The Film as Counter-History Factory


Interview with Jean-Gabriel Périot, filmmaker, director of the Feature length film Une jeunesse allemande (2015; A GermanYouth)


Une jeunesse allemande, your documentary on the history of the RAF (Red Army Faction) movement is made up exclusively of archival images, with no accompanying commentary. These audiovisual documents come from quite a variety of collections, television and radio programs―mostly German but also French―, works from the German Film and Television Academy of Berlin (DFFB), militant films, and the private collections of former members of the RAF. How did you hit upon this form?

This form is nothing new in my work. I have already made quite a few of my shorts using archival images without any accompanying commentary. The choice I made for the archives seemed obvious to me given the particular history I wanted to relate because images played a vital role in the trajectory of the RAF members. To my knowledge, it is really the only group engaged in armed struggle in the twentieth century whose members had access to film and television, even before they founded the RAF. Some of them were filmmakers, journalists, and photographers; others were well-known enough to be invited to a television studio. These unique archives allow us to make a very particular choral portrait of these militants before they laid down the pen, the mike or the camera in order to devote themselves to armed struggle.

My project was not, then, so much to make a film on the history of the RAF as on the way in which it had been told. It was by using images produced at the time―both those of the founders of the RAF as well as of their adversaries (the police or politicians speaking on television)―that I was able to examine the way in which the story had been constructed. I let myself be guided by the questions the images put to me before letting them unfurl in my film. What is more, Une jeunesse allemande begins with a quotation from Jean-Luc Godard: “Is it possible to make film today in Germany?” This question, crucial at the time, is redeployed in a different register in my documentary, forty years later.


The heart of the film is, as you say, the battle of images and words that precedes them going from words to deeds. What type of questions did these images ask you?

I see the work of the cinema as a thought process that takes shape in the questions more than in the responses. What triggers it often derives from something I read by chance where I discover some historical fact that resonates powerfully with the present I am in, an event of which I was ignorant of and that to my mind I ought to have known about.

Today we know next to nothing about the RAF. In France barely anyone even has the vaguest memory of the “Baader-Meinhof” gang. Even in Germany, it is rare for people to know the history of the group’s founders. Who are they? What were the politics in whose name they acted even before they graduated to armed struggle? Now what you find out about them is very removed from the fantasized image generally associated with the word ‘terrorists,’ that of a mindless creature born with a knife clenched between their teeth. That was a knot that I could begin to work from, a knot where all the questions of previous era are entangled but also more contemporary reflections.

Documentaries on the RAF always employ the same images. Conversely, those preceding the group’s foundation and give the events in all their complexity and historical depth have disappeared. They have been rendered inoperative for constructing any memory of the event. How is it that these audiovisual archives have remained in boxes for more than forty years whereas the televised images produced after the group’s founding and showing that history through the lens of the police and politicians are used ad nauseam?

I have read a lot of biographies on Ulrike Meinhof. All of them provide details of her career in radio and television. But none of their authors went to get the films she made or the programs she appeared in. These visual archives on Ulrike Meinhof and the founders of the RAF are really precious. They give us access to the portrait they sketched of themselves and society in which they lived. They allow us to examine the violence under a different light as well as the history of television and militant cinema.


The process of researching in the German and French archives lasted more than ten years. It let you exhume neglected images and sounds. How did you find out about their existence and how did you locate the places where you could get hold of them?

In the early years I worked without an archivist for financial reasons. German-speaking assistants facilitated relations with the channels. The archivist Emmanuelle Koenig joined the team in the final year of production. Her role was important because it allowed us to find certain films thought lost or those the channels did not want to give me because they did not have confidence in me or did not believe in the project.

If Ina has made these images accessible, this is far from being the case in every country, particularly notably in Germany. There exist monopolies with control of audiovisual archives which make it almost impossible for anyone to write a counter-history, the construction of stories differing from the official history. This impossibility is due to financial reasons linked to the very high cost of the archives but also to ideological motives. Finally, there are practical issues of the state of the archives, often in disarray, lacking sufficient personnel or training in skills.

When I was looking for films or programs whose existence I had discovered with certainty, it wasn’t uncommon that I was told that these archives did not exist. It takes energy and persistence when you do research of that sort! I had to proceed like a historian― chasing down the slightest lead, the tiniest clue in biographies and newspaper articles. At the Deutsche Kinematek, for example, I watched all the films from the German Academy of Film and Television (DFFB), from 1965 to 1968. The films by students ― like those of Holger Meins who joined the RAF in 1970―weren’t categorized or indexed on the whole. I had enough information to know what was in those films and who had taken part in them. I also watched a good number of programs made by the NDR (a North German television channel in the north of Germany) for which Meinhof had worked. I also made contact with witnesses―her former colleagues as well as Meins’―who confirmed for me that it was a film made by one or the other. I even used pay slips from the time to identify certain audiovisual documents.

To edit the film without commentary, I had to use documents that could provide the knowledge and elements of context absent from the German archives. For example, when the events took place in West Germany, every TV viewer knew who Alex Springer, the press magnate, was. That is no longer the case today and so it was necessary to introduce him by using documents and a point of view from outside of Germany. I found them at Ina. French TV at that time was still rather anti-German. The documentaries and programs I chose attracted me because of their ‘acid’ and critical tone towards Germany.


What was the economic and financial framework in which you carried out this extremely costly research?

We were awarded research and development grants from the CNC and MEDIA (a funding program of Creative Europe). They allowed me to pay for research that was, as you said, very expensive, up to 150 euros for some copies of the programs and pieces, to which you have to add transport and especially the translations, because I do not speak German.

This archival material is totally inaccessible outside of a very well-financed film project. Usually the documentaries that can afford such research tend to be big television co-productions. We were lucky to be able to do it in the framework of a creative documentary, and a political one at that, by combining different sources of financing. Our research expenditures were considerable. We spent between 100,000 and 150,000 Euros on it out of a total budget of 700,000 Euros. It was Emmanuelle Koenig, who was also the production director, who negotiated the prices for the archival images within the framework of the allocated budget. I was very privileged because Nicole Brevière, who produced the film, always supported me in making the film I wanted. I never had to give up on an image from the archives because it was too expensive. That is the advantage of making a film for the cinema: a producer who takes on a film believes in the director’s work to the point of accepting that it might be a troublesome operation from a financial point of view. Producers in television are often much stricter about the cut that has to be taken by the production company.


Did your point of view on this history evolve as you were in the process of discovering these audiovisual archives? Did the images alter your perspective?

Yes, they did. For example, I came to realize that all the images of Ulrike Meinhof and her comrades were political images, in the sense that every utterance they made was answering a desire and necessity to take a position. I didn’t think that militant activity had occupied their lives to such an extent. I also underestimated how much of German television can still be seen.
Perhaps because in France we have quite a different history. In the 60s West German television was very liberal and covered a very wide political spectrum. It made rather more pro-student documentaries than you would have been able to see, let alone imagine, on ORTF.24 West German channels had an open-mindedness that meant someone like Meinhof could work there. Almost every Land had its own TV channel, corresponding to the regional political government, which encouraged a true diversity amongst the channels and their editorial staff. But all that became considerably less flexible in the course of the following decade. All the channels increasingly started to say the same thing, in the same way. I had not foreseen the extent of this standardization and how rapidly it happened, which had a funnel effect.


Let us go back to gaining access to the archives. How did German Television Stations and the different rights holders of the images react to your requests? Was the fact you were French an obstacle or an advantage?

At first, the fact of being French did me a disservice with the German television channels who dragged things out: they said that the French were always asking for archives but never did anything with them! Since I was not working with a true archivist in these first years, I did not seem very serious to them. But that finally worked to my advantage because I did not get entangled in the German memorial disputes about the history of the RAF. My position as an outsider helped me gain access to private collections thanks to which I discovered previously unseen archives on Meinhof or Meins. It also allowed me to collaborate with colleagues of the RAF founders or their rights holders who normally refuse to work with each other.


You received already edited images from television programs or militant films. In Une jeunesse allemande we see black screens, slow motion, and freeze frames. One can imagine you had to work through very heterogeneous materials to integrate it into a new filmic form and resolve the narrative problems it raises. It would require creating a rhythm and grammar specific to your film. Were you sometimes led to modify the original form of the audiovisual archives? And if so, did you have any scruples about “working” on these images?

The “translation” of the original work into my film sometimes forced me to be unfaithful to the original, precisely so that I could respect it. Some extracts could not be integrated in the body of the film as they were. That makes me feel uncomfortable though not to the point of feeling it was a “betrayal” because I was always careful to preserve the grammar of each one of the archives, to keep their individual qualities and mark their differences. In Une jeunesse allemande, certain extracts are inserted without the least retouching, others are slightly edited. Most of the time the reediting is imperceptible because the way the fragment was reedited remains very close to the original film, it always retains its specific quality. For example, I reedited Meinhof’s documentaries a little so as to create a rhythm in the movement from one section to another. It was necessary to take into account the broadcast venue for which these films had been made. Meins’ films for example were often silent―they were frequently meant to be projected in lecture halls and not on television or in the cinema. So I often asked the rights holders whether I could add music to some of the films when they created a rhythm problem in my own documentary.

At the start of Une jeunesse allemande, I used freeze frames in the sequences introducing the main figures. The viewers had to recognize them and have the time to look at them. I decided to proceed like Stefan Aust, an old colleague of Ulrike Meinhof who made a number of documentaries on the RAF and always began his films like that. The only difference was that the voice-over he uses belongs to a well-known actor―meaning expensive!―in Germany. So we had to re-record it. The second sequence I had to “re-create” concerned the attacks in 1972 of which very few images had survived: 1 minute 20 seconds in total for five major attacks! The TV channels kept some images but they are silent because the commentary was lost. We used the radio archives to add sound.

As for sound, I had to use archives which, conversely, were not accompanied by images. Usually, these sound archives are illustrated by filmed images or photos. We “filled” the void. To take one example, I found some news reports devoted to the trial of the Frankfurt arsonists which included fragments of a sound recording made by Gudrun Ensslin explaining why they had set fire to stores. This audio was “covered” with images of students during their trial. Looking at these first attempts, I realized that these images interfered with us listening to the sound archives because they created a distraction attenuating the archive’s force. So I decided to keep the sound pure by reverse engineering Ensslin’s voice-over so that it could really be heard. The black screen, which lets the voice stand out, allows for the creation of a very powerful emotional space-time.

Finally, I fought a lot with the calibrators who wanted to “clean up” the images, “integrate” them into the film, for example by adding contrast. I thought, on the contrary, that it was important for the archives to be “dated” and correspond to the technical conditions of the recording. Same thing for the sound. Just because it has glitches, you do not always have to clean it up! The soundtrack has to be audible of course, but with the sound texture of the time.


From the beginning of the film, you propose a reading pact to the viewer but you do not point out the origin of the materials you are using. What were the reasons you chose not to indicate their provenance?

The introductory line from Jean-Luc Godard―”Is it possible to make a film today in Germany ? ―lays out its cards for the viewer: “you are entering into a film that tells a history of images, a history in images.” Throughout Une jeunesse allemande I try to recall that beyond the history of the RAF this is also above all a film about the cinema and television.

To indicate the sources of each archive would sometimes have provided interesting information but it would have weighed the film down to the point of making it illegible and interfered with the story. I went for economy on this point because what was important to me above all was the narration itself. As a function of their historical, political and visual culture each viewer of Unejeunesse allemande will identify different things and reads the film in their own way. If they don’t recognize Godard’s voice at the beginning, that doesn’t matter. It is enough if they hear someone French questioning German cinema and whether it is even possible, as he is watching images on an editing table. The metaphor functions independently of the fact whether you can recognize Godard or not. The question he is asking is more important than the fact he can be identified.

However, I did have to indicate things about certain films that the viewer could not without in order to understand the extracts on display. For example, the pieces Ulrike Meinhof did for television or some of Holger Meins’ films did not have credits I could use. For these extracts it was imperative to know that it was precisely them who had made those pieces. Sometimes it was also necessary to indicate who the protagonists were appearing in the image. At those moments I used “classic” captions to give the necessary indications. But I did it sparingly! There was only one time that my decision not to indicate the sources used caused a problem. The rights holders of Zabriskie Point refused to let me use an extract from Michelangelo Antonioni’s film. They did not understand that you can still claim to respect a work without adding captions or clearly identifying the author (and yet we are dealing here about a Hollywood studio). To convince them, I had to send them a working version of my film. They got a better understanding of the project and ended up giving us permission.


How do you understand the role of the historian in the process of writing and editing?

When you are looking for money to make a historical documentary, you need to create a space of legitimacy. Now, from this perspective, the filmmaker is not considered to be “legitimate.” For this very contingent reason, a historian has to be taken on by the team, whether you need one or not. As far as I’m concerned, the historian can be an advisor who validates the way I have chosen to tell a story they know in depth. I feel reassured in so far as my partners feel reassured. But fundamentally, I do not think we need any. For each one of my films I do as much research as possible and I spend years at it. In my view, that is what is needed to understand the images. No historian of the RAF has examined this history from the point of view of its images In Une jeunesse allemande, there is nothing new but the events have never been recounted like this, with images that had been neglected. I experienced the pleasure of the historian but also the archeologist as I exhumed these forgotten images in order to give them renewed meaning.


Sylvie Lidenperg
Ania Szczepanska
Who owns the Images?
Meson Press 2022