A filmmaker’s life falls apart as he becomes more and more obsessed with the lives of two young people he’s filming for a documentary.
There’s a cliché that film writers and critics engage in where they compare a film to another film as a form of shorthand to give people some idea of what a film is like. Thus, we get phrases like “Fritz the Cat meets The Muppets” (Meet the Feebles), or “a Felliniesque journey into Dante’s Inferno, with Mickey Spillane in tow” (Blade Runner), or “It plays like a combination of Blood Simple and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” (Brick). I’m as guilty as the next person of this, referring to In the Dust of the Stars as an “East German Barbarella.” The problem with these sorts of comparisons is that they are never entirely accurate. None of them give you any substantial information about the movie being discussed. Familiarity with Barbarella would in no way prepare for the wackiness of In the Dust of the Stars, and vice versa.
Yet, such comparisons are natural. Whenever you watch a movie, other movies come to mind. That’s not automatically a bad thing, unless the reason you’re thinking of another film is that the one you’re watching isn’t very engaging. Sometimes the comparisons that come to mind are unexpected. For instance, while watching Location Hunting (Motivsuche), it occurred to me that the film resembled Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool in some interesting ways. On the surface, these films seem to have little in common. One is about a TV cameraman who is sent to film the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 and finds himself in the middle of the Chicago Police Riots, while the other is about an East German documentary filmmaker who is trying to make a documentary about the problems facing a young couple in the GDR. But both films wrestle with the issue of a filmmaker’s effect on the situation they are trying to document and their responsibility to the people involved.
On the other hand, Location Hunting is also a funny movie. In this respect, it comes closer to David Mamet’s comedy of errors State and Main than the serious introspection of Medium Cool. The film follows documentary filmmaker Rüdiger Stein (Peter Zimermann), who is tired of making films about famous dead people from the renaissance. He wants to make a movie about everyday people struggling to get by in the real world. While researching the film at the welfare office, he meets Klaus (Mario Klaszynski) and Manuela (Dorothea Rohde). Klaus lives with his alcoholic father and works as a bricklayer. Manuela is pregnant, but doesn’t even know who the father is. Manuela is not crazy about the idea for the documentary, but Rüdiger becomes a man possessed. As one obstacle after another throws itself in the path of getting the film made, Rüdiger’s life begins to fall apart.
The German word Motivsuche does mean location hunting, but it can also refer to the search for motives and the meaning of things. Director Dietmar Hochmuth, who also wrote the script, has made a movie examining how documentary filmmaking is not simply a record of the truth. Reality in a documentary can be as carefully manipulated as any work of fiction. German film historian Sabine Hake sees the film as a statement on the hypocrisy of the manipulation in East German documentaries, but I think Hochmuth is casting a wider net here. There is nothing in the film that isn’t also applicable to other documentaries, from Nanook of the North to The Hidden Life of Trees. Importantly, the very act of making documentaries about someone else inevitably affects the filmmakers as much as their subjects.
Dietmar Hochmuth was born in 1954, making him one of the youngest members of the Nachwuchsgeneration—that final batch of DEFA directors who had the luck and misfortune of just beginning to spread their wings when the Wall came down. Luck, because they started making films at a time when neither the box office pressures of capitalism nor the hardline narrative requirements of the SED were in force. Misfortune because they were about to be cast aside by the West German film community, which essentially took over the production of all movies in Germany and made redundant nearly every technician at Babelsberg. Hochmuth studied filmmaking at the Moscow Film Academy, VGIK, where he made This Evening, Tomorrow Morning (Heute abend und morgen früh) as his thesis project. Upon graduation, he started making films at DEFA, beginning with My Father is a Thief (Mein Vater ist ein Dieb), based on the children’s book Til und der Körnerdieb (Til and the Grain Thief) by Barbara Kühl. Like many of the other members of his generation, he sometimes found it difficult to get his projects off the ground. Since the Wende, he has primarily made television documentaries and co-authored books with film historian Oksana Bulgakowa. In 1996, he founded Potemkin Press, a book publishing company that specializes in books exploring the “untapped legacy of Eastern European art theory and practice.”
Peter Zimmermann was a good choice to play Rüdiger Stein. He manages to find the right balance between actually caring for others and self-involvement, keeping the character sympathetic but never to the point where we identify with him. Like many of DEFA’s better actors, Zimmermann got his start on stage, performing at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin and other venues. His first major role was in Heiner Carow’s Until Death Do Us Part, followed later the same year by Coded Message for the Boss. It would be a few more years before he would appear in a film again, playing one of the leads in Rainer Simon’s excellent The Woman and the Stranger. After Location Hunting, Zimmermann appeared in one more DEFA film (Der Fall Ö.—The Oedipus Case) before the company closed its doors. Since the Wende, Zimmermann has appeared in numerous films and television shows.
Mario Klaszynski and Dorothea Rohde, who played Klaus and Manuela respectively, appear not to be professional actors, but this isn’t a slight on them. There is a naturalism to non-professional actors that professionals can never quite match.1 Neither of them made another movie, but they both do good jobs here. Also appearing is Florian Martens as the cameraman who faints at the sight of blood.2 Martens wanted to be a jockey as a kid, but grew too big, so he turned to the occupation of his mother: acting. He began his acting career a few years before the GDR ceased to exist, starting with parts in TV movies and later in feature films. He continued to act in films and on television and is best known today for his role as the grumpy former East German policeman Otto Garber on the popular crime series Ein starkes Team (The Strong Team)
There’s a documentary feel to this film, which is probably why IMDB lists it as a documentary in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Hochmuth’s sensibilities are those of a documentarian. He worries less about frame composition than keeping things real. That’s not to say that scenes aren’t blocked and rehearsed, but it doesn’t feel like it, which is to Hochmuth’s credit.
1. For an excellent example of this in action, check out The Florida Project. Willem Dafoe is superb in that film, but it lacks that natural quality that the rest of the cast brings to the film.
2. The term for this is “vasovagal syncope.” It has nothing to do with squeamishness. It’s a condition that affects between 3% and 4% of the population..
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