Volks Stöhnende Knochenschau: A Historic Video News Reel Project Review
Given that the Volks stöhnende Knochenschau (henceforth VsK) are unlikely to ring many widespread bells an explanation is perhaps in order. This was the name adopted by a short-lived collective of political filmmakers operating in Austria during the early eighties. Of course, cinematic collectives have been operating for years, yet in the case of the VsK some differences are noticeably apparent. If, for example, we draw up a list of British outfits working in roughly the same period – the Black Audio Film and Video Collective, the Amber Production Unit, the Berwick Street Film Collective, Cinema Action – we find a shared focus on political issues, yet also a concentration on utilising film more often than video, a fairly commonplace predetermination towards feature film production and even, in some cases, the occasional shift into fiction. With the VsK, however, we have a far simpler, and perhaps more direct, method and approach: each piece is documentary in format, recorded onto black and white videotape and never once exceeds twenty minutes in length.
The VsK’s objectives were similarly unfussy in the best possible way. 1980 being an era which was pre-digital and saw Austria’s televisual media extend to only two channels, there was understandably little room for alternative voices. What the collective proposed to do was not only to offer these voices a platform, but also to ensure that they then became heard. The relative simplicity of videotape allowed them to roam the country as it were, setting up impromptu screenings and thereby giving isolated communities an access to material which had hitherto been out of reach.
This latter aspect was vital to the aim that the VsK’s output was there to provoke or further discussion. Given the length of these works they could hardly be expected to in any way offer a definitive argument and as such they serve more as introductions or acts of reportage. Moreover, the themes with which the VsK concerned themselves were always of the utmost seriousness and treated in such a manner; their collaborators on these video “news reels” included, amongst others, the November 5. Movement (a dedicated anti-nuclear group) and the Homosexual Initiative/HOSI.
Offering five examples of the VsK’s total output (which roughly equates to a quarter), this disc is best seen as an overview of their efforts. As you’d expect, we’re getting a cross-section here intent on demonstrating their range, yet what proves most interesting, especially to the newcomer, is their unity. Each begins with a kind of credit sequence for the VsK: images of civil unrest, a general community vibe and tiny television sets being lifted atop clapped out vans rewind us to a very particular past, as indeed does the main content of each. What we find a remarkable cinematic naïveté, clearly the result of these people being more concerned with their politics than the manner in which they’ve chosen to convey them. Yet this shouldn’t be considered a flaw as the beneficial effects are twofold. Firstly, it allows these pieces to take on a certain innocent charm (Index’s sleeve blurb fittingly refers to them as “quaint”). Secondly, it means that the documentary content is decidedly pure.
Indeed, owing to their innocence you never once get the impression that the VsK and their various associates are able to impose too much onto the material. There’s no sense of manipulation à la Peter Davis or Michael Moore, but rather an undisguised simplicity, a “telling it like it is”. Each of the shorts relies primarily on straight reportage and/or standard vox pops and in every case the material is allowed to speak for itself, unhindered. Schwul Sein Kann Schön Sein! (Being Gay Can Be Beautiful), for example, asks random people on the street a direct, but provocative question: Would you vote for a presidential candidate had you been aware he was homosexual? As you’d expect being the cross-section interviewed the answers similarly are direct and similarly provocative – and it’s here where this particular short’s strength lies.
Importantly, it’s a quality which remains throughout: Christa erzahlt (Christa Recounts) presents a middle-aged prostitute recounting her experiences in a single, almost unedited take; Burggarten combines a low-key voice with scenes of youthful rebellion to startlingly no-nonsense effect. And of course, such directness also makes these pieces fascinating historical records. There are no great cinematic considerations or motivations to negotiate first, rather we’re able to get straight to the raw human emotions.
That said, the occasional filmic pretension does sometimes make it to the surface, often to a vaguely embarrassing effect. It’s not difficult to ascertain that the VsK, or at least the groups with whom they collaborated, had some background in street theatre as there’s a similar level of clumsy performance arriving in tiny fragments. Ungustl Atom (Unsavoury Atom), the anti-nuclear piece, has its various interviews linked by a singing accordionist, whilst Theatergruppe Collage: Autoanbetung is for the most part a play-acted satire-cum-indictment of automobile worship. And yet whilst such instances may provoke the occasional inward groan, it’s also hard to not to be taken in by the sheer naïve charm. Though unmistakably serious in their overall intent, this doesn’t mean that the VsK’s output couldn’t also be entertaining.
Volks stöhnende Knochenschau: A Historic Video New Reel Project is part of Austrian label Index DVD’s current batch of Region 0 PAL discs released last year. A small scale outfit specialising in the experimental and the avant-garde (other titles include compilations by the likes of Gustav Deutsch, VALIE EXPORT and Kurt Kren) they’re unable to provide much in the way of additional material, but then we should be eternally grateful that these films are seeing any kind of release. More importantly, judging by the releases I’ve seen so far it would appear that Index treat their releases with great care – they’re superbly packaged, come with a 20-page bilingual booklet filled with handy notes, essays and filmographies, plus the presentations are decidedly fine. Indeed, in the case of this release there really are few, if any complaints to make. Of course, we have to consider that black and white videotape circa 1980 wasn’t of the greatest quality, yet as such it’s likely that we’re seeing these five pieces in as fine a condition as possible. The original aspect ratios have been maintained, as have the original German mono soundtracks (English subtitles are optional) and there are great no technical quibbles to speak of. All told, anybody with an interest in this area of filmmaking really shouldn’t be anything other than suitably impressed.
For further information on Index DVD and details on how to purchase their releases, please visit their website at www.index-dvd.at.