November 21st, 2009


Stretchmarks on a rock cabbage

Krautrock - the Rebirth of Germany is a BBC4 documentary on the mystical electronic music British rock critics dubbed "Krautrock" (which is a bit like calling Alberto Camerini a "Woprocker"). Directed by Ben Whalley, the film is a companion to the one I linked the other day about UK synthpop, Synth Britannia.

Does anyone else see the influence of Adam Curtis here? The voice-over sounds a bit Curtis-like, and Whalley has a similar approach to selecting and editing clips. Whenever I think of Adam Curtis I think of the artist Luke Fowler's documentaries, which seem to have headed even further out in the same direction. Like Curtis, Fowler selects dramatic, texturally-interesting clips -- glimpses of radical sixties and seventies subcultures. Whalley does the same thing: his very short clip of Kraftwerk dancing, for instance, is masterfully placed as a glimpse that leaves you wanting more.

If documentaries move more in this direction it's not hard to imagine them employing an interesting and successful rule Fowler sets himself to keep his textures consistent, and his subjects consistently mythical: never show people as they look today. Watching these documentaries, it's hard not to be distracted by counting the lines on Iggy Pop's stomach or regretting the fact that a surviving member of Popol Vuh who looks as if he's undergoing chemotherapy is lighting up cigarettes on camera. We could say that all documentaries about cool and charismatic subcultures are doomed to a basically bathetic narrative structure (it's nature's very own bathos, but that shouldn't excuse it) when they balance young, good looking, cool people against the prunes they inevitably become. The viewer is forced into playing a constant game of Spot the Difference, rather than experiencing the full revelation of an aesthetic revolution at its peak. The end result is a sort of temporal embourgeoisement. "Don't worry," this narrative structure seems to say "we all go slack and paunchy in the end. Even the visionaries."

Then again, there is a fascination in discovering that venues which are part of past legend are also part of your regular experience. Before watching this documentary I didn't realise that the Zodiak Arts Club, a Berlin experimental arts centre founded by Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Cluster, is what I know today as HAU2, part of the Hebbel-am-Ufer theatre complex in Kreuzberg where we watched the Tokio Shibuya theatre season last month.

There are other niggling critiques you could make of the Krautrock doc. The presence of Iggy Pop and the absence of Eno, for instance, is odd. Julian Cope could usefully have popped up at some point. They could have employed a critic to sift bad records of the period from good. Kraftwerk is arguably over-familiar and part of a different genre.

Then there's the questionable scene-setting at the beginning, where footage of 1968 student disturbances in Berlin is played while the script tells us that pop music in Germany at the time was Schlager, which said nothing about "the reality of what was happening on the streets". If the documentarists are trying to set up a "Punk swept away Prog" sort of scenario, they're barking up the wrong tree. First of all, Schlager is still with us; its audience of working class Germans in kniepes doesn't overlap with the Krautrock audience at all. Secondly, Krautrock has as little relevance to urban political uprisings as Schlager has; it's a music of mystical introspection, for the most part recorded in country barns.

Grousing aside, though, this is a very interesting film, and I'd like to see BBC4 continue to employ Ben Whalley. They should also think about screening Luke Fowler's film about Cornelius Cardew, Pilgrimage from Scattered Points, though, because Fowler shows how a documentary about a visionary artist can, itself, be visionary art. It's a good deal more uplifting than counting Iggy Pop's stretchmarks.