Wolf-Eckart Bühler

First International Retrospective

Outward Bound
By Olaf Möller

From 1972 on Wolf-Eckart Bühler was an editorial board member of Filmkritik, the FRG’s lone intellectually-minded film magazine of any consequence so far. This is important to note as Bühler saw himself always more as an literary essayist fascinated by cinema – in contrast to fellow Filmkritik’ians like Hartmut Bitomsky or Harun Farocki, he was not a director who also wrote about film, but an author haunted by projects; which is to say: Bühler wasn’t keen on making films, but when the opportunity arose he was willing to meet the challenge. Mind: The mere fact that Bühler was part of the Filmkritik collective suggests that filmmaking as a praxis and maybe even aim in life wasn’t completely alien or beyond him, as the magazine at that point was run on the implicit principal that action and reflection belonged together – you wrote when you didn’t film and you filmed when you didn’t write; authors sans ambitions at expressing themselves as well through films were rare in the magazine’s core back then.

And yet, with Bühler, an outside nudge was needed. And that came courtesy of the late Werner Dütsch, back then commission editor at WDR, who asked Bühler whether he wouldn’t like to do a film for him – and he even had a project at hand: Leo T. Hurwitz: Filme für ein anderes Amerika (1980). Dütsch’s suggestion was based on a very careful reading of Bühler’s Filmkritik essays, one of his main fields of interests apparent: Hollywood’s tortured Left. One should know that Filmkritik published many issues that were essentially monographs; among those Bühler (co-)wrote the two on Irving Lerner, # 289 & # 290 hold a special place in many people’s memories, not only as a pioneering work (zero on the subject at that point in US media), but also as a project that encapsulates many of Filmkritik’s obsessions and ambitions; if you read German and are serious about cinema, you own these two issues, and they look well-read – otherwise you’ll have a bit of explaining to do.

Bühler followed his Hurwitz-documentary with two more medium-length works on victims of the McCarthy-era Blacklist: Innere Sicherheit: Abraham Polonsky (1981) and Vor Anker / Land unter. Ein Film mit Sterling Hayden (1982), the latter being a parallel creation to (let’s say: the free-verse poetic version of) his first feature-length film for cinema, the enigmatically titled Leuchtturm des Chaos (1982), which, again, is something of a parallel creation to Der Havarist (1984), his only feature classified as fiction. Leuchtturm des Chaos and Der Havarist should be seen as an accidental double project: The former was made spontaneously while trying to get the latter on track. Bühler was searching for Sterling Hayden as he wanted to acquire the rights for his autobiographical tome Wanderer (1963) which he intended to adapt for the big screen, and indeed did with Der Havarist; after a long time being too late, Hayden always having left for ports unknown on his barge, Bühler finally found him in Besançon; the old man took kindly to the youngsters (along for the ride with Bühler were fellow auteur Manfred Blank and writer Felix Hofmann) and had them stay for a few days during which he suggested that he’d be willing to have his AV-portray filmed by them. Now, here’s an example why those were better days in FRG cinema: Bühler could secure some funding instantly and was back a week later. What followed, were drunken, drugged days and nights of reminiscences and ramblings through which Hayden tried to make sense of his life resulting in his grandest performance; Bühler et.al. were, for him, court jesters and confessors at the same time, an audience of curious innocents abroad – an opportunity to do something he otherwise would never have been able to: Hayden needed to lay bare his soul – nay!, he had to check whether his soul was still there; for this man who says that he’s at war with himself (and what man trying hard to stay true to himself isn’t?) was afraid that somewhere on the way he’d destroyed it, self-seekers having a natural tendency towards scorched earth. In all this wrestling for/with a truth – some truth, Goddammit!; some truth – he’s one of the most beautiful presences of all cinema; he radiant in spirit and flesh. In the end, he’s maybe just too much for himself. Enter Walt Whitman: Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.).

Which is maybe why Bühler had three performance artists do (aspects/sides of) Hayden in Der Havarist, two of whom were considered dangerous and dubious back then in the FRG: bank robber-turned-writer/actor Burkhard Driest and Communist singer-songwriter Hannes Wader; the third one is Rüdiger Vogler, 70s cinema’s Mr. Male Melancholia. Driest plays Hayden in the reenactments (which, of course, strive zero for historical verisimilitude); Wader narrates; Vogler reflects. But is Der Havarist a fiction feature? – maybe in the same way that Wanderer is a novel. It’s a narrative collage (and in that surprisingly enough closer to Vor Anker / Land unter. Ein Film mit Sterling Hayden than Leuchtturm des Chaos!), an essay that uses all stylistic tools and tropes, even those conventionally reserved for other genres of expression. What makes the film particularly fascinating for a local audience are several of the presences seen and heard: there’s maverick producer Laurens Straub (no relation, sad to say), Americanophile off-beat auteur Hans Noever, first generation Filmkritik’ian and later director of the Munich Film Museum Enno Patalas, Swinging Schwabing-axiom Roger Fritz (shot against what looks like the torso of a Greek statue, looking like a young God), the enigmatic and very attractive daughter of 50s star Peter van Eyck, Kristina, a real-life femme fatale…; in the credits we read that the props were taken care of by Nikolai Müllerschön who around the same time did his first features and became for a short while one of the hopes for a post-Young German Cinema commercial movie culture with smarts and balls (fat chance).

One year on, Bühler would release his third and last feature-length film: Amerasia (1985), another film defying conventional genre-wisdom – everybody here is more or less playing her-/himself, while the story seems to be mainly a reason to make these people seen. In some ways, the Vietnam War never ended despite the official peace agreement – it left its marks not only in a completely devastated landscape but also in thousand and thousands of children US-soldiers of all ethnicities had with local women – Southeast Asia has been irrevocably changed, and everybody can see that. On the other hand, thousands and thousands of Veterans can’t get Southeast Asia out of their mind. Bühler sais that his main (and actually only) actor, John Anderson, who’d served two years in Vietnam, got sucked back in time during shooting, starting to behave like a soldier again, starting to spout patriotic bla, turning progressively paranoid. The film’s title suggests, of course, the awkward intertwinedness of America and Asia, but also sounds like a particularly malignant variety of amnesia. Amerasia makes the forgotten – or to be more precise: discarded – into bodies, voices, lives, stories to remember. In all that it looks and feels today like a prologue to John Gianvito’s epic For Example, the Philippines (2010-15).

Time was not on Bühler’s side. FRG cinema had less and less space for and patience with adventurers, explorers, rovers – those who were always on move, if not in the flesh then in the mind. Read: Bühler had no interest in making cinema his main occupation, a regular job. He probably also didn’t feel like being nice to the wrong kind of people. And thus he made a few more short and medium-length works for television, and the called it quits. There were other things to do, like seeing the world, only to return to Schwabing (Munich’s old bohemian quarter).

Rumors have it that he later did stuff under pseudonym; other that he had a bar in Vietnam called Apocalypse Now; the point is not whether these are true or not, but what they say about people’s impression of Bühler as well as the culture we live in. Bühler is who he is.