Ruin films are a genre/category as yet unknown in the history of cinema; but they should be, for there are quite a few of them, and they do as a group define/describe all of the cinematic art’s poetry, perils and peculiarities in a most apt way: against the grain.
Ruin films are works that weren’t finished as planned for reasons including political malevolence/expediency (e.g. Sea of Lost Time, 2019, Gurvinder Singh); the death of key creative personnel (e.g. Dark Blood, 1993-2012, George Sluizer); a director’s whim (Le Psychodrame, 1956-2018, Roberto Rossellini); or whatever else man and fate had in stock to disrupt the quiet flow of things – but which nevertheless were eventually knocked into some presentable and distributable shape.
Quite a few of these films – not only those here in our programme, but in general – would have been great works anyway, but the unintended ellipses, the sutures and scars of these operations, certainly add meaning(s) nobody thought about in the beginning. Pasażerka (1963, Andrzej Munk, Witold Lesiewicz) is arguably the most meaningful example of a film the greatness of which lies in its fragmentary state – in fact, when Witold Lesiewicz finished the film after Andrzej Munk died during the shooting, he seems to have left even some finished scenes unused, stressing the narrative’s fragmentary nature – here, the impossibility of making (a) (hi)story whole becomes the key point of maybe the most daring film ever made about the Holocaust. And while it’s pure speculation, the thought that the Imperial War Museum wanted to deliver something like a documentary equivalent to Pasażerka when they created German Concentration Camp Factual Survey, is intriguing – for there is already a well-rounded, finite work made from this aborted production (Frontline: Memory of the Camps, 1985); but history seemed to demand that the materials of this ill-starred undertaking had to be put into the state they were in at the moment the plug was pulled (for reasons we can only speculate about); here, a ruin film was consciously created – as a memorial.
Is woven also in our veins, our brains ?
For this reason, German Concentration Camp Factual Survey is the key to the Laboratory of Unseen Beauty programme, however jarring the title might sound in relation to the film’s subject matter: ruins are not only the results of accidents – sometimes they are the only sensible shape a film can take. Michael Glawogger understood this nature of cinema probably better than any other modern director – why else would he have made the most joyous-cum-dazzling of all ruins with Kino im Kopf (1996), a film whose essence is the unfinished and the impossible? Isn’t cinema always more about the desire to create than about what you actually can make? It’s an interesting question whether Kino im Kopf is more a paean to the human will and need to dream against all material odds, or whether it’s a sweetly ironic essay on the vanity of all arts and artists – isn’t creation invariably doomed to failure?
Especially in an art/industry that thought so little of itself that for decades it destroyed films after they had their run to recuperate the silver in the emulsion, which was deemed more valuable than the imagination and labour invested. And let’s not forget that films do autodestruct, as witnessed by works as different as the 2018 preservation DCP of Georg Kundert’s Die gekreuzigt werden (1919) and Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old (2018): the former attained a beauty apart due to bad preservation (only parts of the film survive, and those, again, have at times turned into weirdly gorgeous emulsion messes), while in the latter, emulsion damage proved that not everything can be repaired digitally, and Jackson in his genius found a way of making these blotches part of the film’s poetics.
Ruin-knowledge also makes us able to properly appreciate works that were never meant to be films: take the 2015 preservation DCP called Montage de films muets français projeté au Palais des Congrès or the 2009 The Movie Orgy – Ultimate Version. The former was an edit of some materials compiled for a single event, where it was presented in something best called a ‘performative’ screening, while the latter is all that remains of an event screening cycle where the excerpts and shorts included constantly changed, in large part depending on the wear and tear of the materials used.
Is woven like a pattern of living worms ?
With the 2015 preservation DCP of Thirty Years of Motion Pictures (The March of the Movies) and the work-in-progress presentation of Edgar Pêra’s KINORAMA – Cinema Fora de Órbita (Self-Propaganda Mix) (2019), Laboratory of Unseen Beauty found its two-volume manual on how to look back at cinema’s past and forward to a future more fragment(ed) than whole; and with Carsten Brandt’s behemoth Den milde smerte (2019) as its grand novel.
Laboratory of Unseen Beauty is dedicated to the memory of Werner Dütsch (1939-2018) and Richard Blue Lormand (1962-2018).
Photo in header: Still: Passenger