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Film poet Manfred Kirchheimer’s Free Time begins with a close-up of the facade of a New York building, a concrete curl holding petals of a flower within its curve, stems, leaves, and patterns. These are the things you notice when you have, as the title suggests, some leisure. For Free Time, premiering soon at the New York Film Festival, the 88-year-old filmmaker meticulously reconstructs and restores 16mm black-and-white footage he and his old friend Walter Hess shot in New York City between 1958 and 1960. Like his other films, such as Colossus on the River (1963), Claw: A Fable (1968), or Stations of the Elevated (1981), Free Time is a meditation on living in the city he and his German-Jewish family fled to in 1936.
Hess and Kirchheimer’s cameras travel across an old Manhattan, from Washington Heights to the Upper West Side, and then down to Hell’s Kitchen and the Financial District, making short but evocative stops in Inwood and Queens. But the film is not a travelogue; the places it goes are not as important as the people it meets. While Kirchheimer looks at New York and its outward-facing persona, his connection to the metropolis is guided by a need to find human stories within its folds. The public is only a means to connect with the intimate.
This is a process that Kirchheimer effectively uses in his 1985 documentary We Were So Beloved, which looks at the Jewish community in Washington Heights (often called Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson at the time, due to its large German-Jewish population). He asks locals questions about trauma, responsibility, guilt, and legacy. He sets out seeking to document the conversation, and the venue gets documented as well. His relationship with the public chaos of New York City is personal, and therefore political. Kirchheimer always keeps an eye out for the unseen people who continually strengthen capitalist machinery, highlighting over and over the immense amount of unrecognized labor that makes a city run. Construction workers, graffiti artists, Garment District workers, builders, and more make up the motley casts of his documentaries.
With Free Time, Kircheimer slows down a bit. He plays around with NYC’s soundscape; sometimes we hear strains of Ravel, Bach, Eisler, or Count Basie, and sometimes we hear the giggles of children, an ice cream truck’s jingle, the passing of trains, or the hissing of a fire hydrant. We see clothes strung on lines against an afternoon sky, women sitting at their windows gazing out, men chatting, reading newspapers on their stoops, and children playing stickball.
For all the languor, there is also the urgency inherent to liminal spaces and ephemeral moments. In a beautiful uninterrupted sequence, a woman walking with a man stumbles in her high heels, then finds her balance and starts walking again. Kirchheimer has keen sense for finding moments that are not the beginning, climax, or end of anything, but are endearing, dramatic, and beautiful in spite of it. His gaze invites the audience to pay attention, because we never know what we will miss if we look away. Free Time is a document of the pursuit of a little leisure in between endless cycles of creation and destruction. Cars end up in junkyards, people eventually find their way into their graves, bustling buildings are torn down and something new is built in its place — all in the hustle of a New York minute.
Free Time will screen at the New York Film Festival September 28 and 29, with Q&As with director Manfred Kirchheimer.