A new phase in Heinz Emigholz’s body of work manifests in Streetscapes, a quartet of films released simultaneously at the 2017 Berlinale Forum. His stoic output often features no musical soundtrack, no people, no dialogue, and no camerawork. His films test viewers and reshape their way of looking, especially at buildings. Those tactical omissions, however, are reintroduced in his surprising new films. New Yorkers have the opportunity to see 2 + 2 = 22 [The Alphabet] (2017) and Streetscapes [Dialogue] (2017), the first and third entries in the new series, at Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real.
Emigholz is a man of few words — or, rather, his films are. With more than 70 works, the German filmmaker is certainly prolific. The start of his career coincided with the New German Cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Wim Wenders, but he had no interest in the movement or their narrative pursuits, instead forging his own path with his experimental works. In 1984 he began his ongoing Photography and Beyond series, in which most of the films are devoted to modern architecture and specific architects, from the widely known (Adolf Loos, Louis Sullivan) to the relatively obscure (Bruce Goff, Samuel Bickels). “They don’t write their autobiographies, they build them,” Emigholz has said of the architects in a talk at the 2014 International Film Festival Rotterdam.
Stripped of dialogue and people, and filmed with a camera that rarely moves, Emigholz’s films concentrate on architecture, and architecture only. But he doesn’t idealize, lionize, or create a mythical aura around buildings; rather, he captures architectural details — windows, staircases, facades, columns, support beams, hallways. In each shot, he tilts the camera at odd angles, drawing the viewer’s attention to the fact that the shots have been intentionally framed and have a subjective perspective — Emigholz’s. Since each shot reinforces his own viewpoint, one could say that Emigholz’s is not just making films about the life and work of architects; he’s also making films about himself.
The Streetscapes quartet indicates a stylistic change from Photography and Beyond. Perhaps the most apparent shift is that the new films feature language and dialogue. 2+2=22 is Emigholz’s version of Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One (1968), a puckish film that alternates the Rolling Stones recording “Sympathy for the Devil” with political skits featuring Black Panthers, a young man reciting Mein Kampf in an adult bookstore, and a parody of celebrity interviews. Instead of the Stones, Emigholz films the electronic band Kreidler as they record their EP, ABC, in a studio in Tbilisi, Georgia. Oddly, the studio has the same spaciousness and color scheme as Olympic Studios in London, where the Stones recorded in One Plus One.
This isn’t the first time Emigholz has worked with Kreidler. The filmmaker has shot a few of their music videos, including “Deadwringer” (2012), “Sun” (2012), and “Winter” (2013), and songs from the album Den (2012) can be heard on the soundtrack for Emigholz’s The Airstrip (2014). In many ways, Kreidler and Emigholz were made for each other: Both are minimalists in their own ways. Both use repetition and distill their medium-specific aesthetics to the fundamentals: composing, shooting, and editing shots for Emigholz’s films, and simple yet layered beats for Kreidler’s instrumental tracks. Where Godard’s camera roamed throughout the studio in One Plus One, Emigholz’s remains firmly planted while Thomas Klein, Alexander Paulick, Andreas Reihse, and Detlef Weinrich play drums, bass guitar, and keyboard, and manipulate the electronics.
Just as 2+2=22 demonstrates a shift in Emigholz’s aesthetics, so does ABC for Kreidler. It’s the first album the band has recorded outside of Germany, but, more importantly, it’s the first that prominently uses voice as a sonic and textural element in their songs — one of which is fittingly called “Alphabet.” Moreover, the alphabet itself provides a structural backbone for the film, which Emigholz splits it into sections labeled after letters. When not in the studio with Kreidler, the film alternates between shots of streetscapes and shots of Emigholz’s notebooks, which are filled with text and collaged images of ticket stubs, models with Hitler mustaches, and phallic imagery. In voiceover, actress Natja Brunckhorst recites a stream-of-consciousness monologue about roads and roadways. Shots of the free-flowing life in the streets contrast with those of the musicians in the studio, static and sealed off from the world. There’s not a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on when it comes to making electronic music.
Streetscapes [Dialogue] is a major departure for Emigholz. Clocking in at just over two hours, the film centers on an epic psychoanalytic conversation spread out over several days, the dialogue always picking back up where the participants last left off. Over the course of the film, a psychoanalyst (Jonathan Perel, a talented structuralist filmmaker in his own right) and a filmmaker (John Erdman, playing a version of Emigholz) talk about Emigholz’s life, his films, his filmmaking, and his film theory. The conversation ranges from the practical, such as sleeping troubles (“It’s as if I do a piece of work when I sleep”) to the sentimental, such as what staircases mean to him (“Each step is a remembrance of what we can do and that we can go forward or backward”). By the end, the filmmaker is talking about making the film you are currently watching. Throughout the conversation, in each shot the characters appear in a new space, so while the dialogue is continuous, the setting is not. In one static shot, they’ll appear in one room, then suddenly they’ll be outside, the switch often occurring while a character is in midsentence. This draws the viewer’s attention to both the foreground, where the two characters are usually located, and the background.
A self-conscious and self-reflexive film, Streetscapes hashes out Emigholz’s art philosophy while still fulfilling his interest in architecture by focusing on buildings in the film’s setting, Uruguay, particularly those by Eladio Dieste, whom Emigholz devotes the last Streetscapes film to in Dieste [Uruguay] (2017).
Emigholz is like Godard in that one’s appreciation for his work increases the more one watches. His oeuvre becomes more comprehensible when viewed sequentially, as the films often don’t stand alone but gain meaning cumulatively, in relation to one another. Streetscapes, by supplying insights on film theory in general, Emigholz’s films and filmmaking in particular, and his view of the world, can be viewed as the skeleton key necessary to unlocking not just his latest quartet, but also his entire career.
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