Marion Pfaus

The (Un-)Mistakable

HUMBOLDT 21 © Marion Pfaus

HUMBOLDT 21 © Marion Pfaus

Marion Pfaus likes to play with different identities. On her website, the Berliner by choice coyly asserts that she is constantly being mistaken for someone else. Indeed, for many years she performed live with the author and actress Felicia Zeller under the label “Die Verwechselbaren” (The Mistakables), where the confusion surrounding the two personalities was part of the programme. The deliberate construction of an alias, with the introduction of a pseudonym, can enhance this game greatly. Thus, approximately ten years ago Marion Pfaus created the alter ego Rigoletti, “the world’s most unknown pop star”. As a real pop-star-to-be, Rigoletti pursues – like so many celebrities worldwide – different strategies to attract attention to herself. She writes novels and screenplays, shoots horror flicks and music videos, even acts in and produces a little video art – but only when she has spare time. At least this is what she claims in her “Videobrief von Rigoletti” (Video Letter from Rigoletti) from 2003.

Marion Pfaus herself does the exact opposite. Although the media artist is nearly as multi-talented as her alter ego Rigoletti and also writes columns while undertaking a variety of art projects, having invented “Fremdbloggen” (“stray blogging”) and published a book and various essays in anthologies, she is now concentrating on the production of her extraordinarily amusing short films. In her films, which can all be viewed on her website, she examines closely a range of everyday phenomena. For example, she analyses with great earnestness the possibilities of modern video technology and redefines the term home video in her own way. Her short film produced in 2002, “In drei einfachen Schritten zum Meisterwerk” (Creating a Masterpiece in Three Easy Steps), contains exactly what the title promises: instructions on how to construct the perfect film at home using consumer software and minimal equipment. The comic effect that gradually unfolds in the process is inversely proportional to Pfaus’ serene comments during the film. With great concentration and a very serious expression she lists the diverse functions of modern video cutting software, demonstrates a few of the available effects and provides, in an absolutely irony-free manner, very practical suggestions for the creative use of this technology. She thus decides to demonstrate the option of pixellating a picture by getting undressed in front of the camera (with the pixellated effect applied, of course) or emphasizes the spectacular sound effects the software offers through random animal noises or hymn-like fanfares interrupting her speech. The title of the film, which according to Pfaus “was screened at countless festivals but did not win any prizes”, was even borrowed directly from the software’s packaging.

Originally from Baden-Württemberg, Pfaus learned her craft at the Ludwigsburg Film Academy. She describes her time there (she was in the first class of students to graduate from the school) as highly ambivalent. She suffered in particular under the fact that the academy did not encourage students to try their hands at new things or venture artistic experiments. Instead, classically presented feature-length films were the main focus, a narrative form that for her personally was “not really an option”. Despite everything, she remained at the academy and found her niche in its “penal colony”, the department of business and social film, “which nobody wanted to be part of except me and my fellow student Felicia Zeller, with whom I survived my time in Ludwigsburg, and who I still work with – and am often mistaken for – today”, Pfaus explains with a laugh. One cannot rule out the possibility that this education in the penal colony is still tangible in Pfaus’ films today. The similarity her entirely un-ironic tone in her films bears to typical industrial films is not coincidental. Pfaus, or Rigoletti, practises this cinematic mimicry with such rigour that in some works she almost overshoots her goal. Time and again, she explains, she is “accused of seriousness”, which could not be further from what she wants to convey.

How narrow the line is between humour and seriousness, and the importance of the viewing context, is shown in the fact that films such as “16:9 Full HD” (2007) are repeatedly misunderstood as a completely earnest paean to a new image aspect ratio. In this short 12-minute work, Marion Pfaus examines the consequences of the switch from the 4:3 to 16:9 format, celebrated by the industry and amongst manufacturers as a milestone in the history of audio visual recording techniques. Pfaus investigates and tries to make comprehensible what an increase in image size means to the aesthetics and contents of a film (An entire ICE train can even fit into the picture!), painstakingly calculating exactly how much space is won through the format and also alluding to the industry’s hopes for burgeoning profits. The comedy of the film arises – as in most Rigoletti films – from the combination of dry commentary with imagery that contradicts what is being said through their over-affirmation. Pfaus undermines the officious diction of media and advertising not by questioning it but by “taking it at its word” and presenting it with utmost gravity. While the film has provoked great amusement at diverse short film festivals, sometimes the humour goes unnoticed in more technology-centred contexts, Pfaus reports.

It is thanks not least to Pfaus’ practised poker face that these misunderstandings can happen. Her special brand of humour is slightly reminiscent of Jan Peters’ early Super 8 films, while thematically much less self-involved. Marion Pfaus does not dedicate herself to her personal concerns but very consciously tries to pick topics she deems to be of popular interest. In “humboldt21″, completed in 2011, she looks at an issue that roils tempers far beyond Berlin’s borders: the planned restoration of the Berlin City Palace. Accompanied by the dramatic strains of music for strings, Rigoletti “agitates” as a speaker for the (completely fictitious at the time of shooting) initiative humboldt21, which has made its official goal the demolition of the palace, still in the planning stage at that point. She asserts that the palace is only being rebuilt out of spite, because the communists blew it up in 1945. As its restoration is hardly avoidable at this point, Rigoletti does not even feel the need to go to the effort of protesting it. Instead, she thinks in broader historical dimensions and plans the site’s renaturation, before the first spade has even cut the ground. Analogous to the efforts undertaken by the friends’ society to drum up support for the rebuilding of the palace, Pfaus asks for donations at the end of the film, managing to collect – to her surprise – 271.37 EUR by June 2012. It is unlikely that this will result in the initiative humboldt21, made up for the film, actually materializing. The awareness raised however sits quite right with Pfaus, since the basic impulse of a film such as “humboldt21″ is indeed a serious critique of the status quo. “humboldt21″ is one of Marion Pfaus’ most-viewed films, not only on the internet but also at festivals and on other occasions.

In June 2012 Pfaus performed her own film at the Pecha Kucha Berlin (link: Furthermore, “humboldt21″ was screened at city planning symposia, where Pfaus was even invited to explain her demolition project in detail in front of experts. Her experiences with city planners have inspired her to consider a sequel to the film. At her high speed she will no doubt be able to produce a number of films on the theme before the first stone of the city palace has been put in place.

Although films such as “humboldt21″, “16:9 Full HD” and “In drei einfachen Schritten zum Meisterwerk” look as though they came into being relatively spontaneously, highly sophisticated planning and structuring underlies them, “particularly when something is supposed to look spontaneous, it has to be extremely well prepared”, Pfaus says. Nonetheless, she succeeds in completing 8-10 videos a year, mostly by herself. Since September 2012, a large part of this production volume has been made up of different episodes of the series “Phänomene des Alltags” (Everyday Phenomena), in which Pfaus satirizes the absurdities of quotidian existence, be it joggers running in place waiting at a traffic light, strangely convoluted bike paths in Berlin, herpes infections that show an inverse relation to continental drift, or omnipresent media artists stalking Kreuzberg armed with iPhones. By now she has reached the 21st part of the series, focusing on the topic of “Weltverbesserung” (World Improvement, 2012). The two most-viewed videos of the “Phenomenon Series” itemize the different “Fahrradbesitzlevels” (Bicycle Possession Levels, 2011) in Berlin and, in “schnell aber sexy – Rotlichtverstöße” (fast but sexy – Red Light Violations, 2011), the Berlin city senate’s proposal to take more stringent action against those who run red lights in order to fill the city coffers.

The fact that all these films are available on YouTube or on her own website is part of Marion Pfaus’ concept. She sees the single works as parts of a broader strategy, which she calls “unspecialized media art”. She operates more like a multimedia blogger than a classical filmmaker. The danger that the instant online availability of these films may decrease their chances of festival appearances only marginally concerns her. For her, the main thing is simply that her films are seen. Leaving a finished film in a drawer somewhere for months until it can eventually celebrate its premiere at a festival would not be in keeping with her artistic concept. The same applies to the subject of funding. So far, the majority of Pfaus’ films have been realized without any external funding. Her themes are far too topical and her style of production much too spontaneous for her to be able to pitch concepts planned and budgeted months before. However, the production of an episodic TV series analogous to “Phänomene des Alltags” would appeal to her nonetheless, at least if she were able to develop the format herself. Whether the kind of formats that are successful on the internet can find a place in TV broadcasting will depend on the openness of the networks involved.

It has to be said that Marion Pfaus’ modus operandi lies in direct opposition to the structures of the film business. Pfaus is a media artist who produces her films with minimal technical means, as a one-woman show without the help of a team. This independence constitutes a vital part of her working method, but has only be made possible up to now through her work as a lecturer at various universities, by which she earns her livelihood. Amongst other things she teaches digital video editing and camera techniques. A few years ago, she recounts, she showed some of her students her videos, but “they didn’t understand them at all but took everything completely seriously”. We can only hope that at least some of those who were eagerly taking notes did start having some doubts later on. Because doubts are fundamental, and should be brought to anything and everything, Marion Pfaus finds. Especially to those absurd phenomena of daily life one seems to encounter at every turn and which are really worth dedicating a fine little film to.

Luc-Carolin Ziemann

Filmography (excerpts):

Phänomene des Alltags (2011-2012)
humboldt21 (2011)
wahl11 (2010/2011)
Bundesligalied (2009)
Der perfekte Moment (2008)
Tell me is this paradise / or is it just another scheiss (2008)
The Next Rigoletti (2008)
16:9 FULL HD’ (2007)
Der Ordner (2006)
Mach den shimmy noch mal (2005)
Wir aus Baden-Württemberg (2004)
Learning English mit Rigoletti (2004)
Videobrief von Rigoletti (2003)
Videobrief an Rigoletti (2003)
In drei einfachen Schritten zum Meisterwerk (2002)
Die IchAG (2002)
Die Kids von den Schönhauser-Allee-Arkaden (2002)
Landessexklinik Baden-Württemberg (2002)
Mut der Ahnungslosen (1998)


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