Programming films by Peter Weiss (1918-1982) at a time of great enthusiasm towards documentary techniques can be informative. Above all when the surrealist tone of the majority of his film experiments seems to go against the flow of a predominating empirical aesthetic of immediate contact with reality. Nonetheless, Peter Weiss’s intentions in the 50s revolved around reconciling the tradition of avant-garde cinema with the observation of a new society emerging after the Second World War. In fact, his works eventually become representative of a rather broad concept of documentary. His works for the stage are tagged as “documentary theatre”. His drama and literary production after that decade dedicated to cinema gave rise to an oeuvre whose main characteristic is an obsessive duplication of aspects, events, data and phrases taken from reality. Those of you who have read Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (The Aesthetics of Resistance), his last novel, know what we mean. Peter Weiss goes so far beyond the definition of the documentary that it is impossible to formulate the synthesis of the account we are dealing with here. Although it may sound like defeat, it is the challenge represented by the aesthetic of this talented individual, who was painter, filmmaker and writer at once.
Weiss’ cinema stands in the middle of this process. It is experimental because, as we can see in retrospect, it represents a transition between painting and literature. This is what we could call a “sacrificial cinema,” dedicated to resolving the contradictions in the world of art and among the intellectuals of the cold war period.
Peter Weiss is above all known for his famous play on the French Revolution, Marat/Sade (1965), and for Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (The Aesthetics of Resistance, 1975-1979), the macro-novel in three parts that covers the labour movement in pre-World War II Europe, although he also produced cinematic studies, documentary shorts and a feature-length fiction film that were greatly influenced by Luis Buñuel and Jean Vigo. In 1952, when he joined the Svensk Experimentfilmstudio, a cooperative founded by a small group of artists and intellectuals in Stockholm, he began to work on his first experimental films, Studies I-V, at the same time writing a micro-novel, Der Schatten des Körpers des Kutschers (The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body). In the second film of this series, Studie II (Hallucinationer) / Study II (Hallucinations), each sequence refers to a parallel series of surrealist drawings. By the same token, the full-length film, Hägringren (Fata Morgana, 1959), is based on a novel written by Peter Weiss that he himself published, Dokument I. Nonetheless, documentary cinema seemed to offer him new possibilities, as reflected in his comments to Buñuel’s Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan (Land without Bread). Thus, experimental surrealist cinema finds continuity in documentary practice in films such as Ansikten i skugga (Faces in the Shadow, 1956) and Enligt lag (According to Law, 1957).
An interview with Peter Weiss by Harun Farocki in 1979 after the publication of the third volume of The Aesthetics of Resistance, serves as a preface to this introduction to Weiss’ cinema, practically unknown to us. The conversation between these two directors shows a transfer of interests little known in European experimental cinema, since Peter Weiss’ works were relegated to the background during the 80s. If we are now reviving him, it is because we are once again faced with the need to articulate the representation of a globalised world that facilitates access to visual data from around the world without guidance as to how to interrelate so much information. Although the overwhelming scale of Peter Weiss’ last works seem to have demanded a methodology involving team research à la Bertold Brecht, for instance, Peter Weiss’ oeuvre can be considered that of an individual taking on a quantitative challenge on his own, just like a painter in his workshop.
Andreas Wutz and Carles Guerra