Les États généraux du film documentaire 2017 Fragment of a filmmaker’s work: Peter Nestler

Fragment of a filmmaker’s work: Peter Nestler

“Ever since I started making films, I’ve always tried to go to the bottom of the things I’ve chosen to deal with. I’ve tried to find the path that was (for me) the shortest and to show the essence of the subject, in other words to know, recognize and say together with others: “This must change, this must be preserved, or not neglected.”
Peter Nestler (1974)

West Germany, 1962: Peter Nestler made his first film, a remarkable, engaged poem: Am Siel. It was also the year of the famous Oberhausen Manifesto, which trumpeted the successes of German short film and demanded more vigorous support for national cinema, the famous “new German cinema”, which would receive international recognition a few years later thanks to a trio of star filmmakers and their fiction features: Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog. Where did this leave documentary? Furthermore, in the history of documentary, the sixties marked the emergence of cinéma vérité and direct cinema, which claimed a greater feeling of authenticity and immersion in the flow of the Real. This aesthetic was adopted in West Germany in the middle of the sixties via notably Klaus Wildenhahn, to whom Lussas paid homage a few years ago. But Nestler did not really propose direct cinema (which didn’t stop Wildenhahn from admiring his work) and, as a close reader of Brecht, he maintained some distance from the ideology of an immediate encounter with reality.
Once again, history is richer and more contradictory than it first appears: a director of documentary films, most of which were made for television broadcast, unclassifiable within general histories of cinema, but also within German cinema or documentary film, Peter Nestler strikes us today with the freshness of his critical cinema, bearing a political and aesthetic point of view on the world. A free cinema in that it adapts to the coherence and urgency of its message. This unclassifiable production is very much a reflection of the life of its creator: before becoming a filmmaker, Peter Nestler studied painting, worked as a sailor, worker, lumberjack or office clerk; he acted in a certain number of German films by major directors such as Helmut Käutner, Harald Reinl or Géza von Radványi. Simultaneously with his work as an actor, Nestler made his first films with a radical obstinacy that disrupted trends, producers, and distributors.
After making seven films in the Federal Republic of Germany, Nestler left his country in 1966 for Sweden, his mother’s birthplace. He maintained his artistic and political engagement within a system that was quite open – Swedish social democracy – all the while producing an uncompromising message, for example in Sightseeing. Within the Sveriges Radio-Television, Nestler was responsible for purchasing and dubbing children’s programmes, but he also made some forty odd films between 1967 and 1985 (in collaboration with his Hungarian-born wife Zsóka until the end of the seventies). Following this period, he made fifteen films produced in different contexts, especially in Germany, of which the most recent – Death and the Devil and Die Hohlmenschen – introduce this “Fragment of a filmmaker’s work”.
Nestler’s output, “quiet and rigorous” (B. Eisenschitz), presents a wide variety of subjects woven together by very deep connections: the social and economic history of a place; the exploitation of nature and human beings; the history of art as representation of social history; the representation of craft or industrial labour; the struggle against the heritage of fascism and its recurrences; the critical study of the oppression of a social group, a minority, a people – from immigrants to the indigenous, from Gypsies to Jews, Vietnamese to Chileans, amongst others. His style – of shooting, editing or commentary – is at once precise and bare, finely constructed and demanding. Nestler works like a jeweller, whatever the scale of his subject: life in a primary school in a tiny mountain village in the county of Bern (Aufsätze), the description of an entire South-German village (Ödenwaldstetten), the situation in Greece in the middle of the sixties (Von Griechenland), the history of Gypsies in the twentieth century (Zigeuner sein), the history of printing (Über das Aufkommen des Buchdrucks), the reasons behind the disasters of war (Warum ist Krieg?), the role of knowledge in the history of humanity (Gefährliches Wissen).
At each scale, from the smallest to the largest, he chooses the most suitable form by tackling the circumstances. Often Nestler does not use direct sound and this “absence” isn’t disguised. It even becomes a stake in the writing: the distanced image is a chosen fragment which makes no pretence of being exhaustive and which is joined to a carefully composed soundtrack, sometimes conferred to writers. But Nestler’s cinema also knows other tricks, connecting heterogeneous materials to create a succession of dialectical impacts, in contradiction with traditional modes of documentary. He constructs in this case films with the material at hand, using photographs or paintings for example when he is filming an international situation from Sweden, as in his engaged films on Vietnam (Bilder von Vietnam) or Chile (Mi país). Indeed, Nestler regularly films works of art, often popular ones: for him there is no separation between art and the real world, on the contrary – a principle which is also true for his own art, film. Concerning sound, his interest for documents is recognizable in his use of powerful texts, like the letters of Greek resistance fighters read in voice over which replace the direct sound originally planned for Von Griechenland, or the letters of Vietnamese children read by Swedish children in Bilder von Vietnam.
These procedures can also dialogue within a single film, articulating heterogeneous materials with a view to an essay: different types of still images (photographs, paintings, engravings, sketches…), archives, images shot by Nestler himself (front face interviews with the mike in the frame, situations and gestures captured live, landscapes filmed by striding over the space with his camera movements…). At each moment of the film, the director makes it apparent – without stressing the fact – that what we are watching is a construction, a choice, a piece of work. The filmmaker expresses a way of looking at things, chooses powerful documents and images, joins them together during the editing. We can then understand how Nestler was able to show the way to a certain number of younger creators who were working with the film-essay, in particular filmmakers/critics from the review Filmkritik, such as Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky.
Nestler’s point of view is always that of the poorer classes, the suffering of the people against the generalised oppression that modernisation has only reinforced with its new technology and unrivalled powers of destruction. Work is seen as “an act taking place between man and nature” (K. Marx): Nestler always connects a point of view on history and geopolitics with a point of view on nature and the environment. Watching his films again today is also, among other things, a way to rediscover the necessity of a critical, antifascist and anti-imperialist discourse, on society, on the world, against the current, ambient discourse of identity. It is easy to understand then his proximity with another filmmaker and friend: Jean-Marie Straub, who called Nestler “the only German filmmaker” (1972). In his film Einleitung zu Arnold Schönbergs Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene, Straub films Nestler reading a text in a recording studio, bringing visibility to one who, in his own films, is only present via his voice, composed, precise, rhythmically marked. Nestler dedicated to Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet Die Nordkalotte, one of his masterpieces, and the film that will close this “Fragment of a filmmaker’s work”.

Stefanie Bodien and Dario Marchiori

Debates led by Stefanie Bodien and Dario Marchiori.
In the presence of Peter Nestler.

With support from Deutsche Kinemathek, Institut suédois, German Films and Goethe-Institut Paris.