Ella Bergmann-Michel: Dokumentarische Filme 1931-1933 Review

Little known in the UK, Ella Bergmann-Michel is something of an unsung figure of the documentary movement. Operating in the early thirties, she amassed a small body of work which has now been treated to a definitive release courtesy of the Edition Filmmuseum imprint. Easily fitting onto a single disc we find her four completed films (all shorts), one abandoned project, various surviving fragments and outtakes, plus, to top things off, a fine contextualising documentary from 1989. In total that’s less than three hours worth of footage, yet Bergmann-Michel nonetheless demonstrates terrific range. Her first short, Where Old People Live, was a commissioned piece designed to show off a newly erected example of modernist architecture. Her second, Unemployed are Cooking for the Unemployed, was another commission, this time an impassioned plea for donations to Germany’s soup kitchens. Meanwhile, Travelling Hawkers in Frankfurt am Main prefigures the British Free Cinema movement in its freewheeling record of illegal street salesmen, whilst Fishing in the Rhön is an impressionist, sensual account of her husband indulging in the titular activity. Finally, the never completed Election Campaign 1932 (Last Election) is an abstract glimpse at the political climate in Germany just prior to the election of Hitler and the Nazi party.

So, with such eclecticism on display, what connects this small cinematic oeuvre of Bergmann-Michel? As the title of the disc makes clear all are documentaries and were made within a small period of time. Previously Bergmann-Michel had been an abstract artist working on cubist/surrealist collages (an area which the attendant 1989 documentary delves into) and certainly all the films come with a distinctive sense of composition. Where Old People Live clearly takes a great fascination in its architectural subject, specifically its angles and curves. Similarly, Fishing in the Rhön laps up the ever changing textures of the water and the reflections this produces. Both films are ultimately quite different, yet there’s undoubtedly the same logic at work behind them. Indeed, Election Campaign 1932, though incomplete, proves this further: its view of German politics as a series of abstractions and distant viewpoints makes clear Bergmann-Michel’s apathy to the situation even as it remains so visually impressive.

Of course, what this is providing in all cases is texture, a word which should be integral to any consideration of Bergmann-Michel’s filmic output. Yet it’s not only the visual textures which are apparent, but also those which arise from the people whom she films. In many of the shorts we’re dealing with what are effectively little subcultures, cinematic rarities (or at least within the context of the early thirties we are). We have the old folk of Where Old People Live, the unemployed in Unemployed and Cooking… and Travelling Hawkers, or the artist (and husband to the director) Robert Michel in Fishing in the Rhön. And the fact that all are so rare in cinematic terms only makes them come alive that little bit more. Certainly, it helps that Bergmann-Michel’s empathy is never in doubt and that her reportage is essentially sober despite the visual qualities on display, yet ultimately it’s the fact that we’re afforded glimpses at Germany’s unemployed in the early thirties, for example, which makes these works so endearing.

Indeed, the avant-garde connections to Bergmann-Michel’s output – her friendships with Dziga Vertov and Joris Ivens; Where Old People Live’s early screenings alongside Han Richter’s The New Apartment - seem almost inconsequential in comparison to the more human qualities on display. Bergmann-Michel’s films are always impassioned, always personal and as such come across as much richer works than this tag implies. What we come away with from these titles is not so much an appreciation of the manner in which she captures images (though this is no doubt a major talent of hers), but the images themselves: of the impoverished, of the innocent or, in the case of the shots of posters for Hitler’s forthcoming election victory, of the unwittingly ominous.

The Disc

One of the latest releases from Edition Filmmuseum, the label have once again done themselves proud with Dokumentarische Filme 1931 – 1933. Released as a Region 0 PAL disc, this set is, as said, the definitive collection when it comes to Bergmann-Michel’s cinematic output. All of her films – and the fragments – are in fine condition (certainly looking better than the excerpts used in the 1989 documentary) and demonstrate fine levels of contrast and clarity. Of course, damage is present in some instances (Travelling Hawkers… only exists as a 16mm work print), but never to the degree that affects our enjoyment. Furthermore, Edition Filmmuseum have also provided each of the titles with the option of being viewed either in their original silent form or with sparse, yet perfectly suited musical scores. Election Campaign 1932, in particular, makes effective use of piano accompaniment. Also present are optional English subtitles to accompany those titles which come with German intertitles.

As for the extras, this disc offers one of Edition Filmmuseum’s best efforts yet. The 1989 documentary, Blue is the Beat of My Heart, which again comes with optional English subtitling, does a fine job of contextualising Bergmann-Michel’s work, whilst the collection of fragments and outtakes only serve to make this release all the more definitive. The complete 35mm footage for Travelling Hawkers (totalling 46 minutes) is particularly revelatory. Rounding off the package we also have a bilingual (German/English) 20-page booklet which contains new liner notes, a reprinted piece by Bergmann-Michel herself, and various biographical and filmographical details.

This disc is available direct via the Edition Filmmuseum website.

8 out of 10
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