Quo Vadis Short Film? Notes on the Status of and the Perspectives for an Underestimated Film Genre


The most important cinematographic pool from which short film retrospectives are compiled for festivals comes from a bygone era. Over a period lasting several decades, it was standard screening practice in the cinemas of Europe and North America to show a multilevel pre-programme before the main feature film could finally start. This was done partly for economic reasons and partly due to dramaturgical conventions. The block of commercials was followed by a cinema newsreel and then a supporting film, before the main film was screened. This pre-programme could last between 20 and 45 minutes in total. While the function of the commercials was, as the name suggests, commercial and that of the newsreels more or less ideological, the supporting film was accorded the role of a buffer zone. Before the audience was transported to the actual part of the evening’s entertainment, a quasi atmospheric conditioning occurred, a setting of the mood for the main event, which was usually provided by a feature length fictional film. This structure consisting of commercials, a newsreel, a supporting film and a main feature film proved to be enduring across all the political systems, although it did last a little longer in the East than the West. On a superficial level, the technological developments were the reason for its disappearance: Thanks to the triumphant march of television from the beginning of the 1950s through the middle classes at first and then into all the households, the weekly newsreels became increasingly obsolete1.  With the aerial and television set, it simply proved possible to disseminate the latest news faster and more effectively that by using footage that had to be shot at high cost on film stock and processed accordingly. Parallel to the technical changes however, a certain democratisation of the reception took place. In the cinema, one was coerced as such into consuming the latest items in the newsreels, while at home one had the decision making power at one’s disposal to switch on or off the television. And it was also not just by chance that the weekly newsreels endured in the world of cinema in West Germany until the start of the 1970s, while by contrast they continued in the GDR until the end of 1980.

The short films as supporting films in the cinemas were usually commissioned pieces with a purpose that was clearly outlined, relatively speaking. Depending on the extent to which the existing underlying conditions could be stretched and also especially on the courage of the commissioned filmmaker, these pieces could be conforming or subversive, conventional or innovative. This leeway was especially noticeable under totalitarian conditions. When we were researching on the “Eastwind”2  retrospective, Anja Ellenberger and I discovered that not only were there glaring differences between the individual countries in the communist block, but also powerful fluctuations in the areas tolerated within each country at different points in time, and that even territorial differences could occur in any one country at the same time. Poland and Hungary were always more liberal than Rumania or Bulgaria, while the GDR of the early 1960s was more open than it was at the beginning of the 1980s. It proved possible to undertake extremely lively experiments in Soviet Georgia in 1962, while this was not the case in the Baltic countries at this point in time. These differences between the countries and the times have barely been examined to date, something which represents a conspicuous research gap overall in terms of short film. Beyond these differences however, it can certainly be said that there have never been films created before and after the 1960s in the short genre which were more interesting than those from that time, both in the East and the West. The “golden era” of cinema, which can roughly be dated between 1950 and 1970, put forth some luxuriant blossoms especially in the short film area. Of course quite a lot of short films were produced besides the supporting films in the cinemas, especially in the field of experimental film.

Experimental film has also remained one of the few areas in which artists have continuously and consistently worked with short filmic forms – consistent in the sense that the length of the film results from the overall aesthetic concept and not from the fact that cinematographic exercises have to be delivered in order to gain credits for a BA for instance. Many of the German language short film productions are made at the major film schools, as well as at the by now approximately thirty other academic locations where film training takes place. Anyone who attends short film festivals or even participates in the selection process for them knows what this means. Nothing against student films – but “geniuses do not come in herds”,3  as Heiner Müller once mentioned in a different context. Combined with the simplified technological production conditions, an overabundance of submissions has resulted in which the qualitatively high grade contributions easily risk being submerged in this flood. It has long been the case that the viewing committees at major festivals are now no longer able to see and assess all of the films submitted together. Yet how should this development be dealt with without their proponents becoming cynical or losing their overall perspective completely in the process?

It seems to me that all of the options are still far from being exhausted in terms of creating an awareness for short film as an independent genre and in turn for optimising the way it is handled in the public arena. Of course the film schools and other training facilities represent one of the approaches in the creative field. The dramaturgical aspects unique to short film must be considered in a far more targeted way there, together with the aesthetic consequences resulting from this. In their narrative films, the stumpy plots and overacted performers with their seemingly repetitious dialogue that are experienced so often also result from a lack of knowledge about what they are dealing with at all. The widespread belief in having a plot has constricted the perspectives enormously, something which has also had devastating consequences on the situation with feature length films. When the students are persuaded for years on end that only the “feature length” film can be in the champions league of filmmaking, then large parts of the artistic palette remain wantonly neglected. Open narrative forms are still conspicuously subdominant. And which film schools offer courses explicitly for short film nowadays, not to mention for experimental film? The classic film avant-garde – which is after all reflected primarily in short films – is provided far too rarely as teaching material. You are more likely to experience it at art schools; yet in turn this ghettoisation speaks for itself: The individual forms occur parallel to each other, largely without any reciprocal penetration.

A similar disregard also occurs on the screening level. However, there can be no return to the cineaste paradise of the 1960s and 1970s, also not by means of more generous funding and support. Yet initiatives to strengthen short film as supporting films are aimed powerfully at the reconstruction or reanimation of a situation that is irreversibly lost. This is compounded by ignoring a cardinal error from the “golden era” which is being unintentionally repeated. A completely arbitrary approach was frequently taken when combining the supporting film and the main feature film: Which short film was allocated to which feature film was often the result of momentary caprice; determined in the West by the cinema operator or the distributor and in the East by the cultural bureaucrats in the state-owned Progress distributor and the functionaries in the district film department. Only in the rarest of cases did these combinations prove sensible. In this way the potential for a mutual reassessment and upgrading was thrown away far too frequently. Ironically, this negligence is being repeated today: The cinema operators often find it quite stressful programming supporting films that really are suitable: Once the subscription has been taken out, it quickly risks becoming a runaway success, through which the danger of a stereotypical and at least uninspiring approach occurs – which leads at times to inopportune pairings. Confronting short films with feature length films potentially holds amazing opportunities; yet these are not even close to being exhausted. For instance it would be obvious to pair feature length fiction films dealing with an historic subject with a prologue deriving authentically from the same era they are set in. Likewise, many of the resources remain unused because the concept of short film is defined too narrowly. After all, even video clips and commercials, as well as amateur, omnibus,4  sex education, experimental, instructional and propaganda films or the weekly newsreels already mentioned represent short film in numerous cases, but they are rarely stored in the brains of the event organisers in such a way.

The short film is still accorded the status of a playground too often, through which it is underestimated as an independent genre or categorised solely as a pre-form to a “proper”, i.e. feature length, film. When special festivals, television broadcasts, tours, talks, retrospectives, awards, scholarships, DVD editions and production funds are deliberately devoted to short film, this does not concern a whim of the subsidy culture or even an anachronistic tilting at windmills, but rather a fundamentally necessary duty of care. At the same time, a systematic re-envisioning of the past is required. And questions regarding the status quo of short film have to be posed – in order to open an historic and aesthetic field of reference and be prepared for any consequences of the current developments. Short films should be supported in the screening area not only in the context of the pre-programme but in general in the greatest number of screening forms and structures, and thus also including short film packages. Lectures and discussions on the unique aspects of the short filmic form could be held in workshops and seminars, archive resources presented and online platforms such as Youtube, Vimeo or UbuWeb integrated into this and examples streamed. Even short etudes could be shot and screened. In fact, every measure to promote short film as a remembrance and a practice is to be welcomed – just that this must be achieved dynamically, i.e. as a reaction to changes in the media presence. Without such “living” promotion and support, short film risks slipping out of the focus of our awareness and its rich array of possibilities threatens to wither away.

1C.f.: Siegfried Zielinski, Audiovisionen. Kino und Fernsehen als Zwischenspiele in der Geschichte, (Audio-visions. Cinema and Television as an Interplay in History) Reinbek bei  Hamburg, Rowohlt, 1989, p. 175 to 211

2Retrospective at the 24th Filmfest Dresden, 17 to 22 April 2012

3Heiner Müller, Krieg ohne Schlacht. Leben in zwei Diktaturen. Eine Autobiographie, (War Without Battles. Life in Two Dictatorships. An Autobiography), Cologne, Kiepenheuer & Witsch. 1994, p. 288

4Omnibus films are feature length productions in which the individual parts have been made by different directors, with each of them often functioning as self-contained short films.

Claus Löser is a writer, filmmaker, film critic, film historian and film curator. Since 1990 he has been programme designer for the “BrotfabrikKino” cinema in Berlin, since 1992 a freelancing film critic for papers such as taz, Berliner Zeitung and film-dienst. He did film studies in Potsdam-Babelsberg from 1990 to 1995, graduating with a diploma. In 1996 he founded the “ex.oriente.lux” archive of East German experimental film from the 1976-1989 period.He received a PhD and published his book “Strategien der Verweigerung” (Strategies of Refusal) in 2011.

This article was first published in “SHORT report 2012” by AG Kurzfilm – German Short Film Asscociation, Dresden, November 2012. The “SHORT report” can be ordered as a print version from AG Kurzfilm and it is also available for download at www.ag-kurzfilm.de.