Facts & Fiction
A catalogue published to accompany a presentation of Michael Brynntrup's work at New York's Museum of Modern Art, gives on its last page the artist's biography: "1959 born in Munster, Westphalia. Identical twin brother stillborn. Since then studies in Philosophy (History of Art and Law). The artist lives and works..." In Michael Brynntrup's 21 minute film Die Statik der Eselsbrucken a similar resume, though in extended form, is a recurring feature: "My name is Michael Brynntrup. I was born on February 7, 1959," states the face below a blonde pageboy cut. He appears in the upper right hand corner of the screen, peeping out over large testcard images full of abstract symbols, not unlike an announcer from the early days of television. The head then exits with a written/spoken, "Have a nice evening" followed by a forced grin. A moment later, after a loudspeaker announcement "Attention! Attention! You are now going to see a film by [short break as if he could not remember his name] Michael Brynntrup." Next the resume is depicted in symbolic images, with the flow of words continuing in parallel. Brynntrup appears now in swimming trunks and bathing cap, runs with striding steps to the left, as if back into time. Again, there is talk of the death of his identical twin brother at birth. Again his birthplace is announced. But soon the facts of the two versions begin to drift. The resume continues via Brynntrup, who in the manner of a good schoolboy, narrates the first tentative trials of the aspiring super-8 filmmaker but then goes on about his talent to ventriloquize, his Herpes attack in 1976, and a "patent to apply oxide-free enamel in the xerographic process," complete with registration number. Between what seem to be the common fragments of a published biography, there erupt other segments which appear inappropriate, irrelevant, or out of context. This is hilarious--and rather disturbing. Events easily accepted as truth clash with others patently fabricated.
Real life as the essence of true life. The filmmaker Michael Brynntrup does not intend to bare his soul to us that freely. Yet Die Statik is an uninhibitedly personal film. The narcissistic self-presentation of the artist, which has been criticized in so many experimental films, is here driven to its excessive extreme. We see just one actor, hear a single voice, and only one person is in charge of everything: Michael Brynntrup. The film encircles him, investigates, closes in on him, strips him, presents him even in a person's most vulnerable state: asleep. Without question this is a personal film. Is it exhibitionist? Yes. Narcissistic? Sometimes. Hermetic? Never. As complicated as relations within this film may sometimes be, its language is overt and easily understood, offering sophistication and playfulness rather than the heavy weight of inner visions.
Fact & Fiction 2
The film begins with an announcement, the blond pageboy speaks from the upper left hand corner of the screen. Once finished, the speaker removes his wig and presents himself in a simple swimming cap. Then, in meticulously scribbled block letters, appears the statement (arriving too late at the end of so many feature films): "Any similarity to persons living or dead is coincidental and unintended." This sounds like a nice, but nevertheless rather formal doodle. But cut to a medium close-up of the swimmer dressed now in waistcoat and tie. "Actually, I myself look quite differently." Right, but wrong at the same time. Certainly the three-dimensional lived reality of MB must look quite differently from his black and white image on this strip of film projected onto the screen. And did we not see him just a moment ago in a completely different outfit? What about his "true" appearance? And who is it, after all, that is speaking? During the film MB casts himself in a wide range of masks and disguises. Though his massive oval head, his strangely smiling, almost satanic face, his intense staring eyes are unmistakably the same--even when hidden behind beauty spots and artificial curls. The other, but also himself. A person is being introduced and undergoes a process of dissolution, yet, in this process, gains a bodily presence that cannot be overseen.
In its fractured presentation of the biographical, Die Statik plays with familiar forms of biography ranging from palm reading to genetics. How can a single life be defined? MB maps out sequences, simulating "objective" attempts at description, parallel to the "subjective" life story. These could be called test-runs, sequences that seem to develop independently, artificially linked with subtitles, headlines and insertions, some of them serially numbered. Series of signs, notions, glimpses. Sequences of images and associations that form variable chains of meaning, doing and undoing.
Example: The lifeline appears first as a row of letters, then the image of a palm, cut across by a knife making an incision. This palm later becomes the object of a palm-reader's interpretative attempt. Later the hand is laid down over a manual photocopier before it runs through a maze as a hand-drawn line.
Die Statik der Eselsbrücken has been shot in super-8 and 16mm black and white. Some already existing material was used, then copied, processed, edited and crafted, until the present 16mm version was achieved. The material shows some traces of this process--the film doesn't look new, but neither does it appear to have been artificially aged. It holds the appeal of craftsmanship, of something put together over many hours by hand.
Most of its sequences are recurrent (some identical, most in variation), which might be best approximated by a linguistic term: semes, the smallest units signifying meaning. Sequences of signs and letters, small drawings, sometimes ready-made, sometimes scribbled onto folio in front of the camera in a way that makes them appear as if drawn directly onto the film. A reaper of death appears in simple, hand-drawn fashion, sometimes alone or in pairs, or as a tattoo on skin. MB's body and head with birthmarks (real and false, numbered and unnumbered), a cheering baroque face beneath a curly wig. The man in the testcards, testcards all over, fingerprints and--again and again--labyrinths, mazes, jigsaw structures. Sometimes the soundtrack repeats what's been written, sometimes it deviates. Otherwise we hear: commentary, the resume presentation, repeated and distorted as a babble of voices; repeated bravos and applause, and the only musical element: the tender eerie chimes of a carillon.
The film gathers its subject according to different subsets. Criminology: fingerprints, birthmarks, teeth. Descent: egg, inherited features, parents, birthmarks again. Interpretative methods: palm-reading, sleep-analysis. Science: "Their drawings demonstrate that animation artists knew secrets similar to 'morphing' long before it was discovered by the film industry as the ultimate gadget. They also knew that it had to be used in small doses, if it was to sustain its effectiveness." Uttering these words, the blonde page boy mutates into horrific contortions, time and again skulls bursting out.
A plethora of aspects and fragments of the character MB is collected and connected in this way. The result is an exciting film, but by no means the portrait of a man. It may be likened to the attempt to grasp a small lump of soil with a sieve whose grid is too large. Either it falls through or dissolves into details. As the biography fails to get a grip on human life, so, too, do the simulated attempts of an objective research.
But some things remain. In one place, obviously, it's the film itself, the artificial product of one person's imagination, multi-faceted and fractured as it may be. But there is something else: in between the different tests and experiments, on the surface of the body, which has been cut and marked like the film. (Rendered literally beneath the title AIDS/GEN/TEST. A bloodtest is taken and the thumb's puncture is accompanied by a written and spoken "Ouch!") It is in Michael Brynntrup's presence, in the faces, the twisted grimaces, the contortions, where the human being (re)appears: as a grinning but suffering one, agonized.
Lebenslauf / Dance Macabre
The caption "Lebenslauf" announces at its beginning, the following visual and acoustic life story: Above and below the letters of the word a hand draws two reapers, which, together with the chimes of a music box narrate a dance of death reminiscent of Baroque Catholicism. A slim young man in striped swimming trunks and cap runs forward with a megaphone, from time to time glancing to us with a weird smile, waving his hand. He is followed by his own shadow, printed together now with its own negative which lags just slightly behind, announcing a menacing figure of Death. Frightened but composed, the runner seems to look forward into the future, his smile and waving gestures like desperate and diabolical farewell gestures. Life is running on, death goes with it.
In many of Brynntrup's earlier films death has been a major preoccupation. Between 1989 and 1993 he worked on a series of short films entitled Der Elephant Aus Elfenbein (The Ivory Elephant, 45 min 1988-93)--that explore the question of death. But in all cases, even without being explicitly addressed, his films oppose the temporal flow of time with an existential movement forward into oblivion. This is far from puritanical moralizing: sensuality and mortality, beauty, wit, mortal agony, and death fantasies are combined and contrasted in macabre scenes and drastic associations. In his obsession with skeletons and the uncanny accessories of death, Brynntrup takes up traditions present in Catholic culture, traditions that have found their liveliest expression in the European Baroque, but remain alive in parts of southern Europe and Latin America.
During the past decade AIDS has made death a daily reality. This catastrophe has moved Brynntrup to confront death in a less macabre, but nonetheless direct fashion. Best and latest example is Aide Memoire--ein schwules Gedachtnisprotkoll from 1995, the portrait of the filmmaker's friend Jurgen Baldiga, a Berlin photographer, who died of the virus in 1993. Aide Memoire is a disturbingly private, unpretentious 16 minute video shot in home-movie style. It remains, as the filmer puts it, "a personal investigation of how to deal with images of life and death."
Rests and Tests of Prototype Research
MB loves playing with words. Rests and Tests of Prototype Research is one of the additional titles he gave to his film. It is a film about the possibilities of biographical circumspection through the description of partial aspects. But it also deals with the question of objective knowledge in general. MB approaches this question by undergoing--in his own medium, the film--an experiment on himself. The film is his laboratory, the camera and editing table his instruments. So in this case, experimental film develops into a real experiment, questioning the notion of the experimental, and at its heart, that of knowledge itself.
Decades ago, the surrealist Andre Breton had asked for a series of photographs "which depict in a sequence some of the positions as they are assumed by a sleeper in one night. It would be desirable to film these movements without interruption and then project them in rapidly accelerated rhythm." Whether MB knew of Breton's desire is irrelevant. He realized it and transposed it in fascinating pictures.
MB filmed himself with two cameras from different angles. One shows the negative picture of a sleeping man in embryonic position, with his erect sex clearly visible, a beautiful, peaceful and subtly erotic picture. The other: the camera looking from overhead. Then both pictures were copied onto each other, with slightly displaced synchronization. With it the sound of the sleeper breathing and later some fragments of (pseudo-dreamed?) biography. About six hours of sleep condensed and drawn together in time. The result: two minutes. This is also an experiment. And as if to provide evidence that it really has taken place, there is the record of an alarm clock running next to the bed.
An Optical Disillusion
"An Optical Disillusion" MB has called his film in another additional subtitle. Who or what is disappointed here? The audience? The filmmaker himself, in search for his own self, discovering mere fragments? Or is it our perception of reality, which assumes a homogenous, comprehensive world? Avant-garde film has customarily been described as something which denies existing reality. But in questioning the nature of natural forms, in showing the biases and contradictions of its litany of epistemologies, Die Statik unwraps the construction site of the real, the truth machines of language. Again and again, "voice-tests," "vision-tests," and "synchronization tests" are inserted. In his experiments in film and biography, MB lays conventional forms of narration under siege, while exploring other, rarely chosen paths to approach reality. The results are at once disillusioning and comforting. While the notion of an essential self is lost, we find something different and extremely artificial: the highly complex organization of a work of art--and a personal artistic imagination, attached to a mortal and everchanging body.
Towards the end of the film the camera draws close to a fingerprint which dissolves into rough halftone dots, only to grow into another jigsaw puzzle. Accompanied by the sound of the chimes (again) a hand (again) draws onto one of its small pieces a little man, fills him in until all that remains is a skeleton. It flickers into negative, seen against the picture of a hand. "The End" is stated, but then, for a last time, some of the key elements of the film are brought together in a slow, almost breathlessly fading final image, approaching apotheosis: the applauding man, the runner, and his shadows. And then, finally, a beautifully ironic gesture: in the last take MB puts his signature onto the film. Anno domini 1990. In finest copybook writing.
(Silvia Hallensleben, "Die Statik der Eselsbrucken: An Experiment in Experimental Film",
printed in Millenium Film Journal N°30/31: Deutschland / Interviews, New York, Fall 1997)