The Magnanimal World of Klaus Lutz

Image of Klaus Lutz, 'Arabia', 1991. Courtesy The Estate of Klaus Lutz
Klaus Lutz, 'Arabia', 1991. Courtesy The Estate of Klaus Lutz

I’ve just watched eight films by the deceased Swiss artist Klaus Lutz and need to find some words to describe them. But for films so strange, so stultifying, seductive and sneaky, I feel like I’m limited even despite my considerable grasp of the English language in finding the right verbiage to relate them. Thus, I will move forward, employing as-yet-unknown words where appropriate,1 in the hope of moving towards a closer and more accurate description of these uniqualacious images I’ve seen before me. 

Images, I say, because the visual forms the entire content of these films, which forego sound to impose a magnaminal silence. Absent of any aural component—apart from 16mm projector, coughs, squeaky chairs and other ambient sounds swimming around the room—the viewer is sucked deeper into the engrossing visual fantasies that Klaus Lutz created. A highly oneiric space opens up as each reel unfurls. 

Lutz’s project is worldbuilding, and each of his films contributes to an overall visual universe of common motifs, costuming, colour palette, strategies of movement and atmosphere. Eyeballs, swirling globes, clouds, stars, cones and the colours black, white, red and blue dominate. It’s significant to reflect on the concept of ’worldbuilding’ within a counter-cinema practice, especially during an era (post-2000) when the dominant cinema is pre-eminently oriented around shared cinematic universes. While Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings or the Marvel Cinematic Universe are oriented around narrative and storyline, Lutz’s films dispense with narrative in toto; instead, Lutz’s world is structured around action, image, performance, montage and visualitisation

Image of Klaus Lutz, 'Arabia', 1991. Courtesy The Estate of Klaus Lutz.
Klaus Lutz, ‘Arabia’, 1991. Courtesy The Estate of Klaus Lutz.

Taking one film as a case in point, Arabia (1991) is a major work made a few years after his first film (Graph, 1987). The double-projection 16mm film is exhibited with one reel projected onto a wall/screen and another onto a spherical balloon, a technique Lutz would also employ on several other films. It begins by showing a spherical (fake) eyeball, into which the camera zooms to reveal what looks like a swirling globe. In actuality, this planet or moon is made up of footage shot outdoors—a rarity for this filmmaker—but nonetheless it looks like a cloudy, gaseous blue marble floating in space. 

This first sequence, lasting about 15 seconds of one of the two projections, is indicative of a major element of Lutz’s filmmaking: he probes worlds both interior, miniature and microscopic, as well as ones massive, grandiose and celestial. This is expressed in many different ways: in many sequences, what one could determine as stars, solar flares or planetary structures zoom by in the background; while in other shots, the artist’s own body appears to have been shrunken down and injected into another human’s bloodstream, as he traverses capillaries, arteries and the inner worlds of the body. It’s this constant vacillation between outer and inner space that keeps the viewer on edge, productively confustered and aghast. 

Image of Klaus Lutz, silent films. Courtesy The Estate of Klaus Lutz.
Image of Klaus Lutz, silent films. Courtesy The Estate of Klaus Lutz.

The movie magic of Lutz’s practical effects becomes even more astonishing when one realises that 99% of the film he shot was exposed completely inside of the emigrant Swiss filmmaker’s East Village apartment. The modest, walk-through apartment is the type of iconic New York City living space that probably no longer exists within the glut of real estate development. While many artists’ living spaces remain their art studio and admin space, it was possible in bygone eras to have enough room in domestic spaces within Manhattan to produce worlds of fantasy. James Bidgood shot the surreal queer porn fantastia Pink Narcissus (1971) within his downtown loft from 1963–70, and artist Colette Justine made several ‘living environment’ installations in apartments throughout the 1970s and 80s. 

Klaus Lutz completely blacked out the living room of his apartment and turned into a shooting studio, as shown in Frank Matter’s crucial 1999 documentary The Beauty of My Island – Shooting Klaus Lutz. There were likely advantages and drawbacks to this way of working. It gave him infinitely more time to craft his painstakingly-composed films, which wouldn’t have been possible in a studio one rents for a shoot. The layering, in-camera editing, superimpositions and different planes of his films are a direct result of the measured pace with which he worked. The films are simply marvels of construction and editing, and the scale which is achieved in them is almost incomprehensible when one considers the level of practical ingenuity and clearly small budget under which they were made. 

At the same time, ceding such a significant percentage of one’s personal space to a working area likely presented a compromise as well. While Lutz’s imagination and tinkering surely ran rampant, in another sense his films can give off feelings of claustrophobia, of Sisyphean actions without an end, of the artist as a hamster continually running around a wheel. Vulcan (2004) gives off this feeling rather pointedly, with the artist’s body lying on the ground and continually cycled around in a circle, and one shot in particular of his face in close-up evincing a pained look. It makes me wonder if Lutz ever came across the video game Lemmings (first published in 1991), in which anthropomorphised mammal-creatures get dumped out into worlds they must navigate through with only a small subset of tools, otherwise risking to walk right off the edge of a cliff. 

Speaking as an academic and film historian with a concentration in animated films, the most remarkable thing about the filmmaking of Klaus Lutz is that he in essence found a way to create an animation stand that he could fit his whole body inside. While most animators craft outsized worlds from minute, small images—or go out in the world to pixilate single frames of bodies, objects or landscape—Lutz expanded the capability of his camera through lenses, mirrors and trick shooting so that he could swim underneath it himself, marrying both of these techniques together into something uniquely individual. 

Frank Matter’s documentary shows Lutz’s apparatus: a camera is held by a wooden support system, facing downwards where Lutz would compose images and his own body on the floor. He had a plunger which would open the shutter and expose the film, which he could engage with his mouth if necessary to keep his two hands free. Lutz would time shots with a handheld cassette recorder that played audio of him counting seconds, and use this to rewind the appropriate footage to make multiple exposures and interact with layers of image. The level of calculation needed to measure exposures, experiment with different frame rates and to block shots that would interact with each other is almost incomprehensible. When witnessing this process in action, one understands why filmmaking was a solitary practice for the artist, one which could not be fully related outside of his own mind. This is perhaps the best reason to explain how Lutz could have crafted such a hermetic world that extended across his filmic output. 

Image of Klaus Lutz, 'Titan', 2008. Courtesy The Estate of Klaus Lutz.
Klaus Lutz, ‘Titan’, 2008. Courtesy The Estate of Klaus Lutz.

But while he was an individualist, let’s also consider other art historical or filmic connections that could be made as well. Rather than a Lemming, Lutz’s robed-and-masked figure could instead recalls Belphégor, the phantom of the Louvre, from the novel by Arthur Bernède in 1927 and adapted for film in 1927, 1965 and 2001. The devilish figure with pointy teeth and spewing blood in Arabia recalls Francis Bacon’s mouth-agape creatures in Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) or the baby from Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977). The visceral energy of Viennese Actionist performance; the stroboscopic and psychedelic 16mm home movies of Pierre Clémenti; the totemic symbols and performance-heavy pathos of Maria Klonáris & Katerína Thomadáki; or the nonsense actions of characters within the films of Ericka Beckman all resonate with Lutz’s films. 

Lutz’s films are often compared with early cinema pioneers like Georges Méliès or Segundo de Chomón. While there is an aspect of the ‘cinema of attractions’2 within them, this comparison in the first instance felt to me overwrought or too simplistic. Early cinema often relies on both identification and narrative—whether historical, literary adaptation, fairytale or fantasy story—to drive its visual action, and what Klaus Lutz presents the viewer is something different entirely. 

Image of Klaus Lutz, 'Arabia', 1991. Courtesy The Estate of Klaus Lutz.
Klaus Lutz, ‘Arabia’, 1991. Courtesy The Estate of Klaus Lutz.

After some consideration, I realised that the real continuity with the magic of early cinema is in the ingenuity with which Lutz broke conventions of image-making to find new tools, new techniques, new forms and ideas of what cinema could be. The restless invention of film’s pioneers like Chomón, J. Stuart Blackton and Johann Schwarzer held kin with Lutz’s caveman aesthetic and his radical rethinking of the mechanics of the medium.3

But the most astounding thing of all is that Klaus Lutz’s films not only hearken back to the halcyon days of cinema’s birth, but they also anticipate our current technological futures. At the beginning of Arabia—layered behind the image of the eyeball—is Lutz at a table writing on a white-framed, rectangular object with a white writing tool in his hand. It looks remarkably like an iPad or sketch tablet. Lutz’s films feature screens and circles—both static and moving—which show moving images from television, film shot on the street or other types of found footage, in essence becoming screens-within-screens that envision the ease of projection and the ubiquity of video within our digital world. 

This expresses the crucial, paradoxical dualities which we find within Klaus Lutz’s films. The future and the past; the microscopic and the monumental; the luddite-tinkerer and the technologist-futurist, whose films were all crafted from a singular vision, and which poured out onto film to make a fantastical world, all from the inside a modest New York apartment. 

This text was commissioned to accompany Klaus Lutz: Performances for Screens, a Projections tour to BFI Southbank, Pavilion and Tyneside Cinema, funded by the Swiss Cultural Fund.

Verein für die Erhaltung des Werks von Klaus Lutz / Estate of Klaus Lutz; Frank Matter, Basel; Sabina Kohler, Zurich; Kinemathek Le Bon Film, Basel. All images © Estate of Klaus Lutz


Herb Shellenberger

Herb Shellenberger is a film programmer and writer originally from Philadelphia, based in London. He is Programmer of Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival, where he’s worked since 2016, and guest curator of the thematic film series Face & Mask for the 2020 European Media Art Festival (Osnabrück, Germany). Shellenberger is Editor of Rep Cinema International, a newsletter focusing on repertory and archival film programming around the world, and has written for Art-Agenda, Art Monthly, The Brooklyn Rail, International Film Festival Rotterdam, LUX, Vdrome and Walker Art Center.