W+B Hein: Materialfilme Review
There is a famous scene at the conclusion of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso now commonly referred to as ‘the kissing montage’. In a little under three minutes, half a century unfolds on the screen, from the silent era through to the 1950s. What we are witnessing are tiny snippets of film – clinches, embraces – that had been ordered to be cut by a village priest but secreted away by the local projectionist. The ‘kissing montage’ is his reel, covertly edited together and kept under wraps until after his death, and it reveals one of the wonders of the moving image. Through Garbo, Chaplin, Jane Russell and many more, it reveals the romance of cinema – both in the literal sense and, of course, in a far more evocative manner.
Cinema Paradiso’s projectionist finds his real-life counterpart in German avant-garde duo Wilhelm and Birgit Hein. As well as being filmmakers, the couple regularly served as both programmers and projectionists for screenings both experimental and commercial. Yet rather than secretly compile the most salacious moments, they would instead take a sample of the various head and foot leaders (i.e. those bits of films adjoined to a reel in order to assists its threading into the projector) they came into contact with. Some were the famous Academy leaders from the 1950s which counted from eleven to three, others had instructions to the projectionist and others still were hand painted with watercolours so as to distinguish, say, reel two from reel three. For the Heins, this was where the romance of cinema lay: in the textures, in the wear and the tear and the scratches and the signs of age, in the very material of film. Indeed, when they collated their own equivalent to the ‘kissing montage’ they called it Materialfilme, a term that also perfectly sums up their output during the late sixties and into the seventies and has been handily borrowed for this new DVD compilation from the Edition Filmmuseum label.
Materialfilme brings together five works as follows: Rohfilm (1968), Reproductions (1968), 625 (1969), Portraits (1970) and the one from which it takes its title, which was first screened in 1976 and appears in two parts. For Rohfilm the Heins took clear film strip and glued all manner of materials to it: fragments of film but also dirt, hair, cigarette ash and more besides. They then projected this reel and re-filmed on a 16mm Bolex, only the heavy patches of glue contributed their own effects, causing the image to stop and stutter as it got caught in the projector or, occasionally, to melt under the excessive heat. Reproductions similarly captured its subject at one remove, the Bolex this time trained on a Movieola viewing machine that is being fed strands of the Heins’ holiday snaps. Seemingly innocuous segments of images – an ear or an expression or part of the Champs Élysées – are thus put under intense scrutiny.
With 625 this idea is taken further still. The subject matter is television static, the title referring to the number of lines found on a PAL or SECAM set. Essentially the film sets up a conflict between the two mediums – the grain, flicker and occasional scratches of 16mm versus the video image. Especially pronounced is the competition between the frame rate of the former and the scanning frequency of the latter. To further enhance the effect, the Heins also present the film in negative, resulting in visuals that are even more abstract and hypnotic, and insist on a half-hour-plus running time which, under the circumstances, is positively epic. By way of contrast Portraits is decidedly brisk: manipulated images of Charles Manson, Ronnie Biggs and Wilhelm Hein himself that once again focus on the tactile nature of the materials to hand. In effect it isn’t really Manson, Biggs or Hein who are on the receiving end of this portraits, but celluloid itself.
In his 1975 book Film Is…, fellow experimental filmmaker Stephen Dwoskin recalled his viewing of Rohfilm as being akin to a “visual bombing”. (He had presumably caught the film at the Knokke-Le Zoute Festival in 1968, where both he and the Heins were exhibiting works.) Of course, he would have been watching via a big screen projection rather than a DVD and a flat-screen TV, and that distinction is worth highlighting. The properties of celluloid are so intrinsic to these films that viewing at a digital remove undeniably has its effect. This is nowhere more apparent than with 625. Part of its distinctiveness, especially in 1969, relates to its decision to bring television static into a cinema environment and writ large on the screen – watching in your living room or on your laptop simply isn’t going to replicate that. Furthermore, its conflict between film and video gains a new ally in the Digital Versatile Disc. This isn’t a fair fight anymore.
Needless to say, such criticisms could be levelled at any film-centric experimental cinema when placed in a home entertainment context. Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight, for example, should ideally be projected, though the Criterion Blu-ray makes for a very good second best. Similarly, the films of Len Lye, Bill Morrison, Malcolm Le Grice or indeed Dwoskin himself, whose Dirty (1971) which clearly demonstrated some of the Heins’ influence. And yet, whilst the viewing experience may not be an optimal one, the qualities of the films on Materialfilme are still able to shine through. The Charles Manson section of Portraits and its ability to energize a single newspaper photograph, say, or the sheer fascination with the properties of those images created by Reproductions and 625. Furthermore, the audacity is never in doubt, particularly the latter’s 34 minutes of static. Not that it becomes an endurance test, however – the effect is too hypnotic and strangely intoxicating for that.
The other aspect which cannot be diminished is the impressive sound design. Constructed by Christian Michelis (Birgit’s brother), they initially appear to be diegetic recordings. The soundtrack to Reproductions, for example, is a collection of hums, whirs and hisses that would seem to replicate that of its Movieola machine. Yet listen closely and you realise that the end product is far too heightened for that and too carefully constructed. These are intricate designs, essentially collages, and they genuinely bring these films to life. They intensify the shifts in light and shade, enhance the textures and, occasionally, dictate the mood. As if a skittish portrait of a maniacally staring Charles Manson couldn’t be any more unsettling, just try adding the manipulated recordings of hyenas whooping and howling. It’s confrontational, certainly, but that’s partly what the cinema of the Heins is all about: taking a medium so many take for granted and showing us just how illusive (and intense) its processes and properties can be.
Materialfilme fits its 132 minutes worth of material onto a single dual-layered disc. It comes free of region coding, in the PAL format and suitable for all languages given its content’s complete lack of dialogue. Each film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and with DD2.0 accompaniment for Michelis’ sound designs. Of course, with films so devoted to surface damage and other textures it was never going to be easy judging their representation on disc, though happily no additional, unwanted digital defects have been added during their transfers. As such I suspect they look as good as they were ever going to on the DVD format which will be more than enough for both. As I’ve said in the main bulk of this review, these are works which really need to be projected onto a big screen to be fully appreciated, but given the scarcity of such showings I’m more than happy to have the alternative opportunity Materialfilme allows.
As for extras, the disc provides a choice of soundtracks for the two-part Materialfilme (the 1976 work, not the DVD overall) alongside Michelis’ original construction. Oregon duo Tim & John Blue, Parisians Sister Iodine, Starving Weirdos from Northern California and Rotterdam-based Roel Meelkop are the composers in question. The package also contains a 20-page bilingual booklet (in German and English) containing one long essay on the Heins by Marc Siegel and a brief one-paragraph contribution from Florian Cramer.