Une Jeunesse Allemande - Jean-Gabriel Périot in conversation with Klaus Vom Bruch


Although of different generations, Jean-Gabriel Périot (French, b. 1974) and Klaus Vom Bruch (German, b. 1952) are two filmmakers who have worked on the same subject, at different periods but with very similar techniques. Using only archival footage, they have both presented the story of the Red Army Faction, a German terrorist organization active in the 1970’s. Vom Bruch’s The Schleyer Tape (1977-78) is an editing of television reports on terrorist activity of the RAF. At the time, the taping and reassembling of video material was a new and exceptional practice, which has helped to make vom Bruch a pioneer of German video art. Periot’s most recent film, Une Jeunesse Allemande, similarly uses archival footage to tell the story of the RAF, and aims to question viewers on the significance of this revolutionary movement during its time, as well as its resonance for today’s society. As described by the Périot, “the RAF was a group of ‘normal’ German youths with rights, resources, and a bright future ahead of them,” who chose the path of political violence, “spreading death, and discrediting its own revolutionary ambitions.” His main question: “how could anyone deliberately choose this kind of violence?” During the premie­re of Une Jeunesse Allemande at the Berlinale 2015, DUST invited Klaus vom Bruch to meet for the first time Jean-Gabriel Périot, to discuss their films, their generations, and the role of political and social engagement among youth.


Gabriel - My interest in doing this movie was about catching the specific time of a generation, to tell the story as it was told when it happened, without rein­terpretating it. I just wanted to tell a story only using the archive alone. The intention was to respect the time of the events and leave the public alone with the material. There’s of course editing, to give a narration, but no one within the film is explaining to the audience what they should understand. They have the liberty to agree and disagree, they can formulate their own idea. Even the author doesn’t try to clearly state something. My point of view is maybe emer­ging indirectly, in the cutting and editing, but my interest was to leave the public alone with the archive. I’m more interest in questions presenting a point of view. When I do a film it’s because I want to understand something, so I work, I study, I try to make links, to make some kind of puzzle. So I have no clear statement in the film. I have a lot of questions put all together, and my problem was to find the form for these questions and to bring them back to the audience. But nothing more than questions.


Klaus - I share this approach. I started using pre-existing original material when I started producing artworks 40 year ago. For example, I used footage from the second world war from the allied forces in my early works because of the authentic aspect of it, because it was a direct document of reality, and even in the collages I did, the material was originally from the twenties. I used this in visual arts to create a psychological effect, combining different documents that would create something that was not existing before. It’s basically the theory or serialism. So this from a visual artist point of view was my approach in the rea­lization of “Schleyerband,” my piece done using television clips from 1977 and 1978, with footage of the Red Army Fraction. I found interesting that your movie, Une Jeunesse Allemagne, comes out now. It took long to make this subject in­teresting. My video, I call it a video, not a film, because it’s done electronically, was not of interested for 30 years because the actual events were too close to people lives. Like Germany after the war, there was no talk about Nazis, and about RAF there was no talk about it for twenty years, because people were so happy that this period was over that they just wanted to move on. The time has to pass by to make it perceptual, or intellectually or esthetically approachable for the viewers. It’s interesting that now, your film is made and realize and peo­ple are talking about the German youth in the seventies. I was young then, and now I’m the oldest guy in the building.


Gabriel - It’s for sure the distance that creates a new interest in this subject. It’s for sure interesting to understand how it was back then. It was an enigmatic period that in the last years has generated a sort of fascination as well. For me it’s not a fascination. My interest is not only in the RAF, it’s more general in that context. I grew up in a family without art history, without politics, I grew up after this period, and it’s very different from mine. My generation is always looking for something, but we don’t know why. And in some ways I’m personally jealous of a time when people were capable of believing in something. Today we can be against a lot of things, and maybe protest against them, but we don’t know how to be “for” something. We can have an idea about what to fight against, but we don´t know what to fight for.


Klaus - I have a 21 year old son, who once said, “We are the lost generation, because we don´t know what to Google.” And I see this, there’s no subject. At my time it was different, we were talking very seriously about ideals, engage­ment and the willingness to change the current state of things. The inclination to transform our hopes into actions was something very present in our personal lives. For me, working on the RAF subject back in 1977, was kind of therapeutic. It helped me to objectify it, and not be led by the events, and in the worst case become a terrorist. I was doing something creative with the idea itself, that helped me to escape the logic of that “German youth” at the time. Today it will be like joining ISIS, or any other extreme group, because some odd fantasies about human rights or the rights of a specific group. Working on something artistically it’s also I think helping your psych(e?) to not become a psycho.


Gabriel - What I found interesting is that many of the RAF members were film makers. They were expressing themselves in films, and at a certain point they decided to stop to make films, and in the name of their social commitments they started to make social actions that could have a bigger impact. That brou­ght them to an armed struggle. This was one of my questions, why did they stop making films? They were making movies for important TV channels that were able to reach a lot of people. For Example Ulrike Meinhof, she made dif­ferent documentaries, and wrote the movie Bambule for national West German television. Holger Meins as well directed different short films that were seen by a large public. It’s not that they didn’t had an audience. I still don’t have a real answer(?), about why they stopped making movies to start to an armed guerrilla against the state.


Klaus - As far as I remember Bambule was never shown, because Ulrike Meinhof went underground with the Red Army Fraction just ten days before the movie’s scheduled initial screening, and the movie was not shown until 1994. But yeah even if they had an audience with their documentaries and films, they didn’t have a big distribution, some of them were shown on state television, but it was not like a mass educational program. Christof Wackernagel, one of the first terrorist for example, he was an actor, and also he did the video for the RAF. The idea of sending a video was something groundbreaking at the time and I found it interesting. I said wow, there´s a new step in technology, they don’t just a send a Polaroid. It was a new language. Video at the time, was perceived as Polaroid, Rosa von Praunheim, use video because then he didn´t get into censorship, because if you brought something into a lab they could censor it or make problems. With video you could be completely independent of cen­ the time, was perceived as Polaroid, Rosa von Praunheim, use video because then he didn´t get into censorship, because if you brought something into a lab they could censor it or make problems. With video you could be completely independent of censorship. In my case what I did in my artistic work was record live TV programs, documenting hours on U-matic cassettes. When I was recor­ding I knew that footage about RAF, and other uncomfortable material would be censored in the evening by the government state television. So already in the Germany of the seventies there was censorship.


Gabriel - Yeah I know, during the research of my movie, I was looking for some extracts of a TV program of the time that was a debate about censorship on TV. And when I requested the tape, they say they couldn’t send it because there was a label on it, saying that the record was still censored. In the archive today there’s so much lack of material, I know it’s not all about censorship but it’s somehow ironic. For example, all the bombing of 1972, almost everything has disappeared from all the archives. It´s not censorship, but much footage, of the same day, from different channels, have been erased from the archive. It was very useful the film you made, because much of the footage that you used has disappeared.


Klaus - It´s more about cleansing. The live stuff I have, the TV stations don’t have. The footage I’ve used is not present at the archive of the state TV. I was such a nut case or such a freak to have two U-matic machines standing there in my studio, recording live TV for hundreds of euro an hour. Taping all this mate­rial was very expensive for me as a private person, I have recorded hundreds of hours. The state television didn’t do that and much material just disappeared. It´s not censorship, maybe it’s just oblivion.

But to come back to the point, being part of the same generation in some way I shared the same background of the Baader-Meinhof Group, we could have similar principles and ideas, but at the beginning they were seen just as a small group of people acting on their own, representing just themselves. The sym­pathy for the RAF for many of us started only as a consequence of the reaction of the government. It was not the RAF itself, it was the situation. All of the sud­den we saw that there was such an aggressive opposition from state force, when for us it was more an intellectual approach, that we had to take a posi­tion somehow. The RAF members started as intellectuals, artists, filmmakers but then they denounced Heinrich Böll of being a terrorist. The whole situation was growing out of proportion. It created a generational clash, and that was why we were interested in it, otherwise it would be something different. It was presented in the media as an aggression from the state towards intellectuals and artists, so it was natural for us to take a position. At least at the beginning.

If you think about recent events, Charlie Hebdo, for example is not great art, or great subjects, or great drawings. But with the reaction to it, like killing all these people, creates a huge audience. It was a niche magazine that nobody bought, all of a sudden became the center of the discussion of freedom of speech. Everybody is saying “Je suis Charlie” but you could also can say, well I’m not for this, this is a terrible magazine, it’s not art, it’s just getting famous offending people. And for saying this you get criticized. You have the right to have a de­mocracy and say this is my option why can’t I say it? And this is because every­body is hysterical about one opinion. If I can say, this is what the atmosphere was then, back in the seventies. Within families, for example. My parents didn’t get it. And you know, if my parents didn’t get it, I thought, I must be right. It’s something so new and revolutionary, why should they understand it? They are too old, they belong to the generation who lived twelve years under Hitler. Well I couldn’t say my parents were Nazis, but all their generation came from there, we felt we could say, fuck you, we don’t speak with Nazis. This was happening in all the families, the willingness of renovation of our generation started at home. Nowadays your generation doesn’t have this kind of historical index, a past from which you’re taking your distance from. Today in the debate it seems you can only say, okay I’m Muslim, I’m Palestinian, I’m a Jew, I’m Christian. And everyone has to deal with that, all the time.


Gabriel - I see your point. The reaction that terrorism triggered back then and what it’s triggering today. It’s almost the same. It polarizes all the options. Today is not about the leftists anymore, it’s about the Islamists. But people in charge always use it, in the same way, as an excuse to create some anti democratic opposition to new liberties. They always use terrorism as a pretext to have cops in the streets and to shrink freedom. We have to think and to question the way they forbid us to bring back the idea that whoever is turning to terrorism in the first place is a human being. And we have to question the reasons and the suf­fering that push people to such acts. It’s not an excuse for what they are doing, but for sure it’s something for us to reflect on.


Claus - What I see is that all these Europeans, and young people who are joi­ning the ISIS or turning to terrorism, have to be seen as victims of society, as people that didn’t have a chance. They were left alone by a civilized society and the politicians didn’t get it, at the right moment. They could have done something, in the Banlieue, twenty years ago. The main reason of the problem is because an organization of the social environment didn’t take place. The situation is different in Germany for example. Here we don’t have so many im­migrants from so many different regions, the majority of immigrants are Turkish, and the relation between Germany and Turkish always been between two inde­pendent states. In this situation there is not a mentality like that of those whom are coming from colonies that has been exploited from years, and where the rage and the will for redemption are feelings of a whole community. This made in France the confrontation very visual and evident. As a result the terrorism, or let’s call it the immigrant problem, is much higher than in Germany. It seems now Muslims have the monopoly of terror, whereas back in the seventies it was all happening within our very society. Class clash, social actions, arm struggles and so on. It’s something that today we can’t really understand.


Gabriel - In a way the movements of resistance today in the west, it seems that they all fail in terms of politics. They didn’t manage to change anything. I was always surprised that despite the economic crisis, and the instabilities of political situation in Europe, some sort of terrorism or radical actions didn’t start again. Actually I’m surprised that everybody is so patience. If we watch what is happening in our society today, I think this could be a time for being extreme dissent, of course in different ways than terrorism, but nothing happens becau­se at the end we are too patience a society. None of us want to stop having the comforts of the society of consumption. We know that we will loose our way of living, if we refuse all this or if we want to change it. If we don´t want the Chinese workers to be exploited, then we have to stop to buy clothes, if we want to take care of earth and ecology we would have to need to stop to eat meat, and make drastic changes. We have to change all of this, but we are too afraid. We can be leftist and be against capital but then in our daily lives we do the opposite, because we don’t know really how to live any other way. It´s a tricky situation.


Klaus - Yes, everybody now wants to have a share of the bourgeoisie, they look up to the bourgeoisie, and it’s typical that the bourgeoisie dont care for anything, they are not responsible, they change countries and apartments whe­never there’s a problem in the neighborhood, and that what people want to have. Everybody looks for their little own private paradise and they don’t want to feel responsible for what’s happening. When I say to my students that they should avoid to buy clothes fabricated under slavery condition in Asia, they say that they could not afford anything else. But then they have 20 pairs of un­derwear. At their age I had like 3. And washed them every few days. The whole culture of consumption is destroying everything. Everything is about the culture of consumption, to talk about cinema for example, a lot of actors and people are still there only because they get contracts with advertisement, and they make money not with the actual art form, but as a side kick. They get money for advertising. If you go to Berlin, it’s terrible. It’s ruining the whle esthetic of the city. Before it was about people, now it´s about consumption. Everything you see reflects very primitive needs, and for sure there’s no art in it. People should stop going for the money all the time. There is nothing that is not com­mercialized. Back in the seventies most of the filmmakers for example, didn’t have money at all, they weren’t rich, now you have like one million dollars of personal assets. It’s out of proportion, I can’t say I was just an idealist. I wanted to have a studio, I wanted to make money and sell stuff and so on, but it was a completely different urge and direction. Now it’s completely hysterical. Money wise it’s really out of proportion. The worst thing is that people become greedy and aggressive.


Gabriel - There always have been problems and fights in the past. There was always a place were people were wealthy and richer, and the other people were starving on the outside, so they were fighting. But the fact is that they were fighting for social justice not to be like them. Today instead we are craving it, we want a piece of it, and we accept it as normal.


Klaus - From this point of view we can say that this is the radical ideology of today, and it’s a shared vision. Back then we thought it was a discussion, there was even discussion on television, in university, in the streets, and then some flipped out and went to weapons. But before the violence started we had a very varied debate among us. There were all these warehouse collectives, then there was this Buskeria, the jugglers of Fritz Teufel, for example, who only made fun of the system and they weren’t aggressive, all they could do was shitting in a hallway of Jurisdictions and so on. It was a sort of Dadaist thing that got out of hand. In the beginning it was more like school kids doing something to teachers, or student doing something to a professor, but to arrive to kill people and introduce violent aspects, was all of the sudden some mechanical thing. It wasn’t meant to be at the beginning, but then it suddenly happened.


Gabriel - Yes, I realize in the research of this movie, that it became a mecha­nical step. Violence became a practicable option, many people I interviewed were telling me that, once they were asked to join or not the armed struggle, they made a choice in terms of if they materially could or not, like now I have to take care of my children, I have other plans coming up. But it wasn’t about, if it was right or not, it was not about questioning the ideals and methods. These were accepted. It was more about: could I practically do it because of my life or not? In the cinema at the time, in all the movies, in the literature of the time, armed struggle was considered something normal. All the liberation fights in the third world brought with them the idea that it was common to turn into an armed resistance, it wasn’t a gap. It was just a means you could use or not, an option among many.


Klaus - Each nations had their specialties, or reasons for this. Nowadays you have more a global aspect. It is even interesting for me that religions came back into the debate. We were sort of liberated from religions, and not many people were discussing that, but all of a sudden I became the Christian in the discussion. Why? What’s happened? I’m not a Christian, I don’t need to reduce my culture to its religious roots.


Gabriel - It’s like that. The less politics there are, the more religiousness is coming back.


Klaus - In the eighties there arrived a lot of money, speculation, real estate, and a lot of post-capitalism ideas started to take over. And I think that was a change. People got exited about making money. Political art was happening until the late seventies, and in the eighties it changed completely. It was about getting famous and making money. You started to have commercial film, art like Jeff Koons, the money thing in the eighties was a sign of optimism. But not for long.


Gabriel - After the seventies, such ideas of the left just lost, and to win has been the bourgeois class. Their values became the common values of everyo­ne.


Klaus - Everybody wants to have a luxury life instead a of more interesting one. You can even have a Che Guevara poster and a T-shirt, but make ten thousand a month, and there’s no contradictions. It’s totally a post-modern situation. Things happen. Before they were more on a cultural level, and not so much on a political level. My son is a complete consumer, and this is the new generation. I see sort of curves, it may come up that the next generation will be fed up with this situa­tion, this kind of way of living, and take distance from all of this.


Gabriel - It will have to change soon, we’ll be forced to realize that. Life on the planet will not be bearable, resources are shrinking. So we’ll be forced to change, so I try not to be pessimistic and think that the new generation will find the way and the means to change everything without destroying everything. We really risk to destroy ourselves. I’m 40 and for my generation it is difficult to think of what kind of solutions are needed because we have to create it from the ground up. So intellectually for us it is complicated because we don’t fit anymore in this world, my generation is too old for solutions.


Klaus - Well I can’t help either, but I think the education is the thing. If you really radicalize the idea, you have to intellectualize everybody, get rid of religious is­sues in the discussion. The new generation has to make radical changes. Rea­ding the newspaper, it seems that one of the main problems is the Islamization of Europe. I think there are many other ones. For example, what about the Chi­nese? I’ve been to China, and it seems they don’t give a shit about individual hu­man beings. It’s a mass culture, and if for some reason they have to do it, they’ll buy all of Africa, what they have already started doing. The Chinese would eat it all up. They are developing at a very fast rate. But they don’t have this process yet, that Western culture developed in the last decades. They are still like in the fourties in Europe, developing after the war, or like the 19th century industriali­zation process. They will do the same mistake all over. That’s now what I see, I’m now 62 years old and I have a little experience, and I don’t see that they’ve learned how to anticipate future issues. Then there is the Middle East. It doesn’t make sense, how negative it has become there. There could be tomato fields, and beautiful houses on the sea. There is great weather. I wonder why it’s impos­sible to do something different. For European standards, that reminds me of our grandfathers standing in Verdun, fighting against each other. If we think about it, that the two of us have to go to Verdun, to shoot each other, with mud up to the knees for three years, you wouldn’t believe it, forget it. It’s a joke for us now. But they don’t get the jokes there yet, in the Middle East. And that’s really shocking. It’s strange even for the young generation to think that people of their age back in the seventies were carrying an armed struggle against the state, killing people just for their role, and sacrificing themselves in the name of an ideology.


Gabriel - My movie comes out now, and the young generation can watch this footage from the seventies with a very distant point of view. But your film was made in 1979, addressed to the same generation who lived in first person the facts of RAF. How was it perceived at the time?


Klaus - Well, when I finished my film, I invited people over to my studio, to sit and see it. Nobody wanted to show it. Nobody was really interested, there were no more than 100 people who have seen it, and then it was gone for twenty years and then it came back.


Gabriel - Probably it was too violent for the time, violent in the sense that it was describing what was happening, and that’s why it was not really comfortable for people seeing it.


Klaus - The thing is that they were fed up with it. It was too much information, too much reality. Like today I hesitate to put on the news, because it makes me so sad, I’d rather look at something else.


Gabriel - In the film you use a lot of irony, but I’m not sure it was intended. Me now, I see this irony, but I don’t know how it would have been in the seventies.


Klaus - I’ve added the song from John Lennon, The Working Class Hero, as an irony, sure. Most of my work is ironic, because I can’t take the world so serious. It’s kind of the Tati touch. I was always contemplating the Second World War in my work, so I have always been a political artist. But by the time I was finished with the film, I was able to take a distance from the Baader-Meinhof. I didn’t do it for therapeutic reasons, even if that was the effect it had on me. I did it becau­se I was interested in the material, and what was happening. But then I had to go forward, and doing different things that were more playful, it became more fictional. Gabriel - Right. for me, every image and footage that I use is fictional. I don’t make a separation between what could be documentary or fiction. My starting point is that every image is a construction. So if you see them as constructions, you can see it all as fiction, because all the filmmakers, or cameramen, they all tell a story. There is no neutrality in the images. It’s all subjective. They pretend to be objective, but as soon you use something you use it as construction. It’s not the thing itself.


Klaus - From our cultural view point, this is very clear. Images do not represent the thing itself. They are just images. The image of Mohammed, for example, is nothing else than an image. A drawing of the prophet is nothing more than a drawing. It’s something else than the prophet itself. And the prophet is not a small guy with the beard, he is an abstraction of faith. So people who criticize this, aren’t getting the aesthetic right in the first place. Because we talk about reality and fiction, and we know every image is a fictionalization of an idea. In this case the idea of how to organize a religious life. It’s all straight philosophy. Everybody should understand the relationship between reality and images.


Luigi Vitali
May 2015