Berlinale Blog – More Songs About Buildings (But No Food)

     |    Friday, der 17. February 2017

By Andrew Horn

For some years now, filmmaker Heinz Emigholz has been making a series of films on various architects by visiting and documenting their works, whether houses, commercial buildings or public spaces. He presents the buildings in chronological order and shoots them from multiple interior and exterior views. The sequences are silent, except for the ambient sound from each location or area of the building, and without any camera movement – the image changing periodically from one view to another without any discernable rhythm or intent. There is no explanation of the structure other than the name of the building (indicating it’s function), it’s location and the date it was built. The film itself also provides little or no specific biographical or historical information about the architect who is the subject. From this description you might expect the film to be boring, coldly abstract and maybe even excruciating, but, in fact, you’d be quite wrong.

Like his other architectural films (and I’ve seen now 5), “Bickels [Socialism]” (Germany 2017) is, despite its narrative spareness, visual and engaging – drawing you in by generating a kind of visceral feel for the structures. Usually when I am going to write about a film, I have my pad and pen and I write down various notes to use later in my article. In this film I started off doing the same, but then realized that without dialogue or plot there wasn’t much to put down, and trying describe the buildings seemed futile. I was going to have to put everything away and just watch.

And what I got was an accumulating sense of how a building worked as a construction: the texture of the materials, the juxtaposition of the colors and shapes seen from various points of view, how it took the light, and the ways shadows would fall. I was seeing how the environment worked with the building, whether the immediate landscaping or the surrounding area, or the design of the interior furnishings. I was also being made aware of how the building sounded, inside, outside and in it’s various spaces. Also depending on the age of the building and/or the degree of use, how the structures wear over time. These are all things that an architect has to think about, anticipate, and adapt to in making a building. What emerges is kind of heightened awareness of the creative process in a way that I, for one, might not necessarily think about even in a building that I might admire.

This film is about the work of kibbutz architect Samuel Bickels in Israel, ranging from 1953 to 1976, but my above description could apply to any of Emigholz’s architecture films – the difference being the individual personality of each architect, and an experience of the culture of the society for which the buildings were created. In this case, it was a sense of optimism and a belief in community. Even to me as a layman, this film communicated an appreciation for the buildings, a sense for the design both functional and aesthetic, as well as the architect’s process as a whole.

Addendum – this film is chapter 2 in a series of four films Heinz Emigholz is presenting at the Berlinale this year, under the title “Streetscapes”.