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IFFR2015: Rotterdam Revisited

Vita Brevis (Thierry Knauff, 2015)


A Mayfly Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

To make an end is to make a beginning / the end is where we start from. The last film I’ve seen at the Rotterdam International Film Festival – Thierry Knauff’s Vita Brevis (pictured above) – sums up my experience as a member of the IFFR Trainee Project for Young Critics quite well. Although bordering on the overly sublime, the Belgian filmmaker’s mid-length film is a poetic evocation in gorgeous black and white of the one-day lifespan of mayflies. The most stunning shots – one wonders how they pulled them off – are the macro-images of the nymphs that, accompanied by a crackling sound, molt to winged adults. We too as young critics tried to spread our wings without getting swallowed up by the size of the festival. These one-day flies, equipped with large compound eyes and antennas, have a lot to do in less than twenty-four hours. We as well lived days full to the brim, attempting to see as much films as possible, trying to sense some trends, writing for the festival’s dailies and our national outlets, and attending jury and critics meetings.

Vita Brevis (Thierry Knauff, 2015)

The video-essay: An international chorus to the love of film 

Call it navel-gazing, but for me one of the most interesting sections at the festival was what the other critics did. As IFFR regular Thierry Knauff returned to the festival with his first new film in a decade, the Critics’ Choice made its comeback in Rotterdam after a twelve years absence. Seven critics were invited to program a film they wanted to fight for. Adding luster to this noble concept were the video-essays that each critic made on their movie of choice.The video-essays are available in the sidebar on The video-essay by Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López will appear on the extras of the Arrow Films dvd/blu-ray restoration of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (release: 20th April 2015).

In one of his many video-essays, What makes a video-essay great?, participant Kevin B. Lee observes that the format’s word-image compression grows increasingly faster. He terms this the rise of hypernarration and wonders if there’s still room for meditation and questioning in video-essays. Critics’ Choice brought the format from the online context into the cinema space, which sure gave it a more reflective quality – skip, pause, rewind or stop are no options. It became a more concentrated, slowed down experience – after all, this was part of De Filmkrant’s Slow Criticism project.

An other one of Lee’s video-essays, Transformers: The Premake – a ‘desktop documentary’, as he calls it –, is exemplary for that interplay between online space and cinema space. This 25’ work screened at the Viennale, in IFFR’s shorts program andthe Berlinale’s Critics’ Week. At IFFR, one could observe a bleed of the video-essay in the shorts and signals section, and the official Critics’ Choice program gave the floor to pioneers Adrian Martin & Cristina Álvarez López and Lee – with over 200 pieces to his credit hailed as the king of the video-essay. The return of Critics’ Choice also coincided with the return to filmmaking, after almost just as many years, of a forerunner in film-as-film-criticism: the Signals Regained section offered the opportunity to discover two world premiering video-essays by Mark Rappaport. Rappaport, a habitué in Rotterdam, is famous for his nineties essayistic hybrids, Rock Hudson’s Home Moviesand From The Journals Of Jean Seberg. The former explores the homosexual subtext in the legendary actor’s filmography; the questioning of cinematic sexism in the latter also runs through his two new works, The Vanity Tables of Douglas Sirk and Becoming Anita Ekberg. Rappaport calls Sirk “the poet laureate of vanity tables in movies.” Through his films he explores the use of this prop as a social commentary on women’s roles in society, but also as an active catalyst in the drama or as a mirror that fills us in with past, present and future. In the less ingenious Becoming Anita Ekberg, he considers how it took a nighttime tour of Rome in one movie (La Dolce Vita) for the actress to graduate from a sex symbol to a bona fide sex goddess, although this didn’t guarantee her a future filled with interesting parts.

Critics’ Choice

In What makes a video-essay great?, Lee raises the question: “What’s valid? What makes the audience believe what the audiovisual critic has to say?” Different strategies are at work in the Critics’ Choice video-essays. Bianca Stigter and Martin & Álvarez López only work with images taken out of the analyzed film itself. Kees Driessen and Rüdiger Suchsland only use footage of other movies than the one they chose, different Ghibli and Weimar films respectively. Hedwig Van Driel combines both approaches by relating Laggies to other fragments of male and ‘new female immaturity’. Once she developed her thesis, the video-essay shifts to the technique of the ‘supercut’ or ‘compilation video’ around the common theme of funny girl dances. Roger Koza also juxtaposes his chosen film, White Out Black In, with other Brazilian films, but adds self-shot footage to the mix. Lee uses more prosaic recorded images in A Chorus to the Love of Film, his video-essay on Roger Ebert, which predates his selected film, the uneven documentary Life Itself. The footage of critics reading Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion is accompanied by scenes from the four films that featured on Ebert’s Sight & Sound ballot from 1982 to 2012 (AguirreCitizen KaneLa Dolce Vita2001).

On the level of commentary, Driessen and Martin & Álvarez López only uses textual inserts. Lee, Van Driel, and Stigter only use voice-over, the latter’s monologue interestingly evolving into a dialogue. Suchsland combines voice-over and intertext. Koza makes use of titles and his own voice, which is edited as a review played on the car radio, but mainly lets the images speak for themselves. He has some experience with intermediality, reviewing books on film for Argentinian television (e.g. the Spanish translation of Bresson par Bresson) using images.

Film scholar Christian Keathley situates the video-essay on a continuum between the ‘explanatory mode’ and the ‘poetical mode’.Christian Keathley (2011). La caméra-stylo: notes on video criticism and cinephilia, In: Alex Clayton & Andrew Klevan (eds.), The Language and Style of Film Criticism, London & New York: Routledge, 180-181. PDF: The former is based on spoken or written language, such as voice-over or text inserts. In the latter the visual component exceeds the verbal one and often features slow motion or freeze frames. Stigter and Koza are the only ones that gravitate towards the poetical mode.

Lee’s contribution, A Chorus to the Love of Film, is itselfa reflection on written and audiovisual, online and print criticism. Nineteen contributors to the Ebert site (among whom Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and Jim Emerson) read aloud four reviews of the legendary critic who in the last years of his life could no longer talk himself. Each of them speaks in his or her own tongue, making a total of ten different languages. Hearing the reviews read without seeing the film fragments, we are forced to recall or just imagine (as was the case with Lee, who read the reviews long before he got to see the films) the “little touches” in Citizen Kane and other movies that Ebert described in his reviews. Coupled with the film fragments, the essay becomes essentially a reading of the scenes.

Aside from Lee, Koza is the other one who, in his video-essay on White Out Black In, deals with film criticism itself, more implicitly than Lee yet still actively. His starting point is American film critic Manny Farber’s concept of space as a dramatic and stylistic entity in cinema. Farber’s interest in space was never developed into a fullblown theory. In his reviews, spatial strategies (dispersed, shallow, lateral, …) are physical as well as psychological or imaginary relationships between people, objects and volumes. Koza revisits places from his own living environment in Argentina that resemble certain locations in the “termite artwork” he chose: “terrains vagues” near highways, bridges and towering constructions. He argues that a poetics of space is always a politics of space and a space of politics.

In their video-essay on the stylistically fascinating Dr Jekyll et les femmes, Martin & Álvarez López too explore physical as well as psychological spaces. If Lee’s piece captured the reading of the written word, here Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter proved the key to connect two ideas in this cult film: its world of objects and interior spaces and the repressed role of women in it. Through the painting, which has no obvious relevance in the film, they are able to trace semantic shifts and little variations on repeating patterns. Vermeer’s painting is unique for its depiction of an interior without corners, floor or ceiling. Similarly, in the film it’s impossible to map the house, which is the film’s single location. Women are associated with flat framing while men move in deep space. The prolific pair again proved themselves both advocates to explore the wilder Mr. Hyde side to the traditional Jekyll-like film criticism, as well as instigators to submerge the discipline in a transformative bath.

Rather than focus on space as Koza and Martin & Álvarez López did, critic and historian Stigter mainly reflected on the notion of time. Through Glenn Kurtz’s book, Three Minutes in Poland (2014), she came across a three-minute 1938 amateur film, available on the website of the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum. In the book, Kurtz investigates this home movie, shot by his grandfather in his native town of Nasielsk, Poland. Less than 100 Jewish people living in the village survived the Holocaust. Rather than the usual condensation of the analyzed film, Stigter instead includes the complete movie in her singular video-essay Three Minutes Thirteen Minutes Thirty Minutes,  and extends it. Three minutes become thirty, not by adding but by reworking the original material. The title card announces “a lengthening”, not only of the existing material, but of these people’s presence. Their story and memory is “saved” a second time, since when Glenn Kurtz discovered the film cannister in his parents’ closet it was only a matter of months before the footage would have disintegrated forever. Stigter rewinds, slows down, freezes and zooms in – even up to the split second when two birds fly over a market square. How she combs through the images is almost symbolic of how a lot of the participating critics described their experience with the video-essay as a more visual and closer way of looking, different from writing, because one has to go through it frame by frame to use editing as a critical eye.

Can one make a video-essay about a private home movie? Does that make it a “found footage” film? In Transformers: The Premake, Lee made use of amateur youtube clips, filmed on the sets of Michael Bay’s upcoming blockbuster. In his list of the best video-essays of 2014, Lee even called Harun Farocki’s Parallel I-IV (2012-2014) one of the most outstanding ones. Parallel doesn’t deal with traditional cinema directly, but is made up of and reflects on computer-animated images in video games, military reconnaissance and industrial films. Farocki presents the work as a four-part video installation. Stigter’s work brought the discussion of what the video-essay is to the foreground. As the Farocki example and Lee & Rappaport’s screenings in regular festival slots show, this discussion also relates to the question “where is the video-essay?” Martin & Álvarez López’s contribution, for example, now appears among the extras of the DVD and Blu-ray restoration of Dr Jekyll et les Femmes, side by side with traditional audio commentary. What and where are the format’s specificities within the broader field of audiovisual film criticism? In that regard, what’s the difference then, between Stigter’s “video-essay” and, for example, filmmaker Péter Forgács Letters to Afar which is at show in the Museum of the City of New York until the end of March? Forgács’s work is a nine-screen video installation composed of pre-WO II amateur movies of Polish Jewish communities. Forgács also freezes images and slows them down. Forgács’ work assumes it speaks for itself, while Stigter and Kurtz give an account of a search in progress, the specific questions posed to the material and their findings. Although not only a micro-historical process of identification, Stigter’s video-essay is also a critical reflection on the photographic nature of the medium.

In turn, Suchsland transformed parts of his documentary or film essay, Von Caligari bis Hitler (2014), into a video-essay by excluding the talking heads and adding text inserts. He’s also more interested in making temporal connections. In his chosen film, Hochhäusler’s The Lies of the Victors, he sees many references to Weimar cinema at play under the surface of contemporary Berlin. Suchsland selects fragments of Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse – der Spieler (1922) and Ruttmann’s Berlin, Die Symphonie der Großstadt (1927). Going beyond Hochhäusler’s debt to 70s paranoia thrillers like The Conversation or the myth of the lone journalist hero in All the President’s Men, Suchsland argues that The Lies of the Victors shares with Weimar cinema the themes of intangible criminal forces, paranoia, manipulation, journalism settings and Mabusian gambling halls.

Berliner Schüle

With Dominik Graf’s Beloved Sisters and Christian Petzold’s Phoenix already in the festival line-up, Suchsland’s programming of Hochhäusler’s film offered the possibility to see the latest work of three “New German cinema” directors at IFFR. Petzold and Hochhäusler, first and second generation of the Berliner Schüle – is that still a thing? – and Graf, the senior and critical bystander of the “movement”.

Hochhäusler acknowledged to Suchsland that he indeed cherishes Fritz Lang and especially his concept of Zeitfilm, a time crystal that reflects the present day. Hochhäusler argued that our time is marked by a lost society looking for a story. So for his film he tried to find “a panoramic frame”: The Lies of the Victors begins and ends with 360 degree camera movements, is structured by pans, set in and shot through glass structures and visually enhanced by the Cinemascope aspect ratio; all stylistic choices that support his belief that our time doesn’t fit narrative triangles.

Beloved Sisters in its turn is all about a love triangle. Graf’s costume drama deals with the relationship between writer Friedrich Schiller, his wife and her sister. Not referencing Weimar cinema, but literally set in Weimar court, Beloved Sisters deals, just as The Lies of the Victors, with a search for truth among a web of lies.

The best of the three films however, is Petzold’s Phoenix, in which a concentration camp survivor, Nina Hoss, literally faces ‘the lies of the victors’.

All three films rely on strong women, even “femme fatales”. Beloved Sisters’s dual emotional battle is strikingly captured in the third-to-last shot, revealing the two sisters’ symmetric silhouettes in the shadows. The woman in Phoenix, who in an even more impressive musical finale finally steps out of the darkness, unites a similar struggle in one persona. She is no longer recognized by her husband due to her facial reconstruction after the war.

At the festival, Petzold referred to the haunting and extraordinary 40” footage from 1945 of a lost German girl, available on YouTube. The deep red and greens of the clip, shot with Agfa color film, were an inspiration for the warm colors in Phoenix. The center of attention is the girl’s face, battered and swollen yet at the same time extremely beautiful and charismatic. It’s easy to see how it must have influenced the story of the return of a disfigured camp survivor who undergoes facial surgery. In Rotterdam, as he did at the premiere in Rome, Petzold talked about this fragment as if it were filmed by the American director Samuel Fuller. Although Fuller was present in 1945 in Czechoslovakia and shot footage of the liberation of the Falkenau concentration camp, there are no indications that he would have shot this scene. However, this lack of factuality makes it even better to hear Petzold imagine how Fuller gave the girl the deck of cards. The Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, where the footage appeared, is part of the same online Holocaust Memorial Museum collection where the source material for Bianca Stigter’s video-essay had been posted. The dynamic costume drama, the political thriller and the ubercinephile noir rubble film show that, just as the video-essay, the Berlin School keeps evolving from its early day minimalism towards genre experimentation.

At an expert panel with artistic directors and festival programmers, which I attended at IFFR, Cintia Gil, co-director of DocLisboa, stressed the importance for a programmer to build contexts as a way to engage with a festival public and a cinephile audience. An independent platform for critics at a festival can be an integral part of this, as Critics’ Choice and the debates in the newborn Berlinale Critics’ Week show. To make an end is to make a beginning / the end is where we start from.


P.S.: During the festival, I’ve written a shorter report on Critics’ Choice that can be found here.