le_redacteur | Thursday December 17th, 2009
“Like Mickey Mouse Club or Sesame Street”
By Michael Schuh
In 1996, Dietmar Post and Lucia Palacios began working on a documentary about a long-forgotten German Beat generation band “Monks – The Transatlantic Feedback”. The five band members were all GIs who were stationed at the time in Gelnhausen, Germany. Finding material and getting interviews turned into a mammoth project. Ten years later the documentary was finished.
Ten years later the documentary was finished.
With no decent offers from distributors, the film duo decided to distribute the movie themselves, which quickly went on to become a national and international hit. It won the Adolf Grimme prize in 2008.
Currently working on three new film projects (including a film about the Klangbad Festival conceived by Faust, the godfathers of Kraut rock), director Dietmar Post took some time out to talk to us about his prestigious documentary film.
I’ll start off with the most important question: When and how did you first discover this menacing band, the Monks?
That would have been around 1982, during the Punk and Post-Punk years. Their one album got circulated on cassette tape, and it got played every now and again at parties. I didn’t realize how old the recording was; it was the Gang Of Four era and the Monks were modern sounding. The connections between Kraut rock and Conceptual Art didn’t become clear to me until later.
As soon as you see the actual album and its completely black cover, and its back cover, you realize they had nothing in common with the Stones, the Beatles or the Kinks. Those bands, taken in an art context, would be stylistically aligned with the Baroque. The Monks didn’t wear ruffled shirts – they were absolutely no-frills, like a Mies van der Rohe building. (laughs)
In the 1990’s there was hype surrounding the band. What was that like?
My wife and I lived in America for many years. In 1997, Rick Rubin and Henry Rollins released the record “Black Monk Time” on their label and it got a lot of attention in the music press. For the Americans it was like finding a lost treasure. But the Monks were labeled Garage music, which didn’t really fit. That was one of the reasons we began to research them. But as documentary filmmakers and not as music fans. After we visited three of the band members at home we thought, what a great story! It was of course great for us that their story had gone virtually unrecorded all those years and but it did make things more challenging for us.
Did Rubin and Rollins give you any insights about the band or did the band’s story not interest them?
They weren’t able to give us many insights. They had focused mainly on the music. For example, their liner notes didn’t mention anything about the German connection. It just mentioned that the band was started by a couple of GI’s. Even the band members had either consciously or unconsciously downplayed the influence that their manager had on the band. It was up to us as filmmakers to show up and ask the right questions .
They were never really properly received in America, where you always need a fit into a category like, say, Garage music. Superficially the rawness of “Black Monk Time” really does fit in and you could find some similarities to the Sonics, but nothing more. The Monk’s music is not about Rhythm’n’Blues anymore.
How did the Monks react when a German guy showed up wanting to hear about and make a film about the story of their youth?
They were mostly excited to know that we knew something about German culture and that weren’t going to ask the classic questions they got in America: sex, drugs, rock n roll, the Beatles and the Reeperbahn. Of course we a lot things that had gone on since their return to America in 1967 that they weren’t aware of so a sort of dialog developed out of that.
I also think that the musicians learned some things through our project. One audience member said that you can see them thinking on camera. That is of course a nice compliment for us as documentary filmmakers.
I think so too. The film is also exciting because none of the people being portrayed spout meaningless PR crap. Because, actually they’re… recollecting what happened.
It’s getting hard for documentary filmmakers to find authentic protagonists, as much as I hate the word authentic. But they were ‘real’ people. It was also a real advantage for us that the band wasn’t famous at that time and that in those 35 intervening years nothing had happened.
How hard was it to refresh their memories?
We knew after our very first research trip in 1996-97 that this was going to be a hard nut to crack. When we shot in 2002 we arranged for three days per person. In principle we did what you can’t get financed to do these days in a documentary, namely detailed conversations.
“The Comedian Harmonists were the Beatles of the 1920’s”
Where did you guys find the time to do such extended and intensive research?
Well, you have to be crazy. (laughs) Any good art demands a good dose of insanity. These days, most music docs are just thrown together. It’s usually like ‘just get some musician to praise the other band to the skies’ kind of thing. That wasn’t what we wanted to do. We wanted to make a proper documentary with people who had witnessed things first hand.
You also interviewed Jon Spencer and Genesis P. Orridge.
That’s right, as eyewitnesses to German reunification. We presented them as normal fans. Later in the editing room it was totally sweet to see how nervous Jon Spencer got. He was so excited about it, just like an 18 year old fan.
Interviewing promoter Rick Rubin was not an option from the beginning?
We had originally asked him and Rollins, and we also talked with Schorsch Kamerun and Thomas Meinecke. But later we decided that it didn’t fit the topic, especially since we often suspected that the interviewees knew less about the subject than we did. They seemed to be speculating a lot of the time. It was clear that we would have to first tell them the story. It was a little bit like Mouse TV (a children’s educational program on German television).
What is often missing in filmmaking, or in journalism, are the simple questions: “How did you do it? I don’t understand how that worked with the banjo. How exactly did you install it?” I believe in the power of simple questions.
How did the band members’ friends react when the film team showed up and started asking strange questions about Germany?
OK yeah, that was bizarre. There’s a scene on the bonus DVD with Dave the banjo player where he gets applause after his talk. During Dave’s interview, his neighbors sat there quietly the full six hours, just listening. It was all new and exciting for them. I recently saw a documentary about The Who, where only Daltrey and Townshend talked. It was all very professional but at some point the talk just ended up going in circles.
Did you have any particular documentary in mind when you made the Monks film?
No, it’s always a subconscious process. I really like how one New York critic thought that the film was fatally similar to “Comedian Harmonists”. Not to the unfortunately unbearable film with Ben Becker, but to the wonderful documentary by Eberhard Fechner,who was one of the best and most important documentary filmmakers in West Germany during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Comedian Harmonists really had been as popular in the 1920’s as the Beatles were later that century. There were screaming girls in the 1920’s too.
Anyway, after that review we watched the film again on DVD and we saw that structural similarities indeed existed. Fechner made his documentary in 1974, also when nobody gave two hoots anymore about the band. He also looked up all the band members. And I think that both his and our film are tinged with a certain kind of sadness.
Another film that comes to mind in this respect is “Nico Icon” which, I may add, didn’t influence us directly. Another pleasant surprise for us was Scorsese’s film about Bob Dylan “No Direction Home”. Scorsese didn’t put himself in the foreground but made a classic documentary instead. He too concentrated exclusively on eyewitnesses and even managed to get Dylan in front of the camera again for the first time in 20 years.
On the other hand I didn’t find the Joe Strummer film “The Unwritten Story” very successful, in spite of its great archival material. The film doesn’t work at all. What’s Bono doing in there? At certain points the film just completely unravels. It makes Strummer a posthumous hero, just because he’s dead. You hear nothing, or next to nothing, from the other three band members. The Clash come across badly in the film.
As a documentary filmmaker, you have a great burden of responsibility vis a vie historic truths. We didn’t want to cheapen the Monks by turning them into the heroes, so we approached the film dialectically. When Hans-Joachim Irmler (from the band Faust) says something about the Monks, it stands in obvious contrast to what the group themselves saw.
“Pop music was never the same again”
Die Monks at the barber shop, 1966.
It was also very clever when Irmler, as an eyewitness, talks about having seen the band on German television at the time. Up until that moment in the film, the viewer wasn’t at all aware just how popular the Monks were back then.
Finding eyewitnesses was pretty difficult. It took us four years to find Irmler. Other Kraut rock bands we had contacted had forgotten a lot. Then we found Irmler, and the first thing he said was “Come over right away, that is one of my all time favorite bands. You guys are the first to ask me about them in 40 years!” (laughs) During the filming it isn’t automatically obvious that Irmler is such a fan.
When I hear that you were searching for eyewitnesses for four years, I have to ask how often you said to yourselves, ‘we give up’?
Very often. It was a shame, of course, that we couldn’t convince their managers to be interviewed.
And that’s a central theme of the film – how both managers were working in the background. Tell us a little bit about how you managed to locate them and what their reasons were for not wanting to participate in the film.
We looked for one of them for eight years. Of course it was necessary for us to explain in the film why neither of the managers were interviewed. We had long discussions about whether to put the explanation in the middle section or at the end. We simply don’t know why Karl Heinz Remy reacted so coolly. We can only speculate. We only talked to him once.
Was it by phone, email or face to face?
We met in person and just getting to that point required real detective work. At some point we had got a hold of his address, so we showed up at his house and waited for him, because we weren’t sure if that was really the right person. As for Walther Niemann, our stubbornness softened him up enough for him to agree to answer a catalog of over 100 questions. He also came to the film premier in Munich, however, he came incognito. He was listed under a fake name in the guest list.
After the film, we went out for a beer and talked. He was very enthusiastic and said that the film was right on the money. In October 2006 he came to Berlin – once again incognito – on our behest when we arranged to have the Monks play there again.
The Monks were probably really pleased about the unexpected reunion.
For sure. They hadn’t seen each other in over 40 years. We’re a small label and production company so it was nice to realize that we could bring together all the Monk collaborators from the past and pull off such a big event at the Volksbühne. It was gratifying for us.
I’d like to return to the manager thing for a minute.
Ok. Walther Niemann, the one we sent the question catalog to, and with whom we are … well not exactly friends but with whom we have a good relationship. He sends us faxes every now and again because he doesn’t use email. A beautifully designed fax with just one word on it, “Congratulations”, arrived the day after we had won the Grimme prize. Niemann was the designer of their album cover back when.
Art sequences appear again and again at different points in the film: we see the Situationists, the art group Zero, Yves Klein and a number of Fluxus artists. For example, at the beginning of the film it was completely unclear where certain things were coming from. Like the piece at the Beat club, when they laid a guitar on the ground and create a feedback orgy. That was a completely different kind of feedback to the more macho Jimi Hendrix style, which I don’t mean in as negative at all, because I think he’s great too. (laughs)
When the Monks do it, it’s more of genuine Fluxus performance . A few years prior to that artists like Wolf Vostell, Conrad Schnitzler and even Nam June Paik gave performances in Germany doing things like breaking up a piano or maybe just climbing up on it or ripping out its strings. It was the old John Cage idea: everything is part of the concert, even if someone just shifts their chair around. The way the Monks almost gingerly touched the guitar lying there on the ground – that was the first time in pop music, not in classic or electronic of course – that the player was separated from the instrument. Pop music has never been the same since.
That represented a decisive break with tradition. Strangely enough, film critics almost never mention these art sequences. There’s a quote on the film poster by Charles Wilp: “The first weightless group”. At first that might sound funny, but actually, that sentence has a clear concept behind it. And besides, the collaboration between Wilps and the Monks shouldn’t be underestimated. Their collaboration was as important as the relationship between Andy Warhol (a well-known Wilp fan) and the Velvet Underground.
Were the Monks even aware of these art influences and did they understand what they meant?
Let’s put it this way: They were very pleased that we had taken all of it into consideration. They thought is was very interesting. However, there were moments of misunderstanding or a lack of understanding. That was more Karl’s and Walter’s role. Neither one of them ever missed a Cage or Stockhausen concert. As a part of their job they went once a week to London or other places, to see the Yardbirds, the Pretty Things, any important band. They knew everything there was to know.
I’d like to come back to the encounter with Remy. You meet up with this guy, who’s living in seclusion, and he’s not happy to see you, or at least he’s surprised that someone is asking questions about a band that he managed for a couple of years 35 years ago. Actually, that’s pretty cool. Was it just a lack of interest?
No, I don’t think it had to do with disinterest. We’ve also begun to think that it’s pretty cool that neither manager appears in the film. A few managers nowadays could take a page from that book. They were totally in the background. Neither Remy’s nor Niemann’s name is even on the album. Researching the early 1960’s was a lot of fun for us. It was such a time of naivety. Until 1967 a specialized music press didn’t exist. Back then it was local editors who wrote about the Monks, one from a Cologne newspaper ( Kölner Stadtanzeige) and I think there was another one in Schwäbisch-Gmünd.
There wasn’t even one syllable about the managers in the original Polydor press releases back then. At a later point Niemann said: “we wanted to show that even in the era of individualism, great art could be made by a collective.” The Beatles and the Stones for example are always reduced to single band members. That’s why Remy and Niemann always referred to themselves as creative managers. This is an idea that originated with the Bauhaus: the product should speak for itself. I believe that’s the reason they didn’t want to appear in the film.
Remy didn’t seem to have any interest in the film one way or another.
That’s hard to say. We also found his reaction arrogant at first. I don’t have a clear-cut answer to that myself, Remy would have to be the one to answer that.
And how did Niemann respond to that anecdote?
Of course he thought it was really amusing that Remy didn’t say anything. That’s what I like so much about these old guys. Some people who saw it think the film suffers from the fact that the two wouldn’t talk. There might be some degree of truth in that, but a filmmaker can’t force anyone to do anything.
Which is why I think it’s a little bit unfair to criticize the film on account of that aspect. Documentary filmmakers, like researchers or writers of non-fiction, just have to live with the imitations inherent in their genre. Fiction novels and films don’t have these problems.
This interview appears courtesy of https://www.laut.de/ where it was first published.