:: Birgit Hein [photo: Andrea Podzun]
The godmother of German experimental film is dead. Birgit Hein died at home while sleeping, at the age of 81, on February 23, 2023.
I met her in Osnabrück’s European Media Arts Festival at a precipitous moment. Every day, hundreds poured across the East Berlin border amidst rumours the Wall would be torn down soon. The Green Party sat on Berlin city council, vocal in its support of squat culture and its Super 8 emporiums. The legendary trio Schmelz Dahin (Melt Away) had come to show their latest chemical outrage, though it would turn out to be their final work together. The Alte Kinder (Old Children) group was also dissolving. And through it all, a larger-than-life figure ranged, touching and smiling, focusing the attention of everyone in the theatre, the centre of every scrum in the overcrowded bar next door where everyone fuelled up between dizzying bouts of avant-gardism.
Birgit seemed to know everyone there. Quick to smile, to embrace her comrades and raise a glass, there was a charged aura about her that set her apart somehow. She had a man in her face, and a nose that looked like she had taken a few shots for the cause. She was the object of a thousand quick glances, as if the crowd needed to keep watch, because beside her formidable debating skills and reputation as an artist, there was something deeply fragile about her; it seemed as if she might crumble right before our eyes. I discovered only later that she had been part of a legendary couple that had helped kickstart underground film in Germany, and they had recently divorced, so this festival visit was part of a coming-out display. She was on her own now, carrying the weight on her own capable shoulders.
I was showing a cut-up diary missive that described a break-up and, when it was over, she made a point of coming up to me and pronouncing, as if she were reading the words from the Bible, “Not bad.” We made arrangements to meet in her Köln apartment where she showed me a couple of things and we sat for an interview. She had not yet made the work that would both define and reimagine her, Die Unheimliche Frauen (The Uncanny Women, 1992), the first film she made by herself.
In the 1960s and 1970s, she had mapped out a film-as-film terrain with her former husband Wilhelm, making scores of short formalist works and running the infamous XSCREEN in Köln from 1968 to 1973. They organized dozens of shows, importing the American underground and introducing it to a new generation of European refuseniks. She wrote hundreds of letters, along with a pair of books that remain touchstones. She ventured into art museums and documents, and demanded they include movies, paving the way for the ubiquity of cinema-in-galleries that we enjoy today. She schooled a new generation of German movie artists at an art academy in Braunschweig, thrilling them with her open-hearted candour and blunt assessments. And it was there, surrounded by students, that became lifelong friends, that she made a dangerous and thrilling turn. She dedicated herself to making long essay movies with deeply personal roots. The approach was rough and confrontational, she was not there to provide answers but to challenge and provoke. Her after-screening Q&A’s became legendary as she faced down challengers from the floor. Friends and admirers brought her yellow roses.
:: Forbidden Pictures (Verbotone Bilder, 1985) [Birgit et Wilhelm Hein]
She was impatient and had the energy of ten ordinary humans. She was never drunk, but couldn’t stop drinking. Not eating salad was a point of pride; breakfast, lunch and dinner meant meat. She was always on time and pushed you to get to the point. She was an iconoclast, a destroyer of worlds who had 15 best friends, but no steady partner (was she too smart? too intimidating?) outside her sex tourisms, a punk radical who spent her life working inside systems so that she could change them.
She believed in community, in the magic that can happen only when people sit together in the same room. Production, distribution, exhibition and writing were all ways of making cinema for her. She created new forms of film and then abandoned them when they had outlived their purpose. Though she never fully left the shadow of her marriage behind. She didn’t believe in art for art’s sake. She was haunted by Germany’s Nazi past, and the deep complicity of her parent’s generation. She didn’t show students her movies, what she wanted was for them to find their own way, their own style, and that meant finding and staying with the struggle in each of them.
Artist’s movies are an oral culture. Each artist is a living archive, an irreplaceable embodiment of past and present. Birgit touched so many across the years. How beloved she was and how many had she turned to face an unwanted truth. She had a rare appetite for living in uncomfortable places. Her dedication to radical honesty opened the door to an emotional intimacy shared with dozens. All that’s left is to say goodbye.
To learn more about Birgit Hein: We are all Monsters: an interview with Birgit Hein (1990), by Mike Hoolboom.
Mike Hoolboom began making movies in 1980. Making as practice, a daily application. Ongoing remixology. Since 2000 there has been a steady drip of found footage bio docs. The animating question of community: how can I help you? Interviews with media artists for 3 decades. Monographs and books, written, edited, co-edited. Local ecologies. Volunteerism. Opening the door.
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