Meet one of the best documentary film-makers we may have never heard of

Photo: A still from the Manfred Kirchheimer documentary Free Time

03 June 2021 | Sukhdev Sandhu | The Guardian

Manfred Kirchheimer, the US’s least-known great documentarian, may be 90 years old, but his memory is as sharp as a knife. “I wasn’t always a film aficionado,” he recalls. “Then, in 1949, I was at Manhattan’s City College and the students were on strike against two professors – one antisemite, the other anti-black. I saw someone filming a police horse and I asked him why. He said: ‘I’m making this for the film department.’ I had signed up for chemistry, but I didn’t like chemistry. So I went to the office of its head – the film-maker Hans Richter – and I said, ‘Professor, are there any opportunities in film?’ He said, ‘Yes – opportunities are plenty. But no jobs!’ I went anyway.” He chuckles fondly.

Kirchheimer was born in 1931 in Saarbrücken, Germany. His Jewish parents, sensing which way the winds were blowing, moved to the US five years later, eventually landing in New York’s Washington Heights, where they joined a close-knit and prosperous community peopled by so many exiles it was sometimes known as Frankfurt-on-the Hudson. Kirchheimer might have stopped practising the faith in his early 20s, but across the decades, his films all benefit – rely, even – on his migrant eye. They’re endlessly curious about how his adopted city works, searching for its often-overlooked architectural or environmental details, alive to its marginal voices.

Free Time, his latest film, has been assembled from 45,000 feet of 16mm footage he shot between 1958 and 1960 with his friend Walter Hess. It’s a quiet rhapsody, a dreamy portal to a mostly disappeared New York, a montage of quotidian yet precious urban tableaux. It drifts across Hell’s Kitchen, lower Manhattan and a scrapyard in Inwood. Children let off hydrants in the streets, old timers watch the world go by from their sidewalk deckchairs, a guy wearily pushes a cart full of junk. The camera’s gaze is fond, not forensic. Chalked graffiti, peculiar cornices and lintels, sunlight dancing on the sides of tenements: this is summer living before the advent of air conditioning. “Today, the kids would all be inside playing video games,” he observes without rancour.

Kirchheimer and Hess, both freelancers, blocked off the summer of 1963 to edit the film but they couldn’t find a path through the material. Defeated, they returned to their commercial day jobs; in spite of what Richter had warned him, over the course of his career, Kirchheimer shot and edited hundreds of films for the big networks.

The commissions he turned down for political reasons – a pro-US/German relations propaganda feature, a missionary feature set in south-east Asia – are among those he remembers best. Once he was tasked with cutting down the famous wake sequence in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru: “The distributor said it was too long for an American audience. I thought it was fine and told him, ‘If you get an OK from the Master, then I’ll do it. Otherwise not.’ The film wasn’t cut and became a big triumph.”

By the end of the 60s, Kirchheimer had become a proto-DIY film-maker, self-financing tiny-budgeted documentaries such as Claw, a near-mystical chronicle of New York being bulldozed and refashioned. Then, galvanised by reading Malcolm X’s autobiography, he made his only non-documentary: Short Circuit (1973), an extraordinary, self-reflexive psychodrama about an affluent Upper West Side film-maker who starts paying attention to the increasingly black neighbourhood outside his window. The mounting African-American militancy and civil rights movement he observes soon threatens the threshold between home and street, sanity and paranoia.

“It was a hot time,” Kirchheimer reflects. “It was after Martin [Luther King Jr] was killed. Malcolm was killed by that time as well. I thought I ought to get in the fray. I couldn’t stay out of it any longer. We had black personnel, a black cleaning woman, a black doorman. I figured: what happens if they erupt? The fact that I’ve given money to black charities, the fact that I’m for the black revolution: are my credentials any good?” Short Circuit features brilliant cinematography, complex but gripping sound design and a brooding narrative that brings to mind the work of Michael Haneke. Unbelievably, it never screened in New York and was locked in the director’s closet for decades. Needless to say, its exploration of white liberalism – its power and fragility – is still potent.

Manfred Kirchheimer, centre, with stills from his latest film, Free Time. Composite: Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times

More disappointment followed. Filmed in 1977, Stations of the Elevated was the first documentary about graffiti in New York. Spray painting was spoken of as vandalism, an example of urban blight; Kirchheimer focused instead on its colours and hieroglyphic mysteries, contrasted its opaque scripts to the noise of corporate billboards, captured the magical moments when newly daubed carriages emerged from stations to slink across the city. The film was released in 1981, only to be ignored by reviewers. Soon, though, it developed a word-of-mouth reputation, with the makers of early hip-hop culture films Wild Style (1982) and Style Wars (1983) asking him for videotapes to help them to prepare their shoots.

A still from Free Time, filmed circa 1960.
A still from Free Time, filmed circa 1960.

A still from Free Time, filmed circa 1960.

“The whole thing came about because I was part of a co-op in my neighbourhood and, once a month, I would take a car early in the morning to the South Bronx to bring back produce. In the summertime it gets light at five o’clock; I’d be on the Bronx Expressway and I would pass under the trains. From beginning to end they’d be covered with this very beautiful, colourful, gorgeous bouquet of graffiti.” Kirchheimer doesn’t include any narration or interviews with the artists; his is an eerie nature documentary more than a social dispatch.

“I wanted to shoot the city as if I was a visitor from the future,” he says. “What is going on here with these coloured trains, this strange phenomenon that I was shooting?”

Perhaps Kirchheimer’s most controversial film is We Were So Beloved, from 1985, a portrait of the German Jews in Washington Heights who had escaped the Holocaust. Likened by the New York Times critic Vincent Canby to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, its subjects discuss a range of uncomfortable topics. They reflect on the snobbery many German Jews had felt towards Polish Jews. One recalls his dismay at his parents’ indifference to New York cops beating a black man.

“I started the film with a grudge,” Kirchheimer admits. “I didn’t want to be hard on them, but I felt these people were not living up to my standards. A lot of them abandoned the Democrats after Roosevelt had been such a hero to them. They voted for Nixon in 1968. My question to them was: was it enough to have survived Hitler or was there something more they were obliged to do?”

I ask Kirchheimer what they felt about the plight of Palestinians. “I couldn’t even argue with them about Israel. They’re attached to it as a miracle country.”

The tensest moment in the film comes when Kirchheimer asks his father a question: what would he have risked to help German friends escape? Nothing, is the reply. “By nature, I’m a coward.” Family friends were upset and demanded in vain that the scene be cut. “I only later found out – and I’m sorry I didn’t mention this in the film: there was a journalist who had fled when the Nazis were occupying parts of northern Germany. He was looking for a place to stay and my father invited him to stay at our house in Saarbrücken. So he wasn’t that much of a coward after all.”

Kirchheimer chokes up a little. “He was a decent person … But he thought of himself as a coward.”

The last decade has been good to Kirchheimer. Stations of the Elevated was revived to wide acclaim. MoMA accorded him a retrospective. Since 2012, he’s directed three films: on American political artists, on canners, and on Judaism. Free Time is just one of a trio of new documentaries he has completed during lockdown; he plans to shoot another – about daughters – later this year. In September, he will fly to Saarbrücken where he will be made an honorary citizen.

“You have to understand: I’m 90 years old! I have an editing suite in my apartment. I have a large apartment. I couldn’t care less about trends. Fuck it! I get freer and freer!”

Free Time screens on 8 June at the Barbican cinema, London, the opening film of the Return to the City series, which runs until 27 June.


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