Les États généraux du film documentaire 2013 Doc Route: Germany

Doc Route: Germany


Germany is one of the rare countries that still produces a large number of documentaries in rather favorable conditions: a heritage of several decades within a history of cinema that is world class, screenings and visibility provided by a web of well entrenched festivals and a training network made up in particular of several film and audiovisual schools. And yet, German documentary film finds itself today at a decisive moment in its development. Here also, the progressive yet real disengagement of television companies and the growing material difficulties faced by many filmmakers — trends which are regularly denounced by the country's documentary filmmakers' association — tend to marginalize ever further the individualistic or creative documentary film in Germany. If the very real implication of television companies and regional funds in co-productions still contributes to the liveliness of the movement, paradoxically the effect is also to encourage "well made" films on "important subjects" but which singularly lack ambition and commitment in terms of writing style.
After having presented over the past years several "Fragments of a filmmaker's work" devoted to well-known German filmmakers (Farocki, Syberberg, Heise, Koepp, Böttcher, Wildenhahn), this Doc Route as an exploration of German production of these last five years gives us the opportunity to discover other recognised filmmakers, but above all those whose films are less widely screened, or indeed unknown, outside Germany. We have centered our interest on those who engage in auscultations, who recount the world as they see it, clinically, playfully, personally, with commitment, and who provide us with visions that are certainly not very lyrical, rarely poetic, more often critical of contemporary Germany. A necessarily piecemeal vision but which testifies to the mutations — continuities, ruptures — and sometimes the worrying drifts at work within society, occasionally awakening certain demons of history that still haunt the conscience. Consequence is surely the most troubling example and synthesis. This minute and austere, sometimes troubling, description of the gestures and the ultra-mechanised technical procedures of a small crematorium remind us of a heavy historical heritage and the worst misdeeds of a certain industrial rationalism. The images carry us towards the violence of a world marked by a modernity within which history, both collective and individual, seems forgotten, hidden, even erased. These mutations are also observable in Work Hard, Play Hard, an icy immersion into the organisation of work in large multinational groups. Their ultra-competitive methods of evaluating and organising workers' space and tasks continue insidiously and yet openly their forced march in the worship of a cult of efficiency entirely founded on systems of thought and organisation which, in the end, produce behaviour marked by total adhesion and submission. In a rigorous and subtle way, the film opens a space for the exhibition of the system and acts as a revealing agent. This is a procedure at work in other films, each one inventing its own style of direction.

Hat Wolff von Amerongen Konkursdelikte begangen? paints with a certain irony the saga of the great German industrial and financial dynasties of the twentieth century against the visual background of an infinite movement of the world, as if in unceasing flow. Implicitly, the film powerfully asks the question "How can capitalism be filmed?", confronting us with the unique universe that it constructed and that has finally imposed itself on our lives. Into this intriguing panorama of a world of iron and stone comes an interfering off-screen voice to tell us the story of the lives of these powerful men who, invisible, seem to have fled the world they created without in the least caring about its fate... Much like the image of this impressive nuclear power plant, a true banner of human ingenuity and technological performance, but which ends ups being exposed as cumbersome and poisonous. Under Control, guided tour of an exercise in excess, is an operation which deconstructs, literally and figuratively, the myth of technical perfection in our industrial era. In Hinterland, a surprising locality that still overflows with signs of the past but which has resoluted decided to turn a new leaf, we are invited to discover a totally artificial tropical paradise, an exotic and local "elsewhere", born of an ingenious and ambitious concept of leasure-time marketing. The visitor can without the slightest fear escape into an ersatz world of experience and adventure; the entrance ticket exonerates the bearer of any confrontation with the realities of the "outside world" or of any form of otherness. Conversations in Milton Keynes is also an account of these mutations. The filmmaker loses us in the byways of the new English town, already old, testimonial to a certain conception of utopia — that of modernity with a human face, a project that has not resisted the implacable rewriting of neo-liberalism. The film advances with fantasy and a sense of humour that owe much to the filmmaker's talent through a series of incongruous yet sincere encounters whose narrative power is consciously exploited. These then are the new utopias. But what hopes do they carry?

Direct witnesses of the twentieth century's tragedies are disappearing and a more archeological, more clinical cinema is emerging, a cinema which nonetheless precisely confronts collective, family or individual history. Materials and documents reappear or disappear, sites still retain the stigma of the past and films try to decipher them. These films are struggling with human memory, a fragile, defect prone memory inciting the desire that it might be filled, confirmed, or reassured by images. Images that sometimes run up against an obsession to record or, on the contrary, a willingness to destroy Give Me Back My Own Picture Perfect Memory!. The untiring gesture of transmission inherent in documentary cinema is also an act of warning and commitment when attention turns to repressed history. The figure of filmmaker Thomas Harlan embodies this twin political and cinematic ambition and in his last filmed interview, Thomas Harlan — Moving Shrapnels he also speaks of this necessary confrontation with history and the heavy family heritage of having as a father the leading film director of the Third Reich. Just as Peter Nestler assumes his heritage with Tod und Teufel in the tale he draws from the rich archives of his aristocratic Swedish grandfather, explorer, adventurer and photographer. Powered at first by the filial connection, Nestler's film goes on through a series of discoveries and revelations to consider the real extent of his grandfather's involvement with, and commitment to, his country's Nazi movements, and finally takes on the form of an implacable accusation. In a totally different way, Und in der Mitte der Erde war Feuer gives its young director the opportunity to face his unreconciled memory through an unlikely and beautiful encounter with the words of a centenarian Jewish woman who had to flee Europe. During their discussion, the film becomes the space of a fragile experience of sharing and transmission. Two young women filmmakers also risk an experience of confrontation, one who tries to understand the bitter withdrawal of her Palestinian father exiled in Germany The Turtle's Rage, the other in trying to glean some elements of regret from a former member of the Waffen SS, met by chance in her "casting" in an old people's home Mr Berner and the Wolokolamsker Avenue. Both engage in a difficult relationship with these two bitter and hard-skinned loners, in order to hear something, in order to approach a "stranger" of whom they try to get beneath the skin, in a generational confrontation.

The outsider has lost all familiarity in Revision where a criminal inquiry, as calm as it is meticulous, plunges us into the atmosphere of the immediate "post-wall" years. The widespread euphoria which accompanied the westward march of the former Eastern block was stained by acts of xenophobia and rasicm. Institutional indifference, blundered police investigations, the stilted jargon and pitiless arrogance of the German judicial bureaucracy are all made visible in this filmed "revision" where those close to the period's victimes, actors integrated into the elaboration of the film project, become the filmmaker's true plaintiffs. White Box using a direct cinema style recounts other disillusions experience by the numerous people aspiring to a better life in the new promised land that Germany represented. Ein Brief aus Deutschland testifies to the extreme violence of broken hopes and destinies, in this case of deceived and prostituted women who, with absent faces and withdrawn bodies, recount their suffering. This also is an observation of "Germany as it is", and the documentary interests us when it scrutinizes the present, its practices and traditions. A veteran of the techniques of observation as much as of intervention, Romuald Karmakar uses his camera to expose the fervour of the contemporary world, in this case, catholic. From the edges of official rites, representations and sites, in sometimes incisive confrontations, always filmed at eye-height, armed with false ingenuity and adequate obstinacy, the filmmaker attempts to account for the phenomena of belief that are so profoundly rooted in our so-called "secular" societies — sometimes verging on comedy in situations where the heavenly sacred is engaged in a turf fight with the profanely terrestrial.
Elsewhere, each one anchored in a village, Ortung and The Man's Field also recount this present. A collective school film, the former explores a site loaded with history but which observation alone does little to reveal. It has to be exhumed, using several voices, those of archives and those of historians. In this way the site takes on form, lending its appearance its full fragility. Similarly in the village of the stricken region of Mansfeld. Here the daily life of hard-up families and the preparations for the Spring festival are gracefully transformed into a visual and musical allegory on the attachment these people feel to their land and popular traditions, a festive attachment but free from nostalgia. In other counterpoints to a certain predominance of detached viewpoints, Louisa and The Pope is not a Jeansboy accompany for the length of a film two people marginalised by their physical handicaps, but whose strength of character and sensibilities maintain in a posture of resistance. Seeking her autonomy, the young Louisa takes decisions which will have serious consequences and the woman filmmaker gives an account of this commitment with the same sensitive determination. Sobo Swobodnik, as for him, makes us become attached to an irascible man, a former media star, and allows us, finally, to share his humanity through his meetings with other people.
A short detour via the classics as a necessary punctuation to the program: how to convince yourself, if the need were felt, of the pertinence of Das Kapital? Answer: by staging it, in a playful and erudite fashion, in the form of a vast "open construction site", with Alexander Kluge and a few faithful friends.
And finally, how can we escape this obsession with passing time when we are in the process of becoming its unconscious slave? Attempted answer, here again playful and not despairing, as an introduction to the programme with Time's Up.

Jürgen Ellinghaus and Christophe Postic

Thanks to Gisela Rueb, Werner Ružička, Ralf Schenk, Sabine Söhner, and the team running the DOK Festival in Leipzig.
With the support of the Goethe Institut, Paris, and the DEFA-Stiftung, Berlin.

Debates led by Jürgen Ellinghaus and Christophe Postic, in the presence of Ingo Baltes, Werner Dütsch, Thomas Heise, Mario Schneider, Gabriele Voss.