Michael O’Pray Writing Prize

Lutz Mommartz’s Own Private Idyll

Mimi Howard finds that there are oblique ways to engage with tumultuous times

Lutz Mommartz, <em>Selbstschüsse</em>, 1967

Lutz Mommartz, Selbstschüsse, 1967

In the last gasps of 1967, filmmakers, students, writers and onlookers descended upon a semi-vacant casino in the Belgian beach town Knokke-le-Zoute to attend the 4th edition of the film festival exprmntl. The event was held in the vaporous time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, as if the forward march of avant-garde cinema could propel the earth into its next spin around the sun. Right on cue, disruptions and protests were staged in the casino foyer on 1 January 1968, heralding the turns and tumults we now associate with that watershed year.

The Knokke protests were fairly ragtag. Made up of students from mostly West German and Belgian film schools, the dissenters erected banners denouncing imperialism, streaked nude through installations and condemned avant-gardism as reactionary for its apolitical, puritanical insistence on structure and form – ‘enough filming without saying anything!’ read one sign, ‘long live Dziga Vertov!’ said another. (Years later, Harun Farocki, a participant at the Knokke protest, recalled the similarly belligerent situation that unfolded at the stillborn Cannes Film Festival that year, declaring that, ‘for once in my life I was ahead of Godard’.) Their ripostes would effectively cleave the attendees of exprmntl into two groups, creating an either/or between aesthetically autonomous filmmaking and socially engaged work. While the former was de rigueur at the festival from 1949 onwards, the historical record nevertheless implies that the latter strand somewhat won out – in the German context, at least.

Farocki, along with Margarethe von Trotta, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Alexander Kluge, would move from their place in underground cinema to make narrative and documentary works that were, out of Brechtian conviction, accessible if challenging to broader audiences. This ‘New German Cinema’, however, somewhat obscured an autonomous avant-garde which was referred to as Das Andere Kino. Figures such as Lutz Mommartz, Werner Nekes and Birgit Hein, amongst others, were engagée in their own way; the film historian Randall Halle described the movement as being invested in constructing alternate spaces for experimental cinema, much like the co-ops and collectives popping up throughout the US at the time. This idealistic space-making happens in their films too, rendering our own reality strange and mutable.

Mommartz (b1934) made his entry into experimental film at Knokke’s 1967 edition, with a submission befitting the protesters’ criticism. Unlike many of the other contributors to the festival, Mommartz was 30 before making films full-time, having worked as an Oberinspector, an upper-level bureaucrat with the West German civil service. His black-and-white 16mm film Selbstschüsse, 1967, which would go on to win one of the main prizes at the festival, reads as a six-minute paean to his newfound pastime: a man alone with a camera in a field, seemingly enjoying one another’s company. The world it depicts is a distinctly closed, solipsistic one – one might even say it offers a masculinist vision – bereft of context or exterior. Against the Vertovian impulses that blended realism and experiment, Selbstschüsse seemed to hyperbolise and parody the Hollywood truism that the goodness of a film lies in its capacity to provide an escape from normal life.

Vulnerable to the promise of escapism amid lockdown doldrums, I eagerly took to Mommartz’s film when I found his catalogue online – as the only commentator on the film’s YouTube page put it, ‘it’s just plain fun to watch’. The fun begins with the title card, handwritten in mock Gothic script, as if to underline its untimeliness, and accompanied by the shout of disorderly hits on a snare drum sounded through a blown-out speaker. At first the hits are random and arrhythmic, before straightening out into syncopation and sliding over the opening shot of an empty field seen from upside down, as the filmmaker’s shadow moves into view. Mommartz’s silhouette reveals his arms in a triangle above his head with the camera at the apex, which then slinks, clumsily, along his body as he walks across the landscape. The lens is then moved ham-fistedly to reveal an impish grin and a youthful character, though with a receding hairline set against the background of a flat, open field. His expression is not unlike that of a child who has taken a new kite out to fly, or Fyodor Dostoevsky’s holy fool.

Mommartz is both the film’s plot and its canvas. His face contorts into smiles and gasps reminiscent of old gag comedians, while his body frolics, falls and rolls across the screen with imperceptible shrewdness. Like silent-movie stars, whose tricks are hard-won through an admixture of diligence and cine-magic, Mommartz’s slapstick is accented by editing, with the footage itself sometimes lurching backwards, forwards or spluttering. These manipulations of material persuade sudden tonal shifts from Mommartz’s giddy expressions into soundless screams, gasps or exhaustion, suggesting that the world he constructs, the world the camera records, can only ever be partially perfect. True to the titular play on words (both self and suicide are evoked), his mordant-cum-merry approach to the medium surges when he begins, in an iconic gesture of cinema’s self-image, to throw the camera frustratedly into the air, again and again, watching it spin dizzyingly back down to earth.

The film’s hairpin turns through rival emotional states are realised by scrupulous sound editing, even if the equipment deployed is distinctly DIY. A warped track called The Great Manolete, named after a Spanish bullfighter and played by the US trumpeter Herb Alpert and a Mexican mariachi band, makes up the bulk of the film’s score. Intercut into the Alpert recording (or recording of the recording) are the distinctly mechanical pops and squeaks of film whirring around in a camera; the result, it seems, of slowing and scratching a vinyl record. The introductory snares pointedly return in the middle of the film when Mommartz deserts the camera and runs away from it into the middle-distance, with gunshot-like drums firing away. Though he flees the camera’s rounds, he also appears – in the very next scene – to fondle, caress and kiss it, unbuttoning his shirt and baring his chest as romantic melodies surge in the background, confusing the usual male gaze orthodoxies. The relationship between Mommartz’s and his camera – its fluctuations through intimacy and anger, fear and pleasure – is as unpredictable as that between torero and bull.

Like Buster Keaton gags, or TikTok videos, the lack of pretention in Mommartz’s film might be what makes it so watchable. In her 1968 review of exprmntl, with the self-explanatory title ‘Nothing New at Knokke’, the US film critic Patricia Marton described a similar sentiment. Amid the stale festival atmosphere, suffused with try-hard experimenters, pretentious gimmicks and heavy-handed politicism, there were two rare exceptions which received the audience’s grateful and enthusiastic applause. Along with Mommartz’s Selbstschüsse, Marton highlighted The Big Shave, by the young, yet-unknown director Martin Scorsese, in which a young man shaves his face in a bathroom mirror until he begins to gruesomely cut himself, turning the white foam into a red beard of blood. The films (both available online) have a lot in common: a solitary male caught in a mundane and isolated context, trumpet-heavy soundtracks, six minutes in length, and with themes that explore the fine line between innocence and violence.

If Scorsese’s title seems somewhat flippant, an alternative title for the film Viet ’67… (found at the bottom of the film’s credits), indicates something else is at play. The harsh realities of the political context of the Vietnam War had crept into these blank interior spaces but also into art-making – all of our hands are bloodied. With Mommartz, we have no title with which to semantically parse the relation between the outside and the inside of a film. He is less allegorical than Scorsese, less willing to let the audience pluck low-hanging interpretive fruit, offering instead a play on words that leads only back to the closed loop between himself and the film. At one moment I did find myself wondering if the title echoed the shots (or Schüsse) that rang out when the university student Benno Ohnesorg was murdered by police in West Berlin on 7 June that year, spurring the rise of a militant student movement, but my thoughts refused to proceed any further, hemmed in and halted by the film’s own stark boundaries.

The edges of Mommartz’s private idyll are divulged only once, with the brief glimpse of boats on a distant waterway; a hint of an external world that, from the perspective of the Knokke protesters, betrays the political reality that the film refuses to comment on. With Selbstchüsse, the focus is indeed inward, showcasing a powerful if truncated affective spectrum that flips at a hat’s drop; a testament to the bleak buffet of feeling that we are handed amid times of upheaval, state violence and the generational despair of youth. The numerous self-help articles on major news outlets over the past year inform us that in times of trauma we experience a flickering state between fight or flight that leads to static or anxious numbness. Against this, Mommartz’s affective idyll reminds us that the barrenness of our emotional landscapes can be – in spite of all – sown with smiles and screams.

Lutz Mommartz’s films can be viewed at the Julia Stoschek Collection.

Mimi Howard is winner of the Film and Video Umbrella and Art Monthly Michael O’Pray Prize 2020.

The Michael O’Pray Prize is a Film and Video Umbrella initiative in partnership with Art Monthly, supported by University of East London and Arts Council England.

2020 Selection Panel

  • Terry Bailey, senior lecturer, programme leader, Creative and Professional Writing, University of East London
  • Steven Bode, director, FVU
  • Chris McCormack, associate editor, Art Monthly
  • Rianna Jade Parker, critic, curator and researcher
  • Heather Phillipson, artist and poet
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