Questions to my father
When Ulrich Mühe, one of Germany’s best-known actors, died at a surprisingly early age on 22 July 2007, a wave of obituaries appeared in the press. The newspaper “Die Welt” published an article exploring how – in particular in the case of the film “The Life of Others” – Mühe’s own life was interwoven with his screen roles.
In 2011 his son Konrad released the film “Questions to my Father”. It presents a conversation between father and son, with Konrad Mühe using his father’s roles as the basis for a dialogue in an attempt, as far as possible, to overcome the boundary between the private man and the public one. The film has such a personal feel about it that the viewer senses how important this fictional discussion is for the son’s own position in life and his ability to understand himself.
For three years, Konrad Mühe sifted through all the footage generated in the course of his father’s acting career, seeking out “answers” to those intimate, personal questions which demanded explanations after his death. Rather than creating a one-to-one dialogue from his own material, he drew on this found footage to create an extremely personal and yet entirely unsentimental portrait of his father.
Viewers may be taken aback at first when the son’s unspoken questions, marking the start of each chapter, elicit replies from an actor – some quite theatrical – with a masterful command of every emotional nuance from repentance via rage and aggression to pique. But it is this broad repertoire of feelings, expressions and gestures which – along with the fast pace of the editing and rapidly changing angles, and those pauses creating space for Ulrich Mühe’s expressive face to do its work – turns this film into an impressive memory of a great actor.
This approach underscores the artist’s ability to tease extra meaning from his father’s thespian potential. The film explores not only the many facets of the actor’s role as entertainer, public figure and uncompromising artist, but also the empathy displayed by its protagonist, which the spectator attributes to the private citizen Ulrich Mühe.
But by concentrating on found footage, Konrad Mühe also indicates his own role as questioner: he plays the part of the director, manages the dramatic structure, and is guided in portraying his father – rueful or careworn, exuberant or indignant – by his own memory and imagination. What emerges is more than a deliberate construction of “truth”; with stylistic techniques such as the cut, which in turn influences the background music, the artist conspicuously manipulates his father’s theatrical and cinematic legacy for his own artistic purposes.
Whether this method is legitimate is another theme of the film, and so apart from the father-son conflict described above it addresses issues about the use of film footage for artistic ends or in response to aspects of family psychology. Ultimately, this is as much about the often complex relationship between a young man reaching maturity and his father as about how the son can shake off such a strong and difficult father figure to assert his own artistic freedom. Can fictional material ever generate answers about one’s own situation?
And another question, perhaps a crucial one: given that the film was made posthumously without the protagonist’s influence, can the father’s answers be seen as valid feedback to the son’s questions? Or is this just a monologue by the son, trying to place himself in his father’s shoes, but ultimately seeking to overcome his conflict with his father?
This psychoanalytical dimension to the film is not confined to its pattern of question and answers. The prologue – the scene where the sleeping protagonist is aroused – signals the analogy between film and dream described in psychoanalytical film theory, and notably by the French thinker Jean Louis Baudry. He not only demonstrated the commonality between the two phenomena, but also argued that, like dreams, cinema gives spectators the impression that they are perceiving reality.
With this reference, therefore, Konrad Mühe is not just drawing attention to his game with the concepts of reality and fiction, but actually explores their significance in relation to each other. Again and again he breaks open the structure of dialogue, taking very different sequences and lining them up with clear, fast cuts. Or he blurs the focus by zooming so far into the material that the image seems to dissolve into pixels. At the same time, he tries to bridge the divide between film and spectator, drawing the latter into the film like an actor. And so, between the few sequences where the spoken word dominates, he repeatedly shows a silent face, when it seems that the actor is not just watching the viewer, but penetrating his or her thoughts. Not least, the silent questions create a level of communication with the audience, encouraging them to join the dialogue.
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