by James Hoberman
Michael Klierís Der Riese [The Giant] is an 82-minute city symphony composed almost entirely of material generated by video-surveillance cameras. Der Riese inserts itself into film history somewhere between the motorized tripod of Michael Snowís landscape film La Region Centrale and the ubiquitous kino-eye of Dziga Vertovís all-over documentary The Man with a Movie Camera; using advanced yet tawdry technology, Klier questions [and deviously celebrates] the legitimacy of filming everything.
At once the purest, most detached, even objective documentary that could ever be and a collage-film as subversive in its way as The Atomic Café, Der Riese could best be described as a science fiction. The tape opens with an airplane being monitored as it lands at the eerily empty Berlin-Tegel airport, taxiing down the runway amid mysterious blobs of light to the accompaniment of portentous symphonic music. Itís the welcoming touchdown to a very particular plant; after this overture [with its discomfiting echo of Hitlerís entrance in the Triumph of the Will], »the giant« turns to technological free-association. Parades, subway platforms, and traffic in the rain flit through its mechanical consciousness. The camera pans imperiously over the crowds of German shoppers in jerky patterns that are as apt to cameo a pigeon as a potential terrorist. Ah, the rampant power and exquisite boredom of surveillance.
As television, Der Riese makes absence tangible, restores missing links - it supplies the exteriors that are denied TV soap operas, observing the dailiness that fills the time from one crisis to the next. As narrative, the tape is all free-floating suspense; the viewer experiences a continual waiting for something to happen. But waiting for what? Should we study the endless flow of traffic in hopes of catching a head-on collision? Can we afford to be seduced by the hypnotic raindrop thatís appeared like a mote on the lens? Although later sequences are almost bucolicóthe camera observing a sailboat on a lake, people at the beach and an outdoor café - Klierís »giant« is primarily a stalwart defender of property, standing guard over the gate to a Hamburg mansion, keeping a close watch over the transactions in a Furth bank, patrolling the department stores, gas stations, and sex clubs of Berlin.
Atget, itís been said, photographed the streets of Paris as though they were the scenes of a crime; Der Riese surveys the orderly shopping malls and autobahns of Hamburg or Berlin in search of a crime. And crimes occur - or what look like crimes. Ambling through a department store, some kid pilfers a flashlight; in another emporium, thereís an odd bit of businessóa woman is hustled into an office by a man. Is she a clerk and he a thief? Or is she the thief who has just been apprehended? Or is it nothing more than a loversí quarrel? And why does that store have country-western Muzak anyhow? The 41-year-old Klier [A Czech-born filmmaker who has made documentaries about a number of European directors, including Jean-Marie Straub and Alexander Kluge] spent three years monitoring the monitors to gather these images. Theyíre accompanied sometimes by ambient sound, sometimes by a voluptuous mixture of Wagner and Mahler [with a kitsch assist from Rachmaninoff and Khachaturian]. The music emphasizes not only Klierís structure but also the silence surrounding the individual images, their distance, their mindlessness.
Der Riese is drawn from a spectacle produced without a cameraman or a director, with neither script nor actors, for a spectator who is less a voyeur than a cop. Itís almost totally dehumanized, yet, towards the end, a few individuals are created. A video image generator belonging to the Düsseldorf police manufactures the faces of prototypical criminals; the fidgety inmate of a Berlin mental hospital is observed as heís interviewed by a doctor; another sort of patient has electrodes attached to her temples, so that even her brain waves can be scanned. But the tape ends, as it began, in a landscape unmarked by a human presence - a video-simulated environment used in the training of tank commanders. The short coda shows how this simulation was produced, with a motorized camera moving over a model countryside and through a toy-sized town like some towering, mechanical tornado.
In the credits, Klier calls Der Riese »ein Film«. I think thatís a way of flagging the workís ambition - but successful as it is as cinema, itís also pure video, one of the very few examples which works equally well both as installation and as tape. Blandly and brilliantly totalitarian, it announces a routine fact of postmodern times, hailing der video-camera über alles.