Known among a notable and notably small circle of filmmakers and cinephiles — most of them in Germany and Sweden — the wider film world is slowly getting its first look at Peter Nestler, a meticulous, poetic documentary filmmaker of time and its everyday echoes.
In his native Germany, Nestler has been celebrated by the likes of Jean-Marie Straub, Harun Farocki, and Hartmut Bitomsky, but neither their acclaim nor the increasing distinction of his work in documentary cinema — nuanced, yet exacting observations of politics, labor, oppression, and fascism that set him apart from his contemporaries not only in Germany, but much of the documentary scene of the post-war period — was previously enough to get his films much play, certainly not the sort he is currently enjoying.
Tate Modern presented the first major retrospective in the English-speaking world of Nestler’s work in November 2012, late recognition for the director, then 75. Now at age 80, The Film Society of Lincoln Center is continuing the gift-giving joy, presenting A Vision of Resistance: Peter Nestler, the first large retrospective dedicated to the filmmaker to be shown in the U.S., and Nestler himself is slated to be in person at a number of the screenings.
After 50 years and 60 films into his career, Nestler is just now enjoying a turn of very modest fame.
For a time, however, it was possible to think that Nestler was falling towards greater and greater obscurity, which was rather ironic for an artist whose films endeavor to redress the oversights of history, bringing the overlooked realities of oppression and place to greater notice. Nestler filmed his subjects so they may be seen, heard, known, and perhaps then changed — an approach Bitomsky has described as “finden, zeigen, halten” (finding, showing, holding). This practice of seeking and sharing stories, often focused on labor conditions, struggle, and historical wrongs, earned him a fair number of unfavorable critics, alongside the better known, favorable ones. From Greece (1965), which Nestler self-financed, was assailed with guffaws and brickbats for its perceived overly left-wing politics. One local paper called it a “communist botch-work.”
The film was effectively the end of any reliable German source of funding, and Nestler relocated to Sweden where he created works for SVT, the country’s public television broadcaster, while independently producing films on the side. But even there, Nestler came upon a limit. Får de komma igen? (1971), a film about neo-fascism in Germany and Austria, was suppressed by SVT, the subject of neo-fascism then being a thorny topic in Sweden. In an interview from 2012, Nester indicated “It [Får de komma igen?] was taken out [of the program] one day before the broadcast, because by then the board of directors had seen the film. It was a burning point that the social democracy had let the neo-fascism grow.”
If you’ve never heard of his name or his films, then, it’s far from your fault. (In this country, another impediment is competition for his name. Google “Peter Nestler” and the first and more frequent results you’ll receive are links to his internet doppelgänger: an accomplished jump rope artist.)
With nine programs (22 films) scheduled across five days, A Vision of Resistance is a packed, make-up-for-lost-time series. Though for the most part organized by subject and theme, the opening program starts things off with two of the filmmaker’s earliest films: Am Siel (1962) and Essays/Aufsätze (1963). From the beginning, Nestler already had a strong sense of the subjects and themes he would go on to explore for the next 50 years, as well as the formal directions he would take to explore them.
A documentary of a small village on the coast, Am Siel is narrated by an old dike (voiced by Robert Wolfgang Schnell), the sentient floodgate wondering, assuming, and thinking aloud about the land, sounding like a nostalgic, bitter, even post-modern waterway. Early on in the film the sluice reflects: “I don’t know whether the village liked being filmed.” Essays follows a group of children from a small village, revealing the accounts of their day at school as told by the children themselves. While occasionally acting as narrator in his films, Nestler often turns over the role of talking head to the people in the films, letting those in front of the camera speak for themselves. Showing signs of the observational generosity and formalist structures he would employ in much of his later works, these early films are tremendously assured, rigorous starts for the then 20-something, self-described “poor as church rats” filmmaker.
Made the year after Essays, Mülheim (Ruhr) (1964) is a short, but great leap ahead, displaying a keener grasp of rhythm, time, and movement that would become signatures of Nestler’s later films — particularly demonstrated when he would cut between still and moving images. A wordless tour of the titular west German city of less than 200,000, it is a symphony of a small city, flickering through signs of looming industrialization to alight on moments of workaday beauty: a young girl dancing with fantastic abandon in a street; building interiors peopled with card players and folks drinking beer; smokestacks loitering in the background of cityscape views.
When Jean-Marie Straub wrote about this 14-minute documentary film, he turned to one of most celebrated filmmakers of his time for a point of comparison, pronouncing it Mizoguchiesque (i.e. comparable to Kenji Mizoguchi). In Straub’s mind, Mülheim (Ruhr) had less to do with the direct cinema revolution going on in documentary filmmaking in North America or Jean Rouch’s cinéma vérité and more with to do with the style and perspectives of narrative cinema. While not disagreeing with Straub, a different Japanese filmmaker came to mind when I first saw Mülheim (Ruhr): Yasujirō Ozu.
In short, Nestler has a way of cinematically charging his films, drawing attention to textures, rhymes, boundaries, distances, and history — in particular the stuff of quotidian life that gets ignored or has been stifled and stilled. Some of this charge comes from his rhythmic and sometimes wryly coded editing style. In Ödenwaldstetten (1964) a shot of tractor is followed by one of a horse and carriage; in a town whose whole Jewish community was destroyed, a faded Jewish name written on a building is followed by a shot of a man sweeping the streets. Some of it comes from the way Nesler will peer at the outside of a building in one shot and enter it in another — places and times are readily accessible realms in Nestler’s film worlds. And some of it simply comes from his commitment to see and show. Nestler himself has commented on his predilection to not let things simply be:
I tried to find the shortest way for me to show the most important aspects: to perceive, to recognize and to decide with others, this should be changed or that should be preserved or not be overlooked.
Other programs in the series include his “biographies of objects,” short studies on the art of various crafts (e.g. glass making); Up the Danube (1969), a celebrated short he created with his close collaborator and wife, Zsóka Nestler, and Pachamama – Our Land (1995), a feature length film on Ecuador’s indigenous communities.
Remaining constant across these five represented decades of moviemaking is Nestler’s interest in labor, in struggle and resistance, in what is valued and what is discarded. Nestler, though, is focused on more than just seeing the world for what it is, and on more than preserving some part of it with his camera. The past is never far removed from the present in the reframed worlds of Nestler’s films.
His concern with history and the past is, in part, why fascism abounds in his films. He has hunted down traces of fascism for decades since first making Am Siel. Its village, he discovered, featured a war monument adorned with a medal awarded by Nazis. He later found traces of it in his own family, in his Swedish grandfather, Count Eric von Rosen, whose life — and eventual support of Nazi Germany — he profiles in Death and Devil (2009). It’s not for our future’s sake, his films argue, that we should know our history, it’s for a deep-rooted view of the past. Obviously a political filmmaker, Nestler is also a moral one.
A Vision of Resistance: Peter Nestler screens from June 24 to 28 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (165 W. 65th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan).