Secret Master: Chris Fujiwara on the Cinema of Dominik Graf

EIFF artistic director Chris Fujiwara explains why German filmmaker Dominik Graf's artistry shouldn't be overlooked, even if most of his films have been made for the small screen

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 03 Jun 2014
  • The Cat (Dominik Graf)

A perennial joy of Chris Fujiwara’s tenure as Edinburgh International Film Festival’s artistic director have been the retrospectives. In his short time in charge we’ve been treated to a quartet of career overviews. Two of these retrospectives worked as introductions: Edinburgh audiences became the first in the UK to get acquainted with the emotionally raw films of Japanese director Shinji Sōmai and the poetic experimentation of Frenchman Jean Grémillon. The other two retrospectives – Gregory La Cava and Richard Fleischer – worked as reappraisals of Hollywood directors whose films are well known, but whose artistry has been overlooked.

This year’s retrospective, Secret Master: Dominik Graf and the Hidden History Of German Cinema, works in both modes. Graf has been working industriously since the late 70s and is considered a major contemporary director in his native Germany. The majority of this output has been for television, but his sporadic feature films have popped up at festivals across the world – attendees of the 2012 Glasgow Film Festival might recall his fat-free crime drama Don't Follow Me Around, the middle section of the innovative Dreileben trilogy, which saw three leading German filmmakers create ‘three stories, from three authors who share a place, a crime, and a time’. Despite Graf’s acclaim in his home country, however, none of his work has been distributed in English speaking territories, and none of his films are available on DVD with English subtitles.

“It was very clear to me that this was the kind of filmmaker who I like,” says Chris Fujiwara, who got acquainted with Graf’s back catalogue at last year’s Rotterdam Film Festival. “He is both classical and modern. That is, the subject matters of his films are modern, and the style of the filmmaking is very modern: there’s a freedom of where to put the camera and how to cut and how to use music – all of these things show that he’s an of the moment filmmaker. But his sense of how to construct a story, of how to move the strands of a plot across the time of a 90 minute film, of how to build and sustain audience interest, reminds me of what I call an art of classical filmmaking. I think Graf is one of a very small number of filmmakers who you can still speak about today in the kind of terms you could use to speak about filmmakers of the past.”

“It’s very surprising how nonlinear his work is, how complex the story telling is, how complex the sense of time is” – Chris Fujiwara on the films of Dominik Graf

A possible explanation to why Graf has been ignored by critics outside of Germany is one of snobbery: his CV, which takes in TV crime series and melodramas, suggest a craftsman for hire rather than an auteur. But anyone expecting the kind of straightforward direction that we see on our own small screens will be in for a shock. Of the few films of Graf’s I’ve been able to track down (Don't Follow Me Around and 2002’s Der Felsen), there’s a feverish quality to the filmmaking: they move like a whip, not in a linear fashion, but in elliptical cuts, staccato shifts and dizzying montages.“It’s very surprising how nonlinear it is, how complex the story telling is, how complex the sense of time is,” says Fujiwara of Graf’s work. “The interweaving of dreams with reality, the ability to diverge from the narrative from time to time, but without sacrificing the audience interest, without sacrificing the suspense, because most of them are, in some sense, suspense films, psychological thrillers or crime stories.”

This last point perhaps gets to the chief reason as to why Graf as been so overlooked: he is, unashamedly, a genre filmmaker. Given Fujiwara’s previous championing of La Cava (who worked primarily in comedy) and Fleischer (who made films of every genre going), as well as his interests as a film critic, writing excellent books on Otto Preminger, Jerry Lewis and Jacques Tourneur, he’s clearly passionate about filmmakers who channel their own personal style through genre. “I’m interested in this idea that to make art, you have to rely on something outside yourself,” he explains. “And in the case of the genre film, it’s very clear, you’re relying on the rules that govern a preexisting contract with the audience. The audience is going to expect that if you’re making a Western there’s a good guy, a bad guy and a shootout – this sort of thing has to happen. But what you can do within that preexisting framework is almost unlimited.”

We’re very used to thinking of genre filmmakers of the past as artists, studio men like Howard Hawks and John Ford, or B-movie heroes like Samuel Fuller and Raoul Walsh (directors who were famously celebrated by EIFF in the 60s and 70s). By championing a genre filmmaker who’s still working (Graf’s new film Beloved Sister is included in the retrospective), Fujiwara is pleasingly at odds with the tribalistic nature of modern film criticism. “These days I think there’s a tendency to not see beyond the genre elements,” he says. “Many critics aren’t interested if it’s an action movie with Denzel Washington or Bruce Willis – it’s automatically not an authorial film in the eyes of most. On the other hand, the other extreme would be a purely artistic film, which everybody acknowledges is the work of a personal director. So I’m interested in bringing the two realms together again and seeing how they overlap and seeing the tension – the very fruitful tension – between genre and an individual artist.”

EIFF runs 18-29 June

Retrospective Secret Master: Dominik Graf and the Hidden History Of German Cinema runs throughout the festival. See EIFF's website for full details