Ask the Experts: Bastian Heinsohn on graffiti, film
March 31, 2011
LEWISBURG, Pa. — Assistant Professor of German Bastian Heinsohn, who studies urban streetscapes in German film, talks about street art, the role of the street in film and an upcoming international film festival at Bucknell University.
Q: Your research focuses on urban streetscapes and the cinematic representation of Berlin from the 1920s to the present. How have filmmakers used the street to tell the story of Berlin and Germany?
A: The street has been an important tool for filmmakers since at least the 1920s with various meanings throughout the decades. In my research, I examine how or what happened to the street in film, and I look at how films exploit the street. In German cinema in the 1920s, for instance, you have the street as the visual spectacle, this new site of modern urban life with traffic and a lot of people walking around.
Then there's the street of the 1930s, after the Nazis took power, where in film there is an emphasis on the street as an axis and a place for military parades. The street in Nazi film was devoid of anything that was not according to what was thought to be beautiful and right for the Nazis. So you didn't have any wounded people from World War II, which was an important image of the time. You didn't see any beggars. Everything had to be clean and in order, and it was very visible in the street.
Then post-war films had the totally destroyed street, because part of the street is also houses and architecture. The buildings in Berlin were completely destroyed, and it was just devastating. There are actually very few films in early post-war German cinema that deal with urban space. In Cold War films, there was a violent interruption of streets with the Berlin Wall. You have the street as a link between two German sides but the link was interrupted.
And in the 1960s, the street is the site of manifestations. Everything happens in the street. So what I do is I read the street as a link to what's going on in society. Later, after the Berlin Wall came down, the street in film reflects the transformations in a unified Berlin.
Q: Street art is an extension of your research, as it provides text to tell the story of cities, particularly those in transition. What role has street art played in Berlin's transformation to a unified city since the fall of the Berlin Wall?
A: Since the fall of the wall, Berlin has changed drastically and at a very fast pace. The city center, especially, was redeveloped completely, with a lot of renovations. In the 1980s and early 1990s, we saw a lot of buildings with bullet holes in facades, and you hardly see that anymore. That is a good thing, of course, but Berlin has gotten this new face in a way, and this face is very clean and new and modern. Street art has become a tool for filmmakers but also in the city itself to start a counter-discourse against these developments and gentrification. Street art responds to the renovations and to making everything clean and nice and also more expensive in terms of rent.
There is a film by Andreas Dresen called "Summer in Berlin," or "Sommer vorm Balkon," which is set in a former working-class and, today, very lively Berlin neighborhood in transformation. The filmmaker makes this clear by using old buildings that are going to be renovated. The buildings have graffiti in the hallway to stress that this is the part of Berlin where people live. And the film sort of contrasts this part of Berlin with images from faraway of a newer Berlin. So you see kids in the film going on top of a roof, looking over the city - and what you see is a neighborhood where people are on bikes or walking around, and in the far distance you see new high-rises, almost saying, "This is not our Berlin."
Films tend to stress the livable space, the inhabited space of Berlin neighborhoods. Street art plays an important role in film because it is an individual expression. It's more about the people of Berlin than the city. It is about the individual voices that a lot of films deal with now, telling the smaller stories about Berliners.
Q: Graffiti by its nature is illegal, but some cities, such as Berlin, seem to look the other way and in some cases have commissioned artists to paint abandoned buildings or empty walls. How has the blending of illegal and legal art played a role in the transformation of cities like Berlin?
A: Berlin has a lot of buildings with huge facades, because, since 1945, when the city was in ruins, a lot of houses were destroyed and not rebuilt. The side of a house may be a huge wall with no windows because it was not meant to be a standalone house; the house next to it was destroyed. Berlin is pretty exceptional because you have all these huge walls that are just perfect for murals.
And since a lot of these works on these walls were commissioned by the city, street art has become omnipresent in Berlin with a mix of legal and illegal art. Another fact, and it is related, is that there are a lot of copycats, people who think, "Oh I can do that, too," because street art has become mainstream or immensely popular. Something that started as counterculture has become a common attempt to beautify the city, and everyone is expressing themselves.
Street art has lost a little bit of power because of this. In some cases, illegal sprayers who were doing illegal art, now in order to make a living have started to exhibit their street art in galleries. It is interesting to examine this border between legal and illegal art. Those artists don't do anything different when they work for the galleries. They do the same thing they do in the street, but they sell their art for 5,000 euros.
Q: What are some of the top cities becoming known for street art and how do they differ? What are some of the more common messages of street art?
A: Definitely Berlin or any city that is undergoing drastic transformation is among the top cities for street art. Street art also tends to be a response to gentrification, so it is appearing in places like Brooklyn, N.Y., but also in Paris.
There is a French street artist, J.R., who takes close-up pictures of people who live in a neighborhood or town and exhibits their huge, black-and-white images as posters. J.R. had a big project in 2009 called "Women are Heroes," where he took pictures of women in Paris from various ethnic backgrounds and plastered them along the Seine. The idea was to show that we are all the same. J.R. also did projects like this on the wall in the West Bank. He might photograph a rabbi, for example, and the Palestinians and show they look actually very much alike. So he is asking, "Why is there a border between people?" With artists like J.R., there is a trend of global interest and a global approach to street art.
Street art is big in Buenos Aires and Sao Paolo, for example. You have people from all over the place using art with their own creativity as a commentary on things. J.R. has a new initiative called the "Inside Out Project." It's a global project where he invites people from around the world to tell their stories in giant self-portraits plastered on open surfaces. You can upload an image of yourself to his website and he will send back an image as a poster, which you can paste on a wall anywhere in the world. He received a $100,000 prize to do this.
Q: You are planning an international film festival at Bucknell April 1-3. What films will be shown during the festival and why were they chosen?
A: The film festival is a Department of Foreign Language Programs event. We formed a committee to choose films that would be interesting for our students and also representative of various cultures.
"Metropolis" is a German film that deals with fears about modernization and urban cities in general. The most interesting thing about this film is that we are screening a new version with 25 additional minutes that were found in a film archive in Buenos Aires in 2008. That footage was actually shown at the official premiere in Berlin in 1927, but it was considered lost because it was severely re-edited soon after. Now we have the closest thing to the original film.
We also are showing "Facing Windows" from Italy. And "The Vanished Empire" from Russia deals with western culture during the Cold War. There will be a musical performance by the band Snakes are Strong right after the screening. "The Army of Crime" is about a French resistance group during German occupation in the early 1940s. It is based on a true story. "Salt of the Sea" is about an American having roots in the Middle East and trying to find out about her home country. It's a lot about this idea of home and where do I belong?
We will have professors from each program introducing the films, and we have a guest speaker discussing the idea of home in Israeli and Palestinian cinema. Associate Professor (of English) Eric Faden will talk about how to make films at Bucknell and also show films that students made here.
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