Clip in Progress
The filmmaker Romuald Karmakar is redefining his oeuvre – and cinema itself – on YouTube
The filmmaker Romuald Karmakar is redefining his oeuvre – and cinema itself – on YouTube
Romuald Karmakar’s film Geduld im Grunewald (Patience in the Grunewald, 2011) lasts one minute and five seconds. It shows a dreamy lake surrounded by dense woods (the subtitle ‘The Angler of Lake Hubertus’ tells us the precise location); the sky is reflected in the still surface of the water; in the background of this perfectly composed picture, we can make out a small boat, presumably containing the angler. We don’t see
a catch, and strictly speaking we can’t even see the fisherman, who acts here more as the vanishing point of an absent narrative than as a conventional film protagonist. Nature itself constitutes the action: the light, the chirping of the birds, the breathing spring day. It is as if a genre scene had been supplemented with a measure of temporality, made visible by the ducks flying through the picture.
Due to its brevity, Geduld im Grunewald inevitably poses the question of the film’s place within the field of the audio-visual. At the cinema, it could be shown as a supporting film, as an intervention among the commercials or as a contemplative transition between items on the screening programme. In an exhibition, it would be conceivable as a loop; like so many films shown in the gallery context, it would raise the question of the reception and the duration of work. But Karmakar ‘installed’ Geduld im Grunewald in a different setting: the film is to be found on his YouTube channel ‘cinekarmakar’. The web page tells us when the work was uploaded (19 May 2011) and how many people have viewed it (496 on
the second Sunday of 2012).
In a conventional filmography, Geduld im Grunewald would not be listed. Not only is it too short, it also lacks a point of entry to the relevant spheres of public awareness such as a festival premiere, a DVD release, a debut screening in a programme of short films or an appearance in an exhibition. Not so the documentary Die Herde des Herrn (The Lord’s Flock) which had its premiere in September 2011 at the 68th Venice International Film Festival and which has since been listed as Karmakar’s most recent film. In this case, the main criteria defining the film as a work in the conventional sense of the term – length, unified theme, specific genre – are fulfilled.
But a look at cinekarmakar reveals that things are more complicated in the case of Die Herde des Herrn, too, since his YouTube channel has long featured preliminary works which initially could not be identified as something out of which Karmakar would eventually assemble a ‘proper’ film. In 2005, around the time when Pope John Paul II died and the German Cardinal Ratzinger was appointed as the new head of the Catholic church, the filmmaker shot documentary footage in Rome and in the Bavarian town of Marktl am Inn (Ratzinger’s birthplace). The scenes depict present-day forms of religiosity that appear both strange and familiar: strange in their reliance on traditional forms of ritual, the Latin chants and stagings of transcendence; familiar in their mix of provinciality and universality, in the celebrity that cannot be escaped by someone appointed to high religious office and in the production of an individual perspective on a mass-media event.
This tension between festival premiere and data upload has now become a constitutive aspect of Karmakar’s oeuvre, a quality marking him out as one of the most interesting filmmakers in Germany today. Initially, he worked towards this status in the traditional way: with feature films like the multi-award-winning Der Totmacher (Deathmaker, 1995), a re-enactment of the interrogations of mass murderer Fritz Haarmann in the style of an intimate chamber drama; Die Nacht singt ihre Lieder (Nightsongs, 2004, based on a play by Jon Fosse); or the controversial Manila (2000) showing the politically-charged group dynamics of a planeload of German tourists stranded at the Philippine capital’s airport. But his status is also based on two major conceptual documentaries – Das Himmler-Projekt (The Himmler Project, 1999) and Hamburger Lektionen (Hamburg Lessons, 2006) – as well as his observations on electronic music culture, which have been compiled into several full-length films, above all 196bpm (2003). In this film, Karmakar documented the 2002 Love Parade in three long shots, culminating in an outstanding late-night set by DJ Hell at Berlin’s WMF club. A similar approach is taken in Between the Devil and the Wide Blue Sea (2005), which brings together longer sequences of live performances in the club scene, from Alter Ego to T. Raumschmiere, while Villalobos (2009) is a monographic portrait of Ricardo Villalobos, the star DJ of the noughties in Berlin.
This all adds up to a diverse oeuvre, much of which is now available on DVD, but which is also linked to a greater degree than that of other filmmakers to another body of material consisting of projects, fragments and notes – film works in progress for which the appropriate formats only emerged in the noughties with the arrival of social media. Of course, the specific quality of this oeuvre also has to do with the failure of traditional structures. On several occasions, Karmakar had trouble obtaining the all-important grants that are readily available in Germany for more conventional projects – for example a feature film about Hamburg’s Police Battalion 101 and its activities on the Eastern Front during World War II has yet to be realized, although (or perhaps precisely because) the project is based on in-depth historical research. In this context, the cinekarmakar channel also includes a video of the inaugural lecture given by the historian Michael Wildt at the Humboldt-Universität in Berlin, recorded from a seat in the auditorium and clearly identifiable as a bootleg – Karmakar uses the term ‘mobvideo’, deliberately chosen for its double meaning as a video shot with a mobile phone and as an audiovisual message from the mob in the sense not of ‘rabble’ but of ‘mobilized masses’.
This video is assigned to the category ‘education’ and points to the historiographical character of Karmakar’s projects in general, which also underscore the use of different media in historical documentation, from lectures to re-enactments. In Das Himmler-Projekt, the actor Manfred Zapatka recites an infamous speech by Heinrich Himmler from 1943 in its entirety against a neutral backdrop and as ‘dispassionately’ as possible; the film has now been recognized as a pioneering work at the interface between archiving and reviving the archive, as has the similarly conceived Hamburger Lektionen. Here, Zapatka recites a German translation of sermons (commonly known as ‘hate sermons’) which were delivered at the Hamburg mosque attended by Mohammed Atta and other suicide attackers of 9/11.
A feature about Das Himmler-Projekt – made in 1999 by Alexander Kluge for his company DCTP – has now also been posted on cinekarmakar. It provides an important cross-reference since the generalist interest that Kluge displays in his documentary television formats resembles the interest conveyed by Karmakar via his online presence. Here, Karmakar is no longer forced to concentrate on the main project of the moment, which can easily take up three or four years. Instead, he can collect incidental material: footage of a fox in the urban surroundings of the German foreign ministry in Berlin or the still life Esel mit Schnee (Donkey With Snow, 2010), which feels a little like the winter version of Geduld im Grunewald. On his YouTube channel, Karmakar can interview fellow filmmakers (from Lav Diaz to Christoph Hochhäusler) and surround his own work with a small canon selected from film history (for example, with a reference to Aleksey Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men, 1998).
The music documentaries – originally created as scattered observations – are joined here by additional material. But cinekarmakar does not contain only bonus material relating to his ‘proper’ filmography, as suggested by the logic of DVD releases where a careful distinction is drawn between the film itself and the extras. The groups of works that Karmakar has circulated through social media – in addition to YouTube, he uses Facebook and has a blog with film recommendations at karmakar-filmsyoushouldsee.blogspot.com – point to the altered status of film as a whole. For a long time, critical discourse resisted addressing the dissolution of familiar formats into ‘clips’. But now a less strained relationship between the different models is gradually emerging: With its shorter formats, cinekarmakar is far more than just a referencing device, more than a promotional vehicle for the ‘actual’ works. The personalized channel on the video portal of the masses is proving to be a place where the notion of what constitutes a work is changing. As if to prove the increased permeability of various formats and their respective contexts, Esel im Schnee was screened in unaltered form as part of the 2011 International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen and thus in the ‘official’ festival circuit. The cinekarmakar channel is not just ‘viral marketing’ but also an attempt to redefine the possibilities of radical filmmaking in the context of the technical surfaces and commercial structures that surround us. While other filmmakers faced with the loss of traditional structures ‘emigrated’ straight to the field of art (Harun Farocki comes to mind), Karmakar remains in the field of cinema – but he ‘goes into exile’ in new media. This move puts him in an ideal position for new forms of financing such as crowd funding, although even in the age of ‘mobvideos’ the means of production remains a delicate question. Only time will tell – one more reason why the patient angler on Lake Hubertus is such a key figure in Karmakar’s oeuvre.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell