Making the Political Personal

By Owen Armstrong

black-box-germany-andres-veiel.jpgBlack Box Germany, 2001

Presented by the Goethe-Institut London as part of the 11th Festival of German Films, Focus On Andres Veiel provides a retrospective of his six documentaries to date, perhaps most notably, his 2001 film Black Box Germany – an investigation into the alleged murder of Deutsche Bank Chairman Alfred Herrhausen by Red Army Faction (RAF) member Wolfgang Grams. With the recent release of Uli Edel’s Baader-Meinhof Complex, Veiel’s biographical account provides a complementary addition to the exploration of political and personal factors that informed the revolutionary terrorism of the RAF.

Prevalent in all of Veiel’s work is the sense that he is documenting events that remain open to interpretation. As he refers to them, these “open wounds” are examples of events that, while of great personal importance to him, are representative of various aspects of the human condition both specific and external to German culture. In dealing with the internal conflicts of the people he documents, Veiel’s films present a complex perspective of the political and social climate of Germany in recent years. Though they remain inherently personal, it is in understanding Veiel himself that his films can be appreciated in any broader context.

die-spielwutigen-andres-veiel.jpgDie Spielwütigen, 2003 

In Black Box Germany, Veiel confronts an issue that still persists today within the German conscience. Not only does there remain a sense of division regarding the way in which the motives of the RAF are understood, but Veiel also points toward the residual unrest that exists within a relatively recently united Germany. Forming as a result of social and political discord that gathered within many industrialised nations in the 1960s, the RAF began with student protest in West Germany. For many the RAF represented a response to the rise of capitalism and a voice with which the new radical youth could identify. At the time Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe were tried, Veiel was a teenager growing up in Stuttgart, the location of Stammheim court in which the trials took place. As one of the most controversial periods of post-war German history, the trials had stirred a “naïve admiration” in Veiel for the conviction and commitment to social justice that the RAF embodied.

Despite recognising the ill-conceived nature of the RAF, Veiel pursues the subject of activism. In his earlier film The Survivors, he composes the biographies of Thilo, Rudi and Tilman – three of his school classmates who committed suicide. Similarly to Grams, Thilo’s intrigue with the RAF stems from his defiance to comply with the ideology of the establishment. His friends recall his sense of affiliation with Ensslin and other RAF ‘comrades’, closely observing the movements of the group and attaching himself to the cause of civil rights for the reactionary, though ultimately dangerous left-wing youth. In studying the motivations of both Thilo and Grams to defect to an ‘underground’ way of life, Veiel continues to explore the notion of disenfranchisement and how this manifests itself politically. Within this however, is a more common thread that links all of his work – the lengths that people are prepared to go in search of an often desperate resolve. As is perhaps most evident in The Survivors, Veiel parallels the need to feel vital and belong in the world, with the social and political proclivities that dictate his subjects’ lives. The extent to which he makes himself apparent in many of his films is an indication that as a filmmaker interpreting the world, he is not exempt.

balagan-andres-veiel.jpgBalagan, 1993 

Having been regarded as irreverent and anti-Semitic upon its release, Veiel’s 1993 film Balagan, examines the delicate territory of both the Holocaust, and the Israel-Palestine conflict as expressed through the performance art of an Israeli based theatre group. Made up of members of both the Jewish and Muslim faith, the group perform an interpretive guided tour of a Nazi concentration camp before descending into a conceptual dance illustrating the various forms of torture and humiliation that took place. Central players in the piece, entitled Arbeit Macht Frei, are Madi Maayan – a Czechoslovakian Israeli – Moni Yosef – an orthodox Jew of Iraqi origin – and Khaled Ali – an Israeli Arab. In the same way that Veiel’s later subjects seek either social or political liberation from the systems they are bound to, Maayan, Yosef and Ali are challenging a range of political and religious anxieties through artistic transgression.

In using the Holocaust as an instrument of provocation, they are at once defacing something sacred that binds the Israeli Jewish people together, but also creatively analysing the immensity of it. Aggressively defending her liberty as an artistic and human, Maayan even wears a tattoo of a number on her arm, mimicking those worn by survivors. Stating that for Israeli’s, the Holocaust is the “opium for the masses”, she recognises it as a conduit for shared grief as much as it is a potent artistic monument. The inclusion of Ali presents further complications. While in support of Palestinian independence, he also advocates communion with the people of Israel. As with Veiel’s commitment to acknowledging the complexity of each of his subjects, Ali’s attitude and actions represent a progressive appreciation of opposing ideals – Balagan opens with footage of Ali flogging himself nude in the name of performance art, despite the restrictions of his faith.

die-spielwutigen-andres-veiel-2.jpgDie Spielwütigen, 2003 

Though thematically, the theatrics of Balagan reach an apogee in cross-pollinating the political and the personal, Veiel’s own specific interest in theatre is a prominent aspect of his work. One of his most recent films, Addicted to Acting, probes even further into the duality of his subjects as he follows four students from varying backgrounds through acting school. Occasionally impressive, often delusional but always compelling, the students gleam with a profound belief in their art, so totally naïve that they are difficult not to empathise with. In Prodromos, his male lead, Veiel captures the narcissistic beauty of youth, perhaps a less polemic and self-destructive version of the unnerving conviction he discovers in The Survivors’ Thilo. ‘Prod’ is also the only of his four actors that appears to be constantly trying to act, whether in interview or on stage, lending him a disarming simplicity. He also gifts Veiel with his films most crushing moment; wandering into an acting agency in New York, he is laughed at for underestimating the number of people in exactly his position and then told that due to both the lack of demand for German actors and his lack of experience in English speaking roles, he must widen his appeal and “be Russian”. Struck by the cold clarity of having to scrounge for work in his chosen profession, there is an uncomfortable moment of genuine panic that, for much of the film, has been lingering just behind his faux-bravado façade.

Veiel’s repeated return to, and reliance on theatre within the field of documentary suggests that he feels there is little separating the worlds of art and politics. There is no concerted effort to ‘capture reality’ as something that can only be understood through the language of observational filmmaking - much in the same way that by his own admission, Werner Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’ is illustrated most clearly in Fitzcarraldo. Veiel’s current project, and also his first fictional film, reunites him with the material of Black Box Germany only this time focusing on the roots of the RAF in the 1960s. As a filmmaker whose body of work embraces what we may call theatrical validity, the prospect of Veiel’s impending film promises a far cry from the adrenaline charged Baader-Meinhof Complex.


Owen Armstrong is a projectionist and beekeeper. He lives in London.