Our latest filmmaker portrait looks at the work of Clemens von Wedemeyer. Born in Göttingen, von Wedemeyer studied at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst (Academy of Visual Arts) in Leipzig and has subsequently won several international awards for his short films, video works and installations, including the Böttcherstrasse Art Award in Bremen (2005), the VG Bildkunst Award for Experimental Film (2002) and the Marion Ermer Award (2002).
Like artists Corinna Schnitt and Matthias Müller, who have already been featured here, the 31-year-old straddles the two worlds of visual arts and film. His latest film “Rien du tout” (2006, together with Maya Schweizer), which is based on a Beckett play aptly titled “Catastrophe”, was shown both in the German Competition at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen 2006, where it won the prize as best film, as well as at the 4th Berlin Biennale.
Von Wedemeyer had already been represented in Oberhausen the previous year with the loop “Odjesd” (2005), a film that at the time took on unintentional pertinence against the backdrop of the visa investigation in Germany. In a barren wood in Berlin, he filmed a twelve-minute tracking shot around a colourful group of people waiting for their visas. Fragments of spoken Russian, motley luggage, advertisements for foreign travel, questions on how to fill out forms, commands from a bossy administrator, crowd barriers and a metal detector create an atmosphere that condenses the filmmaker’s experiences during this research at the German Consulate in Moscow. The footage, which stirs memories of Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark”, is shown as a loop in galleries and museums, generating with its sketchy, incomplete texts a mixture of hyperrealism and artificiality.
The socio-political references in von Wedemeyer’s work are clear to the viewer from what is today the almost obligatory “making of”. “Big Business” (2002), for example, unfolds its true impact only when one knows the story behind its making. For his film, von Wedemeyer took a Laurel & Hardy plot and set it behind the walls of the Waldheim detention centre (Saxony). While in the original Stan & Ollie try to sell a Christmas tree in high summer, and in the process of the failed sales pitch end up totally destroying the house and piano of their unwilling customer, in the remake prisoners painstakingly tear apart a house, a car and a piano. The wooden depiction of what is an only marginally comical demolition process opens our eyes to the importance of contexts of origin: the absurdity of a joyfully anarchic act of destruction (in the case of Stan & Ollie) is transferred to the locus of state authority par excellence: the prison.
Even if all of his films are not quite as explicit as “Big Business”, von Wedemeyer’s other works also assign a special role to those participating in the process of creation. They are protagonists, but very rarely “actors” in the classic sense – frequently, the boundary between the “making of” and the end product is deliberately blurred. “Big Business” is hence also an example of the way films walk the line between authenticity and fictionalization – a central theme of von Wedemeyer’s work. In “Rien du tout” (2006) as well as in “Occupation” (2001), the actors themselves are the catalysers for this balancing act.
The filmmaker confronts the extras with a professional film crew that sets the scene for a medieval spectacle in “Rien du tout” and for an unspecified crowd scene in “Occupation”. In both films he gives us an unaccustomed look at the work of the film crew: tired, anxious and tense, they usually succeed at real teamwork only in time for the film’s finale. The extras, on the other hand, don’t know what to make of the vague hints at what they are supposed to be portraying, but nonetheless willingly submit to the power and fascination of the movie-making machinery. In both cases, the extras are depicted as malleable, and yet wilful, masses. They are at once viewers and stars, misused as a projection surface for the inscrutable ideas of the director.
Both “Occupation” and “Rien du tout” reveal an unusually intense analysis of film aesthetics and theory, as well as of the fundamentals of making and showing films. “Occupation” is a “story about the cinema” in which the artist tries to come to terms with Eisenstein’s strategies for staging and handling crowd scenes. These references to diverse theoretical approaches to filmmaking surely count among the main reasons for the enduring interest of festivals like Oberhausen in von Wedemeyer’s artistic development. Not only do the social relevance of his works and the interventions he undertakes for its sake exert a certain fascination, but also the almost magical cinematic aesthetic in the resulting films and their clear references to prior models. The fascination of the imagery compensates for sequences that are sometimes difficult to decode and whose objective the viewer can often only guess at.
Broad-based success in the commercial film world is something von Wedemeyer’s works will probably be denied. Notwithstanding the major prizes he collected for “Occupation”, including the former VG Bildkunst Award for Experimental Film, von Wedemeyer still faced financing problems for his subsequent projects, especially in trying to secure grant money. The Mitteldeutsche Medienförderung (Central German Media Fund) rejected two of his projects, while the Kulturelle Filmförderung Sachsen (Cultural Film Fund of Saxony) was at the time in the process of breaking up and did not feel any obligation to the young artist. This experience is similar to that faced by many ambitious filmmakers today: funding policy is dominated by a single economically-oriented line of thinking, largely reducing short film to a mere calling card for up-and-coming feature film makers. Von Wedemeyer made use instead of alternative financing options geared toward his person rather than earmarked for a specific project: grants, artist-in-residence programmes, art awards, and contract work for galleries, museums and projects within the scope of promotional programmes sponsored by the German Federal Cultural Foundation.
The fact that “Rien du tout” won the prize in the German Competition at Oberhausen is nevertheless especially gratifying for the artist, to whom the Kölnischer Kunstverein even devoted a solo exhibition this past spring. After all, despite the attention he enjoys on the arts scene, he continues to view himself as a filmmaker – with the unshakeable ambition of seeing his works presented not only in the art gallery but also on the big screen and at the cinema.