Kurt Kren. Structural Films

A DVD Review by Diana Bulzan

In the Index DVD Series

”Sorry It had to be done” is what Kren uttered when asked about the consequences of his Actionist Films [1]. It is also a phrase that can be used as key description of the new-found 1950s avant-garde scene in Austria. Europe was lucky enough to benefit from two such movements and while  the early avant-garde of 1900s mainly concerned itself with being the contrary to its own history, this being the case for most of the visual arts and literature, the photographic medium was still too new and was thus reduced to exploring its own expressive possibilities. The works of Viking Eggeling along with D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a nation and Einsenstein’s montage technique describe the medium from the perspective of its illusionist potential and its ability to portray movement (i.e. Symphonie Diagonale). Film only becomes an autonomous form of art in the quiet landscape of post-war Austria, with the birth of serial and structural films, embodied in the names of Peter Kulbelka and Kurt Kren. Kren’s structural films provide new possibilities for the critique of the ideology implicit in the narrative sequence and in the viewer’s perception of the screen, notably the inscription of the cinematic apparatus in the construction of a prefabricated reality revealing the medium not as a reproduction of an exterior reality, but as the reproduction of the conditions of perception that construct said reality. His early experience with film as a medium in itself gives rise to a more profound cinema as a new possibility to express itself – the likes of 32/76 An W+B, while the more discussed 15/67 TV acts as a complex structure holding cinema together by operating an immersion of narrative fragments into an already fragmented film and highlighting this disintegration with pauses of black screen between the constitutive shots.

Far away from his illustrious collaboration with Vienese Actionism, Kurt Kren’s Structural Films compel the viewer to a more subtle and revelatory encounter with film, first by refusing to abandon the medium of film to its metaphoric and expressive counterparts, and secondly by allowing the emergence of new expressive possibilites, thus providing the infamous “spectator” with the means to re-think and construct his own experience of the film. The second DVD released by INDEX follows Kren’s Actionist Films to impeccably explore the turning point that was structural film as the DVD is comprised of a wonderfully illustrative selection of works, ranging from his first experiments on 16mm film to the poetic subtlety of 31/75 Asyl. The closing title, 49/95 tausendjahrekino, celebrates a thousand years of cinema – no longer an illusory experience filled with a pre-given meaning, but a real experience recounting its own (hi)story.

2/60 48 Köpfe aus dem Szondi-Test / 2/60 48 Heads from the Szondi-Test. 16 mm, b/w, silent, 4:19 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
2/60 48 Köpfe aus dem Szondi-Test / 2/60 48 Heads from the Szondi-Test. 16 mm, b/w, silent, 4:19 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

The shortened version of the text The Poetics of Time – Kurt Kren and the Structural Film by Gabrielle Jutz, accompanying the DVD, centers on structural’s film implicit critique of the narrative syntax, countering its techniques for creating meaning by tearing apart the temporal continuity and reducing the preponderence of meaning in favour of the study of form. Therefore, each film will have its own individual pattern and instead of being merely a “window to the world”, as André Bazin describes it, film will become an expression of itself. If the primary function of the photographic medium was seen as a reproduction of an exterior or prior event, structural film will place emphasis on the image as image – the significance of the represented object is undermined as the image is relieved of its representational function. In addition to Gabrielle Jutz’s text, the brochure also encloses extracts from interviews with the filmmaker, conducted by Hans Scheugl, that supply further depth into the particularities of each film – for example, the gun in 1/57 Versuch mit Synthetischem Ton (Test) was initially pointed at the author, 17/68 Grün-Rot may have been the product of a drunken experiment and 36/78 Rischart was initiated by a request for self-portrait.

The early experiment which is 1/57 Versuch mit Synthetischem Ton (Test) can be described as an initial test for the material as well as for the eye, making use of a minimum of filmed content, arranged in a stanzaic manner, thus preventing the extension of these motives into “the imaginary realm of images” and instead abandoning them in their “superficiality” [2]. The camera instantly pictures a wall, then quickly switches to the image of what appears to be a pair of scissors, in the lower left part of the screen, before slowly panning a part of a cactus. The repeated movements of the camera describe a route from the concrete to the abstract – at first glance, the objects portrayed are unrecognizable – accompanied by sound directly scratched onto the material. What is more, the sound complies to this movement – by allowing only crackling noises to fall through to the viewer, it remains unidentifiable and without reference. The film ends perfectly with the image of a gun pointing now at the audience and consecutively renouncing its threat.

31/75 Asyl / 31/75 Asylum. 16 mm, colour, silent, 8:26 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
31/75 Asyl / 31/75 Asylum. 16 mm, colour, silent, 8:26 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

2/60 48 Köpfe aus dem Szondi-Test is the first film edited by using a strict serial sequencing technique. The 48 heads of the obscure psychological experiment that is the Szondi Test are fragmented, dissevered into their constitutive parts – the camera begins by filming the mouth close-up, slowly climbing to the eyes before revealing in a fast, repetitive and rhythmic fashion the face in its entirety. Mouths, noses, eyes, hairlines and foreheads are rapidly posed against each other as the constant rhythm marks a process of generalisation so often characteristic of formal concerns – the undifferentiated fragments melt into each other, transformed into the vague, undefined features of an abstract figure. Because the film is the result of a metric assemblage of still frames, it is directed solely at its own inner logic, redefining itself as rooted in the materiality of the photographic medium.

The embodiment of a structural concept in film seems to be entirely accomplished with a study of bare tree tops against a pure, white background, the resulted contrast lending the fleeting images a quivering, abstract quality and, even more so, a disquieting tone that is only accentuated by sound. 3/60 Bäume im Herbst can be understood as describing two opposite directions – visually, it enacts a conversion of the concrete into abstraction (placing the tree tops against a white background acts like a disruptive force, rupturing any connection with referentiality), while the sound appears to follow the opposite path. As the soundtrack was painted onto the film using ink, it starts off as something abstract that further on gains referentiality and becomes recognizable as thunder. Moreover, the two contrasting movements complement each other and provide the film with a trembling quality.

In 4/61 Mauern Pos.Neg. und Weg slides portraying different surfaces of a wall that has been eroded by time overlap, creating the impression of a moving relief of an ambiguous nature. Like two eyes, positive and negative versions of the image follow each other closely and quickly, their combination creating the illusion of movement. As this part of the film reveals itself to be a rendition of a wall, representing two-dimensionality, intercuts of an external image of a park appear on the screen as if to create a contrast between the two. However, the reference to the outer world only gains depth and spatial dimension through the rapid movements of the people within it. Therefore, it appears as if the meaning of the film lies in its inquiry of movement with regard to spatial depth, in its thesis that “it is motion first of all which allows space to develop, to become important as well as habitable” [3].

5/62 Fenstergucker, Abfall etc. / 5/62 People Looking Out of the Window, Trash etc. 16 mm, colour, silent, 4:48 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
5/62 Fenstergucker, Abfall etc. / 5/62 People Looking Out of the Window, Trash etc. 16 mm, colour, silent, 4:48 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

5/62 Fenstergucker, Abfall, etc… is the first film in which the expressive possibilities of structural film are, if not intentionally explored, at least hinted at. The film interweaves images of window lookers with those of the passers-by who are presumably being looked at, while also intersecting them with images of filmed garbage and positive and negative pictures of the moon. Firstly, the camera’s gaze is used by Kren to transform those who look into subjects who are being looked at. The film both starts and ends with people sitting patiently on their elbows at the window, above the seemingly daily meandering of passers-by who are only represented through fragments of their bodies, giving off a sense of depersonalization; meanwhile, the filmed scenes of garbage on which the camera appears to linger on bring that which is rejected back into view. The film quickly becomes an allegory of society, reacting against its persecutory nature. It also appears as proof that regardless of the strict mathematical stucture of the montage, the images used are in no way neutral, nor innocent or simply convenient. Although the film has no narrative intention and its montage technique intentionally rejects any sort of emotional expressiveness, the images speak together in such a way that they allow meaning to seep through. Furthermore, the rhythm of the film alternates between a slow and rapid succession of images, creating a breathing pattern of the film itself. For this particular one, Kren created a golden ratio of editing rhythm, bringing together frames of different lenghts based on a formal calculation: each duration of the frame is determined by adding the length of the two previous frames. Needless to say, 5/62 Fenstergucker, Abfall etc… stands as a testimony for the new expressive possibilities that the strict mathematical system can give rise to.

In 11/65 Bild Helga Phillipp Kren assembles filmed sections from a painting by the Op artist Helga Philipp, weaving them together in such a way that creates an optical illusion. The re-working of the artist’s painting creates the abstraction of an abstraction, surveying the painting and submerging the viewer into an illusory experience intended as such. On the other hand, 15/67 TV acts in a manner encountered nowhere else in Kren’s filmography. The film entails a reflexive attitude on the part of the viewer whose role is no longer that of a mere passive spectator – for once the viewer is not confronted by the abstract, hermetic outcome of a structural editing or montage technique, but by the process itself, displayed in all honesty. However, the significance of the film lies not in its use of a mathematical structure, but in this active participation of the viewer summoned to decipher the structure. As such, the film consists of 21 different situations that are all variables of the original five shots filmed one afternoon in a Venetian café. The shots, filmed from the same perspective, interact as if they were variants of each other. In the first shot the camera extends its view past the people sitting in the café, their figures only visible as black silhouttes obstructing the view, to the three girls on the pier – two of them are sitting on a wharf post while the other is standing next to them. The second shot can be described as a clear variation of the first as the girls are this time positioned differently: two are sitting in line next to each other on the wharf post, while the third is now standing in front of them, but on the opposite side. The third shot introduces between the two girls sitting on the wharf post and the people in the café a woman and a child passing by, followed by an obstruction of the view by a man in the café leaning forward, superseding any spatial depth of the image. Meanwhile, in the fourth shot, the image shows a crane slowly passing on the water – this crane extends the camera’s view past the girls on the wharf post, allowing the image to gain another spatial dimension. Finally, the fifth shot reveals a single, lonely girl sitting on the wharf post, while between her and the people in the café a man with a child passes by, this time in the opposite direction to the passers-by in the third shot. The action and the gestures of those portrayed complement each other, allowing the shots to communicate, while also suggesting an attempt at the construction of the narrative (it is the only film to come even close to presenting some sort of narrative content), each of the 21 situations offering a possible storyline. Furthermore, each shot and situation is distinguished by the use of a black screen as a pause between them – a shorter pause between the individual shots and a longer one separating the situations – acting as puctuation for the rhythm of the film. It is worth mentioning that the symmetry of the film (the only two situations containing all five shots begin and end the film: while the first introduces and institutes the order of the shots, the last repeats them in reverse order) allows each shot to be an equivalent replacement for another.

20/68 Schatzi / 20/68 Schatzi. 16 mm, b/w, silent, 2:29 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
20/68 Schatzi / 20/68 Schatzi. 16 mm, b/w, silent, 2:29 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

17/68 Grün-rot, shot over the course of several days, absorbs the figurative in the non-figurative, as the camera surveys an item so closely that it becomes unidentifiable, documenting the object’s progressive submersion into light and the alteration of its original green nuance into the more reddish hue emitted by the sunlight. 20/68 Schatzi, the ensuing adaptation of a photograph, opens with negative and positive superimpositions of the image, creating a blurry and abstract animation of the photo in severed sequences, divided by short pauses of a black screen, as if allowing the viewer to catch his breath and then repeat his attempted discovery of the truth of the animation. Nevertheless, as the image slowly clarifies, it reveals itself to be the testimony of an intolerable truth, thus defining the image as “an inscription of the real” [4], bearing the figure of an SS soldier surveying a field of corpses. Immediately, a second wave of superimpositions proceeds, acting as a test to verify the validity of such a claim and its disproportion to the unbearable reality portrayed – the image proves to be only an image, while the slow process of recognition it entails leaves room for the inscription of a guilty familiarity.

The continuous portrait of Hans-Peter Kochenrath is employed in 28/73 Zeitaufnahme(n) as an illustrative force that describes the moulding of time and space by the perception of the camera – the focus of the camera lens, along with its position (maintaining or altering the point of view) interact and give rise to the spatial field of the film. Thus, time and space are redefined as functions of the filming apparatus – the steady or sometimes vibrant head of Kochenrath stands as a representation of the relations between space and time as instituted by the viewing of the film and the shooting process. This representation doesn’t overlap or come across as an expression of a generalized, pre-existent perception, but instead “the films are acts of perception taking place under particular constraints of procedure and medium – acts of film-perception.” [5] These procedures of time and space accumulate and act upon the original object, altering it so that it becomes a truly different object.

3/60 Bäume im Herbst / 3/60 Trees in Autumn. 16 mm, b/w, 5:03 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
3/60 Bäume im Herbst / 3/60 Trees in Autumn. 16 mm, b/w, 5:03 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

In 31/75 Asyl Kren places a camera in front of his window, documenting the changes in landscape over the course of 21 days while also impairing the view of camera lens by covering it with a mask which has gaps cut out. The position of these gaps is changed every day, allowing the exposure of the same roll of film, on different portions, every day. The resulting image will be a condensed portrayal of those 21 days, revealing their inherent temporality at once, in a single image. The film is slow paced, melancholic as all we get are mere dissevered glimpses of reality – the screen slowly fills with patches of images that represent the same space at different times (sometimes snowy, sometimes rainy and at other times showing a sunny and green landscape) and construct an entangled reality. Even more so, the erosion of the scenery’s integrity along with the pulling apart of any temporal continuity and a complete disinterest in coherence reconstruct reality into a mosaic picture which can easily be taken as being the embodiment of an alienated perception. Breaking the world into pieces allows it to lose a part of its significance and transforms it into an incomprehensible, dissociated landscape, an unrecognizable Saarland and a corroded home. Discontinuity, gaps, leaps in time and the shattering of the visual space make for an inability to fuse meaning – perhaps a case of alienation at its best. More and more, the structural aspect of the film makes way for new expressive possibilities, progressively shifting the focus towards a poetic cinema. Thus, 32/76 An W + B can be described as being a poetic account of the passage between the interiority of the camera and the exteriority of the reality it aims to portray – as the camera swings between a close-up and a distant view, it remakes the passage from an exterior reality to an inner reproduction, the gaze of the camera swinging back and forth from subjective to objective. In addition, this passage to interiority is perfectly suggested by the superimposition of the actual filmed scene with a negative reproduction of the view. The filmmaker’s superimposed self-portrait(s), 36/78 Rischart, give the sense of an intangible self as Kren’s figure is fading in and out of the picture, almost dissolving, therefore resulting in an insecure self-portrait that is unable to hold on to/capture its subject. The overlapping of the images gives way for a trembling, poetic quality of the film, ambushing the viewer with what appears to be fleeting personas, slipping by one after another.

37/78 Tree Again suprises through an exquisite poetic rendering of the passing of time, from summer to autumn, while maintaining the same perspective on the scenery – a tree surrounded by bushes on a field. Kren filmed it all on a single roll of already expired highly sensitive infra-red color film and did not expect much out of the whole experience. And yet, the result is an astounding piece, which records and details the process of change through the rapid succession of different atmospheres evoked by changes in color – it submerges the landscape into a blue nuance with flashing strikes of yellow, lighting up the whole scene before a quick immersion into a dark reddish hue that creates the impression of a vibrant natural landscape. The film is also punctuated by the rapid movements of clouds, adding depth to the scene. The stillness of the last frame only reinforces the grandeur of the previous succession of time units, offering the chance to reconsider the apparent contrast between the two. 38/79 Sentimental Punk is the product of an evening spent at a San Francisco punk festival where Kren took 36 photographs on slide film, inserted them in a slide projector once he got home and then took out the lens and started filming the slides directly from the projector. The result is an uncanny, overexposed piecing together of a part of the festival, giving way to a feeling of alienation, isolation and a disassociation from the outside world. The people socializing at the festival are only recognizable as such due to the patches of color that come from their garments. The repetitive and rapid succession of images ends with the image of an isolated house in the woods, followed by a glimpse of a yellowish, overexposed interior.

37/78 Tree again / 37/78 Tree again. 16 mm, colour, silent, 3:46 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
37/78 Tree again / 37/78 Tree again. 16 mm, colour, silent, 3:46 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Wrapping up the DVD, 49/95 tausendjahrekino doubles back the gaze of the camera upon its objective lens by portraying a plenitude of tourists shown supplementing their sight with a filming apparatus in an accustomed attempt to substitute their own subjective, unverifiable gaze with that of the objective, testimonial lens of the camera. The parade of tourists taking photographs or filming is augmented by the soundtrack, excerpts taken from Peter Lorre’s film Der Verlorene”. Now, while Kren refuses any intentional connection between film passages and the material recorded, the grating of the two aspects unfolds another dimension in which the visual is set against voice and even text, as one of the lines from the layed over text reads „I have seen these eyes before[6]. The visual enumeration of tourists ends abruptly, disclosing the object of their gaze as being Vienna’s St. Stephan Cathedral. The filmmaker’s camera slowly reveals it as if it were about to do (or not) justice to the collective furor of the tourists. Notwithstanding,  49/95 tausendjahrekino quickly gains the dimension of “a small utopia, a witness for the explosive power of the medium set against the framework of a hundred or a thousand years of (hi)stories.” [7]

49/95 tausendjahrekino / 49/95 thousandyearsofcinema. 16 mm, colour, 2:40 min. Produced as part of the hundertjahrekino project. 35 mm for theatrical use. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
49/95 tausendjahrekino / 49/95 thousandyearsofcinema. 16 mm, colour, 2:40 min. Produced as part of the hundertjahrekino project. 35 mm for theatrical use. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

The apparition of structural films is preceded by a social critique that targeted language as a system of domination, a system which was also implemented in the screen in the form of the narrative syntax. If in the Actionist films, the artists’ critique of society is transferred to the perception of the screen, in the structural film this same critique is applied through a decomposition of temporal and spatial coherence, through repetition and through the rendition of a fragmented reality. The two DVDs perfectly complement each other: the grotesque portrayal of family values used for exposing their inherent violence is here transferred to the disintegration of the narrative syntax, unveiling the constitutive schizophrenia of narrativity. Also, the image shown on film is indebted to the filmic apparatus which is inscribed in the resulting product. Kurt Kren’s structural films describe the image as autonomous from the reality it was supposed to represent. And far from seeking any purity of form, Kren concerns himself precisely with this liberation of the filmic medium, first by creating films devoid of any referential content, and then by revealing the inscription of the cinematic apparatus. This return to materiality and its underlying mechanism should only become increasingly relevant with the apparition of the digital medium offering new territories and new possibilities for the exploration of the same questions posed by Kren’s work: the construction of meaning, the relantionship between image and sound, the film’s rhythm, the systems of representation, the rendition of space and the particular perception of the camera that reinvents its object. There is a continuity between the early experiments on film in the 1950s and the contemporary art scene in terms of the themes portrayed. Kren’s invention of structural film gave rise to an entire generation of filmmakers, expanding the territory of the medium by focusing on the technical aspects and the general prerequisites for constructing the image. By beginning a series of DVDs illustrating the history of Austrian experimental film with Kren’s Actionist and Structural works, INDEX creates a space of interaction between the early experiments and the contemporary ones, a space especially relevant with the current translation of expression from analog film to the digital medium.

 

Additional Reading:

Regina Cornwell, The Other Side: European Avant-Garde Cinema 1960-1980, published by Amer Federation of Arts, 1983.

Gabrielle Jutz, “The Poetics of Time – Kurt Kren and the Structural Film” (accompanying the DVD Kurt Kren Structural Films)

Stefan Grissemann, “Fundamental Punk. On Kurt Kren’s Universal Cinema”, in Film Unframed. A History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema, edited by Peter Tscherkassky, FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationem, a book by sixpackfilm, Vienna, 2012.

Barbara Pichler, “Avant-Garde Now. Notes on Contemporary Film Art”, in Film Unframed. A History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema, edited by Peter Tscherkassky, FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationem, a book by sixpackfilm, Vienna, 2012.

Peter Tscherkassky, “Ground Survey. An Initial Mapping of an Expanding Territory”, in Film Unframed. A History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema, edited by Peter Tscherkassky, FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationem, a book by sixpackfilm, Vienna, 2012.

Peter Tscherkassky, “The Framework of Modernity. Some concluding remarks on cinema and modernism”, in Film Unframed. A History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema, edited by Peter Tscherkassky, FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationem, a book by sixpackfilm, Vienna, 2012.

Hans Scheugl: “Die Filme. Eine kommentierte Filmographie,” in Ex Underground Kurt Kren: Seine Filme, edited By Hans Scheugl, published by PVS Verleger, Vienna 1996.

15/67 TV / 15/67 TV. 16 mm, b/w, silent, 4:08 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
15/67 TV / 15/67 TV. 16 mm, b/w, silent, 4:08 min. Image courtesy of INDEX. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
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