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ideological-imbroglio 10/31/18 (Wed) 03:15:47 #21676943


Still from Nichts (1951).

The recent disappearance of Basil Ottinger (and the subsequent discovery of several "lost films" in his private collection) has re-ignited cinema's fascination with the revolutionary work of an underground independent film-maker known as "Josef Hellmuth".

The reclusive director's fame in cinema circles is ironic: Hellmuth is best known for not wishing to be known. Only one of his films (Schweigen, 1953) contains an end-credit sequence, wherein he thanks meine lieben Wohltäter ("my dear benefactors"). His work was distributed privately through Panopticon Pictures until the company declared bankruptcy in 1962; nearly all extant prints were destroyed in a warehouse fire.

Hellmuth's work is characterized by sparse structure, emotional isolation, fascination with negative space, no dialogue, and single extraordinarily long takes. His first film (Nichts, 1951) is a two-hour exploration of a dilapidated, abandoned munitions factory. What makes the film remarkable is how it is shot: one single, smooth tracking shot that begins at the entrance, descends several flights of stairs, and ends in a basement. Given the lack of identifiable cuts, tracks, or rails (even along the stairs), the movie's release produced endless speculation among cinematographers regarding how this was done.

Although Nichts is the most "conventional" film Hellmuth produced, it still contains surrealist elements that would become hallmarks of his style. The factory's basement is improbably vast, containing far more levels than it should (and includes strange, unidentified machinery). At several points, the camera focuses on objects that are out of place (a pink ribbon, false teeth, a wooden dreidel). Near the seventy-minute mark, a silhouette is briefly visible passing by a doorway. The final shot (where the camera explores a pitch black room) lasts for fifteen minutes — during which only heavy breathing can be heard.

Themes of isolation and emptiness are further elaborated on in Hellmuth's fifth film, Doppelgänger (1953). Comprised of a ninety-minute long tracking shot, the viewer navigates a carnival's 'hall of mirrors' while pursued by a hazy, indistinct figure (visible only in each mirror's reflection). The film ends abruptly when the figure appears in front of the camera, obstructing its view.

Numerous die-hard Hellmuth fans have mapped out the interior of the hall based on the camera's movements, only to discover that the camera often moves through what ought to be a solid mirror. To this day, vigorous debate continues over how Hellmuth achieved this and other effects (such as the absence of the camera's reflection in any one of the hall's hundreds of mirrors).


Still from Schuld (1954).

Schuld (1954) is perhaps the film for which Hellmuth is most infamous. It is three hours long, and consists of a single fixed shot: four figures burning atop a pyre as a crowd watches from below. Details regarding its screening at a 1965 Oldenburg film festival are murky. Viewers expressed distress, anxiety, and physical illness; this allegedly escalated with the audience storming the projection booth and destroying all prints of the film.

Hellmuth is notorious for being tight-lipped about his work, having never publicly commented on it. However, in 1961, a student attending Merz Akademie uncovered a letter authored by him in the college's archives. The following excerpt (translated from its original German) elaborates on his views regarding the role of the author:

"Death of the Author" presumes too much. It presumes the author may exist. But this cannot be permitted. The author must be obliterated down to their elemental structure, down to their essence, their very core. No trace of their presence can remain on this earth. The author must cease to be.

Art can only be understood as an excretion of natural, indeterminable events — a thing that is shaped via a rudderless process devoid of intent, purpose, or reason. Rain-drops falling through a canopy of leaves. Apples withering on the branch of a decaying tree. Maggots bursting from a dead pigeon's breast.

The author is more than 'irrelevant'. Their irrelevance is such that to merely mention this irrelevance is to grant them more relevance than they deserve. To say the author is dead, you must first presume the author was once alive. But the author was never alive. The author was never even there.


Photo taken from viewing of Abwesenheit (1962).

Immediately after the publication of this letter in several film periodicals, Josef Hellmuth ceased to respond to all correspondence and phone-calls; no one has heard from him since. In 1962, he produced and published his final film: Abwesenheit.

All six copies of Abwesenheit were believed to be lost in the 1962 fire. However, in 1987, a recording of a private viewing was recovered from the home of Basil Ottinger (a prominent art collector obsessed with the study of Hellmuth). Although incomplete, it indirectly captures a small portion of the filmmaker's final masterpiece.

The footage is several minutes in length, and focuses on a television screen on which Abwesenheit is playing. The television's footage is heavily distorted. The audience (out of frame) produces muffled sobs; Ottinger repeatedly apologizes. As the film draws to its conclusion, the audience becomes increasingly distressed. One member starts to pray. Ottinger begs for it to stop.

A hand descends in front of the camera, obstructing its view of the television. The recording abruptly ends.

Investigations into Basil Ottinger's disappearance (and the location of the fabled surviving print of Abwesenheit) have turned up no results. However, it is notable that the footage of Ottinger's viewing was recorded with Kodak 5247 (Josef Hellmuth's preferred film stock).

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