Filmmaker Lutz Dammbeck: American Angst and German Paranoia

by Nicolas Hausdorf // Apr. 18, 2016

Television game shows as tools for occupation, feedback loop anthropology and psychoanalysis in the post-national laboratory: admittedly, there is something overwhelming about Lutz Dammbeck’s new film Overgames, launching in cinemas across Germany this month. Far from being a self-contained work however, Dammbeck’s new film—the result of eight years of work—is much more. The project, shot in the filmmaker’s characteristic essayistic and subjectivist style tracing the legacy of US-Reeducation in a destroyed and occupied post-WWII Germany, is the culmination of a series of films (Kunst und Macht – Art and Power) and of a complex developing conversation between Dammbeck and a set of historical protagonists ranging from East German artists to Viennese right-wing intellectuals and Silicon Valley Tech Hippies.

Dammbeck is a German Adam Curtis of sorts, or a multi-layered and moving Mark Lombardi painting. However, in many regards this comparison might lead us astray. The German filmmaker’s work is unique, rejects singular interpretation and explanation with its multitude of open questions, self-interrogation and personal intervention. Unlike Curtis, Dammbeck does not redeem the suspicion that the paranoia of his protagonists might be justified, no cathartic element relieves the viewer’s confrontation of the historical material. In passing, Dammbeck narrates a sort of shadow history of Germany in the 20th century and weaves it into contemporary global reality. Observing the connections in between and the evolution of Dammbeck’s films and artistic output, one cannot help thinking of a developing Gesamtkunstwerk, as a result of the multitude of media used (from montage to installation, film, text and painting) but also because of the consistency and sincerity of his pursuit. Dammbeck’s interviews dive into the fringes and extremes of 20th century ideologies (like the anti-modernist scene of Viennese intellectuals in The Master Game, early technology hippies or anti-technology terrorist Ted Kaczynski in The Net: the Unabomber, LSD, and the Internet (his 2003 masterpiece which brought him a small but devoted international following) and evoke the sometimes absurd and comic tragedy of failed historical projects. In the process, and in the absence of Dammbeck imposing judgement on his protagonists, the viewer is left with their own capacity to interpret history.

We interviewed Lutz Dammbeck about his new film. This is a long read, but without a doubt one that, similar to Dammbeck’s films, is worthwhile. The artist covers a wide range of subjects from German and Western history, to the legacy of mass therapy and propaganda on contemporary culture. A rich trove of references for the reader to follow up on, once again positioning Dammbeck as a complex thinker and one of the most interesting German artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Nicolas Hausdorf: How would you describe your artistic project and method?

Lutz Dammbeck: My artistic medium is the montage. Regarding my stance, I see it as realism. This both applies to working with different media, whether it is film (animation, experimental, or documentary), photography, collage or installation. The goal is always to describe reality. First, simply for my own orientation. At the same time, I enjoy working with certain materials, regardless of content. It is important to not want anything, to wait until, often as a result of coincidence, “something” comes to life, to notice this “something”, to be open towards where one is lead by it. Curiosity is important in this regard: to listen to the material and what it wants to tell me, not to bend it and to force the material.

NH: Your new movie Overgames is a kind of archeology of ritualised mass culture as a vehicle for the ideological project of a “permanent revolution”. What does this notion mean and how conscious is this process today?

LD: Of course, the notion of permanent revolution is inspires the works of Trotsky. When I explained my idea for the film to an expert on the subject of “the play and the serious”, he replied: “certainly you are going to talk about the connection between the revolutionary celebrations like the festivals during the French Revolution and the beginnings of stagings that lead to cinema. Interesting.” Revolutionary celebrations, stagings, cinema, mass psychology? During my research, I found a publication titled ‘USA- the Permanent Revolution’ from 1952. The topic of the book was a process, whose aim was an anti-nature and a new evolution. Until then, the notion of a “Permanent Revolution” was most commonly connected to Leon Trotsky and the title of his book published in 1929, which became one of the bibles of Marxism. While Trotsky’s definition was pointed towards a finality, a Communist state of bliss following the revolution, the US definition did not entail a finite process. To me this definition appeared to be more adequate to the notion of a “permanent revolution”. Before, the notion only inspired in me the image of a “bad infinity” built with the help of cybernetics and systems theory, leading to a revolution of all aspects of life. Now, the image referring to the triad of British, US, and French revolutions was complemented by a larger historical context.

I’m also interested in the difference between “reform” and “revolution”. And, interesting question: Are we talking about a “permanent revolution” or about a “permanent reform”? Is the permanent revolution inevitably a way into the abnormal, as suggested by a book of Sigmund Neumann? Is it leading to totalitarianism? Also, is the US revolution (and its attempt to dominate the world since 1945) completed and is it turning into a permanent reform now? What is also interesting to me, is that in German “reform” and “revolution” are female words. “Die Revolution”, “Die Reform”.

NH: Perhaps counter-intuitively, you are suggesting a role of the bourgeoisie and of the market as the truly revolutionary players. Could you elaborate on those ideas?

LD: One might say: today, the shareholder is the true revolutionary. Shareholders and speculators appear to be the veritable leaders of the revolution. However, they do not pursue any humanitarian or political goal except for securing their property via the police. I think it was a Leftist misunderstanding that the value of the US, British and French revolutions lay in the economic revolution or in class struggle, in which the bourgeoisie prevailed. I suggest that it had definitely been a complete revolution in terms of political culture. The Americans intervene early in this regard, at the end of the 1920s. Overgames is an attempt to describe this new US approach to politics which also includes culture. I take it for granted that they include into this approach separate studies dealing with control via the domain of culture (high-school and university student exchanges of elites of all sorts, film, art, literature, newspapers) in their strategy after 1945.

NH: You have been dealing with the so-called “Re-education”, the US-project of influencing and altering German culture after World War II, for some time: Is this a very provocative topic?

LD: Moving from Leipzig in East Germany to Hamburg in West-Germany in 1986, when Germany was still divided into two political systems, was as though an anthropologist offered me the opportunity to go on an expedition and visit a strange tribe. I had the opportunity to observe rites, rituals, discourses and a foreign culture. Prior experiences like Western TV, Western contacts to the Leipzig Trade Fair, my own experiences as a child during visits of relatives in West Germany until the construction of the wall in 1961, did not weaken the experience. This was the real motive for Overgames. Joachim Fuchsberger, the former German game show host, talking about the game shows originally being a product of US psychology, then acted as a trigger for me to become active. However, once I encountered the names I had already known from my research of my other documentaries from Age of the Gods to The Net, like Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Kurt Lewin and others, I soon realised that this is about a bigger process beyond the German experience. It is a global process. Thus, West-Germans are only interesting as the lab-rats in a specific phase of a larger experimental set-up. However, I would like to warn against any simplification. The West-German experience is perhaps mostly a programme for re-education: for a self-education and self-immunisation!

It takes a while until the Holocaust then replaces the pathologies of the Western system as the programme’s central point of focus. Thus, it appears as if from this moment on, there was a belief by the occupying powers that the game had been won and that order had been restored and that there was less need to secure it. The sophistication of this system lies in it mainly being about basic orientation and its great degree of autonomy and self-control concerning the details.

Also, it is important that wars (WWII, Vietnam, Middle East) allow for reform breaks in order to develop new tools to then return to the pure idea afterwards. Only that now the system has tools that are more adequate to its complexity. This also enables it to forego its limitations like charity and social benefits, like the New Deal or the so-called social market economy. Reform operates similarly to a tranquiliser and allows the system to regenerate like a muscle tensing and relaxing again. After the reform break, the system can be celebrated in its purity again.

However, all of these papers, notes, photos and film clips that I am trying to interpret for analysis are only a blueprint: a world of imaginations, self-interpretations and possible plans of a transatlantic war and postwar elite. Which of these tools have been employed and have been effective, and to what extent have these tools been challenged by opposing forces and concepts remains difficult to reconstruct. Who says and does what and for what purpose? Who are the opponents of these ideas? Is the important thing that which is said or that which remains unsaid?

NH: A recurrent theme of your films is the legacy of anti-modernity, which appears to be largely marginalised as an unwelcome element in West-German history today. Why did you start working on this topic and where do you see contemporary points of reference?

LD: The central subject of my work is a united German history, East-German and West-German history after 1945 are only temporary episodes. I think that historically they will soon be hardly of any interest or relevance anymore. To me the central question revolves around the German ‘disorder’, which was diagnosed and analysed by these US-British-German-Austrian psychiatrists, politicians, and sociologists between 1939 and 1945. For them, the Germany of 1942 still contained too much of the Middle Ages. In their perception, its bipolar insecurity and identity disorder was the result of Germany not having become a proper state—a state created from internal forces. Although there exists a Wilhelmian empire, it is perceived merely as the result of a defeat. While on the surface this state was based on the victory of the Prussians over the French in the war of 1870/1871, this victory had itself been ambigious. It was a victory on a decreased territory bought by defeating Austria. It was therefore a kind of regression and a phenomenon of resignation. And this problem was supposed to be resolved in a third attempt—the Third Reich—with a horrible ending, as we know today. The creation of a nation therefore ultimately failed, and remains so until today.

The US-based analysts perceive this to be the origin of the German disorder: the German failure blamed on the fathers. According to Erik Erikson, this generation of men was only strong at home. Not only did they fail in securing or modernising the empire, they also failed to produce a liberal bourgoisie or a socialist revolution. Thus, they were seen as incapable except for serving authority and being tyrants at home. This is the pendulum movement later discussed during the conference of psychologist Richard Brickner: the German disorder is described as an authoritarian aggressiveness against the outside, against the weak, and at the same time a weak ego and a submissiveness towards the strong. Thus, the notion of a Germany as a problem child of modernity was created. “Germany is a boy in trouble”: a child who carries a historically traceable and significant insecurity. Somebody who does not know who he is, is insecure and gets aggressive, against himself and against others, as a movement of compensation.

The legacy of anti-modernity you are asking about appears in my films, yes. However, it does so only in a trivial or failed form, as a reflection of failure, perhaps also as a misunderstanding of German idealism (Kant, Hegel, Jakob Böhme, Novalis) inherent to this failure, which I just tried to describe.

NH: In Overgames you are asking about the effectiveness of television as a therapeutic medium and follow up on the debates and theories discussing the effects of media. The latter oscillate between a low effectiveness and the exact opposite. What do you think about this debate, perhaps also regarding authors like US-propaganda researcher Harold Lasswell, who appears as a reference in Overgames?

LD: I think that television advertises behavioural role models, whether it does so consciously or not. In US films, this becomes obvious when looking at cast policy. Actors must be racially and gender diverse. Role models and patterns are thus not only presented but also reenacted, trained and conditioned in game shows. This requires playing along and copying roles. It seems that his kind of model had first been introduced during the French revolutionary celebrations where the active participation of the audience was a part of the concept. Back then, parts of the programme had already been standardised and formatted in order to cheaply produce and repeat programmes combining entertainment and education.

Modern shows like The Price is Right are market worship. The liturgy is “the biggest luck of the largest number”. Content understandable by the masses is preached. One of the game show authors told me that the shows are constructed for illiterates, like shows for the United Nations. In order to sell the show around the world, they need to be freed of language and disturbing cultural characteristics, constructed with universal appeal. You do not have to know anything or have some specific ability to win a million dollars. Those are celebrations of money, of the market, of capitalism and of diversity. For me, this is political propaganda. If you want to learn how to construct, tact, text or stage something like this, you may well consult Lasswell as an ancestor and reference, together with Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, as one of the most important characters in the development of political propaganda. Everything which is today done by spin doctors, public relations or the advertising industry was coined during this time.

NH: What do you think of the diagnosis of a German cultural trend of paranoia?

LD: This is a nice and catchy notion. It was developed mainly by reading books (Mead analysed pictures concerning German sensitivities and typologies in the magazine ‘Gartenlaube’), from hear-say, and rarely as a result of proper study. Mainly via study of culture at a distance. Gregory Bateson, for example, collected German press photos and analysed the German national character with them. He also analysed several Nazi propaganda films and takes them to adequately represent the situation in Germany. During the writing of his books, Brickner is supported by several co-authors commissioned by Margaret Mead. One of them asks Brickner to find more lurid and sensational ways to illustrate the danger of German paranoia, for example through a murder case.

And what does Brickner do? He complacently cites the German mass murderer ‘Hauptlehrer Wagner’, a spectacular case in the history of psychiatry and the history of crime in 1913, to prove German paranoia and its early National Socialist foundation. Take another example in this connection: most of the US psychiatrists in the 1940s follow the (false) paranoia definition of Freud, whose texts are deemed sacred. He constructs them following the case of Schreber. He wants to create his own definition of paranoia and as a result wants to find a case to fit it.

So, to conclude, some of this sounds quite like “science as poetry”, close to gonzo journalism, perhaps. However: is it possible to still catch a glimpse of something essential? This cannot be excluded. History shows that there needs to be a confluence of factors for something to work and be able to give an impulse. However, without a doubt, the programme of the Allies has been effective whether there actually was a German paranoia or not. After all, we have learned that it is possible to work with false definitions and still obtain a desired effect. Planes and rockets are flying after all, despite Gödel’s incompleteness theorems.

NH: What does the notion of ‘American Angst’ describe?

LD: This is my response to the notion of ‘German Angst’. It designates an American fear I described in my film. In 1961, the Eichmann trial took place in Jerusalem. It was the first trial in the history of television to be broadcasted live from a court of law. The trial worried US social scientists and psychiatrists as it appeared to confirm all fears about the pathologies of their own system. The television images do not show a pathology of the organs, the causes of the illustrated abnormality appears to be of a psychological nature and the result of a violation of the soul and of the mind. Also, only slight discrepancies from the ‘normal’ constitute the disorder. This means that everyone is in danger and constant therapy starting in childhood is necessary to prevent the outbreak of the disease. What stabilises one against the temptation to subdue to orders and the opinion of a majority in a group? Sociologists and psychiatrists are now searching for tools to train democratic patterns and to instill them permanently. They are supposed to immunise the patient against authoritarian behavior.

What is interesting here in connection with the phenomenon of regression is the first appearance of ideas about circularity and feedback loops, initially in the brain and in neuronal processes. In 1936, Norbert Wiener and Cybernetics were still far away. However, the circle around Mead, Frank, Bateson and Erickson already anticipated the ideas of this school of thought. ‘American Angst’ is thus the uncanny feeling of what happens when progress is not linear, when we are not the progress but the Other might be. That progress might regress in a feedback loop. So the American scientists wondered: Could it be that the Germans try to exorcise the problems of modern societies, this mix of middle age rituals with modern technology? And is this the model to the future? The Modern?

On the other hand, cybernetics and the first ideas about circular models were created. Every revolution has its lead time. The revolution we are talking about here comes from science and a technologisation of consciousness. You can think about the invention of the guillotine. In this case it is about the interior circulation and feedback loops. In 1941, 42, 43 the Americans start perceiving new possibilities for technologies of control. Since they exist for machines, for airplanes, for bombs they start asking themselves: why should this type of control not also work for animals or humans? Or for a mass of people? The problem in this regard, to be resolved by “Left” and “Right”, is the void of religion. In pre-modern times, there existed the holy, which created community particularly as a result of that which is not controllable. The project of the Modern is also an attempt to replace a receding religion, to develop substitutes for it.

NH: Do you perceive parallels between the project of anthropologist Margaret Mead and the French movement of anti-psychiatry, whose representatives Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze reached global success in the 20th century, perhaps also as a result of their extremely positive reception in the US?

LD: Well I’m not an expert on this topic but I think it is possible to think with Foucault about the purpose of psychiatry in modern societies. Of course, it serves to separate, delimit and exclude the irrational. Psychiatry is thus the attempt to somehow control the irrational, to take over the task which had previously been that of the church. This control always has two sides. Integration and violent suppression. We exclude something and destroy it. Of course, this does not work in a society pursuing equality. This society cannot exclude, it always needs to integrate, even the deviant behavior. And this can also be seen in the re-education concepts after 1945: their nature is supposed to be one without punishment or humiliation, but of healing and integration into the fold of Western values. Even one of rewards, see for example the Wirtschaftwunder. And the sphere of culture is where the altered superego is supposed to receive its new conditioning.

NH: In your portrayal of the US project of therapeutic peace you oscillate between an attempt of domination and the wish for equality. How can the project be judged from a contemporary point of view?

LD: Rather than as domination, to me, it appears to be a bipolar effort. Self-healing and self-immunisation against the crises of the proper system (of the modern), on the other side, as a eschatological project towards the resolution of all differences and disruptions, towards universal equality, whatever this means. Economic equality? Legal equality (anglo-US social contract for a pursuit of happiness)? Legalisation? Quantification of everything and everybody? Socially? Probably not. There’s still a red line, which is the sanctity of property. It cannot be touched.

It is also very important to observe the understanding of temporality. The opposition between an “everything, now, immediately” of the French Revolution (in the form of an opera or a parody of the church) and the “long range” of the Americans. The former is an attempt to exit time, the latter a strategy of an open linear process, of repetition of an evolutionary diffusion of ideas, commodities, money.

NH: In your film, we can find visual references of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticism and the philosophy of Jacques Derrida. What is the relationship between these works and the subject-matter?

LD: This is a reference to the development of the ideas of the circle around Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Kurt Lewin, Talcot Parsons, Lawrence K. Frank, Lawrence Kubie (the crux of the Macy conferences) in the 1930s and 1950s. This is why Derrida is cited, also because he cites Bentham and his statements on becoming animal. This is where the Panopticon, mass society, mass entertainment (Price is Right, Ortega y Gasset, Riesman, The Lonely Crowd) and poststructuralism up until Husserl and Heidegger intersect with the image of the cycling parrot in Overgames (who learns through repetition).

The footage is from an animal trainer who cooperated with a student of B.F. Skinner for a long time and produced a lot of advertising clips and show stunts with his trained animals, and later trained dolphin soldiers for the US-Navy.

NH: How does your new film integrate with your Art and Power series?

LD: The film edition Kunst & Macht is part of a comprehensive oeuvre, which I have been pursuing since the 1970s under the name of ‘Hercules Concept’. This also includes paintings, photos, montage, installations and texts created before, during and after the films. A lot of them are documented on the website Overgames can be understood as the final chapter of the ‘Hercules Concept’, it will be completed by a radio feature which is currently being produced, and a preparation of the extensive and not yet presented material. The Museum of Fine Arts in Leipzig recently obtained important parts of the ‘Hercules Concept’ as a result of acquisition and donation and wants to exhibit this as well, complemented by newly created works, probably in 2018.

NH: Are there any artists or filmmakers currently inspiring you?

LD: Sometimes, I feel the need to go into a museum, preferably into the rooms with paintings and sculptures from the early Middle Ages. I also remember very strongly the Isenheim Altar in Colmar.

NH: Can we expect more movies?

LD: No more movies. No, the time for that is over.

Screenings Info

Kino in der Kulturbrauerei

Lutz Dammbeck: ‘Overgames’ – in conversation with film critic Rüdiger Suchsland
Screening: Apr. 21, 2016; 7pm
Schönhauser Allee 36, 10435 Berlin, click here for map

Kino in der Brotfabrik

Lutz Dammbeck: ‘Overgames’ – in conversation with Dr. Claus Löser
In cooperation with Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee
Screening: Apr. 24, 2016; 6pm
Caligariplatz 1, 13086 Berlin, click here for map

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