The timespan of the third and final part of our tribute to New York film curator Amos Vogel (1921–2012) begins with his tenure as founding director of the New York Film Festival (1963–1968) and follows his work as a curator, author and film educator up until the end of the 90s. Alongside articles, correspondence and notes from Vogel’s extensive personal estate, one important reference for the film selection is his recently republished book "Film as a Subversive Art" (1974), which testifies to his conception of film and cinema running counter to the canon.
“Not all in life is pretty and Demy-like.” (23.1.) After the Cinema 16 film society that he and his wife Marcia headed for 16 years was dissolved, Amos Vogel took over the direction of the newly established film department at the Lincoln Center in 1963. There he founded the New York Film Festival, which he headed until 1968 together with Richard Roud. While Roud, who was responsible for the London Film Festival at the same time, spent the entire year in Europe, Vogel was in New York for most of the time and had to carry out day-to-day business alongside film screenings. This also involved lengthy correspondence with Roud about the film selection. The title of this program is taken from one of their written exchanges: when Roud spoke out against Forough Farrokhzad’s KHANEH SIAH AST (The House is Black, Iran 1963) because he feared that a film about lepers would harm the festival’s show business appeal (“excuse my vulgarity”), Vogel replied that, “the leprosy film is first class human document. I recommend it. See it; you’ll die, but not all in life is pretty and Demy-like, and I refuse to be put off by anything that human beings are capable of or do or show or make films about.” Three additional films that follow this credo, albeit in very different fashion: L’OPÉRA MOUFFE (France 1958), in which Agnès Varda reveals a microcosm of human existence in the street in which she lived—harsh, grotesque, sometimes pretty, sometimes even “Demy-like”, as Varda shared the same tenderness for detail as her later life partner, Jacques Demy. In Stephen Dwoskin’s NAISSANT (USA 1967), we see a young woman played by underground icon Beverly Grant on her bed at home, in silent turmoil. Suzan Pitt’s ASPARAGUS (USA 1979) transforms the cinema into a cabinet of wonder for 20 minutes—a Pop Art inspired picture story about the wondrous metamorphoses of a woman who creates, devours and enchants. The sublime greatness of this film lies for Vogel in the fact “that it begins with an act of defecation and ends with one of fellatio.”
If it had been up to Amos Vogel, CHRONIK DER ANNA MAGDALENA BACH (Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, West Germany 1967, 23.1.) would not have screened at the New York Film Festival. “I made it quite clear to you that I consider it a film that sets itself a high aim, but fails. It is an important failure, if you wish”, he wrote to Richard Roud, who esteemed Straub-Huillet’s films, which accentuate the performance of language and music. The “Bach film” had taken them ten years to make, as no one wanted to finance it. It was ultimately shot with the then barely-known Gustav Leonhardt as Johann Sebastian Bach at original locations in West and East Germany, with music performed on historical instruments. A positive vote from Susan Sontag, who had joined the selection committee at Vogel’s invitation, was ultimately decisive and CHRONICLE showed at the NYFF in 1968. Interestingly, Vogel included the film in “Film as a Subversive Art”, where he attributed it “factual and moral authenticity“ for being a “frontal assault on the cinematic value system of the spectator.”
Heynowski & Scheumann (24.1.) A special chapter in Amos Vogel’s book is dedicated to “anti-Western” films from East Germany, “this most orthodox of Eastern countries”. Three of the five films presented are by DEFA documentarians Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann, including their first collaboration, O.K. (East Germany 1965), which presents a young woman who had relocated from East to West Germany, but has now returned to the “better Germany”. Her time in the West is depicted as a life of hardship endured by a naïve young woman who must earn her keep as a barmaid at a US military barrack and— as one is supposed to assume—as a prostitute. Vogel saw O.K. at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen where films from East Germany were a political event every year. Vogel was interested in O.K. as a symptomatic reaction to the US military presence in West Germany and because of its suggestive, manipulative method: “There has rarely been as effective an unintentional self-indictment as this film.“ When in the following year the Oberhausen festival rejected Heynowski & Scheumann’s Kommando 52, which dealt with the barbaric acts of West German mercenaries in Congo, the documentarians took revenge in their own unique way. They came to the festival with a DEFA team and shot a mocking report about a decadent and politically corrupt festivity that keeps its audiences in high spirits with sausage, beer and sex. WINK VOM NACHBARN (East Germany 1966) makes reference to the festival’s bridge-building motto “a way to the neighbor” and is a shimmering, self-righteous howler of German-German cinematic rivalry. Amos Vogel was responsible for the US film selection that year for the second time around. Less prejudiced viewers were able to discover a masterpiece of experimental film there, namely OH DEM WATERMELONS (USA 1966). The fact that Robert Nelson’s Dadaistic slapstick carried a pointed statement on the racist neuroses of white America wasn’t just overlooked by the avengers from East Germany, however, but also by the majority of the press.
Vogel also had his first encounters with the “New Waves” from Eastern Europe in Oberhausen. He placed great hopes in the new Czechoslovakian cinema in particular, regarding Evald Schorm’s KAŽDÝ DEN ODVAHU (Ordinary Courage, Czechoslovakia 1964, 25.1.) as one of its central works, “the first fully achieved work from the East to deal with alienation and the conflict between revolutionaries and careerists in a ‘socialist’ society.” Vogel also made another note on Schorm’s story of a disillusioned young Communist: “Antonioni in Prague” - a most honorary title, as there was hardly another European filmmaker held in such high regard by Vogel as Michelangelo Antonioni. It was thus no coincidence that the first images in his book were taken from Antonioni’s films Blow Up (United Kingdom/Italy 1966) and L’ECLISSE (Italy/France 1962 | 25.1.), to the latter of which he also dedicated a longer synopsis. Vogel was fascinated by the spaces in which Monica Vitti and Alain Delon carried out their tender, agitated attempts at love. In the empty streets and overcast sky of the famous final sequence, Vogel saw the metaphysical emptiness of a civilization that had learned to exterminate itself.
Emigration (26.1.) The article that Vogel wrote about the 1981 Forum for Film Comment began with a description of the emotional Q&A that followed BRUXELLES-TRANSIT (Belgium 1980), “Samy Szlingerbaum’s film of his family in the Nazi period spoken entirely in Yiddish. Present-day, nightlit, and empty Brussels streets, stylized tableaux of lyrical power, and his mother’s unrehearsed, taped recollections served as poetic representations of a past no longer available.” Boris Lehman, who played Szlingerbaum’s father in BRUXELLES-TRANSIT, had shot a complementary film to it in many ways: SYMPHONIE (Belgium 1979). “The hero of the film is Jacob Rabinovitch. He is a Jew. In reality, he is Romain Schneid, and as the latter imagines his condition in 1942. At that time, Belgium was occupied by the Germans and Romain, a child of 12, had to live in hiding with a lady, Madame Stine, in Etterbeck, a suburb of Brussels, where the Resistance was forming.” (Lehman) The two films were shown as a double feature. The trauma of a man suddenly declared a pariah and the instability of a family in exile must inevitably have reminded Vogel of his own biography. Having fled from the Nazis in Vienna as a 17-year-old, he came to the USA with his family in 1938. The act of emigration, his Jewish roots and the extermination of relatives and childhood friends in the concentration camps left an internal texture that Vogel never denied but also only revealed at seldom moments. These moments were often when he came into contact with post-war Germany, whose seeming convalescence he followed with interest but also a large degree of skepticism. This evening at Sinema Transtopia is an attempt to approach Amos Vogel’s relationship to his biography, mirrored in the two films and by way of quotes and texts by him. With guests Boris Lehman and Christoph Huber, curator at the Austrian Film Museum (location: Sinema Transtopia at Haus der Statistik)
FATA MORGANA (27.1.) One of the few directors for which Vogel used superlatives was Werner Herzog, “the mysterious new humanist of the 1970s”. For Vogel, Herzog’s overlooked key work was FATA MORGANA (West Germany 1968), a mysterious film indeed in which Herzog weaves together desert and destruction, airplane debris, German development workers and a creation myth from Guatemala narrated by Lotte Eisner into an apocalyptic essay that remains strangely overlooked to this day. What’s all the more notable here is that Vogel dedicated one of the longest film texts in “Film as a Subversive Art” to FATA MORGANA and discovered a rich vein of philosophical and art historical references within it. Excerpts from a sound recording of a conversation with Werner Herzog that took place in 1971 in Vogel’s apartment will be played as an introduction.
Subversion in Eastern Europe: Aesopian Metaphors? (28.1.) One of the most comprehensive chapters in “Film as a Subversive Art” deals with the subversive cinema of the Socialist Eastern Bloc. Entitled “Aesopian Metaphors”, the chapter follows the view that Eastern European filmmakers were forced to get across their message in clandestine fashion and that the originality of their films primarily stemmed from this. On that score, Dušan Makavejev’s sexological act of liberation W.R. MYSTERIJE ORGANIZMA (Yugoslavia 1971) came across all the more sensationally, and Vogel took from it the cover motif for his book: Milena Dravić in a leopard-skin dress with her fist raised, bursting out of a picture frame. Based on the teachings of Wilhelm Reich, Makavejev makes the logical conclusion that political revolutions will only lead to reactionarism if they are not also sexual revolutions. At around the same time as Makavejev was shooting his epoch-defining film, Vukica Đilas started making a filmed diary with a Super-8 camera that was to stretch over nearly 30 years and would only be edited by Slobodan Šijan into a barely hour-long film after her death. HOME MOVIES (YU 1970–199?) (28.1.) is a report of the avant-garde spirit that propelled cultural life in socialist Yugoslavia for a certain period. From the very epicenter of events, Đilas creates a protocol of the transnational connections between Zagreb, Belgrade and New York and brings her own view of the male-dominated film scene into play. What is presumably the first screening of this film in Germany will be introduced by Zagreb film scholar Petra Belc.
For over 20 years, Amos Vogel was a close advisor to and observer of the International Forum of New Cinema. When he came to Berlin in February, he saw the maximum possible number of films at the Delphi cinema and wrote about these annual “orgies” for Film Comment and the New York Times. He regularly made Ulrich and Erika Gregor aware of films that he got to see in New York. One film that came to Berlin based on his recommendation— “Absolutely Yes!”—was Lucian Pintilie’s LE CHÊNE (The Oak, France/Romania 1992 | 29.1.). Armed with nothing but wit and a Polaroid camera, Pintilie sent his heroine Nela on “a journey through different stages of hell in Romania Year Zero”. An unbridled, vulgar and at the same time astute burlesque about a society dissolving.
Three Films by Robert Beavers. (29.1.) After Robert Beavers presented in September the early films of Gregory Markopoulos that Vogel held in high regard, a Vogel reference now also provides the opportunity for his own films to be screened: at the New York Film Festival in 1997, Vogel saw three films by Beavers and recommended them to Forum. “Strongly formed visual poems, … images repeat, camera movements are carefully controlled, one has the strong feeling of strophes.” The three films were SOTIROS (1976–78/1996), THE STOAS (1991–97) and Efpsychi (1983/1996), which were mainly produced from material shot in Greece and were edited in relationship to one another. To create an even greater sense of density, the third film will be replaced here by THE GROUND (1993/2001), in which Beavers in exploring the cinematic space reveals the stonemason in the filmmaker. With guest Robert Beavers.
The skyscraper facades of San Francisco, “shot as if filmed from a heavenly helicopter”. “You don’t even know what you’re looking at half of the time!” Disturbance, astonishment, wonderment: gifts made by cinema that Vogel gleaned from Ernie Gehr’s SIDE/WALK/SHUTTLE (USA 1992, 29.1.). Julie Murray’s IF YOU STAND WITH YOUR BACK TO THE SLOWING OF THE SPEED OF LIGHT IN WATER (USA 1997, 29.1.) cast a similar spell: “Every shot a surprise, a disturbance”, noted Vogel. At first glance a found footage collage from disparate sources, Murray’s montage soon reveals rhythms and rigors to which one can simply submit, like following a current. Elisabeth Subrin’s SHULIE (USA 1997, 29.1.) wears the garb of some archival discovery, but is actually the remake of a film about Chicago art student Shulamith Firestone, who was to write a handbook for feminist revolution in 1970, “The Dialectic of Sex”. Subrin plays with the gestural vocabulary of the intellectual, with the authority of the documentary form and with our careless habit of viewing the past with a knowing gaze.
Repetition: ANTICIPATION OF THE NIGHT (30.1.) After the screening of Stan Brakhage’s ANTICIPATION OF THE NIGHT (USA 1958) in November, Henning Engelke recalled Brakhage’s remark that this film, whose phantasmagorical visual sequences follow musical composition rules, should be seen again and again, in the same way in which one listens to certain records again and again without getting tired of them. If the film was experienced as a crazed visual rampage at the end of the 50s, today it can be enjoyed as an unbounded stream of nocturnal images, at the very latest after a repeat screening. Amos Vogel too was alienated by the film after the first viewing, but experienced it as a nuanced artistic statement only three years later. His appreciation of Stan Brakhage was primarily based on his early short films such as THE WONDER RING (USA 1955), an homage to the New York elevated railway “The El”.
For Vogel, 1989 began with a retrospective that the Forum dedicated to the early work of Alexander Sokurov, which had only been released from the censors’ vault a short time before. Vogel’s screening notes bear witness to his feverish enthusiasm for a cinema giant who had almost appeared overnight. The two-page article he wrote for Film Comment was largely dedicated to DNI ZATMENIJA (Days of Eclipse, USSR 1988, 31.1.). A young doctor carries out his services in a sweltering city on the edge of the Soviet Empire. Although he’s hardly needed as a medic, his practice is a place of transit for those being hunted or those abandoned, for reptiles and soldiers, for new arrivals and those who want to turn their back on the place. But is this a real place anyway? DNI ZATMENIJA is based on a science fiction parable by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who had also provided the story for Tarkovsky’ Stalker, and like the former, Sokurov also gives hope a religious connotation—”perhaps but a stage” on the way to a new humanism of the 21st century, wrote Vogel.
“An Ethics of Subversion” (30.1.): This title, which is also a question, is the starting point for Christoph Huber, Petra Belc and Tobias Hering, curator of the series, to pick up on the challenges formulated by this tribute in reference to Amos Vogel. Again, this third “response” is a discussion event open to anyone interested, entry is free. (th)
This program was made possible by funding from the Federal Capital Cultural Fund.