The Memo Book: The Films and Video of Matthias Muller

By Stefanie Schulte Strathaus

mirror-matthias-muller-1.jpgMirror, 2003

An extract from a new book on the prolific German artist

Matthias Müller is a filmmaker and an artist. He is a movie spectator, an analyst, a choreographer of memory and feelings. He discovers hidden spaces and times and rearranges the familiar: Hollywood and queer cinema, experimental film and the fine arts, history and imagination, words and images, the skin of the body and that of the film. His works circle around desire like the prisoner’s cigarette smoke in Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour (1950). They play with appropriation and offerings like the other prisoner does when he inhales his cell neighbour’s smoke through a straw and dances through the space of his captivity. Müller’s films portray scars. And only a single thread holds them together and spins them into a weave, so thin that a puff of smoke can pass through it.

This weave could also be a map. Or a folding picture book that you look at while a gramophone plays in your parents’ living room. Or an unwritten history of experimental film in Germany that starts in Bielefeld with Super-8 screenings and is far from ending with international exhibitions, since Müller’s path is not linear. His intertwined paths promise a theory of audiovisual art whose reference point is cinema: cinema as the primal experience that he’s always coming back to. On his way to the art gallery, Müller took a container full of movie images along with him. But what is more decisive, is that his way there itself follows a cinematic movement, that, once he has arrived, turns the exhibition space into a cinematic space, even when the typical cinematic apparatus of projector and screen are missing.

I met Matthias Müller in 1997 on the roof terrace of the Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe University in Frankfurt. This is where the Super-8 festival “Je wilder, desto Bilder” (“The wilder, the [more] images”) took place, a look back at the 80s curated by Karola Gramann. The eighties were a prime period for experimental film, following after important experimental works had arisen in the 60s and 70s. Some of these films, along with the films of political cinema, found their place in the international context of structural film and therefore, among other venues, at the International Forum of Young Film – that is, at the Berlin Film Festival. Even so, their number and the sensation that they caused remained relatively easy to overview. In her contribution to the “History of German Film” which is among the very few film historical texts in Germany that are at all dedicated to experimental film, Christine Noll Brinckmann, who herself made experimental films in the 80s, writes:

promises-matthias-muller-1.jpgPromises, 2003, Solar - Galeria de Arte Cinematica, Vila do Conde

During the first productive decade of new German experimental film, films were made by Vlado Kristl, Werner Nekes, Dore O., Klaus Wyborny, W + B Hein or Heinz Emigholz that today already come across as classics. Still, “in front of this imposing artistic background, the public disdain the mid-70s is even more astonishing;” despite the efforts of filmmakers to build up their own communicational and organisational structures, there was a lack, as Ingo Petzke later explained, “of forums like festivals or publications, of organisations and rigorous media work. There were too few filmmakers and above all there was a lack of a receptive audience.”

In her text, Brinckmann points out how dependent the meaning of experimental film was (and is) on its screening practice. This is certainly also one of the reasons for its limited position in German film history and theory. Wilhelm and Birgit Hein countered this lack in 1971 by founding XSCREEN in Cologne, an independent screening practice that dedicated itself radically to so-called underground film. The practice sought to take up a political fight through aesthetic and taboo-breaking means. Through her later books and texts, Birgit Hein has produced vital connecting points between theory and practice, history and the present. Her movement from fine arts to structural film, the showing of films and the fluid crossover to performance, the autobiographical project that includes the body, all these are stations of one and the same discourse: How do inside and outside hang together, where exactly is the border and how is it created, what are the forms of circulation, how can all of this be made open to experience?

Matthias Müller spent his childhood in the West Germany of the 60s, when the prescribed quiet had turned to loud protest as dark memories sank into the tones of the Heimatfilm. He studied with Birgit Hein at the College of Fine Arts in Braunschweig from 1987-1991. His studies consisted largely of watching films, gaining extensive experience with the international history of experimental film. In the preceding years, more and more communal cinemas had been opening throughout the country (the Arsenal Cinema in Berlin has existed since 1971). A growing interest in experimental film was developing, and there was even a widespread support system for films outside of the mainstream. Things seemed to be good, so in 1986, Matthias Müller, along with Christiane Heuwinkel and six other filmmakers, founded the Super-8 film cooperative Alte Kinder (Old Children) in Bielefeld, which declared their “council flats into film studios,” as was stated in the newspaper tageszeitung at the time, in order to see what happens if you connect the grey of the former with the sheen of Technicolor, rather than whitewashing it. This was also the beginning of a close collaboration with the composer Dirk Schaefer, whose counterpart to the Super-8 material was a little toy sampler.

In the mid-80s, AIDS broke into Müller’s life and work. Film – which the Heins had propagated as an expression for taboo-breaking representations of the sexual body, screened and celebrated from models like Kenneth Anger and Jean Genet – now served an artist like Derek Jarman to represent his vulnerability. Through the transitoriness inherent to the medium, it's language became a language of mourning. In the North American experimental film scene, AIDS became an important theme, and questions of death and loss became points of reference in art. At the same time, Müller’s international contacts began to intensify. He started a long-term friendship with Canadian experimental filmmaker Mike Hoolboom, whose AIDS diaries flowed into the work on Pensão Globo (1997), for which he also spoke the voice-over. In the 90s came, among others, Home Stories (1990), in which Müller’s relationship to the cinema – as spectator and filmmaker – found expression through his recording of melodramas off television, therefore turning them into home movies, and Alpsee (1994), which, itself starting from home movies, takes the self-staging of the bourgeois home in the 60s from the viewpoint of a young boy and turns into a melodrama in glowing colours. The longing for a celebration of the now vulnerable body, for the fulfilment of its homosexual desire as an expression of freedom from a once-again socially acceptable taboo in the time of AIDS can be seen in Sleepy Haven (1993), a sailor movie entirely in oceanic blue.

album-matthias-muller-1.jpgStills from Album, 2004

Since Phoenix Tapes (1999), Müller has often worked with Christoph Girardet on collaborative projects, now strengthened with digital techniques. Both studied with Birgit Hein in Braunschweig, Girardet went into the fine arts after finishing his studies, Müller into the experimental film world. What continually brings them together is not least their passion for collecting and rearranging pieces of memory, so that with their more recent works Manual (2002), Beacon (2002)and Play (2003), the archive of images of two moviegoers come together in mutual attraction and move each other into the field of analysis. Phoenix Tapes also marks Müller’s breakthrough into the art world. After numerous group exhibits and solo gallery shows of video installations and photo work, his first institutional solo exhibition followed in 2004, Matthias Müller: Album. Film Video-Photography at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (NBK), curated by Kathrin Becker. The accompanying monograph expresses a wide resonance in the public, something that has only recently been extended to experimental film in Germany – aided by the authority of the fine arts.

Mirror (2003) is an homage to the collective memory of “great” Italian cinema – more specifically to Michelangelo Antonioni, whose “greatness” lies outside of narration. Indeed, in the last six minutes of the film L’Eclisse he abandons his actors and transports the cinematic narration into a “cinema of the pure eye,” as Italo Calvino declared. Mirror is screened in a 35mm Cinemascope format, it was shot with two DV cameras (whose images arranged next to one another creates the wide screen effect) in the employees’ break room of an old concert hall in Bielefeld. The journey back to his small home town and into widescreen cinema was achieved through modern technology. “Cinemascope for those who don’t have the budget.” There is no such thing as linear film history, especially not from Matthias Müller. The developments in technology and the history of the contact and division between art and film are equally nonlinear. Müller always makes use of both – technology and the cultural status of an art form – when it is finally within reach as a way of pursuing his own goal: the perpetual search for the self and its audiovisual expressive possibilities with the goal of mediation through aesthetic experience. His way is the affect-bound production of points of contact and elements of arrangement.

The Memo Book: The Films and Videos of Matthias Muller, edited by Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, printed with English and German texts, can be ordered from the LUX edited by Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, printed with English and German texts, can be ordered from the LUX