© loekenfranke / Michael Loeken & Ulrike Franke (VG Bild-Kunst)

The video work of both the film collective loekenfranke and Mats Staub involves the close observation of people. It’s portraits. People talk, show themselves; they doubt, hope, struggle, take stock of their lives, their surroundings, the relationships that have shaped them and, at times, have forced change upon them. It deals with the question about ways of defying economic and social constraints – or else having to accept coercion, often explicitly against one’s own desires and visions. What’s left? What has come of these desires? What was one able to gain, what is lost? Is it even possible to influence the tedious turning of time? Who authors their own destiny anyway? By researching the past, information is gleaned about the present. And a faint idea of what may come. Why is it apparently inscribed in human nature that they always need to erase what they’ve done – supposedly in best conscience? And why is it similarly apparent that they always want to remember, if anything need to remember, everything they’d rather forget?

The work of loekenfranke and Mats Staub is best classified as »documentary« – but what does that mean? Does documentary footage tell a different truth than the arts? Is an ever new, different, ever more truthful dimension demanded of it regarding all the issues with which the arts have long been concerned? Would the documentary then be effectively superior to the arts? Could it even provide answers?

The work of Mats Staub and loekenfranke dissolves this seeming contradiction. Theirs are both documentary and artistic works. They do not unduly claim a concept of truth, by means of which humanity could be delivered from its woes. They do not claim to improve the world at all.

They can, however, claim one thing for themselves: accuracy of watching and listening, precision in their portrayal of people around the world; and the knowledge that everything that happens to the world, be it in the Ruhr area, other European regions, or on other continents, is anthropogenic. And their posing of the questions all arts have posed from time immemorial: What is responsibility? How to coexist? How can we help each other? What is our nature, and what is the nature that surrounds us? How can we prevent each other from the destruction we relentlessly keep perpetuating? How can we bear the cruelties of love and death? How can we bear being thrown into the world, yet still know so little about ourselves?

loekenfranke’s and Mats Staub’s video documents are as sobering as they are profound, as melancholic as they are witty, as dissecting as they are playful. The great thing is, they defy categorization.

They are free.

Barbara Frey: Nowadays, as nature is largely being destroyed, intensive animal research is being conducted. This is oddly ironic. Counted among »intelligent animals« are those with recall skills, or memory, such as primates, elephants, rats, octopuses. What does that mean for human nature, the human as a remembering animal? What does memory mean in your work?

Mats Staub: A way inside, literally.

Michael Loeken: Memory is an epiphenomenon of searching and researching. What is there to discover? For example, the bird watchers we photograph. Observing the birds causes people to remember their own situation. Do the birds have fun too? What are they really doing?

Ulrike Franke: Memory is unpredictability. Something suddenly arises in you, elicited by a smell or a light reflection. It’s linked to emotions, happy or melancholic ones. The greed for memory also fuels that which is to come. We’re torn.

ML: Memory often involves repression.

BF: The ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father asks his son not for revenge – he asks him pointedly to remember him, »Remember me.« Resulting in Hamlet’s strange inhibition to act.

It’s about the moment itself. Where you’re met with pure being. A glance, a gesture, here and now. The laconism hides there. Ulrike Franke

MS: After all, it’s good to think about what your next step could be. That’s where your own decision-making comes into play. Our work is to pause and step aside.

ML: In some of our projects we notice that people don’t want to remember. New projects are supposed to ensue, new landscapes in the Ruhr area. Old buildings have to go. And vice versa, real cathedrals of the past are being tended to. In our work there’s no nostalgia, more like melancholy.

BF: Nothing in your work has a nostalgic or romantic effect. The laconic mode predominates as the basic gesture.

UF: It’s about the moment itself. Where you’re met with pure being. A glance, a gesture, here and now. The laconism hides there.

ML: We open ourselves to an entire spectrum of feelings that we want to capture. Humor, for instance, is important. Humor that doesn’t show people up, so people laugh together.

MS: You have to let feelings arise and move on. That’s what’s laconic in my work.

BF: In theater there’s only the moment. Nothing remains. How do you approach individuals in your films in order to motivate them to talk? How does the immediacy that we sense while watching occur?

UF: In theater the magical moment has to be reproducible. In filmmaking there’s only absolute singularity. But never tie anything down beforehand. As people we also have to feel our own worries and fears. There’s no one-sided taking on our part. Only with trust does something like truthfulness emerge.

ML: You have to show your own weaknesses. That creates normalcy.

MS: I always tell people I don’t do interviews, we just get talking to one another. I show myself, too. I’m present.
Unlike you, Ulrike and Michael, I have to generate something which isn’t absolutely natural. In »21 – Erinnerungen ans Erwachsenwerden« (21 – Memories of Growing up), for example, it’s a contrived situation. I’m portraying people while they listen to their own story. But I don’t »stage« them. I try to facilitate an encounter with themselves.

You really have to sense everything, capture it, and take it seriously, even and most importantly, what seems »mundane.« Michel Loeken

BF: You, Mats, make spaces disappear. The background in »21 – Erinnerungen ans Erwachsenwerden« and »Jetzt & Jetzt« is black. This creates an odd sacredness. Without any false piety. The people look like moving icons. In your work, Ulrike and Michael, space plays a decisive role.

UF: The spaces hold all that has disappeared. In »Herr Schmidt und Herr Friedrich«, there’s memory in every record, every love letter, photo, and knick-knack. In all of our films people pull their lifeblood from the spaces surrounding them, whether it’s a living room or a street in the Ruhr area. One woman has looked at the Bochum Opel factory for 40 years, then it disappears. The tree in front of the factory also has to go. And so the women loses her ancestral space. We have to visit all places physically, they smell!

BF: Watching your films, I smell everything too. How do you do that?

ML: You really have to sense everything, capture it, and take it seriously, even and most importantly, what seems »mundane.«

UF: Most important is what happens in the cutting room, it’s about composition. How much importance do we give a single image? In the film about the German pop singer, Renate Kern, there’s a photo of her as a child completely lost in a snowy landscape. How long we show that image is important for the overarching context, it creates intimacy.

BF: Still, many magical moments go unexplained. That’s the beauty of it. A third element is added.

MS: My experience is similar – and an incredible amount of work goes into creating the conditions for magical moments to transpire. Weeks of editing, distilling the essence. I go for full concentration on the individual. That creates something universal. At the beginning people told me, »That’s all well and good, but who cares about Ms. Meier’s grandmother?«

BF: As we can see, many people do.

MS: Whether I’m portraying someone from the Ruhr region or Kinshasa, I’m interested in the faces. They create connection. Even if the background is black, as in »21«, spectators are ultimately going to a specific room to be able to concentrate optimally on the persons being portrayed. Which is why I continue to love the dramatic arts. You enter a real space, that means something.

BF: What are heroes for you? We’re confronted with heroism 24 hours a day. Online, in movies, TV series, marketing. Everything’s intended to be human, approachable, ordinary, but always escalates into the heroic.

MS: The policeman in your film, »Göttliche Lage«.

I spend a lot of time with people. And even more time when they’re not even there while I’m working with all the footage. These people inhabit me Mats Staub

UF: How he does his job as a matter of course, loves it, and lets us join in no strings attached. A troubleshooter. And that doesn’t get evaluated or overly stylized, if anything it isn’t »heroic.« Heroes always get the top mark, they’re constantly being assessed.
Our protagonists are anything but balanced or perfect.

ML: It isn’t heroism, but it certainly is forceful personalities. They’re believable, they’re not artificial.

BF: In theater it’s the other way around. You believe everything great actors do when they’re most artificial. The »real« is acted. An essential feature of the Renaissance was the perfect blend of being and acting.

UF: The presence of the camera basically makes everything we do artificial. There’s the team, the camera, lighting sometimes. It’s a kind of agreement. It’s about creating intensity while people are still being entirely true to themselves.

ML: It’s the groundwork too, getting to know each other beforehand. But you have to abandon your own question – and certainly not expect any answers. That’s the difference to journalism.

MS: The participants have to be able to stay true to themselves. It’s about safety, so they can open up. 

BF: It’s the other’s perception. Perception creates a level playing field and empathy.

ML: And truly mutual interest.

UF: The story of Piatigorsky, the cellist, who caught a glimpse of the great Pablo Casals in the audience. As yet unknown, Piatigorsky was terribly nervous and felt at the end that he’d played poorly. But Casals told him after the concert he’d played very well. Piatigorsky took it as false praise and was insulted. Years later he brought it up with Casals. Casals reiterated his praise; he had really seen how different and unique Piatigorsky’s fingering and bowing was in certain parts. You have to be able to see things in others. By the same token, everyone desires recognition.

MS: It’s the time we spend with each other. I spend a lot of time with people. And even more time when they’re not even there while I’m working with all the footage. These people inhabit me. In March, I’m meeting 100 people for the second time for »Jetzt & Jetzt«. I have to create 100 rooms in myself where they can temporarily move in. When the portrait and cut are finished they can move back out. I can’t live with them forever.

BF: In your work, everything is »scenic.« That’s the proximity to theater, to drama. How does the dramaturgy come about while filming, that is, before composing in the cutting room?

ML: We clock every situation while shooting.

UF: What’s interesting is what happens after the actual conversations, when we’re »off,« so to speak. You have to stay on, it’s valuable material.

MS: I always tell my staff they’re not allowed to push stop as long as we’re still in the room. As we’re leaving some participants will suddenly make key statements.

BF: In your art, is there a kind of primal scene you’re constantly returning to?

UF: At root, you’re always exhausting one topic. At the film institute in Cologne where I studied, the first day I saw JAMMERLAPPEN (WHINER) sprayed on the wall. Magnificent, I thought. It was covered up later on. My first film was about memory and disappearance, and I asked people if they could remember that tag. Hardly anyone could, and I felt very alone. But there was one who said he remembered, it read, JAMA LA LAPP. But he didn’t know what it meant. When Michael and I made the Opel film 25 years later, there was a similar moment. Only the shadows of the OPEL lettering could be seen on the building because the letters had been taken down when the factory closed.

ML: Between 1935 and 1945 the gestapo were in the EL-DE-Haus in Cologne (NS-Documentation Center of the City of Cologne), named after its builder Leopold Dahmen. The jail cells were in the basement. After the war it was said with Teutonic thoroughness, »Paint over the prisoners’ inscriptions, the Revenue Office will be housed here, and the files will go in the basement.« I made a film about how a citizens’ initiative tried to turn it into a memorial. Then the restorers came, scraped off everything in the basement, and you could read the prisoners’ inscriptions again. Our work, in many ways, is always about disappearance and memory.

MS: My primal scene involves my grandmother. At the end of her life she increasingly repeated her stories. But she’d always add a detail. Her old, shaking index finger cruised around Africa on an imaginary map in the air, describing her trip – it was cheaper back then to sail around than take the Suez Canal, which she highlighted with a swift finger movement. In her whole body, in particular her shaking finger, was the entire presence of the past. I wondered, what’s behind this story? I took a detour. It took me 20 years to make the trip to where my grandmother had been. Beforehand I asked 300 people what they knew about their grandparents. In doing so, I realized that a portrait of ourselves emerges when talking about our grandparents. Ultimately, the question is, what is really important in our lives?