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Issue 150

Life in Film: Clemens von Wedemeyer

In an ongoing series, frieze asks artists and filmmakers to list the films that have influenced them

BY Clemens von Wedemeyer in Critic's Guides | 01 OCT 12

Clemens von Wedemeyer is an artist based in Berlin, Germany. His films often encompass multiple storylines and viewpoints, adopting both cinematic and documentary conventions, screened in architectural installations. His three-channel film Muster (Rushes, 2012), which was commissioned for this year’s dOCUMENTA(13) in Kassel, re-imagines three different historical scenarios in the town of Breitenau, Germany. His workis included in the group exhibition ‘The City That Does Not Exist’ at the Ludwig Forum in Aachen, Germany, until 20 January 2013. His solo exhibition ‘The Fourth Wall’ is on view at Paço das Artes, São Paulo, Brazil, until 2 December.


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In a second-hand bookshop in deepest southern Germany, before I started my studies, I acquired a book: Gegen den Film (Against Cinema, 1964). It was cheap and the title was good. It included the scripts of three short films by Guy Debord, whose work I didn’t know at the time. From then on, I carried the book with me everywhere. His radical yet melancholy texts – particularly Critique de la séparation (Critique of Separation, 1961) – and the way the dialogue was typeset against the written descriptions of images, stimulated my imagination. As I applied these texts to my own reality, a film started inside my head. The scripts flickered into my own (life) film, like a teenager listening to a blaring Walkman and imagining his eyes as a camera. The world had suddenly become a situation, with phrases from the book superimposed on it.


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Besides influencing my own work, Gegen den Film nearly prevented me from making films. What was the point of making them at all if, as Debord said, ‘I have scarcely begun to make you understand that I don’t intend to play the game.’ How can one begin working when everything can only be wrong? Ten years passed before I actually saw one of Debord’s films. But during my studies in Leipzig, I realized that he was already known within the scene. While his book The Society of the Spectacle (1967) had a higher profile than his films, he was considered to be more a Marxist theorist than a Situationist filmmaker. And the Situationists were obviously co-opted by artists everywhere at the time: at a party in Oberhausen in 2000, I watched DJ Spooky perform in front of a projection of the film version of The Society of the Spectacle (1973). While I had thought of this little book as my very own treasure, it was strange to see that it was not at all mine alone, that his work was actually part of the Zeitgeist.


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At university, I would watch several films in succession by one director on video. Predictably, I went through an Andrei Tarkovsky phase, an Ingmar Bergman phase, then Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni phases, while new films by David Lynch or Lars von Trier appeared in the cinema. Von Trier’s The Element of Crime (1984) had a direct impact on me when I saw it by chance in the early 1990s at a cinema in Göttingen. I was totally enveloped by its mood, even if afterwards I had no idea what it was actually about. The action is set mostly in Halberstadt (about which one of the characters declares: ‘I’d rather live in a hole’) and it provided a view of a post-industrial German landscape that was seriously fantastical. Here was an experimental aesthetic woven into a narrative film. It may have been at the same cinema where I later saw Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), which made an even bigger impact. I don’t know why the films were only shown there years after their release, but I guess it was difficult for a small cinema to obtain copies at all. We were living in the 1990s, but condemned to watch the best films of the 1970s and ’80s.


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At the beginning of my studies, around 1997, Matthias Müller was invited to my university to show some of his 16mm films, including The Memo Book (1989) and Alpsee (1995). The way he incorporated historical footage into his films showed me another possible way of working. The relationship between found and new footage, and their interactions with the soundtrack, became my prime example of experimental cinema. This also applied to the series of screenings of experimental films from around the world that Müller organized. The fact that the films were shown on 16mm was important: it had an aura. Though the celluloid era was ending, I realized that 16mm gained an afterlife in art.

Mainstream television and movie producers often hate experimental films with a passion that is only matched by the rejection of conventional film formats by contemporary artists. But the world that lies between these ideologies is the most interesting to me, which is why I rate the works of German filmmaker Romuald Karmakar so highly. Karmakar’s films are always independently produced, and whether documentary or sophisticated fiction, they are always conceptual. At the Locarno Film Festival in 2000, I saw two of them: Manila (2000) and Das Himmler-Projekt (The Himmler Project, 2000). In Das Himmler-Projekt, a single actor stands alone in front of the camera for three hours, reciting a speech delivered by Heinrich Himmler to the Gestapo in 1943. In Manila, 100 actors play contemporary German tourists stranded at Manila Airport, trying to get home. Though these two films take opposite approaches, each penetrates the reality of its subjects to the core. 


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Films (re-)discovered during research for my own projects have also been a big influence. These include works I’ve wanted to see for a long time or things friends tell me about, such as Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (From the East, 1993). In some scenes, the people in this document of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Wall appear not just to have been captured by the camera, but to be actually captive, as if someone had staged their entire lives ... A kind of camera is always already present in life.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell.

Clemens von Wedemeyer is a German filmmaker and video artist.