The film begins with a slap across the face and an embrace. Both of these are staged as part of a group-therapy whose director, the therapist Marc Stroemer, we take an immediately dislike due to his superior, cold manner. In the sequence that folIows, we are introduced to the person who will oppose him: the young, attractive and intelligent Wolke Donner will contrive her way into his surroundings and into his confidence in a new identity (which we see her testing first on a computer screen). She becomes his assistant, and his intellectual flights become higher and higher as a result of her coaxing. He unscrupulously uses his case histories to write dubious self-help books, until finally his examination of cancer in the therapy-addict and real estate agent, Jacoby, becomes a perfect model of his success, to which even the insurance companies react.
Early in the film, Jacoby is described by the advocates of “machine medicine” (which we here should take quite literally) as being a “Münchhausen” – a person who undergoes the most expensive and dramatie types of therapy with an imaginary or simulated illness. By asking the question „Why?” we could tumble back into the system through which the Münchhausen passes, but what is of interest to us here is the “How?”, and Münchhausen consequently becomes a commentator on his environment and a rebel inside it. His life becomes his illness, which he aestheticises more and more, until finally, in a poetic and comical scenery, he has been transformed into its prophet, scurrying across the rooftops wrapped in the insurance company’s banner.
What sounds in this summary as if it could form the basis of either an enlightening social-democratic thriller or a Didi Hallerforden-type comedy, provides Bramkamp with the backdrop for a filmic movement rare in German film: he is not concerned with any satirically distorted imitation of reality, or with his actors “filling out” their roles, but with a form of thinking in images and words which extends beyond any psychological realism. What grips the audience is not any sympathy or antipathy to any particular actors who, as long as they are on camera, enable them to forget that there is a distinction between acting and the part, between the actor’s being and interpretation; instead, they are captivated by the discourses beginning to circle endlessly, in.a positive outward movement, heading not towards any imaginary centre of the problem nor even towards any myth of solving it, but consisting primarily in a wondrous, cosmic and comic broadening of horizons. Gently, but with cunning insistence, Bramkamp seduces us into a new way of seeing against a background web of love and power.
Love (life), sickness (death), medicine (power) and insurance (metaphysics) are not only all causally dependent on each other, but also act as if each had invented the others. The film’s movement thus not only begins to break up obsolete rationalisations (without opening itself up to the barbaric discourse of the New Wholeness, by which I feel a majority of German film-makers and their clientèle have become enslaved), but to become immersed in the web of these fabrications, whereby it becomes increasingly apparent that no such thing as fundamental truth exists, not even that of the body. Behind the text, it is not THE reality, but always another text which is revealed and, conversely, no text has the excuse of being but a text and therefore “unreal”. Consequently, Bramkamp’s characters are not subjects as “masters of their texts”, not recreations of real-life individuals in the media, but neither are they merely rhetorical shells: we can repeatedly be close to them in a very direct, naive fashion, even though they may be far from directly and naively being themselves.
In all of this, Bramkamp’s film is not only hilariously funny in parts, though more in a philosophical and cerebral manner, but also beautiful in a very simple way, in its images and movements, except that this beauty is not over-identified in the usual fashion: just as power is not identical to the powerful, and love not identical to lovers, beauty is also not identical to feeling it. The fact that two things are not identical, however, by no means signifies that they are independent of one another.
Bramkamp and his director of photography, Ekkehart Pollack, begin the film’s actual “plot” with a camera movement which is both magnificent and a precise indication of the film’s form: we look up into a huge dome, with daylight flooding through its glass centre and illuminating an architecture of dominance and physicality. This is now measuredly revealed by the camera in a spiralling, downward movement, describing the architectural and aesthetic planes without any fixed points (past statues whose heads remain outside the frame), contrary to our perceptual convention of establishing shots, past doors on different levels, and finally past a woman waiting motionlessly, to a front door, through which daylight once again floods in (and through which an almost painful green casts aspersions on the reliable naturalness of nature), and through which the heroine enters with resolute steps; continuing the same movement, the camera pans with Wolke Donner as she sits down on a vacant chair, and then on to another door through which Marc appears. Here it stops – we have reached the point where power enters the scene. Taking up the whole room, the therapist presents himself as a man who has a firm hold on the reins (but also falls for the bait put out for him by Wolke).
This complex and beautiful camera movement, cancelling out the melodramatic contradiction between feeling and thinking, very precisely describes the structure of conduction, architecture and staging, and in combining these, the camera, for once, does not profess to have any identity. To a certain degree, the camera, too, remains independent: we are aware that it is responsible for the film’s “text” (the connection between words and images) – the text would not exist without it; but it is not identical to the text. In the course of the film, the camera refuses to comply with the complete order of its images and clarity of perspective, not so much spectacularly as insistently, and moves in search of a movement of transition. A similar, and thus related shift takes place on the level of the dialogue. “You have to decide,” the doctor says to “Münchhausen” as they watch a group of people crouched on the floor beside another large window bathing the room in light and green, lost in their painting activity (the therapeutic idyll following therapeutic hell), “it’s either chemotherapy or psychotherapy. Whichever way, you’re going to need so me new friends.” What is pure nonsense from a rational or medical point of view becomes in the image’s materiality a clear description of the route to be taken: retreating back to the body, back to language, back to relationships. At least one of these is mutually exclusive, and this, fatally, is also true of the opposite of a retreat – of opening up. .
What makes Bramkamp’s film, as it were, to a “post-modern” film is the fact that it does not obtain its riches from a gesture of negation (there is still the romantic, the comic, the symbiotic, the critical and the ardent, which the film registers with ironic tenderness), but from crossing and overlapping, from precisely the spiralling motion which does not render invisible things left behind, in the same way that the metaphysical is recognisable without any force. Every Bramkamp film is a small work of liberation, and because that is always related to happiness, and to a little effort of the imagination, these films can also become slightly addictive.
However hard l try, in this film I am unable to re-establish either the dominance of the central perspective, or the construction of the figures through the story, and perhaps not even what is traditionally misunderstood as the “meaning”. The dramatic conflicts of the main protagonists are always revealed on the next level as being areas where they are accomplices, and instead of any melodramatic clarification of the sides they are on, the film creates a complete networking of perception and interest. Never does anyone “assert themselves”, never does anyone “finally tell the truth” – the collapse of one conspiracy gives immediate rise to another. At the same time, however, I am nowhere able to adjust to an emotional coolness and distance, because we become so involved in the game that we ourselves, in Umberto Eco’s words, begin working on the text of the “open work of art”. Bramkamp’s film “reflects” on the body, language, economics and power, and reaches the conclusion that a beginning can be made.
The idea is by no means “presented in a film” with Bramkamp – it has itself become the film. The film’s particular attraction (and for some its particular difficulty) is the fact that, of all areas, it chooses to apply its method to an aspect of society which is subject to particularly rigid social workings ranging from rationality to charlatanism, and whose ability to conquer the middle ground grows primarily out of the pressure of suffering. Its remarkable liberty occurs, of all places, at the most constrained point in society and people’s life-histories, at the point where language and the body seem to clash most dramatically. Therapy and the film, in turn, have this in common, and “The Conquest of the Centre” (which, like all things conquered, is naturally lost again) thus ultimately becomes an essay on film-making.
The author and his work are also no longer identical, and the movement of the figures and their relationships in Bramkamp’s film is one away from the centre; the characters are no longer in search of an author, and the author releases them. That is the next twist on the spiral, and by no means the last. Bramkamp finally succeeds in opening up space in film which has already been opened in literature and the fine arts, and in doing so, he is one of today’s few innovators of the cinema, and far more significant than all the melancholy calligraphy, the being in keeping with the spirit of the times and the mythomania to which we have become accustomed. What emerges is cinema for contemporaries who do not need any “visual training”, but want films which give rise to some thought. Perhaps we can now really finally take leave of the nineteenth century as far as aesthetic production is concerned. Even in German film.
Copyright © epd Film 1995