The Oberhausen Manifesto and Its Contexts: The 58th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen
by Jared Rapfogel

Alain Resnais's Le Chant du Styrène, a documentary about the production of plastic

Alain Resnais's Le Chant du Styrène, a documentary about the production of plastic

The International Short Film Festival Oberhausen has maintained its reputation as one of the world’s premier showcases for short films ever since its founding fifty-eight years ago. Its multiple components include curated programs of new shorts, sections devoted to music videos, children’s films, and regionally produced works, spotlights on particular filmmakers, and, perhaps best of all, brilliantly curated surveys excavating specific corners of the history of short-form filmmaking. Despite its impressive track record over the years, the festival may still be best known internationally as the site of the Oberhausen Manifesto, a group statement delivered in 1962 that is critically important in the history of German cinema. Signed by twenty-six different filmmakers, the manifesto was intended to shake up a contemporary German commercial cinema that the authors and signers (and many others) perceived as tired, dormant, and dead—and paralleled similar sentiments and movements around the world, in France, Eastern Europe, Japan, the United States, and elsewhere, as new social and political climates, technologies, and attitudes combined to inject energy and ideas into cinematic discourse and demand freer and more vibrant modes of expression and production.

The manifesto has been a central part of Oberhausen’s history and identity over the past five decades, so it was no surprise to find a celebration of the statement’s fiftieth anniversary dominating this year’s proceedings. I had visited Oberhausen only once before, in 2009, and found that year’s historical survey component (a spotlight on the “Sarajevo Documentary School” of the 1960s and ’70s) to be its strongest section. This year, the screenings devoted to the anniversary of the manifesto were so extensive (comprising fourteen different programs) and so tantalizing (featuring scores of films unseen in the United States for decades, if ever) that I focused my attention almost entirely on this part of the festival, at the expense of the International Competition, the retrospective sections (I saw one program each of the screenings devoted to Austrian filmmaker Linda Christanell and Israeli filmmaker Roee Rosen, both of them very rewarding), and the other themed sections. And indeed, the Oberhausen Manifesto program—organized by Ralph Eue and Olaf Möller, and entitled “Mavericks, Mouvements [sic], Manifestos”—was a magnificently curated survey. (Full disclosure: I was present at the festival in part to present the program devoted to the New American Cinema Group movement of the 1960s, but I had no involvement in the rest of the program.)

The Mavericks, Mouvements, Manifestos survey was itself divided into two (equally revelatory) sections: one, consisting of ten separate screenings, was designed to put the Manifesto in context, drawing together films representing various similar movements and manifestos around the world—including the aforementioned New American Cinema Group, France’s Déclaration du Groupe des Trente, Japan’s Eiga geijutsu no kai group, Sweden’s Arbetsgruppen för film, and Hungary’s Balázs Béla Stúdió—as well as featuring a selection of German films from the period. The other part of the survey focused more specifically on highlighting, and in many cases unearthing, the work of the Oberhausen signatories themselves—among the twenty-six signers of the statement were a handful of directors who would ultimately make a name for themselves internationally (Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz, predominantly), but the vast majority of them are virtually unknown outside of Germany, and many have fallen into obscurity even at home. The Signatories screenings called much-deserved attention to the work of filmmakers such as Ferdinand Khittl, Bernhard Dörries, Haro Senft, Peter Schamoni, Herbert Vesely, Pitt Koch, and Raimond Ruehl, among others.

Both parts of the survey were full of revelations, amply demonstrating the astounding vitality, experimentation, and social and political engagement surging throughout world cinema in those years, not to mention the great fertility of the short-film form in the hands of these young and gifted filmmakers. The programs displayed a remarkable array of approaches, sensibilities, and modes. There were explicitly experimental, radical films like Jean Mitry’s La Symphonie mécanique (1955), Toshio Matsumoto’s three-projector For My Crushed Right Eye (1968), and Edgar Reitz’s Cinema 1. Speed (1963); trippy, unexpectedly avant-garde educational or sponsored films such as Alain Resnais’s Le Chant du Styrène (1958), Ferdinand Khittl’s The Magic Ribbon (1959), and Reitz’s Technology of Communications (1961); sublime documentary portraits of places or activities including Sára Sándor’s Gypsies (1962), Pitt Koch’s Glowing Island of Crete (1959), and Raimond Ruehl’s Salinas (1960); and uncategorizable films like Werner Herzog’s Measures Against Fanatics (1968) and Ulrich Schamoni’s Für meine Kinder—von Vati (1969). The unifying thread, if there was one, was simply a profound sense of freedom, of urgency in exploding filmic conventions and confronting social and political ills alike, and of great cinematic inventiveness.

Perhaps the most eye-opening and memorable films—simply because they do not fall into the conventionally sanctioned categories of film art, and speak to a very particular, if not bizarre, alliance of interests and goals—were the incongruously experimental sponsored films. One of the best-known of the films in the survey, Resnais’sLe Chant du Styrène is a masterpiece, a documentary on the production of plastic that combines the formidable formal control of his weightier documentary shorts (Statues Also DieNight and Fog) and his renowned feature films (Hiroshima mon amourLast Year at MarienbadMuriel, etc) with an indulgence in sheer graphic delirium—primary colors, symmetrical patterns, and stylized cinematography. It’s an essay not just on the spectacle of manufacturing plastic but also on the brave new world of synthetic, mass-produced goods in general.

Much less celebrated, but equally accomplished, bizarre, and striking examples of sponsored films were Ferdinand Khittl’s The Magic Ribbon and Edgar Reitz’s Technology of Communications, the first an ode to the miracle of magnetic tape, the second a visual essay on the West German postal system and modern communications technologies in general. Both rival Le Chant du Styrène in the boldness of their graphic design, their extreme stylization, and in the sense of awe they inspire at the spectacle of modern technology. In tone, however, they’re very different, both from Le Chant du Styrène and from each other. For all The Magic Ribbon’s strangeness and incongruous visual invention—it gleefully combines just about every technique imaginable, utilizing collage animation, stock footage, stylized photography, text, and voice-over—Khittl’s film is, at least ostensibly, very much a celebration of magnetic tape. A systematic catalogue of the technology’s varied uses, from the obvious (audio and video recording) to the more arcane (air traffic control, ichthyology, etc.), it truly does communicate a sense of awe at the capacity and versatility of magnetic tape (its culminating message appears as on-screen text towards the end: “Tape is a tool; tools change the world.”). But it’s also suffused with an off-putting, aggressive quality of artifice—the imagery is either patently stage-designed (the film traces the history of audio recording via a series of carefully composed still-life tableaux), subtly stylized (the dramatic lighting in the photographed scenes), nearly abstract (in the shots of the magnetic tape itself), or totally removed from reality (the animated lead-ins to each chapter). The effect is playful, but also suggests an ironic distance, if not a satiric questioning of this brave new technological world.

Technology of Communications works at even greater cross purposes to the presumed intention of its producers. Whatever its status as a promotional film may be, it’s an amazing piece of work, a bona fide masterpiece of montage and rhythm, eschewing narration or even linear storytelling, and instead amounting to a rapidly edited, associative, purely visual essay on mechanical and electronic forms of communication—all pneumatic tubes, mechanically sorted mail, room-sized computers, satellite dishes, and towering antennas. Even more than Le Chant du Styrène or The Magic Ribbon, it explodes the boundaries of the industrial film, and (helped along by its dissonant, dehumanized electronic soundtrack) unhesitatingly adopts a mood of alienation, unease, and foreboding to rival Antonioni, depicting the world of modern technology as a profoundly dystopic one. Both The Magic Ribbon and Technology of Communications are as finely crafted and as boldly conceived as any of the avant-garde classics or New Wave masterpieces of their period.

Similarly process-oriented and industrially focused, though not made specifically to promote a particular industry, were Lauro Istvan Bacskai’s Fascination (Igezet, 1963) and Oberhausen signatory Raimond Ruehl’s SalinasFascination depicts metal workers engaged in their otherworldly, Vulcan-like work, but does so in an uncanny, purely visual way. As in Technology of Communications, the purpose is not simply a didactic one—to convey the details of an industrial process—but to use the workers’ activities to conjure an atmosphere, a mysterious world: Bacskai squeezes every ounce of otherworldly, sci-fi potential out of the workers’ tasks (manipulating snakelike rods of molten metal), their environment (cavelike and elemental), and their gear (especially their space-age goggles). If Fascination’s treatment of the steel workers is enigmatic, this quality of the film is greatly amplified by its intercutting of the industrial scenes with footage of a lone man sitting in an empty concert hall, observing a chamber music rehearsal that seems to exist only in his imagination or memory. The logic of this juxtaposition is elusive, but the film is deeply compelling and unforgettable.

A portrait of workers harvesting salt in Spain, Salinas is far more conventional in form and more easily categorized than Fascination or Technology of Communications. It is, however, so exquisitely photographed, edited, and constructed, the phenomenon it depicts so unfamiliar and alien, and the focus on the punishing labor involved so relentless, that ultimately it seems to bear little in common with even the most well-made documentaries about men and women at work. If Fascination and Technology of Communications make the familiar strange, craftily transmuting metal work and everyday communications technologies into something out of a sci-fi film, Salinasstraightforwardly depicts a phenomenon that doesn’t need stylized photography or a dissonant musical track to partake of the fantastic—with the workers laboring on vast flats blanketed by crystallized salt, which they shovel into containers that travel along hastily constructed tracks stretching off into the distance, reality truly does become stranger than fiction.

The Mavericks programs featured several other astoundingly accomplished documentary shorts, such as Sára Sándor’s Gypsies, a sensitive, penetrating glimpse into the lives of a gypsy community and its struggles to achieve some measure of dignity; Pitt Koch’s Glowing Island of Crete, a beautiful, haunting portrait of the Greek island’s people; and Herbert Vesely’s People on Espresso (1958), a witty portrait not of a particular people, community, or profession, but of a specific urban milieu—the espresso bar, with its attendant rituals, customs, and conventions—which Vesely treats with an anthropological perspective usually reserved for foreign cultures.

Similar insofar as it paints a portrait of a particular milieu, but otherwise entirely dissimilar, and indeed one of the most curious films in the Signatories series, was Ferdinand Khittl’s Wholesale Market (1958). In many ways an unremarkable and straightforward film (and one which is hard to reconcile as a work by the same director who created The Magic Ribbon) it depicts the workings of an outdoor food market, revealing the dynamics between its workers and customers, the mechanics of running the market, and the daily routine associated with it. In focusing on the nitty-gritty details of the market’s functioning—details that could easily bore us to tears, but are actually quite compelling—the film suggests the work of Frederick Wiseman. The strange thing, however, is that Wholesale Market is not a documentary—its production values, unmistakable (if skillful) use of actors, and narrative structure make it clear that this is a scripted and rehearsed film. A surprisingly palpable tension results from the disconnect between the film’s concerns—its focus on a place rather than a set of characters, its preoccupation with the mechanics of running a market, and its leisurely pace—and its mode of production, which we unconsciously associate with plot-driven, character-based films. In its modest, unspectacular way, Wholesale Market mixes documentary and fiction filmmaking in a way that’s unfamiliar even today, when fiction/nonfiction hybrids are ubiquitous in world cinema.

The similarly transgressive Measures Against Fanatics comes as less of a surprise, since it’s the work of Werner Herzog, a filmmaker who for decades now has moved freely back and forth between fiction and nonfiction, and has often taken up residence in the gray areas in-between—but it’s nevertheless a hilarious, unique, and still surprising film. Presenting itself as a documentary about racetrack workers whose job is to protect the racehorses from overly enthusiastic, crazed, unruly fans, Measures Against Fanatics seems at first to be a gently mocking, absurdist portrait of a bizarre subculture. But gradually the sense that Herzog has chanced upon a group of characters whose eccentricity is almost too good to be true, develops into a realization that they are not in fact “true”–without being heavy-handed about it, Herzog invites us to laugh at his characters only to complicate that laughter, the joke turning out to be on us. If Measures Against Fanatics refuses to fit into a snug category, this is a quality shared by so many of the films in the Mavericks, Mouvements, Manifestos survey, including every one of those I’ve mentioned here—and it’s a quality that’s very much in keeping with the spirit of the Oberhausen Manifesto itself.

The screenings in the fiftieth anniversary series included a handful of films that are well-known and often discussed—Le Chant du Styrène, Alexander Kluge and Peter Schamoni’s Brutality in Stone (1961), Harun Farocki’s Inextinguishable Fire (1969), François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard’s Une Histoire d’eau (1958), and others—but for the most part the Mavericks, Mouvements, Manifestos programs were comprised of films that have been languishing in obscurity for years, if not decades. Indeed, this section of the festival achieved precisely what such surveys most aspire to accomplish: to unearth a body of work and an historical moment that are richly deserving of renewed attention, restoring to view not only a group of astounding films but a whole fascinating dimension of the history of postwar cinema. Even more impressive is the fact that the festival screenings were only a part of an even more ambitious project—a joint effort between the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Deutsche Kinemathek, and the Oberhausen Festival, this project encompasses the preservation of forty films by the Oberhausen signatories, the distribution of 35mm prints, the Edition Filmmuseum release of a two-disc DVD set featuring many of these films, the publication of a book about the manifesto and its signers, the creation of an invaluable website which includes the manifesto itself, bios for each of the signers, original documents, and more, and the organization of further screenings inside and outside Germany (the programs devoted to the films of the manifesto’s signers comes to New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in September). Thanks to the heroic efforts of those involved in making this project a reality, a fascinating chapter in German cinema has been decisively recovered, reversing the neglect of decades, and hopefully establishing a precedent for similarly ambitious excavations of other cinematic periods and bodies of work.

For more information on the Oberhausen Manifesto, visit http://www.oberhausener-manifest.com/en/

Jared Rapfogel is the Film Programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York, and an Associate Editor of Cineaste.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine