‘Simplicity Is the Thing I’m After’: The Documentary Cinema of Peter Nestler

Martin Brady

Tags: Contexts, Journal

Contexts / 29.10.2012

Peter Nestler, Von Griechenland (From Greece), 1965, 16mm, black and white, 28min, film still. Courtesy the artist

Simplicity may not be the first quality that springs to mind when thinking or writing about Germany cinema – it is, to borrow a phrase from Brecht, an ‘easy thing so hard to achieve’.1 It is, however, the elusive goal documentary film-maker Peter Nestler has been striving for since his first short film exactly fifty years ago (Am Siel [By the Sluice Dike], 1962). It is also the quality, perhaps, which goes some way to explaining the unwarranted neglect that Nestler’s fifty or more films have suffered both in Germany and abroad – and that, despite the now famous claim of Jean-Marie Straub, in 1968, that Nestler was ‘the most important film-maker in Germany since the war’.2 Indeed Straub’s declaration was by no means the first: as early as 1965 the eminent French film critic Michel Delahaye had described Nestler as ‘the greatest documentarist’ of his time, whilst also acknowledging that few had even heard of him.3 Perhaps, he speculated, the seemingly accidental appearance of a graffito calling on passers-by to ‘Join the German Communist Party’, glimpsed briefly in Nestler’s atmospheric portrait of an industrial German town (Mülheim (Ruhr), 1964), may have had something to do with his obscurity. As it turned out, Delahaye’s remark was prescient: following attacks on the leftist politics of his work, at the 1966 Oberhausen Short Film Festival and elsewhere, television commissions dried up in Germany and Nestler was forced to emigrate to Sweden in December of that year.

1 Bertolt Brecht, ‘Lob des Kommunismus’, Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe (ed. Werner Hecht, Jan Knopf, Werner Mittenzwei and Klaus-Detlef Müller) Berlin, Weimar and Frankfurt a.M.: Aufbau and Suhrkamp, 1988–2000, vol.11, p.234. All translations from the German the author’s.

2 Straub’s remarks were made in an interview published in Filmkritik, vol.10, 1968, pp.688–694: p.694.

3 Michel Dalahaye, ‘Allemagne, ciné zéro’, Cahiers du cinéma, vol.163, 1965, pp.59–67.

Peter Nestler in collaboration with Zsóka Nestler, Zigeuner sein (Being Gypsy), 1970, 16mm, black and white, 47min, film still. Courtesy the artists

Things have not changed that much over the last five decades in terms of his reputation at home, despite a succession of groundbreaking documentaries, many commissioned and screened on Swedish television, although the release this year of a long-overdue five-DVD box set of his most important works may finally bring his work to greater attention. This fine new edition – complemented by the forthcoming retrospective at the Goethe-Institut and Tate Modern in London – helpfully subdivides Nestler’s substantial body of work into a number of categories including: ‘The Poetic Early Works’; ‘The Persecuted and Persecutors’; ‘History and Memory’; and ‘Nature and Culture’. Seeing these films together is a revelation: an alternative history of post-War Europe in general, and Germany in particular, in which marginalised and oppressed groups are given a voice through personal testimony, historical exegesis and carefully collected and presented documentary evidence – from Greek, Vietnamese and Spanish freedom fighters (Von Griechenland [From Greece], 1965; Bilder von Vietnam [Images from Vietnam], 1972; Spanien! [Spain!], 1973, see right) to Roma persecuted and hidden from view on the margins of West Germany’s booming cities (in the devastating Zigeuner sein [Being Gypsy], 1970).

Peter Nestler, A Working Men's Club in Sheffield, 1965, 16mm, black and white, 41min, film still. Courtesy the artist

From the outset Nestler turned to places and issues others were ignoring. The earliest films, in black and white, are austerely poetic and generally brief – rather in the manner of British Free Cinema documentaries, the earliest works of French nouvelle vague and the first auteurist shorts of the New German Cinema directors Alexander Kluge and Straub-Huillet; they are essayistic in form and almost breathless in their profusion of faces, streets, landscapes and places of work. The diversity is astounding: whilst Ödenwaldstetten (1964) is an informative and photographically rich study of social and land-use change in rural Swabia, the most celebrated film of this period, A Working Men's Club in Sheffield (1965) is a detailed, occasionally melancholic, but often delightful portrait of a worker's club in Sheffield, complete with bingo evenings and a star turn by a black crooner.

Perhaps the most important transition in Nestler's work is from this early auteurist period to the more confrontational, explicitly political work of the late 1960s and 70s, with its unwavering emphasis on social injustice and the need to oppose it. The poetic compositions and rhythms of the early work give way to a more direct, 'simple' style, characterised by a plethora of documentary evidence both recent and historical (often including photographs), painstaking attention to framing and rhythm and an explanatory voice-over commentary (more often than not the resonant voice of Nestler himself, a sometimes urgent, at other times reflective presence that softens with age). Im Ruhrgebiet (In the Ruhr Region, 1967) heralds this shift towards increasing politicisation, capturing in meticulous detail the uncomfortable parallels between Germany's fascist past and its current mistreatment of local and migrant workers. In the Ruhr Region in turn paves the way for such films as Ausländer. Teil 1. Schiffe und Kanonen (Foreigners. Part 1. Ships and Guns, 1976–77), a persuasive study of the unholy alliance of heavy industry and the arms trade that is more than a little reminiscent of Brecht's seminal War Primer (1955), his collection of newspaper photographs and acerbic poetic commentary exposing the capitalist bedrock of modern warfare.

Peter Nestler, Am Siel (By the Dike Sluice), 1962, 35mm, black and white, 13min, film still. Courtesy the artist

Nestler’s films of the late 1960s and 70s are often compared with those of his friends and allies Straub and Danièle Huillet (he appeared in their first Schoenberg film, Einleitung zu Arnold Schoenbergs Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene [Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene’], 1972), reading a Brecht text on the bond between fascism and capitalism, and in 2006 made a brief homage to them for German television). During this period Straub and Huillet’s meticulous, sometimes severe method of documentary realism became a yardstick for measuring the rigour of Brechtian, political cinema (so-called ‘Godard-Straub’ film-making). Despite the political kinship, and on occasion a whiff of the relentless didacticism present in the more hard-line Straub-Huillet films, Nestler’s documentaries are rather different: more direct and topical, less literary and ascetic, more informative and educational. It is perhaps this latter quality, the films’ desire to clarify and enlighten, which has made them less immediately attractive to film theorists in search of an inimitably precise, sometimes difficult, programme of the kind espoused by Straub and Huillet. The comparisons are nonetheless revealing, and the retrospective in London includes a handful of Straub-Huillet films to allow audiences to draw their own conclusions: the Schoenberg film will be seen alongside two of Nestler’s most agitational works, From Greece and Being Gypsy; Straub-Huillet’s L’Itinéraire de Jean Bricard (Itinerary of Jean Bricard, 2008), a brief political history of the Loire region, will accompany two of Nestler’s ‘river films’, By the Dike Sluice and Die Donau rauf (Up the Danube, 1969), an uncovering of historical strata rather in the manner of Alexander Kluge’s famous patriot and history teacher Gabi Teichert in the collective film Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978), who struggles to ‘see things in context’.

Context (Zusammenhang in German) is as much a key concept for Nestler as it is for the film-maker, author and Adorno student Kluge. It is synonymous with knowledge and enlightenment. Like the radical historian envisaged by Walter Benjamin in his last essay, ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940), Nestler sees his task as launching ‘a tiger’s leap into the past’ to uncover, rather in the manner of a revolutionary archaeologist, the past’s hidden and suppressed truths with the intention of deploying them as weapons against contemporary injustice and amnesia.1 Here, perhaps, we find the real affinity with Straub and Huillet. Nestler’s films are invariably what Gilberto Perez once termed ‘a document of documents’ – practical instances of Benjamin’s explosive materialist historiography;2 again it was Straub
who most succinctly characterised Nestler’s film-making by quoting Brecht: ‘Unearthing truth from beneath the rubbish heap of the self-evident, explicitly connecting the individual to the general, identifying what matters in the grand scheme of things, that is the art of the realist.’3

1 In Pedro Costa’s and Thierry Lounas’s 6 Bagatelas (6 Bagatelles, 2001) Straub quotes the same phrase (‘der Tigerspring ins Vergangene’) in describing the communist utopia in his and Huillet’s Hölderlin adaptation Der Tod des Empedokles oder Wenn dann der Erde Grün von neuem euch erglänzt (The Death of Empedokles, 1986). For the original phrase see Walter Benjamin, ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’, in Illuminationen, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977, pp.251–63; p.259.

2 Gilberto Perez, ‘The Modernist Cinema: The History Lessons of Straub and Huillet’, in The Cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet [sic], ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum, programme booklet for a retrospective of the films of Straub-Huillet at The Public Theatre, New York: The Public Theatre, 1982, pp.9–14; p.12.

3 Straub in the 1968 interview (see note 1, first page). For Brecht’s original definition see B. Brecht, Couragemodell 1949, in Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, op. cit., vol.25, pp.169–398; p.240.

Peter Nestler, Die Nordkalotte (The North Calotte), 1990–91, 16mm, colour, 90 min, film still. Courtesy the artist

In a film interview with Christoph Hübner (included in the DVD box and also being screened in London), Nestler claimed disarmingly that his method consists of little more than ‘framing and cutting’. Although this modest-sounding strategy is, self-evidently, grounded in a sophisticated understanding of film’s power to instruct and persuade, Nestler’s recent, frequently feature-length works are certainly more direct than ever, achieving the simplicity Nestler has set as his ultimate goal. Particularly notable is the absence of that metatextual inwardness which characterises so many postmodern essay films. The devastating, relentless indictment of environmental destruction in his portrait of the Arctic homeland of the Sami, Die Nordkalotte (The North Calotte, 1990–91), is an early, harrowing example of Nestler’s single-minded lucidity; more recent ones include the revelatory, and frequently enchanting portrait of Hungarian folk artists, painters and sculptors (Zeit [Time], 1992) – undoubtedly one of his finest achievements – and the portrait of one of the few survivors of the 1943 uprising in Sobibór extermination camp, Thomas (Toivi) Blatt, in Die Verwandlung des guten Nachbarn (The Metamorphosis of the Good Neighbour, 2002). On one level a straightforward if astonishing re-telling of Blatt’s remarkable escape and survival, Nestler’s film is also a psychological, ethical and political investigation into the motivations and emotions underpinning discrimination and persecution. Nestler follows Blatt on two trips to Poland in search of traces of his life and intercuts this historical odyssey with an analysis of the motivations of Blatt’s persecutors by a Swedish psychoanalyst, Ludvig Igra, who speaks directly to the camera in measured, idiomatically precise English. Reflecting on the ways in which the Nazis dehumanised the Jews, degrading them to the status of animals and detritus, Igra contrasts these acts of violence with the support and protection offered to Blatt by some of those he encountered on his flight. He comes to the startling conclusion that ‘cruel acts need thought and ideology; goodness, it seems, just happens but with an enormous force and conviction’. Again it is the simplicity of this conclusion, and the words and images through which it is expressed, which astonish almost more than anything else.

Peter Nestler, Die Hasen fangen und braten den Jäger (The Hares Catch and Roast the Hunter), 1966, film still. Courtesy the artist

Clarity and directness characterise Nestler’s unique and compelling voice as a documentarist, along with a remarkable ability to surprise: in 1996, for example, he made a starkly beautiful animated short using his own charcoal drawings to accompany a sixteenth-century story by the German Meistersinger Hans Sachs, Die Hasen fangen und braten den Jäger (The Hares Catch and Roast the Hunter), in which, as the title suggests, the persecuted liberate themselves magnificently from their persecutor. ‘A gentle ruler will be loved by his people’ is Sachs’s conclusion – shared, one senses, by Nestler himself.