The great Klaus Lemke is dead – outlaw filmmaker, also in his own life a border crosser between fiction and truth, 81-year-old street kid. Until the end he lived in a small attic apartment in Schwabing, where he had stayed for decades. He was never interested in wealth, at least not of the material kind. He preferred to make films, tirelessly, one after the other, boy meets girl, a gun couldn’t get in the way, with little to no government money. It’s so hard to bite into a hand that gives you, and Lemke had a bite. So he sailed close to the edge of living legend with a body of work that was far less well known than it should have been. The director RP Kahl (“Bedways”, “When Susan Sontag sat in the audience”) remembers him and explains why German cinema will miss him.
WORLD: Who was Klaus Lemke?
RP Kahl: Klaus Lemke was a filmmaker who still understood what film could originally be, namely the combination of sex, crime, rock’n’roll and entertainment. That was his credo without making mainstream films. That sounds like a contradiction: on the one hand, it means viewing films not as an art medium but as an entertainment medium, but not producing ready-made goods to please a large audience, but rather saying: film is not primarily art, but entertainment. But I still take the liberty to do what I like, what I want. That was Klaus Lemke.
WORLD: How did you come across him?
Kahl: That was in 1995. I was 24 years old and came from East Germany. That’s why I wasn’t really aware of these early, famous Klaus Lemke films like “Rocker”, which are now being talked about as the great works. For me it started with the last film of the first era, when it was still shooting in the classic form: “The Bitch and the Gravedigger”. The title says it all. He’s the opposite of politically correct, totally unwoke. His concept of the relationship between man and woman may come from another time. The film is semi-improvised, shot with little money, but still on 35 millimeters. His gesture is: “I don’t comply with any labor laws, I pay little money, the actors just go. I mainly do it without film funding.” Klaus Lemke embodies everything you wish for yourself – that you don’t have to be politically correct, that you don’t have to pay attention to whether you comply with Green Shooting, that you don’t constantly ask yourself whether you is the great employer who pays very well and only allows you to work seven hours and 20 minutes a day, so that you don’t have to deal with film funding and television stations. He embodied all of that. That’s why he had such a reputation and was also such an ideal for many of us – without necessarily having to watch all his films.
WORLD: That sounds familiar at first. Young Godard did little differently. Also Jean-Pierre Melville, to whose account so many classics of the gangster film are based, with Alain Delon and Jean Gabin. Later the Americans in the seventies, “French Connection” etc. Park Chan-wook just got the director’s prize in Cannes for a great genre film, half police investigation, half love story. Why doesn’t this tradition only exist in Germany?
Kahl: The only answer I have is that this tradition existed for a while and then, for well-known reasons, these filmmakers had to leave Germany and shoot in America.
WORLD: People like Douglas Sirk and Billy Wilder…
Bald: Absolutely. There are more, including nameless ones, who then shot dark gangster films in America. They are missing as father and mother figures for a generation before me, before us, who can be referred to. Lemke must have missed them too. But then he may have grown up in the train station cinemas, which I no longer know either, with this mixture of American films, early Nouvelle Vague – which no normal elementary school teacher even watched back then – and trash films, or what you would see as trash, namely soft porn – and violent strips and thrillers. Maybe it also has something to do with Munich, the city that has always seen itself as something other than the political West Berlin of Wim Wenders or Düsseldorf or Bonn that has fallen asleep. Munich was a city with grandeur and closeness to America. And then Lemke includes names like Rudolf Thome, like Max Zihlmann – who only died a few months ago – and a great screenwriter, the screenwriter of “Rote Sonne” by Thome. That’s how I came across Lemke. I had discovered Rudolf Thome for myself. It was a group of people who said, okay, we won’t let politics and film funding clamp us down, we’re not interested in that, we’d rather let Alexander Kluge do it, he can use his SPD contacts to invent film funding and then make beautiful art films. Nothing against Alexander Kluge. But it’s a different form of thinking. There have to be different options.
WORLD: Does that make him a role model?
Kahl: Role model is too much. But I have huge respect for his stuff. In the end, he was a very important figure in showing the next generation what it should actually be about, namely freedom in filmmaking. Go, spin. Don’t always think for a long time, don’t always ask what is desired and wanted at the moment, but get started.
WORLD: What has been particularly important in recent years?
Kahl: There were often films with great scenes, because they just happened and because of the amateurish way in which they were shot, they were very lively. And he has always discovered such great people, most recently Saralisa Volm. If Klaus Lemke hadn’t approached Saralisa Volm, I wouldn’t have been able to do “When Susan Sontag sat in the audience” with her. If he hadn’t developed Timo Jacobs, he couldn’t make his cool films. Henning Gronkowski, Mela Feigenbaum etc. pp. And of course, all these old stars, starting with Thomas Kretschmann, Hollywood star, a swimmer from East Berlin. Hi!
WORLD: Apparently he was properly schooled. Will this stay? Or do these influences seep into the general panorama of German film unnoticed?
Kahl: I think it would be good if a group of people who were connected to him in a formative way and then had to commit patricide, like Volm or Jacobs, who had to emancipate themselves from him, also because he might be a bit on them Biscuit left, if they got together and said: Hey, we’re doing the Klaus Lemke archive, where there’s a Klaus Lemke master class every year, where we celebrate his spirit, so that now we’re not just writing nice obituaries, talk about him, cry – and then it’s all over. I think those who got this energy from him should join together to form a Klaus Lemke Society and uphold this spirit in the future.
WORLD: At the Munich Film Festival he premiered a few weeks ago with his latest film “Champagne for the Eyes – Gift for the Rest” and which, by the way, can already be seen in the Bavarian Radio media library. There was this guy in a black hat, holding a sign that said, “Art comes from kissing!”
Kahl: And he was still shooting. When news of his death broke yesterday, everyone thought it was a hoax. I then answered the phone and found out from people who were close to him that it was true. After the film festival he wanted to start shooting something new immediately. The fame goes that he still would have made it. So there might still be material for a new Lemke film. And that should definitely be completed by a group of friends, by Henning Gronkogowski or Detlef Bothe. Someone has to take on this role too, this role of the outsider, to take a certain fool’s liberty and to remember: Hey, children, only with Wokeness, only with Green Shooting, only with “We have very fair working conditions and always thank the very good Film funding after every premiere” – that’s not the only way to get good films.
WORLD: His feud with the Berlinale is also legendary, where I don’t think he was because he didn’t get along with the long-time director Dieter Kosslick. Are the chances better now that Kosslick has left? For example for a nice Klaus Lemke retrospective?
Kahl: I think that another festival outside of Germany will precede us – the Viennale in Vienna. This is traditionally a haven for the cinematic. I’m actually expecting a huge Lemke retrospective there in the best digital form. Of course it would be better if the Berlinale did that next year and digitized a few of the old things again right away. There’s film funding for it, hey, but that’s okay in this case, it’s cultural heritage. And in the best case there would be a mashup – another Klaus Lemke film without Klaus Lemke. I said yes, many of his last films always had good scenes. Sometimes the whole film was a bit exhausting. But if you were to shoot the new Klaus Lemke, “The Legacy of Klaus Lemke”, and show it as the opening film of the Berlinale 2023, then I would crawl on my knees. I would even put on a mask for that.