BY Ekkehard Knörer in Profiles | 14 NOV 14
Featured in
Issue 17

Critical Studies

Living and thinking in Berlin: two recent films by Max Linz and Stephan Geene

BY Ekkehard Knörer in Profiles | 14 NOV 14

Asta Upset, 2014. courtesy: Amerikafilm / Sarah Bohn

The beginning: instead of cards laid on a table, there are books. The main character in Max Linz’s debut feature Asta Upset (2014) takes her place at this exhibition of names and titles that clutter her desk. She wears a salmon-pink dress that matches her reddish blonde hair. As the film progresses, the demand for colour coordination turns Asta Andersen (Sarah Ralfs) into a walking fashion boutique. On her desk stands a row of paperbacks published by Suhrkamp. Asta, a curator, reads Niklas Luhmann’s Art as a Social System (1995). She leafs through the arts and culture section of German highbrow weekly Die Zeit. She stacks and restacks books by Rainald Goetz and Walter Benjamin, an old issue of Frauen und Film magazine, Siegfried Kracauer, Gilles Deleuze. She reads aloud from a text on economics. What is Asta doing with these books? What is the film trying to do with them? Is this theorizing, reading, exhibiting? Or are these activities – theorizing, reading, exhibiting – just quotes?

Asta Upset is Linz’s graduation film from his time at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (dffb). Although it takes a while for the plot to emerge, two counterpoint motifs are obvious from the outset: the referencing of big names from art and theory’s past, or, not explicitly naming, but making it fairly obvious who is being referred to. One name that is much cited, for example, is Rainer Werner Fassbinder. We see a reading group, led by Asta: beside her a pale, bearded man and two women. Sat on a couch, Asta is explicit: ‘Last night I watched the fifth episode of Acht Stunden sind kein Tag [Eight Hours Are Not a Day, 1972] again. In the penultimate sequence, Hanna Schygulla sits just like I’m sitting now, and the others are grouped around her just like you are here.’

Asta Upset, 2014. Courtesy: Amerikafilm / Sarah Bohn

Re-enactment here is not blind imitation but reconstruction that becomes self-referential. Because Fassbinder’s television series Acht Stunden sind kein Tag was grounded in Marxist theory and broadcast during prime time on West German television, reference to Fassbinder is not the main focus. Instead, the message is one of a different and better past. Linz shows that he’s familiar with former kinds of politically engaged theory: Fassbinder, Bertolt Brecht, Christoph Schlingensief. He also shows that he knows about (and is capable of) the kind of theoretical manoeuvres that are cutting-edge today – as practiced by René Pollesch, for example, with his attempts to reactivate theoretical texts in language games set for the theatre. Moreover, Hannelore Hoger, in a great per­formance as the main character’s mother, quotes Alexander Kluge.

And that is far from all. Further subjects explored include, among many others: war, curatorial studies, Comedy Central, Seinfeld, urban gardening, Brecht yoga (Brecht yoga? Brecht yoga!), Joachim Gauck, gen­trification in Berlin. In other words: too much. Way too much.

Umsonst, 2014. Courtesy: bbooksz av film

A great deal less is undertaken by Umsonst (For Free/In Vain, 2014), which comes from a different theoretical camp. The two films have drawn comparison because they were both shown in the Forum section of the most recent Berlinale Film Festival. With a little goodwill, one can see them both as complementary treatments of current living and thinking conditions in Berlin. Stephan Geene, who directed Umsonst, is co-founder of b_books, a Kreuzberg bookshop run by a collective of theorists, writers, publishers, filmmakers and bon vivants (the shop turns 18 this year). With his debut After Effect (2007), Geene presented the muddled jumble of the advertising and art worlds in Berlin. In Umsonst, he follows several characters on their wanderings around Kreuzberg: musicians, slackers, hipsters, nuisances. Much of the action is, or looks, improvised: every now and then a bit of street music on the banks of the Landwehrkanal. This attempt at a relaxed mood soon grates by its self-conscious desire to be relaxed. Unfortunately, the film’s portrayal of urban space, including the occasional confrontation between the international creative precariat and the neighbourhood grannies, offers no formal or sociological surprises. Although Umsonst seems at first glance to belong to the ‘Berlin School’, it lacks the visual intelligence and formal awareness of a director like Thomas Arslan, whose Kreuzberg films of 15 years ago were already more advanced.

By contrast, the appeal of Linz’s film lies in its attempt to square the circle: by being more than just sprawling quotations and manifold self-reference. It wants something from theory, grasping it as something that can be worked with: whisking up texts and signifiers, heating up discourses to well above operating temperature. And not just because it’s fun. (Although it is also fun.) In parts, the film is hilarious. (The non-stop theory posing can get annoying at times, but that doesn’t matter.)

Umsonst, 2014. Courtesy: bbooksz av film

The driving force, however, is anger – directed towards prevailing conditions that just are the way they are. The anger hinted at in the film’s title is rooted in the fact that the film itself is inside the system, and it knows it. Really, it would like to get in a righteous rage, but that is not possible. It wants state funding, it wants to do everything right, it wants to be shown at festivals, it wants to pay its actors and crew, and not just on a hand to mouth basis. In this way, Asta Upset becomes a meta-state-subsidy movie. This even features in the plot, as Asta is looking for funding. She is planning an exhibition with the oddly ungrammatical title Das Kino. Das Kunst. (The Cinema. The Art.). The film thus speaks of its own conditions, or at least (having been made in the protected envi­ronment of the film academy) of the possibility of making films in the future. It flies into a rage about the system of film funding and gets all nostalgic for the public service television of the 1970s. But in fact, it is at least as much about The Art as it is about The Cinema. Or, to be more precise: Max Linz attempts to pursue the project of Institutional Critique by means of filmic allusion and self-referentiality.

This raises the question of criticism. The film is evocative – but is it critical? It would like to be, but it knows and says often enough that success within the industry is achieved by smart criticism. As mentioned, Asta Upset was shown at the Berlinale. Now it is due for a cinema release (8 January 2015). It is a declaration of love for many things that have long been established as criticism. At the end, it joins up with anti-gentrification protesters in Kreuzberg at a rally, seeking to link back to a real social movement. Whether or not it believes that this advances artistic forms of critique is a question that remains unanswered.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Ekkehard Knörer is editor of Merkur. Deutsche Zeitschrift für europäisches Denken and publisher of Cargo magazine. He lives in Berlin.