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Self Portrait with Skull
Remarks on the films of Michael Brynntrup
by Birgit Hein

Since the beginning of the Twenties many of the most important works in experimental cinema have been the personal films, which were 'psycho dramas' representing individual feelings and thoughts against the censored official culture. These films have always developed new forms of expression to convey their subjects.

Michael Brynntrup's films belong in the context of this tradition because they are radical, personal, and because he cultivated his own new narrative style with them.

For him, filmmaking is a process of searching for his own identity; therefore he is mostly his own actor and subject of his films, in which he examines reproductions in relationship to reality.

In his film »Handfest - Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle«, 1984, these are old and new passport photos, old films and photographs, xeroxes and his mirror image, whom he asks about himself. This analysis is at the same time a reflection about the producing of images and filming as a process of reproduction.

He lays his head on the xerox machine's glass where the light is flashing. What kind of copy of the head will it create? The xeroxes of his hands, the plaster hand on the hand photography, the moved hands, the hand with the ants from 'Chien Andalou' - they are all the same reality in the film. He enlarges the xerox of his passport photo in several steps, and finds that the pupil of his eye looks like a skull. The producing of images means to create a new reality and not to reproduce an existing one. The film shows what you actually can't see: feelings of guilt, which lead to the intention to commit suicide, and the terrible fears resulting from the forbiddden action of the hands. The trauma of the adolescent.

In »Tabu I-IV«, 1988, he portrays his own life in the last years. It starts with a drastic personal experience, a dangerous and painful operation. The text from his diary is supplemented with a small, not very focused, polaroid photo, which depicts him with a bandaged head in bed. This is the proof of it - that everything has happened. As the pages of the diaries turn, the images lose their documentary style. His life is now portrayed in clips from his films in chronological order. On one hand, it means he portrays himself indirectly, in a digested, new-constructed reality. Privacy is taboo. On the other hand it means that his life goes into his films and that you can find the essential there.

The peculiarities of his narrative style are fully developed here. Portrayal and function. He is addressing himself directly to the audience. He looks into the camera, he talks to the spectator, he reads texts off camera - or he displays written statements like "please publish after my death" (in »Testamento Memori«). He allows us to see how he writes his texts or draws his drawings. We get the impression that the film is being produced now, as it is projected to us. Images and texts put themselves together like arguments of a direct speech. At the same time one is conscious of the process of making, although the shooting isn't visible. The distance of the filmed action also results from the dichotomy between image and text, which, for example, in »Höllensimulation«, 1987, don't seem to relate to each other. The spectator has to make an effort to decode the information.

Michael Brynntrup works in many different styles. He also carries out the search for his own identity by playing the part of somebody else, as in »Jesus - Der Film« or »Orpheus«. Through using 'the other', his own persona becomes visible. In the mirror he doesn't see himself he sees the other face.

In some of his films the skull is his partner and his second ego (»Musterhaft«, 1985 or »Testamento Memori«, 1986), with whom he talks, plays, kisses, and even has sexual intercourse.

The death theme runs through his work from his early films on. Death is the end in the beginning, before life has really started.

»Der Rhein - Ein Deutsches Märchen«, 1983, is about his uncle, his father's younger brother, who died when he was 18 in the last days of WWII at Kaub, the area where his family spent their summer vacations. Brynntrup dissolves the color home movies of his childhood with the B/W documentaty footage of fighting soldiers. The study of death even in his childhood has a deeper meaning. His identical twin biother died in childbirth. Speaking in terms of depth-psychology, the guilt of the survivor unconsciously determines his fascination with questions of death.

»Testamento Memori« ironically describes the birth-death theme. Texts with music about breathing techniques accompany his playing with the skull, in which the exhortation at the end is satirized. In this film his talent to create his own new images comes to full expression. His face, his hands, the skull, and a 'Chinese' bird cage dangle in the room like silver shadows on a golden background.

In these works, the unified pictorial style is used repeatedly. There are episodes of »Totentänze 1-8«,1988/89, for example, in which the skull has different 'relationships' with men and women. I have seen only one of these eight films, which evoke the poetic independent American cinema of the early sixties.

You can see Michael Brynntrup's films again and again and you can always discover something new in them. The visual and textual complexity of his work ranks him with the most important new German and European filmmakers.

(Birgit Hein, Self Portrait with skull, printed in: BERLIN - Images in Progress, Contemporary Berlin Filmmaking, Edited by Jürgen Brüning and Andreas Wildfang, Hallwalls / Buffalo, 1989)


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