Herbert and Maria are sat across from one another at the dinner table, cramped in between the shaggy flokati rug and an indoor palm plant. Husband and wife make no eye contact and offer no conversation to accompany the sound of cutlery against porcelain. The TV runs in the background, as if to camouflage the silence. Maria glances at it sporadically—both as a gesture and as an alibi—as game show host Hans Rosenthal asks contestants to list all the “parts of a human being” that come to mind. Candidates get one point for each answer—hair, lung, toe, eye—until one asks, “but why did you forget the soul?”
This is perhaps what Herbert, ORDNUNG’s protagonist, has lost too: his connection to something like his own soul. He sits framed in a pre-unification West German still life, like a mere shell of himself, comatose in the rut of his well-rehearsed, petit-bourgeois existence. Where other films would orchestrate the story with excessive dramatic gestures, Saless remains true to his typical directness. Repression—the keyword to social endurance in a capitalist system—is denied to his protagonist: when Herbert can no longer stand the narrow-mindedness of customers at his new sales job, he simply puts on his jacket without a word, and takes his leave.
Film historiography often works like the moving bus in Herbert’s dream: it doesn’t stop and too rarely takes detours.
Sohrab Shahid Saless was born in Iran. His early experiences in film came in Paris and Vienna, with his first feature-length films—YEK ETEFAGHE SADEH and TABIATE BIJAN—shown respectively in the Forum and in competition at the 1974 Berlinale. Emboldened by their reception—but primarily impelled by the Shah’s new regime and the restrictions it imposed—Saless made West Germany the centre of his personal and professional life, going on to shoot his first Berlin film, IN DER FREMDE, just a year later.
Several film and TV productions—including co-productions with Czechoslovakia—then followed, for which he struggled to find funding throughout his life in Germany. A further struggle—fought against the federal states, civil servants and deadlines—was for his residence permit. Ultimately he would turn his back on Germany, moving to Chicago in the 1990s.
With his passing in 1998, he left behind a body of work that is scattered across the globe, throughout film archives, collections, and television stations. These frequent professional and personal relocations have meant that a certain farsightedness is needed when contextualising his work within film history. While some film historians may be keen to retrospectively assign his work to the New German Cinema, the films themselves have always evinced a thematic and aesthetic kinship. Saless’ work has however remained outside the canon, with opportunities for screenings further limited by the state of the materials—a mutually reinforcing stalemate.
Film historiography often works somewhat like the moving bus in Herbert’s dream: it doesn’t stop and too rarely takes detours. Contemporary festivals, then, might offer opportunities for looking back, and for new constellations and corrections to occur; despite premiering at Cannes in 1980, ORDNUNG has never enjoyed any lasting appreciation, either in film history or in film criticism. The reasons for this are many and manifold: as early as 1979, film critic Kurt Habernoll observed that Saless’ work came to be appreciated differently when he left behind the exclusively biographical approaches evidenced in his use of Iran as a filming location (YEK ETEFAGHE SADEH, TABIATE BIJAN) or in the theme of marginalisation (IN DER FREMDE).1“What formerly was celebrated as an exotic product from a distant land was, when produced in one’s own country, no longer so happily accepted as an example of an incorruptible critical realism, committed to humanity. What business does this foreigner have with our misery?” Kurt Habernoll: “Notizen aus dem Exil: Nichts als Körbe: Filmemacher Sohrab Saless ohne Chance”, in: Der Abend, 9 March 1979, West Berlin.
Suddenly, his films were characterised by their forensic insight into the dysfunctional behavioural structures of West Germany. The aesthetic of long observational shots, practiced by Saless on the Caspian Sea, evolved into a critical tool. Saless captured a post-war society whose social frigidity which he both keenly felt and sought to lay bare, tearing it away from its repression beneath the cloak of growing German prosperity. He finds this coldness where love would be expected—between mothers and sons, couples at the breakfast table, teachers and students, amongst neighbours, at the supermarket. It is a coldness not always communicated in words, expressed just as much in the distance parents keep from children on the way home from school, in not listening, in turning a blind eye. Sensations, communication and historical consciousness that seem to be disturbed.
As the cry of “Aufstehen”—wake up!—morphs at the film’s close into “Auschwitz”, there is a shift from issuing a reminder of structured time to issuing a reminder of German history.
In an unforgettable scene from ORDNUNG, Saless has Herbert step into the urban canyons of Frankfurt am Main’s streets at 7 a.m. on a Sunday, where he repeatedly and protractedly yells at the “tired”2Jacques Rancière contrasts the active workers—those in search of an “activist passion” within time structured by work—with the tired: Jacques Rancière: “Und die Müden haben Pech gehabt: Interview mit Edmond El Maleh”; in Und die Müden haben Pech gehabt! Interviews 1976-1999, ed. Peter Engelmann, Vienna: Passagen Verlag, 2012, pp. 37-44.—as the philosopher Jacques Rancière might call them—to wake up! (“Aufstehen!”). The complaints of the tired, cheated of their Sunday rest, echo loudly from the upper-storey windows. It is a moment, indeed, that can be understood as a warning to those who shoehorn themselves into the structures of work: you can’t get back to work on Monday unless you’ve had your Sunday rest. In contrast, the time allocated for rest and recuperation would be better used to shape one’s own subjectivisation—and to critically reflect on how work and life are structured.3See Jacques Rancière: “Politik und Ästhetik: Im Gespräch mit Peter Engelmann”, in Passagen Gespräche 5, ed. Peter Engelmann, Vienna: Passagen Verlag, 2016.
As the cry of “Aufstehen”—wake up!—morphs at the film’s close into “Auschwitz”, there is a shift from issuing a reminder of structured time to issuing a reminder of German history. Theodor W. Adorno writes in “Education after Auschwitz” about “people completely cold who cannot endure their own coldness and yet cannot change it.”; Saless, on the other hand,4pdfs.semanticscholar.org/35cb/22cf985a822d84b54b5ae50467d039b2d2c6.pdf, p. 7. seeks to do something about it. Herbert and Saless seem interwoven, with character and director—speaking respectively from the margins of society and of film history—articulating the dangers of repression and the absence of empathy. For this reason alone, Saless’ work is one whose commitment to a relentless questioning of the order of things always thinks the past together with the present.
Vivien Buchhorn is a film historian and curator. She has been working for many years on bringing visibility to the films of Sohrab Shahid Saless, and the Shahid Saless Archive was established on her initiative.
Translation: Matthew Scrown