Close Up

23 October - 21 November 2019: Conjuring up the Real: The Films of Jürgen Böttcher


Image credit: Wäscherinnen©DEFA-Stiftung/Horst Sperber

"This season of films is organised by the Goethe-Institut, in cooperation with Close-Up Film Centre and King’s College London, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9th November 1989. The series includes screenings, talks, discussions and a workshop drawn together to celebrate a diverse body of work by Jürgen Böttcher (born 1931), one of the German Democratic Republic (GDR)’s most outstanding and influential documentary filmmakers who made over forty aesthetically provocative films during the four-decade existence of the GDR (1949-1990). To a greater part Böttcher’s films were influenced by his experience as a painter, an experience that continues to this day on a daily basis from his home studio in Berlin. The GDR, self-described as a socialist "workers" and peasants’ state, existed from 1949 to 1990 after the eastern portion of Germany became part of the Eastern Block during the Cold War period. The Berlin Wall was built in August 1961 as a physical and ideological division between the Allied occupied zone of West Berlin and Soviet Union occupied zone of East Berlin.

Böttcher’s work was a major influence in developing a style of documentary film making which focused on ordinary working people in a way that uses the camera as an empathetic tool for encouraging people to show themselves, to be seen, and for bringing about a close-ness and understanding between film maker, the people and situations he portrayed, and the film audience. He resisted any form of trickery, to catch people off-guard, to flatter or in any way distort the reality of their everyday existence. With so much inner-conviction and passion the party ideologists should have revered him. However, "It was one of the self-destructive paradoxes of "real existing socialism" that its ruling powers couldn’t abide people who embodied their own ideals convincingly and who exemplified those ideals for others"…"The simple beauty of the real world, of how people actually are: the GDR functionaries, filled to the brim with ideological phrases and propaganda images, had no mental space for this." (Kraft Wetzel)

An intrinsic connection exists between the media of film and painting in Böttcher’s oeuvre, his methods of generating images being comparable in both fields. Rooted in observation and his ability to link figure, nature and inner experience; the almost syncretic way they refer to each other; how he manages to "transform the supporting images in such a way that they become a new object to be seen – or rather to become objects of a new way of seeing".

Böttcher preferred to use a minimum of words, preferring to use actual, and what he considered exigent sound, often experimentally. At other times he uses no words at all, allowing the sounds of machinery and atmosphere to become a sound montage effecting the inner and outer essence of the image and defining the filmic rhythm and pace. Until then, nothing remotely comparable had ever been created in a GDR film.  Böttcher’s attended the German Academy of Film (est. 1954) in Potsdam-Babelsberg and from the 1960s until 1991 was employed as a director of DEFA Studio for Newsreels and Documentary Films, the state-controlled production house for East Germany’s ruling political party SED (Socialist Unity Party originally est.1946). From his output of over forty films at least twelve of Böttcher’s works were either banned or did not receive screenings, mainly for being considered by party ideologists as being "existential", "formalistic", "expressionistic".

How was it possible then, in a country running on well-oiled censorship and constant influence on film production did Böttcher go on to become a major influence in developing a style of documentary film making in the GDR which focused on ordinary working people in a way that made it possible to raise questions the authorities normally did their best to cover over? Since official politics claimed to defend the interests of working people it was difficult to reject his films entirely.

This question relates to one of the most interesting phenomena in the cultural history of the GDR, a phenomenon which casts light, not only on developments in the arts, but also on sociological and psychological dimensions and on the function (or dysfunction) of dictatorial political strategies.

Rolf Richter wrote of Jürgen Böttcher – "His films did justice to the intentions of those they portrayed. He did not manipulate them or their words for any political purposes, and he never doubted that life as it is really lived had a role to play in film."" – Diana Mavroleon

Many thanks to Diana Mavrolean, Maren Hobein and the Goethe-Institut for making this programme possible.

Conjuring up the Real is presented by the Goethe-Institut in collaboration with Close-Up Film Centre, King’s College London and the German Screen Studies Network as well as in partnership with Life Through Cinema and Open City Documentary Festival for individual events.

Full programme calendar here:

Programme 1, Part 1: A New Way of Seeing

Three of Many
Jürgen Böttcher, 1961, 33 min
German with English subtitles

Blast Furnace Removal
Jürgen Böttcher, 1962, 15 min
German with English subtitles

The Party Secretary
Jürgen Böttcher, 1967, 29 min
German with English subtitles

Laundry Women
Jürgen Böttcher, 1972, 23 min
German with English subtitles

Total Runtime: ca 100 min

Programme 1, Part 2: Outsiders

Transformations Trilogy
Jürgen Böttcher, 1981-84, 54 min

A Visit to Hermann Glöckner
Jürgen Böttcher, 1984, 32 min
German with English subtitles

Total Runtime: ca 86 min

Programme 2: A Deeper Dialetic

Jürgen Böttcher, 1963, 20 min
German with English subtitles

In the Lohm Valley
Jürgen Böttcher, 1976 - 1977, 27 min
German with English subtitles

The Kitchen
Jürgen Böttcher, 1986, 43 min
German with English subtitles

Jürgen Böttcher, 1984, 22 min, 35mm
German with English subtitles

Total Runtime: ca 88 min

This programme concludes with a post-film discussion and Q&A with Diana Mavroleon together with Martin Brady and Franziska Nössig.

All programme notes written by Diana Mavroleon, London 2019. Programme note references: Claus Loser. Introduction references: Klaus Kreimeier, Matthias Flügge, Rolf Richter, Seán Allan, and Kraft Wetzel.

The Goethe-Institut would like to thank Diana Mavroleon for initiating the season and conceiving the programmes at Close-Up, and to Franziska Nössig and Martin Brady for their substantial input into the overall programme and for organizing the workshop at King’s College. Further thanks go to Oliver Dickens for hosting the screenings at Close-Up.

We would also like to thank Mirko Wiermann (DEFA-Stiftung), Diana Kluge (Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen) and Claudia Brändle (Filmpodium Zurich).

The prints and DCPs shown in this retrospective have been provided through the DEFA-Foundation and its distribution service located at the Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen in Berlin.

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