The Political Dimension in Documentary Filmmaking

»Would you say that your (artistic) practice is political? If so, how would you describe its political dimension?«

When I was 18, I wanted to make films that would make people think, and possibly even alter their view of things. Not that I believed I got everything right myself. But I felt it was important to tell stories about my experiences and share them with others. That is my way of communicating. It was partly to draw attention to injustice and perhaps influence society by doing that, but also to provoke a response through the way I told the story.

Today I am not quite so idealistic. The culture business is less and less significant, and so often it is self-referential. But I still feel the urge to tell stories.

All my documentary films have a political dimension: My film Zirkus is nich (No Circus) is about child poverty – not economic so much as emotional poverty. Die Vermittler is told from the angle of case workers in job centers in the Berlin boroughs of Neukölln and Hellersdorf, and it describes the everyday work of placing the unemployed into the labor market. The film makes the political visible through the people who appear in it. My degree piece Der innere Krieg (The War Within) is about traumatized American soldiers at a United States Army base in Rammstein and Landstuhl. The film allows soldiers to question their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and shows the wounds they carry inside and outside.

In my film The Tea Party I tried to portray the anxieties of Midwestern Americans and to understand where that »white male fear« originates from. The film basically predated developments in Europe. Here too, political debate is being poisoned by fear and paranoia, which are driving ordinary Germans – even the middle classes – into the arms of the AfD and other right-wing groups.

In The Last Chapter I and II I focused on the trials against former SS guards at Auschwitz, which began far too late. It’s a highly political issue: the postwar justice system in Germany failed for decades to bring guards at Auschwitz to trial. It was only in 2009 (the Demjanjuk case) that the seeds planted by Fritz Bauer, the Jewish prosecutor who helped to initiate the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt, eventually bore fruit. Everyone who worked in Auschwitz and other extermination camps, whether as a cook or a paramedic, was guilty of aiding and abetting mass murder. Even the tiniest cog helped to keep that annihilation machine turning.

So much injustice occurs in the short span of a human life that it is almost impossible to tell all the stories and to listen to everyone. But I do believe that everyone essentially deserves to be listened to. After all, what we all have in common as humans is the desperate attempt to give our lives a meaning. Some manage that, and others don’t.

I have a deep-seated distrust of narrow-mindedness, prejudice, and religious bigotry. People who think their take on life is the only correct one strike me as highly suspect – especially when they try to impose their views on others.

Through my work in film, I am being political without supporting a party. I dislike the pressure in cultural life to be co-opted or used by a party or a political agenda.

My films have a political dimension, because I express my innermost convictions without trying to moralize. The political dimension they have is above all a human one. My aim is to uncover motives and recognize the motivations behind the actions of the people I show in my films.

It seems too easy to me to bow to a political mainstream. I mean both the left-wing and right-wing mainstream. I find it naïve and out of touch to have a black-and-white opinion about people or cultures.

Nevertheless, I do feel a duty to express a standpoint when it matters and when I am asked for my opinion. Klaus Mann’s novel Mephisto (made into a film by Istvan Szabo), which describes a corrupt artist who sets his hat to the wind, exemplifies for me the unholy liaison between politics and art, and with it the end of culture.

That is why independence means a lot to me. Independence is very precious. Only an independent artist enlivens and enriches culture and keeps asking questions. Artists who only ever supply answers, in my view, have outlived their purpose. They don’t create anything new and they simply shore up existing opinions.

I try through my work to sharpen awareness of an issue, the fate of an individual, a wrong or a dilemma. From that angle, my films are political, because they draw attention to something. Whether that is useful, interesting, a failure or a success is for others to judge.

Translated by Katherine Vanovitch (German to English).