Published on August 4th, 2011 | by Cassady Dixon0
From August 4-17, Anthology Film Archives will be screening a special series dubbed “Talking Head.” Covered are a collection of documentaries of the “talking head” variety, namely films consisting mostly of straight-ahead shots of their subjects speaking directly into the camera. The fascination here is that although the aesthetic approach appears rudimentary, the effect, when done well, is nothing short of gripping. Furthermore, many such documentaries cover far-reaching ethical grounds like war, crime, and often include subjects so interesting on their own that anything beyond showing just them and their words would be overkill, gilding the lily.
One such film is André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer’s “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary” (2002). Traudl Junge gives a matter-of-fact recount if what it was like for her to work for one of history’s most notorious villains. The bare-bones approach underscores a solid point all-too-easily forgotten, which is that even the greatest evil is still human. He will tell jokes, be charming sometimes, have a deep love for his dog, etc. Junge details these moments as well as the catastrophe that became the final days of the Third Reich in a Berlin bunker (as seen in the excellent film “Downfall”). The mass panic, hasty marriages and declarations of love, poisonings and the bitter sense of dread that came with Hitler’s own suicide are amazing to hear from a firsthand account. We might not ever tire of trying to figure out how something like Germany under Hitler came to be, but Junge offers many excellent insights. A notable story involves a German guard being interviewed by a reporter at a concentration camp. Asked whether he felt any pity for the prisoners inside, he remarks that of course he feels pity, but he must repress it. This was his sacrifice to his country. Hitler’s promise seemed to be one of telling others to do what he says, and he’ll take the moral responsibility, as if one can simply surrender their conscience to the will of another.
A similar subject is tackled in Christoph Hübner’s “Thomas Harlan – Wandersplitter” (2007). Harlan, a teenager during WWII, was also the son of infamous German filmmaker Veit Harlan. Veit’s “Jew Süss” is perhaps the most famous anti-Semitic propaganda piece put out by the Nazis. After the war, Thomas became a writer, left-wing activist and in the late ‘50s began a rigorous research project on his own accord that ended up uncovering enough evidence to prosecute over 2,000 German war criminals. Here it is as if the younger Harlan is taking it upon himself to right the wrongs of his father by going after everyone he can that had something to do with the war. Obviously not an easy task to undertake, it even led to Harlan’s passport being revoked for a time as well as accusations of treason. But moreover, it seems to whittle down to a fight between a boy and his father. What monstrous impressions he must have been left with as a young man (eating at Hitler’s dinner table, for one) are constantly butting heads with the natural inclination to romanticize one’s parents and hold them in high regard. As such, Harlan is given to nostalgic reminiscences and castigations all the same. At the time of filming, Harlan had returned to his home country, however he is living out his days at a shabby but serviceable respiratory clinic. Of note, Thomas is the cousin of both film producer Jan Harlan and actress Christiane Kubrick, whose husband Stanley once considered making a movie of his own about Veit. No doubt overcoming his supremely wide shadow of horror has been a struggle for them all at some point.
James Nares’s “No Japs at My Funeral” (1980) and Rainer Frimmel’s “Notes from the Basement” (1993-2000) offer an interesting juxtaposition. Via both we go from one end of the politically-conscious spectrum to the other. “No Japs” is the oldest of the four films profiled here. Made in 1980, it is a very rough-looking, home video style interview with a former IRA man named Jackie. Following a familiar theme with the previous documentaries, Jackie is at once sympathetic and at other times a vision of darkness. What never leaves the edges of the frame is the fact that Jackie surely had a hand in some violence. Not for nothing, he does express regret for his past ways, and indeed speaks with surprising clarity (and never too far from an open can of beer) as he details the history of Ireland up to The Troubles. Nicely intercut with this is “official” footage from English television with their take on the matter. The overriding characteristic of both sides is that each appears to judge the other by that side’s most extreme dimensions, forgoing any hope of rational compromise that may exist in the in-between.
“Notes,” rather, consists entirely of the self-recorded footage of a man in his apartment. Viennese hospital orderly Peter Haindl filmed himself off-and-on throughout the mid-‘90s, and the result is a man very much caught up in himself and seemingly not much else. Topics range from art and society to self-centered complaints about his ex-girlfriend. In fact much of Haindl’s exercise here seems overly petty and occasionally hostile in tone. Creepier still is the simple knowledge of real-life examples of this style of documented narcissism as a trait amongst notoriously violent individuals, from the Virginia Tech shooter to the recent attacker in Norway. Not that Haindl comes off as being among that ilk, but the parallels are off-putting enough. He rarely goes off on a tangent that is much more than creepily egocentric or pathetically nostalgic for a long-lost past. Strangely, it was the most disturbing of these four documentaries. Perhaps Nazis, or the IRA or an overzealous military are easier to put out of one’s mind. They are in the past, or they exist someplace else, if you’re fortunate. Yet someone like Haindl could be living next door, or sitting in front of you at the movie theater.
Anthology’s “Talking Head” series includes many more such films as well. Martin Scorcese’s “Italianamerican” (1974) will screen, in which the famous director interviews his parents. Accompanying that is Scorcese’s “American Boy,” chronicling the exploits of rabblerousing vagabond Steven Prince (whose famous heroin story in the film inspired the Uma Thurman sequence in “Pulp Fiction”). Also showing are works by Andy Warhol, and plenty more examinations of people who have been on the front lines of major social upheavals over the past century. Never, it seems, has such a singular, simple style of filmmaking revealed so much, so succinctly.