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In the centre of the black frame we see the faintly coloured, slightly streaky image from another film: a man is sitting on a chair with his back to the camera, looking at a small barred window. „Nice view here,” he says. „That’s not the view from your cell,” an offscreen voice comments. „No. (…) From there I see a fence, a wall, chimneys.” Cut to two young women with serious expressions on their faces, also in the dark. Now the image of the man fills the whole frame and the womens’ upper bodies are reflected in the back of the chair. The dialogue continues over the cut: the barred window is now a cardboard backdrop and instead of the man, a bald, toddler-sized hand puppet is sitting in front of it on a stool. One of the young women briefly plays with the puppet and then drops it on its back, onto the stool. Several close-ups show another woman holding up measuring tape to different parts of the puppet. Spare music starts to play. And when the camera pulls back – first to a medium close-up, then to a wide shot – we see the cameraman on screen and then the studio set with a stationary camera, and the sound recordist with a boom and microphone. Cut. A camera slowly pans through a bare office with a large circle of chairs. An offscreen voice says: „The first time we see Stefan S. it is in a chair circle.” In a large mirror at the far end of the room, both filmmakers can be seen at work.

This is the beginning of the exposition of ANMASSUNG (ANAMNESIS), which introduces the film’s setting and almost everyone involved in its making: Stefan S., incarcerated in a Brandenburg Prison for stalking and murdering a young woman; the filmmakers Stefan Kolbe and Chris Wright; and the puppeteers Josephine Hock and Nadia Ihjeij. The directors provided these latter two with photographs and audio recordings related to S., so that they could reenact and comment in the film on some of his statements about his life and imagined scenes from his childhood. One of the two offscreen voices (those of the filmmakers themselves) explains that Stefan S. is imprisoned with other sex and violent offenders in the social therapy section of Brandenburg Prison and that he, in addition to other forms of therapy, participates in a discussion group on men and identity that takes place in a chair circle. We learn that he was „very reluctant” to participate in the film and doesn’t want to be recognized. But he can picture appearing as a puppet.

Thus ANMASSUNG makes clear from the beginning that the indirect, fractured access to its subject, which has to be attained by way of other people and technical strategies, was born of obstacles. And yet the variety of the means employed and the complexity of the artfully layered and interlaced narration quickly make clear that there is more at play here. Particularly conspicuous is an attitude to research and storytelling that is just as interested in the communicative situation as it is in the figure of the subject and his crimes. Both the protagonists on screen as well as the viewers are included in the process of reflection. „This is not a film about Stefan S.,” one of the voices programmatically announces at the end of the exposition, „this is a film about how we create a picture of him.”

Self-reflexive gesture

This self-reflexive gesture is far from new. Since at least the turn of the millennium, „post-naïve” films, in the lineage of experimental film and video art, have been incorporated into the documentary fold, where they have productively and inventively enriched the subgenre of the essay film. Their creators vehemently distance themselves from the aesthetic program of emphatic identification that governs the documentary mainstream: instead of generating emotions by way of moving individual stories, their aim is to create insight into structural contexts via ruptures and distortions, distancing, and formal transparency. In June 2011, Birgit Kohler presented the series Performing Documentary at the Berlin Arsenal Cinema, which introduced nine such works produced in the decade prior from Germany and Austria. This program also included a few films whose subjects could not be or did not want to be shown, for legal, personal or moral reasons. Here too these reasons were only a springboard for an exciting play with documentary conventions.

Thomas Fürhapter, for instance, in his film MICHAEL BERGER. A HYSTERA (2010) tells the life story of a financial scammer using third-person offscreen narration. Michael Berger, who was in pre-trial detention at the time of filming, is never seen on screen; instead we see footage of places that were significant in his life. In ANMASSUNG, Kolbe and Wright similarly work with wide shots that show their subject’s hometown, the surroundings of the jail, the scene of the crime, and so forth.

In GANGSTER GIRLS (2008), Austrian director Tina Leisch accompanies her subjects, inmates of a women’s jail, as they prepare a performance of scenes from their lives before and after their incarceration – wearing artfully applied makeup that conceals their identities. There is also a theatrical aspect to Calle Overweg’s film THE PROBLEM IS MY WIFE (2003), in which therapeutic conversations with the perpetrators of domestic violence are performed by actors. Overweg condensed the script from extensive research on the topic, with the technical installation of the set taking the form of a stage in the studio, similarly to ANMASSUNG. While in both GANGSTER GIRLS and ANMASSUNG the participants’ desire for anonymity was a motivation for the depersonalisation, in Overweg’s case it was not wanting to give the perpetrators a stage.

Problematizing immediate personal presence on screen is not a new phenomenon. This became an issue beginning with the invention of the soundproofed 16mm camera in the sixties, which allowed speaking people to appear in nonfiction films as well. As Lenny Lipton reports in his book Independent Filmmaking (1972), many filmmakers even then opposed this development by consciously rejecting the newly gained synchronicity between image and sound. Some formal innovations were owed to the pressure exerted by police or political persecution. A legendary example is given by the American documentary filmmakers Emile de Antonio, Mary Lampson, and Haskell Wexler with their 1976 film UNDERGROUND. The directors have the Weathermen or Weather People activists, who were living underground at the time, appear in the film to talk about their political struggle, but use different strategies to make them unrecognizable. They drape fabrics over their subjects’ heads and shoot them in silhouette, or utilize a mirror construction that shows the filmmakers from the front and the interviewees from behind; these constructs, along with openly carried out conflicts between subjects and filmmakers, can be found in some of the shots in ANMASSUNG as well.

Pixelisation was long considered aesthetically vulgar in documentary filmmaking.

The most well-known method of rendering someone anonymous – playfully used in ANMASSUNG as one among several – can be found everywhere in broadcast journalism today: the technique of pixelisation (also frequently used as a digital fig leaf to censor sexual content) usually serves to anonymize vulnerable figures or to avoid violations of privacy laws. Long considered aesthetically vulgar in documentary filmmaking, pixelisation was rarely called into question ethically as a necessary protective measure. Today, however, documentary filmmakers are more likely to make use of once scorned digital anonymization techniques. Nikolaus Geyrhalter, for instance, in his film ABENDLAND (2011), circumvents photo rights (the protection of one’s image under German law) by manipulating the faces of drunk people at the Munich Oktoberfest with the help of a morphing technique, to the point that they are no longer recognizable, yet at the same time do not appear conspicuously unnatural.

Another form of „face swapping” is openly deployed – and even used to amplify the melodrama – in the HBO documentary WELCOME TO CHECHNYA (2020). The film shows Russian activists helping Chechen LGBTQ people escape abroad. Here it is especially the Chechens who are in great danger of persecution from the state and their own families, which track down the defecting sons and daughters even in their countries of exile. Director David France uses a version of the controversial deepfake method to embed the facial expressions of the Chechens portrayed in the film into the „donated” face scans of volunteers from the queer scene in the US. The American producers have stated that they chose this technology in order to emotionally involve the audience, who are able to see the vivid facial expressions of the heroes even though they are anonymized. Geyrhalter has also emphasized what he sees as the successful combination of authenticity and the protection of privacy by using morphing.

Repudiating the pressure to be authentic

It is also this pressure to be authentic from which „performative” filmmakers distance themselves by revealing the ways in which their films are constructed, inscribing ruptures, displacements, and other unsettling elements into the seeming naturalness of the documentary process. Far from being an academic fad, this demonstratively displayed hybridity is of significance for the way an entire industry sees itself, as is shown in the case of the film LOVEMOBILE, which received a lot of media attention in March of this year. Because someone close to the production leaked the fact that director Elke Margarete Lehrenkrauss directed actors in her film about prostitutes in Lower Saxony without making this explicit, the director felt obliged to return the SWR-endowed German Documentary Film Prize. The broadcaster’s hypocrisy is hard to miss here: Lehrenkrauss is also a victim of the increasing pressure from television producers, who demand ever tighter budgets alongside ever more gripping stories. That sort of thing pushes false authenticity markers. Furthermore, the broadcasters’ public image in the media tends to omit the obvious fact that documentary filmmakers always – albeit to differing degrees – actively help create what happens during the shoot.

The extent to which some audiences have been sensitised to what it means to work on set and for „real” figures to appear in a film became evident when Stefan Kolbe and Chris Wright travelled the festival circuit with their film DAS BLOCK (2007), set in a high-rise complex in Saxony-Anhalt. The intimacy of their documentary approach struck many as a provocation, and they were accused in audience discussions of improperly showing up and voyeuristically exploiting their four subjects.

Thus the statement „This is not a film about Stefan S.” and ANMASSUNG as a whole can also be read as an answer to these accusations, as an appropriately serious, nuanced, and transparent engagement with the relationships and power dynamics at work in a documentary film project. What is remarkable and unusual even in performative film projects is the openness with which the filmmakers bring into play their own role. In particular when a whole new dynamic comes about in the face of Stefan S.’s impending release and the relational structure between him and the filmmakers, carefully calibrated over a course of years, begins to topple. Uncertainties arise, which Kolbe and Wright, along with their emerging doubts, inject into their film as productive factors. In this way, material that could have been made to fit the popular true crime genre becomes a contribution, built from experience, to questions of ethics and responsibility in documentary film.


Silvia Hallensleben lives in Bonn and Berlin and writes for different media outlets mostly about non-fiction films.

Translation: Millay Hyatt

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