Who knows what short films are?

Twenty years of AG Kurzfilm, twenty years of media change

Daniel Kothenschulte at the anniversary reception of the AG Kurzfilm on May 5 in Oberhausen © AG Kurzfilm

The text is based on a welcoming address for the anniversary reception 20 Years of AG Kurzfilm on May 5, 2022 as part of the 68th Oberhausen Short Film Festival.


In the golden era of short films, dessert was served before the main course: Many viewers purchased their ticket for twenty minutes of Chaplin or seven minutes of Mickey Mouse and the subsequent main feature was more of an afterthought. Short films captured the mood of the times, serviced the popular dramaturgies even more effectively than feature films, and encapsulated the allure of the new.

Ferdinand the gentle bull, for example, preferred smelling the flowers on his pasture to entering into a bullfight. He did this as early as 1938, in Walt Disney’s 8-minute animated film, when a civil war was raging in the native country of all matadors, and he continues to do this to this day on the Disney+ streaming platform, in digitally restored technicolour, ready to avoid all further arguments by simply sitting them out. It is only his pacifist message that, all of a sudden, manages to irritate people again.

Maybe this is how it is with those rumoured dead: The short film, too, has proven itself immune to all debates questioning its purpose in the cinematic landscape. For a while now it has stopped doing this by means of noisy rebellion like, for example, in 1968, when Helmuth Costard’s Besonders Wertvoll (Particularly Valuable) divided opinions at the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, but rather in the less obvious and hence even more persistent fashion of Ferdinand, the bull.

Even though the short film has long ceased to be fuelled by selection for cinemas – even in the late years of celluloid projection there was hardly a projectionist who even bothered to unpack the rolls which, for tax reasons, had been added to the delivery. Instead, it finds far more fertile pastures wherever a festival is being held.

In the forum of the website “Filmvorführer.de” a member reminisces: “In 1960 the rates for entertainment tax were between 15 and 25% and they were reduced for feature films, fairy tales and rated films. Who, as a supporting and as the main feature, showed a film rated “besonders wertvoll” (highly recommended) was entirely exempt from entertainment tax; if only the supporting film was highly recommended, the tax was reduced by half. Of course the distributors continued adding supporting films with a rating alongside the shipment of the main feature; to save taxes.”[1]

When AG Kurzfilm was founded in 2002, most town councils had already made cinemas exempt from entertainment tax due to their cultural relevance – unless they were blue movie theatres (on this occasion, we shall disregard this interesting sub-aspect of short films as the blue movie, to the best of my knowledge, is the only short film genre which AG Kurzfilm has never been involved in). At the time, there were already as many as eighty film festivals in Germany which also showcased short films. By now, this number has risen to way over a hundred.


Reception of the AG Kurzfilm on May 5 in Oberhausen © AG Kurzfilm


In the last 20 years, AG Kurzfilm has contributed considerably to maintaining the national and international visibility of short films – this, however, necessitated the constant search for new spheres of activity.

Everyone who shows films appreciates just how important the right context is. Among other things, 2022 is also a documenta year and this reminds me of its 1997 edition which, all of a sudden, introduced the avantgarde short film into the context of art.

Through this, artists such as William Kentridge, Steve McQueen or Christoph

Schlingensief gained a secondary audience. Thereafter they rarely appeared in the short film context that had made them popular. At the same time, the classic experimental film lost its firm place on the programme at film festivals.

By then, the days when the latest works by the now late Dore O., Werner Nekes or Lutz Mommartz were reviewed in the Zeit newspaper were long gone. That is why it is so important that AG Kurzfilm, with its programmes such as “Emerging Artists – Contemporary Experimental Films and Video Art from Germany”, addresses not only the art context but also, specifically, the dispositive of film in precisely the way they do. What is particularly important here is to represent not just university graduates but in fact artistic film production in its totality.

Older film makers in particular often find it difficult to continue their lifework and sustain its presence. Allow me this observation: The importance of short films is often reduced to its relevance as the medium of the up-and-coming. Therefore, it is imperative, especially in times where diversity has become a vital criterion of all curatorial endeavours, to pay the same level of attention to the makers of short films who are over the age of 40. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons many artists turn to well-paid TV commissions and more expansive formats is because they no longer see any possibility at all to be successful at festivals with demanding short films.

At the moment we are able to experience the work of Rainer Komers here in Oberhausen, an artist who predominantly works with this short form. His oeuvre is as uncompromising as it is accessible, yet every single film requires a fresh effort. Unlike with a gallery artist or a director of feature films of similar standing, every new film means a renewed advertising effort. And how very important it is to support artists with this.

Allow me one more look back at the time before AG Kurzfilm was founded. In 1999, I was writing an article for the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, covering the then boom of short film festivals. One of the nicest ones took place in Regensburg and it continues to exist to this day. This is where I met Helmut Herbst, the pioneering maker of animation films and documentaries, who sadly passed away last year. He said to me: “Culturally, the short film in Germany is dead. Hilmar Hoffman used to be able to travel the world on a diplomatic passport on behalf of the Oberhausen film festival. These days, the only thing short films are used for is to evaluate the output of film academies.”

It must be said that Herbst really did a great deal for his students. But, of course, he

was also a film maker who remained faithful to the short form even when television almost entirely stopped broadcasting it. As a matter of fact, according to a study commissioned by the Oberhausen Short Film Festival in 1998, the universities themselves functioned as producers for 36.8% of all the 800 short films produced in Germany every year. This made an institution as broadly positioned as AG Kurzfilm even more important. Let’s cast out mind back: 2002, the year of its inception, was another three years prior to YouTube. The iPhone did not hit the market until 2007. Cinema, television and art museums finally lost their monopoly as gatekeepers for the distribution of moving images.

When I try and recall the boom of short film festivals at the time beyond the rather more academic Oberhausen with its young audiences, what comes to mind is a certain curiosity and enjoyment of the diversity and variety of the short form, which might even have anticipated certain aspects of TikTok. After all there was also always a trash night, preferably sponsored by a cigarette brand, following the principle of a grab bag.

According to a study from 2018, the predominantly adolescent users of Tik Tok dedicated 39 minutes a day to the platform. These days it is said to be even more than that – which turns it into serious competition for the cinemas and streaming platforms. After all, screen time is limited.

Back then I wrote about short film festivals as event culture: “The tolerance threshold of the curious audience could not be much higher. In return it gets treated to an incredibly varied programme: No-budget alongside an expensive short feature film, serious art side-by-side with acted-out jokes, animation followed by documentaries. Everything can be forgiven because you get a new chance every 3 – 15 minutes. While a cinema audience normally thinks thrice about going to see an unwieldy film, an unprecedented openness extends to all conceivable forms and formats. This level of curiosity in an audience is precious. Nowhere else will anyone still go to the cinema simply for the sheer joy of the variety of filmic means of expression. But what will they actually remember? Next year, there will be other films…

Here the art of a festival curator must lie in creating space not abundance; settings which give room to the individual works from the most diverse production contexts. If the only thing they have in common is their short duration relative to a feature film, the both can get lost: a view of the individuality of a work of art and its integration into a broader cultural context…As much as the brevity of the films seems to suggest that it is possible to juggle them at will, to the same degree do many of them positively resist this coupling: For this film format, which only ever gets a few minutes to make everything happen, not caring much about compatibility is part of its nature.

But what even is a short film? The biggest issue one encounters when dealing with short films is the lack of a definition for an art form which includes all genres and film formats in the world. “I have no idea what short films are,” states Lars Henrik Gass, the Oberhausen festival director, with the nonchalance of a seasoned politician.

Please forgive me for this lengthy look back but many of these observations still determine the professional work with short films. This comment by Lars has stayed with me because it so perfectly captures the open-mindedness with which we approach an art form which is defined by its duration alone. Last week I asked Jean-Paul Goergen, a film historian with access to a large archive of old film magazines, to take a look when the expression short film surfaced for the first time. He found its earliest example in 1923, a significant use not until the end of the 1920s.

Just like we only started talking about a silent film when there was a talkie, the short film was defined ex negativo when longer formats took hold. Nowadays though we have reached an important hiatus, heralded by the new moving image formats propagated by social media. This in turn draws out the arbiters of the short film in order to explain, maybe particularly to the young, what a short film really is.

I just met Jessica Manstetten from the Film Festival who told me how happy the presentation of children’s programmes for the youngest visitors had made her today. And is there anything that makes more sense than the current initiative by AG Kurzfilm to boost the reintroduction of the medium in schools?

This is where the short film still had a firm place during my own school days. The rental centres for educational films of the cities and the state, as well as many schools themselves, owned substantial collections of films, some of which exist to this day. I seem to recall that, in Cologne, the film rental service of the diocese possessed a treasure trove of eastern European animation films. But one was also able to find several 16mm copies of Ferdinand the Bull in these public film libraries. For me as student the presentations of short films as part of a lesson were moments of utter joy.

When we ask ourselves today, in light of the crisis in cinema, what it really is that defines the medium, then what also comes to mind for me are those instances where the classroom was transformed into a cinema. Jessica Manstetten once said that the children had immediately grasped what makes short films special in comparison to the many moving images they encountered in their everyday lives. I had my own projector as a child and watched the short films in my collection several hundred times each. In a good short film, not a single frame is left to chance. They are the essence of cinema. Like a distillate in a bottle. When we open it, we get cinema. Cinema is where the short film is, and AG Kurzfilm makes sure this continues to be the case.


[1] https://www.filmvorfuehrer.de/topic/14753-vergn  (in German)