Rory MacLean meets Christoph Hübner
At the age of fourteen Christoph Hübner, today one of Germany’s leading documentary filmmakers, was taken to an exhibition of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs.
‘I was deeply moved by the pictures,’ Hübner told me, shaking his head as if still in awe of the experience. ‘Here for me was a new way of looking at the world, of capturing the reality of a place and of people yet at the same time creating a distinct composition.’
The exhibition inspired Hübner to take up photography himself. With the gift of a classic Contax camera from his grandfather he began to explore his Heidelberg home, snapping its residents and street scenes.
‘I was a shy child,’ he remembered, his arms crossed, grey hair curly and wild, gazing through rimless glasses into the distance. ‘My camera gave me an excuse to move closer to people, or to stay in one spot watching life unfold. In a way my camera gave me wings.’
Hübner’s fascination with the interplay of reality and aesthetic was evident in those earliest amateur images. ‘I was interested in people but at the same time I asked myself “How does one create an image?” I began to explore form, composition, even rhythm.’
His father had been a church organist. He himself played the cello.
‘Every image has a rhythm of its own, for example between foreground and background, light and shade, in time.’
At university Hübner studied law but he soon lost his heart both to the theatre and to Gabriele Voss, a linguist and violinist who became his partner and collaborator. At Heidelberg’s Theater im Gewölbe he began to direct plays, among them one written by Rainer Werner Maria Fassbinder. ‘We met him in Munich on the set of Liebe ist kälter als der Tod,’ Hübner recalled. ‘He left the shoot to talk to us about our plans and ideas. He was very friendly, and gave us permission to put on the play for free.’
Hübner’s dual love of photography and theatre drew him to enrol in the HFF Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film in 1971. There the gifted film historian Helmut Färber opened his eyes to the ‘silent spaces’ that lie at the heart of the creative process. ‘All art deals with mysteries, with the space between the words,’ Hübner told me. ‘Färber taught us not to hurry to fill those open spaces, but rather to give time to the creative process. Even today, when making my documentaries, I remind myself to take time, to let people open themselves.’
His first films explored further the relationship of subject and form, combining documentary sequences with actors reinterpreting the same material. In Huckinger März Hübner and Voss travelled to the Ruhr to meet steel workers at the end of a bitter wildcat strike. They distilled the tape-recorded interviews into a script which – in an approach reminiscent of a Brechtian Lehrstück – the workers then performed for camera.
‘It was a life-changing experience,’ he told me. ‘The real revelation for us was the people of the Ruhr. They were so full of life and humour. We liked them so much that Gabriele and I decided to move there for at least five years.’
The young filmmakers settled in Witten, and focused their work on the people, places and stories of the Ruhr. Their first international success, and winner of the prestigious Adolf Grimme prize, was Lebens-Geschichte des Bergarbeiters Alfons S., the life story of a remarkable Ruhrgebiet miner, told by himself, directly to camera, in a film which ran over 4 ½ hours. At the end of each shooting day, Hübner and Voss discussed the day’s footage with Alfons, enabling him to take an active part in the presentation of his own story.
‘Our original idea was simply to document his memories for posterity,’ Hübner told me. ‘In the end we taped over 50 hours of material which we watched until a different sort of film emerged. The material itself told us how to structure the film. We decided to follow Alfons’ life, letting the rhythm of his speech dictate the film’s rhythm. In that way, through the rhythm, the viewer was able to really enter Alfons’ world.’
Lebens-Geschichte des Bergarbeiters Alfons S., like all their films, has an organic quality, growing out of its subject as well as out of themselves. Yet in none of their films are Hübner and Voss an overbearing - even conscious - presence, their artistry and humility making them all but invisible to the viewer.
‘We never wanted to put barriers between the subject and the viewer. But to do that, one needs to listen to one's subject, to watch the material over and over again, then find a structure which reflects their character, and not one's own. A good documentary filmmaker needs to have the sensitivity to ask, “What are you telling me?” Only then can viewers really touch what you see.’
‘Often viewers don’t realise that in appearing to do less, the filmmaker needs to do much more,’ he said with a laugh.
A new trilogy of football films has now established Hübner and Voss in the general public’s eye. The first instalment, The Champions – filmed over three years – followed the dreams and ambitions of young players trying for the famous football club Borussia Dortmund. Its remarkable success led to the production of a second film, HalbZeit ('Half Time'), a study of players at the peak of their careers. The final part of the trilogy, to be filmed in the coming years and probably to be titled NachSpiel ('After Time') will look at footballers at the end of their professional lives.
At the heart of all their films lies the remarkable working relationship of Hübner and Voss. ‘Usually I come up with the initial idea but then we develop the project together, working as co-authors. I tend to do the shoot and Gabriele cuts the material.’ He hesitated and added, ‘But “cut” isn’t the right word. Editing a documentary is more akin to script writing. The editor – in this case Gabriele – looks in the material for the story, and the best means of telling it.’ He adds that Voss has written an exceptional book on this means of film editing.
‘Our films are a kind of story-telling with real people. It’s not so different from feature film making, except in one area. I don’t impose myself, or my preconceived ideas, on my subjects. I try to be open to reality, and so – in response – reality is open to me. If you let things happen, you get so much in return.’