Les États généraux du film documentaire 2015 Doc History: Germany

Doc History: Germany

The two German documentaries, Romy: Anatomy of a Face by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg (1967) and Scenario by Philip Widmann and Karsten Krause (2014), share a similar strategy, that of a slight disassociation between image and sound. This makes them examples of a tradition in German documentary which is as fruitful as it is marginal: films in which the inquiry undertaken is more important than the subject dealt with. The current pillars of the tradition are Thomas Heise and Philip Scheffner, known in France and whose works have already received attention at Lussas. Syberberg is better known for his monumental masterpieces on Ludwig or Hitler than for his little portraits made in the sixties of the theatrical director Fritz Kortner or “Romy.” This is also true for the work of Widmann and Krause which reminds one of Heise (through their use of “found footage” and meticulous observation) but which is distinguished nonetheless by a quite original penchant for fiction.
Romy and Scenario are two inquiry films in which the voice questions the image. The portrait of Romy Schneider is mostly made up of magazine photos and publicity images to which Romy’s voice adds a personal touch, a layer of authenticity. And in Widmann and Krause’s film, the voices of a man and woman try to embody an extra-marital affair of 1970, reciting text from reports which meticulously documented this relation against images of the crime scenes as they are today.
Each film opens with a shot of a table – a table with breakfast served in Romy, a table in an archive centre in Cologne where a hand lays out the objects connected to the story of the affair in Scenario – both of which turn into tables of autopsy and research. Referring directly to cinema, this portrait of a star and the film Scenario ask a fundamental question: what does post-war German cinema look like? In this genealogical context, Romy Schneider is without doubt one of the most important characters. The actress who attained celebrity as the Empress Sissi in the fifties reached the peak of the “Heimatfilm” (homeland film), a popular genre of cinema giving the German public coming out of the war and Nazism something to dream about again: idyllic and often mountainous landscapes, peopled with the figures of folklore. Syberberg chooses to film Romy in the mountains during a ski holiday and this is why he asks her how she feels, ten years on, about Sissi. Before attacking the deconstruction of German myths to which he dedicated the major part of his cinematographic work (in his films on Ludwig II, Karl May, Wagner, Hitler), the filmmaker begins by confronting the myths of German cinema. Furthermore, the modifications to the final cut of the film imposed by Romy convinced him of the need to found his own production company for his future projects.
When the voice over of the actress who played Sissi expresses her personal desires and thoughts, it is trying to reveal the “true” Romy behind the mask of the star, whereas Syberberg blurs the famous face with superimpositions of images of a winter environment, scenes of Paris streets and publicity photos. He is not interested in any “truth” but in a pure sequence of poses, memories, anecdotes on her shoots with Orson Welles or Michel Piccoli. The portrait shatters into a thousand pieces and satisfies the fetishist needs of the film buff viewer, but announces also an emptiness which is highly significant for post-war German cinema: a cinema of dreams and dreamt, made up of clichés and cheap tricks – and entirely devoid of a neorealist movement.
Reality as artifice: this is also the programme of Scenario where the inquiry dissimulates for all time the truth of its subject. While the story of a liaison between a manager and a secretary in 1970 remains banal and ordinary, it is also just as fictional. The Cologne sites, filmed forty years later, are deserted and the absolutely meticulous oral documenting of the events seems strange; the voices of a man and woman recite passages from the protagonists’ personal diaries, stringing along details of their sexual acts and emotional states, followed by the results of opinion polls and sociological and medical statistics of 1970. If the voice aims to “seem true”, it also creates a tension between itself and the image, documentary and fiction, past and present, the heat of the affair and its glacial reporting. In this way, Scenario addresses the interstices through which return the ghosts that haunt German cinema, affecting all banal “reality” with total artificiality.

Philipp Stadelmaier

Debate in the presence of Philipp Stadelmaier, member of association Camira.