Postcards from Oberhausen: Part 1
Preparations for the 8th West German Short Film Festival in Oberhausen (1962). Source: Kurzfilmtage
This is the first in a two-part report from the 58th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. The second will come from Steven Cairns, the ICA’s Associate Curator of Artists’ Film and Moving Image.
Compared to the more sprawling film festivals of Rotterdam and Cannes, Oberhausen is a relatively compact programme located between two venues in this economically sleepy, otherwise culturally ambivalent region of North Rhine-Westphalia. The annual event comprises a diverse selection of curated screenings and mini-retrospectives, as well as national and international competitions, a music video award and talks.
Chairlift, ‘Amanaemonesia’ (2011)
Drowsy from an early morning flight and already six hours in a darkened room, I slipped in amongst a crowd of local teenagers to watch the MuVi International round-up screening of the ‘best’ music videos from the past year, to be roused by Chairlift’s video for their single ‘Amanaemonesia’. Both the lyrics and the unhinged choreography channel Michael Clark not to mention Deee-Lite – lead singer Caroline Polachek appears charged and piston-like in her shiny leotard, endlessly repeating the actions of some alien flight attendant.
Alexander Kluge at the lectern, Oberhausen Manifesto press conference (1962). Source: Kurzfilmtage
The main theme of this year’s festival programme celebrated the 50th anniversary of the ‘Oberhausen Manifesto’. In 1962, eight years after the first festival in the city, the 26 Oberhauseners – Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz the most canonic names amongst the all-male list of signatories – collectively declared that, ‘The old film is dead. We believe in the new one.’ The manifesto echoed parallel movements organized amongst groups of experimental filmmakers internationally, notably the Groupe des Trente (formed in France in 1953); the Balázs Béla Stúdió (founded in Hungary in 1959); Eiga geijutsu no kai (Film Art Society) from 1964, which included more than 80 Japanese documentary filmmaker members; as well as curator Pontus Hultén’s efforts in Sweden during the 1960s to bring the visual arts and film worlds closer together. Their resounding statement was to ‘renew cinema’ by reclaiming control of the conditions and means of production of their work, as set out by the Oberhauseners’ call: ‘We have concrete intellectual, formal and economic ideas regarding the production of the new German film. Together we are prepared to take economic risks.’
Alexander Kluge and Peter Schamoni, Brutalität in Stein (Brutality in Stone, 1961)
Brutalität in Stein (Brutality in Stone, 1961), made by Kluge in collaboration with Peter Schamoni, is a close reading of the buildings that were ‘witnesses in stone’ to the history of the Nazi Party. Unlike other films shown as part of the same screening by Haro Senft and Bernhard Dörries, the moralizing tone of which felt somewhat dated, Kluge and Schamoni used actual recordings of the rallies at Nuremburg and the spoken testimony of Rudolf Höss, an Auschwitz Commandant to affect fear and repulsion in the viewer – a realism, I felt, brought forward in the similarly careful editing of found footage by Andrei Ujica and Harun Farocki in their 1993 film Videograms of a Revolution. The timing of Brutalität in Stein, released a year before the Oberhauseners’ 1962 statement, was surely an empowering impetus for the group.
Alain Resnais, Le Chant du Styrène (The Song of Styrene,1958)
Alain Resnais’ Le Chant du Styrène (The Song of Styrene,1958) is a science-fantasy about polystyrene, its precision moulds and the heat chambers and vacuum machines that transform it. A commentary by Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau incites a reverie for the plastic bowl:
‘Ô temps, suspends ton bol, ô matière plastique / D’où viens-tu? … Et qu’est-ce qui explique / Tes rares qualités? […] / Quelle est ton origine? […] / Retrouvons ses aïeux!’ (O time, suspend your bowl, plastic O / Where are you from? And what explains Thy rare qualities? […] / Where are you from? […] / Find his ancestors!)
Human input is minimized, the future is plastic. Le Chant du Styrène captures the drama of the new; a reflection of these filmmakers’ postwar optimism.
In 1940, a change in the law in France – whereby double features were shortened to allow for just one feature film and a couple of short films per screening – gave rise to a parallel industry of themed ‘recherché’ and essayist films through which, two decades later, the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers would find their beginnings. In 1953, the law reverted back, allowing cinemas to extend their schedules and to show double features per screening. The newly established short-film industry reacted by forming together as the Groupe des Trente with members including Resnais, George Franju and Jean Painlevé and publishing a manifesto in defence of the unique qualities of the short film:
‘No one would think of judging the importance of a literary work by the number of pages it has, or that of a painting by its size. Alongside novels and even longer works, there are poems, novellas and essays, which often act as catalysts, having a renewing effect, introduce fresh blood.’
A podium discussion moderated by Ralph Eue the co-curator with Olaf Möller of the themed programme ‘Provoking Reality: Mavericks, Mouvements and Manifestos’, addressed the contemporary relevance of the manifesto. The panel of international curators included Jed Rapfogel from Anthology Film Archives in New York, the cultural centre for film co-founded by and under the continued directorship of Jonas Mekas, who was also a catalyst for the New American Cinema Group of filmmakers begun in 1961. The panel at Oberhausen unanimously rejected the idea of signing up to a contemporary manifesto for film, saying without action, more words would just be more noise. Rapfogel joked that a manifesto to stop ‘every man, woman and child’ from making videos might be more advisable.
This consensus represents the several shifts since the 1960s, such as the rise of the curator, organized distribution and the Internet, which has together changed the nature of the representation of artists’ work. August Orts in Belgium, a collective of four filmmakers who have assumed control of the distribution and advocacy of their collective output, is one notable exception to this rule. Their example is perhaps an indication of how peer review and professional development is easier amongst smaller groups within secondary, extended networks.
The point of a manifesto is to will forth an idealized future. My weekend at Oberhausen offered a wealth of images to draw inspiration from, with the assurance that contemporary filmmakers are both the guardians and critical interpreters of this history.