Deaths of Cinema | The Vanishing In memoriam: Gerhard Benedikt Friedl

By Christoph Huber

“Did Wolff von Amerongen commit bankruptcy offences? Or didn’t he?” Gerhard (Benedikt) Friedl’s director’s note may seem somewhat evasive on the question that provides the (great) title of his only feature, Hat Wolff von Amerongen Konkursdelikte begangen? (2004), not to mention his description of the work itself, on which he concludes: “The film vanishes. Its possibility to be experienced is its argument.” Yet, issues of my clunky translation (probably not exacting enough, when Friedl is all about exactness) aside, it drives home a point about the elusiveness that is central to Friedl’s project. “Vanishing” may be the operative word here: the titles of all three of his films conjure uncertainty. Before the titular question of Amerongen, there was the denial of his 1997 debut, Knittelfeld— Stadt ohne Geschichte (“Knittelfeld—Town Without History”), the only film on which Friedl’s credit includes his middle name, and already a fully realized expression of the director’s unique audiovisual aesthetic. His films are densely composed labyrinths, in which precisely photographed everyday views of landscapes and workplaces mysteriously clash with convoluted deadpan voiceovers about histories of crime. The title of Friedl’s final work, Shedding Details (2009, co-directed with Laura Horelli), might even seem programmatic, if the (rather minor) piece itself didn’t mark such a decisive formal break from the previous films, even as it maintains his crucial interest in how stories (and thus, histories) are shaped. Shot on video as “byproduct of a research” and announced by Friedl as a “contract collaboration,” it abandons his powerful puzzle arrangements in favor of a vérité-style account of a complicated interview situation concerning an immigrant cleaning woman just fired by Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Vaguely reminiscent of the analytical studies of business negotiations and conversations that make up a sidebar in the oeuvre of Harun Farocki (a longtime Friedl supporter), Shedding Details is also unusual in giving voice to those lost in the anonymous crowds that populate Friedl’s other work, while being studiously ignored on the soundtrack. Even the hitherto conspicuously absent filmmaker enters the frame to ask questions—but whether this avowed digression might have left any traces will remain forever unanswered, as Friedl ended his life early this July, a couple of weeks before his 42nd birthday. At the time, he was already well into researching a new project that was turning into a film on the history of capitalism, no less, which would have led him into the Caribbean.

Friedl’s death was noted relatively widely in Austria (where he was born), less so in Germany (where he lived), and hardly at all outside of the German-speaking world. Then again, Amerongen was mostly ignored there as well, though it had a certain shadow life (especially as part of the library of the Goethe Institute, which made the film available in English, French, and Spanish versions after it won a main prize sponsored by the institute upon its premiere in Duisburg). Festival politics may have been part of the reason for that neglect, and another the difficulty, maybe impossibility, of achieving an equivalent translation (and voiceover delivery) of his peculiar prose in other languages. But I suspect another reason is that Friedl’s work seems sui generis—in his case, comparisons are misleading rather than helpful, even when a comparable interest in the interactions of landscape imagery and voiceover narration wrongly suggests a surface similarity to certain films of James Benning or the barbed travelogue essays of Patrick Keiller. And given the recent Palme d’Or enthronement of Michael Haneke as the pre-eminent Austro-German auteur, it is worth noting that Friedl’s films—comparably cool and technically accomplished, albeit working in an entirely different register—share a few central concerns and also employ a mystery hook. But Friedl found a form to explore the conundrum completely and playfully, whereas Haneke’s joyless riddles too often smell of expert, but pedagogical, narrative gamesmanship that in essence turns out to be quite generic. Considering, for instance, the issues of media critique and submerged power abuse; what is supposedly hidden in Cache (2006) remains thuddingly obvious, whereas what is vanishing in Amerongen seems all the more pertinent. If anything, Amerongen looks even more visionary in the light of developments during the recent economic crisis, and may be one of the definitive films of the decade.

Still, it makes sense to look at Knittelfeld first, since it is organized according to similar principles, but works on a smaller, more manageable scale—at 35 minutes, it’s roughly half as long as Amerongen. Shot on 16mm around the titular small town in Styria, some 100 kilometres from Friedl’s birthplace of Bad Aussee, it presents—either as static images or as slow pans—anonymous panoramas of a contemporary townscape, its haphazard growth regulated by the smallest possible set of administrative measures: traffic lights, signposts, fire brigade, and ambulance. The succession of crossroads and public places (variously populated spaces in front of restaurants, schools, supermarkets, but also mostly empty areas on the outskirts) seems random and interchangeable—the (slightly) memorable exception being the military airport, for which the region is commonly known in Austria. (Its other noteworthy feature, the occasional Formula One Grand Prix, whose first edition actually took place at the very airport, makes a voiceover appearance). These decidedly unspectacular sights and their ambient sounds are accompanied by a soundtrack recounting the most outrageous of events in a monotone, male voice associated with reassuringly “objective” newscasting. It tells the incredible story of the Pritz family—names changed, according to a final disclaimer—ingeniously laid out as an escalating genealogy of crime: murders, theft, child abuse, you name it. Sudden violence erupts absurdly in the most mundane situations: a random supermarket encounter turns to a brawl, in which one participant promptly stabs the other in the neck with a broken champagne bottle. There’s an undercurrent of macabre humour to the pile-up of disasters, casually matched by the deadpan delivery of a litany carefully styled to resemble official records and, especially, local reporting: “Karl takes the child from its crib, and beats it against furnishings, and throws it against the ceiling.” And so on.

But what is told is beyond belief in more senses than one: hearsay and rumours enter the story. Public opinion interferes with the facts, and it eventually becomes clear that the Pritz family are outsiders who relocated to Knittelfeld. This is indicative of how Friedl further complicates his meticulous voiceovers by creating time loops that aren’t immediately noticeable, and lend a sense of infinity to the proceedings. Yet by the time this labyrinthine dimension dawns upon the audience, it is long caught up in an even more complex maze: the myriad ways in which sound and image start to interlock. Friedl’s films are intricate constructions that toy with the viewer’s craving for cohesion—per one of the many staggering sentences tossed-off during narration that seem applicable to the entire enterprise: “Only a few neighbours remain content with this randomness.” Certain correspondences are immediately highly visible, with Friedl’s non-places designed as ideal projection booths for events playing out on the soundtrack. But mostly, the connections are displaced. For instance, when the narrator recounts the first slaying by two Pritz brothers, that took place in an inn, we see an inn; then we’re told they hid behind a billboard, like one visible in the preceding shot. It seems like a little episode, but this double play with visibility is just the first of many sly variations on Friedl’s key theme of representation, even as an air of quizzical ambivalence is maintained.

On the one hand, the film invites the viewer to “solve” its puzzle by recognizing its oblique demonstration of meaning-generating strategies, but at the same time explodes them. Some of the triggered impulses are inevitably contradictory, and ultimately Friedl’s multifaceted methods of allowing connections—hugely varying time intervals (from near-misses to faraway suggestions) and kaleidoscopic variations of motifs in sound and image—encourage a cross-linking of associations soon bound to extend far beyond what’s represented. (Yet, fascinatingly, they always return with the greatest of ease to another proposed combination). On the other hand, Knittelfeld represents a tongue-in- cheek-inversion of the traditional rural idyll of the Heimatfilm genre, and in a way suggests that the small town’s history is really represented by faits divers that might easily pass for pulp fiction.

This somewhat sinister notion is expanded into a symphony of Pynchonian paranoia as Friedl goes global in Amerongen. Employing 35mm to ravishing effect—the film has such crispness and depth that you might be reminded of Jeff Wall—he culled images from across Europe. Actually, most locations are in Germany, but again interchangeability is crucial—anonymous urban crossings, industrial areas, docks, factory halls, and other workplaces, finance centres and the hinterlands, and the endless roads connecting them: they all seem to belong to the same netherworld. Meanwhile, the dry voiceover (as in Knittelfeld, read by Matthias Hirth) delves deep into the 20th century history of German business tycoons and their clans, their far-reaching criminal involvements and, curiously, their bizarre ailments, suggesting an unfathomable net of worldwide conspiracy. Again, the rapid succession of meticulously researched dates and facts, chock-full with the hilariously long names of noble German businessmen, quickly becomes dubious. It’s impossible to keep track of the tangled mass of detail, especially as the speaker refuses to emphasize the most upsetting events, while supposedly ephemeral data, like the industrialists’ wacky spleens, bleed into one long, unsettling insinuation. Terror, irony, and incredulity become inseparable: Even more than its predecessor, Amerongen is a horror comedy in which absurd paranoia is inscribed on the visible world through torrents of verbiage.

You could also say these are disaster movies, in which the most unsettling aspect of the continuous catastrophe is that it remains invisible. Again, Amerongen seduces the viewer to find correspondences between sound and image, but of course nothing happens that would actually prove or even buttress the foul history of dirty deals, cold-blooded speculation, absurd accidents, and backstabbing intrigues that accompany the rise and fall of business empires. Capital isn’t easily conceptualized as the enemy; it doesn’t become an image, but rather it is suggested as the order which governs over all relationships, and, since there is no other available model, makes everything seem to hang together by default. It is at the same time the blind spot at the centre of the film, and its vantage point—this Pynchonian paradox also explains part of the enigmatic power of Friedl’s work: the further you get drawn in, the further out you get as well. Amerongen manages to induce this contradictory, vertiginous feeling to an almost hypnotic degree throughout, thanks to a masterful design that conjures a sense of constant movement ideally suited to exploring potentially endless interrelationships. In 73 minutes there are 130 shots (not counting the sparse opening and end credits, which are overlaid with sound), 103 of which are either right or left pans or point of view-shots from a moving car; most of the static images show production processes in close-up, so the motion hardly ever ceases. Similarly, the soundtrack is overwhelming with its rapid succession of information parcelled out to be reassembled at will, the narration’s conflicting tabloid and investigative aspects simply conjoined like commodities from the moguls’ product lines (some listed in exhaustive detail, from medicine to ammunition).

The interplay of sound and image is even more intricate, with Friedl repeatedly cutting mid-sentence—sometimes mid-word—to fascinating effect. While the voiceover gives us a first chronicle of the establishment of a company, the image changes to shots of houses under construction, with certain words suggesting almost specific figures of speech that in conjunction conjure a third meaning. A nagging question remains of how much is lost in translation, despite the simple language, since Friedl’s use of it is so refined and witty. I recently looked at the English dubbed version and it indeed was a different experience: The narration is appropriately bland, but unfavourably mutes the original’s strong undercurrents of horror and humour; some of the latter is irreproducable, anyway (just compare the delicious tongue-twister “Frachtschiff für Frostfisch” with “cargo ship for frozen fish”). And the rapid-fire voiceover of the Spanish dub stressed me out so much, I quit immediately. Still, the dialectical audiovisual arrangement is mind-bogglingly complex. Werner Dütsch, former stalwart commissioning editor of Westdeutscher Rundfunk (also responsible for films by Straub/Huillet, Bitomsky, Benning, Farocki, and more), has given an invaluable account of the film’s three-year gestation as an increasingly obsessive one-man operation, with the original project titled Dead Work constantly, painstakingly revised. (Friedl is credited as director, producer, writer, cameraman, and editor). The insights are quite surprising—for instance, the original plan was to actually include photos of persons, places, and events mentioned in the voicover, which clearly would have made a substantial difference. But the quintessential moment comes when Dütsch describes his viewing of a first rough cut with the skeptical director: They quickly agree, that it contains passages of “too much synchronicity” between image and sound, so the decision is made to “de-tort.” Friedl makes a formal mission statement: “Word and image fall short of each other.” Dütsch’s dry summation of the ensuing process, in which entire passages are eliminated, as tiny details are changed: “Each new cut, each moved piece of text changes the semantic fields visibly and audibly. An alarming amount of possibilities emerge, which Friedl will go through with adamant discontent.”

The resulting virtuoso game of deception—or is it? —caters to our desire for narrative closure, and while not exactly frustrating it, Friedl is diverting our attention to how we habitually collude in the deception. The way that key motifs of Knittelfeld (like military airports, now quickly associated with shady arms deals) are incorporated into Amerongen suddenly recalls a sentence in the earlier film: “In this year, 1977, Upper Styria is also in the grip of the worldwide crisis in metal production.” But even as a silent anger in the juxtaposition of anonymous working subjects with the elite’s escapades comes through loud and clear, it also becomes apparent that the crisis Amerongen deals with is not primarily economical, but rather representational. It exposes the prevailing impotence to map out the unclear and unseen links of modern economy by taking it to absurd heights. Friedl’s strategies are thus also artful exaggerations of the distracting means mass media, especially television, use to “inform” without actually explaining, thus making us conscious of our contribution to the vanishing of consciousness. (In a diabolically good detail, a bank glimpsed—while a completely different one is mentioned—turns out to be the one sponsoring a shoot later seen: it’s for “geldactiv,” a commercial TV program made to appear like unprejudiced business consultation.) Who tells the stories that shape our impersonal, ghostly, aimlessly productive wasteland? Or, to return to Friedl’s opening statement, in which evasion characteristically points towards enlightenment: The question is not whether Wolff von Amerongen did commit bankruptcy offences, but, rather, who has the power to decide?

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