Yearning for Genre: The Films of Dominik Graf
von Dr. Marco Abel
I think that it does not make much sense to demand, as [Dominik Graf] does, genre cinema in Germany because genre cinema requires existing genres; you cannot artificially make it or revive it as a retro-event. […] Graf’s Sisyphus work is to keep making a film here and there that reminds us of how wonderful streets used to look in cinema, of how great nights used to look, and of how awesome women looked. I am fascinated by this labor, in which he invests enormous, almost suicidal energy, because each of his films goes beyond well-established boundaries. (Christian Petzold)
I can’t say I really have this hope, for it died after Die Sieger, perhaps even before we started shooting it. […] I never harbored the hope, as Petzold describes it, to create once again the prototype that would somehow ignite once more an entire industry. But I suppose he is right that […] I am in hell, where all those old films roast, and I try to inhale some vitality into them, but this is admittedly a difficult task, since the whole system is one that prevents a particular vitality in films. (Dominik Graf)
When trying to describe the state of German film culture since the demise of its famous Autorenkino, which attracted international attention in the 1970s and re-established (West) German cinema as “legitimate,” one could do worse than considering the singular case of Dominik Graf. For over the last thirty years Graf […] has been one of the most productive filmmakers in the history of German film. Of the sixty productions to his credit thus far, however, Graf made only seven explicitly for a big screen release: Die Katze (The Cat, 1988), Spieler (Gambler, 1990), Die Sieger (The Invincibles, 1994), Der Felsen (A Map of the Heart, 2002), Der rote Kakadu (The Red Cockatoo, 2006), Das Gelübde (The Vow, 2007), and the as of yet untitled feature he is scheduled to shoot in 2010 as part of a trilogy made by him, Christian Petzold, and Christoph Hochhäusler. Three additional films, which were initially produced for television, were given a theatrical release: Treffer (Winner, 1984), Drei gegen drei (Three Against Three, 19885), and Tiger, Löwe, Panther (Tiger, Lion, Panther, 1989). The rest of his oeuvre encompasses stand-alone made-for-TV feature films such as, for example, his remarkable trio of melodramas, Deine besten Jahre (Your Best Years, 1999), Bittere Unschuld (Bitter Innocence, 1999), and Kalter Frühling (Cold Spring, 2003), which all take a cold hard look at the ghostly lives lived in bourgeois living rooms around the turn of the millennium in unified Germany, as well as episodes for some of German television’s best-known and highly praised crime series: two each for Tatort (Crime Scene), Sperling, and Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110) and thirteen for Der Fahnder (The Detective).
Throughout his career, Graf has been pushing the stone of genre filmmaking up the hill of a German film industry that has generally been unwilling actively to carve out a trough into which Graf might have been able to rest his films so that his efforts could have acquired a degree of consistency with those of other filmmakers, thus fashioning the very “neighborhood” that is essential to any genre; as Petzold argues, such a genre “neighborhood” is produced by and organized according to a logic of seriality, repetition, similarities, and differences and usually has appeal for larger audiences precisely because they tend to associate with such a “neighborhood” a desirable feeling of familiarity (and, occasionally, of surprise). Due to the nonexistence of such neighborly consistency in the context of contemporary German film culture, however, the results of Graf’s Sisyphean labor remain lonely probes exploring the possibilities of genre filmmaking without being afforded the luxury to make such films for an already pre-existing, pre-constituted audience that habitually would await the latest results of such explorations with a reasonable sense of anticipation and curiosity, which ultimately would reliably render such filmmaking commercially viable.
Differently put, the essential invisibility of Dominik Graf […]—one that in fact corresponds to his own filmmaking ideal of being a craftsman rather than auteur—results from the German film industry’s failure to invest more in the production of genre films; conversely, the failure of the German film industry to produce with greater frequency and regularity films (other than films about the country’s totalitarian pasts and comedies) that manage to attract larger audiences can be considered symptomatic of the fact that Graf’s career-long efforts to generate a viable genre film culture in Germany have consistently been met with indifference, if not flat-out hostility: specifically, a genre-film culture drawing less on comedies (which are notoriously difficult to export) than on police films, crime films, thrillers, science fiction films, and horror films—film genres that enjoyed their earliest artistic heights during the years of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). At the risk of gross exaggeration, then, we might say that the very idea of a German film ‘industry’ is a misnomer to the exact measure that Graf’s career has been characterized by both some of the greatest heights of unapologetic non-comedic genre filmmaking that German cinema has produced since the days of Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau, and, later, Max Ophüls and, concurrently, a series of missed opportunities and, in the case of Die Sieger, significant box office failure that may have killed any desire the industry might have ever harbored to develop a viable big screen genre film culture.
I emphasize “big screen” here because it is important to note that in Germany, non-comedic genre filmmaking does in fact exist—on television; especially Krimis (crime films in the largest sense) have almost been completely relegated to the small screen where the genre lives a successful existence as one of the main film aesthetic forms through which televisual content is delivered into German households. Katja Nicodemus speculates that the near total non-existence of the thriller genre in German cinema is a result of the fact that the crime film, holding up a mirror to German culture, increasingly migrated to the small screen after the success of the Edgar Wallace films of the 1960s.That is, the very fact that genre filmmaking takes almost exclusively place on German television stands in direct relation to the now decades-long struggles of the German film ‘industry’ to become, well, a proper industry in light of the absence of the very structures that would enable and ensure the successful existence of industrial film production. Or, as Graf remarks: “ein grosser Kinomarkt wie unserer [trägt] eine eigene Kinoindustrie (nach der die Branche ja lechzt seit ich denken kann) nur dann […], wenn dabei auch die Genres gut und schlau und fantasievoll bedient werden (a large cinema market like ours can support a film industry [for which the functionaries have been thirsting since I can think] only if it serves the genres well and smartly and with imagination).
Graf—an outspoken critic of the German Autorenkino who prefers a tradition of filmmaking influenced by the New Hollywood of Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altmann, and early Martin Scorsese, as well as directors such as Nicholas Roeg, Mike Figgis, Sam Fuller, Jean-Pierre Melville, and, in Germany, Klaus Lemke—has doggedly worked with(in) the possibilities the German film production system has afforded him over the years. Doing so enabled him to forge a career for himself in which he has consistently been able to find directorial work within the confines of German television productions while having been granted only scant opportunities to work on big screen productions. In fact, Nicodemus suggests that the traumatic experience of shooting Die Sieger made Graf shrink back from seeking out new cinema projects for many years; and once he returned to the big screen eight years later, it was with Der Felsen, a small-scale production shot on DV, which demanded considerably less logistics than was involved in the production of Die Sieger.
However, Graf himself puts a positive spin on the fact that as one of Germany’s most talented directors he had only rarely the chance to prove what he can do when given a larger filmmaking canvas to work on; looking back on his career, he claims that television in general, but especially Der Fahnder, was his safe home to which he could return whenever he got beaten up for a big cinema production. Given the circumstances he has found himself working in throughout his career—that is, in the absence of the kind of “neighborhood” that Petzold posits as essential to any viable genre filmmaking—what is ultimately remarkable about what Ekkehard Knörer calls the “singular position” of Dominik Graf in German film is the fact that he has consistently mobilized his specific working conditions in order to develop just such a “neighborhood” within his own oeuvre. Indeed his films can be regarded as a multiplicity of iterations, indeed, itinerations, of genre filmmaking that collectively amount to a “neighborhood” (of one), which we might describe as a singular counter-tradition of contemporary German filmmaking taking place within the confines of the industry’s television-based production structures. By embracing, for example, the formats of German (crime) television shows such as, most significantly, Der Fahnder but also Tatort, Polizeiruf 110, Sperling, Kommissar Süden (Detective Süden), and Morlock, he managed to hone his skills as a genre filmmaker; furthermore, doing so also enabled him both to re-define the very formats within which he found himself working and, over time, to stretch the borders of the genre “neighborhood”—so much so that Graf and his collaborators might genuinely have felt that a German audience would (finally) be ready for partaking in Graf’s “Traum vom unbekannten deutschen Film” (dream of the unknown German film) of which Die Sieger ended up becoming his first, perhaps to this day still most significant, albeit compromised and commercially unsuccessful, instantiation.
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Graf, who frequently composes his own film scores, has worked in various genres (comedy, melodrama, and, in the case of Das Zweite Gesicht [The Second Face, 1982], even psychic-horror); but what stands out in the end are his efforts to develop one specific genre more than any other—the police thriller or policier. Indeed, Graf (who in Hitchcockian fashion frequently appears in his own films, albeit often merely through his disembodied voice on, say, a police radio) himself admits that he is primarily interested in police films rather than crime films in general, that is, in films “die diesen Apparat schildern, der sich über eine Stadt oder eine Gegend legt” (that depict this apparatus that lays itself upon a city or area). His efforts over the years to develop in Germany this specific genre is precisely one that has been characterized by a dynamic of repetition and difference—that is, by the very genre law par excellence as articulated by, for example, Raphaëlle Moine, who argues that
"spectators can […] classify a new film in a genre through two different approaches: either they can refer directly to the features that characterize a genre without reference to other films that constitute it, or they can compare this new film with other films in the genre, discuss the resemblances, and then either reinforce the generic quality, perhaps adding a new element, or else question its adequacy in the light of the new case."
In Germany, however, this law is generally prevented from functioning. Christoph Fromm, for instance, agrees with Graf that German cinema is in dire need of rejuvenating the genre thriller, among other genres. But, so he claims, this is impossible in Germany because the restrictions enforced by the conventions of German prime time television are not really compatible with the demands of proper genre filmmaking; simply put, German television, which is almost always the primary sponsor of German cinema films, is only interested in producing films that meet the (imagined) demands of the 8:15 p.m. time slot, which, so Fromm, essentially excludes suspenseful thrillers. Nicodemus concurs with Fromm’s assessment, adding that the influence exerted by Germany’s private cable channels often manifests itself in the fact that many of such films are deficient in their connection to social reality and are instead driven by the demand that they be easily consumable, which often means that anything unwieldy and unresolved—realistic—is eliminated from a script even before it goes into production. What remains, so Nicodemus, are the two German tax-funded public networks (ARD and ZDF), which occasionally allow for a degree of experimentation with the possibilities of genre filmmaking of which Graf has probably made use better than any other German genre filmmaker in the last two decades. In fact, Graf himself claims that he loves working for prime time because almost all of his favorite films are marked by the fact of their direct engagement with their respective film industries. In any case, the creation and development of genre thrillers—in Graf’s case, more specifically the police film—is in Germany possible only within the pre-given formats of television series that demand precisely the kind of repetition and, occasionally, modest differences for which the conditions of big screen film production in Germany are not designed.
Graf’s work for Der Fahnder had yet another near revolutionary impact on German television productions and thus on audiences’ viewing habits. Conventional television grammar stages dialogue scenes so that a carefully delineated distance separates two characters, a spatial arrangement that is then shot in evenly paced shot/reverse-shot sequences. These static scenes almost always take place in interior locations; movement, that is, occurs only outside and generally unaccompanied by much speech. Graf’s Fahnder episodes, as Petzold recalls, revealed fundamentally new possibilities in this respect, as his characters tend to speak while moving on the street while falling silent when entering a room: “Das war damals ziemlich sensationell, so was überhaupt im Fernsehen zu sehen” (Back then it was rather astounding that one could see something like this on television). This fundamental alteration of conventional German television grammar and speech patterns, which Graf initiated, and through its serialization intensified, with his work on Fahnder, would affect all of Graf’s subsequent work, including Die Katze, the comedy Spieler, Die Sieger, as well as his subsequent television work to which he retreated for almost a decade, such as Frau Bu lacht (Mrs. Bu Laughs, 1995), Hotte im Paradies (Hotte in Paradise, 2002), Der scharlachrote Engel (The Scarlet Angel, 2004), and Er sollte tot (He Supposed Dead, 2006).
That said, over the course of his career to date, Dominik Graf could still be said to have accomplished the seemingly impossible, at least within the confines of his own oeuvre. That this oeuvre-immanent success has not (yet) effected a larger scale emergence of German police genre cinema, indeed of genre filmmaking structures at large, can hardly be held against him. The problem, perhaps, is that German film culture continues to be too hung up on the issue of “legitimacy,” which was proudly reintroduced by Werner Herzog in the early 1970s. Graf’s relentless demand for genre filmmaking and his affirmation that “Das Schöne beim Genre ist ja, dass Du nicht dauernd Deinen Film legitimieren musst” (The nice thing about genre is that you do not permanently have to legitimize your film) marks his resistance to Germany’s Kunstkino (art cinema) tradition. Instead, he stubbornly continues to produce a counter-discourse within the structures of the German film industry. As Petzold argues, Graf makes films that, because they are against the socio-political status quo without necessarily mark(et)ing themselves as counter-films, have a difficult stand in Germany precisely because they derive their identity not merely from their oppositional attitude but are, instead, characterized by a certain composure and openness, by a relaxed attitude that gives the impression of being casually, aus-dem-Ärmel-geschüttelte films (films produced just like that)—arguably Graf’s aesthetic filmmaking ideal.
Because Graf nevertheless endeavors to produce just such counter-films, he continues paying the price of relative isolation. But judging from his output over the last fifteen years—which might be about to reach a new high in form of Im Angesicht des Verbrechens (In the Face of Crime, 2010), his ten-part television series set in the Russian mafia milieu in Berlin—Graf remains willing to roll the police genre stone up the hill of the amassed history of German cinema, gradually affecting from within it the very question of legitimate German cinema. With each additional film, Graf delineates a counter-genealogy whose virtual potential continues to await its (systemic) actualization. Given the many gems one can discover in Graf’s filmography (which is woefully underrepresented on DVD even in Germany and essentially non-existent anywhere else), one can only hope the future arrives soon.
This essay is taken from a longer treatment of the topic that is to appear in the forthcoming volume Generic Histories: Genre and its Deviations in German Cinema, edited by Jaimey Fisher.
 Marco Abel, “‘The Cinema of Identification Goes on My Nerves’: An Interview with Christian Petzold,” Cineaste online 33.3 (Summer 2008), http://www.cineaste.com/articles/an-interview-with-christian-petzold.htm.
 Marco Abel, Unpublished Interview with Dominik Graf, Munich, 10 July 2009.
 In the mid-1970s, Werner Herzog frequently referred to the films of the New German Cinema as “legitimate German cinema” (legitimer deutscher Film). Cf. “Lorbeer für die Wunderkinder,” Der Spiegel 17 November 1975: 182-192, here 188.
 The last two are associated with the so-called “Berlin School”—a contemporary German filmmaking movement of which Graf has repeatedly been critical. See, for example, Dominik Graf, “Unerlebte Filme,” Schnitt 43 (2006): 62-65. For a detailed account of the movement, see Marco Abel, “Intensifying Life: The Cinema of the ‘Berlin School’” Cineaste online 33.4 (Fall 2008), access at cineaste.com/articles/the-berlin-school.htm. And for a fascinating Streitgespräch [disputation] between Graf, Hochhäusler, and Petzold, see their “Mailwechsel ‘Berliner Schule’,” Revolver 16 (May 2007): 7-39.
 Graf also contributed episodes to two omnibus films produced for the big screen, Neonstadt (Neon City, 1982) and Deutschland 09: 13 kurze Filme zur Lage der Nation (Germany 09: 13 Short Films About the State of the Nation, 2009).
 Graf, Hochhäusler, Petzold, “Mailwechsel,” 9.
 The only genres the German film industry steadfastly supports are children films and especially comedies, the latter being the de facto “financial backbone of the German film industry throughout its history” (Michael Wedel and Thomas Elsaesser, “German Film Comedy,” Thomas Elsaesser and Michael Wedel, eds., The BFI Companion to German Cinema, [London: BFI, 1999]: 55-56, here 55). For an interesting assessment of German film comedies, see also Jan-Christopher Horak, “German Film Comedy,” in Tim Bergfelder, Erica Carter, and Deniz Göktürk, eds., The German Cinema Book (London: BFI, 2002): 29-38, in which he argues that the roots of the “German bias against film comedy [are] buried in the intellectual disdain for genre cinema in general” (29, my italics).
 It is telling that Graf, unlike Peterson, Emmerich, Tykwer, and Wortmann, did not even receive an entry in The BFI Companion to German Cinema.
 Abel, Unpublished Interview.
 According to www.insidekino.com, Die Sieger opened with 155 copies in September 1994, attracted slightly over 60,000 viewers in its first week of release, and by year’s end had fizzled out at approximately 170,000 viewers. At a production cost of twelve million DM (www.imdb.com), Graf’s attempt at realizing his grossen Wurf (grand slam) became one of the more significant commercial failures of German cinema since unification, which, so Graf, had “sicher einen fatalen Einfluß gehabt, weil alle meinten, daß Polizeithriller nach diesem Film erst mal fürs deutsche Kino gestorben sind” (certainly a fatal impact because everyone believed that after this film the police thriller would be dead for the foreseeable future for German cinema) (qt. in Katja Nicodemus, “Film der neunziger Jahre: Neues Sein und altes Bewußtsein,” Wolfgang Jacobsen, Anton Kaes, and Hans Helmut Prinzler, eds., Geschichte des Deutschen Films, 2nd ed. [Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler], 2004: 319-356, here 330).
 Nicodemus, “Film der neunziger Jahre,” 328.
 Dominik Graf, “RAF-Vampire beim Erfurder Blutbad,” Die Zeit 9 January 2003: Feuilleton 31.
 Graf has a long history of expressing his opposition to the German Autorenfilm. He argues, for example, that its characters are too abstract (Dominik Graf, “Man spürt die Schläge im Gebälk,” Interview with Katja Nicodemus, Die Zeit 18 July 2002, http://www.zeit.de/2002/30/Man_spuert_die_Schlaege_im_Gebaelk, accessed November 30, 2009); that, unlike the American cinema of the 1970s, it never tried to reinvent genres (Dominik Graf, Interview mit Martin Farkas, Revolver 7 (September 2002): 10-31, here 24); and that the excessive desire of the Autoren-generation in the 1970s exerted a somewhat oppressive force on the following generation (Dominik Graf, Schläft ein Lied in allen Dingen: Texte zum Film, Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2009). In the promotional material for Deutschland 09, he suggests that his antagonism may be due to the fact that he does not belong to the generation of “68” but is, rather, a “Hinterher-68er” (post-68er), having been born only in 1952 (Dominik Graf, “Der Weg, den wir nicht zusammen gehen,” Presseheft Deutschland 09, http://deutschland09-der-film.de/downloads, accessed December 1, 2009: 11, my italics).
 “Die neunziger Jahre” 329.
 Dominik Graf. “Wo die Straßen keine Namen haben,” Süddeutsche Zeitung 11 May 2005: 17.
 Ekkehard Knörer, “Fighter im System: Dominik Graf im Gespräch,” http://www.cargo-film.de/artikel/fighter-im-system-dominik-graf-im-gesprach-teil-1/, accessed December 14, 2009.
 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call itinerative a form of repetition that in its serial articulation intensifies that which is repeated to such a degree that it generates internal difference—that it becomes different to itself. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), esp. 372ff.
 Even earlier, Graf shot six episodes for Köberle kommt (1983), in which a juridical archivist helps a female detective solve cases.
 Graf, “Wo die Straßen.” Graf continues: “Wir träumten das deutsche Kino anders, und wir träumten es im Fernsehen. So, wie es das in Wahrheit niemals gab und wie es das wohl so auch niemals geben wird. Außer im Fensehen. […] Es war eine Art Anrufung einer anderen Art von Filmen, die zwar keine Preise für Deutschland im Ausland gewinnen würden, die aber vielleicht genau die richtigen Filme zur rechten Zeit gewesen wären, um solides Vertrauen beim deutschen Publikum zu erwerben. Vertrauen in eine Kontinuität von guter Erzählung, von unprätentiösem Humor, von Spannung und ab und zu auch von überraschender Härte (We dreamt German cinema differently, and we dreamt it in television. As it never really existed and likely never will be. Except for on TV. […] It was a sort of invocation of a different kind of film, which would not win any awards for Germany abroad, but when perhaps would have been the right films at the right time in order to gain the solid trust of German audiences).
 Graf’s collaborators include a host of actors who regularly appear in his films. Most significant, however, is Graf’s reliance on a small number of screenwriters, especially Christoph Fromm, Bernd Schwamm, Rolf Basedow, Markus Busch, and Günter Schütter, who collectively have authored more than half of Graf’s films.
 I refer to the particular French inflection of this genre because of Graf’s admiration for someone like Jean-Pierre Melville, arguably the undisputed master of this particular subgenre of the thriller.
 Rainer Gansera, “‘Ich versuche, die Luft zu filmen’: Begegnungen mit dem Regisseur Dominik Graf,” http://www.kath-akademie-bayern.de/contentserv/www.katholische.de/index.php?StoryID=427, accessed November 29, 2009.
 Raphaëlle Moine, Cinema Genre, trans. Alistair Fox and Hilary Radner, Oxford: Blackwell, 2008: 3. Rick Altman’s Film/Genre (London: BFI, 1999) offers what is probably still the most complex approach to the subject. His “semantic/syntactic/ pragmatic” genre theory proposes genre as “a site of struggle and co-operation among multiple users” (211). Genres, so Altman, neither pre-exist spectators nor guide their reception; rather, genre is the site of a “cross-fertilization process whereby the interests of one group [say, viewers] may appear in the actions of another [say, producers]” and thus involves a “feedback system” (211).
 “Interview mit Christoph Fromm,” Vierundzwanzig.de: Das Wissensportal der Deutschen Filmakademie, www.vierundzwanzig.de/drehbuch/interview_mit_christoph_fromm, access November 20, 2009.
 Nicodemus, “Die neunziger Jahre” (329).
 Graf, Hochhäusler, Petzold, “Mailwechsel,” 12.
 Christian Petzold in his interview with Felix von Boehm and Sebastian Seidler, “Wenn das Kino zu spät kommt,” Schnitt online, http://www.schnitt.de/233,5392,01, accessed December 1, 2009.
 The unique place Graf occupies in the context of contemporary German film and television was recently emphasized by the fact that Petzold and Hochhäusler created a film essay in which they deconstruct frame by frame the first interrogation scene of Er sollte tot. This fifteen minute-long exercise in close reading of a film scene with the help of cinematic means is included in Alexander Kluge’s eleven hour-long Früchte des Vertrauens DVD project (Filmedition Suhrkamp, 2009).
 Graf, Hochhäusler, Petzold, “Mailwechsel,” 9.
 Christian Petzold in an interview with Margrit Fröhlich, “Uns fehlt eine Filmwirtschaft,” epd Film 12/09, http://www.epd-film.de/33178_69894.php, accessed December 13, 2009.