Smoke and Mirrors

The subject, as always, is the nature of German identity. Taken as a whole, Syberberg's six tapes provide a virtual excursion through his own particular reich. Three tapes record actual walks—two taken along Wilhemstrasse in central Berlin and one through the Tyrolian countryside. Three others document works of art. In Armageddon, Syberberg's camera crawls over the surface of a Hans Memling altarpiece, transforming it into a sort of apocalyptic narrative. This meditation on the world's end is, like two of the three walks, accompanied by Mozart's Requiem, and that aching beautiful piece is the subject of its own tape—the camera tracking along the score as the music is heard. (The sixth tape, which I haven't seen, is the only one with dialogue—a reading of excerpts from Kleist's Prince of Hamburg and Goethe's Faust.)

Although the tapes were evidently made to be shown simultaneously in various formats, Anthology is projecting them in pairs—thus placing a greater burden than Syberberg may have intended on their intrinsic value as film. Mozart Requiem is, of course, structurally perfect, while the bracingly straightforward Walk Onto the Mountain, in which the filmmaker hikes—panning and zooming—past picture-perfect farmhouses through the late summer woods to end with a stunning view of a misty chasm, is an equally unimpeachable concept.

The urban excursions are denser and more problematic—particularly as they are being shown as a double bill. Walter Benjamin may not be Syberberg's favorite German philosopher but the filmmaker's two strolls through the heart of once-imperial, formerly Nazi, no-longer Cold War Berlin illustrate Benjamin's mode of cultural criticism. Here, history is inscribed not just in monuments and ruins, but also in housing projects, shop facades, display windows, advertising posters, graffiti traces, street signs, and empty spaces.


The Last Cigarette
A film by Kevin Rafferty and Frank Kerauden
A New Yorker Films release
At Film Forum
Through June 22

The Cave of Memory
A video cycle by Hans-Ju rgen Syberberg
At Anthology Film Archives,
June 1113 and 1920

The eerie blandness of contemporary Berlin has inspired more than one filmmaker to imagine strolling amid the ghosts. Pausing to superimpose photos of missing parks, Syberberg strains for a phantom-zone effect that has been more forcefully evoked in Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire and the Berlin films made by American avant-gardist Ernie Gehr. The absence never becomes tangible.

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