I History, Women and I
In DATTERODE (2005), an early work of Alex Gerbaulet created during her studies at the Braunschweig University of Art (HBK), we see several carefully chosen shots of the Datterode village and its surroundings in Northern Hesse, over which an off-screen voice narrates that, among other aspects, it was home to a Dutch war criminal. Up to his death, he was a popular neighbour here who never had to serve his prison sentence in the Netherlands because the German state refused to extradite him to the very end.
This work’s specific visual experience does not arise merely from the tension between a completely normal – one might even say: »idyllic« – locality as shown in the film’s images and the information provided on its sound level. Rather, it arises in that the film’s perspective is framed through the sound as one of a specific person, the filmmaker, who shies away from filming, or is glad not to have to shoot anymore (once the battery is empty), and so on. Thus, what collides is not so much images and sounds, but rather a quite specific subjectivity that is articulated in the sound and the images and their encounter with a locality, its visible materiality and its (mostly) invisible history. Whenever Alex Gerbaulet says the word »I« in her works, she is also always saying »history« and vice versa. As we become familiar with Datterode and its history, we also get to know the filmmaker and her unease. They are dependent on each another: Alex Gerbaulet as a person becomes visible in how she behaves in relation to the subjects of her respective films.
The work SCHICHT (Shift, 2015), which was produced in 2015, is not only Gerbaulet’s most successful film – winning the German Competition at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, the Prix Premiere at the FID Marseille and the German Film Critics Award, among others – it is also central retrospectively (and up to now) as a work that repeatedly places German history and the present in relation to her own biography.
We learn here for instance that: Gerbaulet’s first name is Alexandra, because her father was a big fan of the German pop singer of the same name, and she was born in Salzgitter, where he worked for the Salzgitter AG steelworks. These steelworks first commenced operations in 1937 as the Reichswerke Herman Göring steel plant.
Starting with this basic constellation, the film drills through layers of history, which are the ones of her family as well as of Germany at large. Here, too, it can be felt that the filmmaker as historian finds herself in the wrong place, as was already encountered in DATTERODE. From this constellation – in proximity to what creates unease – something productive develops that progressively reveals history as being made up of layers and as a structure that can be rewritten: Within the patriarchal structure of the middle-class circumstances and German history that the film strips away layer by layer, Gerbaulet not only recounts the history of her own mother who died at the age of 46 after suffering for a long time from multiple sclerosis, but also her own history – in resistance, as a queer punk, and in search of her own path in life.
On this route in life, Gerbaulet also spent part of her youth with her grandparents, who are again placed at the centre of her filmic work DIE SCHLÄFERIN (The Sleeper, 2018) – created this time together with the authors Mirko Winkel and Tim Schramm. Again it is precisely the life of her grandmother, Margit, which she superimposes with that of a woman called Irina, about whom it is reported in the newspapers that she stabbed her husband to death. In the views of her home’s interior – the kitchen, the laundry room, the empty hallways – with its middle-class heteronormativity and the outlining of standardised female biographies, the film occasionally reveals a gentle, compassionate view of the grandmother and, at the same time, a deconstructed image of married life and domestic violence in federal Germany.
And even when Gerbaulet managed to free herself from her family and, after secondary school, continued studying in Braunschweig until she graduated, her most playful work SCHON NACHMITTAG (Already Afternoon, 2009), created together with Ines Meier, again reveals how the ticking of the city’s ultraprecise atomic clock mirrors Germany’s structures as a whole – the mechanisms and architectures of its everyday life, the exclusions and the harassments (of women)
II. Crafted Images: Playful Precision
GEFANGENENBILDER (Tattooed Prisoners, 2007), which was also made together with Mirko Winkel during her studies, is her only film that places men at its centre. Only that almost none of them have a face, except for the tattoo artist in the youth prison in the city of Neustrelitz. All of the others, his clients, have their heads cut off by the framing, or we only see them from behind. Besides the tenderness occasionally captured in passing as it is bestowed by the tattoo artist’s fingers on the men’s bodies – their skin, their nipples, their tiny hairs – the film focuses especially on the question of which images (swastikas, KKK symbols, Hitler faces, etc.) are being tattooed over with new images (deadheads, tribals, etc.) and why this is occurring. Doing so, the dialogue between the filmmaker behind the camera and the men being filmed is additionally translated into English and placed visibly in the centre of the film’s framing: As subtitles that are not subtitles, as spoken language that becomes writing, that becomes an image.
Such an understanding of images (and language) was revealed at a very early stage in Gerbaulet’s works (and already even in DATTERODE) as something crafted, as something that is not only depicted, but is produced and producible, written and can potentially be overwritten. It seems appropriate to emphasise this in light of the fact that her films are mostly (and rightly so) regarded as being documentaries. The images and sounds do not merely depict or record. Instead, they always have their own quality with Gerbaulet, one that draws attention to them as constructions and artificial shapes; in that at times the image is there or emphasizes itself in its absence, in that it consciously omits or focuses on things; in that language is highlighted, such as in the dryness and precision with which facts are recited, or in the playful Dadaist-psychoanalytical-associative virtuosity with which in Shift, for instance, the death of the mother is recounted and interwoven with concrete and metaphorical layers of the film: »She is lying on her back, looking up through the soil. / Someone bites the dust. Scarred dust. / Something is dead and buried. / Layers. Sediments. Deeper. Further. Black. Night. Shaft.«
One could potentially see influences here of the filmmaker Birgit Hein, under whom Gerbaulet studied in Braunschweig and who could have contributed to such a concept of the image with her own works, as indeed also with »Film as Film«, Hein’s standard work on experimental cinema that she published together with Wulf Herzogenrath. Yet this playful precision in handling images and language is also the central aspect of what makes Gerbaulet’s works political: Grasping the image as something crafted means taking its power and its ideological charges and functions seriously. It is only against this background that other images can become counter images. Based on this political understanding of art, Alex Gerbaulet teamed up with the filmmaker Mareike Bernien in 2015. Their first collaborative work Depth of Field (2016), that deals with the German neo-Nazi terror group National Socialist Underground in Nuremberg (among other places) , looks at and out from their crime scene locations and places them in relation to images of non-locations – such as underpasses, back yards and street corners – and lets the images become imbalanced, permitting them to turn on their own axes so as to set them upright again at other moments: As a false image; a slanted image; an image that has to be considered the other way around; an image rightly shifted.
Ultimately, it all ends with a view from the city’s crime scene location, which the montage places at the centre of a network of electricity lines crisscrossing the city. This new composition of the images finds its equivalence on the sound track through a continuous uttering of the victims’ names – Enver Şimşek, Abdurrahim Özüdoğru, Süleyman Taşköprü, Habil Kılıç – and an equally insistent refusal to create from the words »doner« and »murder« the exact word construction that a newspaper and the German »majority society« told itself, so that all this has nothing to do with »us« or German society as the case may be.
III. Political Image Crafting: Transformation and Collectivity
Gerbaulet’s latest work SONNE UNTER TAGE (Sun Under Ground) was again made in collaboration with Mareike Bernien and follows the route of a raw material along its differing signifiers (pitchblende, uranium, bismuth), changeable uses (ornamentation, healing, nuclear weapons) and political-ideological, scientific and medial contexts.
In doing so, the film conducts its stream of thoughts through a considerable number of the most diverse image types – photographs, archive footage, self-shot images, museum objects – whose commonality is accounted for especially in that, when taken together, they make the transformation of one and the same element visible by means of differing image types. Here too, the images always refer to themselves, are never only the image of something, but instead become a possibility that the film has decided on from among many: Thus, archive footage appears in the wrong format or is manipulated in terms of the direction it runs, current images are shot with an infrared filter, objects in the dark only become visible through the light beams of a flashlight, and finger prints left on photographs appear through ultraviolet light. Like the element in the thematic centre of the film, the images are also objects of transformations, paraphrasings and re-encodings. Making these processes visible, i.e., making them comprehensible for the viewer as well, means entrusting the viewer with the complexity of a potentially interminable thought process, which does not aim for some truth about the object, but rather for an idea of the relations in which it is entangled. It is not the history of uranium, but rather its position, role and function in an array of histories.
Viewing all of her films created up to this point in time permits Alex Gerbaulet’s work to be read – somewhat in analogy to the movement of SONNE UNTER TAGE (Sun Under Ground) – as one of transformations, through which run several fundamental aesthetic-political principles that concern the understanding of images, gazes and relationships between her, her object and the spectator. This skeleton permits a multitude of differing filmic bodies. And the films do actually differ powerfully from each other formally, with each of them having its unique form, a different approach and a new rhythm.
One term that I find myself intuitively and reflexively encountering when I view these films is that of work – work as a process, work as an eager and arduous overcoming of internal and external resistances, work as the crafting of new situations, relations and perspectives that does not lead to less work, but keeps the process of reflection and consideration in motion and opposes any essentialisms, clarities and attributions in it. Making films as work, viewing films as work, reflecting on films as work. Such an understanding of work as a process and the crafting of the processual can also be seen in her recurring yet also never permanently set artistic collaborations with Mareike Bernien, Mirko Winkel, Ines Meier (as co-directors), Jenny Lou Ziegel (camera) and Tom Schön (sound) or Philip Scheffner (editing), Merle Kröger (writer) and Caroline Kirberg (producer). Together with her and Mareike Bernien, they constitute the pong film production platform, where Alex Gerbaulet also works as a producer (and lately as the managing director), and where she recently facilitated the making of Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed’s film PURPLE SEA (2020), among others. This form of collective and collaborative work can be understood by reading about it line by line in a tabular resumé. Yet it is also equally reflected in her films as a form, aesthetic, and visual experiences that turn images and sounds into interfaces, which allow her to work on the world with others and us to do so together with her on her films, in order to – then, perhaps, after a break – go on living (and working) productively, aesthetically and politically in this mode of togetherness.