I recently came across Peter Jukes complaint from last year about UK television drama’s creative decline “Why Britain can’t do The Wire” and it reads like a template for the current situation in German TV. He blames the centralisation of power and a small clique of people at the public service broadcasters picking their favourite creative staff leading to a stale and mediocre output with a too narrow spectrum of tastes and approaches in drama programmes. Though many aspects of the TV industry in the US are not comparable with the situation in Britain and Germany – after all, HBO, the producer of “The Wire”, is a paid subscription niche broadcaster and has therefore more freedom to invest in cutting edge drama instead of catering for majority interests – it still remains a puzzle why the BBC and the German public service broadcasters produce so little quality in terms of genre and style in the high end range compared to their huge budgets from public funding (though I have to say that I always envied British TV for idiosyncratic programmes like “Skins” or “The Mighty Boosh”).
Now if German TV ever came close to the degree of sophistication achieved in a show like “The Wire”, Dominik Graf’s mini-series “Im Angesicht des Verbrechens”, premiered at this years Berlinale and broadcasted this spring on German TV, will be the only competitor. The series is obsessed with detail, full of exuberant story lines that revolve around the Russian mafia, German police officers of Jewish ancestry and the human trafficking of sex workers. The 10 episodes come as a highly addictive experience – one can feel that the production of the series already brought the staff to the limits. The production company was bankrupted because of sky-rocketing costs and endless overtime caused unrest in the team. But the endresult marks some kind of turning point in German TV history with the pondering question of: will we ever have something of such quality and intensity again or will we regress after this last effort because it proved to be too expensive and too exhaustive?
The director Dominik Graf might be completely unknown to the english-speaking world since he predominantly works for German TV after some of his earlier brilliant genre feature films failed to find an audience and left him with no place in the German cinematic industry. Now he is responsible for some of the most artistically challenging and still intelligble TV productions of the last 10 or 15 years. Thanks to the magazine “sense of cinema” a first very long interview translated in English is now available with Dominik Graf. One of the key points in this interview is his year long interchange with and criticism of the so-called Berlin School of cinema which is also portraid in the same issue of the magazine in form of a written collage. Two of the Berlin School most important proponents are Christoph Hochhäusler (read this interview in the same magazine or visit his blog “parallel film” written in German) and Christian Petzold (read yet another interview by Marco Abel, this time in the magazine “cineaste“) with whom Graf had a very long email exchange about their different aesthetic approaches.
One main difference between Graf and the Berlin School directors is that Graf stresses the role the screen writer plays for him. The script and the plot are the most important parts in his film making while the Berlin School directors often speak about the image, the sheer moment of watching, being the crucial aspect of their work, often embodied by the work of cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider who shot many of the Berlin School films. It is a dichotomy that was expressed by Christoph Hochhäusler in the email exchange with Petzold and Graf as “experience versus story telling”: the Berlin School clearly favours experience over story telling, in Hochhäuslers words, the story often contaminates the image, uses it and hierarchizes it. Therefore in many films of the Berlin School dialogue is more something like a noise, what is said is not of uttermost importance. Or as the collage article in “sense of cinema” summarizes these ideas: “If one were to formulate the topmost commandment of the Berlin School, it would consist of a proscription of manipulation – of reality and of the observer. From this, everything else follows: a commitment to observation, a prohibition of intervention (which could also mean intervening against false interventions), a concept of representation which wishes to cure actors of acting, the camera of autonomy, montage of becoming authoritarian and narration of lapsing into topoi and clichés. Almost throughout, extra-diegetic music as a means of underscoring images is regarded as illegitimate: original sound. It is the world that should appear: original world. Reality is fetish, its fair representation is “beauty”.
Dominik Grafs answer to this argument would be, as expressed in the interview with “sense of cinema”: “The point is: I first have to invent reality anew for my scenes so that the film, the cinema, will once again be able to resemble a possible reality somewhat more! This is part of my debate with the Berlin School directors.” He also “accuses” the Berlin School directors of some kind of mannerism or formalism: “In my experience—whether this is in music, literature, film, or wherever—if artists foreground their desire to be an artist to such a degree that they feel like they must mark each and every decision with their own will to art, then the result always ends up being less creative. In my view, an active embrace of ‘artistic genius’ has always foreclosed more than it has opened up.” Grafs way of dealing with such questions is to stick to certain genres in which he can work as some kind of guerilla film maker underneath the radar of the main stream “while nevertheless remaining unyielding and resisting any political correctness.” Here lies the reason why Graf is nearly unknown to the international film scene while Petzold and Hochhäusler next to Angela Schanelec and other filmmakers slowly receive some recognition among cineasts. One can even track back the aesthetics of the Berlin School in “The Wire” of which the first three seasons have been photographed by German cinematographer Uta Briesewitz, who started studying film at the DFFB in 1990, just the same film school Petzold, Schanelec and most of the other directors of the Berlin School came from.
The series “Im Angesicht des Verbrechens” is – for the time being – available to watch via you tube: