The Films of Klaus Telscher by Johannes C. Tritschler
(with additions from Noll Brinckmann, W. Roth and Alf Bold)
In 1978 Telscher began working on his films, a time when the euphoria of the sixties had faded away, and few remained captivated by the passing ideals of experimental film. But this may well have created free space for a new generation of avant-garde filmmakers in the eighties. Alongside numerous predominant contemporaries, Telscher was able to found a distinctive personal style.
His early films are ‘experiments’ in many respects, reminiscent of the structural film of the sixties. When Telscher works with the flicker effect, when his camera looks at the reel with its single frames and perforation holes, all this restages earlier gestures. In this first period, Telscher oriented himself via his predecessors, utilizing their language of forms in order to develop his feeling for film as a material.
He began to make truly independent work with Entwicklungsstücke (Pieces of Development 17 minutes 1980) where many characteristic features of his work can already be felt. While lasting thirty minutes at the premiere, the film has later been trimmed to a quarter of an hour. Often Telscher’s films are ‘works in progress,’ subject to revision over the years. His reflexive regard of the camera’s framing — playing with the slanted camera or having the camera’s view openly acknowledged by its subject, makes us aware of both film and maker, of the inherent subjectivity in these perspectives. His use of music here is also characteristic, both managing to emotionally underscore the image while providing an ironic commentary on it.
Klaus Telscher’s first film is Entwicklungsstücke. But it would be wrong to take the title as hint to its character as a first work – nothing has to be developed (entwickeln) any more, the work is already finished. But there are, indeed, pieces (stücke), as the film already has the fragmentary character which shapes many of his later works. If the supplement Entwicklung (development) is to be explained, it would be more productive to take a look at the technical process of film developing. Klaus Telscher’s characteristic feature is a deliberately unprofessional development bath which he makes himself, where the filmic surface is overlaid by stains and chips.
Almost all the pieces of this film – in one way or another – have the character of performances, with the first being the most unbroken, the shortest: a fireworks. It serves as a starting point for the liveliness and precision of things to come, the originality and aesthetic subtlety which leave the fireworks far behind. In the comparison between his own work with the cliché of the fireworks, Telscher’s contained irony and his particular mixture of pride and modesty are revealed.
The following episodes are to be taken as a presentation partly because of their acrobatic touch, partly because of their presenting or greeting turn toward the audience, partly because of their sectioned character. Even the disc episode has something to do with performance, even though it materializes more in the peculiar movements of the pickup arm or the barely recognized change from negative to positive than in the music presented. Some events give an impression of acrobatics, especially the attempt to run on a sloped area, or devices like swings and seesaws. If we take a closer look, however, the work of a filmmaker is by far more virtuosic, more acrobatic than that of his protagonists. In the angle of the camera, in the playful employment of split screen, or in the change from negative to positive lies a sophisticated filmic skill, even if it develops in a nonchalant and unobtrusive way.
The turn towards the audience is an especially sophisticated one. Again and again people look into the camera, they seem to ask for instructions, to get into contact, to signal success, or to answer their reproduction by acknowledging the filmmaker and apparatus. Thus his presence at the scene of shooting is passed on to the spectators who suddenly see themselves as the vis-à-vis of the filmed persons reflecting upon the work of the camera.
However, the appeal to audience interaction is opposed by the state of the images, whose stains, scratches and bleaches have the effects of barricades that bar the spectators from access. Persons drawn into this moving situation will be outdistanced to the same degree by these barriers. None of the takes are clear, exuberant, spotless, transparent, and illusionary. The avant-garde construction of the film is accompanied by a blurring, destroying patina. Telscher’s images give the impression that they’ve been carelessly exposed to decay, corroded and faded like the early works of film history – the aesthetized marks of which make them particularly precious.
The structure of the film, the succession of its sections, is also subtle, elegant, seemingly incidental and yet exactly calculated. Similar events follow each other partly in direct succession, partly as persistent variation in intervals. Not everything has its counterpart, but there are symmetries or harmonic correspondences. For example the music shortly after the beginning and at the very end, contributes to an emotional satisfaction. The filmmaker seems to be juggling with his motives, the concept is given, but not strictly adhered to. But the reference to the parameters of the medium is always perceptible – an approach already expressed in the material nuances from take to take. (Noll Brinckmann)
In Eastmans Reisen (Eastman’s Travels 23 min 1981) the material-aesthetical appeal of the film image comes to the fore. Turning to film as material is nothing new, but instead of provocatively underlining the material nature of his medium, Telscher presents it as a side effect. He personally develops the exposed film, including the accidental scratches and settled particles of dirt in the image’s formation. This introduction of chance is reminiscent of certain new music works where aleatory sounds, random instrumentation and the disavowal of expressed intentions are explored. The self proclaimed materiality of the image, resulting from his hand processing, is the principal outer characteristic feature of Telscher’s work.
American Hotel (15 min 1982/3) and Great Kendo Commercial (13 min 1985) appear extremely form-determined. While Eastman’s Travels still gives a playful impression in parts, these two films have a very concentrated form. As Parts 1,2 and 3 of the cycle The Living Room, they comprise a homogeneous whole. Slowly moving, the camera grazes the bare walls of a hotel room, lingering over details like a bracket-lamp, water taps or functionless hanging cables. There are no elements of action in a conventional sense, the spectator is completely seized by the flickering cadence of the images.
American Hotel is an extremely elegant, restrained and, in its own enigmatic way, extremely personal film. The tension is created on the one hand by the two layers of the surface, which have both a distancing and a stimulating effect. And it is also due to the combination of cool/technical with popular/erotic elements. Over the last few years Telscher has been experimenting with a film developing process in which the film’s surface is speckled with tiny spots. On the screen one sees a light, irregular flickering over the entire surface; a kind of animated layer of light that appears to lie in front of the actual picture. In American Hotel he has succeeded in combining this flickering veil with compositions that are of a particularly still, empty, clear-cut quality; pictures of instruments of precision or a heating unit, a wall with a few small photos, etc. The continuous second skin nevertheless succeeds in uniting all these heterogeneous elements, as if behind a single window; as if they lay in an unreal subjective aquarium. This lends the film a certain hermetic quality, which, however – since the distance between the viewer and the film image is formally articulated – forms part of the subject and can be regarded as an expression of personal experience. (Noll Brinckmann)
Between these two films Aus Der Alten Welt (From The Old World 40 min 1984) was made, as Telscher broke away from the reduced language of forms. Apart from his own photography he also embraces found footage, ranging from amateur films to sequences from old German feature films. These are woven together to produce a lament and critique of his Germanic origins. In Eastman’s Travels a theme had been announced which determined several films: the exposition of the ‘German soul.’ It is about the German mind, petit-bourgeois wishful thinking and trivial myths, forest and mountain landscapes of innumerable German sentimental films. In From the Old World Telscher sharply underlines the ambivalence of these German myths of home.
Telscher has been brave enough to run the crazy risk of making a documentary on the German soul and its depths, on fatherland and mountains, on love of animals and pop music, and also on the perverse other side of the coin of these obsessions. The film combines sound and footage that is both historic and new, a poster of Leni Riefenstahl’s Tiefland film, swaying soldiers with their arms linked, horses on military transport. On the level of sound there is the bitter kitsch of a Benn poem together with the sweet kitsch of the hits of the Fifties. (W. Roth)
With Nachsommer (Indian Summer 30 min 1987), a masterpiece of the German experimental film of the eighties, Telscher broke away from the direct discussion of the German soul. Although this film – co-produced with the Kleines Fernsehspiel – was broadcast at night, the ZDF (Second German Television) received some angry reactions by the spectators. Nachsommer is a reflection on film and women, a theme which finds its climax towards the end of the film. The spectator watches the filmmaker watching a porn video, which soon grows to occupy the entire screen. The image of a woman’s face, viewed in close-up, burns ‘in heat,’ and orgasm, the emulsion melting from the screen. But the video image is not exposed to the heat of the projection lamp: Telscher here plays with the perplexed spectator, leading them back to film as a material.
The images of Nachsommer narrate a history of looking, of representations which are made now to view themselves. This framing of perspectives draws on historical film scenes to depict the patriarchal violence of the gaze. At the same time, the women in Telscher’s film express an easy self confidence and assurance which overcomes this history. While the desire to look, the erotic subtext which leads camera to subject, is forever manifest, the film never rests on this level. Its reflexivity permits it to break this attraction, re-viewing the voyeurism latent in our desire to consume images, and each other.
But any male project to found new images of women cannot come without problems or self-scrutiny. Disconcerted, one has to carefully approach oneself, like the camera that explored the empty rooms of an old villa in On The Balance (13 min 1989). These are presented as photographs, isolated vantages, granted a teasing narrative suggestion via montage. The opening sequence shows a couple together. They appear in fragments, their relation towards each other blurred. Short, close-up views, the quick cut and Telscher’s ‘destroying’ work on the film material evoke distance. Then the camera squeezes itself through narrow corridors and dilapidated buildings, and only at the end it meets a group of young people who warm themselves in a summertime breeze. They, along with a radio hit that can be heard in the background, promise a new lightheartedness after these troublesome wanderings. As the last take freezes to become a still of two women, a preliminary truce seems to be achieved.
On The Balance combines all the techniques Telscher developed thus far, and seems to bring them to a definite conclusion. In doing this, he does not play his trump cards, instead he gives the new work such a casual character that almost makes him a home movie. But on what a level! The film begins with some takes that look like rushes or screen-tests for a feature film. A narrative structure has been implied but we only see fragments of a story. The enigmatic character of the takes is enhanced by Telscher’s typical pre-working on the material that appears to be damaged, historical, on the brink of decomposition. Only after these takes the titles appear. The second, longest part of the film has shots made in a garden on an obviously beautiful afternoon in summer or autumn. We watch two women and a man at a table, in leisure mood. They smoke, drink, play with a dog. After a while, a piece of melancholic pop music is added that enhances the holiday mood of the film. The fact that we always keep our distance to what happens onscreen, that we do not nostalgically sink into it, is ensured by nervous cuts which seem rhythmically exact but in constantly changing time intervals. In its irritating perfection, the film recalls the later works for chamber orchestras by Stravinsky when he grew tired of ‘beautiful’ orchestration, turning instead to a pale instrumental color with rhythmically complicated structures to accompany fascinating melancholic miniatures. The (as I see it) third part of the film actually consists of one shot which is shown in two takes: the two young women seen previously stand in front of a bush, with their arms around the shoulders of each other. A still. Then again the same photograph, but as a head-and-shoulders portrait. They are both smiling. One of them, the one on the left (Dagmar Boarding) looks like Maya Deren in the famous shot behind the window in Meshes of the Afternoon. On The Balance is given another turn by this finale; a turn that in a playful way unites film history with the present, narrative cinema with dream images, Hollywood with the filmic experiment. (Alf Bold)
It comes as no surprise that in a late film In Rouge (10 min), longing once again comes to the fore. Red lips, garishly red lacquered fingernails and broken roses are each displayed with a penetrating beauty that is both celebratory and deeply ironic, even impudent. Formally, In Rouge serves as a response to feminist theories that denote gender difference in complex codes of colour perception and the fetishization of particular objects. The melancholic music at film’s end leaves no doubt that these images, these myths, are descriptions which bear little relation to reality. These myths are further troubled by the use of quotations from A Winter’s Tan, a film with its own very contradictory images of women.
In all of his work Klaus Telscher transports emotions. ‘Film’ is already being pointed at by the outer shape which moves in a slow turning surveillance of its own nature. This allows for a very personal expression, an expiation of the private sphere, where the invention of unbeckoned feelings may find new shapes in emulsion. In his interrogation of erotic relations, history and perspective his view remains resolutely personal, managing to stage each in a fashion which remains open to the spectator’s own histories, their own truths cast in the inimitable light of the machine.
Originally published in Millennium Film Journal No. 30/31, Fall 1997
That’s Enough: an interview with Klaus Telscher (1990)
Klaus Telscher is a 35 year old filmmaker who began work in the late 1970s. From 1976-79 he studied art at the School of Art and Music in Bremen; a year later he began teaching film there. His students have included Claudia Schillinger. It was this same film class that made a trip to Italy accompanied by Stephan Sachs where some of the footage for Sach’s Paramount (featuring Telscher himself) was photographed. Working with an extreme economy of means, Telscher does all of his own film processing, giving his work a flickering, hand-made quality. Extraordinary personal and deeply felt, his films convey a deep intellectual passion and take on themes of voyeurism, masculinity and German history.
MH: How did you get interested in making films?
KT: I started filmmaking in 1977. I was studying painting at an art school in Germany when I came into contact with some American experimental films and I was very interested. The public didn’t like them at all, but I did so I tried to develop an approach to this filmmaking, find out how to make this new kind of film.
MH: Was it part of the school curriculum?
KT: No, I saw them in Hannover, someone was touring with a package of films.
MH: Then you started making super-8?
KT: I started with 16mm, trying to find out something about structural filmmaking, but this was already at the end of the structural film period.
MH: Do you remember what you saw?
KT: It was a film by Michael Snow, Back and Forth. We had a film department in that school where nothing happened. There was a professor but he didn’t teach filmmaking.
MH: Were you able to use the school equipment?
KT: We had a camera but I had no money, so I bought some black and white film stock and started to develop it by myself. I felt this way of working had more possibilities than giving it to a lab.
MH: Were your earliest films structural? Was there a plan you made before shooting that was followed?
KT: Absolutely. My early films were technically oriented. My experience with travelling mattes and superimpositions and all these kind of things were done at that time.
MH: Can you give me an example?
KT: I did some structural films that I think are not that good. My filmmaking changed when I realized that structural film came to an end. There was no need to go on. I think many structural films didn’t work with the audience. What I tried to do was use the language of structural films and work for the audience with a content that comes from outside, like Nach Sommer (Indian Summer, 30 minutes 1987) for example, which is like structural film in that it uses long shots and a single camera position throughout. But I try to use structural film language with something that comes from me. It’s like poetic film narration with structural film language.
MH: When I talked with Schmelzdahin they said, “We’ve made a lot of films, but Stadt im Flammen was really the beginning of our public life, our first film.” Is there such a film for you?
KT: Yes, Entwicklungsstücke (Pieces of Development, 17 minutes 1980). It’s the first film I consider my own. When you make a film you try to create your view, your own vision of the world. I bought a camera but didn’t know whether it worked or not. So one afternoon I went into the garden with three of my friends. They sat while I shot, and I developed the film and it looked quite different than what I’d done before. That was the beginning.
MH: What is the film about?
KT: It’s about the view, the camera perspective. For example, in one sequence, three people are sitting in chairs, and the position of the chairs is such that they are sitting on a diagonal for about two minutes and then the camera tilts to the other side and they clap. Then they see it’s wrong again, the camera is again tilted and they’re very irritated. When it returns to the horizontal they clap again. You see the audience when you see the film. There’s another sequence: a woman sits at a table and everything is tilted although you can’t tell until she stands up in the end. It’s black and white and self developed.
MH: Do you develop all of your films?
KT: Most of the time.
MH: Was this film made in art school?
KT: No, just afterwards, in Bremen.
MH: Was there a filmmaking scene?
KT: No, we were three people starting experimental film so we had to invent everything on our own.
MH: The other two are…
MH: Did you get any public feedback apart from this circle?
KT: No. Later on I had the chance to show my films to Birgit Hein. I knew she was an experimental filmmaker and she liked them, so I came into contact with a whole scene of experimental film in 1979-80.
MH: Did that change your work?
KT: No. But I realized when I showed my films they were different from other structural filmmaking. There were books on this kind of filmmaking and most people working in structural film made work following the descriptions like a recipe.
MH: What came after Pieces of Development?
KT: I don’t really like to talk about my films.
MH: In Pieces of Development you show the way the camera sees, and this is a theme taken up again in Indian Summer.
KT: I try to do personal films, but I go further, to find some general aspect in my personal view. When you’re a filmmaker you start in a very strong way and look happily at the world, and you think you can change the world, change filmmaking. But the more you work the more you become resigned, and the happy view changes to its opposite. I got tired from filmmaking and my last two films look a little burned out. They are about getting older, about how life is fading away. This is what you will see if you watch all of my films; you see how a person gets older.
My films are more difficult now. The more easy the films look, the more complicated they are. When I started my films I began with a very complicated technique, superimpositions, etc. and this is what audiences like, complicated images which in fact are quite easy. Complicated technique is very easy. The simpler an image looks the more complicated it is. I think the problem with my later films like Indian Summer or On the Balance is that you have to be in a special kind of mood to understand them. These are not festival films, for example.
MH: Festival settings make work invisible, even as they show up onscreen. It’s a problem making shorts because no one comes to the theatre to watch a five minute film. You need a program which invariably fails to deliver undivided attention. Are festivals how most filmers show their work here?
KT: Yes, but for my work it’s a problem, perhaps after all it’s a question of history, of what can be seen and how it’s shown. Brakhage, for instance, is not as good as his reputation, but he’s shown everywhere. What happened in our history is that people like David Larcher who are very good are unnoticed despite his talent. For example when Kubelka went to New York he never mentioned people like Kurt Kren. I don’t think it’s a good idea to show these classics over and again because if you do, it doesn’t allow difference to occur. Experimental film is quite different now from those days, I think you have to concentrate on new people and show them.
I made some terrible mistakes. You know I’ve taught experimental film for some time. Sometimes I talked so much about my point of view that the students made films that looked like mine. Now I feel it’s better to be very careful when teaching. Okay, now we must finish the interview. I can’t speak English this morning. Wir mussen. That’s it.
Klaus Telscher Filmography
1978 A Hollywood Flashback; Light and Window; Unter den Linden
1979 Snowfields; ZDF; Black in Progress
1982 Eastmans Reisen; Filme von Gestern; American Hotel
1983 Euer herz dem Tier
1984 Aus der alten Welt
1985 Great Kendo Commercial
1986 Am See; Gewalt und Leindenschaft
1987 Nachsommer; Warum ist es am Rhein so schon
1988/89 On the Balance
(Originally published in The Independent Eye Vol. 11 No. 2/3 Spring 1990)