monografischer Artikel | monographic review

"Situating the Self: Visceral Experience and Anxiety
in the German Non-fictional Autobiographical Film"
(excerpt on the diary films by Michael Brynntrup)
by Robin Curtis

Michael Brynntrup's oeuvre is filled with films that could be considered autobiographical. Only three will be considered more closely here: »Tabu I-IV«, »Tabu V« and »Loverfilm«, all of which investigate the relationship between mortality and the observation of the passage of time suggested by the diary form. An impassioned keeper of a written diary since 1978, Brynntrup examines these documents in the former two works. Throughout both films the act of recording the present that is performed by the filmic apparatus is compared to the possibilities offered by the human body. Most explicitly these are contrasted in the filmic images shot over Brynntrup's shoulder as he draws a replica of the material visible in the very same shot. Looking like something between a cartoon and a story board, the image drawn by Brynntrup, thus created, would suggest that it is the hand of the artist that defines both what is visible at any given moment and indeed what is to come, since the images in the individual frames drawn on the page are anticipatory, describing the film's next few shots. However, while a written diary promises a detailed overview of the events and sentiments of relevance to its author, the filmic representation of Brynntrup's thousands of pages of diary offered in »Tabu I-IV« obscures the content of those pages. This is achieved either by revealing the individual pages of the diary at such a distance from the camera and edited together so rapidly, that the viewer cannot hope to read them, or by layering so many individual versions of Brynntrup's voice reading the content of those pages, that a cacophony results. Certain select events are given more attention in the film, such as the films which Brynntrup made in the years covered by the diaries, or the major operation which he underwent in 1980, which seems to have been a visceral marker of particular significance in his life; the material which he has saved from the time of that operation, during the time spent in the intensive care unit of the hospital, reappears throughout both films (such as the document produced by the heart monitor, or Brynntrup's writings from that period recalling the pain and fear he felt).

Both Tabu films open with a philosophical quotation. In the case of the earlier film, »Tabu I-IV«, Brynntrup reads the following, which is attributed to Hegel's Phänomenologie des Geistes,

"Es wird das jetzt gezeigt. Dieses jetzt Jetzt es hat schon aufgehört zu sein, indem es gezeigt wird. Das jetzt das ist, ist ein anderes als das gezeigte. Das jetzt wie es sonst gezeigt ist ein gewesenes und dieses ist seine Wahrheit." [190]
Directly following this quotation Brynntrup introduces himself and his most current diary in which he proceeds to draw the event of filming at that precise moment, in the shot that I described above. While this image would seem to address the notion of the present moment in keeping with the quotation that preceded it, it also introduces the competition that is fought between Brynntrup as the fragile body, the locus of experience and the film apparatus for the upper hand in these films. This struggle becomes particularly acute in the film's closing moments when several variations on an ending are played through, with Brynntrup saying each time, "so, oder so ähnlich, könnte der Film enden." [191] But who decides? One such variation lays out the final credits of the film within the pages of the diary. Yet it seems that the film gains the upper hand over the hand of the keeper of the diary: the ending which is the final one in this film is a typically filmic version of those same credits, with red letters on a black background. The voice of the filmmaker, however, would seem to get the last laugh, both in that he calls out "...enden!" in a somewhat exasperated tone just before the final credits come on screen, and in that after the credits have disappeared he finally states, "es ist jetzt genau 28 Minuten später. Vielen Dank für Ihr Interesse." [192] I am not suggesting that the filmmaker's voice is actually present; it is, of course as much a product of the filmic apparatus as the image. The film however explicitly stages the conflict between the filmmaker as an empirical author and the film as a mechanical apparatus.

This conflict is intensified in Brynntrup's next two diary films. »Tabu V« begins with a bastardized form of Wittgenstein's aphorism, "wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber kann man Filme machen." [193] While the »Tabu I-IV« focuses almost exclusively on either the comparison of still images within the diaries or on the drawings which the hand present in the frame of the image completes, »Tabu V« primarily offers clips from films, documenting either the making of various other films or events in Brynntrup's life, such as the getting of a tattoo, or the compilation of his own "sex statistics," which will prove to be research for the final film under examination here, »Loverfilm«. Made visible in the form of endless lists of names on a computer screen, the voice-over points out that despite the effort to keep minute records of every lover, no recollection whatsoever of the particular quality of the sexual experience with the majority of those names remains. Directly following this observation the film reintroduces the material documenting the operation already covered in »Tabu I-IV«, contrasting the retention of the visceral quality of that experience with the loss of such memories with regards to the sexual partners, suggesting that such precise record-keeping does not ensure the retention of affect.

Again, the ending of the film is particularly significant with regards to the competition between mechanical apparatus and empirical artist, as a mortal entity. Following the introduction of the word "Ende" the following individual shots are alternated with the jagged lines produced by a heart monitor that typically indicates that the heart of the patient is still beating: Wittgenstein's aphorism is reproduced in its proper form, however divided into two halves. The first half, "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann..., is followed by the image from »Tabu I-IV« in which the story-board like images depict what is to come. This image in turn is followed by a film of Brynntrup's hand drawing those images, a further heartbeat, and then the second half of the quotation from Wittgenstein: "darüber muss man schweigen." [194] The next image is once again a drawing, which represents an overview of the situation in which the drawing of the story-board was made: a figure is seated at the table, a telephone at his right hand, the four diaries before him, a model of a human body human at the upper left corner of the desk, film lights on either side of him, anticipating the position of the camera in the shot which is to be the final image of the film. Again a heartbeat separates the two. Finally there a film image of Brynntrup seated at that same desk shows him closing the diary and saying, "So!" (or, "There!). The alternation between these mechanical representations of human life (the film images, the heart monitor) with those drawn by the human hand suggests a fundamental helplessness represented at the heart of this film: is it possible to reproduce human experience in filmic form? Does it aid in the recollection of affect?

Finally in »Loverfilm« the contrast between the impersonal structure of the diary, and its calendar-like insistence on the passage of time and the human experience recorded in it is most tangible. In that film Brynntrup names all his lovers and the date of their contact in chronological order from 1978 to the present (1996). The computer database that was already visible in »Tabu V« plays an even more prominent role in this later film, listing names, dates and special attributes of each individual. A photo accompanies the pronouncement of each name by the voice-over, although it is not clear whether the photo represents the person in question. Indeed, many photos appear to be blatantly drawn from other sources, such as clips from gay porn. The voice-over states,

"Das Bildmaterial zu diesem Film ist rein zufällig und im anderen Zusammenhang entstanden. Das Bildmaterial stammt aus meinem privaten Archiv. Die Bilder habe ich entweder selbst gemacht oder öffentlichen Medien entnommen. Einige Bilder habe ich als persönliche Erinnerung von den abgebildeten Personen selbst erhalten. Den abgebildeten Personen ist die Verwendung des Bildmaterials in diesem Zusammenhang weder bekannt, noch von Ihnen genehmigt worden." [194]
»Loverfilm« has a much more clinical quality than either of the two other diary films; while it describes the most intimate version of a curriculum vitae it also quickly recalls the praxis of listing one's sexual partners when one is diagnosed as HIV positive. Indeed, cryptically, the voice-over states at one point in 1989: "20. August. Noch bin ich negativ." [196] Thus, passages from the diaries, describing the trials and tribulations of particular relationships are contrasted with the imperatives of the medical discourse that views each individual with respect to the AIDS virus, in the language of epidemic modelling, simply as an "infected," "susceptible" or "dead." Despite its clinical tone, »Loverfilm« is the most poignant of the three diary films. It signals an acute awareness of just how quickly time flies, condensing 18 years of love and sex into 22 minutes. Furthermore, the film's soundtrack, which offers a similar overview of popular music in those years, combined with the changing hair and clothes styles documented by each of the private images of individual faces acquires a melancholy quality; these images presented in this form relegate our contemporaries to the archive.

(Situating the Self: Visceral Experience and Anxiety in the German Non-fictional Autobiographical Film, Dissertation, 2003 - Robin Curtis)
(Robin Curtis. Conscientious Viscerality: The Autobiographical Stance in German Film and Video. Berlin/Emsdetten: Edition Imorde, 2006.)

[190] "The present moment is currently being demonstrated. This present moment. Now it has already stopped being that moment, in that that moment is being demonstrated. The moment that is now, is different from the one that is being demonstrated. The present moment as it is otherwise shown is a past moment and this is the truth of that matter." [my translation]
[191] "In this, or a similar fashion, the film could end." [my translation]
[192] "It is now 28 minutes later. Thanks for your interest." [my translation]
[193] "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one can make films."
[194] "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent"
[195] "The visual material in this film was created by coincidence and for other purposes. The visual material comes from my own private archive. I either made these images myself or received them from the person depicted as a souvenir. The persons depicted have no knowledge of the use of these images in this connection, nor has it been approved by them." [my translation]
[196] "August 20, I'm still negative." [my translation]


monografischer Artikel | monographic review
Cristina Nord, "Einblicke ohne Offenbarung", die tageszeitung, Berlin, 31.10.98
TV - Interview | TV - interview
Tim Lienhard, Interview Auszug zum »LOVERFILM« am 07.02.97,
WDR 3 'KULTURSCENE', TV-Sendung vom 16.02.97
Interview | interview
Steff Ulbrich, interview with MB, excerpt on »TABU I-IV«, printed in:
BERLIN - Images in Progress, Contemporary Berlin Filmmaking, Buffalo, 1989

Interview | interview
Steff Ulbrich, Interview mit MB, Auszug zu »TABU I-IV«, translated and printed in: BERLIN - Images in Progress, Contemporary Berlin Filmmaking, Buffalo, 1989