The 2018 International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (Web Exclusive)
by Jared Rapfogel
Located in one of the numerous, tightly clustered towns that comprise the Ruhrgebiet—a region of western Germany fascinating both for its industrial past and for its efforts to preserve and repurpose the sometimes astounding relics of this earlier era by transforming its factories and industrial landscapes into museums, arts spaces, and parks—the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen has a long and rich history. Inaugurated in 1954, the festival is famous internationally for the events that took place during the 1962 edition, when a group of more than two dozen West German filmmakers delivered what came to be known as the Oberhausen Manifesto, a protest against the state of German filmmaking at the time that is credited as having launched the New German Cinema movement. Every bit as important, though, is Oberhausen’s legacy as a showcase not only for German and western European short-form and avant-garde cinema, but also for films from the Eastern bloc, particularly from the former Yugoslavia, Poland, Romania, and elsewhere in the region. In my time as a regular visitor to the festival, Oberhausen has proven a source of numerous revelatory filmic experiences, even while it is just as reliably uneven. This year—the sixty-fourth edition—was typical on both counts, but it did distinguish itself as a result of the festival’s efforts to extend its boundaries in ambitious (and at least provisionally promising) ways. Without visibly curtailing any of the long-existing components of the event, the organizers added no less than four new sections, entitled “Conditional Cinema,” “Labs,” “Lectures,” and “Re-selected,” which together constituted an admirable attempt to expand the festival’s parameters and to find new ways of thinking about short films in the twenty-first century.
As is my custom, I devoted the lion’s share of my attention to the Theme section, entitled “Leaving the Cinema—Knokke, Hamburg, Oberhausen (1967–1971),” and curated by Peter Hoffmann, a Hanover-based filmmaker, researcher, and member of the collective Kino im Sprengel. Designed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the tumultuous year of 1968, “Leaving the Cinema” constituted a deep dive into German-language underground and independent cinema of the late Sixties, with a particular focus on the short-lived Anderes Kino (Other Cinema) movement. For those with an enduring interest in underground cinema of that period, and especially for those of us who attended from outside the German-speaking world, the program was fascinating. As a staff member at Anthology Film Archives, I can hardly help being familiar with the history of the experimental/underground cinema that emerged in the United States in the late Fifties and early Sixties (since Anthology is an institution that was born directly from that movement), and with the cooperative distribution organizations such as the Film-Makers’ Cooperative in New York and Canyon Cinema in San Francisco that led to the creation of similar groups in London, Toronto, Vienna, and elsewhere later in the decade. But Hoffmann’s focus on the festivals and groups that similarly arose in Germany in the late Sixties—inspired by the circulation of American avant-garde and underground films via festivals like the Spoleto Film Exposition in Italy and EXPRMNTL in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium, and including the Hamburger Filmschau, the Filmmacher Cooperative Hamburg, Xscreen in Cologne, and others—shed light on a relatively unknown dimension of global independent cinema in this period.
If I have a caveat regarding “Leaving the Cinema,” it’s simply the sense that, however unfamiliar the particular filmmakers and organizations that Hoffmann explored, the topic in general was one that was far from surprising within the context of Oberhausen. Memorable and even at times revelatory as they were, recent Theme sections such as 2012’s “Provoking Reality: Mavericks, MouveMents, Manifestos” and especially last year’s “Social Media Before the Internet” (and to a lesser but still significant extent, 2014’s “Memories Can’t Wait—Film without Film”) covered predominantly the same period, while “Social Media Before the Internet” shared the same constricted geographical focus.
The occasion of the fiftieth anniversary may have provided a compelling reason to concentrate on 1968, and of course there’s nothing wrong with a German film festival exploring domestic cinema. 1968 was extraordinary, though, not only for the momentousness of the events that occurred that year but also for their global nature. So it seems odd to mark the occasion by focusing so intently on one corner of the world, especially when the very phenomenon the program explored—the proliferation of radical, noncommercial cinema and the creation of alternate structures of production and distribution—was itself a remarkably international one. Impressive as the selection was, the focus on Germany in the 1960s felt (paradoxically, given the nature of the films) rather safe, in contrast to other recent Oberhausen Theme sections such as 2016’s “El Pueblo—Searching for Contemporary Latin America,” with its focus on a relatively neglected part of the world, or 2013’s “Flatness: Cinema After The Internet,” with its investigation into the Internet’s effect on image-making.
From another perspective, however, there was something admirably daring about the program: its emphasis on an unflattering chapter in Oberhausen’s own history. If the festival played an important role in the story of the Anderes Kino, it was one of opposition and negative catalyst. In the midst of the formation of the movement, in April 1968, Oberhausen disinvited Hellmuth Costard’s film, Of Special Merit (Besonders wertvoll), on the grounds of obscenity (Costard parodied a new film funding law by depicting the reading of the law by a penis in the process of being stroked to climax). This decision led many of the other West German directors in the selection to withdraw their films in protest, an act that created a sense of solidarity among filmmakers as well as drawing a great deal of attention to the new independent cinema. It’s to the current festival’s credit that it appears to have no inclination to whitewash this part of its history.
Another factor that counteracted the sense that “Leaving the Cinema” represented a safe choice of topic was Hoffmann’s professed (and unmistakable) determination to dig deep, to favor almost totally forgotten or long-neglected films and filmmakers over comparatively recognized ones. As he writes in the conclusion to his festival essay, “Even if it can barely be assumed that the classics of the Other Cinema are generally known—particularly to an international audience—this program does not feature most of them. Besonders wertvoll, Der warme Punkt, Adolf Winkelmann, Kassel, 9.12.1967, 11.54h, Jüm-Jüm, Alaska (all 1968), Selbstschüsse (1967), Erlebnisse der Puppe (1966), and other emblematic works will not be shown. Instead, lesser-known works, including some rediscoveries, will be shown in a bid to portray the panorama of independent film at the end of the 60s in the German-speaking world.” Given that all but Besonders wertvoll from the above list are unknown to me, the originality and depth of research of Hoffmann’s selection seems unmistakable. While many of the filmmakers may have been familiar to North American devotees of the avant-garde, if hardly easy to see (Klaus Wyborny, Hellmuth Costard, Werner Nekes, Kurt Kren, Birgit and Wilhelm Hein, and Harun Farocki, for instance), they were greatly outnumbered by truly unknown quantities.
Many of these lesser-known films represented genuine discoveries, while Hoffmann’s selection was thoughtfully curated and unafraid to explore the sometimes still-shocking attempts on the part of the period’s filmmakers to challenge audiences’ sensibilities. Program 2 (entitled “Poetry and Protest”) was a case in point: it offered not only a selection of consistently strong films, but also one that confidently and dynamically captured the range of methodologies and approaches filmmakers of the era were developing. The program was front-loaded with memorable but fairly familiar forms of countercultural expression, beginning with Olympic Flame (Olympisches Feuer, Egon Teske/Hartmut Schubert/Gunther Koch, 1968), which combines situations both obviously staged and (apparently) unstaged to document the filmmakers’ audacious prank of “stealing” the Olympic flame during the 1968 Olympics. Reportedly designed partly to promote the First Hamburger Filmschau, the film finds the filmmakers traveling to Grenoble, where they take advantage of the lax security to light a cigarette with the Olympic flame. The filmmakers somehow extricate themselves from serious legal jeopardy (though the belated attentions of the authorities—documented through still images—appear to prove the authenticity of the filmmakers’ renegade action), and through the magic of film editing, the flame travels via cigarette and oil lamp all the way back to Hamburg. In common with one strain of the underground cinema of the time, Olympic Flame is serious about its challenge to the pomposity and rigidity of conventional society, but expresses its protest with genuine irreverence and wit.
The next few films in the program demonstrated the importance of popular music to underground film, an approach not at all unusual in that period. But the program took a highly unexpected U-turn with Christian Bau’s Kubla Khan (1969). Departing wildly from the spontaneity and countercultural looseness of the earlier films, Kubla Khan takes the form of a highly artificial and unapologetically static tableau vivant. Arrayed on a stage, and filmed from a distance in one long take, are an organ player, a female singer who sings an aria over the course of the film’s twelve minutes, a soldier armed with a submachine gun, and a couple making love. According to Bau, the film was intended as an allegory about the respective lures of culture, violence, and sensual pleasure, but the film’s highly theatrical presentation, its long-take aesthetic, and the bizarre comedy of its deadpan tone conjure a strangeness that is beyond literal meaning. Profoundly distinct from most of the films in the program, it’s reminiscent more of Paradjanov, Werner Schroeter, or some of Fassbinder’s more Brechtian works than of most underground cinema of the time.
The following film, Programme Advice (Programmhinweise, Christiane Gehner, 1970), was equally unexpected, similarly poised between seriousness and comedy, and demonstrated yet another distinct style and sensibility (not to mention representing one of the few films in the Theme section by a female filmmaker and explicitly reflecting a female perspective). Purporting to be a television newscast, Gehner’s film finds a female announcer, in a perfectly deadpan delivery, intoning, “Before we bring you the skiing competition from Grenoble, let me give you some advice on female emancipation,” and then proceeding to deliver a ten-minute-long feminist address, culminating of course with the promised transition back to the sporting event. A richly funny gesture, Programme Advice calls attention to the exclusionary ideology of mainstream television by conjuring into being a fantasy broadcast.
The dizzying range of approaches on display in this particular program culminated with Renate Pfab’s Prince and Delusion (Prinz und Wahn, 1971), a film whose sensibility was every bit as strange and stylized as that of Kubla Khan but with a tone and sense of humor all its own. Prince and Delusion narrates the sixth-century tale of a prince who embarks on an adventure to save a kidnapped damsel, but its vision of the Middle Ages is far from a conventional one. Pfab creates a striking disjunction between narration and imagery (the narration, for instance, makes reference to “The Prince and his friends,” while the screen is occupied by a single solitary figure), which calls constant attention to the film’s own artificiality and threadbare stylistics. Prince and Delusion takes the flat antinaturalism of something like Eric Rohmer’s Percival to an extreme, poking fun at the sad-eyed mopeyness of a certain strain of the counterculture, but resulting in a charmingly idiosyncratic, sui generis work.
I’ve focused on this second program because it so well encapsulated Hoffmann’s interest in demonstrating the diversity of sensibilities and modes encompassed within the Other Cinema at the time—with Kubla Khan, Programme Advice, and Prince and Delusion in particular representing cinematic approaches that are distinct even within the realm of experimental cinema in the Sixties—but all of the programs in “Leaving the Cinema” held rewards. Program 3, “Home Movies / Narrative Experiments,” featured the Italian film, Libro di Santi di Roma eterna (1968), by Alfredo Leonardi, which features actor Pierre Clementi; the Swiss filmmaker Hans Helmut Klaus Schönherr’s dense, dynamic, and sonically adventurous Play 2 & 3 (1968); and a rarely screened early film by Klaus Wyborny, the enigmatic and baffling Adventurous but Hapless Life of William Parmagino (1969), which finds Wyborny rephotographing and repurposing informal 8mm footage he shot with his friends to experiment with the relationship between narration and imagery. Other programs focused on structural films (Program 6, “Material and structure,” an Austrian-heavy selection that included work by Hans Scheugl, Ernst Schmidt Jr., and the great Kurt Kren, as well as German filmmakers Birgit & Wilhelm Hein’s sensory-overload 1968 Rohfilm), paid tribute to Werner Nekes (Program 7, which stretched Oberhausen’s principles to present the 1969 hour-long film, Kelek), and showcased explicitly political work by Harun Farocki, Hartmut Bitomsky, and the Kasseler Filmkollektiv. Then there was Program 4, “Art/Actions,” which emphasized performative and/or direct-address films. The program began innocently enough, but culminated in four increasingly provocative works. Irm and Ed Sommer’s Rhythmus 1 (1970) certainly played against the taboo of unblinkingly depicting genitalia, but would likely offend only viewers suffering from an excessive alienation from the human body. But the two following films—Günter Brus–Mini Psycho-Drama (1970) and Nitsch–7th Abreaction Action (1970), both by the Sommers, and documenting Actionist performances by Günter Brus and Hermann Nitsch—proved difficult to take, not only because of their extreme play with human bodies, animal cadavers, bodily fluids of all kinds, and various forms of mutilation, but even more so (in the case of the latter film) because of the evocation (if not actual practice of) sexual assault. Even this paled in comparison to the final film, Rolf Thissen’s Why Cats? (Warum Katzen?, 1969), a truly offensive piece of work whose presumptive ends (challenging us to face our most deep-set taboos involving death and dismemberment, especially within the context of events in Vietnam and elsewhere) hardly justify its means (the violent and unsparing obliteration of a real cat, albeit one that appears to have died prior to the filming). Objectionable as this film was, Hoffmann’s inclusion of problematic films made, I think, for a richer and truer, warts-and-all portrait of the era, and helped to bring an urgency and a sense of genuine challenge to the program.
One of the strongest programs elsewhere in the festival took place as part of one of the newly christened sections, “Re-selected,” even if the context was a source of some confusion. The stated aim of the section (which is projected to continue for two more years) is to “focus on selected analogue films from the collection of the archive of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen and examine film history as the history of individual film prints. Instead of propagating the digital ‘rescue’ of a cinematic work as an ideal, the project is interested precisely in the unique characteristics of a copy, which are as a rule obliterated during digitization.” “Re-selected” was inaugurated with a pair of separate programs this year. The first featured screenings of two distinct versions of Alain Resnais’s seminal concentration camp documentary, Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard, 1956): the original French version, which most viewers are familiar with, and a German-language version, made for the West German market, which is solely in black-and-white and in which the Jean Cayrol text is replaced by an entirely different text by Paul Celan. Though I missed this screening, conceptually it seemed perfectly in keeping with the conception of “Re-selected.” The rationale for presenting within this context the works in the second program—Elegy (Elégia, Zoltán Huszárik, Hungary, 1965) and Shunters (Rangierer, Jürgen Böttcher, East Germany, 1984)—was harder to grasp. From the evidence of the accompanying texts in the festival catalogue, the reasoning was vague and arguably broad enough that any number of films/prints could have qualified—it seems to have been a matter simply of their untranslatable visual beauty and their inclusion in contemporaneous editions of Oberhausen, though it’s always worthwhile to be reminded that in previous eras prints were few enough that their circulation was necessarily limited in ways that today are hard to conceive of. In any case, the idea underlying “Re-selected” is a worthy and intriguing one, and the two films in the program were such extraordinary works that the disconnect hardly seemed to matter.
The first, Elegy, is a poetic, dark-toned study of the equestrian species, its depiction through the ages, and its exploitation at the hands of humankind. Entirely dialogue free, it makes use of a wide variety of techniques—a musical structure, sometimes rapid editing, freeze frames, distorting mirrors—to create an existential portrait of the horse that is at once richly detailed and yet unsettlingly allegorical. At times it appears to be an indictment of humankind’s treatment of animals, but as it grows increasingly dystopic and unsettling (as well as increasingly experimental in its techniques), and places its imagery of horses in the countryside with footage of men and women in an urban setting, foreboding parallels emerge. Elegy is perhaps ultimately a bit too portentous in tone and heavy-handed in its stylistics, but it’s nevertheless a vivid, deeply troubling film.
A bona fide masterpiece, Shunters is at first glance a less showy film, but its orchestration of image and sound is perfectly achieved without ever overasserting its own virtuosity. It’s a portrait of the workers who are responsible for shunting trains—detaching train cars and diverting them from one track to another—and as a depiction of a relatively underdocumented form of labor, it’s exemplary. Its greatness is a function of its compositional brilliance and its unforgettable soundtrack—constructed from field recordings of the clanging, screeching, and whistling that suffuse the trainyards, the soundtrack comprises an extraordinary piece of musique concrète. What distinguishes the film above all, though, is the intuitive patience of the editing—simply put, many of the shots extend far beyond the point where most such films would cut away, establishing an extraordinary sense of place and presence. The trainyard, which over the course of the film comes palpably alive, is an uncanny world populated both by the workers, whose gestures are deeply inscribed with their long experience, and by the hulking, unmanned train cars themselves, which seem to have a life of their own as they careen into each other in controlled but cacophonous collisions.
Ever since its advent in 2013, the Archives section has invariably been a source of wondrous cinematic experiences. Sadly I missed this year’s presentation on behalf of the ACC Film & Video Archive in South Korea, as well as the joint presentation organized by the Cinémathèque de la Ville de Luxembourg and the Centre National de l’Audiovisuel. But I did see the other two programs, from the Slovak Film Institute and the Filmoteca de Catalunya. The Slovak program, which comprised six films made between 1963–77, was easily the most interesting. Though the program was nothing if not eclectic, the majority of the films nevertheless brought vividly to mind the short documentaries that were being produced in the same period throughout Eastern Europe, and especially in Yugoslavia. This rich tradition—still far too little known outside of Europe—saw the proliferation of short films combining unassuming yet genuinely innovative techniques with an unstinting commitment to documenting and exploring society and the daily lives of each nation’s citizens, all the while employing an often slyly comic tone that deflected attention from their acutely political satire. Oberhausen provided a crucial Western European showcase for these films in their day, and has more recently endeavored to keep them in the consciousness of festival-goers and scholars thanks to sidebar programs in 2009 (devoted to the Sarajevo Documentary School) and 2013 (when the festival profiled the Croatian filmmakers Petar Krelja, Krsto Papic, and Zoran Tadic). The Slovak Film Institute program proved to be something of a continuation of this tradition.
The highlights of the Slovak program were Martin Slivka’s ode to ancient industrial techniques, Water and Work (Voda a práca, 1963), Dušan Hanák’s satire on tourism, Old Shatterhand Came to See Us (Prišiel k nám Old Shatterhand, 1966), and the masterpiece Photographing the House Dwellers (Fotografovanie obyvateľov domu, Dušan Trančík, 1968). Water and Work is a dialogue- and narration-free visual poem that demonstrates the tendency of the short documentaries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans to strike a perfect balance between filmic experimentation and an unshowy commitment to the subject matter at hand. The subject here is the spectacle of water-powered industrial production, and in particular those manifestations of it that have remained unchanged (or did so as of 1963) for centuries: Slivka films the processes of logging, textile manufacture, and metalwork, and with the help of an incongruously modern, strikingly electronic soundtrack, makes of these processes and their tools something wondrously strange. The film seems to consist of nothing but water and wood—logs, wooden gears, wooden rafts, wooden chutes down which the logs hurtle—photographed in such a way that it all seems both primitive and fantastic. Everything appears to function independently of the human workers, while the film’s editing and sonic landscape is so precise, dynamic, yet similarly detached from a human presence that it seems itself to evoke an ancient form of machinery.
Old Shatterhand is a far more down-to-earth film, an ostensibly bemused, affectionate depiction of the human comedy on the streets of Czechoslovakia. Apparently consisting partly of footage caught on the fly or even captured via hidden camera, Shatterhand features uncomprehending encounters between visitors to Czechoslovakia and its natives, workers caught in decidedly un-industrious moments, various people openly coveting a new car, and a hilarious social-psychological experiment involving a large fake rock placed in awkward locations on sidewalks and even roads, which virtually no one will engage with, even when the filmmakers escalate the experiment by leaving a note instructing, “Please move me out of the way. Thank you.” Hanák sets the images against a soundtrack of nationalistic and idealized popular songs, an ironic counterpoint that becomes increasingly stark. The comedy ultimately gives way to an unmistakably grim social commentary, as Hanák incorporates footage of child beggars panhandling on the streets and weeping as they’re arrested. But even before this, his film has subtly given the lie to the myth of a perfectly functioning society defined by cooperation, classlessness, and the transcendence of materialism.
Like Water and Work, Photographing the House Dwellers adopts an experimental cinematic form to portray a traditional form of rural life. And like Kubla Khan (but to very different ends), its form is that of the tableau. With the exception of the credit sequence, which consists of footage rephotographed off a television set, and the final scene, the film evokes formal family photographs. The filmmaker Dušan Trančík composes the film with a large stone house in the countryside as the backdrop, and over the course of the film the members of a large family appear in various formations before this house, posing as if for a still photograph before the fixed camera. Bringing to mind (again, like Kubla Khan) Sergei Paradjanov, the film is a tour de force of frontal composition and effects in depth, with the family members arraying themselves throughout the front yard as well as in the windows and doorway of the house. The camera is anything but a neutral, invisible seeing eye—the first moment of the film proper finds a young man breathing on and cleaning the lens, and every scene purports to represent the preparation for and taking of a family photograph, as each family member faces (and sometimes addresses) the camera and composes him or herself before the “shot” is taken. As the brief sequences follow each other, we witness the life of the family—funerals give way to weddings, which give way to births, which give way to more funerals, while the house and grounds are gradually transformed. Both full of life and insistently distanced, Photographing the House Dwellers suggests the role of photography in a place and period without easy access to technology, and muses on how people in such places interact with new forms of media. It also reflects on the house as a symbol of stability and the nexus of the life of a family. Both these themes emerge in a different form with the final sequence, which departs from the tableau format to interview a rural couple with their small child. The man talks about having grown up in a wood shack, and what it means to him to have been able to build a new house. And then, clearly cognizant that the camera will broadcast his words far and wide, and obviously reciting a formula he has committed to memory, he is careful to attribute his economic possibilities to the socialist system.
Of the other three newly minted sections, I was unable to attend any of the “Lectures” events. But I did see programs from the “Conditional Cinema” and “Labs” sections. Curated by Finnish filmmaker and artist Mika Taanila, and like “Re-selected” conceived of as a three-year project, “Conditional Cinema” arose out of Taanila’s 2014 Theme program, “Memories Can’t Wait—Film Without Film.” The general idea is to present performative works, or as the catalogue puts it, to emphasize “the idea of live ‘films’…works that are based on a notion of moving images as an essentially fluid art form, conceived as procedural, collective or improvised—as ‘happening right now.’” This is unquestionably a fascinating realm of cinema, one with a rich history, but also especially valuable today when the idea of cinema as a live, singular event (even simply in the basic sense of a public projection of a fixed film print before an audience) is in danger of being lost. The idea of expanding our notion of what “cinema” can be (“Memories Can’t Wait” went so far as to banish works that involved projected moving images) is a great one. That said, “Memories Can’t Wait” struck me as extremely variable in quality, and I found both of the “Conditional Cinema” screenings I saw to be uninspiring. In particular, the program devoted to Peter Miller featured works that I found derivative, self-congratulatory, and borderline silly rather than mind-expanding. The program began with a piece entitled This Thing Connecting Us (Part 1), which involved the unspooling of a reel of film from the booth through the hands of the audience, a conceit that might be rewarding for anyone new either to the material nature of celluloid or to the history of expanded cinema. But from my perspective this was an obvious and tired idea. In fact, a very similar piece was part of “Memories Can’t Wait,” and even then, in my coverage of that edition of the festival, I wrote that, “Tobias Putrih’s Negative Inspection…culminated with the unspooled 16mm negative making its way through the audience, a gesture whose hands-on interactivity is admirable but uninspired, and familiar to anyone who’s attended lectures by Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Peter Kubelka.” And with the exception of Set (2016), an ingenious found footage piece animated from dozens of photographs of the sunset downloaded from the Internet, the other films in the program (the lens-less projection, Stained Glass, and the interactive kids-balloon performance, ST*R) struck me as having a similarly overinflated sense of their own originality and resonance. Nevertheless, the concept of “Conditional Cinema” is unquestionably a laudable one, and holds enormous potential.
The idea behind “Labs”—to celebrate the artist-run film lab movement that has grown by leaps and bounds over the past several years, and to showcase the incredible range of handmade films that have emerged from that realm—is an equally important and timely one. And on the evidence of the program I was able to see, the selection was far more rewarding. Vassily Bourikas is a perfect choice to curate the section, not only because he is an active part of this worldwide movement, but also because his philosophical mindset is an admirably nuanced and carefully formulated one. In particular, it’s very refreshing to hear the curator of a section like this resist the retrograde sentimentality that could so easily underlie it. Bourikas, despite his passionate advocating for photochemical filmmaking and self-reliant, handmade production, was careful to point out that neither the “Labs” section nor the film lab movement itself is in any way meant as a rejection of digital moving-image making. The fetishizing of celluloid is in some realms almost as great a danger as the obsolescence of the medium of photochemical film, and Bourikas was at pains to establish that the goal is to maintain the availability of different forms of cinema, not to privilege one over another.
This year’s installment of the “Labs” section highlighted work produced at four different labs—L’Abominable in Paris, Crater Lab in Barcelona, filmkoop wien in Vienna, and filmwerkplaats in Rotterdam—and Bourikas structured the section so that all four labs were represented in each of the three programs. It should come as no surprise, of course, that the artists who are involved with these various labs are making work in a variety of modes—if their films were unified by anything it was simply by a sense of commitment to the craft of image-making and a devotion to the texture and beauty of the image in and of itself, not only as a carrier of meaning. The highlights of the program I caught were two Austrian works: VENUS DELTA (2016), by Antoinette Zwirchmayr, and A proposal to project (2017), by Viktoria Schmid. A mysterious and enigmatic film that is nevertheless distinguished by the precision of its editing, VENUS DELTA exudes a mythical aura. Its imagery revolves around a young woman in a remote landscape, and its several elements—stratified rock, fruit, golden objects, and most memorably a quasi-abstract close-up of the woman’s abundant hair—have an extraordinary tactility and sensual presence. A proposal to project is both an extension of Schmid’s practice of constructing her own projection screens, and a record of a specific project she created in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California, during an artist residency. As part of the residency she installed a screen in the Djerassi program’s wooded sculpture park, and her film documents the screen as it’s transfigured by the play of light and shadow through the trees. In keeping with Taanila’s conception for “Conditional Cinema,” Schmid conjures up a screen that perpetually displays “films without film” (and, for that matter, mostly without audiences: If a movie screens in the woods…).
All in all, it was an uneven edition of Oberhausen—but this unevenness stemmed in part from an admirable refusal to play it safe, from a commitment to experiment with new categories and new ways of framing the potentialities and contemporary currents of the cinema. Conceived of as multiyear experiments, some of these projects exuded a sense of finding their sea legs in this inaugural year. That’s natural for new experiments, though, and it will be fascinating to see how each of them develops.
Jared Rapfogel, a Cineaste Associate, is film programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.
For information on the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, visit
Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 4