Basel, June 20, 2021
Olaf Möller gives the laudation for Dominik Graf
Freelance author and curator Olaf Möller praised the second Bildrausch Honorary Award winner as an "extraordinary genius". We publish the text of his laudation for Dominik Graf.
Where do you begin, when you have so much to say about so many things, and you have had the opportunity over the years to get to know the person being honoured so well that you in a wonderfully serious way can speak of friendship?
Everything that follows is just a hint of what should be said. But it’s at least a start – an attempt to plant some seeds that will entice you to get to know the magnificent and intricate oeuvre on which Dominik Graf has been working for almost half a century.
A few days ago, I talked about Dominik with Albrecht Schuch, who plays a wonderfully shy and excited Labude in Fabian: Going to the Dogs, and he quoted a recent interview where Dominik talks about what cinema should be and accomplish. Schuch appreciated the phrase (by Erich Kästner) that there should not be any railings – in other words: safety measures are forbidden.
Few filmmakers have been as keenly experimental in their works – Dominik’s oeuvre is remarkably diverse and full of exceptions and deviations from the very few rules that can be discerned: his confidence in the police film as a genre that lets us analyse social interconnections in a most precise way, and his passion for describing love affairs.
The police film – in other words social analysis – is the backbone of his cinema. When I say “cinema”, I mean an idea of social and political togetherness, which can take place just as much in a theatre as in front of the family television, and possibly the next day at work when discussing with colleagues what was watched the night before.
But both cases are a thing of the past. The media and our way of interacting no longer work that way. But the fact that Dominik’s films have become increasingly virulent over the past few years maybe shows that the path we have chosen over the past 30 years was the wrong one. We have fallen behind where we once were, and we are poorer for it, as Dominik himself also said in 2014, at the end of Es werde Stadt! 50 Jahre Grimme-Preis in Marl.
Dominik is always concerned with a common vision, an idea that what we have seen together concerns all of us. Dominik likes the idea of having an educational mandate, and he takes it very seriously. Here are a few examples:
In 1993, in Morlock – The Link-up, Dominik is probably the first West German filmmaker who speaks about the crimes and the downright colonial conquest by the “Treuhand” privatisation agency in the territories of the former German Democratic Republic.
In 1994, with Die Sieger (The Invincibles), he presents a SWAT action thriller about suicidal and mass-murdering masculinity and political corruption in a way that only enjoys broad public recognition 25 years later – namely when everything the film talks about has become a reality – in other words far too late.
2013, in Tatort – From the depths of time, he interweaves insights into neoliberal urbanism with the history of European Fascism in the form of a tribute to Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.
In 2014, with Polizeiruf 110 – Smoke on the Water, he satirically dissects the former Federal Minister of Defence Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.
In 2017, with Tatort – The Red Shadow, he commemorates the Red Army Faction’s “Stammheim Death Night” in such a subversive way that even our President felt compelled to reprimand him publicly. In the same year, he makes a documentary together with Martin Gressmann, which pays tribute to – let’s call him – the “radical socialist Ordoliberalist” Philip Rosenthal – The Industrialist Who Didn’t Believe in Capitalism. In other words: he pays tribute to a path that West Germany never chose, even though it might have been the most reasonable of all possible paths.
Admittedly, when people talk about an educational mandate, they rarely think of it in this way: against mainstream state ideology, exciting, thrilling, multi-layered, and, in the case of Tatort – Out of the depths of time and Polizeiruf 110 – Smoke on the Water at times formally daring and experimental. And above all: genre, genre, genre. But that’s the way things go in the cinema according to Dominik: boundaries need to be dissolved, the common needs to be emphasised, together with the things that the different parts of society as well as culture can learn from each other. The decisive factor is “togetherness”.
Who else blends highbrow with popular culture in such a wild yet carefully conceived way? Who fuses contemporary media with literary classics, like he did with his first essayistic melodrama about the Nazi plundering case Gurlitt, On the Eve of all Days, which he made as a free adaptation of Henry James’s The Aspern Papers?
In the same spirit he approached A Map of the Heart around 15 years earlier: a large symphonic orchestra flows through the pixel dust of images created with cheap digital cameras, as he tells the story of the mutual desire between a teenager and a woman in her late thirties.
A Map of the Heart is possibly the culmination of a period in which Dominik largely turned away from police films and focused on love stories – thereby returning to what brought him to cinema: Rohmer and Truffaut, and to a topic he had plenty of life experience in, but not enough cinematic experience, as he once jokingly said over a beer.
At this point, one more thing deserves a mention, namely the thing that got in the way for an international reputation: the fact that around 85% of his work was done for television is also the reason for his extraordinary genius – Dominik has worked and experimented like a possessed soul, and has made the best use of the spaces he was offered to work in. Many filmmakers who also work for television also make many films – but who makes so many different films but stays so true to him- or herself? Above all: who learns so much while working?
Dominik not only makes films, but he also watches them and writes about them; and through watching and writing – through his enjoyment of as well as razor-sharp analytical approach to cinema, literature and art – he learns what it takes.
I’ll stop now, even though I’d like to keep talking, because I love to talk about Dominik, as talking about him lets me find new paths into and through his oeuvre. Given the fact that this award is handed out in connection with a literary adaptation, I would love to say much more about Dominik and his books, but here, too, there is so much more I’d like to learn. Dominik once mentioned in passing that Herbert Asmodi was a family friend and an important role model for him, from whom he learned a lot about literature.
For me, much of what defines the filmmaker, citizen and friend Dominik Graf is crystallised in his portrayal of Heinrich Böll, who makes an appearance as a secondary character in The Red Kakadu, in not more than two scenes, if I remember correctly. His Böll is curious, warm-hearted, unbiased, principled. He is the Böll who brought flowers to Ulrike Meinhof in prison and who had to endure abuse for this simple act of Christian decency. This, of course, is not a part of the film, but is a part of the character’s attitude when he talks to Siggi, the friend of Luise, the young poet from the GDR. I always found it surprising that Dominik had woven this figure into the story. I think it is important for him that there is this image of Böll in fiction, and that this decency is now a part of our popular perception of him. Dominik’s artistic work is an expression of this decency – of the adventure and experiment that is the search of a just life.
Olaf Möller, June 20, 2021