Art and revolution

"Cinema is the utopia of a totalitarian society. It is necessary to prepare for the worst. Enjoy yourselves for a couple of hours, go see a film. Man Ray once said: 'Even in the worst films I have seen there have always been five wonderful minutes, while even the best and most praised of them are rarely worth more than five minutes.' In other words, a bad film will, despite all the control, have five minutes in it that manipulation has not reached. And, despite all the effort, a good film will not have more than five minutes in it that is free of manipulation. Make films, for cinema is the least free of all arts! Manipulate, be film directors!"
- From Ernst Schmidt jr.'s manifesto Kino & Film (1968)

The Viennese filmmaker, theorist and avant-garde activist Ernst Schmidt jr. (1938-1988) was Kurt Kren's contemporary and a spiritual fellow-traveller. He has, however, been largely neglected by historians. His physical style of making films was, if possible, even more unpolished and brutal than Kren's.

The programme now screened in Orion, entitled Destruktionsfilme, is a selection of films by Ernst Schmidt jr. that demonstrates the scope of his breathtaking career. It is a compilation of his essential works, selected by the director himself in 1979. It consists of 19 films, five of which (Kunst und Revolution, N, Bodybuilding, Einszweidrei and Filmreste) are based on the happenings performed by Viennese Actionists.

The dramaturgy of Destruktionsfilme can be considered nearly cosmological. It begins with a "genesis of a cinematic language" (Weiss) and ends, after making a wide circle, in the annihilation of that language (Filmreste, Farbfilm). Schmidt's most extraordinary and astonishing works reflect the unique mindscape of the artist using methods of a truly "direkt cinema": The Merry Widow shows cheese melting on the face on an actor, Prost is an interactive boozing film, and Rotweissrot a filmatization of the Austrian national flag. Kunst und Revolution is a short, historical document of the sensational action staged at the University of Vienna on the 7th of June, 1968. The event made Günter Brus, Otto Mühl and Oswald Wiener the objects of an unprecedented hounding by the national media that would continue for several weeks. Brus (who masturbated and defecated while singing the national anthem) and Mühl (who hurled pints of beer all over the lecture hall) received harsh prison sentences, while Wiener (who lectured on computers) was acquitted due to a lack of evidence.

In addition to his personal projects, Schmidt was one of the leading pioneers and advocates of the Austrian avant-garde movement and the author of numerous polemic articles on the subject. He edited a massive encyclopedia of underground cinema entitled Eine Subgeschichte des Films. Lexikon des Avantgarde-, Experimental- und Undergroundfilms (1974, ed. together with Hans Scheugl), and spent his final ten years compiling an even more extensive reference work of all genres of cinema.

Schmidt regarded film as an instrument of radical cultural change: "The activities of independent filmmakers, the founding of a Europe-wide co-operative and the destruction of the establishment will render traditional cinema useless. At most, it can be used as raw material for new films, which will be projected in dance halls and on the walls of ordinary buildings. Festival juries will become obsolete, as will the festivals themselves along with outdated academies. Filmmakers will, in addition to a right of political action, be granted the right to screen their films whenever and in whatever spaces necessary, and the right to audiovisual raw material, technical facilities, publication in magazines, etc." (1968)

Schmidt had what could be called a dif- ficult, uncompromising personality, and his relentless, exhaustive way of life contributed to his early demise. At the time of his death in 1988 Ernst Schmidt jr. was only 50 years of age and very close to completing the second part of his trilogy Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken. During a career of 15 years he finished over 50 short films. The massive archive of written and cinematic works he left behind is currently supervised by his brother, and the amount of written material alone is on par with state archives.

Destruction of traditional cinema


Bodybuilding already gives some hints of the direction that will be taken after Kurt Kren. The film is based on action #19 by Otto Mühl of the same title, and his action #18, Rumpsti-Pumpsti/Schießscheibe (“Rumble-Tumble/Target”). Schmidt works his material in an anarchistic manner. Kren’s carefully calculated editing strategies are replaced with a chaotic way of organising the material. In addition to the fact that the action itself is going to the extremes in its use of the human body, Schmidt seeks to disintegrate the film. The image can suddenly be replaced with blank film, positive and negative footage are used interchangeably, incorrectly exposed footage is left in. While Kren never ventured beyond the visual and elegantly refrained from using sound, Schmidt’s soundtracks are a wild collage of arbitrary noise from various sources, with portions deliberately wiped off using a magnet. Where Kren constructed, Schmidt seeks to destroy. Bodybuilding can be interpreted as an early formulation of Schmidt’s aesthetic programme, whose aim is to destroy traditional cinema.

Einszweidrei (“Onetwothree”, 1965- 1968, 13 min.) consists, in accordance with its title, of three parts. It is once again dominated by shots of various actions performed by Mühl, and punctuated with found-footage material. Among them is a film on brass band music, in which a group of young men in national costumes appears to observe Mühl’s antics with approving gestures of critical appreciation. Valie Export walks Peter Weibel on all fours along Kärntnerstraße; this is, logically enough, followed with found footage of a kennel, then more shots from the streets of Vienna, pedestrians, traffic lights, cars. What is formally new is the destructive touch that begins to turn against the material itself. For the first time, Schmidt is drawing directly on the film, and in his case it does not mean delicate and graceful carving of the emulsion but thick, vertical stripes that compete violently with the actual image. At some points the film has been split vertically and glued back together so that the two halves don’t quite match. At others, holes have been punched in it. The film also includes stretches of footage that was never intended to be projected, such as hand-written notes made by the film laboratory, countdown leaders, and opaque black or completely blank film used at reel ends and beginnings. The technique of multiple exposure that was used with careful deliberation in Steine (“Stones”) is in Einszweidrei taken to a level where Mühl starts to vanish from the picture altogether, and his delirious smearing orgy is only hinted at through the white, violently shifting veil created by the almost total overexposure of the film stock.

Filmreste (“Film Scraps”) is the culmination point of the style he defined in Einszweidrei. The soundtrack consists of a verse from a gospel song (“...and a thing called love. Oooooh!”), a sentence from a news broadcast (“...Israeli tank columns have been mobilised... towards the southern desert route...”), a single, frequently repeated piano chord, buzzing, static and other noises, and Schmidt himself uttering groups of three digits. The leftovers referred to by the title include material that is only barely recognisable, and some that has been been made completely unrecognisable with ink, felt pens, different acids and other methods. The film emulsion has irrevocably become the material, the physical object of the film. The only requirement is that the material passes through the film printer.

Einszweidrei and Filmreste are also culmination points of the style of filmmaking that started with Kurt Kren. With his films of the actionists Kren went far beyond the documentary, creating personal works of art with an existence parallel to the actions themselves. Kren’s unique way of crafting his films (at times, a single shot could include hundreds of splices, made by Kren with his own hands using a glue splicer, leaving the splices slightly visible when projected) gave them an expressive momentum which would unavoidably start competing with the event that had been filmed. It is exactly for the reason that his films could have been mistakenly classified as documentaries that they brought forward the claim of cinema as an independent form of art. They retained, however, a balance which makes their relationship with the protofilmic events, the “material happenings”, dialogical in form. It was Ernst Schmidt jr. who took the final step that was required to liberate the films from the external world altogether.

(Rekonstruirte Kinematografie. In Avantgardefilm Österreich. 1950 bis heute. Wien: Wespennest 1995)


Ernst Schmidt jr.: Destruktionsfilme 1965-79, Austria
Weiss (White, 1968) 2'
Burgtheater (Imperial Theater, 1970) 5'
Prost (Cheers, 1968) 3'
Rotweissrot (Red-white-red, 1967) 1'
Schnipp-Schnapp (Snip Snap, 1968) 2' [with Peter Weibel]
Filmisches Alphabet (A Movie ABC, 1971) 2"
Gesammelt von Wendy (Collected by Wendy, 1979) 2'
Eine Subgeschichte des Films (A Su-history of Film, 1974) 2'
Denkakt (The Act of Thinking, 1968) 3'
Mein Begräbnis ein Erlebnis (My Funeral an Experience, 1977) 1'
12 Uhr Mittags – High Noon (1977) 4'
The Merry Widow (1977) 1'
Gertrude Stein hätte Chaplin gerne in einem Film gesehen, in dem dieser nichts anderes zu tun hätte, als eine Straße entlang und dann um eine Ecke zu gehen, darauf die nächste Ecke zu umwandern usw. von Ecke zu Ecke (1979) 3'
N (1978) 6'
Kunst und Revolution (Art and Revolution, 1968) 2'
Bodybuilding (1965) 9'
Einszweidrei (Onetwothree, 1965-68) 10'
Filmreste (Film Scraps, 1966) 10'
Farbfilm (Color Film, 1967) 30"

Duration: 74 minutes. 16mm, for persons 15 years of age or over only, introduced by Gerald Weber of sixpackfilm.

Ernst Schmidt jr.: Destruktionsfilme in Orion on Friday, November 19th at 21.00. A second screening on Sunday, November 21st at 21.30.

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