Director: Nahuel Lopez (Germany, Switzerland). Year of Release: 2022
Spell your name: H O E P K E R. What year is it?: Oh, I don’t know. Take a guess. 2013? I’m going to list three things, talk to you a bit and then ask you to repeat them. ok. Apple, Table, and Penny. What did I just say? Er, penny? I can’t remember the rest. The nurse says everything’s ok and turns her back. The man she’s been talking to briefly removes his mask and sticks his tongue out at her, smiling impishly.
Most of the film is set towards the end of 2020, at the beginning of the Covid crisis. Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker (84, you may know him for his photos of Mohammed Ali) has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But for most of the time, he can still tell a hawk from a handsaw. He may increasingly forget things, but is still sharp as a button.
Hoepker decides to take one last road trip in a camper van from New York State to California with his second wife Christine. Actually, it’s probably more fair to say that Christine takes the decision. She is an indulgent woman, clearly younger than her husband, but now she takes the important decisions – often pointing out things for Thomas to photograph. Although both have lived in the USA for decades now, they speak to each other in German.
What follows is a film of many parts. On one level it shows Hoepker’s declining memory in action. The results are both humorous and tragic. He and Christine visit Vegas. She asks if he remembers their previous visit 17 years ago. Yes, he says, were you there? We got married, she replies. On their journey they learn that Paul Fusco, a former colleague who they’d been planning to visit, has died. Hoepker is sorry for his wife’s lost, but can’t recall knowing his old friend at all.
On another level it’s a State of the Nation film. They (that is Christine) decide to travel through the Southern States – Trump country – although they are both liberal progressives. They find that the Southerners that they meet are quicker to open up and talk to them than New Yorkers. What they hear sometimes surprizes them. A woman starts by bemoaning the fact the most people have forsaken God but goes on to condemn racism and say that Native Americans should be rioting.
The story is broken up with news reports of increasing numbers of Covid fatalities. This is one of the few films that I’ve seen that neither make Covid central to the story nor pretends that it isn’t happening. Instead, Covid is reluctantly accepted as part of our current environment. Many people in the film wear masks, without comment. There is brief exhilaration in the camper van when Biden wins the election, but the Covid figures continue to rise and nothing obviously changes.
This is also a history of Hoepker. He only took up photography by chance at the age of 16 when someone gave him a camera. The film describes him as an autodidact, entirely self-taught. Living in West Berlin he took photos of kids playing on both sides of the wall, most notably in the district of Wedding. He then spent 3 years in East Berlin before moving to New York, where he was still living on 11 September 2001, taking iconic pictures of the reactions of locals outside Manhattan.
Finally, we learn some of Hoepker’s ideas about what makes good photography. He says “for me, a good picture is a photo that says something, that has good composition. But that still doesn’t say what a good picture is, Good pictures are rare. And somehow the great thing about photography is that it can’t be defined with words.” Elsewhere he says that a good photo must tell a story. It is not enough to depict a moment, the audience must also be intrigued about what caused that moment.
In a sense, the film contained too many things for me. Not too much – I could watch much more, but too many. There wasn’t really enough time to show the whole of the road trip AND hear readings from Hoepker’s fascinating earlier writings on art AND learn his personal history travelling the world AND see the contemporary responses to the growing COVID crisis as it was happening. There was barely the time to fit it all in.
This means that some things inevitably go missing. For example, Hoepker is taking pictures throughout the road trip, but we don’t see the results of his efforts. Some of the photos are displayed over the end credits, but this deprives them of some context. To be fair, the film itself is beautifully photographed, so we get wonderful pictures of the area, but that is almost an argument against the particular greatness of Hoepker’s work.