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Rainer Komers - What the Landscape Said

German filmmaker Rainer Komers was initially involved in television projects in which journalistic responsibility prevailed over his need to get across his own creative vision. He has refined his cinematic style in distinctive film poems that in part echo the legacy of urban symphonies by his compatriots from the 1920s, Geoffrey Reggio's focus on the interconnectedness of man and civilization, and in part Komers proper. Like the composers he shows a visual fascination with modernity and with the industrial and urban aesthetics but his curiosity to provide a context and to examine what place man and nature have in this relationship sets him apart. Komers could agree with Reggio on the structure of a film but his philosophy lacks clear black-and-white outlines. Rather than being forceful in getting his opinion across, he always attempts to step back and listen to what a given place has to say. He stops at various places and at various stages of the human journey through life, searching for traces of civilization in the landscape and listening quietly to its whispered messages.


Rainer Komers was born in 1944 in Guben. He was active in the Student Film Society in Bonn, studied film at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and photography at the University of Essen. As any good landscape listener he must do a lot of travelling; he has visited Alaska, Ecuador, France, India, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia and Yemen. He often collaborates with TV networks that produce or buy his films. Another place that is familiar to Komers's films are the silver screens at festivals. Komers teaches film in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Münster and Vienna. Although he lives and works in Germany, his intent and range definitely go beyond national borders, also owing to the fact that he abandoned spoken word, commentary and dialogues and made film language his mode of communication.

In his films from the early 1990s, one can easily see they were commissioned by television. It is reflected in their news ethics and the need to fully explain facts in commentary. Dialogues and words get an incomparably greater space than in Komers's later films. Lettischer Sommer (1992) is about two Latvian journalists who reported from Riga during protests and one of them was killed. Komers is able to get really close, forces the viewer to look death in the face and its expression is really not kind. Both the method and aesthetics are appropriate for a made-for-TV film; it is a conservative format with the camera searching the surroundings and the meaning supplied by voice-over commentary. The film could be labeled as wandering camera - its roaming eye captures and presents a detailed picture of Latvia as it was during production and at the time of the protests before the country found peace. Komers uses various bits of archive footage with high information value and contributes his own material of mostly lyrical nature that serves to reinforce impression rather than add more information. All in all, Komers tries to put forward a portrait of Latvia composed along historical-social coordinates. The wandering and curious camera and the richness of scenes are some of the qualities Komers has made good use of later in his creative projects. 

The industrial symphony and the desire to capture the "voice" of places already permeate his Ofen aus (1993-95). On the one hand, the film is dominated by an avant-garde fascination with industry, progress, mechanization. Its modernist feel, approach and focus on the worker refer to the first film avant-garde movement, to the charm of all mechanical and moving parts which suit the film medium and are delicately photogenic. On the other hand, Komers has a clear intent and social interest to depict the situation of workers who face the closure of their factory. It is not merely an epic memento over a mechanical grave but a meticulous probe into the conditions of people who serve and tend to this bustling giant. The camera eye follows the graceful moves and breathtaking power of the machines, as well as the activity and interactions of the workers. He lets them speak and uses commentary to provide sufficient background. Komers's industrial fascination is not gratuitous because it shows the place in its social context as a source of work and income.

In his best films, Komers drops commentary altogether but keeps his fascination with landscapes constricted by civilization and, especially, by industry. It could be the perpetual motion of car traffic, the production of car registration plates or the movement of a sewing machine. Komers remembers to mention even the rattle of a loose sign, and even its tone has its place in the landscape song. Erdbewegung (1999-2004) is a trilogy composed of B 224 (1999), Nome Road System (2004) and NH 2 (2004) and films are set in, respectively, Germany, Alaska and India. Their rhythm is created by a cadence of images - the filmmaker discovers tones everywhere and the space entirely captivates him; everything he sees is presented to the viewer. For a moment he pauses to watch a busy urban road, a human face, then a conveyor belt transporting sand. It seems as if he were fascinated by objects seen through the camera. A steel pipe seen through our eyes is just a steel pipe, while the camera instantly makes it into an artifact. Music and dialogues are replaced with ambient sounds, an autonomous language of the world around us. The director composes a poem that has film frames for stanzas, while flowing water, traffic noise or forest murmur make up the melody. A house by the road or a river meandering in the valley are not merely landscape features but brooches pinned on the sweater of the earth. A heap of industrial scrap is not just a manufacturing by-product but an inorganic song. The focus is once again on mechanical motion and its specific beauty. In a sense, Komers converses with the three places that take turns to show off, talk, parade themselves but they are also happy to have a sympathetic ear for their complaints.

Komers's following films are made in a very similar strain. He spots cities around the globe where civilization leaves scars of devastation and travels to interview them. In Kobe (2006) the protagonist is the thus named Japanese city. How does it operate? How fast does its heart beat? Where is it headed? This sonnet composed by Komers contains only songs and tones that are true to and generated by the city. Ma'rib (2008) is analogous and Komers proves he no longer needs a narrative or language to accomplish a very distinctive creative expression. As he watches the lives of large cities and their residents, he walks the line between poetry and sociology. All ordinary happenings have the right to add their own tone and harmony. Things, people and nature - everything has an equal value and all elements work together to create a particular rhythm and order. Komers carefully listens in order to find out what melody they play. He continues his search in Milltown, Montana (2009), another part in the loose series. Once the machines are gone, will their voices drift off from the landscape song, or will they turn into the wailing of ghosts? With Seseke Classic (2010) he adds a succinct encore to his collection of film poems. Words make their return in the final written comment, a quote that identifies philosophical aspects of Komers's films. He has mastered writing his diary of love between the landscape and civilization to such a degree that no clarity will be lost even if the words of their dialogue are left out.

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Selected filmography: 2211 Buettel (1974); Zigeuner in Duisburg (1978-1980); 480 Tonnen bis viertel vor zehn (1981); Wer bezahlte fuer Hitler? (1983); Die Sterne der Heimat (1985); Erinnerung an Rheinhausen (1987-1989); Lettischer Sommer (1992), Ofen aus (1993-1995); Ein Schloss fuer alle (1998); B 224 (Earthmoving) (1999); NH 2 (Earthmoving) (2004); Nome Road System (Earthmoving) (2004); Kobe (2006); Ma'rib (2008); Milltown, Montana (2009); Seseke Classic (2010).

This text first appeared in IDF's Industry Reel, published in March 2012 at the East Doc Platform.