Le Monde, Saturday, November 13, 1999
PASSING : The American Robert Kramer, who gave his
great talent to political and social cinema, has died in Rouen, on November
10th, at sixty years of age. He had lived in France since 1980. The
themes of his first works were those of the radical struggles of the
era : the Vietnam war, South American guerillas, terrorism, and social
exclusion. In 1967, he participated in the creation of a film collective
called Newsreel. Arriving in Europe in 1975 in the wake of the Portuguese
revolution, he would film documentaries, shorts for television, and
fiction films with acute lucidity, seeking to record in « a single,
long film » « a continuously unfolding story. » Two screenings in Paris
: « Ice, » a political fiction, and « Doc's Kingdom, » an autobiographical
The darkness of the times, the hopes of mankind,
in Robert Kramer's frame
The American director, who gave his great gifts to political and social cinema, died November 10th at sixty years of age in a Rouen hospital, from the consequences of meningitis. The auteur of « Route One/USA » had lived in France since 1980.
Born in New York in 1939 the son of a doctor, Robert Kramer belonged to the generation of East-Coast intellectuals engaged, beginning in the 60s, in the civil rights struggle, then in the resistance to the Vietnam war, then in movements for national liberation throughout the Third World, a continuous push profoundly calling into question the « American Way of Life. » With his childhood friend Peter Gessner, son of a blacklisted screenwriter, who now teaches filmmaking at New York University, and with the militant documentarians Norman Fruchter and Robert Machover, Kramer, under the pseudonym Robert Remark, helped edit footage shot by Venezuelan guerilleros into documents they called « FALN » (1965), which circulated in underground networks.
The following year, Kramer would make « In the Country, » a couple's uncompromising discussion about the radical movement in the United States. The film was presented secretly in Europe by Jonas Mekas at the Pesaro Festival. In 1967, Kramer made « The Edge, » his first fiction film, although the distinction between fiction and documentary never seemed important to him, unless it became the very point itself. Presented at the Cannes Festival, this evocation of urban revolutionary terrorism won the Georges-Sadoul Prize for best foreign film.
The the end of the same year, Robert Kramer, along with Allen Siegal, created a collective of activist filmmakers called Newsreel, whose manifesto began: « We find that the present system of television news does not correspond to our needs. » It ended with the following pledge: « We seek to accomplish two things at once. We wish to create a permanent Newsreel group in New York, capable of making at least two films a month, of which twelve to twenty-four copies will be distributed throughout the country. And we wish to expand the distribution network and encourage the creation of other groups like this one. »
From 1968 to 1972, Newsreel produced sixty protest films, in New York and then in California. Kramer moved to California and participated in the West Coast collectives movement, teaching for awhile in San Francisco. In 1969, Kramer, Norman Fruchter and John Douglas produced « People's War » for Newsreel, shooting in North Vietnam during American bombing. The same year, Kramer shot « Ice, » a political-fiction film about a group of armed activists wanted by the police. In 1975, the film « Milestones, » co-directed by Douglas, marking, as its title showed, the political, intellectual, and artistic moment in the history of the era.
In three hours and fifteen minutes, a « tribe » representing all the alternatives of the generation reflects on the successes and failures of the Movement. At the same time, the film questions the very methodology of the Newsreel project. This theme would be taken up on the other side of the Atlantic, in particular in a long collective discussion by the Cahiers du Cinema team (numbers 258-259, July-August, 1975). Kramer, who never got and will never get any official recognition in the United States, particularly from the film industry, he, the American who is not listed in the American dictionaries of cinema (nor in the French one, supposedly the authority, by Tavernier and Coursodon), moved to Europe.
He filmed the « carnation revolution » and its consequences (« Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal, » 1977), then shot a feature in France about fantasies of violent activism within the context of a film noir, called « Guns »(1980). The decade which began then would see Kramer trying, not always convincingly, all the classic modes of filmmaking in a series of fiilms shot in Europe. « A toute allure, » produced by the French film board and shown in competition at Cannes in 1982, is a small essay about a young couple at a neighborhood skating rink, which reveals a certain pleasure in minimalist filmmaking, « with the simplest means » (technical, financial, scenario), an experiment which doesn't bear fruit but remains fertile. The complete opposite befell the failure called « Diesel, » a heavy science-fiction fable turned cinematic catastrophe. Much later, Kramer would describe the process of this failure in a long essay published in Le Travail de l'art (number 4, summer 1999), which remains one of the most lucid accounts of how a film is made – or not. Another type of experience, in 1984, led to « Notre Nazi, » shot on the set of « Wundkanal, » a film directed by Thomas Harlan (the son of Veit Harlan, the author of « Juif Süss »), with former Nazi officer Albert Filber in the principal role. Disturbing to the point of nausea, Kramer's film examines the relationships between the person filmed, those filming, and those watching, in a staging that sounds the depths of psychodrama.
Along with shorts for television (« Un grand jour, » 1981; « La peur, » 1983; « Un plan d'enfer, » 1986) and a long video essay (« X-Country, » 1987), Robert Kramer directed a marvelous autobiographical film, « Doc's Kingdom, » in Lisbon. His friend and alter ego Paul McIsaac plays the principal role. Also in the credits of this funny and poetic charade are the names who would become Kramer's essential collaborators from the 80s until his death: Richard Copans, cameraman and then producer, soundman Olivier Schwob, contrebasso and composer Barre Phillips. All of them participated in this great film which, fourteen years after « Milestones, » announces a return to the road with « Route One/USA. »
With Doc as his stand-in, Robert Kramer re-visits his native country, its history, as well as his own history and imagination, traveling the route which stretches the length of the U.S. east coast, from the Canadian border to the tip of Florida. All along this joyous, careful, concerned and heartfelt trip, various encounters are a landscape made for cinema -- made for insight and action as well. Never before has the expression « activist cinema, » so worn out by sermonizing and clichés, been better served. An activist film for its light, for its music, for its astonishment at the world, for its refusal of injustice and stupidity, « Route One/USA » synthesizes and magnifies everything that came before, at the same time leading up to a series of films which, without the same grandeur, will invent new and inventive ways of looking at reality and history through the power of suggestion. These films will make Robert Kramer a principal figure in the history of contemporary cinema.
In 1990, « Berlin 10/90, » a single shot filmed in a bathroom of the auteur alone, reflecting on the collapse of the Wall with an astounding keenness of vision. « Point of Departure, » 1993, makes use of a young filmmakers' workshop in Vietnam to begin thinking, via film, about the reality of that country next to the imaginary country that exists in the Occidental mind, and about what it is possible and worthwhile to do with all this today. « Walk the Walk, » in 1996, is probably the first real European film, as it attempts to show through the travels of three members of a split-up family what unites and separates people from Fos-sur-Mer or Odessa, via a Berlin stricken with AIDS and drug traffic, or the Caucasus in the throes of war.
« The coat, » (1996) is an unsentimental international parable in which the power of fiction creates links of the senses and the emotions across time and distance. « Ghosts of Electricity » (1997), a reflection on technology and thought, is also a magnificent declaration of love by Robert Kramer for his wife Erika. « Say Kom Sa » (1998), a digression which takes up the themes of the past decade, making them question one another in the name of always moving forward. An experimental film, a documentary, a fiction, a tale, a journal, an intimate essay: All these different films make up the multiple facets of an art which, having become a mode of critical thinking through film, is all the richer for its simplicity. With time, slowly but surely, came a kind of wisdom, a sense of beauty which illuminates the most ordinary shots, which makes them glow with fertile mystery.
Robert Kramer wrote one day: « If we are truly together, the dark of the day is the best moment to see. But we must be truly together. » All his life was devoted to sharing. He gave the 1998-1999 school year to teaching at the Fresnoy National Studio of Contemporary Arts in Tourcoing. A blindman seer is the main character of the film he just finished shooting in the alleys and bars of the neighborhood surrounding the school, « Cities of the Plain. » A filmmaker on the move whose titles evoke a mobile geography, Kramer alone thought, via cinema, about contemporary fluidity and the way this causes us to think about what we have inherited from the past, about power and our opposition to it.
He said: « It is my impression that I left my home in the United States and arrived in my home in Europe, via many other places that are also my home. It seems to me that we have many 'homes,' and that we are better off thinking this way instead of reducing the concept of 'my home' to its most limited meaning. » Ten years ago, commenting similarly about the cinematic and political relationships between the whole and the parts, Kramer drew from his own work this description (reprinted in the collective book about him published by Lindau Editions, at the Festival Cinema Giovani de Turin, under the direction of Roberto Turigliato): « One day or another, all the films I've made will constitute a single, long film: A continuously unfolding story, the accounting of someone who travels between places and times, trying to survive, to understand, to find an adequate home, and all along the way living with images, with film, which is the single objective unifying the whole. »
by Jean-Michel Frodon (translation by Penny