Spengemann, Eichberg, Goldkamp, Hans – four names arranged in a circle appear at the end of the credits of several short films that were made in the context of the HFBK Hamburg (University of Fine Arts Hamburg) since 2014. The four filmmakers flippantly describe the logo, composed of their surnames, as a “sticker”: a sticker can be attached to a film, but should not infringe upon it in any way. Cinema as a participative art form is too multifarious for that. Paul Spengemann, Jan Eichberg, Steffen Goldkamp and Willy Hans do not form a production group or an office project. They do not wish to control everything, but instead strive to explore the possibilities of their constant exchange as a content-oriented collective; an idea that arose from the decision to discuss cinema in practical terms with one another. The concept of maximum possible freedom within the group has a clearly fertile effect, causing each of them to flourish: The group and its members stand out in the competitive, hierarchical German film industry. Within the domestic short film landscape, they are among the most prominent emerging talents.
In August 2017, “Das satanische Dickicht – DREI” (“The Satanic Thicket – THREE”), the new film by Willy Hans was shown at Locarno Festival. It’s about a family that goes to a lake to camp and eat sausages. The daughter is a teenager on the lookout for boys, the father retreats to a boat and keeps to himself. The mother can become quite irascible. The younger brother appears as half a child and generally seeks his own adventures beyond the black and white frame. Not much empathy is lost between them. Classical music plays an important role in the logic of the satanic thicket: ideas of the devilish and the heavenly, of the grotesque and the supernatural, of the confusion of humankind and nature gradually permeate the film, with varying levels of irony. Even sarcasm? Micro-dramaturgies of individual scenes and frequent fades collide with the desire to tell a coherent story in the thicket of cinematic montage. There is a perceptible conflict between the searching gaze of Paul Spengemann’s camera, the restrained acting and the characters’ profane rhetoric.
Satanic number three represents the third work of a series in which the collaboration of the group is perhaps most strikingly exemplified – as stylistic conventions can be traced throughout the three parts. Just as in the previous episodes of the satanic thicket, Paul Spengemann handles the cinematic composition of this piece to largely similar effect. In this particular case, Steffen Goldkamp and Jan Eichberg assisted Willy Hans in the direction of his trilogy, which – due to their support – leads to an unexpectedly conciliatory end.
The success of the two previous works (the first part having premiered in competition at Oberhausen, the second in Hamburg) continues here, albeit less eccentrically. Once again it was shot on Super 16. Lars Rudolph appears – as in the second part of the thicket – this time as the odd-looking caretaker who attends to the garbage and a rabbit. Alongside Eva Löbau (who features in Jan Eichberg’s “Jule”) his is the most recognisable face in the group’s films to date and merely his second appearance awakens a feeling of continuity. But Rudolph’s performance also raises conceptual questions, both with regard to the self-positioning of filmmaker Willy Hans and the group as a whole: what role do success strategies and the desire to cast prominent actors play here? What character tradition is represented by Lars Rudolph and which concept of German cinema? In the mind’s eye, Rudolph connects the satanic thicket with Bela Tarr’s “Die Werckmeisterschen Harmonien” (“Werckmeister Harmonies”) (2000), where he played one of his most striking leading roles – an iconic film of recent cinema history about infernal-apocalyptic interpretations of the political.
The first part of the satanic thicket also happens to mark the first collaborative work of the collective after their individual study exercises. Willy Hans rounded them all up at the time, initially to record an extensive discussion about cinema that was then held within the context of the HFBK. While studying, the four filmmakers noticed that many of their fellow colleagues were inspired by the “Berlin School” of cinema – presumably not least due to Angela Schanelec’s presence as a lecturer. It was not until 2013 that the strongly discourse-oriented wave of Berlin filmmakers was honoured by the Museum of Modern Art with a comprehensive exhibition and book publication. The independent voices of young German cinema were more externally determined than in the case of the Munich and Cologne film groups. One year later, the Hamburg filmmakers saw through the deceptive security of a film practice that sought to imitate the Berlin style in order to pass every test.
In 2014, “Das Satanische Dickicht – EINS” (“Satanic Thicket – ONE”) alongside the films made concurrently “Wallenhorst” (2014, Dir: Steffen Goldkamp) and “Philosophieren” (2015, Dir: Paul Spengemann), intended to explore a “pubertal” cinema as a revolt against this notion of security: A cinema that perceives failure as opportunity, and that instead of sobriety and structure, engages in experiments of exaltation and exaggeration. The group strives to create cinema in the spirit of Sturm und Drang.
For “Wallenhorst”, Steffen Goldkamp and Paul Spengemann traverse the northern German province near Osnabrück. The eponymous location serves as a documental laboratory, enabling an unimpeded search according to principles of montage and event sequences. Kids and adolescents are integral, not merely in the film’s closing shot. In unison with the camera, skaters glide along a street. Boys block the slide at a swimming pool amid objections and giggles. In the classroom, one kid looks into the camera shyly, while some act as if they are too cool to notice anything. Outside, one guy shows off with his scooter. Forever circling. Others stand around with bicycles and look on in awkward stupor. During community rituals, all generations converge in public. The older people who live here have known this place since childhood, it’s reflected in their eyes. “Wallenhorst” is determined to allow fractures and cuts, and is primarily composed of tableaux extending beyond the frame. There is hardly another film in the group in which the camera is more inert.
In “Philosophieren” (“Philosophize”) young people are also closely observed, almost obsessively. Spengemann himself steers the camera as director, pursuing a gaze more pervasive than that of Satanic Thicket, without any external direction. Penetrating, bordering partly on the voyeuristic, his film proves to be intrusive in the best sense of the word, no less impulsive than his characters. Numerous images and uncut sequences of movement speak for themselves; as dramaturgy it can suffice to create a short titillation. A group of young people holiday in a parental home and collectively explore how to derive various amusements from the house. Fireworks found in the basement play their part, the garden hose is put to use and there are plenty of drinks for inexperienced drinkers. Where the Angela Merkel mask came from remains a mystery, although it is unable to diminish the power of the spooky nocturnal images – quite the contrary. Measured against the camera’s volition, many of the fresh faces ultimately reveal themselves to be mask-like and stencil-like. The film dispenses with the need to explain this, as it makes no secret of how it wants to represent. Escape is not possible as the space is restricted and intended to cause collisions within the group. The active camera montages images and bodies in equal measure.
While Paul Spengemann increasingly turns away from people in later films such as “About Falling in Love and Even Little Rubber Ducks” (2016) or “Walking Stick” (2017), the implementation of an active, engaging gaze remains a principle of his cinematic work as a director. Conflicts between the camera and the body are particularly pronounced in Willy Hans’ films, whereas in his more abstract directorial works of recent years he has developed an increasing openness to both light and dark tones. In “Walking Stick”, the camera follows an eerie, animated creature that pursues its life within a room and seeks its peace under the canopy of a potted plant. The creature confronts the camera, which has seemingly disrupted its night’s rest out of defiance and with the accompaniment of a flashlight. “About Falling in Love and Even Little Rubber Ducks” takes place in the same room – Spengemann’s studio – but in this case it is only the camera that is alive: in dramatic shots, underpinned by frenzied sounds and advertising slogans, the lens searches for lurid perspectives and uses macro, tracking and low-angle shots to poke fun at the cinematic use of oversized shots.
Since their first collaborative work, the group has clearly evolved from an all-encompassing standpoint to that of individual stylistic development. Everyone pursues that which inspires them. The filmmakers generate funds individually, the decision-making authority over a project lies entirely with the respective director. While Paul Spengemann increasingly withdraws from narrative cinema and progressively relies on art scholarships such as the Columbus Prize or the New Positions Prize, these days Jan Eichberg mainly writes screenplays and is less active as a director. In 2016, he tackled the longest and most conventional film ever made in the group, JUE. Much like Maren Ade’s “Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen” (“The Forest for the Trees”), Eva Löbau portrays an unstable woman who in this case struggles with her perturbed relationship to her sister. The dog has disappeared, thereby creating a conflict. Situations function psychologically. The camerawork is functional. Jan Eichberg himself appears in the film as an actor, playing an unpleasant esoteric type. His most recent appearance in front of the camera was in Steffen Goldkamp’s “Western Union” (2018).
Goldkamp, on the other hand, further developed his semi-documentary style with “L’été espérée” (2016), before first exploring fragmentary film narration with actors in “Western Union”. His forthcoming film will mark his first work without Paul Spengemann’s cinematography. The film is to be shot in a youth correctional facility – after the city, the village and the desert, it heralds a return to the clearly defined space. In conversation, the group claims that the short film form has the potential to be more experimental than that of the feature-length. Spengemann perceives the long form to be in crisis and shortened his last two works decidedly, showing them regularly as loops in galleries. Nevertheless, a good film can’t really be long enough. Willy Hans put this idea into practice and is currently working on his first feature film with the Hamburg production company Fünferfilm.
In contrast to material-political initiatives such as the Kiel film group Chaos, the Vienna Film Cooperative, or even Labor Berlin, the group’s work continues to refrain from following any aesthetic agenda and rejects the logic of economic groups such as SCHMIDTZ KATZE or Komplizen Film. Nevertheless, Spengemann, Eichberg, Goldkamp and Hans casually describe themselves as a collective. A term that once sounded utopian and now seems somewhat dated. Today, in times of blurred politicization, “collective” sounds like a mere label, a sticker. In response, the Hamburg-based group stresses the central role of friendship in their relationship. It’s simple: you work together because you’ve known each other for years. Because you have something to discuss and inspire one another. This can not be reproduced with others.
During the Sturm und Drang period, while male societies were known to be rather convivial, they also functioned as an unabashed form of mutual encouragement, status enhancement and sought to expand limited spheres of influence. In contemporary art practice, male friendship holds a reactionary connotation. But in times of inflationary and appropriated art, isn’t it more valuable than ever to uphold the idea of close friendship as the very foundation of the working process? The idea that integrity can be defended as a group, against the turmoil of exploitation? As is so often the case, the truth seems to lie somewhere in between, but hopefully in the case of Spengemann, Eichberg, Goldkamp and Hans it shall not become a middle way of routine-friendship coursing through a neo-liberal thicket, which in the end is no longer enchanted by the satanic nor the heavenly. Diabolical German cinema, it has happened before, and could be dreamt of again! But why this limitation to friendship? Ingenious enmities are needed too!