Cinema And Politics: Peter Nestler
After the Peter Nestler retrospective at Tate Modern, in 2012, now American audiences have a chance to appreciate the major German documentarian’s work, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, in a retrospective presented in collaboration with the Flaherty Seminar. The retrospective title, “Vision of Resistance,” is apt. Post- WWII Germany of Nestler’s films is a land of the defeated, the dispossessed, and the weary. It is almost as if the clock had turned, and time cycled back to the Depression Era Germany of economic woes that had made Hitler’s rise possible, in the first place. “Resistance,” in this sense, can be read as the quiet dignity summoned from bleak landscapes, from portraits of small towns and villages, with hardly any glimpses of the prosperity and might with which Germany is associated today.
German fiction films such as, Max Färberböck’s A Woman in Berlin (2008), have explored the long repressed German side of the war story. Other fiction films, such as Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006), or Christian Petzold’s Barbara (2012), have depicted the post-war world of repression in the East. Similarly, Nestler is firmly rooted in the WWII and, to a lesser extent, the Cold War narratives, even though his tactics couldn’t be more different. There is no dialogue in Nestler’s documentaries. In Ödenwaldstetten (1964), which refers to the war directly, with the mention of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust, Nestler mingles the narrator’s voice with other voices that relay farmers’ stories. He employs a similar method in The Essay, which depicts the daily routine of young students in a rural school. Both times, the voiceover suggests distance and nearly clinical objectivity. Yet the images speak for themselves, and their tale is often sorrowful.
Nothing illustrates this better than the documentary short, Mülheim (Ruhr, 1964). Nestler sets it to guitar music, with occasional interludes of a metronome, which ticks, like a clock, and dictates the pace. Nestler’s documentaries are often called documentaries of labor. Mülheim opens with the site of trucks transporting cargo, and moves on to cityscapes, with monotonous, streamlined, blocky architecture—a functional world of apartment complexes and worker hotels. Against the background of soot and dust, rendered more oppressive in Nestler’s uniformly gray, grainy palette, there are glimpses of the older, now abandoned world: a rocking chair stands incongruously outdoors, on a hill by a busy highway. In another shot, captured from a low angle, a portrait of a queen, or a princess, in an opulent fur cloak, towers over a cluttered, shabby interior—a vision of opulence long gone.
Nestler doesn’t fill us in on the turbulent years that the Ruhr Valley had suffered, with the hunger crisis and the worker strikes of the mid to late 1940s, or the tales of the region’s resistance against the Nazis. His stance is rather of a patient observer—an objective, ethnographic look that recalls the photographs of conceptual artists Bernd and Hilla Becher of industrial structures; a vision of progress, of measured hope, but also of suffocation and strife.
One hesitates to call Nestler’s style lyrical. His poetry is Beckettian, it pierces the soul with asperity. Yet, for sure, there are brighter moments: elderly couples strolling, snow piling up on graves, a white swan gracefully traversing a pond, and deer grazing. In one moment, boys pose for the camera, looking at us, straight on. Their gazes’ directness implies Nestler’s own method. A young girl skips back and forth on an empty street, lined with uniform, low-lying houses, delighted at the simplicity of her game. The rhythmic metronome is heard—the clock is ticking for the Ruhr Valley, an allusion even more eerie given the region’s decline and massive job losses at the end of the century. But for now, this small child skips along.