Cast: Anton Pleva, Tini Lazar, René Schoemakers, Christoph Tannert, Lilo Wanders/Ernie Reinhardt
Running time: 27mins
It would take some film to inveigle your reviewer to listen to a 20-minute radio interview with a visual artist they had only vaguely heard of and then for me to be so transfixed by both the content of the discussion and its contextualisation within the movie to feel that I had to urgently discover more about the artist and his work. Das Kulturgespräch im Radio is indeed some movie – a breath-taking creation by writer and director, Errkaa. Errkaa blurs the genre boundaries so deftly that he manages to seamlessly blend a meditation on the philosophy and practice of the visual arts with a road movie and, wondrously, a silent movie. Errkaa’s film breaks new ground in many different ways – it redefines the concept of art documentary.
The artist featured in the radio discussion is René Schoemakers – he is in conversation with an art critic, Christoph Tannert. Schoemakers, Tannert and Errkaa are all very much part of the north German art world.
Schoemakers describes himself in the movie as a pre-modernist artist. Although possibly the artist personally would disavow the label, most critics would say that how Schoemakers works is hyperrealism. He uses traditional media, in Schoemakers case acrylic on canvas, to produce representational art that is as precise and accurate as that we are used to seeing from photography but that attempts to transcend the boundaries of what is being represented. Hyperrealist art often draws our attention to the sheer weirdness of commodities under consumer capitalism. Errkaa references this trope by the use of a plastic solar powered flamingo dashboard toy that acts as a kind of pilgrim’s badge in the road movie.
Schoemakers tells Tannert about his admiration for Northen Renaissance art. The ostensible road movie journey starts in what I think must be Hamburg and ends in Kiel – the trip takes place on an overcast autumn day – the whole piece has a very north European sensibility.
The opening shot is a stunner. A still waterway at night with a power station on the distant shore belching smoke into the sky – an ugly utilitarian structure is caught in such a light to reveal a profound beauty. Welcome to the world of hyperrealism. Dogs bark. The camera pans to a parking spot by a metal bridge – wet cobblestones. We see a white delivery van with the logo Fruits & Art on the side. A car pulls up – a man gets out, checks a manifest, and loads a box of bananas into the back of the van. The scene is so quotidian, yet Errkaa manages to play with our expectations – is this a heist in the offing? But, no, the Driver (Anton Pleva) gets his thermos flask out, sighs with ennui and lights a cigarette – they are off on their delivery round.
Pleva turns the radio on. We are treated to an opulent piece of schlager bombast from the 70s – Daliah Lavi singing Oh Wann Kommst Du? Lavi lists the days of the week and opines that they pass the days aimlessly as there is no escape from the daily grind but offers the hope that a true love will bring meaning to their world. As the terrifying banality of the music hammers in our brains we see a cityscape of industry, offices, and docks from the Driver’s view interspersed with shots of Pleva simply and expressionlessly… driving. The sequence goes on for quite a while – it is, after all, a long song – some viewers might find it hard going but the redemption here is Pleva’s screen presence. He is performing a boring routine task with no dialogue, yet his performance is so strong – we want to learn more about the character.
As the final chords of when will you come die away, we see on the pavement a woman holding a cardboard sign with KIEL written on it – the Driver stops the van. In the grey Hamburg early morning, the woman is wearing just a red silk dress – another hello to hyperrealism. We are about to meet the Hitchhiker (Tini Lazar). As Lazar climbs into the cab, on the van’s radio we hear an urbane voice bidding us welcome to this week’s episode of Culture Talk.
Against the audio backdrop of the radio show, Lazar and Pleva act out the humdrum events of the delivery driver’s round. They make a couple of deliveries, stop for a piss, fill up with fuel and take the opportunity to have a drink – then finally the hitchhiker is dropped off in Kiel. That’s it folks – that’s all that happens. Yet such is the power of both actors’ performances, we are constantly engaged with even the most mundane of their activities. This is a silent movie, the actors have no lines, yet there is no resort to mime or caricature. Expressed with grace and elegance, the actors paint a picture of two strangers coming to trust each other and to take joy in each other’s company.
The actors are aided in their work by some superb cinematography from Hannes Gorrissen – two of the compositions really stood out for me.
Taking a piss. The van halts by the grassy bank of a waterway. Lazar and Pleva walk together then split apart. We see two trees at the edges of the camera shot. Pleva takes up a position behind the tree on the left whilst Lazar does the same with the tree on the right. For an initial moment, we assume that they are separately enjoying the view over the water – then we realise that the male is standing, and the female is squatting – our assumptions are thrown in the air. The scene is a wonderful trompe-l’œil and a playful look at gender – enhanced by the way the pair walk back to the van – joyful as if they had been through some sacred healing ceremony.
Art Delivery. The Driver phones ahead to an art gallery. The Driver stops outside the gallery and takes out a huge, rolled canvas – Fruits & Art. The building the gallery is located in is a film producer’s dream – a massive concrete Nazi fortress that still towers over Hamburg. A slab of Mordor with evil slit windows. However, when Errkaa takes us inside we see the structure has a surprisingly delicate spiral staircase winding up way above our heads. The Driver meets the gallery worker – we helpfully see a sign with the rubric Art Gallery sitting on top of a Warhol banana logo.
The Driver and the Worker make the long ascent up the spirals with the weight of the load of Art on their shoulders. The director cuts to a view of the front of the building. We see that the Driver and the Worker are out on the roof. They unfurl the canvas which is in three pieces – known in the trade as a triptych. On the pieces are rather beautiful fractal nature images of waves and clouds – as the massive canvases settle on the side of the building, for a moment a gust of wind lifts them, they seem to have the breath of life. The scene is well achieved and genuinely subversive – a triumph of art over fascism.
The Art Delivery takes place well into the movie and by this stage the audio had filled my brain with questions as to the work of René Schoemakers so I assumed that the triptych we had seen flying from the Nazi battlements would be one of Schoemakers. Whilst researching for this review, I learnt not to make any assumptions in the world of Errkaa. The work, called Triptychon, is actually by Errkaa himself. Triptychon is one of a series of installations by Errkaa. If you go on Errkaa’s website, they are available for you to hang on the fascist/ corporate edifice of your choice though you will be involving yourself in a cash nexus and I would think delivery charges may apply.
As the Kulturgespräch conversation developed, I started to realise that Errkaa was making links between the radio discussion and what we were seeing on film. However, the task of tracing the links was made hard for me because I have only a smattering of German – I had to simultaneously follow the action on the screen, listen to the radio programme, and read the translation sub-titles. For many movies, this would have been a chore but Das Kulturgespräch im Radio has so much intriguing depth it was a joy to re-watch it several times as a three dimensional text to try to come to a better understanding. Teasing out the way the movie echoes the radio conversation felt like guessing the turns of a slick whodunnit narrative.
Of the two links that I caught, the first came during the discussion as to the similarities between Schoemakers’ approach to art and that of Liu Bolin. Bolin is noted for his hyperrealist portrayal of supermarket produce, fresh fruit and canned drinks, and he is something to behold. Schoemakers expresses appreciation of Bolin’s work and then makes a remark as to the dark side of Bolin’s imagery. On cue, we suddenly realise that the van which had been driving along in cloudy daylight is suddenly pictured against the darkest night. Errkaa achieves the effect excellently and it certainly discombobulates the viewer.
Fruits & Art – the Driver then stops the van and gets two bananas from the box in the back. In an enchanting scene, the Driver and Hitchhiker delicately eat their bananas. We are signposted to think back to the Warhol banana on the gallery sign – eating fruit or consuming art?
The second linkage concerns galleries as safe spaces. Tannert asks Schoemakers for his views as to a controversy surrounding the work of Dana Schutz. Schoemakers takes a strong libertarian line that no art should be banned, artists should be free to paint what they like, no matter how disturbing. He notes with dismay that protesters had called for Schutz’s work to be destroyed. All good stuff – how could one disagree? The problem comes when we move from the universal to the specific.
The protests mentioned by Schoemakers were against one particular painting by Schutz – Open Casket. Protesters called for this specific painting to be destroyed – not Schutz’s work in its entirety. Schutz is a white American artist. Open Casket was exhibited in a prestigious American gallery. Open Casket depicts the mutilated face of a murdered black kid, Emmett Till, in an open coffin. Till was killed and his face cut up by white racists in 1955. His mother insisted that her son’s coffin should remain open for the world to see the horrors that had been inflicted on Emmett. The resultant photographs are thought by many to have been a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. It seems to me that what pissed the protesters off was not, as Schoemakers argues, white artists portraying black subjects, but a rich entitled white artist appropriating an icon of the Civil Rights movement for academic kudos and financial gain. As a postscript – Schutz did the Right Thing and withdrew the painting from exhibition. I am unsure whether Schutz subsequently destroyed the work – if not, given the hallucinatory world of the art market, its value has probably increased due to the furore.
As Schoemakers extrapolates from the Open Casket case to a general conclusion that art galleries should never be safe places, Errkaa does something wonderful – he creates a definitive safe space for the Driver and the Hitchhiker.
The pair stop for fuel. The scene is a magical realism take with the artefacts not quite ‘real’ – there is an old fashioned cash register on the shop counter, the drink bottles are labelled Beer and Fruit Juice. A shop assistant in a drab overall morphs into a waitress in a riotous pink dress with impressive decolletage to serve the couple when they move into the diner for a drink. Both the assistant and waitress parts are played by the gender fluid comedian Lilo Wanders / Ernie Reinhardt in a wonderful cameo. The dinner table has two red roses in a vase. What safer place on earth could there be for our protagonists as they are ministered to by a benign transgender, yet subliminally matriarchal, guardian angel?
And so, it goes. They reach Kiel – the Driver drops the Hitchhiker off. Errkaa chooses not to end proceedings here which would be the natural cut-off point for the road movie – instead they change to a pretty traditional arts documentary format. We are shown Schoemakers and Tannert in the radio studio. We have flashbacks of the Hitchhiker from earlier in the movie. The director concludes with footage of a Schoemakers’ exhibition – the camera making a 360 degree turn to take in a vast array of artwork then focusing in on Schoemakers standing in front of one giant canvas. The end coda did not work that well for me, but it was redeemed by Errkaa’s choice for the finale music. Erkaa uses a song called By Absence of the Sun from a second division Belgian heavy metal band, Triggerfinger. The piece is so gloriously, pompously, monumental – think the mis-sized Stonehenge of Spinal Tap – it provides the perfect audio backdrop to our re-entry into the world of Fine Art.
Try and catch this movie – there is so much in it to enjoy. Even viewers who are not ferociously drawn to the contemporary visual arts scene will be rewarded by stupendous performances from Pleva and Lazar – two of the finest I have seen in my time as a IFL reviewer – as well as Gorrissen’s sumptuous cinematography. Anyone engaged with the arts world and, like me, previously unaware of René Schoemakers’s work, will be thankful to Errkaa for introducing us to the work of a great and genuinely subversive artist. Albeit one whose arguments as to the Dana Schutz controversy I would most definitely disagree with – but that is surely the point of Culture Talk.
The movie represents a triumph for Errkaa – he has given us some wonderful cinema. If he makes more movies and wants to continue with a mash up genre approach to investigating the process of painting – how about a police procedural take on George Baselitz or a romcom take on Der Blaue Reiter?