The Beauty of Decay
Everyday scenes of human coexistence surreally staged, almost a kind of performative installation somewhere between dreaming and reality – this is the effect conveyed by the stream of bizarre sequences in Susann Maria Hempel’s film WIE IST DIE WELT SO STILLE (The World in Stillness Clouded, 2012). The short film is the distilled five-minute quintessence of a much larger-scale project that the director views as a failure. But it is with this compressed version, of all things, that she impressed the jury of the German Film Critics Association, which distinguished her “leftovers”, so to speak, as Best Short Film of 2013.
Hempel shot her film in the Thuringian town of Greiz, where she was born in 1983, where she grew up and where she has now returned. As setting she used the Imperial Post and Telegraph Office, a once-splendid turn-of-the-century building that today exudes at most a morbid charm. Here, in the countless empty rooms and endless corridors, Hempel has established her own small realm in which she is able to stage almost all of her ideas as she envisions them. For WIE IST DIE WELT SO STILLE, for example the petite young woman and her assistants filled the corridors with earth, planted small trees and then arranged an old Barkas delivery van in this artificial landscape.
Hempel has a penchant for discards, for broken things, scrap, whatever is left over, unneeded. At first glance, the assembly of props in the old post office hence looks like the refuge of a notorious hoarder; upon closer inspection, however, unique categories of rubbish can be discerned. This theme runs like a thread through her work of recent years: RETTET DEN MÜLL! ODER: VON DER UNMÖGLICHKEIT, ABFALL ZU ARCHIVIEREN, for example, was the concept for a film installation for which Hempel received the Authors and Producers Award of Bremen in 2012. She is currently working on the realization of this project, an animated film about seabirds and fish that feed on particles of plastic waste floating in the world’s oceans and perish.
The jumble shop that is our society serves Hempel as a source of inspiration. Given the state of her hometown, this motif almost imposed itself on her, she says. She has the feeling that present-day life there is not finding any way to look to the future. As in many East German towns, many local industries in Greiz went bankrupt after reunification, causing the population to decline by around one-third. Much has fallen by the wayside, even people who are apparently not needed anymore and hence lead a marginal existence. Hempel occasionally meets with such denizens in a slightly run-down bar, listening to their life stories, which she then incorporates into her work.
The filmmaker is also fascinated in this context by the vacant, crumbling houses that dot the landscape. Her dilapidated studio can be counted among them, along with the demolished house that forms the setting for DIE FLIEGEN (THE BIRDS II) (2010). The film pays homage to Oskar Sala, like Hempel a native of Greiz, who composed, the film music to Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS. The model for the house in the film was her own residence at the time in Greiz’s Neustadt (New Town) district, which in her eyes today bears all the features of a ghost town. When, as the final insult, the theatre in her hometown was slated for demolition, she bid farewell in her own way with her film DER GROßE GAMMEL (The Big Rot, 2013). Here, she scratched and burned with caustic agents film footage, slides and old tapes – things she had found in the apparently hastily abandoned rooms of the theatre – so that the building ultimately vanishes not only from the Greiz cityscape but in the end even from the screen.
This experimental requiem for the old Greiz City Theatre is Susann Maria Hempel’s very personal obituary for a place where she experienced her own moment of artistic awakening. This is where she stood on stage for the first time at 13 and caught her first whiff of the theatre world, which she has been devoted to ever since. Her passion for the stage was such that she even dropped out of school at 16, first joining the theatre in Jena and then in 1999 beginning a longstanding stint as a musician, actress and artistic collaborator in the performance and artist collective “Theaterhaus Weimar”. At the time, Hempel – secretly – dreamt of becoming a great actress. That in the end nothing came of these plans can be attributed for one thing to her still unquenched thirst for knowledge. Above all, however it was her musical ambitions that drove her decision to commence a course of studies instead.
She was not confident enough to apply to a college of music, Hempel admits. But she had learnt that Robin Minard, a sound artist and professor of electro-acoustic music at the “Franz Liszt” college of music in Weimar whom she much admired, also taught courses at the Bauhaus University. She therefore registered in the Department of Media Design there in 2001, being accepted thanks to a special clause for gifted candidates. While Hempel waited – in vain, incidentally – to get a place in the courses she wished to attend, which were extremely coveted by students, she began to engage in the field on her own, and in the process discovered the medium of film for herself, or more precisely the short and experimental film.
She has nevertheless remained true to her musical ambitions. She plays the piano, sings and composes. As part of the band project Hempel & Sauter, she for example set poems by Else Lasker-Schüler to music. She also composes most of the soundtracks for her films, including her most successful work thus far, SIEBEN MAL AM TAG BEKLAGEN WIR UNSER LOS UND NACHTS STEHEN WIR AUF, UM NICHT ZU TRÄUMEN (Seven Times a Day we Bemoan our Lot and at Night we get up to Avoid Dreaming, 2014), which has won awards at multiple short film festivals, among them Dresden, Oberhausen and Hamburg (2014). In this film, she accompanies himself on a celesta, an old-fashioned keyboard instrument, which she discovered on one of her forays through the old Greiz City Theatre.
The title of the award-winning film is loosely based on a psalm, and Hempel accordingly designed her work as a kind of medieval prayer book, with animated miniatures, ornaments and text banners that wildly intertwine. The film recounts a man’s traumatic life story using passages from interviews the director conducted with him – resulting in a work that is at once disturbing, comical and sensual, or, as the jury of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen put it: “Horror and cuteness are inseparably interlinked here.” It is once again a tale about people and things that are no longer needed, about the marginal elements in our society, which however experience unprecedented appreciation in the film. Susann Maria Hempel would like to achieve this with her future projects as well, no longer merely documenting destruction and decline, but according people and objects the recognition they deserve and perhaps offering them a fresh perspective for the future.
2008 DER WEINENDE DRITTE / THE CRYING THIRD
2009 DER MANN, DER NICHT WEINEN WOLLTE / THE MAN WHO DID NOT WANT TO CRY
2010 DIE FLIEGEN (THE BIRDS II) / THE FLIES (THE BIRDS II)
2012 WIE IST DIE WELT SO STILLE / THE WORLD IN STILLNESS CLOUDED
2013 DER GROSSE GAMMEL / THE BIG ROT