Director: Marie Noëlle (Germany). Year of Release: 2022
Apparently this is the 150th anniversary of Heinrich Vogeler’s birth. If you’re wondering who he is, this film makes a case for why you should know more. Vogeler was expected to follow into the family business, but when his father died prematurely, he used the wealth he inherited to found the artists’ community of Worpswede near Bremen. It seems that Vogeler was forever near the impoverished alternative scene, but always with a financial safety net that could protect him.
This film is neither a documentary, nor a biopic, nor an assembly of talking heads. It is a combination of all of these. This is disconcerting and damaging to the film’s credibility. We move from an art historian explaining Vogeler’s background to several re-enacted scenes of Vogeler in hats. He gives a woman a top hat to carry here, digs a field in a beret there, and appears in chain mail and a helmet God knows where. When he says anything, it is obviously scripted.
Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t really see the point in this. Why do I need to see someone dressed up as Vogeler (or one of his friends like Rainer Maria Rilke) reading texts that have been fabricated by the screenwriter? What is it with the actors standing behind a life size picture of the real life character who they are playing and then ripping it up, or occasionally scrunching it a little? Is this supposed to increase our understanding somehow?
We see Vogeler stumble around rich artistic communities. Every so often an art historian or actor tells us something that isn’t really enlightening. Or a psychiatrist explains to us what Vogeler was really thinking. We see little of his art, and what we see is ok, but not that impressive. We are told about the end of his marriage, when his wife fell for someone else and he didn’t try to win her back, but given no convincing evidence about why this gives the paintings particular meaning.
At one stage, we are taken into an interview with a modern French artist who explains how her erotic feminist paintings are a hommage to Auguste Rodin, the man who invited Vogeler to spend some time in Paris. This may, or may not, be interesting. It is of no importance in telling the story of Vogeler, a painter with only a passing relationship with Rodin.
And then, around 25 minutes before the end, something interesting happens. Vogeler, until now a liberal but well-off artist, volunteers to fight in the First World War. His experiences shock him. He becomes a pacifist and publishes an anti-war poem “Fairy tales from dear God” which results in him being sent to a psychiatric hospital for 2 months. He decides to give over his artistic community to “the working class”, whoever they may be.
Soon, he becomes a socialist. We see flickers of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht’s greatest hits on the screen (as in every liberal documentary, Luxemburg say that those who don’t move do not notice their chains, and doesn’t mention mass strikes or revolution). There is even video footage of Lenin. And yet there is little footage of the mass mobilisations which threatened the German state. Vogeler’s opposition, as depicted here, is more intellectual than social.
Nonetheless, Vogeler’s politicisation obviously affects his art. Until now, he has produced fairly bland landscapes and pictures of his friends. Suddenly his pictures are quite obviously influenced by Cubism. The film does not take this up, but does stress that his move to the Soviet Union did not turn him into a socialist realist. We see a scene where he talks to collaborators about their mutual fear of Stalin’s rise, but they remain silent while state forces drag someone off.
There is something interesting in here, but the film lacks the inquisitiveness to follow it up. Instead, it brings on the psychiatrist again to explain how Vogeler’s turn to socialism came from a lack of representation or whatever. Everything is seen through his personal neuroses, which means that the social tectonic plates which moved the history of the early 21st Century are ignored and seen as being far less relevant than slight discomforts in Vogeler’s love life.
The trouble is, the film shows very little interest either in Vogeler’s politics or in his art. Talking heads are wheeled on to espouse theories which may or may not be true. One points to a gap in a painting among people sitting on a bench and claims that this shows that Vogeler was missing Rilke, with whom he’d recently fought, and who should have been on that bench. Well, maybe. Or maybe it was allow us to see the person in the background who would be otherwise invisible.
A rough translation of the German subtitle is “from the life of a dreamer”. The film pushes the idea that Vogeler’s problem was that he was a rebel who was just out of time – too left wing for Weimar Germany, too rebellious for the nascent Soviet Union. The insistence on talking about individual motivation is that although it vaguely acknowledges that serious historical developments are happening, it is unable to understand why they are important.
Heinrich Vogeler is a missed opportunity – the story of a great life in an important period of history, but without the interest or understanding to get why Vogeler’s life might tell us anything. Nice that you tried, but a shot that went embarrassingly wide.