Fifty years ago a group of young German filmmakers signed a manifesto. There were 26 of them in total, an assortment of directors, writers, cinematographers and animators who had gathered at that year’s International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen. Collectively they became known as the Oberhausen Group (or Oberhausener) and their manifesto the Oberhausen Manifesto. The gist of their statement was that conventional cinema in Germany was in decline, leaving room for an alternative. The various signatories had already begun to work in the short film format, winning awards and international attention, and it was they who would forge a new approach and style. “Film needs to be independent,” read the final paragraph, “Free from all the usual conventions of the industry. Free from control of commercial partners. Free from the dictates of shareholders. […] Conventional film is dead. We believe in the new film.”
Nowadays the Oberhausen Group is best known for spearheading the New German Cinema movement. In 1966 came the release of both Volker Schlöndorff’s Young Törless and Alexander Kluge’s Yesterday Girl, their arrival seemingly triggering a whole influx of filmmaking talent. The next few years would also see the feature debuts of Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Margarethe von Trotta, all of whom would help define their national cinema for some time to come. And yet, with the exception of Kluge, none of them belonged to the Oberhausen Group. In fact, if you’re looking for recognisable names among the signatories then it is entirely likely that only Kluge and Edgar Reitz, the director of Heimat, will ring any bells to non-German audiences. That effectively leaves 24 filmmakers whose output and careers remain practically unknown. Furthermore the fact that it took five years from the Manifesto being signed to a full-length feature emerging creates another gap. What of the films produced during the interim period and why aren’t they better known?
Die Oberhausener, Edition Filmmuseum’s recent two-disc compilation, sets about bridging some of these spaces. It encompasses 19 short films, all made between the years 1958 and 1965, and takes into account each of the 26 signatories. Put simply, it’s an invaluable release. Not only does it reveal an area of cinema history that has remained practically unseen for the past half-century, but it also reveals it to be one of immense quality and significance. Just as importantly the historical importance extends beyond the cinematic and into the social. The vast majority of these shorts are non-fiction and as such provide a fascinating insight into the attitudes and outlook of Germany’s post-war generation.
Of course, those who were coming of age during the late fifties and early sixties became cinematic subjects the world over. On the surface there isn’t much to choose between the young teenagers of a British documentary such as Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson’s Momma Don’t Allow and those who populate the coffee bar in Herbert Vesely’s Menschen im Espresso (People in Cafés). Both films are fascinated by youth in front of their cameras and the burgeoning cultures that surround them. They also share the same vérité style and off-the-cuff approach; as Menschen im Espresso puts it, this is “a film of moments” capturing aspects “on the periphery of interest”. It doesn’t focus on the main event because the main event would be too broad a project. Instead it provides its own little contribution to the bigger picture, dwelling on the minutiae of its chosen location and serving as a compelling slice of history as a result.
Speaking of Momma Don’t Allow, it’s surprising how often the films on Die Oberhausener recall those of the Free Cinema movement. Both were closely tied to manifestos (Free Cinema had a different one each programme; the first declaring “No film can be too personal”) and both had a habit of existing somewhere between experimental cinema and industrial filmmaking. Reisz was able to finance Every Day Except Christmas and We Are the Lambeth Boys through his position within the Ford Motor Company. Meanwhile, in Germany, Ferdinand Khittl was transforming a straightforward commission about sound recording – Das magische Band (The Magic Ribbon) from 1959 – into a dazzling visual overload as well as a meditation on the tensions between the past and the present. Further Free Cinema associations abound in Manfred Burzlaff Septett’s wonderful jazz score for Hansjürgen Pohland’s Schatten (Shadows), which recalls Johnny Dankworth’s efforts for We Are the Lambeth Boys, and in the sardonic travelogues of Moskau Ruft! (Moscow is Calling!) and in Es muß ein Stück vom Hitler sein (It Must Be a Piece of Hitler). Needless to say documentaries showing up the false public face of Soviet Russia or the commercial appeal of Hitler’s bunker complex have a touch more justification than Lindsay Anderson’s sour (and incredibly snobbish) account of the working classes on holiday in O Dreamland.
Es muß ein Stück vom Hitler sein highlights the key difference between the Oberhausen Group and their fellow international filmmakers, namely that of coming to terms with their country’s recent past. The Second World War haunts many of the short films on Die Oberhausener – some subtly, others explicitly. In Edgar Reitz’s Kommunikation (Communication), for example, it’s impossible to ignore the bullet hole-ridden walls and the barbed wire, even if this is a promotional film for the German postal service. Brutalität in Stein (Brutality in Stone), by Alexander Kluge and Peter Schamoni, tackles such images head-on, its camera coldly surveying the abandoned architecture of the Third Reich as it existed in 1961. Plakate der Weimarer Republik (Posters of the Weimar Republic) is a straightforward warning-from-history documentary by Haro Senft detailing the rise of the Nazi Party, whilst animator Wolfgang Urchs opts for political fable in Das Unkraut (Weeds).
There is also a strong showing for that very specifically German concept, Heimat. It inspired its own genre within the national cinema – the audience-pleasing Heimatfilme – though the Oberhausen Group’s take was much less sentimental. Whereas a typical entry would venerate their rural settings and focus on community and family, a documentary such as Notizen aus dem Altmühltal (Notes from the Altmühltal) by Hans Rolf Strobel and Heinrich Tichawsky emphasises the declining populations due to migration and notes how such places come with “a lot of past [but] not much present or future”. Similar sentiments are evoked in Christian Doermer’s Granstein, plus it’s impossible to view any of these films without recalling the most famous work of any of the signatories, Reitz’s Heimat. Indeed, its second series, Der zweite Heimat, was loosely based on its director’s own student days and his friendships with fellow artists, from whom we can draw parallels with the Oberhausener.
The artists in Der zweite Heimat were a diverse bunch. The central figure, Hermann Simon, is an experimental composer, though he crosses paths with actors, painters, filmmakers, philosophers and so forth. One of these characters was quite clearly based on Raimond Ruehl, who died in a boating accident aged just 33 and with only three short films to his name. He’s represented on Die Oberhausener by Salinas, an ethnographic account of the men who work the salt fields in Spain. Exquisitely shot and impeccably framed by Pitt Koch (whose Glühendes Eiland Kreta [The Sun-Baked Island of Crete] also features on this set), it understands perfectly the power of the visual. Ruehl uses voice-over only sparingly, instead putting all of his trust into the black and white imagery and in doing so producing a stunning piece of cinema.
Among the other highpoints is Detten Schleiermacher’s trab trab (trot trot), a precise and elegant account of a racecourse. It does so without narration or images of either horses or patrons; everything we see has been captured either pre- or post-race. Just as impressive is Rob Houwer’s Anmeldung (Registration) which casts its eye on an old peoples’ home. One of just a handful of titles on Die Oberhausener to have been filmed in colour, it also contains the most haunting image of them all: an eerie, disquieting shot of numerous residents all peering out of their windows simultaneously, all silent, all looking heartbreakingly lonely. Were this a horror film it would be terrifying, as it is it strikes a more melancholy chord.
Yet picking highpoints is a largely redundant act. The quality across these 19 shorts is exceptionally high with even the odd weak entry proving justifying its inclusion for other reasons. Ultimately, Die Oberhausener is far greater than the sum of its parts and succeeds on a number of levels. As a piece of cinematic history it is vital. As a slice of social history it is just an important. As a compilation of outstanding short films it contains plenty of gems. And as a primer for a whole host of filmmakers practically unknown outside of their home country it cannot be bested. Whilst Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz have been exceptionally well-served by DVD, the same cannot be said for the other 24 signatories. (Though please be aware that Ferdinand Khittl’s Die Parallelstraße was released by Edition Filmmuseum in 2010.) In this respect Die Oberhausener should be seen as a jumping off point – once viewed it leaves you with 24 new filmmakers and careers in eager need of exploration.
Die Oberhausener splits its 19 films (plus one fragment, Stunde X [Hour X] by Bernhard Dörries) over two discs. Each disc also contains an extra apiece, whilst the second houses some DVD-ROM materials for those seeking additional context. Encoded for all regions, this release also contains optional subtitles in English, French, Spanish and Russian as well as German.
In terms of presentation the standards are very high. Of course, the quality differs from short to short, plus we must take into account the fact that some make heavy use of archive footage, though it’s hard not to be mostly impressed. Certainly, Pitt Koch’s exceptional photography for Salinas stands out as much as it should, likewise Wolf Wirth’s efforts for trab trab. The colour titles are similarly striking and, for the most part, damage and wear are minimal throughout. There are a couple of rougher looking shorts, as you would expect, though never to any distracting degree. All films comes in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and with original mono soundtracks.
Extras consist of two documentaries out of archive, both which take the Oberhausen Group and New German Cinema as their subjects: “…Geist und ein wenig Glück” (“…Spirit and a Little Luck”) from 1965 and Die Erben von Papas Kino (The Heirs of Daddy’s Cinema) from 1968. In each case we get interviews with many of the Oberhausen Group plus, in the case of the latter, some of those who followed in their footsteps. Indeed, Die Erben von Papas Kino contains a glimpse of a very young Werner Herzog, here predicting the rise of home video long before the technology entered the mainstream. Both documentaries offer plenty of context and background information which is ably supplemented by the multi-lingual illustrated booklet and DVD-ROM features. Note, however, that some of the facsimiles are unavoidably in German only.
Menschen im Espresso (1958, d. Herbert Vesely)
Schicksal einer Oper (1958, ds. Bernhard Dörries, Edgar Reitz, Stefan Meuschel)
Glühendes Eiland Kreta (1958, d. Pitt Koch)
Das magische Band (1959, d. Ferdinand Khittl)
Moskau ruft! (1959, d. Peter Schamoni)
Stunde X [fragment] (1959, d. Bernhard Dörries)
Trab Trab (1959, d. Detten Schleiermacher)
Salinas (1960, d. Raimond Ruehl)
Schatten (1960, d. Hansjürgen Pohland)
Brutalität in Stein (1961, ds. Peter Schamoni, Alexander Kluge)
Kommunikation (1961, d. Edgar Reitz)
Notizen aus dem Altmühltal (1961, ds. Hans Rolf Strobel, Heinrich Tichawsky)
Plakate der Weimarer Republik (1962, d. Haro Senft)
Süden im Schatten (1962, d. Franz-Josef Spieker)
Das Unkraut (1962, d. Wolfgang Urchs)
Es muß ein Stück vom Hitler sein (1963, d. Walter Krüttner)
Anmeldung (1964, d. Rob Houwer)
Marionetten (1964, d. Boris von Borresholm)
Granstein (1965, d. Christian Doermer)
"...Geist und ein wenig Glück" (1965, d. Ulrich Schamoni)
Die Erben von Papas Kino (1968, d. Wilhelm Roth)
This could very well be the DVD release of the year, reckons Anthony Nield.