9 May 2010

24 Frames a Second: Peter Tscherkassky, Gustav Deutsch and the Austrian avant-garde

Originally published in FILMWAVES in 2007.

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Peter Tscherkassky is, in many ways, a pivotal figure in the history of the Austrian avant-garde. Tscherkassky, born in 1958, was inspired by the two main currents in this history: first the Vienna Actionists, whose post-Dadaistic texts and brutally explicit filmed performances were astoundingly visceral reactions to one of post-war Europe’s most stiflingly conservative societies.

Concurrently, Austria also fostered the works of Peter Kubelka and Kurt Kren, concerned with the materiality of film, and it is this strand that Tscherkassky has strived to develop, both through his own filmmaking, and the establishment of Sixpack Films in 1991 to organise the ‘Found Footage – Filme aus gefundenem Materialto’ festival and distribute non-commercial Austrian works. Tscherkassky has also promoted other successors to this tradition, including ‘found footage’ artists Dietmar Brehm, Lisl Ponger and Gustav Deutsch.

Tscherkassky’s films allude to a wide range of influences – Dream Work (2001) was ‘dedicated to the cinematic art of Man Ray’ (and explicitly references his work) while a recoloured sequence recalls Berlin Horse by Malcolm Le Grice, whose films also drew upon Kubelka and Kren. Tscherkassky’s chief interests and influences, though, are Austrian. Since Aderlaß (1981), an attempt to process the Actionist tradition in Super-8, Tscherkassky has gravitated towards Austrian materialism, by working exclusively with found footage and treated filmstrip.

For Motion Picture (1984), Tscherkassky projected a frame from Lumière’s La Sortie des Usines Lumière, the first film Louis Lumière publicly demonstrated, across fifty unexposed film strips in his darkroom, with the individual strips run together to make a new work. This brief work exemplifies Tscherkassky’s propensity for Formalist defamiliarisation, taking recognisable images and inserting them into radically different contexts.

Tscherkassky often employed these techniques with idiosyncratic humour, and Happy End (1996) is perhaps his funniest film. It depicts an Austrian couple enjoying their Christmas dinner, closing with footage of a dancing woman suddenly freezing, her facial expression hinting at the emptiness behind her festive rituals. Tscherkassky’s rearrangement, backed with Michel Chion’s caustic reworking of ‘Chocolat’, aims to render the footage absurd: a stop-motion sequence reminiscent of Jan Svankmajer, where an empty table becomes overburdened with condiments, creates a powerful associative link between Austria’s bourgeoisie and irresponsible opulence.

L’Arrivée (1998), the first of Tscherkassky’s CinemaScope trilogy, reprises his interest in Lumière. Taking Lumière’s infamous train as the birth of cinematography, the film commences with a white screen, upon which sprockets impinge before the locomotive images, drawn from Terence Young’s Mayerling (1968) and drained of colour finally assert themselves. The final kiss between Catherine Deneuve and Omar Sharif provides relief after the horrific crash following the arrival of a second train – a gentle conclusion after the meaning of the crash has been reinforced by the violent disruptions to the film’s projected surface.

In Outer Space (1999), Tscherkassky undermines the convention of Hollywood horror films. Its footage comes from Sidney J. Furie’s film The Entity (1981), in which Barbara Hershey plays a woman possessed by a violent spirit. Here, Tscherkassky’s manipulation of his material becomes far more intense: the technical aspects of the film strip (the sprockets and the optical soundtrack) relentlessly encroach upon the images and continually shock the viewer out of the complacency of narrative expectations.

Music is crucial to the film’s effect. Tscherkassky has stated his admiration for avant-garde composers including John Cage, Iannis Xenakis and John Zorn, and for contemporary electronic composers such as Pierre Henry and Luc Ferrari, and his cut and paste approach to narrative construction draws upon musique concrète as much as Kubelka and Kren. The music, like the film, establishes a haunting tone but is continually fragmented, reinforcing the disorientating effect of the images, where several versions of Hershey’s face punctuate the frame simultaneously. The narrative eventually collapses, replaced by a white screen filled with sprockets, overlaid with funeral music, asking the audience whether they should lament the ‘death’ of narrative in this film, and, implicitly, film in general.

Finally, Tscherkassky uses the defamiliarised footage to make an oblique comment on developments in psychoanalytic film theory. That the manipulation of these images creates a commentary on the nature of film is signalled by the intrusion of the film’s mechanics: the inclusion of Hershey smashing a mirror, followed by a brief meditative silence is, according to Rhys Graham, ‘playfully exploding the notion of “film as a mirror” articulated by Christian Metz’, and we know that Tscherkassky is striving to create a new cinema free of the conventions that allow audiences to complacently identify themselves with a protagonist.

In Dream Work, Tscherkassky looked to find a new direction for the Surrealist film tradition, by returning to Freud’s theories of stimuli in The Interpretation of Dreams and the aesthetic principles laid down by André Breton in his original manifesto. Specifically, Dream Work (the final CinemaScope film) adheres to Breton’s conceived exploration of ‘Psychic automatism in its pure state’, investigating ‘the actual functioning of thought’.

Dream Work’s footage was copied by hand, frame by frame, on to unexposed film stock. It opens with a woman falling asleep. For the Surrealists, this was the important state, creatively, in which Breton and Philippe Soupault wrote Les Champs magnétiques, the founding Surrealist text. Light penetrates her blinds: Tscherkassky’s images partially switch to negative, taking his audience into the woman’s dreams, and these rays immediately form stimuli in her unconscious – one dream image seemingly triggered by this light is a scene of tacks exposed onto the film by shining light across them, clearly referencing Man Ray’s Le Retour à la raison (1923).

Dream Work, as might be expected given its subject, is less intense than Outer Space, retaining its visual density, but incorporating it into a narrative that challenges its audience to unravel the film’s internal logic and connect its apparently disparate images. Its reverent approach to Freud and Surrealism, comprehensively dissected by Matthew Tomkinson in an essay on Tscherkassky’s website, seems to demand a return to the starting-points of psychoanalytic film theory, initiated by studies of Lacan, a figure actively involved with both psychoanalysis and Surrealism.

Tscherkassky’s most recent film, Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine won the Gran Premio Experimental at the 2005 Vilo de Conde festival in Portugal as well as the Gecko Jury Award at CinemaTexas. Most of its footage is culled from a Western, although the opening shot of a man with a film camera humorously sets up an opposition far more powerful than cowboy battles: betweem the protagonist and the very film that sustains his existence.

The camera whirrs on the soundtrack, and gradually the workings of the film overtake the images. The music becomes increasingly incongruous, eventually aligning itself with the rhythm of the film’s projection (at 24 frames per second) as the narrative is fractured until scissors cut the ‘tail’ of the film strip and the screen is engulfed in white. A graveyard appears in negative, and it is clear the hero has died, not at the hands of the cowboys, but at the hands of the omnipotent filmmaker – the appearance of the ‘Footer’ and the Production Number constitute a second, definitive ‘death’.

Tscherkassky’s films can clearly be situated within a line of Austrian film practice that includes Kurt Kren’s post-Actionist works, Peter Kubelka’s Unsere Afrikareise (1966) and VALIE EXPORT’S Syntagma (1983), which combines original and found footage to question the validity of social questions that rely upon notions of ‘the woman’s body’. Indeed, Tscherkassky’s films have successfully extended this line, exerting a strong influence upon a younger generation of Austrians inspired by the visually and intellectually stimulating effects of his filmic manipulation.

Gustav Deutsch, like Tscherkassky, works primarily with found footage, creating original work from an astonishingly varied selection of sources. Born in 1953, Deutsch’s filmmaking career began in 1982, just after Tscherkassky’s, making a number of short films before branching into feature-length work with the hour-long Film ist. in 1998.

For his most recent features, Deutsch has favoured the dream-like qualities of silent film stock. The material comprising Film ist. 7-12 (2002) and Welt Spiegel Kino (2005) is almost entirely drawn from footage older than 1930 and, as in Tscherkassky, the relationship between image and soundtrack is as crucial to their aesthetic impact as the juxtaposition of frames.

Film ist. 7-12 picks up where Film ist. left off, wryly exploring the possibilities of film as imagined by the silent pioneers. The film opens with possibility 7 – ‘Komisch (Comic)’. A woman tentatively opens a door, walking into the world of film, and a farcical narrative where a fight between a man and woman is soon overtaken by footage of a robot, doubtless intended to be frightening at the time but preposterous now, terrifies hiding residents of the house it destroys. Serious music defamiliarises the slapstick scenes (most of which feature wayward ladders), turning them from popular entertainment into a slightly sinister relic from a period whose innocence was decimated by the First World War.

‘Magic’ constitutes part 8. In its infancy, moving pictures often formed a side attraction at fairs, and Georges Méliès’ background as a magician in Victorian London did much to shape the character of early film. Deutsch acknowledges Méliès’ importance by including snatches of his work, recognisable by its beautiful hand colouring, but the ‘magic’ that Deutsch documents is the fin-de-siècle wonderment at the visual trickery that the cinematograph made possible.

Part 9 is ‘Conquest’: Deutsch’s footage refers not just to the European colonisation of Africa, at its apex around the time that film was invented. Film captured ‘exotic’ African cultures for white audiences, turning them into objects of curiosity to be stared at in amazement, much like the earliest films. In 9.3, a ‘tribal’ boy with a deformed mouth is examined by a white colonialist, illustrating the stern sense of superior knowledge behind the imperialistic concept of the ‘White Man’s Burden’.

Deutsch also uses ‘conquest’ to refer to the technological innovations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that helped Western man conquer not only land but also the skies. After the aforementioned Lumière film, trains became emblematic of modernity (their ability to transport large numbers of people and heavy goods was integral to the development of nineteenth-century industry and imperialism) and a popular focus-point for early filmmakers.

However, the errors of those pioneers are highlighted, or at least implied. Although no footage explicitly references the 1897 Charity Bazaar fire that killed 121 Parisian filmgoers, or the airship or train disasters of the period, Deutsch’s rail footage stops abruptly, suggesting a crash. His eerie footage taken from an airship’s point of view shows a flaming plane hurtling towards the ground, reminding the viewer of the precariousness of fin-de-siècle technology.

Section 10, entitled ‘Writing and Language’, playfully questions the idea of silent film as the ‘international language’, so characterised by intellectuals concerned by the potential effects of ‘talkies’. Numerous title cards, varied in design and tongue, are paraded: viewers with an extensive knowledge of European languages may be able to pull out a narrative from the succession of intertitles.

‘Emotion and Passion’ form Part 11. Deutsch presents some of the worst excesses of melodramatic silent over-acting, which proves far funnier than the comic section Seven. Part 12 is the most fascinating of (early) film’s functions – ‘Memory and Document’. The mood changes rapidly: frivolous dances give over to shots of fire, with buildings (and perhaps lives) lost before the cold eyes of the camera.

Film ist. 7-12 draws on films by early French filmmakers such as Ferdinand Zecca, Segundo de Chomón and Marcel L’Herbier, and scored by Werner Dafeldecker, Martin Sievert, Burkhard Stangl and Fennesz. The latter two also score Welt Spiegel Kino, which recycles a little footage from part 12 of Film ist. as the basis for a very different, much more dream-like montage that plays beautifully on the temptation to speculate upon the fate of the individuals captured by early filmmakers.

The knowledge that everyone portrayed in Welt Spiegel Kino gives Deutsch’s film a genuinely haunting quality. At points, this otherworldly atmosphere is redoubled by the decay suffered by the nitrate film stock, recalling Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002) – another film where the haunting images are complemented (and at times contrasted) by a soundtrack drawing heavily on avant-garde electronic composition.

Again scored by Fennesz and Stangl, Welt Spiegel Kino is divided into three thirty-minute sections, all starting in different locations, all of which contain a cinema: the Kinomatograf Theater in Vienna in 1912, the Apollo Theatre in Surabaya, Indonesia in 1929, and the Cinema São Mamede Infesta in Porto in 1930. The vagueness of the long shots of people outside the picture houses allows Deutsch to close in on passers-by in those modern crowds and transition to speculated lives, created from found footage.

Every ‘life’ featured in the film alludes to its historical context: this becomes clear immediately, as Deutsch zooms in a man outside a poster advertising Hamlet and then transitions to a uniformed soldier with a gun on his back, who turns and salutes before Deutsch cuts back to the cinema, two years before the Great War breaks out. It is the shadow of war that gives Episode 1 its eeriness: it looms over the boxer proudly displaying his medal on a podium, as he could easily have become one of the 7,000 Portuguese killed at the Western Front.

For Episode 2, Deutsch takes us to a time of uneasy peace, to a place outside Europe but ruled by Europeans. The cinema at Surabaya shows a European film: Fritz Lang’s mystical epic Siegfried, and Deutsch shows this amidst the montages of an Indonesian society fighting to maintain its identity against Western control. People are showing dancing, in Eastern costume – to the European viewer, this is the colonial ‘Other’, a culture existing in resistance to Western ideas of modernising their empires. Again, however, the viewer knows that those people in far-east Asia may well be drawn into the European conflict that breaks out ten years after Deutsch’s cinema scene.

In Portugal, Deutsch shows us a society embracing Fascism after the military coup d’état of 1926 – a Fascist regime nowhere near as well remembered as those in Italy (which it often aped), Spain, Germany or even Hungary, led by António de Oliveira Salazar. Here, a general awards honours to tearful veterans, throngs are transfixed by a board relaying football to a crowded square, and mothers toiling at a sardine factory dream of freedom from a regime that bleeds its workers.

Welt Spiegel Kino is a film to get lost in – an alternative, antique world vividly recreated through a varied, often slightly surreal combination of images that seems to draw as much from Modernist poetry (particularly the cityscapes created in Guillaume Apollinaire’s Zone and The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot) as from Tscherkassky and the Austrian materialist tradition. Deutsch’s works, particularly Welt Spiegel Kino, are best experienced on the big screen – although they were assembled in the age of video, their component elements date back to a golden age of film, with Kino’s protagonists often surprised to be captured by the camera.

Having completed Film ist, Deutsch has stated his determination to turn Welt Spiegel Kino into a series. Theoretically, the series is infinite: the end credits for episodes 1-3 list an extraordinary large number of sources, from 1906 to 1939 – the only limits are imposed by the clock, as finding, cutting and assembling this footage must be incredibly time-consuming.

Deutsch and Tscherkassky continue to produce, and Sixpack continue to distribute the works of Austrian artists in tune with their aesthetic ideals. Their films are challenging, although to describe them as ‘difficult’, especially in Deutsch’s case, would be unfair. Although they work very well on a surface aesthetic level, viewers who watch with a strong working knowledge of not just Austrian materialism and the Vienna Actionists but also Surrealism, European history, experimental composition and the filmmaking and editing process will be richly rewarded.

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