Films from the depths of the subconscious
Pale green water washes over the camera lens, forming bubbles as it subsides. The lens seems to gasp for air several times before it gives up trying to resist the pull of the murky depths of the North Sea and slowly sinks below the surface. Once the battle with the sea has been lost, an almost ethereal calm sets in and the camera (and, with it, the viewer) floats for a while, weightless, through a dusky, peaceful underwater world, penetrated only by a few isolated sunrays.
The leading role in Jörn Staeger’s short film “Lebensgeister” (“Spirits of Life”, 2004) is clearly played by the North Sea, in whose cold, grey-green waters people look like little dolls. The sea has the camera in its thrall from the very first scenes, stealing the show from the human protagonists. In its best moments feeling like an artistic coming to terms with the childhood trauma of sinking in endless depths, the film takes its pace from the rhythm of the waves.
The “spirits of life” of the title are the primal feelings bubbling up from the subconscious – the fear of going under, the hope for love and the pain of rejection. Staeger sets the scene for these archaic themes in his 2004 film without wasting many words. The plot of the seven-minute short is a variation on the classic love triangle. A woman and two men play ball on the beach, frolicking in a cleverly conceived choreography of convergence and repulsion. The nascent love story and the dark, latently menacing music enhance the suspense.
And yet the expected showdown of man against man never takes place. Instead, the cuckolded third wheel finds himself unwittingly plunged into a battle with the elements, in other words: with the North Sea waves. The at once threatening and tempting rapture of the deep has already been featured in many films, presented using sophisticated technical equipment. Staeger, on a tight budget, was forced to work with relatively simple means. The film was shot with four DV cameras, various underwater cases and bicycle handlebars equipped with a self-rigged contraption for holding the camera. Staeger describes the nine-day shoot on the Sylt Island beach as intensive and arduous. The small crew was wholly at the mercy of the inclement weather, at times fighting gale-force winds and water temperatures of only 13 degrees.
Despite these rigours (or perhaps because of them) the film succeeds with its subjective camera perspective in veritably dragging the viewer down into the vortex. Suddenly, sinking seems to almost be a release. The underwater world becomes a haven of tranquillity, Medusa a welcome mistress.
Positively framed references to the unconscious and subconscious are a recurring theme in the artistic work of Jörn Staeger. The artist, who was born in Berlin, studied in the mid-1980s at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg and today makes his home in both Hamburg and Frankfurt, describes his filmmaking process as follows:
“I don’t plan my films in the classic sense of the word, but rather suddenly see individual scenes and sequences before me as if in an inner film. I try to set down these images in notes and drawings. I usually don’t know at the time what the images mean or how the film as a whole will be structured, let alone how I am to put my ideas into practice. That all happens only in the second step. What’s important first is that the images gradually surface from the depths of the subconscious.”
For most of his films Staeger not only directs but also does the screenwriting, camerawork and montage, and then takes charge of the soundtrack and production. This allows him to work freely and spontaneously. Staeger thus views himself less as a classic film author and more as a visual artist. He surely prefers the comparison with painting not least because he actually does paint and draw storyboards. In addition, he often earns his living working as cameraman for others’ films. For Staeger, the digital revolution in film technology is tantamount to the development of paints in a tube, which allowed painters to step out of the studio and thus ushered in a whole new era in painting.
According to Staeger, digital technology allows the filmmaker “to theoretically work alone. This is important because when you’re alone you can take every liberty to try things out, and trying out new things is vital to me.” Many artists of course become “author filmmakers” for much more pragmatic reasons, in particular in the short film realm, where low budgets often don’t leave room for financing a staff. The otherwise well-established division of labour in the film production process often becomes a one-man show in short film. Jörn Staeger has ambivalent feelings about this development. On the one hand, he’s an enthusiastic tinkerer who likes to work on his own for long stretches, but on the other he also likes to benefit from the surplus of inspiration and ideas that only comes from working with one or more colleagues.
One artist with whom he has already worked on a few films is his brother Ulf Staeger, likewise a short film maker but with a focus on (animated) film graphics and postproduction. In 2004 the two brothers made “Zielpunkte der Stadt” (“Urban Poems”), a cinematic ode to the topography of modern life. Staeger collected distinctive images and telling sounds in seven German cities and grouped them to create an audio-visual collage. The targets (Zielpunkte) at which he directs his camera are for example city gates, pedestrian zones, bridges or churches destroyed by war, subway stations, car parks and television towers. The word “targets” is by all means to be taken literally here, because Staeger deliberately concentrates on urban environs that were targets for Allied bombs during the Second World War. These places, once designed as hubs of urban life, often proved unable to fill this role, or do not fill it any longer: ruined churches, stereotypically structured, utterly unappealing pedestrian zones and subway stations whose architecture is reminiscent more of slaughterhouses than of highly frequented city crossroads. Constant repetition of similar motifs highlights how monotonously German city centres are conceived, demonstrating that modern urban street furniture does not exactly contribute to making city life more attractive.
Staeger portrays the inner city not as a bustling focal point of human activity, but as a deserted wasteland. Passers-by and cars can be discerned only as schematic veils rushing through the urban landscape, never stopping to pause. With the relative absence of human life, the city architecture looms even more clearly as a massive (but ultimately failed) attempt to influence and steer people’s social behaviour. The only thing that stands up to Staeger’s camera are the buildings. The director achieves this effect by recording his images not with a film camera, but rather with a conventional digital photo camera with single-frame function. By selecting an extremely long exposure time for each picture, he manages to “delete” everything that moves from his scenes, leaving only schematic traces. Placed together, the single shots produced in this way create a flip-book-like film sequence in which architecture reigns unchallenged as focal point – bereft of any signs of life.
Only the trees and bushes in the film betray the technical trickery at work here. Their leaves rustle unusually rapidly in the wind, recalling the shaky images in old silent movies when projected too quickly. The trees in “Urban Poems” are the only living elements in the carefully framed tableaux.
Staeger takes up this element again in his 2008 film “Reise zum Wald” (“Journey to the Forest”), this time shifting his focus from architecture back to nature. The first scene shows a tree – rustling, powerful and topped by a crown of leaves that glint in the light – seen through the window of a closed room. Instead of stone and walls, living nature (at the beginning still “framed by architecture”) is at the heart of the action here. Staeger works once again with the single-frame technique, but is now able to use it much more discriminately thanks to advances in camera technology. While in 2004 he was forced to fall back on photographic equipment to access a single-frame function with variable exposures, in the intervening four years this technology has also been integrated into moving picture cameras. Staeger hence anticipated this innovation in “Urban Poems” by exercising his own ingenuity. “It’s great of course when technical development moves in a direction you’ve long wanted to go”, he says with a grin.
“Journey to the Forest” premiered in February 2008 at the Berlinale, where the seven-minute film was the only German contribution vying for the Golden Bear in the Berlinale Shorts Competition. The forest as German myth first appears in the form of the pathetic remains of plant life meant to give the illusion of a bit of nature in the middle of the city – the same plantings that in “Urban Poems” here and there enliven the architectural wasteland. Almost meditatively, the camera glides through graphic-looking green areas, Avenues and monocultures, further and further out of the city until it gradually loses itself in the depths of the primeval-seeming forest.
In many ways, the film appears to be a further development or sequel to “Urban Poems”. The special exposure technique is used here again, but does not take centre stage as much as in Staeger’s previous films. It serves instead, together with various other creative ploys, to develop the cinematic narrative, which – without uttering a single word – comprises an essay-like and, what’s more, thoroughly humorous collage on the subject of the forest. Notable are the deft contrasts between sharp focus and blurring, which (with one exception) are achieved exclusively in the shot itself, as well as the montage, which intertwines genuine and “copied” nature (in photographic wallpaper or the model train) to comic effect. Added in to the mix is a perfect dose of gripping sound, made up of classic strings and amplified ambient noise. In combination with the trance-like travelling shots, the effect is to transport the viewer into a kind of forest rapture.
When the film debuted at the Berlinale, viewers found themselves longing to immediately trade in the snow and slush and the unavoidable red-carpeted foyers of the cinemas on Potsdamer Platz for a quiet, sunny spot in a mossy forest clearing. The small artwork that Staeger created with his “Journey to the Forest” resonates much longer than the seven minutes during which the images fill the screen. This is a film that not only changes our perspective, but also the rhythm of our breathing. The long festival tour the film has been on and the many awards it has gathered up in the meantime attest eloquently to the yearning for films like this that succeed so perfectly in striking a chord in our subconscious.
At the moment Jörn Staeger is working on a new project with the working title “Aufstehen, Vergessen” (“Get Up, Forget”), in which he concentrates on the theme of “movement” and wants to try via subjective camerawork to overcome the feeling of heaviness/ gravity. This topic has preoccupied him since his university days, but has only now surfaced again from the artist’s subconscious. Staeger says that he works “like a snail”, brooding over his ideas for a long time, sometimes for years, before they finally see the light of day in the form of a film. It’s easy to sense this careful brooding process in Staeger’s films. Everything takes its time here. And reminds the viewer to take at least a fraction of this time to sit back and watch, to immerse oneself in experiencing and enjoying these cinematic poems.
Aufstehen Vergessen (Get Up, Forget, 2009), 7min, HD Video/35mm, in production
Reise zum Wald (Journey to the Forest, 2008), 7min, HD Video/35mm
Lebensgeister (Spirits of Life, 2004/5), 6min, Video/35mm
Fragmente Potsdamer Platz (Fragments of Potsdamer Platz, 2003), 5min, 16mm
Rad (Wheel, 2001), 3 min, 35 mm
Depressionismus (Depressionism, 2001), 1.5min, BetaSP/35mm
Brückenmelodie-Chicago (Chicago Bridge Melody, 1994), 2min, 35mm
Ruinen (Ruins, 1993), 30min, 16mm
Ruinen (Ruins, 1991), 10min, 16mm
Hier bin ich, Meidner (Here I Am, Meidner, 1990), 30min, 16mm
Desolatesse (Desolatesse, 1989), 6min, 35mm
Schacht (Shaft, 1988), 8min, 16mm
Im Dunkel der Projektion (In the Darkness of Projection, 1986), 15min, 16mm