Embracing the future with Reni Mertens and Walter Marti

Olaf Möller

They were radical, committed, and believed in the humanistic power of cinema. They combined an uncompromising political attitude with the highest aesthetic standards and created a documentary oeuvre that has lost none of its power and beauty. 20 years after their deaths, Bildrausch is honouring the Swiss avantgarde filmmakers Reni Mertens and Walter Marti with a tribute programme, and together with some of their contemporaries we bow to the trailblazers of young Swiss cinema, “who didn't know things better, but strived to do so."


Memories will play a key role when Bildrausch 2019 rediscovers the opus of Reni Mertens and Walter Marti, as the two filmmakers both died about two decades ago, first Marti on 22 December 1999 (born 10 July 1923), then Mertens, less than a year later, on 26 September 2000 (born 8 April 1918). Many companions, friends and colleagues, including Erich Langjahr, Rolf Lyssy, Fredi Murer and Moritz de Hadeln, will come and talk about what it was like to live and work with these exceptional figures of international cinema. And to cut a long story short: it was not easy, given that the duo belonged to the most quarrelsome figures of their era – Marti above all was feared for the raging fury of his words. 


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Which brings us to the most important quality of their films: they may always be driven by commitment and a fighting spirit – but the forms that Mertens & Marti worked with in film after film are as sober in the way they depict things as their images, sounds and moods are poignant. There is nothing hot-headed and impulsive about their work: be it a major film that took many years to make and ended up being their most famous work, Ursula oder das unwerte Leben (1966), be it in commissioned and rapidly made films like Gebet für die Linke (1974) – each one of their works is characterised by a very strict yet aesthetically highly appealing formal approach. Even a seemingly controversial work like Im Schatten des Wohlstandes (1961), which was banned by the Zurich authorities after its initial broadcast, has a stylistic coolness and uses almost no didactic finger-pointing. This makes sense, for it is precisely because of the exemplary way in which the film reveals connections between the antisocial behaviour of toddlers and the constant stress of capitalist life, that it is so compelling. One can reject the argumentation of Im Schatten des Wohlstandes, but it is hard to disprove the way it is derived – among other things because Mertens & Marti have found a brilliant balance between information and emotions. And that is important: culturally, we have been conditioned to applaud reasoning when it’s a purely intellectual endeavour – but as human beings, we also need to be able to understand things emotionally.


In order to set things in motion, it has to be moving; but in order to be moving, it needs reasonable arguments, images, words and sounds, which first need to be discovered; and every new topic requires a different approach. All the films of Mertens & Marti are documentaries, but their mise-en-scène is never repetitive, even if there are aesthetic or methodical relationships between individual films, e.g. in the way how Ursula oder das unwerte Leben and Gebet für die Linke are divided into chapters, or how Héritage (1980) and Requiem (1992) but also Krippenspiel (1953 & 1962) manage entirely without words. And they also resort to completely antithetical mise-en-scène, above all in the two portraits Die Selbstzerstörung des Walter Matthias Diggelmann (1973), and Héritage. The first is a monologue, where the author W. M. Diggelman talks without interruption for one hour, while we watch him and surrender to him as he delivers himself to the camera. The latter is a dialogue-free montage, where we get to know the artist and composer Peter Mieg purely through his music and the imagery of his private spaces. Is there a hint of class antagonism in these completely opposite approaches? Diggelmann, at least, was born in highly impoverished conditions, and always remain- ed a stranger in better circles, while Mieg’s bourgeois background is reflected in the world he has built around his life…


Mertens & Marti proved to be agreeably undogmatic and open to all kinds of formal approaches, a trait that remained consistent in their roles as mentors, especially in the 1960s. With Alain Tanner’s Les apprentis (1964), for instance, they produced a masterpiece of direct cinema, a school that was alien to them (and whose aesthetics they themselves commented on subtly but intelligently in À propos des apprentis). And with Rolf Lyssy’s eccentric Eugen heisst wohlgeboren (1968), they also helped make a fictional feature film (and we should mention in brackets that one of their many unrealised projects included an animation).  


To put it bluntly: the works of Mertens & Marti are incredibly beautiful. And they are clever, free-spirited, generous, and take a compassionate approach to the human being – the smallest, yet only important, building block of the collective that is society. This brings them very close to their role models Bertolt Brecht, Ignazio Silone and Cesare Zavattini (a playwright / lyricist, a novelist and a screenwriter), whom they all met in Zurich at Reni Mertens’ debating club – where Marti and Mertens also met for the first time. In connection with Gib’ mir ein Wort (1988), Reni Mertens once summed up their common approach to the world: “Our attitude is not one of knowing better, but of wanting to know. I think it is very important that we don’t lose this curiosity, this child- like marvelling, with age. Therein lies the mystery of our work and the quality of a documentary work that is poetic.”


This fits with the fact that their most famous work, Ursula oder das unwerte Leben, portrays a learning process, and how difficult it is to acquire new knowledge, i.e. to process impressions coherently. The road there was long: in 1953, Mertens & Marti made their first film with the rhythmical therapist and special needs educator Mimi Scheiblauer, Krippenspiel. Nine years later came a new version of the same material, or rather process, a nativity play staged by Scheiblauer with deaf people. In between they made Rhythmik (1956), which introduced Scheiblauer’s methods. Ursula oder das unwerte Leben was the synthesis of all their efforts: the film shows the deafblind and mentally handicapped Ursula Bodmer, and how she was able to evolve as a human being and learn with the help of Scheiblauer’s principles and practice. What is perhaps most astonishing today about Ursula oder das unwerte Leben is the crystalline nature of the images, their nakedness, even the sculptural nature of the entire film (to which the narration, voiced by Helene Weigel, also contributes). Such an aesthetic approach is unexpected in a venture of this kind, if only because there is something implicitly undramatic about it. But Mertens & Marti are not interested in drama, as its use would mean that the learning process would no longer be taken at face value. And this is what it’s all about: every human being can learn, as long as we find a way to articulate ourselves that he or she can grasp. That is the cinema of Mertens & Marti: the explor- ation of these forms of articulation.


But this also requires the kind of time and space where such experiments are appreciated. In 1993 the Berlin Film Festival screened a special double bill of Mertens & Marti’s Requiem and Alain Ferrari & Thierry Ravalet’s Un jour dans la mort de Sarajevo (1992), shown in this sequence. Shortly after the start of Requiem, first signs of resentment stirred, which grew louder and louder as the film progressed. What was it that made disturbingly many spectators respond so aggressively to this cinematic poem about war cemeteries and the memory of several million victims of war – and about that strange miracle called culture, which manages to create beauty out of the most unspeakable acts of suffering? The context certainly had a part to play: people were eager to experience the current war, to see the new images and hear the strong opinions of Bernard-Henri Lévy. Requiem on the other hand spoke of the past, evoked feelings and memories, was thoughtful instead of rousing us to action. In its very own way, Requiem strives to be of yesterday, just as it longs for a tomorrow without these kinds of structures. It implicitly makes it clear that it’s all too late when we have films like Un jour dans la mort de Sarajevo. And then there’s the form: Requiem consists only of images and sounds, does away with language entirely, and offers no explanations or interpretations. We see row after row of gravestones, arranged into huge patterns in the landscape; only sometimes do we glimpse cemeteries that are smaller, almost intimate, and less structurally obsessed in their layout. And it is constantly accompanied by music, which we at times perceive as a commentary, then again as something independent that exists alongside the images, and which sometimes seduces us to lose ourselves in the delirium of impressions, then again expels us – thereby making sure that we never settle with one perception of the graves. Something about the world was broken, given the way Requiem was received. But thankfully not everywhere! That night was definitely an exception. And yet it made an impression, as it revealed how fragile this cinema is.

A comment of Walter Marti on Gebet für die Linke might offer some explanation. He said: “By ‘praying’ I mean looking at things and contemplating them, a concentrated going-within-yourself that stems from the urge to solve the seemingly unsolvable. In this sense, the entire film is a prayer.” There are few things that seem more unsolvable than what the war cemeteries reveal about our civilisation; or a deafblind and mentally handicapped person, whose inner life is deprived of everything we can imagine; or a human being alone in front of the camera, who surrenders himself and talks, wrestling with words and with the time he has at his disposal, and facing this situation in the same helpless way as all the people who will subsequently see the film – what can an individual be for others? But one has no choice but to embark on this journey, and to commit to solving the unsolvable. Walter Matthias Diggelmann did this when he accepted Reni Mertens & Walter Marti’s offer to speak continuously for one hour to the ca- mera and the microphone, and Mertens & Marti did it when they made him this offer. It is only through this insistence that we sometimes still find a solution. The opus of Mertens & Marti is comparatively small – but every film they made contains the hint of a solution. And that is very, very much.


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