The Austrian filmmaker Kurt Kren (1929–1998) has left a permanent mark in the history of avant-garde cinema. Kren’s first eight films form a stunning whole, in which he creates his own cinematic language and universe from nearly nothing. His mathematically edited, “systematic” films portray what are seemingly everyday and commonplace situations and observations. The films, however, have many layers of meaning; they open a window to a world previously unseen. The impressions they create have often been compared to those produced by the paintings of Kandinsky and Mondrian.
Kren’s debut film, 1/57: Experiment with Synthetic Sound (1/57: Versuch mit Synthetischem Ton, 1957) is a short, spontaneous landscape film with a hand-painted soundtrack. 2/60: 48 Heads from the Szondi- Test (2/60: 48 Köpfe aus dem Szondi- Test, 1960) was his second film, and is still among his more commonly screened works. The medical “Szondi test” was, according to the director, an “experimental diagnosis of assumed sexual appeal.” The film consists of 48 shots taken during the test, of which Kren formed a construction in accordance with his principle of seriality. 3/60 Trees in Autumn (3/60 Bäume in Herbst, 1960) is a structural impression of the movement of trees and the primordial forces of the nature, with a more delicate touch than what can be found in his earlier works. Kren planned his first films with meticulous care, and initially edited them directly in the camera during shooting, until he started using a complex and laborious flash-editing technique. This enabled him to improvise during shooting, but the minimum duration of a single take could still be only one or two frames, mere fractions of a second.
Kren’s unique way of approaching cinema was in no way related either to the tradition of narrative film, or the mainstream experimental cinema of the time, which consisted of shocking “underground” films or poetic and symbolic impressionist films. This does not, however, mean his film are neutral in any way; on the contrary, they are very charged with emotion. Some of Kren’s most interesting works were created during the following phase of his career, when his films were based on the sexually shocking and often violent “happenings”, or “material actions”, performed by Otto Mühl and Günter Brus. The two maniacal artists of Vienna’s Institut für Direkte Kunst (Institute for Direct Art) regarded the human body as material which they manipulated in the name of “direct art” with paint, food, grease, ropes, wrapping plastic, feathers, different plants and so on, all the way up to the limits of the nauseating. Nothing was sacred for the actionists of Vienna: they could masturbate in front of the audience, or eat their own excrements. Mühl and Brus, the primary ideologists of the actionists, were very different from each other. Brus was an expressionist of great pathos, who understood the human body as a continuation of the painter’s canvas, and was obsessively fascinated by different forms of sadistic suffering and self-destruction. Mühl, on the other hand, was a reckless dadaist, mostly interested in spontaneous fun and sex, or, to be more precise, straightforward breaking of sexual taboos. For a duration of a couple of years, they attracted artists from other fields like a magnet. Filmmakers such as Ernst Schmidt Jr., Hans Scheugl, Gottfried Schlemmer, Valie Export and Peter Weibel were associated with them at the time.
Mühl was interested in “direct audience feedback” and spontaneous chaos, but considered it equally important that his works should be preserved for future generations. Kren’s films of his material actions, such as 6/64 Mom and Dad (6/64 Mama und Papa, 1964), 9/64 O Christmas Tree (9/64 O Tannenbaum, 1964) and 10/65 Self-Mutilation (10/65 Selbstverstümmelung, 1965) are reproductions of the live events performed for the camera. As such, they are not only documents of actionists' chaotic provocations, but much more: frenzied, unique pieces of cinema, in which the naked performers of the material actions are transformed to glittering geometrical forms.
During the late 1960s Kren returned to personal, purely cinematic subjects. 15/67 TV (1967) is considered one of the masterpieces of “systematic cinema.” It is constructed of five images that have probably been shot in a dusky seaside café. The location is uncertain, however, because it is the furious rhythm of the editing, not the location or the characters, that becomes the real “subject” of the film. The provocative imagery in many of Kren’s later films, such as 26/71 Cartoon: Balzac and the Eye of God (26/71 Zeichenfilm – Balzac und das Auge Gottes, 1971) or 29/73 Ready-made (1973), owed to the actionists, but Kren’s films from the early 70s were darker than his earlier works. They are characterised by melancholy air of the artist deliberating the “insanity of the universe.”
Kren’s films can be understood as existential statements – not in the autobiographical sense of the word, however, but as kinds of milestones in the earthly existence of an individual, in which the protagonist persistently stays behind the camera. Malcolm Le Grice, a guest at this year’s Avanto festival, wrote about Kren in the following way in 1977: “Kren, like Brakhage, must be seen in his relationship to existentialism. When film-makers like Godard, who derive from the commercial, narrative cinema, portray existentialism, their cinematic form is not existentialist, because it lacks the crucial ‘first person’ viewpoint. It is only in the underground film that this form has been developed, albeit slowly, against the background of cinematic conventions which have contrary purpose.”
Peter Tscherkassky: In your first film An Experiment with Synthetic Sound (Versuch mit synthetischem Ton) the objects are out of focus and the images look as if they had been created by chance – this has nothing to do with the tradition of avant-garde cinema!
Kurt Kren: Those images had been carefully selected. Chance didn’t enter the game until the film 48 Heads from the Szondi-Test (48 Köpfe aus dem Szondi- Test). I wanted to make a film about human heads, and found the Szondi test. It was divided into six groups of eight different types, all of them numbered. I started playing with these numbers, created a notation for them, and filmed them using a single-frame technique, in other words, turned the mathematical series into images.
PT: What was the audience reception like?
KK: Good! People have always been interested.
PT: Your first and third film have sound, but your later films don’t. Why was this?
KK: I am more visual than audiovisual. In those two cases the sound didn’t quite fit in with the 16 mm film either. Moreover, there is the danger that the image and the sound start competing with each other. The rhythm of the visual has always interested me more. It can produce inner music within the spectators themselves.
PT: Your film 5/62: People Looking Out of the Window, Trash, etc. (5/62: Fenstergucker, Abfall, etc.) is the first one where you use flash editing. Could you tell us something about it?
KK: Flash editing was already familiar to me, I had tried it out before. But this film was the first time it was taken to the level of the individual frame. The rhythm was 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and 34 frames. It involved a written score, which resembled skyscrapers.
PT: The second phase of your filmography – which really can be divided into different phases – begins after Fenstergucker and includes the Actionist films.
KK: Those films were never intended to be documentaries, although Mühl and Brus hoped they would be. They have made or let others make documentaries afterwards, but as a matter of fact I ruined the whole project at that time, by trying to make a new film myself out of the footage that was shot.
PT: Were the actions public, or staged for you?
KK: Not just for me – there were others shooting them as well. I did, however, have the right to say “Cut!” in order to reload, prime or focus my camera.
PT: One cannot help noticing the absence of Schwarzkogler and Nitsch from your films.
KK: I have later often regretted the fact that I never did anything with Schwarzkogler. But he was even more introverted than Brus. I never saw a single one of his actions. What comes to Nitsch, I had difficulties with the religious aspect of his actions, as I have no relationship with religion myself. I once filmed one of his smaller actions, one that featured Reinhard Priessnitz as well, but the film vanished without a trace. The films brought the actions to larger audiences. We even screened them at the Amerika- Haus in West Berlin, although it had to be kept secret from the officials. This was in 1966 or ‘68. They were screened often in Vienna also. The screenings at Künstlerhaus used to be sold out, with more people still queuing outside.
PT: I return to the Actionist films: 13/ 67: Sinus Beta clearly signals a change in your films. You mix other images with the footage of the actions, although Mühl and Brus are still seen in the long takes crawling and dancing in a childlike manner with the female model. It looks as if you consciously refrained from editing, opting instead to show it how it really...
KK: ... was. It took place in the “Destruction in Art” Symposium in London, where I had been invited with my films. I found the editing method much more radical than the actions themselves. I prefer combinations such as Sinus Beta and others like that. The material goes together pretty well.
PT: If you compare this film with your earlier ones, you can see a logical development taking place. This is where it had to go, and this is the logical ending. Then you had those photographs of gestures...
KK: They were from a book on mimicry and gesticulation.
PT: Was that intended to be an ironic comment on the typical and at that point already familiar gestures repeated by the Actionists?
KK: That gets explained by the film itself. We were a loose group, and maintained an outward appearance, but there were significant disagreements inside the group. Moreover, I wanted to make different films, such as 17/68: Grün-rot (17/68: Green-red), the one with the shattered beer bottle. It is also a very erotic film.
PT: Yes, but the eroticism is very aggressive, like in the actions.
KK: I no longer made films with the Actionists, just some photos of Brus, her daughter and an egg, etc. But I had it in mind to make something about defecating, and I happened to meet Brus and Schwarzkogler in a café. Brus asked if I wanted to photograph him taking a crap, and I said no, let’s make a film instead. Combined with eating, drinking and urinating it became 20. September.
PT: It arouses strong reactions even today. People laugh, however...
KK: Yes, but it is quite a particular
kind of laughter, like in Pasolini’s
Salò. Then in 1968 was the episode
with the National Bank of Austria. I
used to work there, but I was never
welcome. My father had arranged the
position, they owed him that much,
because the Wiener Giro- und Kassenverein
had sacked him during the Nazi
period. I was a black sheep from the
very beginning, but I had the status
of an official and therefore couldn’t
When I returned from my first trip to America I though I would manage somehow, and let them know that I would quit by the end of the year. After a while, in June, the “Art and Revolution” event, or the so-called university outrage, took place, and made the headlines in the Blauer Montag. My name was also mentioned in the headlines, along with citations from the Süddeutsche Zeitung of “girls from good families” running out from the theatre in order to throw up as a reaction to 20. September. The film was screened in Munich then. On Wednesday I was called into the department of personnel administration and given the notice, saying that I have been dismissed immediately. They would pay may salary until the end of the year, though. I should have withdrawn my own application to leave and sue them, that would certainly have earned me an early retirement with full pension, but I just wanted to get out.
I turned on my heels and walked out of the bank. But after all it was a job where I could remain myself. During that time I wrote my scores, and also edited Mom and Dad (Mama und Papa) and Leda and the Swan (Leda und der Schwan). In the evenings I would return from work and brush the dust of the bank off my clothes. It was quite something else than being a museum attendant in Houston... and they had good food at the bank, too. But I thought: I will make it, somehow!
The problem is that nobody buys films – you can’t hang them on your walls as status symbols. We did, however, make small boxes covered with serigraphs together with the painter Wolfgang Ernst. They contained serigraphs of my scores, some of my photographs and one Super-8 print of one of my films each. We sold them for 150 Deutsche Marks from 1971 onwards. I heard one was auctioned at Düsseldorf recently for 1800 Marks...
PT: When did you move to the United States for real?
KK: In 1978, from Munich. I had sent
a card with a picture of the heads from
the Szondi-Test to about a thousand
addresses. I received some replies, and
criss-crossed across the United States.
Just before I was to depart an event
entitled “Film and Sexuality” took place.
The police raided it and confiscated the
films, including my film Cartoon: Balzac
and the Eye of God (Zeichenfilm oder
Balzac und das Auge Gottes).
The public prosecutor described the
film for pages and pages... although it
runs only for a couple of seconds. They
regarded it as a case of disturbance of
public order and an infringement of
religious whatever. It doesn’t startle
anyone in the USA, however, because
they don’t recognise the triangle as the
eye of God – even though they have it
printed on the dollar bill, right above
In any case, at the time I assumed the police got that one film only, but on the evening before my departure I found out that they had confiscated the entire reel that I was going to screen over there. Despite all this, I got married during my tour, just like in the film American Dream. We then came to Berlin via the German Academic Exchange Service, and after a year got divorced. The film tours went very well, until Reagan became president. His slogan, “Less government, more freedom” didn’t materialise in cinemas any more than it did in the social welfare services. The popular, so-called independent film reigned at the box office, because it brought in bigger audiences.
PT: Your own films of that time are very melancholic.
KK: Yes, my personal situation was completely chaotic and I looked for order through my films. I finished three films during that period, “bad home movies” as I like to call them. I always put in them a story about my cars, too. 40/81 Breakfast in the Grey (40/81 Breakfast im Grauen) was filmed when I spent time in New England with my friends, pulling down old houses ripe for demolition and selling the timber. I was the nail puller; I pulled nails out of boards.
PT: Those images are very important and symbolic to me: crumpling, collapsing houses, something breaking down – it is very touching. The same applies to your film 41/82 Getting Warm: interior shots, America as you only can imagine it, a television in the middle of the room, turned on perpetually, next to an unmade bed with someone lying in it occasionally, sometimes empty... these are very sad images, but ones that still evoke a kind of homesickness. You used to live in your car at the time, didn’t you?
KK: I did. Reaganomics caused many
people to lose their homes, their jobs,
their cars, forced them to sit on the
streets with their families. And me in
my car, it was strange... The early winter
in New England was quite cold, so I
moved through California to Texas, arriving
first in Austin. Parts of Getting
Warm were shot there.
I would be standing in front of the Texas Employment Commission at seven in the morning; people who needed cheap labour used to call there. I still had my 300 dollar Thunderbird then, and it still looked decent inside, and the only reason I got hired often was that I could take in a couple of passengers. The bottom of the car would often scrape the ground. But eventually even those jobs became hard to find.
PT: How about 44/85 Foot’-age shoot’- out, your last film?
KK: It came about in the following
manner: when I returned home in the
evenings I was completely exhausted
and unable to do anything. I laid down,
and could have slept for a day or two,
really. But, surprisingly, I received a
letter from the San Francisco Cinematheque.
They wanted me to make a film
to be screened at the Chinese Theatre
– with only a two weeks’ warning! A reel
of colour negative was included with the
There I was, wondering what to do next. The stress of the situation made me furious: what are they doing to me, it felt to me almost like being raped. That is what the title of the film came from: a film duel, a footage shootout.
I was really worked up, and then I met Bruce Conner who was covering a story in Houston. “Forget it, they are out of their minds!”, he said, but I couldn’t do that. I just thought, “Shit, I’m going to do it now!” Furiously, I shot the Houston skyline with my camera – that’s all there is in Houston anyway – and then even the film got stuck in the camera. I ripped it out of the camera and shoved it in the express envelope that had come with it, complete with the address of the film laboratory, and mailed it away. They had added the music from Once Upon a Time in the West in ‘Frisco. It was less famous in the States. In Europe it is apparently known by everyone, and I hear they even use it in commercials.
PT: Could you imagine yourself doing teaching work?
KK: I hate school a priori. They only produce new teachers. All the Art Schools, they are just machinery producing new teachers. My advise to students: don’t make films – go straight on the dole!
Kurt Kren: The Lord of the Frames
1/57 Versuch mit synthetischem Ton (1957) 1'23"
37/78 Tree Again (1978) 3'45"
9/64 O Tannenbaum (Materialaktion Otto Mühl) (1964) 2'40"
10/65 Selbstverstümmelung (Materialaktion G. Brus) (1965) 5'20"
2/60 48 Köpfe aus dem Szondi-Test (1960) 4'20"
36/78 Rischart (1978) 3'
49/95 tausendjahrekino (1995) 3'20"
20/68 Schatzi (1968) 3'
31/75 Asyl (1975) 8'25"
6/64 Mama & Papa (Materialaktion Otto Mühl) (1964) 4'
23/69 Underground Explosion (1969) 5'30"
26/71 Zeichenfilm – Balzac oder das Auge Gottes (1971) 35"
15/67 TV (1967) 4'10"
40/81 Breakfast im Grauen (AUT/US 1981) 3'24"
44/85 Foot'-age shoot' out (AUT/US 1985) 2'45"
29/73 Ready-made (1973) 13'
Kurt Kren: The Lord of the Frames (1957-95) in Orion on Friday, November 19th at 19.00 and Sunday, November 21st at 18.00. Screenings introduced by Gerald Weber of Sixpackfilm, Vienna.
The film O Tannenbaum will also be screened at the opening event of the festival in Kiasma Theatre on Thursday, November 18th at 18.30. In addition, the programme includes the following films by Kurt Kren: 8/64 Ana (1964, 3 min, a material action by Günter Brus) and 10b/65 Silver (1965, 2 min 35 sec, a material action by Günter Brus).