Documenting the Soul: On Three Films by Jürgen Böttcher
Screening as part of 2019’s edition of the London Short Film Festival amongst a wider program of work from the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), three documentary films by painter and filmmaker Jürgen Böttcher showcase his humble portraits of artists, students, and workers in the ‘60s and ‘70s. At the peak of his career, Böttcher’s sole narrative feature film, Born in ’45 (1966), and several of his shorts were banned by the government for portraying marginalized people, actions that would stifle his career for some time despite Born in ‘45 becoming a well-recognized neo-realist work amongst cinephiles. Produced for Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft (often referred to as DEF or DEFA), a state-owned producer of factual documentaries, the three films — Barefoot and Without a Hat (1964), Washerwomen (1972), and Im Lohmgrund (1977) — all exceed the regimented formal constraints that factual dispatches often fall prey to. More than just reportage, the short films demonstrate a highly attenuated understanding of people, their interactions with each other, and the camera. What is so striking about Böttcher’s work is how successfully the camera embeds the viewer within the depicted spaces and communities, rather than just treating them as fleeting subjects for the purpose of a quick documentary.
In Barefoot and Without a Hat, the camera is positioned amongst beach-going teenagers on summer vacation in Prerow on the Baltic Sea, who, amongst taking advantage of the weather and the beach, air their passions, dreams, and frustrations to Böttcher and his team. The camera is regularly positioned amongst them rather than simple observing — often sitting down with them at their level. This embodies a closeness that eliminates the constraints of voyeurism and instead affords a genuine, subjective proximity. It’s a reminder that the work of documentary-makers extends beyond simply finding a situation and filming it; it requires trust and patience. As a girl listens to a boy as he plays, and talks about playing, guitar, the camera captures the universally felt glances of both intrigue and uncertainty that we all feel around potential romantic partners, especially when younger. Those youthful energies extend to the teenagers’ hopes and dreams for the future, with Böttcher interviewing groups of trainee teachers, musicians, and railroad workers. In many ways, those pre-occupations exist physically off-camera albeit for the interviewees’ statements, but the film recognizes that these moments of play are eventually abated by the commitments of work and education. Before they evaporate, Barefoot and Without a Hat captures the experiences and comraderies found on the Prerow beach, creating a snapshot of GDR teenagers and counterculture interests during 1964. Musical performances are often a gathering point in the film, with people revolving around others who play — a communal activity that represents how the culture of rock-and-roll music and the Swinging Sixties manifested in the GDR.
Washerwomen instead engages more directly with the workplace, exploring the lives of women who work for Rewartex, a large-scale laundry company. Amongst the steam and noise from the machines, Böttcher and his team once again find a proximity to their subjects, gleaning opinions on the work, their economic circumstances, fashion trends, and their interests in men. Though the latter line of questioning is prying and presumptive of gender and sexuality norms by today’s standards, it does provide an insight into how the women socialize outside of the factory, where the film is almost solely based. Like with Barefoot and Without a Hat, Böttcher’s approach acknowledges that our experiences need not be reduced to one locality and circumstance. The teenagers on the beach have concerns back home, and the laundry women in the factory are more than just their work. Böttcher captures the social fabric of the factory, how the women interact with each other and talk about their lives outside of work. Though the camera often situates us within the drum of a laundry machine and takes portraits of the women standing beside the machinery, it also takes us into the inner workings of subjectivity, allowing us to share glances during candid moments and leaving in instances where the women mock the line of questioning or drift back into their work mid-response. Light-hearted moments exist in abundance — a humorous pan to a group of men who are too shy to dance at a work function is one of them — but the documentary also has a serious element, with the women reflecting on the disparate wages between companies, as well as the demand for their labor. Even amidst the GDR, these issues existed, and Böttcher’s reportage from the laundry factory puts those issues in a time capsule.
Of the three dispatches, Im Lohmgrund possesses the most personal proximity to Böttcher himself, with his team documenting several sculptors working in a sandstone quarry in the Lohm valley. Two of them — Peter Makulies (nicknamed Mec) and Hartmut Bonk — are friends of Böttcher, and both produce similar sculptures of women, though their styles differ greatly. Sitting amongst cranes, dirty sandstone cliffs, and foliage, the statues, freshly chipped out of the sandstone, appear pristine and white against their surroundings. Though we see all of the men going about their day-to-day work at the quarry and in their downtime, Mec is the main subject, with his infectious personality breaking the fourth wall and joshing Böttcher through the lens. In other moments, Mec stands pridefully by the various stages of one of his sculptures, with a confident expression towards the camera.
As we see the statue floating through the quarry on a crane, and hear the reverberations of the artists’ chisels clacking through the valley’s open space, it becomes clear that Böttcher was keen to explore the differing presentations of labor and art, synchronizing those two elements and detaching the more bourgeoisie pretensions that have been fabricated in the art world. So little do we consider the exact location where a piece of art was crafted, especially when they are presented in oft-pristine gallery spaces. The film underscores the existence of that oversight by not only presenting the work in juxtaposition with the landscape, but by showing one of Mec’s sculptures on the back of the truck destined for the city, with its white surfaces being grazed by tree branches hanging over the road. It’s a moment where the use-values of both art and sandstone converge, with the driver taking care not to have the sculpture damaged by leaves and branches — a stark contrast against the more onerous nature of its construction. After all, we see every stage of Mec’s sculpture — its birth from a dirt-covered block of sandstone just as important as its finished form.
Despite that more serious subtext, Im Lohmgrund is once again filled with the comfortable sense of closeness that exists within both Barefoot and Without a Hat and Washerwoman, and by proxy the humor that emerges as part of that. Mec and the team working in just hard hats and tight shorts is an occurrence that highlights how, although Böttcher’s films so passionately explore the complexities of employment, workers’ rights, personal growth, art, creativity, and gender, they also embodied the confidence to capture the spirit of their subjects. Whether it’s the smile of a laundry worker standing beside a giant piece of machinery emitting a plume of steam, the glances between potential romantic partners, reflections on long-term friendships and dating, or the comradery of men at work in a remote location, Böttcher’s work regularly finds a way to seek out genuine moments of engagement, bringing a gentleness to documentaries that may have otherwise just been simple dispatches.
The London Short Film Festival presents a rare opportunity to see the three films in the “Behind the Wall: Jürgen Böttcher” program at the ICA on Saturday 19th January 2018, as part of their Behind the Wall strand, focusing on works from the GDR.