Les États généraux du film documentaire 2011 Fragment of a filmmaker's work: Klaus Wildenhahn

Fragment of a filmmaker's work: Klaus Wildenhahn

Between Direct Cinema and the Film-Essay:
Klaus Wildenhahn, experimental documentary filmmaker?

“Whoever has worked long enough in film knows how easy it is to produce sequences of rapid cutting, find the right transitions and transpose the drama into the artificial world of montage. With a light hand, you can spread sarcasm, sentimentality, almighty power, produce the completion of a sentence which has little or nothing to do with the Real. There are sequences of editing that remain so imprinted in the brain that they seem like the chords of liturgical chant. You can sing them in the middle of a crowd without even knowing the words. Eyes shut. What's going to happen, we already know: barbed wire, people free and not, all the pieces of the puzzle. That can be formidable, keep us going, even be the agent of a certain wisdom. But documentary film must drop these stereotypes. You should avoid like the plague the attempt to round out what is not naturally round. You show the collection of fragments that you've amassed. With luck and perseverance, you can manage to include the spectator in the arc of tension of an open game. A game between the persons filmed and filming. If they wish, the spectators not only have the possibility of taking a position in relation to what is shown, but also in relation to the individual who is directing and to those sympathies or antipathies which end up clearly visible on the screen. If the film reaches its goal, it will establish a field of energy between the three following poles: the people filmed, filming and viewing.” (Klaus Wildenhahn, 1967)

Born in 1930 in Bonn, Klaus Wildenhahn needs still today to specify that he is part of a generation whose childhood was marked by Nazism. Little motivated as a student, he enrolled in Sociology, left for the USA thanks to a scholarship, then lived in London between 1953 and 1957, experimenting with different jobs including that of a nurse – like his mother who lived with him in London – at Banstead Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Sutton. As a “counterweight to daily labour”, he became interested in oriental culture and met a Japanese woman whom he married. Returning to the GFR with her, he settled down in Hamburg in an apartment rented by his aunt. While looking for work, he had the chance to organise a colloquium at the Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), the Hamburg Television station where he was hired in particular thanks to two poems he had written in London. To start with, the job of assistant director was only an accident dictated by the necessity of finding work, not at all a vocation. He remained with the NDR until his retirement in 1995 in spite of an interruption following the uproar triggered by his film on Volkswagen, Emden geht nach USA (1975-76).
In 1964 at Oberhausen, he was impressed by the work of the great Polish documentary filmmakers, notably Karabasz and Bossak. At Mannheim, a few months later came the shock of direct cinema: he met and interviewed Leacock, Pennebaker, Albert Maysles and discovered their films. Some twenty years later, he shot a double homage to his two masters - Ein Film für Bossak und Leacock (1983-84), testimony to a great constancy and fidelity to a few founding principles of documentary cinema. He was then influenced by neorealism, Free Cinema, the Japanese (Ozu, Naruse, Mizoguchi, Shindo, etc.) just as by, later at the end of the sixties, the writings of Vertov, his experience under Stalin and his “revolutionary” newsreels. Klaus Wildenhahn shot comparable films with the students of the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin, where he taught between 1968 and 1972. There he met the woman who would become his companion over ten years, Gisela Tuchtenhagen, a still active documentary filmmaker. Klaus Wildenhahn made several films with her as cameraman while he recorded sound, a role he retained starting with Heiligabend auf St. Pauli (1967-68). The solidarity of the couple Wildenhahn-Tuchtenhagen recalls that of Depardon and Nougaret, except that here the roles are reversed between camera and sound, which makes the comparison closer to Carole and Paul Roussopoulos. Klaus Windenhahn defends his passion for recording sound, which not only allowed him to reduce the crew to two people and to favour contact with workers, but also allowed him to hear them better. His is an art which requires endurance, a quality he claims to have learned from the women who brought him up, notably his mother and aunt.
An amateur of jazz, Klaus Wildenhahn immediately understood the proximity between direct cinema and improvisation which proved to be as important in filming a jazzman like Jimmy Smith as when recording the words of workers and peasants. On that level, there is a profound coherence in his work: a search of the Real through the discreet listening to the material conditions and aspirations of ordinary people. For this reason, Klaus Wildenhahn has always recognised the fundamental role played by technicians, notably concerning image and sound (on his first films, Rudolf Körösi and Herbert Selk). The form of the film becomes charged with a reflexive dimension that the ideology of direct cinema would seem to contradict. This is the case for example in the improvised focussing developed by Rudolf Körösi. As the filmmaker and essayist Hans-Michael Bock put it, in Klaus Wildenhahn's films “the content searches for and determines the form”. Klaus Wildenhahn's direct cinema records the encounter with the Real he is experiencing.
Just as improvisation can be found in his films on workers, his interest for politics is not only visible in his “engaged” films, but is the very basis of his entire production. You can find this same commitment, this same interest for work, when he films the rehearsals or performances of great musicians or dancers (from Jimmy Smith to John Cage, from Merce Cunningham to Pina Bausch). Transmitting speech, that radically democratic gesture, does not suit everyone, particularly those who hold power and who by that very fact have something to hide: the bourgeois, politicians, institutions and sometimes the unions. But that can also surprise workers: for example in the polemic provoked by Emden geht nach USA, some criticised a family who appeared in the film for not having cleaned their kitchen before the shoot...
Certainly Klaus Wildenhahn identifies himself with the revolution of direct cinema, carried out inside television and thanks to films commissioned by Hansjörg Pauli (documentaries on music) or Egon Monk (In der Fremde). He defends a cinema “which no longer interests filmmakers very much, because they consider it a “style” belonging to the past, whereas I find in it something living and marvellous which opens up an incredible number of possibilities for experimentation” (Klaus Wildenhahn). A cinema where little is planned in advance, close to but different from the analytical line of German “visual studies” (Nicole Brenez) directed by people like Farocki, Bitomsky or Nestler. Yet Klaus Wildenhahn has also made some “film-essays” which he calls poetic documentaries Der Hamburger Aufstand Oktober 1923, of Im Norden das Meer... or Reise nach Ostende, all films linked to the description of a particular place, of the history lived by its proletarians, its struggles and acts of resistance.

Question: In the subtitle of Im Norden das Meer… you speak of “approaching a place". What does that mean for you?

Klaus Wildenhahn: I suppose it is my experience of trying quite simply to approach and to return back. I cannot think I have found the central knot and busy myself uniquely with it. Nor can I say that I create friendships with the people I film: I stay with them patiently, establishing reciprocal sympathy but without becoming friends. Sometimes young directors have an approach I don't find just, which consists of identifying themselves with the people they are filming and thinking they will become a comrade or friend. You can even consider that a form of opportunism, for you are manufacturing a product. It is as if I were stipulating a contract and I should ask myself the question of whether or not there is hidden somewhere a form of lie.”

(Selection of material excerpted form the catalogue of the 5th NodoDocFest, Trieste, 2011).

Dario Marchiori

Coordination : Presentation and debates by Dario Marchiori (Research professor, critic and cinema programmer).