March 20 to April 7, 2010
Romuald Karmakar, born in 1965, is one of the towering figures produced by the German cinema. His consistently exciting analysis of life in Germany and his formal precision have secured him a unique position in European film. The response to his work in other countries (and in other artistic disciplines) seems to be stronger than at home where the official film industry has remained suspicious of his non-conformism. Karmakar, who spent his school years at the German School in Athens and his military service in the French army, feels more in tune with the exiles and “foreign legionnaires” of German cinema (or with American mavericks like John Cassavetes and Monte Hellman) than with the established film business of the Berlin Republic.
Karmakar’s first feature, Eine Freundschaft in Deutschland (1985), starts with a phrase that can be applied to the entirety of his work: “In this film, everything that is documentary is true, and everything that is fiction is not necessarily false.” Traditional boundaries between modes of film are less important to him than the passionate quest for repressed or neglected themes – and the development of a sharpened and resistant form. Applying his deep-drill machinery to many sensitive areas, Karmakar has created some of the key films in the last two decades. Das Himmler-Projekt (2000) is a prime example. The actor Manfred Zapatka recites a notorious three-hour speech by Heinrich Himmler, but there is no attempt at historicist “reconstruction”. Instead, the audience becomes part of a re-concretization of history – a performative act which places the film squarely in opposition to the prevailing discourse about the Nazi era (as well as the “Bonn Republic” that followed).
Karmakar’s early work – Eine Freundschaft in Deutschland (with Karmakar playing Adolf Hitler), or the auto-erotic apotheosis Candy Girl (1984) – already shows a highly independent aesthetic, his main interests at the time being punk music, soccer, and the history of cinema. The following three shorts made his name: Coup de boule, Gallodrome, and Hunde aus Samt und Stahl (1987-89) triggered a very public debate over Karmakar’s preference for “intolerable” subjects and characters. With his epic documentary Warheads (1992), this confrontation reached an early climax: For the more pedagogically minded parts of his audience, Karmakar’s unbiased portrayal of two soldiers of fortune was hard to accept. The people he films are not 'pre-classified' via commentary or written text, and are not relegated to easy moral or political categories. Which is exactly what makes his work so rich: Karmakar forces himself to look at the world with wide-open eyes and allows himself to be led astray – not by evil but by the profusion and the contradictions of lives lived under a different set of ethics.
It is precisely this refusal to prejudge his subjects which also characterizes Karmakar as a fiction filmmaker. The chamber-piece Der Totmacher (1995) about an imprisoned serial killer in the 1920s is emblematic of his work with historical sources – and of his understanding of the actor’s role: a probe that can be lowered into the text. Karmakar’s ethos of filmic construction makes no distinction between the underlying materials: literary texts are worked through and staged with the same meticulousness as archival documents. Das Frankfurter Kreuz (1998), an adaptation of Jörg Fauser’s radio play, and Manila (2000), his masterful collaboration with the writer Bodo Kirchhoff, are equally strong examples. With Manila, Karmakar presents a choral tragicomedy about air travelers in a state of waiting and wasting away – a disturbing cross section of German society at the dawn of the millennium. This was followed by Die Nacht singt ihre Lieder (2004): a dance of death between two people frozen with alienation. Adapted from a play by Jon Fosse, the film represents a high-water mark of Karmakar’s lifelong preoccupation with language and/as music.
The Himmler project allowed the director to free himself from the constraints and delays of the film subsidy system: since then, he has almost single-handedly produced a steady series of challenging digital documentaries. Hamburger Lektionen (2006) extends the methods used in the Himmler film: Manfred Zapatka’s performance now reveals the deadly rhetoric in the “lectures” of an influential Imam, given in a Hamburg mosque where some of the 9/11 perpetrators-to-be were regular visitors. Land der Vernichtung (2004), which resulted from Karmakar’s research for a fiction film about Nazi war crimes, delivers a harrowing essay on memory and its denial – in the year when Downfall made the headlines. In a parallel movement, the director has followed his passion for techno and electronic music, exploring this cinematically uncharted terrain with a groundbreaking trilogy. 196 bpm (2002), Between the Devil and the Wide Blue Sea (2005) and Villalobos (2009) give us a direct and unapologetic representation of how music is produced, performed and experienced. Like everything in Karmakar’s cinema, these films reveal unexpected truths as they listen to a world which might otherwise have remained closed.
The retrospective will be held in cooperation with the Diagonale in Graz, where a selection of Karmakar’s work will be presented. Romuald Karmakar and Manfred Zapatka will be guests in Vienna and Graz. They will offer workshops, lectures and introduce films.
The book, “Romuald Karmakar,” by Olaf Möller and Michael Omasta (Volume 13 in the series FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen), will be presented in Graz on March 19 and in Vienna on March 21.