The second reel

Oh the days dwindle down/To a precious few…

– “September Song”, Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson

I seem to be blogging in ever-decreasing circles. Today’s post concerns the work of two people I’ve featured in the past month – German dancer/actress Valeska Gert and Swiss film director Daniel Schmid. I don’t know if the two ever met (it’s distinctly possible – Schmid was living in Germany when Gert appeared in a TV series directed by Schmid’s friend and collaborator Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1973), but in any case I found strange, unexpected resonances between their works.

A new exhibition about Gert’s life and work entitled Pause has just opened at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof gallery, inspired by the recent book Ästhetik der Präsenzen. That book’s author and co-curator of the exhibition, Wolfgang Müller, gave an absorbing lecture at the opening of the show in which he made a compelling case for Gert as a forerunner not just of performance art, of which there can be little doubt, but also conceptual art. The exhibition duly displays conceptual pieces by the likes of  Jenny Holzer which seem to share Gert’s spirit.

Müller’s preoccupation with Gert began in 1977 when he saw her on a talk show at the age of 86. As he so rightly pointed out, the footage makes her seem much younger than the other guests. More than just her punkish ’do and puckish grin, it was her prickliness and refusal to provide the safe or expected answer which make her seem so fresh and vital. Nor had age rendered her art mild or comforting. Quite the contrary. You want intense? Watch a monologue by Gert – a Jew who had returned to Germany after the war – in which she becomes Ilse Koch, the infamously sadistic SS camp commandant.

The exhibition takes its name from a piece Gert used to perform in movie theatres in the 1920s. As the projectionist changed reels, she would assume a position in front of the curtain, holding it for the entire break. Around her, ice creams were sold, people chatted, outside cars drove by, trams rattled, trains criss-crossed the countryside. Amidst the roar of the 20s, Gert was, for those few minutes, a small, still centre of calm. A fixed point to – hopefully – make the audience more aware of their immediate surroundings, their companions, strangers, their posture, their very breath. And this was a full 20 years before John Cage’s 4’33” made its own exploration of stillness.

Even in advanced old age, Gert was still thinking ahead. She was well into her 80s when she expressed a desire to appear in life-size 3D TV (a then-science fictional concept only now becoming reality). But Gert already leaps out from the screen; as Müller indicated, even when she appeared in films by other people she was essentially offering a Valeska Gert performance piece. The highpoint of the show is the collection of extant footage of Gert’s film appearances as well as her solo performances. She usually appears in chalky white kabuki-style make-up which served to amplify her expressions. One short, memorable sequence shows Gert in the guise of a kabuki actor wooing a female performer and committing hara-kiri when she rejects his advances.

These thoughts on aging, no doubt also partly inspired by the season, when nature’s decay is most evident and most appealing, returned during the Daniel Schmid retrospective across town in the tiny Tilsiter Lichtspiele cinema. In the superb 1984 documentary Tosca’s Kiss he turned his camera on the inhabitants of Casa Verdi, a retirement home for performers established by the titular composer. Divas, chorus members, instrumentalists, a composer – the gamut of the operatic world is represented, with the roles formed during their careers apparently enduring in retirement.

It is clear that this is no simple fly-on-the-wall documentary; Schmid wants his subjects to perform just as much as they want to perform. But at the core of the director’s approach is his desire to portray them as human beings: moody, playful, bitchy, melancholic, mischievous, opinionated, haughty. Still full of music, still taking any opportunity to sing or play or act; in their slightly monastic surrounds we are reminded that they pursued vocations rather than careers.

The sense of “orchestrating” truth is even stronger in the 1995 documentary The Written Face, which explores Japanese kabuki and butoh, concentrating particularly on kabuki performer Tamasaburo Bando. Schmid focuses obsessively as Bando applies and removes make up (chalk white to better show expression – just like Gert). He is just as fascinated by a Shinto ceremony which blesses a kabuki theatre, an occasion as ritualistic as the performances which it precedes.

And then…the idea of waiting between reels, which had seemed so distant and fanciful in the lecture about Valeska Gert, was suddenly reality as the first reel of the film ran out and we sat in the dark. Waiting for the cinema’s sole employee to come from the bar and find the second reel. So there we were, 10 strangers (I told you it was tiny), acutely aware of being in a dark, quiet room together, watching nothing.

Fortunately the other reel was found as it contains one of the most astonishing, beautiful and moving sequences I’ve ever seen on film, featuring butoh legend Kazuo Ohno, who died earlier this year at the age of 103. Ohno is shown, then 88, again in ghostly makeup, dancing in Tokyo Harbour at twilight to a meditative Liszt piece for solo piano (watch it here). What a gift, to see an artist still so full of artistic vigour and compulsion to communicate, just as Gert was. Just as those opera performers were. Rejecting the conventional options which seem to loom as the road comes to 70 and forks, offering either grace or disgrace. As well as everything else these performers gave, they refused to become objects of pity or figures of fun, and provide us with inspiring examples of how to live the second reel of life.

More on the exhibition and Valeska Gert here.



  1. John Hastings

    What an exquisite post! Ohno and Gert both possess and are possessed by ‘Duende’ as explicated by Federico Garcia Lorca in his famous essay on the subject. It is the dark power, always on the edge of death, absorbed from the earth and into the body that fires the creative blood in a poetic re-baptism of all five of the senses. A place where living and ceasing to live are imaginary solutions and existence is elsewhere. These artists are our living contemporaries and they will never not be so.

    • Thanks for the comment! I realise I mixed up my tenses in the post but I think it’s a consequence of these artists being, as you say, our living contemporaries. I couldn’t believe how present Valeska Gert was in the footage I saw. So vital, so completely true to herself and her art.

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