Close Up

18 November - 16 December 2017: Sohrab Shahid Saless: Exiles


The work of Iranian filmmaker Sohrab Shahid Saless (1944 – 1998) belongs to no single place or canon, it is a continent of its own – a "central massif" of cinema, as one critic notes. His slow-paced films tell simple stories almost without words, in meditative but searing images that register the smallest of details. His close attention to the routines and repetitions of everyday life is mirrored in the rhythmic flow of his films and in the clockwork-precision play of sound and silence. Shahid Saless observes the world with an unflinching eye. His films are alert to cruelty and injustice but they never judge. They are devoid of sentimentality but deeply humanist, stubbornly concrete yet universally resonant, austere but poetic they make us see anew.

A visionary and truly transnational artist, Shahid Saless remained a solitary figure throughout his life. Still his films have left an indelible mark – among his contemporary cinematic descendants are the likes of Abbas Kiarostami and Romuald Karmakar. After studying film in Vienna and Paris, Shahid Saless returned to his native Iran to direct a series of ethnographic shorts commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, paving the way for his first two feature films, now considered milestones of the Iranian New Wave, which centred on the marginal lives of the downtrodden and disenfranchised.

In 1974, facing increasing government pressure and censorship, Shahid Saless left for West Germany where his Iranian films had garnered prizes (among them a Silver Bear for Still Life) and critical acclaim. He was to stay there for twenty years – a ‘long vacation’ as he liked to call it, with a nod to the German-Jewish émigré film critic Lotte Eisner – during which he created five films for the cinema and eight for German public television, an unparalleled body of work defying easy categorisation. Though contemporary with the New German Cinema, Shahid Saless’ German films refract social and political life in the Federal Republic through his unique aesthetic sensibility as well as his experience of exile. Without permanent residency status, locked into a continual struggle with film funding agencies and TV programme editors, this self-described ‘guest worker’ of German cinema made films that speak forcefully to the traumas of homelessness and displacement.

When asked about his inimitable style of filmmaking, Shahid Saless liked to quote his favourite writer, Anton Chekhov: "People do not go to the North Pole and fall off icebergs; they go to offices, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup." The surface simplicity of Shahid Saless’ cinema, however, contains multiple layers. It takes on new meanings as it moves across forms and cultures, from pre-revolutionary Iran to post-war West Germany and the late ČSSR (the filming location of two of his later works); from ethnography to contemporary drama to historical fiction; from literature to cinema to broadcast television. In 1994, Sohrab Shahid Saless gave up on the increasingly impossible task of securing funds and support for his work in Germany and left for the US where he died, two years before the turn of the millennium, alone in a rental flat in Chicago. His films are more urgent today than ever. They must be seen.

Sohrab Shahid Saless
1982 | 198 min | Colour | 35mm
Dario Marchiori & Nikolaus Perneczky in conversation

This magisterial chamber play is the dark heart of Shahid Saless’ German period. Set in an empty, closed-curtain bordello in West Berlin, Utopia posits prostitution as the truth of the then nascent service economy. read more

Sohrab Shahid Saless
1980 | 96 min | Colour | 16mm

Seemingly out of nowhere, an unemployed engineer suddenly rejects what others – his wife, friends, and presumably he himself before he lost his job – would consider a life well-lived: orderly, industrious, well-adjusted. read more

Hans - A Young Man in Germany
Sohrab Shahid Saless
1985 | 148 min | Colour | Digital
Vivien Kristin Buchhorn & Nikolaus Perneczky in conversation

Adapted from Hans Frick’s 1977 auto-biographical novel The Blue Hour, Hans chronicles the last throes of the Third Reich as experienced by a young man marked as "Halbjude" by Nazi race laws. read more

Sohrab Shahid Saless: Exiles takes place at Close-Up and the Goethe-Institut London from 9 November 2017 until 19 January 2018, with a prelude screening at the ICA on Saturday, 4 November 2017. For more details about the season please visit the Goethe-Institut website:

Sohrab Shahid Saless: Exiles is curated by Dr. Azadeh Fatehrad and Nikolaus Perneczky in partnership with the Goethe-Institut London and in collaboration with the Munich Film Museum. With support from the Visual and Material Culture Research Centre, Kingston University (London), Iran Heritage Foundation (London) and Arts Council England.

Image: Copyright Bert Schmidt

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