by Anthony Nield in DVD Times , 12.01.2006
Though undoubtedly a collection of avant-garde works, it’s tempting to view Kurt Kren’s “action films” as documentaries. A series of collaborations made between 1964 and 1967, these ten assembled shorts find the Austrian director working primarily with the performance artists Günter Brus and Otto Mühl. Each piece serves as a recording of their actions – funny, confrontational, shocking examples of body art that should be vaguely familiar to most – yet addresses them in Kren’s own distinct manner. They’re not straight representations therefore, but highly constructed individual entities dictated by complex editing patterns – the results being visual onslaughts as intense as the performances themselves.

Indeed there’s a symbiosis occurring between the two which seemingly makes for a more accurate representation than witnessing the events first hand. The films may often be non-linear in their construction, barely allow us to register individual images and always lack a soundtrack (live or otherwise), yet it doing so they become as hypnotic as their subjects. The absence of sound prevents us from ever once tearing our eyes away from the screen – to do so would be to miss so much – whilst the strict rhythms of the editing complete the task of sucking us in. In fact you could go as far as to say that Kren makes us complicit with Brus’ and Mühl’s performances; there’s work to be done as we set about containing this onslaught and rendering their collections of often abstract colours and shapes into more palatable, perhaps emotional forms. We’re able to snatch brief images (a head, a nipple, a leg, or are they?) and make of them what we will. As such the inherent horror or humour to be found in these works (depending on your point of view) becomes all the more pronounced; we’re no longer just watching, as would be the case with a “straight” representation, but experiencing.

Yet at the same time there’s never any doubt as to whose hands we are in. Despite shooting on a range of cheap and/or obscure film stocks, often in black and white and always on 16mm, Kren demonstrates remarkable control. Either with the films themselves or in-between them (6/64 Mama und Papa, for example, has a different tone to 10C/65 Brus Wünscht Euch Seine Weihnachten, and so on) he’s able to play with the overall intensity and effectively take us where he wishes. 10/65 Selbstverstümmelung, a piece which roughly translates to Self-Mutilation from 1965 (the numbers at the start of each film, incidentally, relay the sequence in which they made and their year of production) is able to prologue sequences or repeat them at will, but never to any predictable level. It creates a situation whereby on the one hand we’re willing the film to end given its immense rawness, yet on the other the effect is so demonstrably visceral and thus cinematically rare that we’re also willing it to continue.

It’s a duality which is echoed elsewhere, each short being rife with their own form of dramatic tensions. In one respect they could be deemed messes, yet within each of them there’s also a great beauty. Furthermore, there’s an eventual clarity to the chaos, Kren’s editing techniques being able to both enhance the onscreen extremities and to control them. In removing the ability to immediately recognise what is going on (to consider pausing them, by the way, would be fraudulent, a complete negation of Kren’s intents), for example, he can make them at once both more innocent and more violent (the sexualised content in particular), though never at the expense of provoking a reaction. Indeed, if these films possess a single overriding factor then this is it.

That said, we shouldn’t consider these ten efforts as a single entity. There’s a variation at play here and also a progression, one which is particularly notable in the later pieces. 12/66 Cosinus Alpha, the eighth film on the disc, is also the longest and perhaps the most intense. In many ways it could be considered the apotheosis of the series; as the most contentious it plays out like weird porn or a more spurious outtake from Cammell and Roeg’s Performance. 13/67 Sinus Beta on the other hand sees Kren introduce non-“action” photographic imagery into the film as though he’s trying to move away from Brus and Mühl and find something closer to his voice. And finally, there’s the semi-notorious 16/67 20. September, occasionally referred to as The Eating, Drinking, Pissing and Shitting Movie, fittingly included at the very of the disc as some may wish to use the ‘stop’ button before they get there. Semi-narrative in its structure, here we find Kren topping everything that has come before with a catalogue of up-close, almost grandiose urination and defecation. As with everything else on the disc, opinions are likely to be split, but then there’s no denying the sheer forcefulness of these ten films. Indeed, for those who believe avant-garde cinema to be rife with cold, dry academia, Kren demonstrates just how immediate it can be.

The Disc

Released by Austrian outfit Index as a Region 2 PAL, Kurt Kren’s Action Films come to disc in fine condition. Of course, given the range of film stocks he would use and the manner in which many of them were created (often edited in-camera, for example), we can’t expect the utmost in clarity, yet there’s certainly no impression given that Index have in an way messed things up. Original aspect ratios are retained, the soundtracks are completely silent (non-existent in fact) as intended, and on the whole everything is rather pleasing. Backing up the disc we also have the standard offering of 20-page bilingual booklet (in German and English) which contains interview excerpts with Kren, an essay on his “action” films and a filmography. No further extras, but then the ten films contained on this disc prove more than sufficient.

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