (1984/85) takes this theme even further: pornographic and oneiric, it "steps through every stage of Hell" (Alf Bold) but despite all its fury remains poetic and vulnerable.

Verbotene Bilder will neither be a finished work, nor a completed statement, but is a document of a process: of remembrance, of knowledge, of presentiments and foreboding, of analysis and of what existence means for W + B Hein: the making of films. (Dietrich Kuhlbrodt, CineGraph)

Shortly before the experimental centers in Cologne and Munich were established, a group of independent filmmakers formed a co-operative in 1967 which also organized a festival, the "Hamburger Filmschau." In the case of the Hamburg group, their interest was less focused on the 'Underground' and more towards the independent and artistic self-determination of production, which is why filmmakers of various directions were represented in the co-operative. Experimental filmmakers included Franz Winzentsen, Hellmuth Costard, Helmut Herbst, Klaus Wyborny, Werner Nekes and Dore O., among others.

Like Birgit Hein, Werner Nekes is also active in theoretical investigation and in organization, teaches, writes, lectures on film and on his own films. Like many experimental filmmakers, his origins lie in the fine arts. Nekes began working on film around the same point in time as the Heins. His style is more rigorous, comparatively non-anarchist, of stupendous technical perfection and, despite an almost scientific precision, it is contemplative in character. If the Heins nonchalantly tend towards terrorism and the breaking of taboos, Nekes is arrogantly monomaniacal, embellishing his name with the addition "revolutionary of film language." But due to the quality of many of his films such affectation is easily forgotten. Nekes' own description of the early work Gurtrug 2 (1967) allows a glimpse into the artist's way of thinking, his aesthetic and personal gesture:

In Gurtrug 2 [. . .], people are shown in a triangular configuration, lying on the ground and changing their positions: one or two people get up and move to another place, where they again lie down. The double projection takes the shape of two images, one above the other so that the lower triangle is lying on its base with its point upwards, while the upper image mirrors the lower one, in other words is upside down. The two images form the shape of a sand hourglass composed of two triangles, touching only at their points. One film starts at its beginning, the other at its end and finishes at its beginning. This means that the work represents a time cross, an X, and that at only one particular moment in time both projectors converge on the same image for a twenty-fourth of a second. This visual structure is complemented on the soundtrack, by the voices of two groups of people counting off numbers. One group begins with 5 4 3 2 1 2 3 4 5 etc., while the other begins at the same time with 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1 etc. Both groups articulate the number 3 simultaneously. (distribution catalogue)

Nekes' later films retain his technical perfection but are less abstract and more strongly poetic. Sometimes a shocking sexual content dominates, as in Kelek (1968), which addresses a voyeuristic viewer; sometimes autobiographic portraits and moments are interwoven--Nekes himself, his wife Dore O.; views from their window. Occasionally actors join in. Werner Nekes' most beautiful works are undoubtedly his landscape films, in which formal metamorphoses and lyrical observations fuse into structures of meditation. Describing Diwan (1973) with intuitive sensitivity, Sebastian Feldmann attributes Nekes with the almost metaphysical ability " to un- and discover being:"

How he conquers time, the agent of change, in that he uses time itself for changes in the landscape, how he disturbs or destroys chronological laws with the camera's reverse motion potential; this is a captivating and highly aesthetic experimental endeavor. [. . .] Due to the opening and shutting of the diaphragm, an image of the countryside (grass, trees, a house, a mere glimpse of sky) discolors gradually: from rich green summer into pale green spring and yellow autumn, then finally into white winter with its all-pervading bluish shadows. As for the moment when the diaphragm closes its eye and a clear sky tones down to a stormy sky, one finds in Nekes a multi-structured, almost magical understanding which lies beneath the surface of nature and reality, corresponding strongly with the futile coolness of this test series. (distribution catalog)

Nekes' films are also remarkable for their length--Diwan is 85 minutes long, Amalgam (1976) 72 minutes, and the Trilogie Des Sehens [Trilogy Of Vision], consisting of Lagado (1977), Mirador (1978) and Hurrycan (1979), comprises four hours. The lyrical moment gains monumental weight. The trilogy also stands out for its powerful visual experience: shot on 35mm and thereby possessing an unusually luxurious resolution for experimental film, the films offer new visual effects created with innovative shooting devices constructed by Nekes himself. Rotating, half-transparent mirrors are placed in front of the camera, or diaphragm shutters leave every x-numbered frame unexposed so that in a later shooting they can be exposed, making "the imperceptible visible." (Albrecht Oswald, De Schnuss, Nr. 6, 1979).

In the Eighties Nekes turned from lyrical, self-reflexive and perception-oriented films towards different projects. His passion over the years for collecting curiosities of cinema archaeology was recorded in the documentation Was Geschah Wirklich Zwischen Den Bildern? [What Really Happened Between The Frames?] made during 1983-85. Previous to this, in 1982, the postmodern feature Uliisses was produced which feeds on various heterogeneous narrative threads, ranging from The Odyssey to a contemporary narrative about a photographer named Uli. The film "translates the Joycean method of utilizing historical and literary models--forms of verbal communication--into the cinematic and photographic." (Eva M. J. Schmid). A second feature of Nekes', the Ruhr Valley grotesque Johnny Flash (1986), was less convincing.

Werner Nekes and Dore O. have worked often and closely together, most successfully in the early short film Jum-Jum (1976). The large, almost frame-filling painting in the background--featuring a stylized phallus, horizontally placed, divided into geometric fields and executed in cheerful pop colors--is from Dore O. who also provided the movement, rocking back and forth on a swing in front of it. Nekes' cinematic treatment subjects the material to an abstract, rhythmic structure. The soundtrack is sparse, limited to a few sounds.

A violent beauty is disclosed in the film's strict arrangement (the reduction to one shot size and one type of sound): a ritual inevitability is suspended by ornamental repetition of the few shots. (Dietrich Kuhlbrodt, Filmkritik, May 1968)

Dore O.'s films Alaska (1968), Lawale (1969), Kaldalon (1970-71) and Blonde Barbarei [Blond Barbarism] (1972) unite painterly with cinematic elements and autobiography with landscapes and abstraction. Tactile sedimentation, overlapping, duplication, reversals, and gentle, often faded and clouded colors create the impression of flatness, contributing to the floating unreality of figures, architecture, and landscape. Kaskara (1974) won the prize at Knokke as well as many other awards.

The film's theme is the remembrance of a summer in the country, of the consciously felt presence of a man who appears and disappears in the images. [. . .] Due to the double exposures and counter-masks, he is often seen only in fragments, sometimes the center of the frame 'swallows' him, in other moments the layered images double his appearance. (Eva J. M. Schmid, unpublished manuscript)

More brittle and abstract, but with a glimpse of the unique mix of contemplation and inner tension is how Dore O. describes her own film:

Landscape exists only as a view through windows and doors, individual images are in opposition to themselves, growing closer together or dissolving into each other. Besides compressed images, the breaking of spaces and of course time, there are shots which have been left undoctored. Attraction, amalgamation, and removal of half of the image with the goal of a sensual topology are the principal formal means of the chosen film language. One image devours the other. (Information sheet 12/1975 of the Internationales Forum des Jungen Films, Berlin)

Frozen Flashes (1976) does without sound and movement of its figures: it is composed of a chain of fixed shots which pulse uneasily, almost aggressively and alternate with lightning-like frames of white. More than in Dore O.'s previous work, a hidden plot seems to linger beneath the surface, although not enough to bring the "scenes"--of a few people in a lake-side house--into a causal context. Due to the exhausting quality of its images and the subliminal or perhaps non-existent narrative, Frozen Flashes is extremely taxing for most viewers. But the film's disconcerting strength lies precisely in the relentlessness with which it imposes technical oscillation onto the lyrical and tenderly colored images, and in its denial of all explanation.

Further works--for example Stern Des Melies [Melies' Star] (1982) and Enzyklop (1984)--were followed in 1988 by Blindman's Ball. A claustrophobic atmosphere distinguishes this film. Its broken images deal with a blind man and a woman who takes care of him, arranges his life and yet may destroy him. "Sounds and tones intensify unbearably [. . .] The inner trembling is transferred to the viewer as well, the varying heartbeat assumes the musical rhythm of a tango." (Eva M.J. Schmid, Program notes, Oberhausen 1989). In a disturbing way, Dore O. appropriates the traditionally male control of the gaze, and many moments of the film are associatively and painfully organized around motives of vision, the eye, injury, haptic impressions, of feeling and touching as surrogates for sight.

Klaus Wyborny, musician, physicist, and filmmaker, belongs to the same generation as W and B Hein, Werner Nekes, and Dore O. His work, "characterized by a romantic appreciation for desolate, ruined vistas " (Jim Hoberman, Village Voice, May 1, 1978), is additionally distinguished by a strong musicality independent of the inclusion of music. Wyborny is an excellent photographer who edits in-camera and improvises on location. At the same time, he adheres to rigid scores, which he draws up according to mathematical or musical principles. The flow of his films arises in part from polarities (such as water against sand, industrial architecture against cow-filled meadows), in part from rhythmic changes of point of view/camera angles or the colors blue and red with which he overlays his material as a monochromatic tinge. Many of his early films, but mainly the works from the end of the Seventies, are impregnated by this style, especially 6 Kleine Stucke Auf Film [6 Little Pieces On Film] (1977), Potpourri Aus Ostlich Von Keinem Westen [Potpourri From East Of No West] (1978/79) and Das Szenische Opfer [The Scenic Offering] (1980), one of his most beautiful films.

A different interest of Wyborny's, there from the beginning, aims at juggling narrative patterns which occasionally unite to form proper feature films, or are interspersed with fiction-breaking elements. A salient example is Die Geburt Der Nation [Birth Of The Nation] (1973), a 70-minute long, intricately complex series of episodes about the building up of a new 'civilization' that ends in the renunciation of language. After a more or less linear, more or less narrative main section showing a small group of protagonists in the desert, an 'appendix' follows. It repeats the images from the first section in different combinations; they have also been put through an increasingly alienating technical processing to the point of non-recognition. "The two complementary halves can be regarded as an essay with footnotes as well as a story, both of which are confronted with their object (more anti-narrative than non-narrative)." (Tony Rayns in Der deutsche Experimentalfilm der 60er und 70er Jahre, Munchen 1990). But even the more narrative first part is in no way subordinate to simple story-telling. It is also interspersed with visual alienation which seem to take place at random, and after a while a strange whispered commentary assumes the authority of providing meaning.

The key to Wyborny's intentions (and a strong reference to the second part of the film) is found in the commentary which introduces an extremely romantic metaphor: the social organization of the group is poetically tied in to the concept of language, which itself is tied to the concept of film language and therefore especially to the dominant view that film language serves narrative structure. (Tony Rayns, as above)

Klaus Wyborny's intensive creative occupation with narrative patterns, especially with those of classical Hollywood film, led to the 1976 essay "Nicht geordnete Notizen zum konventionellen narrativen Film" ("Non-Organized Notes on Conventional Narrative Film," in Boa Vista, Nr. 3, 1976, English translation 1981); its insights on principles of presentation and montage of feature film remain original and illuminating even after the proliferation of theory in film studies. Born out of a love-hate relationship with cinema, the text lacks neither passion nor precision.

Hartmut Bitomsky reads Wyborny's work as a "battle against narrative" pure and simple. In reference to D.W. Griffith's milestone of film history, The Birth Of A Nation (1915), which Die Geburt der Nation already suggests in its title, the filmmaker engages in a type of duel without winners: "All reversals only serve to rekindle the narration; there is no path which leads away from Griffith." (Filmkritik, October 1979). And in connection to Wyborny's next film, Pictures Of The Lost World (1972-75), Bitomsky poses the question: "Is it conceivable that the battle with narrative must inevitably result in the destruction of the physical, material world on the screen?" Yet in Wyborny's later films, made in a similar vein, the battle against narrative gives way to a less destructive confrontation.

Heinz Emigholz, born in 1948, is slightly younger than most of the filmmakers discussed above, but he surfaced only after the turbulent beginnings in the Sixties. His oeuvre begins with Schenec-Tady I (1972-73). Like Nekes, Dore O., and Wyborny, Emigholz lives and works in Hamburg; at the same time, he is strongly oriented towards New York (as is Wyborny, who was also active for a longer period in the U. S. A. and with whom Emigholz has much in common); some of the films were made there, and co-operation with New York artists and internationalism is inscribed in his work. Besides his films, Emigholz draws and photographs, translates from English into German and writes.
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The early films are silent, defamiliarized landscape studies which display technical virtuosity and exude a cool, hectic obsession. The influence of American Structural Film, with its medium-centered agenda, is tangible.

In Schenec-Tady, Tide and Arrowplane, the landscape, shot in static takes, is the result of the filmmaker's operations, carried out according to an arbitrarily set plan, against which the camera's potential stands out. These are not films to simply be viewed. One does not seem to reach a closer intimacy with the profilmic scenery after the twenty to thirty minute films, but rather a decisive awareness of the inner life of landscapes and things, of the limitations of what we observe with our gaze, and of the inadmissibility of our consistently anthropomorphic mode of perception. (Frieda Grafe in Suddeutsche Zeitung, 1.1.1980)

With Damon (1976-77), based on a poem by Stephane Mallarme, Emigholz includes the dimensions of language in his work. The text--in German, English and French--is distributed amongst a number of actors; with every word and every speaker the images change as well, an exhausting and tortuous method only occasionally interrupted by photographically contemplative passages devoid of human beings. Individual words are:

so separated from each other that they easily spring out of the poem's structure and awaken multiple, sophisticated and devious associations of their own with what is visible. . . . The text, in itself emotionally emphasized but disguised as a discourse on language, is neither illustrated nor explained, but replaced by something completely different which induces us to reflect on Emigholz's interest in language and brings his personal emotions into play. (Marcia Bronstein, "Information sheet 3/1979" of the Internationales Forum Des Jungen Films, Berlin)

Emigholz's major body of work to date consists of a tetralogy of complex, innovative narrative features. They are intricately based on a twenty-minute long experimental film, The Basis Of Make-Up, which is embraced by or in turn interlinks them. The Basis Of Make-Up (1974-83) is a sort of long-term cross-section, a summary of the author's biography in which his diaries--dozens of neat little notebooks of identical format--are swiftly leafed through page-by-page on screen. After each two notebooks, a pause is made, the camera lingering on drawings or paintings as they appear in the diary manuscripts. The flow of time seems stored in these texts, and the filmed surfaces promise intense subjective depth. But the pages are turned by so quickly that it is not possible to focus on a line, and what is intimate remains so (although glimpses of the author's idiosyncrasies and personal aesthetics are betrayed): it is a game of systematic revocation. Emigholz describes the relation between this work and the features:

The Basis Of Make-Up is the center around which my films Normalsatz and Die Wiese Der Sachen [The Meadow Of Things] revolve. The notebooks and sentences which go through the protagonist's mind in Normalsatz and the drawings from Die Basis des Make-Up and Die Wiese Der Sachen constitute its material. I imagine The Basis Of Make-Up as a silent intermezzo or as a short recapitulation between these films: the data bank as interlude. The door is opened and immediately closed again, the paradox of the film taken to an extreme, delivering something that is revoked at once; interspersed with corny jokes from the official world of images, an ocean of type and signs which gives the viewer time to surface. (Information sheet 6/1984 of the Internationales Forum des Jungen Films, Berlin)

Since then, the tetralogy has been completed with Der Zynische Korper [The Cynical Body] (1990). It also contains experimental moments, but while the earlier parts--Normalsatz, for example, or Die Basis Des Make-Up (the title, almost identical to that of the diary film discussed, is confusing)--are but distantly reminiscent of regular feature film, the cycle's essentially narrative character has become manifest here.

Among German experimental filmmakers, Jurgen Bottcher--born in 1931 and, until German re-unification, a citizen of the GDR (the former East German Democratic Republic)--presents a special case. Bottcher is a painter (working under the pseudonym 'Strawalde') and as a filmmaker is primarily a documentarist. Some of his documentary films--for example Rangierer [Switchmen] (1984)--are so lyrical that they can be regarded as experimental films: without commentary, very quiet and atmospheric, shot in severe and precious (35mm) black-and-white with shimmering natural light. Officially produced in the DEFA documentary film studio, Rangierer represents a small political miracle. As Wilhelm Roth wrote in 'CineGraph,' Bottcher belongs "to the genuine GDR avant-garde."

The experimental triptych--Potters Stier [Potter's Bull], Venus Nach Giorgione [Venus After Giorgione] and Frau Am Klavichord [Woman At The Clavichord] (1980/81)--fell victim to censorship and was not screened in the GDR. The films carry on with a 'Strawalde' tradition: the painting-over and defamiliarization of art postcards. Their consistent format, the paintings' classicism, and the fact that as postcards they are inexpensive and widely available stimulate their serial usage. Bottcher chooses one such model from art history per film, and submits it to countless variations of later additions and changes. The synthesis of painting and cinematographic treatment results in the play of proportions, since frame-filling postcards can evoke a real, life-size illusion of space; or in changing perspectives and compositional values through introduction of frames, grids, or of silhouettes in the foreground. The painter's brush occasionally appears within the frame, and one can follow the operations in flagranti. The nature of the painting-over of images changes unexpectedly, ranging from trivial caricatures to demonic additions or to conflicts and tensions between different notions of representation and modes of perception in occidental painting.

After his triptych, Bottcher abstained from making further experimental films.

The Heterogeneous Eighties

During the Seventies, the first productive decade of new German experimental film, pioneering works arose which now qualify as classics. Yet "in front of this impressive artistic background, the public contempt in the middle of the Seventies is that much more surprising." Despite filmmakers' efforts to develop their own communication and organizational structures, there was, as Ingo Petzke further elaborates, a lack "of forums such as festivals or publications, of organization and consistent press work. There were too few filmmakers, and most of all there was a lack of receptive audiences." (Das Experimentalfilm-Handbuch. Frankfurt am Main, 1989).

At the end of the Seventies and the beginning of the Eighties, this was to change for a while. During this period, many local cinemas and film boards were founded (with the assignment to especially promote independent film making), while established festivals made their screens accessible for the innovative and the original. The Osnabruck 'E-Film Workshop' was constituted as were other specifically experimental, alternative organizations and a series of prizes and financial resources for experimental films was funded. Press, radio, and television began to take notice, and cultural borders became more permeable, so that film was granted admission to museums and rock concerts. Exhibitions on film history and archives were set up in many cities, as were teaching assignments and even professorial chairs at universities and film classes at art academies. Distributors such as Cine-Pro (Osnabruck) and the growing experimental film collection of the 'Freunde der deutschen Kinemathek' (of which Alf Bold was in charge) made it possible to arrange rich and relevant programs. Foreign interest in German experimental film grew and precipitated in awards at festivals and in the establishment of numerous exchange programs. The Goethe Institute began its exemplary international programming which was also documented in texts on experimental film.

The result of this development was that

at the beginning of the Eighties, an astonishing blossoming of experimental film developed in the Federal Republic of Germany with an almost incomprehensible number of films, produced by a new generation of mostly younger and unknown filmmakers. (Jochen Coldewey, Der deutsche Experimentalfilm der achtziger Jahre, Munchen 1990)

Some of the strongest talents belonging to the new generation were Christoph Janetzko, Hille Kohne (both Academy of Fine Arts Braunschweig), Klaus Telscher (Academy of Performing Arts and Music, Bremen), Stephan Sachs (Art Academy Dusseldorf) and Karl Kels (Stadelschule Frankfurt). They all trained as artists, although initially--Kels is an exception, because he directly entered Peter Kubelka's film class--they began in another artistic field.

Christoph Janetzko's first film, Fenster [Window] (1979) is a pastoral landscape contemplation. In spite of a complex technique--six fields are created within the image through masking and multiple exposures, in which the same rural idyll appears in different times of the day and of seasons--the film gains a gentle, unassuming lyrical intensity. With Janetzko, technical ingenuity, precision, and patience result in a virtuosity which appears self-evident and seamlessly blends with his concepts. He quickly proceeded from the technique of masking to complex applications on the optical printer. Change (1981) or SN (1984) continue the contemplative approach of Fenster; Change, in that it submits a framed gaze (out of a window, into a courtyard) to rapid manipulations, disturbances, and beautification. In SN, Janetzko alienates a farm house and its inhabitant, a saxophone player, to such a degree that New-Wave sensibilities and a certain garishness pervade the rural peace. Both films thrive on the energy of colors, and music claims constitutive importance in both.

Made in 1985, S 1 takes Janetzko's ingenious mastery of the optical printer one step further; it could be ironically described as an "homage to the perforation hole" since the oblong shape of this hole constitutes its playful, endlessly varied basis of composition. S 1 reworks found footage, brief moments which quote in part their historically obsolete format (9.5mm), in part their genre (advertising and feature film), and bears witness to the original prints' subjection to the physical wear of projection. Yet this describes only one aspect of the film's complex and multi-layered organization.

Using a construction invented especially for this purpose, a hybrid of an optical bench and an animation table, the film strip is visible through an almost screen-size perforation hole, on a plane apparently behind it. Torn out of all narrative context, the scenes, gestures, and bits of conversation from the lower level behind correspond with the colors, scratches, and codification on the perforated border moving in front of them. As is the case in the production process, the numbers and letters seem to identify the scenes' images, yet S 1 only plays with this context and uses it to transform familiar signs into exotic hieroglyphs of film mechanics [. . .] With a bewildering effect, S 1 betrays conventional cinema and shifts the fascinating darkness of the image's invisible edge into bright center screen. (Dorothee Wenner, program notes, undated)

It should be added that in spite of all abstraction, S 1 is an extremely sensual and voluptuous film--because of its dynamically changing speeds which produce almost physical reactions in the viewer, and its sparsely distributed but all the more radiant colors.

Janetzko's later films are more concretely designed. In M (1986) the rooftops of New York appear in centrifugal positions at the frame edges and enter into canted relations with each other: it is a "city symphony" devoid of people, hectic urban scenes, grime, or chaos. The architectonic fragments the film presents appear as antipodes of what is taking place on the streets, a counter-image in pure azure and rust-red stone. On Ludlow In Blau [On Ludlow In Blue] (1987), also made during one of the artist's New York sojourns, documents the moment of awakening, of taking in the surroundings and sounds in a loft on the Lower East Side. In Hollywood Killed Me, made in collaboration with Dorothee Wenner in 1988, staged moments from film history and contemporary Hollywood merge to form an essay about the state of mind in the Dream Factory.

Already during and after his own studies, Christoph Janetzko provided assistance and encouragement for a generation of experimental filmmakers. Uli Versum, Walter Hettich, Hille Kohne and many others began their cinematic careers in Braunschweig, and occasionally contributed to the so-called "Folienschule" (Alf Bold) which preferred to work with the optical bench and--occasionally--with colored transparent foils. Later Janetzko relocated to Berlin and supervised the training of young experimental filmmakers. He was also active in the Third World; in Brazil, Thailand, and in the Philippines, he was able to contribute to the nascence of a new experimental film culture.

Hille Kohne, who is also a painter and makes photo collages, completed her first film Na Gut, Schlachtet Alle Gummibarchen [OK! Slaughter All Gummi Bears] in 1982; Zitrusfruchte [Citrus Fruits] followed in 1983. Her unmistakable style--a strange mix of poetry, self-reflection, humor (to the point of deliberate silliness), multi-layered color transparency and text collage--has been present from the start.

Zitrusfruchte records the impressions of a summer's day on the Mediterranean capturing them in their ephemeral and vibrating sensuality and submitting them to a complex filmic (and pictorial) treatment. Most of the elements reoccur, but each time in a different form, with different framing, in different sequence, varied object composition and changes from positive to negative as well as changes in lighting and tone. Hille Kohne especially likes to work with color foils and filters with which she masterly varies her material and endows it with a vitreous transparency. The Mediterranean views seem less to be recordings of reality than already impressions of the camera, reactions to reality through the film's 'eye' and its (Kohne's) transformation potential. Zitrusfruchte is like a dialog between visual phenomena, camera, animation and editing tables and the filmmaker herself. The film has neither narrative nor consecutive structures, and according to the program sheet, even "the end is just a cut."

In a certain way Zitrusfruchte is equivalent to the literary form of the "poetological" poem: a form which simultaneously recounts lyrical impressions and reflects upon its own process of genesis and the phenomenon of aesthetic creation. Poetological poems also suspend time and resist linear development since they unite observation, creation, and reality and its poetic assimilation, thereby suspending their own chronology.

Hille Kohne's latest film to date (1987) bears the title Und Sie, Sie Liebte Raubtiere / Tritt Auch In Den Garten [And She, She Loved Predators / Step Into The Garden, Too]--a fragmentary quotation from a poem or rather a long chain of lyrical thought by Vladimir Majakovsky of 1923, which revolves around the theme of love. Like Majakovsky's poem, the film is an associative montage, about the erratic nexus of levels of time and imaginings and nostalgic-erotic thoughts: "The film visualizes an in-between state of far-reaching weightlessness and pining reminiscence of the past. A film about love." (Renate Lippert in Frauen und Film, No. 42, 1987). But Kohne doesn't take on an adaptation of the poem, proceeding instead in a structural relation, analogous to the poem's essence and style. Even stronger than earlier films, Und Sie, Sie Liebte Raubtiere remains enigmatic in sunken insinuations and suggestive indecision without appearing unfinished. It disturbs and fulfills the viewer at the same time.

The work of Klaus Telscher also displays highly personal characteristics. Autobiographical intimations, daily life, German and American cultural reality, film-historical quotes, culinary music, kitsch and cynicism are parenthesized by an exceptionally aesthetic susceptibility and by formal precision. Telscher is a hypersensitive artist who can't stand still or rest anywhere--not even in regard to his own films which he reworks again and again. For some of his films no definitive versions exist, there are no true originals.

This unrest already characterizes the early film Entwicklungsstucke [Development Pieces] (1979/80). Compiled out of brief moments and autonomous apercus, Entwicklungsstucke could combine itself in any which way, develop in this or the other direction. But the title also hints at something technical: Telscher's trademark is a deliberately unprofessional development bath which he applies in order to affect the film's surface and cover it with scratches and spots. Although the filmed events address the audience--with acrobatic feats demanding applause or through direct gestures of greeting--the images distance themselves, hiding behind this visual barricade. And although the film is exactingly composed, it appears to be carelessly given over to chance, eaten away and faded like early works of cinema history.

About Eastmans Reisen [Travels With Eastman] (1982) Manfred Arntz writes that the film "puts established images on trial: the camera as the shredder of history." (Filme von Klaus Telscher, Osnabruck, 1992). The connection to film tradition is already established with the word "Eastman," but the "Travels" turn out to be not simply excursions into cinema history, but also German "Wanderungen," off into the Alps and into national Teutonic folklore. In some of Telscher's later works the theme of German emotions and German kitsch becomes the central satirical motive; Aus Der Alten Welt [From The Old World] (1984), and especially Warum Ist Es Am Rhein So Schon [Why is it so Beautiful on the River Rhine] (1986), exhibit a more essayist and parodic character.

Nachsommer [Late Summer] (1987) utilizes many registers--lyrical, material-aesthetic, erotic, scathing, voyeuristic, documentary, autobiographical. Yet it is the lyrical which, in spite of all that is done to disguise this quality, remains strongest and most enduring.

Nachsommer is a reflection upon film and women. Both are brought together in one central sequence. The viewer sees the filmmaker watching a porn video, then the porno film fills the screen and the image of a woman's face seems to (orgasmically) burn up. But a video image is not subjected to a projection lamp's heat: Telscher makes fun of his surprised viewers, making them aware of the material character of film. (Johannes C. Trischler, Film, June 1992)

Klaus Telscher's oeuvre is extensive and reveals different stylistic tendencies: in addition to the bitingly parodic is a poetic-atmospheric, autobiographical direction (which also describes the newer films On The Balance (1988) and In Rouge (1990), and in which Telscher's subjective, organic camera is most beautifully effective). There is also a cooler, more abstract style which dominates in American Hotel (1982/83) and Great Kendo Commercial (1985), although both films contain contrary hues: "This reduction demands emotionalization," the filmmaker stated in an interview (Anschlage, Osnabruck 1985). Stylistic clashes and shifts and an unannounced crossover from one kind of tone or text to another distinguish all of Telscher's work. In the manner in which he breaks materials or quotations out of the most heterogeneous contexts and assimilates them into his work, he exhibits a 'postmodern' sensibility.

Klaus Telscher and Stephan Sachs have often worked together; Telscher for example appears as a romantic mountain hiker in Sachs' Paramount (1988), while Sachs, in Telscher's Her Mona (1992) poses as a contemplative male geisha. Stephan Sachs made a name for himself in 1986 with Le Dauphin, a film distinctive for its dynamic movement. An agile and mobile camera roams through exotica and tropical greenhouses, liberating erotic associations, but at the same time transferring the representational quality of photography onto almost abstract compositions of form and color. Sachs works with the optical printer, controlling every nuance. Le Dauphin has a psychedelic, almost tactile sensual voluptuousness, a quality clearly absent from the more austere style of the Seventies.

Sachs' Paramount, mentioned earlier, takes a different direction. Less formalist and lyrical than his previous work, it combines found footage with the filmmaker's own material in order to create an ironic discourse about the ideological implications of mountain-climbing. Foregrounding male fantasies of the lonesome hero in nature, it also exposes related elements of European cultural heritage, drawn perhaps from German Romanticism or even from Fascism. All this, however, is not explicitly stated or didactically highlighted, but insinuated through subtle juxtapositions of heterogeneous images, slight doctoring of the found footage material and beautifully shot atmospheric images that sometimes evoke landscape paintings from the early 19th century. Paramount is a salient example of the current hybrid mode of experimental filmmaking, bringing the fine formal textures of the craft to the concerns and arguments of the documentary essay.

Karl Kels' films are more brittle than Sachs' or Telscher's, more severe than Janetzko's or Kohne's, and are without the lyrical, autobiographical or ideological-critical elements of these filmmakers. All his works are formally titled with their author's name, preceded by the film's year of completion: "1982 Karl Kels" and "1987 Karl Kels." In order to avoid confusion, it has become customary to refer to their subject matter instead, calling them the 'condensation trail' film and the 'rhino' film respectively.

In both cases, the [small] amount of initial footage is simultaneously of central importance and of little import for the films' aesthetic. 1982 Karl Kels shows a jet exhaust trail in the sky through which a bird flies--a moment of seemingly co-ordinated choreographed reality, rare and precarious not because of the event but due to its graphically perfect cinematic recording. 1987 Karl Kels is longer and more elaborate. The four basic sequences were made with longer intervals between in a zoo; rhinos stand in front of a stall wall, then pass through its door (which was renovated in the course of shooting). In both instances the film was actually constructed on the editing table, newly edited in a complex and detailed working process, frame by frame.

Although the frame-by-frame treatment is made according to an operating scheme, there is no number sequence which can designate an automatic process or predict the finished result. Much more: it is an interaction with the material which sets forth into the unknown. The work, often drawn out over years, is the attempt to fully incorporate all shot footage. Even the most marginal element needs to be integrated meticulously and meaningfully. (Bernhard Uske, "Karl Kels: Ordnung und Kontingenz," film program notes)

The result of this painstakingly detailed montage is the de-realization of objects and actions which initially appear completely familiar and normal. Since the almost identical movements of rhinos--shot in the same, slightly altered, locations at different points in time--are interlocked, normalcy dissolves in favor of an enigmatic, absurdist ballet.

The eye, ready to follow these movements located between comic and nightmare and which appear both strongly defined as well as unstable, is virtually overwhelmed by allegorically fractured relations to our perception. (Ibid.)

In clear contrast to the artistic demands, precision and formal mastery of the filmmakers discussed up to now, the experimental Super-8 film of the Eighties occasionally proved to be decidedly vital and fascinating. The format itself was already doomed when the movement began: with the advance of video technique in the amateur market, many manufacturers and labs had already begun to pull out of the Super-8 business. In spite of this perspective, the Super-8 filmmakers appeared confident and positive. Unencumbered by the financial burdens and complex technology of 16mm production, they could work freely and spontaneously and develop a specific aesthetic. Many of their films bear the character of rough drafts and are short, intelligent, unpretentious, imaginative, and subversive.

It is characteristic for the Super-8 scene to have joined up with performances and concerts. Filmmakers were always on the lookout for multi-media effects and new concepts of projection. The Super-8 collective names recall pop or rock groups: "Die anarchistische Gummizelle" [The Anarchistic Padded Cell] from Dusseldorf, "Die Notorischen Reflexe" from Berlin, "Schmelzdahin" [Meltdown] from Bonn, and "Die alten Kinder" [The Old Kids] from Bielefeld. Their early films were not exactly designed for museum exhibition: the two stop-motion animation films by Die anarchistische Gummizelle, for example, or Uli Sappock's Der Pilgerstrom [Pilgrimage], or Bertram Jesdinsky's Sonntagsspaziergang [Sunday Stroll] (1982). In the first film, an animated procession of small household objects advances to church music; in the second, a collection of Melitta filters gropes its way through a garden. These are childish concepts at first glance, but their apparent unpretentiousness contains something cryptically anti-bourgeois. Effective, political, and disrespectful, Breschnew Rap by Knut Hoffmeister (from "Die Notorischen Reflexe," 1983), overlays gloomy images of Moscow with Breshnev's face, which has red female lips blended into it appearing to mouth his words. "Die Notorischen Reflexe" combine film with performance and concerts, and the soundtrack from Breschnew Rap was released on vinyl.

Schmelzdahin was already formed at the end of the Seventies, but its breakthrough didn't come until Stadt In Flammen [City In Flames] in 1984. The group left a 'salvaged' feature film reel in their garden for half a year; the resulting bacterial damage was aesthetically enhanced by heating the film material to the point of blistering. Then the footage was step-printed, quadrupling each frame to give a ritardando effect to the film's movement. Stadt In Flammen looks like a compost pile in close-up, strangely amorphous forms and bursting craters pulse in a kind of apocalyptic vision of five minutes. Hab Ich Gesehn--Der General [This I Saw--The General] followed, also chemically degenerated and partly assembled out of found footage. The group broke up in 1988. Up to now, former member Jurgen Reble seems to be the only one to continue experimental filmmaking; with Rumpelestilzchen (1989), he shifted to a more personal, subjective style without, however, forsaking the chemical approach that had been Schmelzdahin's trademark.

Of the Alte Kinder from Bielefeld--a combination of collective workshop and Super-8 distribution--Matthias Muller has remained visible. Impressionist camera work, autobiography, especially in Aus Der Ferne--The Memo Book [From The Distance--The Memo Book] (1989), and careful montage identify his style as a "continuous stream of the interior and the exterior." Elaborating on his editing principles, Muller says:

While I collect and sort out the images an attitude towards the material starts developing. It expands from parasitic nesting in already existing visual material and the uncovering of hidden messages to dismantling and denunciation. I tear the image from its original context. I encode it with new affinities and I try to produce an alternating current between the public and my own personal way of looking. This strategy, comparable to the associative and mercurial thinking, triggers a process of transformation. It undermines the terror of prescribed meaning and established conditions. (Matthias Muller in: Found Footage Filme, Luzern 1992).

Home Stories (1990) is filmed in 16mm and compiled exclusively of old Hollywood footage. It revels in the melodramatic gestures and point-of-view structures so typical of the genre and proved so successful that it was screened as a German entry in Cannes. The subversive Super-8 culture had made way for new potential and alliances.

Besides those discussed so far, many others deserve to be mentioned who, mainly in the first half of the decade, contributed to the depth and variety in experimental film: Bernd Upnmoor, Rudiger Neumann, Rotraut Pape, Monika Funke Stern, Pola Reuth, Franz Winzentsen, Noll Brinckmann (author of this article), Axel Schaffler, Birger Bustorff, Heinz Pramann, Rosi S/M, Eva Heldmann, Uli Versum, Joachim, Christoph Bartolosch, Peter Sempel, Michael Brynntrup, Ute Aurand, Claudia Schillinger, and the early deceased Thomas Felmann, to name just a few. Not all have remained active in experimental filmmaking. Some turned early on to video art, others utilized their technical expertise to work as camera or sound technicians in the industry or strayed towards television or into other areas and artistic branches.

The initial hope in the early Eighties of winning public audiences for experimental film was followed by a certain disillusionment. The "audience-ineffective film" remained on the periphery. Experimental production has certainly not run dry, but it has slowed down: time gaps between films are increasing. There is a concern that the 16mm format could soon share Super-8's fate and become technically obsolete. At the same time, the borders between video techniques and film have become more permeable. Formats change within single productions--video takes are transferred to 16mm, 16mm film is shot but subsequent work is done using electronic processing--and in many festivals, film and video are shown together in single programs. It is less the chosen technique as the experimental artistic characteristics which determine reception and classification; format and material are essentially secondary as long as they continue to share a common goal:

This could consist of the fact that all these films, as different as they may be, function as a provocation and challenge to Hollywood's dominating entertainment industry and its offshoots; that they do not pursue a renewal of cinematic form simply for its own sake; but that they pose questions which concern not only the nature of the medium and its relationship to reality, but also the condition of the world itself. (Ulrich Gregor, Bericht 82, Osnabruck 1982)

Translation by Suzanne Buchan