What are Manfred Kirchheimer’s movies about? In one sense, these documentaries screening in a retrospective at MoMA February 3-11 are portraits of artists at work. Art Is…The Permanent Revolution (2012), for instance, consists primarily of interviews with three printmakers and a master printer about their work, which is placed in a historical line of politically disquieting activist art going back to Goya. Spraymasters (2007) features interviews with four former graffiti artists whose expansive work could once be found across subway cars riding throughout Kirchheimer’s home city of New York. Their work appears in depth in Kirchheimer’s most celebrated film, Stations of the Elevated (1981), a rhythmic study—set to music featuring Charles Mingus and Aretha Franklin—of metro trains moving across elevated platforms. Although human beings don’t often appear physically in Stations, the variety of graffiti images and messages sprayed onto the train cars (“Pusher,” “Heaven is Life,” “Hate,” “Crime,” “Shalom”) suggest the presence of human life and effort everywhere.
In another sense, the films are self-portraits, with Kirchheimer himself in the artist’s role working to record parts of society at specific moments in time. This is evident in his lone fiction film, Short Circuit (1973)—a quiet, poetic study of a documentary filmmaker (played by Allan Miller) observing multiracial passerby around his Upper West Side apartment—as well as in his nonfiction works. The scenes of older Manhattan buildings being torn down for new construction projects in Claw (1968) register time’s passage and suggest vanishing lifestyles. Kirchheimer preserves human life onscreen in works like his latest, cheerful conversation-driven film, My Coffee with Jewish Friends (2017)—whose world premiere will occur at MoMA—and in Canners (2017), an indelible series of encounters with people striving to make a living through gathering cans and bottles for recycling. (A new cut of this film will also receive its world premiere at MoMA, prior to its weeklong run at the Metrograph March 10-16.)
Kirchheimer was born in 1931 in Saarbrücken, Germany, and came with his family to the United States in 1936. He has spent much of his adult life as a teacher of cinema, particularly at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) and the School of Visual Arts (SVA), where he works today. Crucial to his artistry is his time as a student, both in the classroom and in the field, with older filmmakers including Hans Richter, Jay Leyda, and the great documentarian Leo Hurwitz, with whom he collaborated on six films. One senses throughout Kirchheimer’s own observant art that, for him, making films is part of his larger work as a social being.
Brooklyn Magazine: How did you become a filmmaker?
Manfred Kirchheimer: I went to the City College of New York, which had an Institute of Film Techniques run by Hans Richter, a former Dadaist and experimental filmmaker who had come to America as an exile. I asked him whether there were any opportunities in film, and he replied, “Yeah, opportunities are plenty, but there are no jobs.” That proved to be wrong—there were plenty of jobs, but very few opportunities to make films.
I got into the film industry after I graduated, and I found out soon enough that there really wasn’t an opportunity for me to make films. Eventually I got myself a camera and taught myself photography and, since I already knew how to edit, I began to make films on my own. In 1965 I turned out my first one, Colossus on the River (1963).
From the beginning you’ve been a city filmmaker, chronicling different aspects of New York. What interested you the most about the city when you began filming, and what are the biggest changes that you’ve seen in your records of it over time?
It’s true that with Claw, I made the film about the city, about the destruction of the old and the bringing in of the new glass box monsters. I wasn’t so interested in the city, though, as I was in that subject. And so it turns out with my other films that I’m interested in the specific subject, and the city seems to get documented along the way. I don’t really see changes—it’s like how, when you have a child and you see him or her from day to day, you don’t see the progress that other people see when they haven’t seen the kid in a year. To me, the city is the same as it always was, except more so—more big buildings, denser.
So the city, by default, becomes part of the film, and when you see enough of the films, you begin to feel that I’m dealing with it. I shoot here primarily for economic reasons. I live in the city, and the best way for me to make films is to shoot my own backyard.
The films are primarily documentaries, except for Short Circuit, which mixes documentary and fiction. How did that film come about?
I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), and I thought that that would make a great movie, but that I couldn’t make it. I did think that I could make a film about a white person’s reaction to blacks. I wrote a script, which was a fictional script, but which had inside it the things that the protagonist—a documentary filmmaker—observes. He looks at his own neighborhood in a documentary way. The surrounding story, which is a very simple one, is fiction, although it’s really autobiographical. At the time, I had been teaching at NYU. All of my students were making fiction films, and I said, “Yeah, why not? My goodness. If they can do it, I can.”
You have both quiet and more interview-based films, but you consistently pay close attention to people. What do you look for in people onscreen?
I was in the industry for 24 years and became a director and cameraman, as well as an editor. I made a film about schools, and in it, I had to interview people. I found that to be very attractive, and that I was good at interviewing people. My first interview film afterwards was We Were So Beloved, which had to do with refugees such as myself—I was born in Germany and came over as a child. But there were many people in my neighborhood in Washington Heights who were not children when they came over. They didn’t behave quite the way that I wanted them to. They didn’t vote (I don’t think) for McGovern, and I don’t think that they were too happy with the minorities around them. So I decided that I wanted to interview them. I knew, though, that it wouldn’t be fair to just deal with their latest feelings, but rather start earlier on, when they were chased out of Germany. I looked for how they felt about other refugees. I looked for poignant stories.
In other films, like Art Is…The Permanent Revolution, I’m looking for something else from my people. I’m looking for them to talk about their work and how they manage to do their work and what makes their work work. In Canners, I’m looking for something else. My latest film, My Coffee with Jewish Friends, deals with Jewishness and how people feel about it. I have among its subjects people who are Christian and are married to Jews or who are half-Jewish turned Episcopalian. I get answers that I don’t always expect. I find out things as I work. I deal with people based on who they are and on what their circumstances are, and it’s different in each case.
A film that also has a number of very memorable stars is Stations of the Elevated, but they’re not just the trains. The human presence is very strong. I look at the trains and see human work.
That was part of my reason for making the film. I didn’t want there to be talking heads in it, but I did want the human presence to be strongly present. The rest of my motivation had to do with euphemisms, like the big country estate that turns out to be a prison. It had to do with things that you see that are different from what you expect. I always thought of Stations as a film made such that a visitor from the future was looking at our world. You’ve got a car on the pedestal. You’ve got a big, big pipe going into the ground. You’ve got things that are surrealistic, and from the point of view of a person from the future, it’s a time capsule of a crazy world.
I see your political positions in your films. Do you see filmmaking as a form of activism?
Yes, it is. It’s not so much that I’m dealing with current events. I’m dealing with a kind of higher form. Canners is all about the economy. It’s all about capitalism. It’s all about how money is distributed and who gets recognition and who doesn’t in our world, which I try to portray in actuality. In Art Is…The Permanent Revolution, I’m doing it more directly. I’m saying that these are prints of protest, and that they’ve been around since forever, and that the people who make them take the risk of going to jail or being exiled. Much as I love prints, which prompted me to make the film, I also had a political purpose. Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan (2004), which is about the growth of the skyscraper, has a political purpose. I try not to make it overt, but I think that I have a definite and strong point of view.
What interests you about your recent films that differs from what interested you in your earlier films?
My early films were mostly old-fashioned, in the sense that I wanted to continue the montage style of film that I had been brought up on. These films from the 1930s and early 1940s (before cinema vérité came into being) were films made up of silent material with sound added after shooting. I found and continue to find that that kind of filmmaking allows for so many possibilities that haven’t yet been explored. I made Bridge High (1975), Claw, and Stations of the Elevated using its techniques, as well as the film that I’m in the middle of now.
On the other hand, I wanted to make a film about German Jewish refugees, my neighbors, that involved me asking questions, and so I shifted to a film of dialogue. Then I reverted right after We Were So Beloved and made Tall, which is again, with narration in the old-fashioned way. Then Spraymasters (2007) and Art Is…The Permanent Revolution and Canners were all different, and now My Coffee with Jewish Friends is a wall-to-wall talk film. At the same time, I’ve gone back to material that I started a while back, out of which Claw was made.
So I’m making different films now than what I made at the beginning, but I never lost a love for those early films. Two years ago I even finished a film called Discovery in a Painting (1968/2014), where my friend, colleague, and mentor Leo Hurwitz and I examined a single painting—Cézanne’s Still Life with Apples (1895/98)—for half an hour. Hurwitz asked me to photograph the film in 1968, and in 1970 he edited it (silent, of course), with the goal of then making a score. He used short pieces from the turn of the last century, and they never worked out for him. He could control where the pieces started, but then they would end at some arbitrary place, and the silence that ensued made what followed seem special, which it wasn’t. Leo died in 1991, and 23 years later I found a track by using longer pieces and ending them where I wanted to end them. I used sounds of the museum as well. I hope I was able to finish it according to his wishes.
What would you say to younger filmmakers today who are interested in pursuing political filmmaking?
There are two roads that younger filmmakers can follow: They can go directly to what is current, and that’s a valuable thing to do. Or they can take my approach, which is to choose a subject to one’s liking and deal with it in a way that the politics and point of view stand out. As you know, I don’t follow the headlines. My films are political, but they’re not of the moment. I think there are going to be plenty of filmmakers who are going to do things like that (of the moment) right now, based on what’s happening. But I don’t. I’m not going to change my ways because of this situation.