THE PAST IS PRESENT
ON THE LONG SHADOW OF WWII IN DOCLISBOA 2016
I have this sense of a circle coming full, of a relay where things are being passed from one to the other film, even when they were made decades, countries, minds apart. Peter Watkins’ The War Game features a scene of a bomb falling, as seen from the inside of a suburban house — and that same scene reappears at the end of Mark Cousins’ punk-rock found-footage essay Atomic, in a stark black-and-white that loops back to A German Life, the shattering memoir of Brunhilde Pomsel, a pool typist who worked at the Ministry of Propaganda in WWII Germany. It is, in fact, one of the possible through-lines in the 2016 edition of Lisbon’s documentary film festival Doclisboa, a through-line that may be less obvious or self-explanatory than most but nevertheless shows the depths the festival usually mines in terms of having films speak to each other. There really isn’t that much in common between these films other than the way they look at the consequences of WWII, at the way its course has shifted the world ever since. These are films that do not settle for anything, but that project a fierce intensity, an almost blind trust and confidence in their viewers to hold their gaze, even if they are making us look into the abyss.
British director Peter Watkins and his extraordinary demanding activist cinema, recapped in a complete retrospective at the Lisbon Cinemathèque, has been a revelation to me, in its unyielding, uncompromising lucidity, in its almost self-flagellatory insistence in doing “the right thing” rather than “the easy thing”. A visionary whose work almost entirely followed his own impossibly high self-imposed standards, Watkins started out as an amateur filmmaker that blossomed into one of the 1960s BBC’s earliest formal experimentalists, alongside Ken Russell or Ken Loach. It’s terrifying to think that Watkins may have a been a precursor to Charlie Brooker — if Black Mirror investigates a possible “future around our corner” based around the omnipresence of technology, then Watkins’ early work was a more openly socio-political projection, positing that the military-industrial-economic complex had essentially colluded to dictate one’s destiny and future, and wondering why nobody was apparently caring about it.
His films up to 1971 can be both a cry for help and a call to arms; something like Punishment Park is almost unendurable in the way its extrapolation of the Anglo-American “culture wars” of the 1960s seems to predict our own polarized climate of political hate. For all that, his films can come across as dry and preachy, but are also alive and vital with a level of integrity and commitment that most non-interventive contemporary film lacks. Watkins never separated form from function, and there was always a reason why his films were the way they were. The lot that goes from 1963’s Culloden to 1971’s Punishment Park, in their strangely rigid anchoring in the documentary format yet utterly liberated from it by their narrative and fictional constructions, seem to be transmissions from some forgotten alternate past.
Another transmission from the past, A German Life (2016) is a shattering record, or a testimony, of a life lived in the periphery of the event. Brunhilde Pomsel is shot by DP Frank van Vught in such a deep black-and-white, so contrasted, so dark, that it becomes almost a landscape in itself. Minimalist as minimalism can be, A German Life reminded me of Wang Bing’s Fengming, only less radically austere; where the Chinese director just let a woman speak to the camera for three hours, the Austrian quartet of directors formed by Christian Krönes, Olaf Müller, Roland Schotterhofen and Florian Wegensamer intercut her on-camera presence with period footage. The film thus patiently constructs a narrative arc out of the memoirs, spoken on camera, of the 103-year-old spinster who worked as a typist in Joseph Goebbels’ office from 1942 to 1945.
Pomsel symbolizes the thousands of “normal” Germans swept up in the Nazi frenzy; the ones that let Adolf Hitler get away with so much for so long. Eloquent and astounded in the same breath, Pomsel marvels at how they all let it go so far, asks how could they have been so blind, but always, always points out how worthless, how useless it is to create “what if” scenarios or say you would have done it differently. She says she never hated the Jews, and was never politically active, but admits to have been complicit in bringing the Nazis to power whether by callousness or disinterest, and can’t shake how much it troubles her that the people she knew could do such evil. The starkness of things, though, is never in doubt; the commentary-less period archival footage is used sparingly by Krönes, Müller, Schotterhofen and Wegensamer to contextualise her statements, both confirming and contrasting her words. At no point does the nearly blind 103-year-old woman apologize or regret for what she did or did not do; but she reminds us constantly mankind is flawed and prone to mistakes, and that to pretend that it isn’t is in itself a sin.
That sin of forgetfulness and obliviousness is brought out in spades in Sergei Loznitsa’s masterful Austerlitz (2016), another stark, spare, austere work in the Belorussian director’s patient career, and also possibly his masterpiece. Shooting in long black-and-white takes in the former concentration camps of Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen, with no commentary nor score, Loznitsa does nothing other than put down his camera and record scenes of visitors on the premises; I counted only 37 shots (give or take a couple) in the entire 90-minute-plus-credits length, and that alone makes it one of the most stunning, breathtaking film objects I’ve seen all year. If A German Life is a plea against forgetfulness, Austerlitz is a portrait of what can happen when you forget: it presents the death camps as checkmarks on cruise-ship or bus tours, obligatory stops in the tourist circuit where people will take selfies against the infamous “arbeit macht frei” signs on the doors or the ovens.
Just like the Germans became a puppet people in the hands of the Nazis, the tourists visiting the camps are here de-individualized into a shapeless mass of consumers that seem to be at the camps less because of their wish to learn with the past and more because it’s “something you do” when visiting Germany. The callousness may be unwitting, but the matter-of-factness of Loznitsa’s handling, using merely the passage of time within each of its shots, makes it no less shocking; it’s as if the Holocaust, or the very heart of its horror, has been commodified, packaged, stripped of its weight and gravitas to become just another tourist attraction. The title reference to W. G. Sebald’s momentous classic merely underlines how much Austerlitz wants to make us aware of those dangers.
These dangers are also what puts Mark Cousins’ Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise (2015) in play. The passionate Irish film writer and filmmaker, whose masterpiece remains the multi-part The Story of Film book/film, harvests and repurposes archival footage (both documental and fictional) from the last 70 years to creat a powerful, propelling collage about the terrors and wonders of the atomic age. Scored by the epic, soaring rumbles of Scottish rock band Mogwai’s dreamy score, Atomic is a stellar example of the film-essay at its best, informed by that inextricably British way of connecting serious history and popular culture; a taut, compact throwback to a historical time teetering (as the subtitle points out) between “dread and promise”, but also to a tradition of mind-expanding, idiosyncratic sensory film experiences. None of this, Cousins seems to say, would be possible if the horrors of WWII hadn’t happened, and you can’t untangle its dread from its promise, its celebration from its admonishment, or its past from our present — the long arm of that particular tear in the fabric of history continues to cast a long shadow over our very own time. Forgetting, it seems to say, is not an option.
The global availability of Peter Watkins’ films can be consulted at his official website; Culloden, The War Game and Privilege are available on UK DVD from the BFI. A German Life premiered at the Visions du Réel festival in Switzerland last summer and Austerlitz at the Venice Film Festival last September; both films are currently doing the festival rounds. Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise is out on UK DVD from Hopscotch Films.