06 July 2008

Wolfsgrub
Step across the border
Middle of the moment
three visionary documentaries by
Nicolas Humbert & Werner Penzel
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Werner Penzel & Nicolas Humbert
In the three documentary features described below, Nicolas Humbert and his co-director Wener Penzel have approached the medium in a way that allows the subjects to speak for themselves. There are no voice-overs, no ‘narrators’ – on occasion speech is addressed to the filmmakers / audience by those depicted in the films, and sometimes the actual voice of the filmmaker is heard, in conversation with the subject – but the overriding impression is the sensation of being a spectator, a witness to the lives and creativity of some extraordinary people. The method prevents these films from becoming dry and over-intellectualized exercises and allows the viewer to become a part of the environment and experience played out before the eyes on celluloid.

These three films are all available on DVD under the auspices of the wonderful German label Winter & Winter – their release should go a long way in making the company known as much for its support of cinematic efforts as the great jazz and classical music which makes up the bulk of its catalogue.

Wolfsgrub : portrait of my motherWOLFSGRUB DVD cover
directed by Nicolas Humbert
1985, 64min

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Wolfsgrub, c.1934

This film’s subtitle belies the depth and intimacy with which Humbert addresses his subject. Wolfsgrub is the name of the hamlet in Germany where his mother, daughter of the writer Max Mohr, grew up and spent all of her life. Filmed in simple black and white, filled with striking yet simple images of the surrounding countryside, the house and the subject, it’s an extremely effective immersion into the life and history of an inspiringly independent, intelligent and free-thinking woman. Eva, Humbert’s mother, is seen asleep, waking up, washing and combing her hair, going about her daily chores – a practical view of her life which is woven delicately and naturally into her conversation (which is mostly a monologue of remembrance) with her son, which makes up the bulk of the film. She candidly speaks of her life at Wolfsgrub from the time she was a child to the present, talking openly about her father and mother, their differing personalities and life-requirements, his self-imposed exile to China during WWII, and about growing up during the time of Nazism in Germany.
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Eva Humbert-Mohr's parents, Kathe and Max Mohr, c. 1934

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Eva Mohr, c. 1934
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Eva relates that her mother was pretty successful in shielding her from the harsh realities of that dark time – the incidents that opened her eyes and mind to the nature of those in charge of the government at the time seem small and ordinary taken out of context, but were both opportune and imperative in altering the course of the human spirit. More than a feeling of ‘collective guilt’, she speaks of a sense of ‘collective shame’ at what the Nazis wrought on humanity – it caused the eyes of her conscience to open wide, and brought with it a different political view…but in her case, more one of a Gandhi-like ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’ rather than outright political activism. The sheer openness and honesty with which she speaks of her life, world events, her family, the joys and mistakes she has experienced, her philosophical lack of personal regrets, all make her an unforgettable and admirable human being.

Humbert’s images are simple ones – opening sequences depict his journey home, followed by shots of the surrounding area’s idyllic setting. The viewer is left with the feeling that the house – almost as much as his mother – is a living, breathing character. It has witnessed much in its history, and is an inseparable link to the lives of all who have dwelled within or simply passed through its doors. The textures of its walls and floors and furnishings are as detailed and defining as the lines on a human’s face and hands – there are stories and lessons to be found there, if one will only take the time to look and listen. The film is personal in a way that few documentaries attempt or accomplish – it’s a gentle but complete immersion into the life and history of this remarkable woman, told with grace, easy and beauty. Humbert’s concept and execution, the knowledge, love and respect with which he treats his subject, and the compelling but unobtrusive soundtrack by Fred Frith all combine to make this an unforgettable, enriching experience.
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Wolfsgrub was awarded the Public Prize at Filmfest München, 1986
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Step across the border
STEP DVD cover
directed by Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel
1990, 84min (+ 30min of extra material)

STEP 001
Possibly as a result of working with Fred Frith on the 1985 film Wolfsgrub, Nicholas Humbert and co-director Werner Penzel turned their lens on the renowned avant-garde / improvisational musician as the subject of Step across the border, described as ‘a ninety minute celluloid improvisation’. As in that earlier film, there is no real ‘narration’ – Frith is shown in multiple settings relaxing, rehearsing, performing before rapt audiences, and in conversation (mostly one-way) with the camera crew. Shot over the course of four years (1987-90) in several countries (Japan, Germany, France, Italy, England, the US and Switzerland), it’s an extremely interesting, informative and involving portrait of the musician / composer, his fans and cohorts, and the music itself. Far from being a stuffy intellectual type (although his intelligence cannot be disputed by any means), Fred is shown to be outgoing and engaging, open-minded, with a free spirit – and certainly not reticent when it comes to sharing a laugh with others. One of the brightest moments of the film – at least to me – was the scene, perhaps shot in Fred’s home or that of a friend, where he reproduces the themes from several of his many musical compositions using only his mouth and a bit of ‘body percussion’. It shows that while he’s aware of his own talents and creativity, he doesn’t take himself so seriously as to be egotistical and unnecessarily elevated.
STEP 003
Several sequences in the film depict motion and travel – Fred tours quite a bit, playing to appreciative audiences all over the world, so this is an understandable and integral part of the picture the filmmakers paint. This is not to say that the subjects – Fred and the music – are shown as being isolated from the world in which they, and we, exist. All of the locales are fully-formed, visually, with the environment (both good and bad) clearly shown. Performing and composing in diverse areas of music, from tightly composed (including some with a string quartet) to totally improvised, he’s shown rehearsing with a group performing a tune from his days with Massacre; with the late Tom Cora, preparing for a gig at The Kitchen in New York City; playing casually outdoors with Iva Bittová and others; and in various concert settings including appearing solo in Osaka. Other well-known musicians – Arto Lindsay, Charles Hayward, John Zorn, Tim Hodgkinson and others appear in various sequences, both in the film and in the extra material included on the DVD.
STEP 005
Both the video and sound quality are excellent – combined with the sensitive choice of material, method and editing of the filmmakers, the viewer will no doubt come away from Step across the border with a greater understanding of not only the music of Fred Frith, but his character, temperament and philosophy…and of the experimental / improvisational music scene as well. This is a great opportunity for fans of Fred’s music to experience him creating and performing it – and an opportunity for those who have never dipped into this rich well to savor something completely different from the fare shoveled out by commercial radio and other outlets.

Step across the border is the recipient of the Golden Gate Award, the European Film Award, and the Grand Prix International.



Middle of the moment
MIDDLE DVD cover
directed by Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel
1995, 76min (+ 42min of extra material)

From the notes on the DVD cover, excerpted from the Winter & Winter website, by Miriam van Leer : The essence of any experience, any moment, is to be found where people are in most intense contact with the place they occupy. And, paradoxically, it is through a nomadic existence that one occupies a space the most intensely. Whether the nature of this nomadism is largely physical…or rather abstract…is not important. In my opinion, the greatest achievement that filmmakers Humbert and Penzel have achieved – at least in these three films – is Middle of the moment. Two groups of people, along with one individual, have been chosen to represent the subject matter at hand – the performers and workers that form the heart and soul of the European ensemble Cirque O; the wandering Touareg tribes Kel Iforas and Kel Wdegui of the forbidding Ténéré region of the south Sahara; and the great American expatriate and seclusionist poet Robert Lax.
MIDDLE 001
The images are shot in both close-up and distant formats – but the feeling the viewer is given is one of intimacy. The film opens with a shot at night of sparks from a fire blowing in the wind, accompanied by images of a road in the dark, with briefly lit road signs passing by. Then two young faces appear, lit by the fire – one is tending the flame, blowing on it to get it started, as if imbuing it with life by giving it his breath. Scenes shift from time to time, with images of desert nomad life being contrasted and compared with those of life in a traveling European circus – in a brief interlude, Robert Lax is shown reading one of his short works. While it would seem at first glance that these lifestyles have little in common other than constant traveling and isolation (imposed or by choice) from the greater body of human society, similarities and shared traits soon become visible and otherwise evident.
MIDDLE 008
Both the desert nomads and the circus performers are shown erecting and dismantling tents – shelter for one, workplace for the other. I readily saw a theme of circles developing in this film – perhaps intended overtly or not, I sensed it as a visual / emotional reference to the ‘connectivity’ expressed in the quote above – these are people who are more in touch with the earth than people who dwell in (and are almost completely depended to) cities and other ‘permanent’ forms of residence can hope to completely understand or feel. They move across the skin of the world, in constant and intense contact with it – everything they do, with few exceptions, directly relates to their ability to survive and even thrive in the environment they inhabit. There are circles formed by bodies around a fire; a bowl containing a yoghurt made from goat’s milk, from which hands dip from all sides; an improvised well, dug into the sands by hand; the performance area of rings inside the circus tent, as well as the circles formed by the tents themselves, both of the circus and the nomads; the circular nature of life and time itself, expressed in the poem read by Robert Lax :
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One moment passes –
another comes on.
How was, was –
how is, is –
how will be, will be.
Is was,
was is,
was wasn’t,
wasn’t was,
is isn’t,
isn’t is,
won’t will be,
will be won’t.
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The contradictions that appear on the surface of the seemingly simple series of thoughts that make up this poem are so interconnected that they become one – like a circle. One of the most striking images in the film is of a female circus performer spinning at angles in a large double-wheel, controlling her movements and direction and speed by subtle body movements – it’s a compelling picture of grace and beauty, drawing the eyes as a magnet draws iron. Similarly moving is the birth of a baby camel, the mother being assisted gently by some of the tribal members – we later see the young animal encouraged by a tribesman to rise up and take its first steps, watched over with visible love by the new mother.
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There is little conversation or dialogue in the film that is ‘explanatory’ – the exceptions are conversations between people, never by the filmmakers themselves. One of the desert nomads relates a dream to a woman, perhaps his wife, as they sit on the sand: And then I shout – every time they come and pursue me in my dream, I shout. Sometimes I sleep under a tree and can hear the jackal…in my dream he comes to eat the goats, then I shout – he clears off. And sometimes I dream that something grabs me and pulls me into the sky… An image appears of a young boy sitting before a fire at night, with the moon a tiny circle over his shoulder – his face is at first glance inscrutable, but there is a world to be seen in his eyes. The scene changes to that of one of the circus performers applying his makeup in a mirror – the paint with which he colors his face makes a fierce design, but, again, there is deep humanity in his eyes.
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Music plays a large role in the lives of both the Europeans and the Touaregs – a plaintive Roma melody is played on the violin by a woman in one of the caravans that will go right to your heart of hearts; a man wanders along a dockside, playing an accordion; a group of desert-dwelling women chant and sing in the night in a call-and-response style, accompanying themselves on drums; the band in the circus plays along with the performers, musically coloring the emotions they create in the onlookers; and the music is present in its absence in a scene in the desert campsite, showing another circle, made of footprints, left from the previous evening’s dancing and revelry.

This film is pure artistry, assembled with great skill and creativity by filmmakers to express ideas and emotions connected with a style of life that is unchained from the day-to-day treadmill that most of us experience. It is a breathtaking and moving picture of the juncture of humanity touching the earth – the footprints in the sand, the impression of tents removed, the shadow painted by a spinning metal hoop in a circus spotlight, slowly but inexorably coming to a horizontal stillness. All of these images will vanish – the footprints will be erased by the desert wind; the rains will wash away the marks in the ground made by the circus tents; the shadow and the hoop that made it will disappear when the lights are cut and the equipment is packed away.

The humanity – and the less-visible but more longer-lasting touches it makes with the earth, will remain.

Middle of the moment has received many film awards, including the Prix La Sarraz for innovative cinema, Switzerland, 1995; the Prix du Public, Filmfestival Marseille, France, 1995; the Grand Prix - Best Documentary, Filmfestival Florence, Italy 1995; and the Hessischer Filmpreis - Best Documentary, Germany , 1995. It has been screened at film festivals around the world.


I consider all of these to be essential elements of my film collection, and of my life experience in general. You’re extremely unlikely to be fortunate enough to see any of them in a theatre (I’d love to do so, but I doubt I’ll ever have the opportunity) – but they’re available at reasonable prices on DVD (see the Allegro link below) – and the packaging by Winter & Winter is distinctive, aesthetic and informative, as is the case with all of their musical releases. Heck, Step across the border and Middle of the moment are even available through Netflix, and you might well be able to locate them for rental locally, depending on the presence of an outlet that features hard-to-find items. However you find them, I can’t recommend them highly enough – each one of them makes for incredibly enriching and rewarding viewing.
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Allegro Music – affordable domestic source for mail-ordering the DVDs
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