Fragments of Kubelka: Film Review

The patience-testing but often enjoyable doc presents the eccentric personality behind revered experimental films

Austrian auteur Peter Kubelka spends four hours talking about everything from movies to pan-frying technique.

Austrian experimental filmmaker Peter Kubelka, hailed by many as a master for works like Arnulf Rainer (which consisted of alternating all-black and all-white frames), has produced a little over an hour's worth of films since 1955. One might assume, then, that a four-hour doc devoted to him would present the oeuvre in full, with commentary from Kubelka and/or others in between.

One would be wrong. True to its subject's sometimes peculiar aesthetic ethics, Martina Kudlacek's Fragments of Kubelka never insults his celluloid creations by transferring them to digital media. Instead it takes oblique glances at the shorts while letting their maker speak, and speak, and speak. Serious cineastes will find much to appreciate in the film, which seems intent on appealing to them alone; avant-garde dilettantes can go rent a Stan Brakhage DVD or scour YouTube for Oskar Fischinger.

Shot in Kubelka's Vienna apartment and at assorted public appearances over a four-year span, the movie offers many angles on his theories of cinema and gets him to contextualize films that each had an unlikely origin. As he puts it, "all my films were commissioned films which I then derailed."

Kubelka refuses to permit the transfer of his films to video or digital formats, believing their physical being is essential to their meaning. (In fact, he sometimes exhibits the prints on gallery walls, their structure immediately legible as a single work.) But some hint of them sneaks in here: Kudlacek will shoot a screen on which they're projected, but with Kubelka's silhouette partially blocking the view; she'll show a viewer's face, illuminated by the strobing Arnulf Rainer; in a lovely scene, she follows a print of one through the endless spools and baths of a processing lab.

More often, though, she sits and listens to him talk -- long stories of his family history; analyses of the ethnographic art he collects; rhapsodies over the pure geometry of cubic pyrite crystals. At one point, she spends a full fifteen minutes watching as the filmmaker (who once hosted a cooking show) batters, fries, and consumes a thin steak.

Skeptical viewers will find some of his monologues pedantic or grandiose, but others are rewarding: His long, heartfelt speech championing the work of Frenchman Etienne-Jules Marey (whose 19th century "chronophotography" was a cousin to work by England's Eadweard Muybridge) should have viewers running back to their film history texts. As Kubelka has it, Marey has more right to be called cinema's father than the Lumiere brothers, who instead birthed the industry of filmmaking.

No one has ever accused Kubelka of being a descendant of the commerce-minded Lumieres. But even he can be tempted to make a sequel: A new work, Antiphon, is said to be an exact inversion of Arnulf Rainer, with the black frames replaced with white ones and vice-versa.

Production Company: Mina Film


Director-Producer-Director of photography: Martina Kudlacek

Editor: Henry Hills

No rating, 232 minutes