On the Set of Zwei kluge Männer und die Treue einer Frau

Georg Lehner

With Günter Rohrbach, the WDR had a head of TV drama who launched several important innovations beginning in the mid-1960s. Up until that time, the genre tended to look like recordings of theater productions in the studio with four video cameras. “Real” films were now going to be shot. With a fresh team of cinephile producers, he gave young filmmakers who wanted to do something different from “papa’s cinema” an opportunity to direct for TV. Among them were the great Fassbinder and film school graduates like Wim Wenders. Since I won the top prize at the International Mannheim Film Festival with my dffb thesis film in 1970, I was also given a ticket for this train.

After I finished the script for Zwei kluge Männer und die Treue einer Frau (Two Clever Men and the Faithfulness of a Woman), an adaptation of a novella by Goethe, with the channel’s support for research in Venice, and it was judged satisfactory, I was assigned to the rather elaborate production and given the privilege of naming my own cameraman. Of course, I wanted to work with my friend Carlos Bustamante—I’d shot all of my previous projects with him—and he named Skip Norman as his assistant: us three musketeers from the dffb versus the WDR.

Set photos from Zwei kluge Männer und die Treue einer Frau © Michael Biron

For the channel, this constellation posed a bit of a risk because us dffb graduates did not have at this point any experience with large productions. We were therefore teamed up with professionals, mostly years-long WDR employees. But therein lay the seed for mutual mistrust: slightly arrogant know-it-alls on our side and seasoned “establishment” pragmatists on the other. Above all for Carlos and I, who covered up our insecurities this way, but not for Skip, who got along well with the WDR people. Sovereign and friendly, he was respected by everyone and he let them know that he appreciated his colleagues’ professionalism. Skip was of course a little older and more experienced than us. His authority therefore helped us to assuage a very ugly conflict that led to a lot of tension towards the end of the shoot.

After four weeks in the studio in Cologne, we moved to Venice for the exteriors. Naturally, the problems piled up there and our nerves tensed. At the end, we had to shoot a wedding scene in a church with an additional 40 local extras in Renaissance costumes—with only one shooting day. It was difficult to set up the lighting and arrange the wedding guests and the complicated tracking shots: everything dragged on and at the end of the day around 6 p.m., we were not yet ready even though we’d frantically made considerable cuts to the script.

At this moment, one of the WDR employees literally pulled the plug and the set went dark. After a moment of shock, Carlos went completely berserk and jumped at the prop man who had caused the stop. Luckily, Skip was next to the camera and intervened with all his physical presence. He managed at least to prevent a bitter fight in which the rather slender Carlos would probably have lost to the sturdy Rhinelander. It didn’t progress beyond angry shouting.

Carlos was so furious because the last take would have needed maybe another half hour and the day was so expensive that reshoots were out of the question. On the other hand, the crew’s frustration is understandable since we had already tortured them with overtime more than once; ultimately, when we finished shooting, a few people still could not go home because they had to deal with the extras’ costumes. They had of course also been the first on set that morning.

I was so happy about Skip’s resolute intervention and his role in calming Carlos down. His good relationship with the WDR people also contributed to this remaining a one-time uproar and we managed to complete production safe and sound.

Georg Lehner started to study film at dffb in 1967. His thesis film Omnia Vincit Amor (1970) won an award at the Mannheim Film Festival and qualified him for the larger TV production Zwei kluge Männer und die Treue einer Frau (1973), on which Skip Norman worked as the assistant cinematographer.

Translated by Ted Fendt. German version available as a PDF.

Images: Michael Biron.

[Suggested citation: Georg Lehner, “On the Set of Zwei kluge Männer und die Treue einer Frau,” Rosa Mercedes 03/B (April 2021), www.harun-farocki-institut.org/en/2021/04/30/on-the-set-of-zwei-kluge-manner-und-die-treue-einer-frau/]

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April 2021 — Rosa Mercedes / 03 / B

Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of “cruel optimism” and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as “infrastructures for troubling times,” part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: “What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.”


Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”


via Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”


Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”


Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”

November 7th, 2020
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