When we ran into Alex Rühle, he was loading his weekend groceries into his bike’s child trailer. He looked tired, more than usual. All the same, he immediately began telling us about the crazy time he’d had researching a piece on legendary photographer Robert Frank for his “At Work” column in the Süddeustche Zeitung. He’d spent the last three days travelling all over the place with Frank’s publisher Gerhard Steidl – to Göttingen, Paris and Nova Scotia! He’d then slept on the train for the entire return journey from the airport. And it was only because the conductor had woken him in Munich that he hadn’t ended up in the train depot. Now he quickly had to write a good article, a full page in the arts and culture section. The piece had to do justice to his great encounter with Frank and Steidl. Perhaps it wouldn’t even be an article about Robert Frank, but rather about the work of his amazing publisher?
After the article was published, Alex was nervous: what would Steidl think of the portrait? For a while, nothing happened. Alex feared the worse. But finally a call came.
“Oh, hello, Mr. Steidl, how are you?”
“Fine. If you ever want to make a book out of ‘At Work’, you can come by any time.”
But instead of immediately planning his book, Alex Rühle first considered making a documentary film with Steidl: he thought that all the frenetic running about, the back and forth between Göttingen and the rest of the world, all the books and people, images and conversations, could be captured even more impressively in a documentary. So “Axrühle” called “Gersteidl” and announced the arrival of two documentary filmmakers, who would soon appear at Düstere Strasse 4 in Göttingen and wait for Steidl.
When we arrived, Claudia Glenewinkel, a publicist and editor at Steidl, explained that she would be our guide for the day, as Steidl himself had to finish a catalogue for Karl Lagerfeld. Walking up and down the stairs, we met each of the 45 employees, or rather, we were introduced to them with the words, “These are the two guys that want to make a documentary.” The timid objection that we’d only come to explore ideas and begin an initial dialogue became useless when Steidl himself appeared from the depths of the labyrinth. “Hello. No time. Documentary film. Great. Rühle said you’re the right people for the job. Rühle’s word is worth its weight in gold. I usually can’t bear having anyone with me when I travel – and especially no journalists – but with Rühle things went really well. Nice guy. More later.”
So once again, we found ourselves reading and waiting in the library at Steidlville. Hours later, and just before the last train to Munich, the internal line finally rang for us: “Now I have a few minutes.” We ran downstairs and entered Steidl’s “paper cave”. He ate his lunch – much too late and while standing – and told us what he thought about the film project. “The work here at the publishing house is particularly important. You can take a look at everything here. You can accompany me for a few weeks, we’ll go to London, Paris, New York... That’s important too, then you can see how I work, ten appointments a day, one after another. You can stay here and see what you want to film, shoot until you have what you need. That’s your job, something I know nothing about.”
And so we did just that – if only filmmaking were always so easy! With a small but vital budget from 3sat and the support of FilmFernsehFonds Bayern, we were able to accompany Gerhard Steidl for a year and observe him making books that are as beautiful as they are important. We lugged Steidl’s overfilled suitcases from airport to airport and to photographers’ studios, to then quietly film and listen in on their conversations. And together with Joel Sternfeld we waited for Steidl to continue work on Sternfeld’s iDubai.
As documentary filmmakers, these photographers taught us a great deal about craftsmanship, subject matter and concept. In photography, there is a passionate debate about the art of the real, as well as an audience that has its eyes open that is attentive enough to look past the surface. In the varied world of photography, it’s easy to find perspectives that are clearer, more honest, and more passionate that many found in contemporary documentary film – which has to provide both information and entertainment (How to Make a Book with Steidl being the exception). But we also learned that books have to smell good, and that a great deal can be achieved in a niche like this one if you proceed as radically, systematically, and lovingly as Gerhard Steidl does. It’s just too bad that the time we spent filming with Steidl flew by so quickly – we would have loved to shoot more material on at least two dozen artists and book projects.
A film by if... Productions. Co-produced by ZDF/3sat, funded by FFF Bayern Germany
2010, 88 minutes, NTSC/PAL, stereo
Directed by Gereon Wetzel and Jörg Adolph
Produced by Ingo Fliess
ZDF/3sat: Katya Mader, Maik Platzen
Research: Alex Rühle
Cameraman in London: Daniel Schönauer
Photographer: Gerald von Foris
Legal Consultant: Jessica von Saucken
Postproduction Coordinator: Fabian Spang
Colourist: Martina Kiechle
Sound Designer/Mixer: Benedikt Hoenes
Music: The New Lost City Ramblers
DVD Packaging Design: Bernard Fischer, Gereon Wetzel
With: Gerhard Steidl, Martin Parr, Joel Sternfeld, Robert Frank, Ed Ruscha, Karl
Lagerfeld, Khalid Al-Thani, Monte Packham, Günter Grass, John Cohen, Robert
Adams, Jeff Wall, June Leaf and Jonas Wettre
- DVD, documentary, 88 minutes, NTSC/PAL
Original version: English and German
Subtitles in English and German
With a 48-page booklet in English and German
- ISBN 13
- Binding Additional
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