biographische Artikel | biographic articles

From the Diary to the Webcam:
Michael Brynntrup and the Medial Self
by Robin Curtis

A hand-held camera moves through the space of an apartment in West Berlin, inspecting both its contours and its décor, focusing frequently on the skulls and skull motifs that are distributed throughout the space. Finally the camera comes to rest alternately on the filmmaker himself, visible in a mirror, holding the camera to obscure most of his face, and a naked male figure in a death mask, visible in another mirror across the same room. The year is 1985. The apartment belongs to Michael Brynntrup and will feature prominently in many of the films and videos made by this prolific artist over the next twenty-one years, until he finally moves in 2006. The 8-minute film concludes with an extreme close-up of sexual intercourse between two male figures: is the filmmaker consummating his flirtatious relationship with “death?”

This film, entitled Musterhaft (Exemplary), was included in the opening programme of an exhaustive retrospective of filmmaking in West Berlin in the 1980s that was mounted in 2006 by Berlin’s cinematheque, Kino Arsenal. It was no surprise that Michael Brynntrup’s work was well represented within that series, documenting as it does the spatial absurdities of that isolated, crumbling city, his own state as a “Wahlberliner,” an exile from West Germany, or the vibrant queer culture of 1980s Berlin.[1] His films from that period evoke the specifics of everyday life in Berlin in all of its eccentric complexity, demonstrating his commitment to an examination of the significance of place for identity and experience.

However, Musterhaft was not Brynntrup’s first venture into the autobiographical mode. Another film, the 12-minute Der Rhein — ein deutsches Märchen (The Rhein — a German Fairy Tale), made on Super 8 and 16mm film predates it by two years and differs radically from it both thematically and formally.[2] This film’s title is written in Sütterlin script, suggesting the handwritten form of a German diary from the period in question: the last days of the Second World War and the years that follow. A voice-over, spoken by Brynntrup himself, relates the story of the death of his uncle, Carl- Anton, who died at the age of 18, shot by sharp-shooters just thirty minutes before the castle on the Rhein that he, as a member of the German Wehrmacht, had orders to defend, was captured by the American army. The film presents a series of photos depicting Brynntrup’s family both during the war and in the home movies of the family’s holidays at a summer cottage on the Rhein in the years after the war. These Super 8 films shot by “Georg Brintrup,” according to the home movie’s own titles, echo the aesthetic of the Heimatfilm: the colorful but politically very conservative, indeed revisionist, feature films that were popular in West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s and that extolled the virtues of the simple life in the German countryside, while utterly ignoring both the complicated geopolitical situation of postwar West Germany or the devastation of the war. In Brynntrup’s reworking of these family artefacts the implicit — and still virulent — traces of the war years in such pastoral images are accentuated, most particularly when his own family’s outing on the Rhine pointedly documents their pilgrimage past the castle in question. At issue here is what lurks silently behind the most idyllic of scenery, a point that is further emphasized in the last few minutes of the film by means of the superimposition of archival images of battle scenes, rows of refugees, and aerial shots of bombing missions on top of the holiday films. One should keep in mind that this kind of treatment of home movies was exceedingly rare in Germany at the time this film was made. Brynntrup never again returns after this film either to this mode of filmmaking (employing his own family’s home movies as found footage) or to any other images of his family or the West German countryside. The film remains an anomaly in his oeuvre. From this point onwards, he is a Berliner and the human body, most particularly his own, figures prominently in his work.

Since the early 1980s Brynntrup has been a fixture in the film community in Berlin, from his first Super 8 films made within the local Super 8 collective, “Oyko” (pronounced otschko). He has worked in an ever increasing variety of media (and in particular, new media), an impressive breadth to which his Web site (www.brynntrup.de) attests. Brynntrup has made everything, from costumed drama to found-footage films presented in Super 8 and 16mm, and on CD-ROMs. He has made streamed films, installations, photography, drawings, photocopy art, photographs, a meticulously kept series of artfully illustrated diaries, and finally the extremely complex Web site that amalgamates (and transforms) all of these individual media. Indeed, it is a daunting undertaking to try to reflect that output in a few pages, because of both the sheer number of film and video projects completed by Brynntrup since 1982 and, perhaps more significantly, his inclination to continually reflect upon his own output, reproducing sections of older works in newer ones. The effect is not unlike that of a kaleidoscope in which, with each movement, the same beads within the kaleidoscope produce different effects for the viewer. In the case of Brynntrup’s oeuvre each reworking of a past work refracts the spotlight away from the already familiar content and on to both its maker and the medium that gives it shape.

Both of the films described thus far — and nineteen others to date — are included on his Web site in a list entitled “Ego Komplex (Autobiographisches)/Ego Complex (autobiographics).” There he divides his work into ten categories in total, including “Tabu Komplex (Tagebuch) / Taboo Complex (diary),” “Homosex-Komplex / Homosex-Complex,” “Todes Komplex / Death Complex” and “Lebende Bilder / Still Arts.” The complete list also includes, “Medien Manifeste/Media Manifesto,” “Metamorphosen/Metamorphosis,” “Totentänze/Death Dances,” “Lebende Bilder/Still Arts,” “Schriften, Testamente/Scriptures, Testaments,” and “Heimat BRD/Germany.” Each of these categories on the Web site leads to a list of works, and many of the work titles themselves lead to a further documentation or even to an excerpt from the work itself as a streamed film. As this long list makes clear, it would be misleading to suggest that Brynntrup has devoted himself solely to the investigation of autobiography. It is equally clear, however, that despite the ostensibly independent status of the “Ego Complex,” these themes are also hopelessly interwoven, something that the first film described here, Musterhaft, already suggested. Indeed that deceptively simple Super 8 film is significant for two reasons. First, it sets out the elements that will be of recurring interest in Brynntrup’s oeuvre: sex, mortality, the drive that stimulates artistic production, and the lures and pitfalls of personal record-keeping. Second, it demarcates the parameters of an approach to the medial self that is, I would argue, unique to German film and video and is based in part on the ongoing theoretical debates in Germany about what constitutes a “medium,” a point to which I will return in the second half of this text.


If viewed from the perspective of Anglo-American film practice and scholarship, which seems to assume that the autobiographical form is something akin to an international film “genre,” both well-represented and comparable in its formal characteristics all over the world, it would be easy to overlook how Brynntrup’s long-term investigation into the permutations and ramifications of the autobiographical is both a rarity within and, in its specific form, very much a product of the German context. Such a claim may seem to be counterintuitive when one considers the wealth of autobiographical literature that began to appear in earnest in the Federal Republic in the 1970s,[3] or in the face of the prominence in North America of a particular set of fictional films hailing from the “New German Cinema” that were said to be based on the filmmaker’s own experience.[4] However, the fact remains that, apart from a few specific lone filmmakers’ quite individual forays into this field, few German filmmakers have taken up the autobiographical project, at least not in its most typical guise.[5]

In a rare book-length treatment of the autobiographical documentary Jim Lane has proposed that this mode be defined by means of the presence of the author’s “voice,” or “social point of view” in the work. He writes:

Documentary voice therefore allows us to view the autobiographical documentary both as a construction — that is, the organization of sound and image as a perspective on an autobiographical world — and as an existential record of events that, as private and intimate as they sometimes might be, point to an ontological world that bears its own expressive weight . . . the viewer perceives the autobiographical voice as the organizing force behind the documentary’s presentation.[6]

Within this notion of autobiographical film, the status of the images and sounds that are the foundation of such representations of the medial self are left unquestioned. Moreover, Lane designates more than simply the spoken words of the filmmaker with the term “voice”; he means a perspective or a personal artistic vision. Nonetheless the two (vision and speaking voice) are oftentimes implicitly conflated within this mode. Within the Anglo-American context it is precisely that “voice” (whether spoken or written as titles) that generally demarcates to the audience that a given film or video is to be viewed as “autobiographical.” This voice functions in much the same way as the title page or back-cover blurb claims this mode of reception for a book.

This is one of the key positions within the debates around the literary autobiography and the manner in which it may be distinguished from other forms of writing, an argument put forth by Philippe Lejeune in his seminal “The Autobiographical Pact.” Although he points to the significance of the title page in Western literature, he adds that

the history of autobiography would be therefore, above all, a history of its mode of reading: comparative history where we would be able to bring into dialogue the reading contracts proposed by different types of texts (because it would be of no use to study autobiography all by itself, since contracts, like signs, make sense only through the play of opposition), and the different types of readings really practised on these texts. If autobiography is defined by something outside the text, it is not on this side, by an unverifiable resemblance to a real person, but on the other side, by the type of reading it engenders, the credence it exudes, and the qualities that are manifested in the critical response to autobiographies.”[7]

This particular mode of demarcation, however, remains rare in Germany. It has been taken up by only a few practitioners and has not had nearly the same kind of popularity, either among novice filmmakers or among those considering issues of identity politics, as has been the case, for instance, in the United States, Canada, England, or Australia. In any event, this most typical form of autobiographical film can be said to privilege the autos, or the self that is contained as a morpheme within the term “autobiography.” What is particularly notable about the films and videos from Germany that seek to represent the significance of the filmmaker’s trace within the film is that they are far more inclined to represent the bios (or the “life as it is lived”) of autobiography in a spatial rather than temporal fashion and thus prefer to dwell in the present tense rather than to attempt to reflect on the relationship between past and present. The body and the visceral experience it generates — as an expression of the present moment — tends to take precedence in these works over the construction of a thread that connects the events of the past to those of the present. Indeed, oftentimes within the German context there is nothing verbal or written that serves explicitly to identify the film as autobiography.

Instead, German autobiographical films and videos seek to transmit the experience of a Selbstverortung. The German verb verorten describes a process by which one may gain some insight about where one presently stands. Thus the compound noun Selbstverortung pertains to such a localization specifically with regard to the self; it emphasizes the spatiality of our being, the relevance that our placement in space and time has for our “situation,” in every sense of the word. By means of a Selbstverortung one may get one’s bearings by reflecting on both the relationship between past and present and that between “here” and “there.” It invokes a process of localization specifically with regard to the self, while emphasizing the spatiality of our being, the relevance that our placement in space and time has for our “situation,” in every sense of the word. It is precisely what is at issue within a wide variety of German film past and present: work as varied as Heinz Emigholz’s Photographie und jenseits (Photography and Beyond, 1984 to present) series [8] or Matthias Müller’s Alpsee, Herbert Schwarze’s Das bleibt, das kommt nie wieder (That Remains, That Never Comes Again, 1989–92), Adolf Winkelmann’s Kassel 9.12.67 11.54h (1968), Hatice Ayten’s Gülüzar (1994), or indeed even Oskar Fischinger’s München-Berlin Wanderung (Munich to Berlin, 1927). While not a single one of these films identifies itself as an autobiography in the usual sense of the word, each is utterly devoted to the specificity of place and the manner in which a particular body at a particular moment encounters and is formed by it.

It is precisely this kind of Selbstverortung that Brynntrup also enacts in the overview of the living space presented by the film Musterhaft, which was described above. Another work, the elaborate CD-ROM Netc.etera, takes this approach very literally in that it presents Brynntrup’s own curriculum vitae in spatial terms. The user may navigate through the panorama-like 360-degree image of Brynntrup’s apartment, already familiar from Musterhaft, and click on a variety of objects hanging on the walls or stacked on the floor or desk with the cursor in order to access clips from several autobiographical films, diaries, or art work from his oeuvre. Here Brynntrup conflates the artistic self and its development with an image of the confined space of the apartment in Berlin-Neukölln.

Indeed, in all of its formal complexity Brynntrup’s work provides something of a roadmap that shows the way between the openly radical politics of West Berlin in the 1980s (and before) and the political pragmatism and theoretical complexity of the German capital city today. The aesthetics of his work shifts from the do-it-yourself trash look of the 1980s [9] to an increasingly self-reflexive, found-footage-like approach to his own archive of personal memorabilia, to which he relegates not only private material but all of his artistic output, as is the case in Netc.etera. This latter technique in particular often serves to blur the line between private life and work (not surprisingly), but more importantly and disturbingly to blur the distinction between the artistic exercise of the representation of the self in audiovisual form, an affirmation of the self’s own existence, and what amounts to an elision of the self by means of the dominance of its medial markers. Brynntrup’s increasing attentiveness to this indistinct line of demarcation is key to his project. In order to understand the power of his particular blend of politically charged images and his simultaneous audiovisual intervention in the German media debate and its significance for the representation of the self, Brynntrup’s oeuvre must be situated first within the fraught history of political filmmaking and self-representation in Germany since the 1960s and second within the German media debate and its repercussions for the subject.

The Body

A graduate of the Hochschule für Bildende Kunst in Braunschweig, Brynntrup is one of the many contemporary German filmmakers and artists who were students of filmmaker Birgit Hein while there and who all continue today to work to expand the “Contemporary German Experimental Film” in various directions. Among her former students, Brynntrup is the most prominent practitioner of a tactic similar to her own, in that his investigations of the self and the politics and possibility of its representation have been ongoing throughout his career rather than simply a short-term point of interest. Hein’s own work in film and video stands out in the German context for its unflinching focus on oftentimes messy and uncomfortable personal experience, sexuality, and male and female corporeality, with Hein herself vouching for that experience as a corporeal presence within her films, visibly and audibly. Hein’s approach is indebted to the particular form of political activism in 1960s and 1970s Germany, in which she was a very active participant, organizing (and being arrested for) screening events and performances in the underground film scene in Cologne. Her aesthetic project offers more than simply a reiteration of the dictum that the personal is political. Like many filmmakers of that period, she pushed the boundaries of what could be shown publicly, while searching for an adequate aesthetic form for such representations, one that called forth a particularly visceral form of reception.[10] However Hein’s own work was something of an anomaly, showing more obvious links to that of the Viennese Actionist Valie Export in its interest in the explosive power of the (female) body when consciously placed on public display, than to much of what was being produced in West Germany during the same period.

Indeed, in order to be adequately assimilated, Hein’s form of political filmmaking — and its influence on her students — must be contrasted with the vastly different role accorded to the body and the self in West Berlin political filmmaking during the same period. Harun Farocki, for instance, has consciously and meticulously avoided any kind of autobiographical references in his work — at least in the usual sense of the word. Nonetheless even in Farocki’s work the body, devoid of its past, or any other kind of personal narrative, has played a pivotal role: recall the image of Farocki dispassionately butting the burning cigarette out on his own arm in the 1969 film Unlöschbares Feuer (Inextinguishable Fire). But what kind of relationship between the embodied self and political expression does this act entail, and why does the body figure so prominently in West German films of this era, while the kind of self-narration, so common, for instance, in American filmmaking as a signifier of the autobiographical, is largely lacking?

It is helpful to consider the examination of the body going on in German filmmaking in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s — and thus being taken up directly by Brynntrup in his films of the 1980s and critiqued in his later films — in the context of an essay published by Michael Rutschky in 1980, entitled Erfahrungshunger (Hunger for Experience). Rutschky documents the importance of a kind of viscerality for the 1970s in particular when, as he argues, a longstanding yen for unmediated experience became particularly acute. By looking at several case studies he examines the manner in which a variety of phenomena — from illness to literature (along with the very act of reading and writing), to the activity of viewing a film — were enlisted in West Germany in the 1970s, with varying degrees of success, to deal with a loss of confidence in traditional signifying systems, particularly in the power of language to describe experience in a sufficiently precise fashion (indeed in a personal enough fashion) to elicit affect; different media are found to offer various degrees of relief. Writing was initially seen to offer both the reader and the writer a means to encounter reality, to finally have an experience (indeed an epiphany) that would transcend the “fog” of the era. This fog, however, is not the product of disillusionment with a particular political approach but rather with the potential of theorization or generalization per se. Rutschky describes this dilemma:

No one can say precisely what it was that we lost in the seventies. What I have described as a utopia of theoretical generalizations was the result of a conviction produced not by means of a particular theory but rather by the unspecific faith in the capacity to theorize itself, or to generalize about every one of my own impulses completely and utterly until it yielded a universal truth.[11]

Thus the loss of faith in that period was not to be attributed to scepticism with regard to any particular theory or ideology but rather with regard specifically to the relationship between individual perception and one’s ability to come to general conclusions on the basis of that perception. Accordingly, the relationship between self and other becomes shrouded; indeed the self becomes lost within such generalizations. Rutschky continues:

And this utopia has a dark flip side: every one of my impulses is actually something generalizable, and for that precise reason I cannot trust any of my impulses to be my own. The socialized individual dissolves into a mass of teeming, threatening discourses. Such a dissolution causes one to search for self-actualization and self-determination beyond the realm of language, in perception and sensuality, in the body, indeed, if necessary, in horror and pain. (263)

Somatic experience, whether pleasurable or painful, is found, according to Rutschky, to be the sole antidote to the dissolution of self implied by theory, generalization, and the mass of circulating discourses. Only visceral experience allows one to relocate one’s own body and thus one’s own self. Finally, it is only the experience of the cinema rather than literature or the process of writing that offers the kind of experienced longed for, because of the cinema’s ability to transcend the general concepts that inhibit one from distinguishing self from other. “Experience, not interpretation”[12] writes Rutschky, is key here (222).

It is this kind of singular devotion to the body’s ability to feel that is held up to scrutiny in a large number of Brynntrup’s films — indeed, is the motor for the dilemma they present. On the one hand the exact feeling of the events that make up a lifetime as they leave their trace on the body is privileged in Michael Brynntrup’s films. There are, however, no stunts such as Farocki’s, nor is there any tendency toward emotional or physical exhibitionism. The body is not the site of a demonstration of willpower; it is, in Brynntrup’s oeuvre, often simply the medium through which the world is perceptible in all its banality: hence his focus repeatedly on arbitrary moments of experience, or “the now.” However, for him the body is also the point where love and loss have all the meaning that they can have. His films are unfailingly personal, because they repeatedly seek to function as a proof of existence, a document of life as it was lived. In both Aide Mémoire: Ein schwüles Gedächtnisprotokoll (Aide-Mémoire: A Gay Document for Remembering, 1995) Brynntrup’s documentation of a series of conversations with his good friend Jürgen Baldiga before his death from AIDs-related causes in 1993, and Loverfilm: Eine unkontrollierte Freisetzung von Information (Loverfilm — An Uncontrolled Dispersal Of Information, 1996) Brynntrup takes stock of the faculty of memory.

The 16-minute film Aide Mémoire begins with a shot of an organgrinder standing in the courtyard of a working-class Berlin apartment block, viewed (with a handheld camera) from the window of a first-floor flat. The courtyard functions here (as is often the case with Berlin apartment blocks) as a theater, the public space between the many apartments that open out onto it. Indeed in this film the undeniable (and oftentimes unpleasant) permeability of public and private space is key. The organgrinder’s music continues as Brynntrup sets up his camera for a conversation with Baldiga. As the film’s credits are still appearing, the film rests on a still image of the smiling Baldiga holding up a used condom, an artefact of past pleasure, a keepsake, and at this precise moment of private reminiscence, a woman’s hoarse voice can be heard shouting threateningly, “Du schwule Ratte! Du, ich bring Dich um, Du Sau!” (translated in the text list available on Brynntrup’s Web site as “You fucking fag. I’m gonna kill your ass!”). The woman’s drunken invective (which, sadly, was not staged for the film) continues for most of the film, a tirade that is directed at Brynntrup by name. We soon see that she stands in the same courtyard (that of Brynntrup’s own apartment, already familiar from Musterhaft) as the organgrinder had before her, although the camera peers a great deal more cautiously out of that same window, around the edge of the curtain, at the middle-aged woman shouting with spittle visible at the edges of her mouth.

The film alternates between these two (mostly) off-screen sounds that waft in, as Brynntrup and Baldiga speak about what it feels like to live with the knowledge that the body is rapidly breaking down: topics range from the first orgasm (in a tree) to the most recent one (yesterday at the Neukölln public pool), the effect that the knowledge of impending death has on one’s sexuality (positive), to the power of the photographic image to preserve the ephemeral (poor). In the face of that admission, the film assembles a series of fragments that describe Baldiga’s life in the past and present, from his move to Berlin in 1980 to his vision of what death will be like. During one such conversational fragment he casually injects medication into his leg. Several still images interrupt the flow of the interviews and show Baldiga in a far worse state, physically, than he is shown in those segments, having indeed developed the ailments he has described in the interviews. The last still image finally shows him in his casket. Aide Mémoire is both unsentimentally direct about the fate of the body, making the facts of life with AIDS public, and tender in its representation of these private moments.

Alternating between the two spaces that are conflated by the offscreen sound, Baldiga’s apartment and Brynntrup’s own, the film seeks to both link and distinguish between the private and the public. After the bellowing woman is finally seen to stumble out of the courtyard, Brynntrup takes the organ-grinder’s place and is seen to gaze up to the window of the apartment, where Brynntrup can again be seen to be standing in the same suit, holding a camera shooting the scene below as well, taking charge in that formerly contested space and occupying it in a more positive fashion. Ultimately, however, the film likens itself to the condom that Baldiga had held up at the start, saying “After two years they don’t smell” to which Brynntrup replies, “Nothing? Not even like Latex?” Baldiga answers: “No, it’s bone dry. The way everything ends up.” Nonetheless the condom performs a function as a keepsake, despite this sensual limitation.

In Loverfilm (1996), which was made one year after Aide Mémoire, a lifetime of sexuality is compressed into twenty-one minutes, during which Brynntrup names all his lovers and the date of their contact in chronological order from 1978 to the present. In the film’s first image a computer database of names and addresses is visible, as a flurry of such data is scrolled over. The film returns repeatedly to this database, apparently concerned to represent its meticulous record-keeping: various perspectives on the computer screen reveal columns of information represented there, such as names, dates, and the special attributes of each individual. Clearly, the film has a lot of material to cover.

The film’s formal structure is quickly established: a red screen appears with the year 1979 superimposed on it, followed by a photo of a man with a moustache and a hair-style from the seventies. The voice-over, spoken by Brynntrup himself in a non-emotional, matter-of-fact tone, (ostensibly) identifies the man as “Adolf. 25th of March, 1978. My first man.” Adolf is followed by “Mario, 14th of December 1979,” and then “Gerd, August 12th, 1980.” Each name is accompanied by an image and a sound effect that sounds like a cartoon rubber band, suggestive of the kind of educational documentaries shown in schools in the 1970s. This effect is intensified with the film’s first intertitle, which is read out loud by Brynntrup. Blending both the kind of claim common to documentaries and the disclaimer common to fiction films it reads: “This film is based upon true occurrences. Any resemblance to individuals, dead or alive, is not only intentional, but unavoidable.”[13] Thus the film’s status is muddied from the start. It is unclear whether the lists are documents or fiction, and whether the images represent the people in question or are drawn from other sources, a point that is further underscored by the next statement: “The imagery for this film is purely coincidental and derived from a different context. The imagery originates from my personal archive. The images were shot by myself or taken from public media sources. Some images were given to me as a personal memoir by those photographed.” A photo and a date accompany the pronouncement of each name by the voice-over, although it is not clear whether the photo represents the person in question. Indeed, many photos appear to be blatantly drawn from other sources, such as clips from gay porn from the 1970s.

The description of this film thus far would seem to suggest that, with its focus on such scrupulous record-keeping, Loverfilm is as dry in tone as the condom held up to similar scrutiny in Aide Mémoire. However, like the latter film it is surprisingly moving, its reserve being its strength. In its quick overview of hundreds of encounters, passing from teenage adventure through first relationships, heartbreak to maturity, the film offers a rapidfire overview of haircuts, fashion, and music from the years in question that in themselves induce nostalgia. Indeed, the protagonists of some of Brynntrup’s other films and many friends and contemporaries of anyone who lived in Berlin in those years and shared some of the same circles appear in this film. Watching Loverfilm is like flipping through a friend’s photo album.

However, while this intimate version of a curriculum vitae is amusing, it also recalls the praxis of listing one’s sexual partners when one is diagnosed as HIV positive. Cryptically, the voice-over states at one point in 1989: “It’s August 20th; I’m still negative.” Thus passages from the diaries describing the trials and tribulations of particular relationships are contrasted with the imperatives of the medical discourse that views each individual with respect to the AIDS virus, in the language of epidemic modelling, simply as “infected,” “susceptible,” or “dead.” This is underscored by the fact that some of the protagonists from Loverfilm, such as Baldiga or Ovo Maltine, are now also subjects of memorial works by Brynntrup.[14]

While these films point clearly to the significance of corporeal experience for Brynntrup, they also represent a departure from the role that Michael Rutschky had accorded to the body, as a corrective to the “teeming discourses” to which the socialized individual is subjected. The only refuge from those discourses, according to Rutschky, was a “search for selfactualization and self-determination beyond the realm of language, in perception and sensuality, in the body, indeed, if necessary, in horror and pain” (263). While Brynntrup’s films obviously show as much respect for experiences of horror and pain as for those of pleasure, never shying away from the inevitability of death, the body demarcates the highly ambivalent point where the medium and the self are not reconciled; it is where they do battle.

[Fig. 21. Die Statik der Eselsbrücken, 1990. Reprinted with permission by Michael Brynntrup.]

The Medium

Brynntrup’s work stands out in the German context for its ongoing devotion to an investigation of autobiography in audiovisual form, probing the link between the personal and the political by staging a conflict between the vicissitudes of corporeal experience and the implicit objectives of the recording apparatus itself, the audiovisual medium, as it were. The term medium, its nature and function, has been the subject of intense debate and theoretical discussion in the German context. My usage here is indebted to the explication offered by the Berlin philosopher Sybille Krämer.[15] Her position, which focuses on both the performative and “aisthetic” qualities of media, offers what she hopes to be a way between, as she terms it, the Scylla and the Charybdis of the media debate. These she defines as, on the one hand, media marginalism, which sees individual media only as the vessels of informational content, and media generativism on the other, which argues that media not only transmit but also constitute what they present. Krämer herself defines a medium as that which makes something available to perception (or aisthesis). This definition has broad implications for the representation of the self and its relationship to recording media.

By probing the limits of the self and its availability to perception, limits that are imposed by the recording devices employed to create the work in question, Brynntrup engages in a disquieting critique of the possibility of autobiography. We understand Michael Brynntrup to be the perceptual centre of his films by virtue of his having introduced himself visually at some point in each of those films: Brynntrup aligns himself with his camera with the aid of a mirror both in Musterhaft and in the 10-minute film from 1993, Mein zweiter Vers. (My Second Vers.) soon after the films begin. Such methods of representation as this (the use of a mirror to reflect the image of the filmmaker holding a camera) are conventionalized methods of suggesting both the relevance of subjectivity and the centrality of the specific bodies identified in the opening moments of those films. However, they do not overcome the fundamental objectivity of the filmic apparatus.

This aspect of Brynntrup’s work has frequently either been overlooked or downplayed as trivial, and much of the criticism of Brynntrup’s work simply finds the repetition and duplication in his work “playful.”[16] Mein zweiter Vers. offers on the one hand an obsessive documentation of a trivial event, that is of his first video take, shot within the apartment in question. However it simultaneously also documents and examines the not-so-trivial assumption that the camera and its perspective can be conflated with the artist and his “voice,” for in this film three cameras and three different kinds of film stock or video material, which are all trained on this “trivial event,” compete for attention. The film reaches a climax in the archetypical shot of the filmmaker holding the camera before him as he gazes into a mirror: the shot is repeated three times, each time from the perspective of a different camera as Brynntrup can be heard saying, “and here . . . we have homo sapiens, and Michael Brynntrup, and Michael Brynntrup . . ., . . . before his mirror, . . . before his mirror, in the hallway.” Thus while the space and time of the event is obsessively ascertained, the intervention of the filmic (and video) medium muddies the waters of self-representation — and Selbstverortung.

In his examination of the notion of autobiography, entitled “Autobiography as De-Facement,” Paul de Man has argued that there is a paradox contained within the notion of autobiography (in any medium) in that it is defined by the rhetorical figure of prosopopoeia, a figure by which an imaginary or an absent person is represented as speaking or acting, or in which something inanimate or abstract is personified. In this manner, de Man points out autobiography’s capacity to give a human face to the voice present within a text (a substitution that may be affected filmically as well). By the same token, such a tropological substitution suggests the absence of the subject — not only in the autobiography, but in general. He writes: “The latent threat that inhabits prosopopoeia, namely that by making the death speak, the symmetrical structure of the trope implies, by the same token, that the living are struck dumb, frozen in their own death.”[17] Although de Man’s conclusions are posed in more dramatic terms, this passage recalls what literary critic Elizabeth Bruss has called the paradox of filmic autobiography. It points out the gap that is created when the filmmaker is identified both with the apparatus and as the protagonist within the shot. Bruss observes that, “there comes a flash of vertigo, an eerie instant when ‘no one is in charge’ and we sense that a rootless, inhuman power of vision is wandering the world.”[18]

The role of the body in the audiovisual autobiography is highly ambivalent. Recall that, on the one hand, the body is the thing that sets the stage for any medium, in Sybille Krämer’s sense, to function at all, for it is “aisthesis,” or perception, that is brought about by a medium. On the other hand, however, there is always something decidedly disquieting about these kinds of mediatized demonstrations, for while they explicitly seek to record, they may also be seen to demonstrate what Krämer has designated the “Charybdis” of the German media debate, media generativism: that media not only transmit but also constitute what they present.

It therefore does not seem to be to be adequate to view Brynntrup simply as a trickster, who, with his endless digressions, doublings of self and sleights of hand, seeks to obfuscate his own trail, but rather as an artist who considers what the repercussions of media generativism are for the autobiographical project — and for memory. These works demonstrate a painful awareness of the body’s fragility and touch on an approach to the autobiographical text that stands in contrast to the affirmative, humanist understanding of the autobiographical project, which otherwise tends to dominate discussions of that form. Thus the following questions beg to be posed: how can the anxiety of mortality be represented in face of the fact that the autobiographical film is a record of the subject’s absence, that the filmic image (and its sound) is a product of a mechanical, not human, act of reproduction or depiction?

By means of a contrast between the various medial forms an ongoing struggle implicit within that work emerges, one between human and nonhuman means of marking time. The diary form plays a key role in that undertaking: while the literary diary is concerned to represent changes in consciousness over time, offering a day-by-day record of that consciousness, the diary film traditionally is seen as emphasizing the moment of shooting. The automatic present tense of the filmic image comes to represent various moments gleaned directly from the past when placed within the framework provided by editing.

An impassioned keeper of an elaborate written and illustrated diary since 1978, Brynntrup examines these documents explicitly in the two Tabu (or, Tagebuch [diary]) films, Tabu I–IV, Tabu V (and implicitly in Loverfilm), all of which investigate the relationship between mortality and the observation of the passage of time suggested by the diary form. Throughout both of the Tabu films the act of recording the present that is performed by the filmic apparatus is compared to the possibilities offered by the human body. Most explicitly, these are contrasted in the filmic images shot over Brynntrup’s shoulder as he draws a replica of the material visible in the very same shot. Looking like something between a cartoon and a story board, the image drawn by Brynntrup, thus created, suggests that it is the hand of the artist that defines both what is visible at any given moment and what is to come, since the images in the individual frames drawn on the page anticipate the film’s next few shots. But just who is in charge here becomes an issue in each of these works.

Indeed, while a written diary promises a detailed overview of the events and sentiments of relevance to its author, the filmic representation of Brynntrup’s thousands of pages of diary offered in Tabu I–IV obscures the content of those pages. This is achieved either by revealing the individual pages of the diary at such a distance from the camera and editing them together so rapidly that the viewer cannot hope to read them, or by layering so many individual versions of Brynntrup’s voice reading the content of those pages that a cacophony results. Certain select events are given more attention in the film, such as the films that Brynntrup made in the years covered by the diaries and the major operation that he underwent in 1980, which constitutes a visceral marker of particular significance in his life; the material that he has saved from the time of that operation and the time spent in the intensive care unit of the hospital reappears throughout both films (such as the document produced by the readout from his heart monitor and his writings from that period recalling the pain and fear he felt).

Both Tabu films open with a philosophical quotation. In the case of the earlier film from 1988, Tabu I–IV, Brynntrup reads the following, which is attributed to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: “Shown is the Now, this Now. The Now; it has already ceased to exist the moment it is shown; the Now that is, is other than that which is shown, . . . The Now, as it is shown to us, is ‘ein gewesenes’ (something-that-has-been), and this is its truth.”[19] Directly following this quotation, Brynntrup introduces himself and his most current diary, in which he proceeds to draw the event of filming at that precise moment, as in the shot described above. While this image seems to address the notion of the present moment in keeping with the quotation that preceded it, it also introduces the competition between Brynntrup as the fragile body, the locus of experience, and the film apparatus, for the upper hand in these films.

This struggle becomes particularly acute in the film’s closing moments, when several variations on an ending are played through, with Brynntrup saying each time, “In this, or a similar fashion, the film could end.” But who decides? One such variation lays out the final credits of the film within the pages of the diary. Yet it seems that the film gains the upper hand over the hand of the keeper of the diary: the ending, which is the final one in this film, is a typically filmic version of those same credits, with red letters on a black background. The voice of the filmmaker, however, appears to get the last laugh, both in that he calls out “. . . end!” (or, the imperative, “enden!” in German) in a somewhat exasperated tone just before the final credits come on screen, and in that after the credits have disappeared he finally states, “It is now twenty-eight minutes later. Thanks for your interest.” I am not suggesting that the filmmaker’s voice is actually present; it is, of course, as much a product of the filmic apparatus as the image. The film, however, explicitly stages the conflict between the filmmaker as an empirical author and the film as a mechanical apparatus.

This conflict is intensified in Brynntrup’s next two diary films. The 1998 film Tabu V begins with a bastardized form of Wittgenstein’s aphorism, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one can make films.”[20] While Tabu I–IV focuses almost exclusively on either the comparison of still images within the diaries or on the drawings completed by the hand that is present in the frame of the image, Tabu V primarily offers clips from films, documenting either the making of other films or events in Brynntrup’s life, such as getting a tattoo, or the compilation of his own “sex statistics.” Again, the ending of the film is particularly significant with regard to the competition between mechanical apparatus and the empirical artist as a mortal entity. Following the introduction of the word “Ende,” the following individual shots are alternated with the jagged lines produced by a heart monitor that typically indicate that the heart of the patient is still beating: Wittgenstein’s aphorism is reproduced in its proper form, but divided into two halves. The first half, “Whereof one cannot speak . . .,” is followed by the image from Tabu I–IV, in which the storyboard- like images depict what is to come. This image in turn is followed by a film of Brynntrup’s hand drawing those images, a further heartbeat, and then the second half of the quotation from Wittgenstein: “thereof one must be silent.”[21] The next image is once again a drawing, which represents an overview of the situation in which the drawing of the storyboard was made: a figure is seated at the table, a telephone at his right hand, the four diaries before him, a model of a human body at the upper left corner of the desk, film lights on either side of him, anticipating the position of the camera in the shot that is to be the final image of the film. Again a heartbeat separates the two. Finally, a film image of Brynntrup seated at that same desk shows him closing the diary and saying, “So!” (or, “There!”) The alternation between these mechanical representations of human life (the film images, the heart monitor) with those drawn by the human hand suggests a fundamental helplessness located at the heart of this film: is it even possible to reproduce human experience in filmic form? Does it aid in the recollection of affect?

In Loverfilm the contrast between the impersonal structure of the diary with its calendar-like insistence on the passage of time and the human experience recorded within is most tangible. The computer database that was already visible in Tabu V plays an even more prominent role in this later film, listing names, dates, and special attributes of each individual. Although hundreds of encounters are made tangible in the form of endless lists of names on a computer screen, the voice-over points out that despite the effort to keep detailed records of every lover, no recollection whatsoever remains of the particular quality of the sexual experience with the majority of those names. Directly following this observation, the film reintroduces the material documenting the operation already covered in Tabu I–IV, contrasting the retention of the visceral quality of that experience with the loss of such memories with regard to the sexual partners, suggesting that such precise record-keeping does not ensure the retention of affect.

Loverfilm has a much more clinical quality than either of the two other diary films; however, despite its clinical tone, Loverfilm is the most poignant of the three diary films. It signals an acute awareness of just how quickly time flies, condensing eighteen years of love and sex into twentytwo minutes. Furthermore, the combination of the film’s soundtrack, which offers a similar overview of popular music throughout the years covered, and the changing hair and clothing styles documented by each of the private images of individual faces, imparts a melancholy quality; these images presented in this form relegate our contemporaries to the archive.

Indeed, Michael Brynntrup’s own Web site constructs an archive such as this, a memorial of sorts to his own existence, by producing a record of his existence as an artist on a variety of levels: first and foremost, it uses the same images derived from heart monitors and other technological devices for measuring human health, images already familiar from the Tabu films, to decorate the Web site’s buttons entitled “chrono,” “bio,” “filmo,” and “etc.,” which guide the user to the appropriate category of information. These marks of corporeal existence are contrasted on the home page of the site with Brynntrup’s own signature in the centre of the image, providing a reference to the most common evidence of assent, authorship, and record of (past) presence. Moreover on its various levels the Web site demonstrates a host of metonymic marks of human presence, while avoiding the kind of replication of human perception that film facilitates.

The entry point to the category of the Web site designated “chrono” (chronology) shows a human figure in continuous motion, with the figure itself drawn as a mass of pure data, rows of letters and numbers, suggesting this dramatic scenario as the ultimate objective of the artistic production recorded there. As a whole the Web site functions as a record of Brynntrup’s relative productivity in the fields of diary writing (quantified in number of pages); filmmaking (as minutes); paintings and other objects: This manner of record keeping is more suggestive of corporate culture than of the life of an artist, in that it seems to seek to maintain an overview of production statistics in order to ultimately optimize production. And yet the sheer volume of material that is accessible there confounds any sense that one might acquire a sense of order with regard to Brynntrup’s life and work. As the journalist Helmut Merschmann wrote of the Web site and its seemingly endlessly circuitous links and logical loops, “Of course it is clear to Brynntrup that one cannot describe a person in his entirety, not even one’s own person. Between life and record there is always a small discrepancy — the time that remains to think about how presumptuous it is to measure one’s own existence.”[22]

The implied permanence of the Web site (in contrast to any film project) is in any case rendered explicitly absurd by Brynntrup in the form of two jokes: first, that the Webcam provided at various points on the Web site revealing Brynntrup at his desk hard at work writing in his diaries (thus precluding any other form of “life” for him) is, and has always been, a still image that has never been updated; and second, that the point of entry on the Web site that appears several times, showing the way to the end of the internet (“hier endet das Internet / you are leaving the internet”), leads the way to another page of pure data with a stop watch at the top left side of the screen that begins to count as soon as you arrive, precluding any other form of life for you, as long as you choose to linger there, marking time.

Recall that Michael Rutschky suggests that visceral experience, regardless of whether it is pleasurable or not, provides an antidote to the social ills of German society. He writes: “The socialized individual dissolves into a mass of teeming, threatening discourses. Such a dissolution causes one to search for self-actualization and self-determination beyond the realm of language, in perception and sensuality, in the body, indeed, if necessary, in horror and pain”(263). The work discussed here attests to the desire for such experience as a means of reassuring oneself of one’s own material existence. The irony implicit in this work is that by attempting to translate that experience into a medial representation, doubt is cast anew on the material existence of the subject.

Robin Curtis, "From the Diary to the Webcam: Michael Brynntrup and the Medial Self", in: "After the Avant-Garde – Contemporary German and Austrian Experimental Film" Edited by Randall Halle and Reinhild Steingröver, Camden House Rochester, October 2008.

[1] For a record of the program see Kino Arsenal’s October 2006 program at http://www.fdk-berlin.de/de/arsenal/programmtext-anzeige.html?tx_ttnews%5 Btt_news%5D 649&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D 194&cHash 1d8b1a5dc2 (28 Oct. 2006).
[2] In fact, according to the list of autobiographical projects on his Website, even this work is preceded by one other film, September, Wut — eine Reise, of even less certain public status than either of the two films described in greater detail here already, in that this earlier work, an 85-minute Super 8 film, is listed as “not in distribution.” See http://www.brynntrup.de/filmo/c_pjktxt_autobio.html (5 Jul. 2007). Brynntrup’s Website is an invaluable, if dauntingly rich, source for non- German speakers for information on his films, since it provides text lists for many of the films in English translation.
[3] Literature provided the privileged forum for non-fictional reckoning with the older generation and the degree of their complicity with the Third Reich. Few nonfictional films have attempted this, although in recent years a small wave has become noticeable. See, for example, Angelika Levi’s Mein Leben Teil 2, Malte Ludin’s Zwei oder Drei Dinge, die ich von ihm weiß, and Jens Schanze’s Winterkinder — Die schweigende Generation.
[4] The most prominent representatives of this trend, more popular among female directors in 1980s West Germany than male, were Jutta Brückner’s Hungerjahre, Helma Sanders-Brahms’s Deutschland bleiche Mutter, Jeanine Meerapfel’s Malou, and Marianne Rosenbaum’s Peppermint Frieden. Indeed these four films in particular have received the lion’s share of attention within scholarly assessments of autobiographical film in Germany. See, for instance, Richard McCormick, Politics of the Self: Feminism and the Postmodern in West German Literature and Film (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991), Barbara Kosta, Recasting Autobiography: Women’s Counterfictions in Contemporary German Literature and Film (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1994), and Susan E. Linville, Feminism, Film, Fascism: Women’s Auto / Biographical Film in Postwar Germany (Austin: U of Texas P, 1989).
[5] Birgit Hein is certainly the most prominent other long-term proponent of the autobiographical form in German film culture. For a more detailed look at the specific form taken by the medial self in German film and video see my own study, Robin Curtis, Conscientious Viscerality: The Autobiographical Stance in German Film and Video (Berlin: Gebrüder Mann Verlag/Edition Imorde, 2006).
[6] Jim Lane, The Autobiographical Documentary in America (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2002), 24.
[7] Philippe Lejeune, “The Autobiographical Pact,” in On Autobiography, ed. Paul John Eakin, trans. Katherine Leary (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989), 30. This is one of the key positions within the debates around the literary autobiography and the manner in which it may be distinguished from other forms of writing. For an overview of the complex debates that have arisen in the attempt to theorize literary autobiography, see Paul John Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1999).
[8] The series includes films such as Sullivan’s Banks, Maillart’s Bridges, Goff in the Desert, and Schindler’s Houses, which each document a series of structures built by the architect in question, as it was experienced at a given time, which is both recorded in the form of a title superimposed on the film and in the film’s maintenance of a consistent sound recording, despite the high number of edits in each film, which as Emigholz claimed at the Q & A at the most recent Berlin Film Festival, are equal to the edits in a fiction film.
[9] The retrospective of work from the 1980s in West Berlin offered at Kino Arsenal in Autumn 2006 highlighted the popularity of just such a trash aesthetic, combining theatrical costuming with the display of the everyday decrepitude of the city. This aesthetic made itself felt everywhere from the feature-length films of Ulrike Ottinger to the short films made by the artists’ collective Die tödliche Doris, whose work can be found documented at www.die-toedliche-doris.de (7 Mar. 2007).
[10] On the issue of the relevance of the audience for such public displays see, for instance, a fascinating interview with Birgit Hein and Wilhelm Hein, “Spiegelungen — Ein Gespräch mit Birgit und Wilhelm Hein: Gertrud Koch und Heide Schlüppmann über die Sexualisierung der eigenen Filmarbeit,” Frauen und Film 43 (1997): 27–36.
[11] My translation. Michael Rutschky, Erfahrungshunger: Ein Essay über die siebziger Jahre (Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1980), 263.
[12] On page 222 of Erfahrungshunger Rutschky emphasizes several times what it is that the cinema alone can provide: “Wahrnehmung, Erfahrung, Anschauung — nicht Interpretation” (222), and again further below: “Erfahrung, nicht Interpretation” (222).
[13] The film’s voice-over and intertitles are in German. For brevity’s sake I will reproduce here only the translation of the film’s text in the textlist that is available on Brynntrup’s Website.
[14] Ovo Maltine, who died in 2005, is the subject of Brynntrup’s video collage in Das Ovo.
[15] A brief overview of Krämer’s understanding of the medium can be found in her introduction to the volume she edited entitled Medien Computer Realität: Wirklichkeitsvorstellungen und Neue Medien (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1998). A more widely accessible source that documents the extremely broad range of positions in the German debate on the notion of the medium is the Website established after a conference in 2005 at the Bauhaus Universität Weimar, dedicated to the question “Was ist ein Medium.” (http://www.formatlabor.net/ Mediendiskurs/) (2 Mar. 2007).
[16] This is the general tenor of Maximilian Le Cain’s text on Brynntrup. However, Silvia Hallensleben’s analysis of the very complex film questioning the construction of identity, Die Statik der Eselsbrücke (or, The Static of the Mnemonic), is a notable exception.
[17] Paul de Man, “Autobiography as De-Facement,” in The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia UP, 1984), 78.
[18] Elizabeth W. Bruss “Eye for I: Making and Unmaking Autobiography in Films,” in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. James Olney (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980), 309. For another very thought-provoking but little-known examination see Christine Noll Brinckmann, “Ichfilm und Ichroman,” in Die anthropomorphe Kamera und andere Schriften zur filmischen Narration, ed. Mariann Lewinsky and Alexandra Schneider (Zürich: Chronos Verlag, 1997), 82–113.
[19] English translations of the films’ textlists are available on Brynntrup’s Website (http://www.brynntrup.de).
[20] The voice-over states, “wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber kann man Filme machen.”
[21] “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.”
[22] My translation. Helmut Merschmann, “Hier endet das Internet: Der Berliner Künstler Michael Brynntrup dreht einen interaktiven Film mit Udo Kier — eine Homepage als Ego-Trip,” Tagesspiegel Internet Archiv, 23 Sept. 1999, http://archiv. tagesspiegel.de/archiv/23.09.1999/ak-in-ne-9470.html (30 Oct. 06).


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