New York

Michael Klier

It takes a while to get the central metaphor in Michael Klier’s 82-minute-long videotape Der Riese (The giant, 1983). The opening scene, a high-angle shot of planes landing and taxiing around an airport in a misty gray dawn, could lead equally to a familiar narrative—cut to the arrival area, where someone is waiting to meet someone—or to a series of shots celebrating the diversity of urban life, as in the city symphonies of ’20s film. The swollen, melodramatic mood music seems to promise one or the other. The only thing out of place is the camera movement: crabbing, mechanical pans, never anything other than strictly horizontal or vertical; power zooms of blunt crudeness.

It’s only after the second scene, of men sitting before a wall of video monitors, and the third, of street scenes, again from a high angle, that it starts to become clear that “the giant” is a composite of the many surveillance video cameras placed around Berlin for various reasons—mostly “security,” whether public or private—and that in fact most of the tape is shot from the point of view of that huge, powerful, but sad creature. We never see the giant, of course, although we do see video surveillance setups—police on roofs taping demonstrations, the banks of video monitors in a traffic-control center and in the security offices of a department store. But we watch, through the giant’s eyes, the events of the city—a car accident, followed long minutes later by the appearance of an ambulance; a shoplifting incident in a department store; a woman cashing a check in a bank; a man abducting a woman in a shopping mall; strippers in a peep show, spotlit while the men remain in shadow. But this giant has a sentimental side too. It likes to look at the sunlight reflecting off the lake, at lovers walking along the shore. And the soundtrack, achingly romantic strings and dark jazz horns, constantly reinforces the emotional mood of the tape, furthering the sense of this voyeuristic giant as a lonely, pitiable behemoth.

If Der Riese were simply a conventional documentary about the pervasive presence of video surveillance it would become more or less important depending on the importance one gave its subject—as is true of all documentaries. By the same token, like most documentaries that detail social problems without proposing solutions, it would become little more than scaremongering titillation. By fictionalizing his subject, creating the character of the giant and following it through the day, Klier opens up its emotional ramifications, revealing the mentality behind surveillance as much as the sheer fact of its omnipresence. Klier’s use of the tools of narrative and theatrical film takes us inside his “character,” even as the documentary record provided by the video camera presents the physical reality it, and we, live in.

After this tour de force, Klier’s subsequent tape, En Passant, 1984, is disappointing. Klier uses many of Der Riese’s stylistic devices in telling this Godardian story of a group of youths bouncing aimlessly around Berlin, particularly the sobbing score and the virtually static, staring camera. But in tipping the work explicitly into fictional narrative, he takes on another set of formal requirements—acting, dialogue, plot. And despite some nice touches, like the mechanization that surrounds the characters wherever they go, from home computers to phone-in sex, Klier hasn’t found a way to rework the conventions of video (and filmic) narrative to give his story the exhilarating freshness and sense of revelation that Der Riese provides. Such criticism may seem ungenerous; En Passant is marked by a degree of ambition and accomplishment unusual in a video feature. But in Der Riese Klier has set himself a very high standard.

Charles Hagen