Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Klaus Lemke

Klaus Lemke today

German film-maker Klaus Lemke is turning 70 in October, although you'd never know it, looking at his whitened teeth, his well trained body (according to his own admission he goes to the gym every day) and dressed as he is in trendy jeans and beret.

Little known abroad, his upcoming 70th birthday heralds what amounts to a rediscovery of him and his films, notably those of the late 1960s and 1970s, which was his heyday and his most active period as a film maker. That said, nowadays Lemke is still actively making films, though the intervals are getting bigger and rather than for cinematic release, his recent films are primarily made for television. But then, from the start Lemke has often worked for German television, though there would still be the occasional cinematic release. These, however, have now become increasingly rare.

Lemke (with beret) being awarded a prize by Munich's mayor Christian Uhde

More than just a rediscovery of his earlier films such as 48 Hours to Acapulco (1967) and Arabian Nights (1979), they are now accorded cult status, and for his birthday, major German TV channels are planning re-runs of his films. Moreover, a slew of German newspapers and magazines have recently run features on Lemke, including an interview he gave for the Munich-based Sueddeutsche Zeitung, arguably the most important German daily. Suddenly, the fact that he discovered German actresses like Cleo Kretschmer and Iris Berben is being widely discussed, and yes, even international socialite Ira von Fuerstenberg starred in one of Lemke's films: She played the lead in the suggestively titled My Bed is not for Sleeping (1968), and I personally can't think of any other film whose title so evokes the zeitgeist of that period. Berben got her first break in Lemke's 1968 made-for-television film Brandstifter (Arsonists), and who would have thought that in time, Berben would mutate from the sex-kitten she was then into the serious actress she is today, a major force in German film and television, not to mention an admirable as well as ardent fighter against racism and a staunch human rights activist.

Cleo Kretschmer

Iris Berben

Ira von Fuerstenberg

Why, I wonder, is it, that Lemke's films never travelled beyond the German borders? Why, at a time like the 1970s, when German films had a considerably higher presence at film festivals around the world - especially in Cannes - than they have today, was Lemke's work overlooked abroad and, it must be added, looked down on at home? My answer to that one is that even though his films certainly were in line with the contemporary zeitgeist inasmuch as they had a certain anarchic quality, they lacked the intellectual and political edge of a Fassbinder, Schloendorff or Wenders to be taken seriously abroad. Never mind that Schloendorff's then-partner, Margarethe von Trotta, also starred in Arsonists, the film that put Berben on the map. On the other hand, their often slightly soft-porn slant and their fly-by-night look equally prevented Lemke's films to be taken seriously at home. (Let's not forget that Lemke had no qualms hiring busty adult actress Dolly Dollar to star in some of his films, such as the above mentioned Arabian Nights and Honeymoon (1980). And that surely did not sit well with any aficionado of New German Cinema - be that at home or abroad). That is not to say that some of Lemke's films weren't box-office hits, because they were. And often more so than Wenders' or Fassbinder's which, while being feted at film festivals, made little or no money on their home turf.

However, with the zeitgeist having since shifted away from the prevailing serious/intellectual/political, not to say humourless, attitude of 1970s Germany to a more insouciant, post-modern view of the world, it is great to see that Lemke's work is currently being rediscovered and re-assessed. And it can only be a matter of time until some film festivals will hold retrospectives of Lemke's work and the first dissertations on him will appear in film schools around the country, although I have feeling that Lemke couldn't possibly care less. Lemke's films, which contrary to those of many other German film makers of the time, have a lah-di-da feel to them which - surprisingly, perhaps - stood the test of time. Often set in exotic locations such as Ibiza, Acapulco and similar such places that were in the process of being explored by the German Wirtschaftswunder-traveller, they are a time capsule much like, for instance, Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party is a similar time capsule in British cinema and society for the same period. Be it as it may, it is great to see that finally Lemke's work may get its due place in the history of German cinema at long last.

Select filmography of Klaus Lemke (Note: Some titles are in English in the original):

- Schmutziger Sueden (Filthy South), 2010 (TV)

- Undercover Ibiza, 2007 (TV)

- Honeymoon, 1980

- Arabian Nights, 1979

- Ein komischer Heiliger (Some Kind of Saint), 1979

- Amore, 1978

- Liebe, so schoen wie Liebe (Love, as Beautiful as Love), 1972

- Brandstifter (Arsonists), 1969 (TV)

- My Bed is not for Sleeping, 1968

- 48 Stunden bis Acapulco (48 Hours to Acapulco), 1967

Klaus Lemke with a member of the cast of his latest film, Schmutziger Sueden (Filthy South)