Manfred Kirchheimer

First International Retrospective

Being a Mensch
Por Olaf Möller

Right from the start, Manfred Kirchheimer was recognized as a major filmmaker – and yet, over the course of a career now easily six decades long, he got never championed, cultivated, turned into a name, auteur whose latest was always eagerly awaited.

Reasons for this are several and have to do with the infrequency of his output as well as some works’ length which made them difficult to distribute or program inside conventional structures. Yet the probably most important one is that Kirchheimer’s cinema was never fashionable in terms of style. When he debuted with Colossus on the River in 1963, Direct Cinema was all the rage – an aesthetic as well as politic of images & sounds that never held any promise for him. If one wants to put it in slightly polemical terms: Direct Cinema is all about society as spectacle, a liberal-minded play whose outcome might change from time to time but not the rules – while for Kirchheimer, human endeavour, mankind itself is but fleeting, as can be witnessed by the way in eg. Claw. A Fable (1968) or Up the Lazy River (2020) New York is shown as almost growing from primeval forests to a City on a Hill whose future as a ruin overgrown with grasses, ferns and trees is already visible to the curious eye. The biblical reference is apt as Kirchheimer loves to show the older architecture of New York in a way that stresses its similarities with Gothic cathedrals inhabited by gargoyles galore – reminders of the unchanging nature of human glory and misery to those who pay attention to their all-knowing stony silence.

Kirchheimer loves grandeur, maybe because it’s created by those tiny beings called humans. Colossus on the River is almost an essay on that particular relationship: The SS United States – the biggest ocean liner build in the USA as well as the fastest ship in the world of its kind – is manoeuvred into New York Harbour by a pilot commanding a handful of tugboats. The contrast is staggering: One man able to read the language of clouds and waves directs a bunch of small vessels to do cautious yet decisive miniscule movements that will protect the safety and integrity of a steel behemoth and the thousands that made it their temporary home – all under the watchful eyes of its intellectual father, naval architect William Francis Gibbs, who, the commentary claims, is always there when the ship arrives home. An ocean liner coming in from an Atlantic crossing was still a rather ordinary sight to New Yorkers of the time – and yet, the writing was on the wall: This mode of travelling won’t be too long any more for this world. Six years after the film was made, the SS United States got withdrawn from service after its 400th journey – air travel had taken over by then. It’s difficult to not read any deeper meanings into all this, incl. the demise of US American power and influence in the world – towards the end of ’63, president Kennedy will be assassinated, while the war in Vietnam escalates and escalates. The film’s maybe most overwhelming shot shows a Black sailor against the gigantic Stars and Stripes floating in the wind – a last salute to an empire collapsing.

Did Kirchheimer arrive in the United States on a ship like the SS United States? Born in Saarbrücken in 1931, his family left the German Reich in 1936, when it became only too clear how serious the ruling Nazi party was about its policies subjugating the nation’s Jewish citizenry – extermination-wards. Was that writing also on the wall? Thus, the Kirchheimers made New York their new home. How much of Saarbrücken did stay with Manfred Kirchheimer, how much does he remember of his first years in that other country?

Kirchheimer went to school in New York, and then to university there as well, where his mentor was another German émigré: Dada pioneer and abstract animation axiom Hans Richter, who founded the City College’s Institute of Film Techniques. While Richter was certainly of significance for Kirchheimer as he put him on his tracks, the practical experience he gained from working with Leo Hurwitz in the 60s was probably more important for his filmmaking practice. Hurwitz’ Essay on Death: A Memorial to John F. Kennedy (1964) certainly shows a deep kinship between the two in the way nature is shown and dramatized, and how the evanescence of life gets stressed by the presence of gargoyle’esque shapes as well as artworks like Richard Lippold’s 1953 sculpture Variations Within a Sphere, #10: The Sun to whom and which they’d dedicate a film of its own two year on. As co-responsibles they appear among dozens of others, avant-garde luminaries mostly, on the long contributors roll call for the 1967 agit monument For Life, Against the War.

The following year would see to the release of Claw. A Fable (co-director: Walter Hess), the film to establish the Kirchheimer mode of expression most widely celebrated: the symphonic choreography of images and sounds, which also characterizes Bridge High (1975; co-director: Walter Hess), Stations of the Elevated (1980), in some chapters Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan (2004) and Art Is… The Permanent Revolution (2012), and then again whole and all Dreams of a City (2018), Free Time (2019), Up the Lazy River and One More Time (2021), the latter four made in good parts using material from his earlier films and shoots. Kirchheimer establishes himself here as a heir to the likes of Walter Ruttmann, Albrecht Viktor Blum or the Kaufman family in its aesthetic diversity – while going one or two steps further then all of them by making time considered in epic scale the subject of his montages, which sometimes takes the shape of above described movement from the antediluvian to the high modern, then othertimes crystallizes itself in something so basic yet fundamental as the sprayed trains moving through the urban vastness as signs of the times to come – the writing is here quite literally on the walls; in his most recent works, time as a subject is ingrained in the textures of the images themselves, just as it is in the fashions of the days or the buildings one now knows to be gone. This mode, with its carefully created soundscapes and dramatic imagery that proudly shows Kirchheimer’s fascination with the graphic glory of printing art, is closest to what one calls Pure Cinema.

That said: Kirchheimer’s arguably richest works are the formally more complex ones, which always means that to some degree they do use language in a rich and evocative way, starting with Colossus on the River, then his magnum opus We Were So Beloved (1986), to finally Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan and Art Is… The Permanent Revolution. Mind that these aren’t his only films to work with words – Daughters (2020) eg. is almost only words, while his lone foray into fiction, Short Circuit (1973) has a lot of dialogue even if it’s headed towards a long montage sequence in the protagonist’s head that uses almost exclusively sounds and images to suggest his growing anxieties and paranoia – his bourgeois racism.

Which connects it uneasily yet intimately with We Were So Beloved, a portray of the Jewish émigré community in Washington Heights at the far end of Manhattan – the world of Kirchheimer’s family whose memories and opinions form the film’s core. Almost everybody here has lost next of kin to the Nazi death machine; some even survived being deported into an extermination camp. But as Kirchheimer has to find out: Having escaped one of 20th century’s worst atrocities didn’t humble everybody into a better human being – prejudices eg. are still there, with the Blacks of neighbouring Harlem getting sometimes perceived in ways not too dissimilar from that of the Polish and Russian (later Soviet) Jews back in Germany during the 10s, 20s, 30s: backwards and/or poor, in that a threat to their own position in society, the way they (still) feel perceived by the goyim majority. In many ways they remained who they always were – history barely touched them. And as Short Circuit, which can be read as a tacit portray in grey and black of Kirchheimer himself, brutally suggests: Even trying to bridge the gap, trying to overcome divides of class and race, can be perceived as condescending by those who try. The only thing that remains to do is to go with the acts of solidarity and support, and to swallow the darkness inside whole and total, for in the end, this is also only another form of self-loathing and -pity, also pride – emotions that never helped anybody. It thus fits that Kirchheimer found out only after finishing We Were So Beloved that some things were more complicated than his interviewees let on. In a very often quoted scene his father says that he’d probably not have saved anybody, for he thought of himself as a coward; only later did Kirchheimer learn that his father did shelter a fellow Jew on the run for a night; obviously he thought this was nothing – which gives an idea of what courage meant to this one man: a lot. Mind that Kirchheimer never goes Lanzmann or Ophüls in the way he presents his family in particular and the Washington Heights community in general: He might voice his opinions and thoughts, and towards the end of the film certainly summarizes his insights, but he’s never overtly judgemental – while he might sense some capital-t truths he’s too humble and generous, too much a mensch to condemn others. And while he voices his disdain for all the Germans who collaborated with the Nazis if only through their passivity, he lets several US Americans his own age talk about this country’s history of persecutions, and how its citizens too often failed under far less terrorizing circumstances.

Humans are mainly weak – and yet, as a collective they can very well defy their insignificance to create culture and progress, grow together beyond the boundaries of one, claim dominion over realms of the spirit and the soul their forefathers often would not have been able to conceive. On a formal level Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan and Art Is… The Permanent Revolution might be the more refined, multi-layered and ever-surprising achievements of Manfred Kirchheimer – but when it comes to the human spirit, few ever saw more greatness in it than he did in We Were So Beloved.