I was completely unaware, prior to watching Das Goldene Tor (1992) (‘The Golden Gate’), that I had actually seen work by Jürgen Reble before, albeit as a member of the filmmaking collective Schmelzdahin (German for ‘melt away’) – a work titled Stadt in Flammen (City in Flames). Stadt in Flammen was created by introducing to the filmstrip various mutations via deterioration: burning, chemical processing, and burial. It’s a visual trip but the soundtrack leaves much to be desired, as the sound of guttural sounds and mouthed wobbly ‘o’s goes on and on. Regardless of how its soundtrack annoys me on a personal level (and I must admit it to be slightly funny), it is a canonical work whose influence can be traced through various other artists’ work with deteriorated found footage.
Comparatively, Das Goldene Tor sports a gothic soundtrack (by Thomas Köner) that the devil might call handsome, the perfect descending, unsettling score to a horror home-movie etched into the bones of time. Das Goldene Tor also holds a complementary ‘other half’, in the form of its predecessor, Passion (1990). Whereas Passion is predominantly bluish, Das Goldene Tor closes with, yes, an epic rounded golden gate into images crisped by hellfire. But that’s only the ending – leading up to this moment are 45 minutes of a world teeming with different activities and visual delights, pains and views into the decaying mundane.
Das Goldene Tor was created on Super 8, which is also the case for all of Reble’s work with Schmelzdahin – from ’84-’89. Two performance works created between Passion and Das Goldene Tor established the beginnings of Reble’s exploration of larger formats: Zillertal (1991), on 35mm, and Alchemie (1992), on 16mm. It should also be mentioned that while Passion and Das Goldene Tor originated on Super 8, they were blown up onto 16mm prints. He has steadily produced film works and performances (mostly on 16mm) ever since.
As per Reble’s own description,
“THE GOLDEN GATE weaves together fragments of nature films about insects and reptiles, images from space programmes and astronomy with the filmmaker’s own footage of human activity from his immediate environment. The experience of years of research into the chemical manipulation of silver nitrate during and after developing are applied to the film’s images. As a result, they have a more painterly quality evoking an atmosphere somewhere between dream and reality. During the course of the film the observations have less and less to do with reality. Extremely long exposures emphasise the transience of human activity. If the subsequent darkness is transcended an inner light is created. “The golden gate” is a term which dates back to pre-Christian mythology describing the spiritualization and renewal of divine fire by passing through the winter solstice. The music for the film, composed by Thomas Köner, is no mere accompaniment, rather it forms a sympathetic layer which intensifies the tensions in the flow of images. Just as the film is not connected by a traditional pattern of structure and narration, the music also transcends the usual pattern of rhythm and melody. In this way an audio-visual half-world is created which the viewer perceives more via his stomach than his brain.”
Growing as I did into cinephilia via easily accessible 21st century pristine restorations of long lost or forgotten classics – presented in 2-4K digital transfers, no less – the idea that a great deal of celluloid’s beauty comes from the scars it typically bears took a lot of time for me to understand. This new, visually spoiled trend in younger viewers is a world removed from what initially brought so many filmmakers and critics to rally in support of this ‘newer’ art form. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to the gargantuan efforts which go into film preservation, restoration and distribution each year, but it’s important to constantly remind those of my generation and younger (especially those newly introduced to the power of the medium) that things weren’t always so simple.
The Criterion Collection’s pristine ‘By Brakhage’ set – and a couple of years later, an included documentary on the restoration of their Cassavetes boxed set – marked the beginning of my true understanding of the duties of a film preservationist, as well as those of companies releasing such works on home media formats. Suddenly I came to understand the functional work being done by companies like Facets, which I had previously looked down upon for their DVDs usually released without special features or good-looking transfers; I came to realize that the first obstacle was the accessibility of less widely known works in a new world where digital filmmaking and distribution began to edge out 35mm celluloid’s long-running rank as king of screening formats.
In the case of the Brakhage discs, I came to realize via an included essay that with experimental film, the idea of ‘restoration’ can be a particularly tricky one, as works in this mode so often incorporate intentional destruction and what might typically be deemed ‘mistakes.’ And in the case of Cassavetes, I was struck by the decision not to digitally remove a hair caught in the gate while shooting one of his earliest films – I believe it was his debut, Shadows (1959). These are important considerations, lest a new generation of cinephiles come to think of landmark works as having been created more ‘perfectly’ than they really were, a false idea of what history looked like. As such, any younger readers should note that something like Das Goldene Tor being brought to home media will not be anywhere near a visual experience of pristine restoration. Instead it should be considered an accurate documentation — and what a document! A must-see for anyone interested in an amalgam of ways to alter celluloid.
Re:Voir’s DVD release of Das Goldene Tor does not include any special features (the film itself is already a special feature), but inside the case you will find a nifty booklet with a substantial and enlightening essay by Olivier Schefer, “Sunspots of the Night”, which investigates Schmelzdahin’s “materiality of the imagination”, the role of animals in Reble’s work, and Das Goldene Tor’s relationship to Passion, “alchemy, dreams and the cinema.”
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