Berlin 10/90 (1990) and Notre nazi (1984)
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History as many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities.
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems
The cinema of Robert Kramer is traveled by consistent articulations between politics and subjectivity and by a creative usage of audiovisual language and technology. These spheres traverse Kramer’s filmography and are inseparable from formal research that should not be understood as formalism, constituting, instead, a “cunning passage” to a lived cinema in which subjective experience and memories infiltrate history and politics.
In Berlin 10/90 (1990), “crossroads of world history and personal phantoms”2 emerge from an experimental conception of the sequence shot and from the overcoming of this film form. Therefore, the notions and practices of compression and juxtaposition are central to this performative film. On the one hand, there is spatial compression, since the bathroom’s scenographic space synecdochically refers to Berlin’s geography while convoking the cartography of Kramer’s cinema. A cinema of displacement both in space and in time, in which the act of changing location, the translation from one point to another, is more important than the effectiveness of the displacement. However, within the unity of the sequence shot, there is compression of the temporal layer and the diegetic lines.
This essay film is structured by a principle of juxtaposition between opposed and apparently irreconcilable temporalities. Different temporalities and spatialities are placed side by side through the editing sequence presented on the television screen sitting on the floor, whose fragmentary scenes coexist within the temporal and spatial unity of the sequence shot. In this way, there is a juxtaposition between the images of East Berlin and those of the collapse of the Socialist Republics (“the end of utopia… of the same idea of utopia”3) in this film within the film (there is always a film within the film in Kramer’s cinema). These are amid images of intimate spaces, such as those of Erika, the filmmaker’s wife, studying German as a sign of time “that is moving away from us so fast.”4 This juxtaposition strategy allows Kramer to expose his unlived memories of Berlin. These memories convoke questions of filiation and heritage. Indirect memory is represented insofar as it is incarnated.
A dissociative conception of image’s presentation and representation organizes Berlin 10/90. Certain images are represented while others seem to be just presented. The images on the television screen stand out as a display, a fragile presence made of associative leaps, whereas the external images inscribe themselves in the horizon of experience as a visual representation for a stream of consciousness. The technological mediation is not only a means to overcome the sequence shot’s rigidity and to relate the frame and the off-screen space. It also points to a difficulty to represent the phenomenological experience of time. Furthermore, it draws a conflict between interiority and exteriority. It establishes a mise en abyme between the sequence shot and the editing sequence on the screen, but also a coincidence between the filming body and the filmed object. The off-screen space tends to be reduced and then eliminated. It is reduced through the editing sequence on the screen that juxtaposes spaces and times. It tends to be abolished through the off camera’s update into the shot. While filming, Kramer introduces himself in the frame, first only the legs, then the entire body, to iconoclastically conclude by covering the lens. This gesture — or this politics of sequence shot enabled by video’s technological specificities — overcomes the modernist self-reflexive practice of “to show and to show myself showing”5 adding a third term to this logic: the simultaneity and the formal continuity of being shown and showing. In the article Snap Shots, Kramer establishes an analogy between the process of seeing himself from the outside and his politicization during his youth: “…imprisoned in myself, yes, but moving the camera, changing its angle, it was possible to see me from the outside, to be simultaneously inside and outside the egg”.6 This one-way exposure of the self to the passage of time and duration is not only a movement of awareness and understanding but also a statement on cinema’s ontology.
“No time waste now, Robert.”7 The bathtub’s strain, insistently framed during the last minutes of the film, could be a metaphor for the exposure to time and duration within the compressed temporal unity of the sequence shot, as an attempt to hold time. The excerpts on the screen show the bathtub filled with water, a body, Erika, while in the sequence shot there is water and then there isn’t, just the strain, a void, in a clear evocation of Heraclitus. The equivalent of this emptiness could be the waterfall’s liquid plenitude in Milestones’ (Kramer and John Douglas, 1975) final sequence, a film that is dedicated to a political community, “to all of us,”8 and to the Vietnamese people. “Just this: love is all that we have to hold us back from the slow slide.”9 Again, there is an affirmation of subjectivity as a means — a political means —of detaining the void of time.
Doc's Kingdom (1987)
From In the Country (1966) to Cités de la plaine (2001), the cinema of Robert Kramer tries to relink the self to the other, to restore the unity between subjectivity and the community, the subject and history. In the context of American historical individualism, this political gesture is paradoxically enacted through the affirmation of subjectivity and subjective narrative models, sometimes very close to self-portrait’s dialectics, as in Dear Doc (1990), and the adoption of film forms distant from the disciplined forms of militant cinema. In the same article mentioned before, Kramer identifies the experience sharing as the basis for his work — “I was led to believe that it was less interesting to tell something to someone than to create a space where the experience could be shared”—,10 pointing to the idea of a subjective revolution that would be intertwined with political changing —“…sharing of the experience, new ways of intimacy, a new sexuality, a new language, a different sense of family and community that was being developed.”11 This political conception is closer to Marx and Engels early writings, which were by then being discovered, than to the philosophers’ mature theory: communism would be the historical moment of unification of subjectivity and collectivity in a fertile relationship.
The interrogation of the correlation between subjectivity and politics, together with the affirmation of revolution as a process of subjectivation and the invention of new ways of experience would imply the creation of new film forms. One of the characters of Milestones, looking back at the militant experience of the 1960s, states that “the most important was that we realized that a revolution was not a series of incidents, but the all life.”12 The idea of a new political community is formally represented in the cinema of Kramer: “A different experience requires different movements of camera…;13 “Life precedes films, and my cinema is the expression of an attempt to live differently.”14
The effort to inscribe cinema in Lebenspraxis begins with group’s representations in films such as The Edge (1968) or Ice (1969) and continues after Kramer moves to Europe in the late 1970s (particularly, in his video work) through discursive modalities very close to self-portrait. For Gabriel Boschi, in the cinema of Kramer, “the usage of audiovisual machines cannot be separated from the political act of exposing the body to history.”15 In Notre nazi (1984), Kramer, who was invited to direct a movie about the shooting of Thomas Harlan’s Wundkanal (1984), follows the perverse specular game of the film, confronting not only Dr. S. and the film’s director, but also history and his past. The sequence in which Kramer puts a plastic bag over the head, emulating an action that Harlan had compelled Dr. S. to perform and thus arisen close to asphyxia, is exemplary. In Berlin 10/90, we find once more a performative and physical exposure to cinema and history, as if the body would constitute a palimpsestic condensation of direct and indirect memories, responsibility, guilt, and forgiveness. “Here is our American,” Kramer seems to state by evoking European history, cinema’s genealogies, his parents’ biographies, personal issues and concerns in a dispositif very close to the confessional one. For Jacques Rancière, the great utopia during the Soviet Revolution and European modernism was the replacement of the old man by the new one captured by the camera’s automatism. Berlin 10/90 seems to discard this idea, capturing, with video technology, utopia’s disappearance process in the context of the fall of the Socialist Republics.
“Perhaps I filmed to fight against”16 are Kramer’s last words in Berlin 10/90. The film evokes Kramer’s militant experience, particularly in one scene, shown on the screen’s sequence shot, in which a set of books, by authors from Marx to Bobby Seale, serves as the point of departure to a discussion on the political and affective affinities between the cineaste and a group of ex-militants. Kramer was one of the founders of the Newsreel group, a cooperative created in 1967 in New York to produce and distribute militant cinema. Newsreel stood for collective forms of film production and played an essential role in the 1960s political movement in the USA. The cooperative documented, for instance, the 1967 March on the Pentagon, the occupation of Columbia University in 1968 and the Chicago Democratic Convention in the same year. The People’s War, a collective movie shot in North Vietnam, co-directed by Kramer, John Douglas, and Norman Fruchter, was produced by Newsreel, as well as Off the Pig (1968), one of the first films made about the Black Panthers, which includes footage of Panther recruitment and training.17
In an interview to Cahiers du Cinémain 1968, Kramer states that “a revolutionary movement”18 was then under construction in the USA, adding that there was “no distinction between our political role and our role as filmmakers.”19 The subjective dimension of political change was already at that moment a central aspect of Kramer’s thought: “We are politically engaged in all sort of things not only as filmmakers but also as political filmmakers and even as individuals without a camera, with our bodies.”20 For Kramer, who brilliantly uses the metaphor “a maison qui brûle”21 (“a burning house”), quoting Luis Rosales, to characterize New Hollywood, the conception and praxis of political cinema would imply to rethink film forms departing from politics. In the Winter 1968 issue of Film Quarterly, which dedicates a special feature to Newsreel, Kramer defines the group’s cinema:
Our films remind some people of battle footage: grainy, camera weaving around trying to get the material and still not get beaten/trapped. Well, we, and many others, are at war. (…) We want to make films that unnerve, that shake assumptions, that threaten, that do not soft-sell, but hopefully... explode like grenades in peoples’ faces, or open minds like a good can opener.22
Kramer directed Ice against this background. The film retraces the story of a New York militant group in the context of COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program, a CIA’s covert program to disrupt domestic political organizations) and of political struggle’s radicalization at the time of the foundation of movements’ such as The Weatherman. The film’s uncertain temporality is considered by Dominique Noguez to be an example of “prospective cinema”23 as it represents a time to come, reinforced by the diegetic imaginary war between USA and Mexico.
Ice’s mise en scène — its grainy image, its long sequence shots, the focal changes and the rupture of all forms of naturalism, particularly when representing situations of loss of sight or loss of control — owes more to New American Cinema and Direct Cinema’s stylistic forms than to militant cinema. However, militant cinema is a metanarrative element through the didactic short movies directed by the fictional militant group that cut the plot. Films within a film again. These short movies’aesthetics is symptomatically close to that of Newsreel productions and Kramer’s first movie, FALN (Fuerzas Armas de Liberación Nacional, 1965, co-directed by Peter Gessner), entirely edited with images shot by the Venezuelan guerrilla fighters, which insists that revolution would imply the adoption of reinvented forms of life and the creation of an ideal human being.
Militant cinema is questioned and formally overcome by the film. To Nicole Brenez, engaged cinema, on the contrary of militant cinema, do not “remains indifferent to aesthetic questions.”24 Quite the opposite, “the cinema of intervention exists only insofar as it raises the fundamental cinematographic questions: why make an image, which one, and how? With whom and for whom?”25 Is it Ice, therefore, an engaged film that critically contains militant cinema as an objectual metanarrative element? From the narrative and aesthetic points of view, indubitably it is. Also, the complex role that Kramer plays in it as one of its leading actors seems to separate it from militant cinema. In one of the central sequences, Robert (Robert Kramer) is emasculated by the secret police, and from that moment on he lives confined to a flat. Forced to abandon his active role in the group, Robert starts to translate political reports, which are neither quite exact nor precise, where there is always a gap between the original statement and its translation. The punishment emphasizes the imbrications between politics, subjectivity, and sexuality while the plot’s subsequent development indicates a clear separation of the film from the Newsreel “official” line.
The subjective and authorial marks of Kramer’s films were in fact at the edge of militant cinema. Despite his years of militancy and the diverse incursions into the genre, from the already mentioned FALN to Fidel Intusca Fernández, Peru, 1991, one of the shorts from Contre l’oubli (1991), a collective film signed by thirty filmmakers, including Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard, commissioned by Amnesty International, passing by Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal (1977/1979),26 Kramer’s work is very distant from militant cinema, to the point of deconstructing its conventions.
Newsreel indeed rejected Ice due to its subjectivism, and political position. It would only be released in 1970 because Newsreel considered that to distribute the film officially would mean to acknowledge the cooperative’s support for armed resistance movements, which some of its members would join subsequently. According to Eric Breitbart, at that moment member of Newsreel, Ice contributed to “prematurely put an end to the group.”27 The film is closer to the heterodoxy of Godard’s Maoist period or Dziga Vertov Group than to militant cinema’s strict and modest aesthetic ambitions. At the same time, Ice dislocates political cinema’s issues to an utopian field, with a very thin and discreet border between the real and the imaginary, the tangible and the intangible, and the assumption that the new technological capacities were allies in the political struggle (in Ice, for instance, Palo Alto information engineer character offers help to the militant group). This conception traverses Kramer’s filmography and is brilliantly synthesized in Ghosts of Electricity (1997), a film in which cinema is inscribed within the scientific and epistemological paradigm of modernity, and reinterpreted in a biopolitcs perspective.
In Milestones, as in Ice, we find a collective body, a political community composed of a constellation of individual bodies in the process of becoming — Mary, who is going to be a mother; Terry, the demobbed GI, who is killed by a cop; Helen (the writer and political activist Grace Paley), who edits a film about the Vietnam War; the political militant who just got out of prison and wants to become a blue-collar... However, the film is not only a communitarian or a generational portrait of the New Left, but, instead, an essay film on the relationship between the collective and the subjective, the limits and contradictions of militancy, the implication of the bodies in the political struggle, and biopolitical regulations. To Serge Daney, the film’s “cast of… bodies… creates neither a fresco, nor a chronicle, nor a document but a ‘fabric’[sic].”28 According to Daney, the entanglement of stories, a patchwork, emerges from their material articulation as much as from the lacunae, the intervals, and the ellipses. Scenes of intense physicality or synesthesia structure the narrative: the delivery, one of the film’s central sequences; Gail’s attempted rape scene, whose construction breaks definitively the border between documentary and fiction; John, the blind potter, interpreted by Douglas, the film’s co-director and one of the founders of Newsreel, the one who cannot produce images but objects, living for that reason on the margins of postindustrial society. The film’s figurative dimension is inaccessible on the diegetic level to John (despite vision loss’ description as a colored remembrance). This personage is equivalent to Kramer’s character in Ice. Nevertheless, it is John who saves Gail from the sexual maniac.
There is also a becoming-Indian in the film, particularly in the representation of the hippie community, a narrative line which is inspired by Kramer’s biographical background. Kramer uses ethnographic film forms in this segment. The process of transformation is mentioned by one of the characters - “living in the desert… becoming Indian…”. Furthermore, the inserts that punctuate the film put together a historical counterpoint as they retrace the history and the iconography of slavery, state repression and biopolitical technologies in the USA. There is an outside that is gathered by the film, an attempt to inscribe those bodies in the “contrived corridors” of history. This movement is accompanied by the effort to redefine what is outside, i.e., to review national history departing from an intersection of subjectivities.
Dear Doc (1990) and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal (1977/1979)
The Doc’s character emerges in Milestones for the first time. Gail’s boss mentions a specialist in tropical medicine he met in Cuba during the Revolution. Furthermore, the film’s doctor, while alluding to the relationship between Kramer and his father, embodies the debate on the interrelation of politics, health, and subjectivity. We can consider Milestones as the first attempt to approach the Doc’s character insofar he might constitute an individuation of the 1975 film’s collective personage.
Doc’s Kingdom (1987), shot in Lisbon, is the first film of Doc’s trilogy. Paul McIsaac, one of the main characters of Ice, plays the doctor’s role, sharing a past of militancy both with the personage and the film’s director. The film represents Lisbon in the aftermath of Revolution, just one year after Portugal’s entry in European Union. Kramer was in Portugal from 1975 to 1977 to live and shot the Revolution, following the path of many other filmmakers, such as, for instance, Glauber Rocha or Harlan, who would invite him to direct Notre nazi.
Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal, co-directed by Philip Spinelli, is far away from being an orthodox militant film. On the one hand, the confrontation of two different temporalities and spatialities structures the narrative — 1975-77, the years of the shooting in Portugal; San Francisco in 1978, the space and time of the film’s prologue and epilogue. Temporal distance allows an analytical representation of Revolution, its conception as a dynamic process, and the work of analepsis as one of the film’s narrative procedures. On the other hand, due to the heterogeneity of the film’s materials — images shot by Kramer and Spinelli in Portugal, archive images which migrated to (and, in some cases, from) other movies about the Portuguese Revolution, an experimental usage of typography, still image and graphics —, heterogeneity that highlights the different temporalities of the film. Finally, there is an explicit subjective mediation of the Revolution’s representation, enacted through the voice-over, the modes of enunciation, the graphics and, particularly, the self-reflexivity and the self-referentiality of the film’s prologue and epilogue.
The film results from a reflection on dialectic pairs embedded in the notion and praxis of revolution. These pairs are announced in one of the first sequences’ intertitles: “events/history, facts/principles, actuality/potentiality… words/images…,29 later, in the final sequence, “history/memory.”30 Dialectic thought finds its formal equivalence in the film’s narrative structure and the fragmentary editing — newsreel sequences cut by abrupt intertitles, the gap between the shooting and the editing processes, the prologue and the epilogue as disruptive sequences that not only point to the processual nature of revolution, but also to the contradictions of class struggle, and the ambiguities of militant cinema.
A dialectics between the film to come and the film-object structures, like Ice, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal. This dialectics, based on a transversal conception of the relationship between the present and the past, reappears in Dear Doc, a video letter to Paul McIsaac directed during Route One USA’s (1989) editing process, which it analytically approaches. If Kramer’s filmography constitutes an intertextual mosaic, Dear Doc is perhaps its more composite piece. In Dear Doc, which corresponds to Kramer’s video period, in which we might include Notre nazi and Berlin 10/90, among other titles, images from Doc’s Kingdom and Route One are assembled with a shot of X Country (1987), and material from Kramer’s personal archive. It is also the culmination of the trip started in Milestones, in the sequence shots of the white car driving across the Californian arid landscapes.
“The Doc is you, Paul, and not you. Who is also me.”31 Robert Kramer, Doc’s Kingdom and Route One USA’s director writes to Paul McIsaac, the fictional doctor of both movies, one image addressing to another image. At the same time, the video letter questions their common past (Newsreel, the years of militancy), as well as Route One USA as a political project, a return to the USA that was also a subjective attempt of retracing the country’s history, and outlining a virtual community.
Dear Doc opposes the transhistoricity of memory to the linearity of historical time through the presentation of discontinuous spaces and heterogeneous temporalities that are string together. At the beginning of the video letter, Kramer states that it constitutes “a home movie from my cutting room, which is also my home…”.32 However, Joachim du Bellay’s verse of the final intertitle — “Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage”33 — circumscribes the director not only to an indefinite space between two worlds, USA and Europe, and to an abstract time between two temporalities, past and present, but also and fundamentally to the process of changing and to the adventure of narration. Images of different rivers symbolize the transitoriness and the permanent flow — a shot of McIsaac walking along Tagus River (Doc’s Kingdom) cut with images of his arrival in New York by ship (Route One USA) —, a strategy which reinforces the temporal and spatial discontinuity between champ and hors champ. At the same time, the film’s self-reflexivity, showing Route One’s editing process, creates a dissociative conception of image as both presentation and representation, always mediated by different technological devices, which is also a formal strategy of Notre nazi followed in Berlin 10/90.
A permanent articulation between politics and subjectivity traverses the cinema of Robert Kramer. Continuous research of narrative and aesthetic forms characterize his lived cinema. His research points to the inseparability of politics and aesthetics. Additionally, the political change would always imply new forms of subjectivity while political reality and history would only be approachable from a subjective perspective, the affirmation of radical subjectivity. If Kramer’s filmography, which is shaped both by aesthetics and ethics, has undoubtedly redefined political cinema, it would be important to question its influence on contemporary cinema. Is it legitimate to interpret the ideological revision of the 1960s, particularly of the history of militancy, and the preponderance of first-person “creative documentary,” a standardized model, as two units of the same movement towards an estheticization and an autonomization of political praxis and film from the Lebenspraxis? And how to consider the re-emergence of film forms such as the newsreel in the work of Sylvain George or Jem Cohen, among others? Is there a return of “objectivity”?
Raquel Schefer, 2013
C. Derouet and D. March, “‘Walk the Walk’: Robert Kramer,” Les Inrockuptibles, http://www.lesinrocks.com/1996/11/20/cinema/actualite-cinema/walk-the-walk-robert-kramer-11233098/, last visit December 5th, 2018.
Colin MacCabe, Laura Mulvey and Mick Eaton, Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics, British Film Institute/MacMillan, London 1980.
Dominique Noguez, Le cinéma, autrement, Les Éditions du Cerf, Paris 1987.
Jacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx. L’état de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale, Galilée, Paris 1993.
Jacques Rancière, Figures de l’histoire, PUF, Paris 2012.
Joachim du Bellay, Les Antiquités de Rome - Les Regrets, Sonnet XXXI, Flammarion, Paris 1994.
Jorge La Ferla and Sofía Reynal (eds.), Territorios Audiovisuales. Cine, Vídeo, Televisión, Documental, Instalación, Nuevas tecnologías, Paisajes mediáticos, Libraria, Buenos Aires 2012.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, L’idéologie allemande, Éditions Sociales, Paris 1974.
Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, Columbia University Press, New York 2012.
Maurice Blanchot, Le Livre à venir, Folio, Paris 1999.
Michel Beaujour, Miroirs d’Encre : Rhétorique de l’autoportrait, Seuil, Paris 1980.
Michel Delahaye, “La Maison brûle. Entretien avec Robert Kramer”, Cahiers du Cinéma, Quatre Américains: Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, Robert Kramer, Andy Warhol, 205, October 1968, pp. 48-63.
Nicole Brenez, Edouard de Laurot, Commitment as Prolepsis, conference at Quai Branly Museum, Paris, June 16th, 2011.
Robert Kramer, “From a series of interviews with Newsreel members”, Film Quarterly 20, 2, Winter 1968-69, pp. 47-48.
Serge Daney, “L’aquarium (‘Milestones’), Cahiers du Cinéma, 264, February 1976, pp. 55-59.
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems, Faber and Faber, London 2002.
Walter Benjamin, Imagens de Pensamento, Assírio & Alvim, Lisboa 2004.
Vincent Vatrican and Cédric Venail (eds.), Trajets à travers le cinéma de Robert Kramer, Aix-en-Provence, Institut de l’Image 2001.