Oderland. Fontane (2016) by Bernhard Sallmann

by Claudia Siefen-Leitich

Within one’s writing, speaking, and ideally within one’s daily practical life, to place one’s words, pauses, pitches, and even omissions purposefully and communicatively can be now be called a luxury. Defining one’s own character through one’s own language, making it visible and possibly also accessible to a certain extent, is a luxury. And we recognize each other without wanting to form an elitist attitude, but for the sake of simplicity: I say what I mean, and therefore I also mean what I say.

Within these accentuations, literature and cinema have always been close to my heart. My path through these beloved labyrinths became clearer over the years, and the stones and puddles and small branches along the way less distracting. In German-language literature, when I was young, Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) gave me my first clues about how language can tell stories. Fontane likes to leave out the before and the after, the moment itself in which everything is explained.

Fontane – born in Neuruppin in northern Brandenburg, baptized in 1820, – his parents were of Huguenot origin – is concerned with how people talk to each other. In Fontane’s work, everything always seems to be animated conversation: people go for walks and talk, they sit down to eat and talk. But what they talk about, and above all how they talk, is what makes up Fontane’s world. It is the world of the end of the 19th century, and there is talk of the fulfillment of duty and humility, of politics, the conservatives and the social democrats, but above all of how people are, should be, could be to each other.

Havelland. Fontane (2019) by Bernhard Sallmann

Certain motifs are taken up again and again in the narrative style of Fontane’s landscape and presented in varied ways; thus, meta-textures emerge from the individual segments of his episodes, stories, impressions and the individual, heterogeneous narrative voices, such as implicit author, narrator, dialect speaker, in short: polyphony, which open up the various motifs from the local cut and assign them exemplary character. So much for Fontane for now.

What must have happened for filmmaker Bernhard Sallmann to approach his work and landscapes with all due caution, to almost dare to take them step by step, to search for and find images, indeed, to create almost sprawling, enduring, exhaustive tableaus, fused with the German language, sometimes using his own voice (over), sometimes with the optical and also acoustic addition of, for example, the almost congenial, but also at times stumbling yet confident actress Judica Albrecht!

It is much more likely to have just “not” happened, as I presumably introduce the paragraph here. Sallmann comes from rural Upper Austria, from Ansfelden, where he was born and grew up. The director has lived in Berlin since 1988, and his first works were made there in the late 1990s. So Bernhard Sallmann can be seen filling his notebooks, I will leave his ambition for this self-imposed task, its public resonance and also its ability to one-side. At times, the sounds and images of his films mean too much to me to take their sometimes questionable motivation as a subject of discussion.

Spreeland. Fontane (2018) by Bernhard Sallmann

Sallmanns four films are explorations of rural space, and form a central theme within the fusion of a river landscape with the greater Berlin-Potsdam area. The films uncover the foundations of the emergence of the Mark Brandenburg and describe the struggle of the natural-religious Wendish culture with the Christian culture pushing in from the West in the 12th century. Sallmann thus portrays the exchange relationships between the Mark Brandenburg and the rapidly growing metropolis as a lively resonance space.

Sallmann never illustrates, but creates his own underlying images, which never seem too far-fetched. If, for example, there is talk of strawberries, sweet cherries and apricots, he shows a field covered in plastic tarpaulins. To the text about an acacia tree, he mounts the long shot of a combined heat and power plant. When Fontane raves about the gothic church in Werder, a modern riverside villa made of glass and concrete can be seen. And: two shots show a dock in which a barge is waiting to be towed through on the left and two pleasure boats on the right can be seen, while the sun sinks over the banks of the Havel on the horizon. Ecstasy is the name of the barge, and yet, here we are talking about the concrete time of the cinematic space and the abstract one of history, of landscape and the societies that overwrite it, of presence and absence. And of agreement and difference.

Rhinland. Fontane (2017) by Bernhard Sallmann

An extensive foray follows a literary trail from the 19th century for Sallmann’s four Fontane films – Oderland, Rhinland, Spreeland, Havelland – cultivate a strolling gaze by locating views of a diverse natural and cultural space beyond Berlin’s city limits, whose archaic impression certainly corresponds with Fontane. Fontane’s cultural-historical texts, as already mentioned, date from the end of the 19th century, but with their many references to earlier chronicles they can certainly be understood as a kind of annotated historiography of today’s greater Berlin-Brandenburg area, encompassing several centuries. The carefully composed images that Sallmann finds to accompany them take up this idea again: they do not attempt to provide merely the modern image of a historical description, but evoke moods, approach the subject associatively. In word and picture. Sallmann said, after August Strindberg, he started thinking about Adalbert Stifter…

I was lucky to meet Bernhard Sallmann and also to see a retrospective of Bernhard Sallmann at the Metro Kinokulturhaus / Film Archiv Austria (curated by Florian Widegger) on the big screen. Thanks to Hans Christian Leitich introducing us to each other.