by Henrik Zimmer
Photography by Irvandy Syafruddin and Armin Asratyan
SKETCHES OF BERLIN is a digital documentary film about artists living and working in Berlin. This film by Henrik Zimmer and Irvandy “Iv” Syafruddin is currently in progress.
Iv and I are documenting our impressions of the diversity of artistic expression in Berlin as digital film portraits. We’ve selected artists who work in an expressive, creative medium (dance, painting, music) due to their visual power on film.
Each of the three portraits is a rough, sketch profile of the artist or artistic group. We are using various methods to document their creative goals and capture their artistic spirit. The goal of SKETCHES OF BERLIN is to meld the documentary with art.
We started in October 2010 with the artist Daniel Sambo-Richter. We then continued with the band Tanga Elektra. And we are currently filming the dance company Constanza Macras/Dorky Park to complete the three segments of our artist portraits. Each segment is a sketch portrait of an artist or artistic group in Berlin at work and in interview.
The idea for this documentary came when Iv moved to Berlin. He had helped me with the flyer for an event I was organizing. While working on the flyer we began brainstorming future creative collaborations. In addition to his talent as a designer, Iv is a very good photographer. So our first idea was to do some kind of a photo collage of Berlin. We tossed around a few ideas and themes and settled on the artistic life of Berlin. And then we got a little crazy and thought that it would be an even better idea to make a film.
I had worked at a few film and television companies on various productions, but I didn’t have any practical experience producing an entire film. Iv is a graphic designer and he knows a lot about photography. But we were basically venturing into unknown territory with digital film. So our motto has been “learning by doing”. And if all else fails we would call the results an experimental film. Our goal was to have fun trying something new.
I have been in Berlin for over 10 years. I’ve lived, worked, studied and performed all over this city. But Iv was new to the city so he had a very fresh take on Berlin and lots of artistic inspiration. So to complete this film we will need to exploit this synergy, utilizing our strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses.
The concept of our film is to document a variety of artists, mixing interviews and footage of the artists at work. It is our hope to capture some of the artistic spirit of the city a generation after the fall of the Berlin wall. Nevertheless, these artists do indeed represent a city in rapid cultural change. And we will be happy if the film’s viewers become fans of these artists and appreciate them as much as we do.
Over twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the gaping psychic wound inflicted on the city by its violent separation is beginning to heal. Building projects have transformed the city with amazing speed. The quaint glitz of Cold War West Berlin and the broken down communist “show piece” of the East have been pulled together and polished up to create a new unified capital city.
This new Berlin is currently experiencing an intense amount of curiosity from around the world. Is there a real “Berlin Boom” or is it just a bit of hype? Many visitors have come to see the new architecture or traces of the past. But right now it seems the eyes of the world are focused on new artistic and creative impulses from Berlin in the areas of art, music, design and lifestyle.
Many artists from Berlin, Germany and beyond are directly responsible for this renaissance. They have filled the unused and discarded areas with studios and used these creative spaces to send out the message that there is something very special about this city. This film is therefore not so much about Berlin the city but about Berlin as a home and hub of a variety of creative people.
SKETCHES OF BERLIN is also about communication or more specifically, artistic communication. These sketch portraits are a study of the personalities, facial expressions, gestures and body language of our selected artists. We present their work but we also go “backstage” to find answers to the questions: How did you get started? What motivates your creativity? Why Berlin?
For this film we selected representatives from the arts who occupy creative space in the city. While their presence in some districts is characteristic of the area, in others they go about their daily routines, unnoticed.
The painter in his studio, absolutely surrounded by color, was our first and obvious choice to film. Our interest was in capturing that moment of executed creativity, the physical movement of brush against canvas. But we were also fascinated by the unique position the German painter occupies in the Teutonic “Dichter/Denker” mythology: a visual metaphor of the poet-philosopher.
Sketches Portrait of Daniel Sambo-Richter
In over ten years in Berlin I have gotten to know some very interesting people. One of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met is now one of my best friends, the artist Daniel Sambo-Richter. The Grandson of a protestant pastor sent to die at the Dachau concentration camp, Daniel grew up in an artistic family, became involved in the East German punk scene and established himself as an artist in a re-unified Germany.
I have been to Daniel’s studio on a number of occasions. It’s located in an area of Berlin-Wedding with a large concentration of Turkish immigrants and is part of the Kolonie Wedding artist association. In the interview for Sketches, Daniel explained his reasons for choosing a studio in this district:
“To a certain degree it is a real artist colony but in Berlin it isn’t really possible to speak in such terms because actually every district has a little artist colony. It stands out because it’s organized on the level of an association with membership. And we actually open our spaces to the public on the last weekend of every month for exhibitions. And this draws attention to the district.”
At these Kolonie Wedding events I had seen some of Daniel’s abstract paintings but it wasn’t until I visited an exhibition of his in 2008 that I began to better understand the context of his abstract and figurative artistic positions.
In 2008 the Galerie Rowland-Kutschera exhibited a series of Daniel’s paintings entitled German Fragments. The very large canvases contained images that were professionally crafted. Beautiful, striking images. But it was the content of the paintings that held my gaze. They were taboo. Germans aren’t superstitious. Contemporary Germany is a very free society. And it is almost impossible to really shock a German. But in the gallery’s largest room hung huge paintings of bronzed blonde German athletes, proud farmers and glamorous film stars in the attire and fashion of the late 30’s, early 40’s. An aesthetic, reeking of NS propaganda. Due to the nation’s post-WWII liberal outlook these images are generally considered verboten.
This is a risky airing of dirty laundry. The viewer is forced to decide how to process these images: Are they popularizing an Aryan aesthetic or critical of it? If I like these paintings have I outed myself as someone who finds this imagery appealing? Or do I condemn the artist for his provocation and label him an opportunist feeding on German guilt?
There was a hallway that led to another large room in the Gallery. In it were beautiful sketches and water colors of athletes in movement, farmers in the glaring sun and an abstracted portrait of the resistance martyr Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg next to the most famous purveyor of the aryan aesthetic herself, Leni Riefenstahl. The next room contained a series of Black soldiers smiling in dress uniforms for their final portraits before being blown to bits on the beaches of Normandy on D-day.
Some of the more unshockable visitors to that exhibit may have been able to take in those images with indifferent neutrality. But for a person with my Black-American and Austrian heritage it was impossible to not feel a bit uncomfortable, or even put on the spot. It was such a jarring juxtaposition. On their own, the images in the first room were indeed provocative. But in combination with the adjacent room’s Black GI’s, the exhibition served as a reminder of the bloody reality of that war and its sick racial ideology.
In SKETCHES Daniel recounts how his work on German Fragments led to a larger exploration of violence in Warriors. Although Daniel does not restrict his investigation of violence to his figurative work, in SKETCHES he explains how his abstract series Spaces of Possibilities pursues an understanding of a more cerebral territory: the landscape of the human mind.
Music is not just the soundtrack of Berlin’s legendary nightlife. Music plays a vital role in a city most people associate with institutions as diverse as the Love Parade and the Berliner Philharmonic. Music is essential to the emotional power of film. For SKETCHES we focused on the musician in rehearsal and in concert and exploit the possibilities offered by music in film editing.
Sketches Portrait of Tanga Elektra
The band Tanga Elektra consists of the Brothers David and Elias Engler who were raised in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. In their rehearsal space in Berlin-Lichtenberg, Tanga Elektra mix Electro and New Soul to develop a new sound from their origins in Tango music.
I first got to know the band Tanga Elektra when a friend invited me to see them one night. at a small bar in Berlin-Kreuzberg. It wasn’t very full and my friend was sitting directly next to the band. They were in between sets when I arrived so all I saw was a small drum kit, a couple of stools and some effects pedals.
Without any introduction two lanky young Germans sat down, one at the drums and one with a violin. Then it started. Elias, the drummer, starts pumping the bass drum and hammering out some intense syncopations on the snare and hi-hat. David, holding his violin like a ukulele, reaches down to hit some buttons on his effects pedals and bang he’s laid down a heavy bass line. Then on top of this deep drum and bass, David whips out his bow and starts to jam on his violin fiercely. At first I’m thinking, these guys are a pretty damned good instrumental combo. Then David adjusts the mic and starts to belt out some soulful vocals. Really sweet sounds! In between, he’s alternating between plucking out bass lines, or soloing on his violin like a cross between Paganini and Hendrix.
About half of the people in attendance that night were crowding the tiny dancefloor. The rest were rocking in their seats mesmerized by this great band. The thought crawls in, “What-The-Fuck are these guys doing playing in this dinky bar?” But I remembered that this is exactly what makes Berlin so exciting. The unexpected.
For the Sketches interview with Tanga Elektra we met in the eastern Berlin district of Lichtenberg. Their rehearsal room is in a very 80’s concrete and glass building in the middle of nowhere. What had perhaps once been an old Stasi building now houses about a hundred bands playing everything from death metal to experimental noise.
They share their room with at least one other band so the room is full of instruments, improvised decoration and mostly empty bottles of Germany’s “finest”, Sternberg Beer.
After setting up lighting and cameras I ask them about their background. I’m surprised to find out that they grew up on a farm north of Berlin in the (former East) German state of Mecklenburg Vorpommern. Their parents were East German hippies and preferred the independence of life on the land. For David and Elias it meant a childhood of animals and music. Both brothers play the violin but at some point in their musical development David stayed with that instrument while Elias moved on to the drums.
The parents of David and Elias are passionate about Tango. They organized a Tango Milonga out in the countryside of Mecklenburg. David and Elias explain that their father asked them to form a duo to accompany the dancers. In the interview Tanga Elektra recount how they took the standard dance form of the Tango and added elements of other music including soul and elektro. The event eventually also became popular with Berliners. And so, in a short time the brothers had developed a fan base of Tango dancers who appreciated their musical mix.
Since their formation, Tanga Elektra has developed their musical style to now reflect a more Nu-Soul/electro dance sound. But it is not easy to place them comfortably in a genre. The brothers are famous for their musical telepathy. They communicate song changes to each other so that it is rare to hear a Tanga Elektra song played the same way at their live shows. This shared musical intuition goes so far that they are convincingly able to improvise completely new songs in concert.
In addition to their musical flexibility, Tanga Elektra are also quite flexible with the locations of their shows. Although I have had the pleasure of experiencing Tanga Elektra at a small local bar, they are able to modify their playing to fit any stage. They can go from winning over a random group of shoppers at a flea market to rocking the largest concert venues in Berlin and beyond.
The Choreographer/Dance Company
Contemporary communication is now often reduced to tweets and blurry skype images of facebook friends. One yearns for a more human form of communication. We believe dance is the most direct form of artistic communication. It’s physical. Dancers use their face and body to communicate to the audience…a story, their story perhaps…or maybe how they feel about the music they are dancing to. While music may be a universal language it can leave some regionally specific meanings lost in translation. Dance at its purest, however, has the power to communicate with or without music in less uncertain terms, to seduce the audience with grace and to reach the viewer at a primal level. Dance is the ultimate visual medium for film.
Sketches Portrait of Constanza Macras/Dorky Park
My first experience with contemporary dance was through a student job I had at college in Los Angeles. I assisted the dance department’s music director with editing music for dance productions. I would often sit with the student choreographers discussing their ideas and the music they would like to use and the other sound elements they wanted to incorporate into the pieces. It was always thrilling to see the finished concept on the stage. To see the choices made by the choreographer and how the music was used.
So when it came to making a film about artists in Berlin I definitely wanted to include dance. The dance company Constanza Macras/Dorky Park was founded in Berlin but it is very international in its make up and outlook. Its founder is originally from Argentina and most of the dancers represent the mix of artist expats one typically finds in this city.
In preparation for the Sketches segment on Dance, Iv and I attended a new DorkyPark production, “Berlin Elsewhere.” The sold-out performance was at the Schaubühne in Berlin-Charlottenburg. One thing that immediately stood out in this production was the mix of acting and dance. Most of the members of DorkyPark are professional dancers but some are actors who have dance training. It is fascinating to see the well-trained DorkyPark dancers execute a series of movements: graceful, rhythmic or acrobatic. But when those movements are simultaneously accompanied with text spoken by the dancer, it is truly remarkable.
These texts are created by Constanza Macras after months of research. In the case of “Berlin Elsewhere” some of the texts are based on the biographies of the dancers or experiences that they have had. They are then adapted to fit the theatrical context of “Berlin Elsewhere”. We spoke to a Brazilian DorkyPark actress/dancer during the dress rehearsal before a performance. She explained that a character she portrays is based on an idea that Constanza discussed with her about an identity problem many South Americans share. They can feel caught between Che Guevara and Prada, from a deep revolutionary spirit to a chic, but shallow fashionista.
DorkyPark impresses with its quick wit and subtle creativity. Actors dance, dancers sing and climb, turn into furniture, grab an instrument to join the band and then the band joins the dancers for a hilariously realistic orgy. “Berlin Elsewhere’s” themes are current yet under-represented subjects of life in this city: the intercultural confusion of being a visible minority, a feminist manifesto on toilet etiquette the morning after, the smugness of carriage-pushing new parents.
From the current-events politics of the painful political correctness of a dutch immigration test to film trivia allusions to Vincent Gallo’s “Brown Bunny”. These themes may be found elsewhere in Europe or in the world but right now it is Berlin where their discussion occurs in such concentration.
In our attempt to blur the line between still photography and film, SKETCHES utilizes a diverse palette with a variety of visual methods to tell its story. The entire film is punctuated by freeze-frame, photo-collage and photo-animation techniques to underline the portraiture of these sketches. The still image is set in contrast to the moving ones. The use of still photographs is the foundation of our concept of the sketch portrait of the artist as well as the city of Berlin.
Why Berlin? At least 3 good reasons.
In this film we hope to answer the question, “Why Berlin?” with three good examples from the city’s thriving arts scene. On our website you will find our first trailer with Daniel Sambo-Richter, an interview and concert video of Tanga Elektra and below is our newest trailer featuring excerpts from the SKETCHES portrait of Constanza Macras/DorkyPark.