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In Memory of Herbert Achternbusch
God, Beer, and the World

Herbert Achternbusch (right) with Andreas Ströhl in Oberneustift, Austria, in 1999
Herbert Achternbusch (right) with Andreas Ströhl in Oberneustift, Austria, in 1999 | Photo: Jana Vymazalová

Herbert Achternbusch died in January 2022. He was a German painter, filmmaker, and writer. Andreas Ströhl, director of the Goethe-Institut North America, knew Achternbusch well and remembers him as a great artist and a close friend. In this interview, Ströhl reminisces about the trips he took with Achternbusch and the countless beers they shared over the years. Verena Hütter interviewed Ströhl about the late great Herbert Achternbusch on January 27, 2022, at the Goethe-Institut in Washington, D.C.

Andreas, where did you first meet Herbert Achternbusch?

We first met in 1997 at the Goethe-Institut in Prague. I’d admired Herbert Achternbusch ever since I was a schoolboy and college student, but I didn’t want to impose on him. I was in awe of him and had great respect for him — and what would I have had to say anyway? But when I was in Prague programming cultural events at the Goethe-Institut, I satisfied a pent-up demand for certain filmmakers there and screened retrospectives of Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff, and others. And when I’d gotten through the most illustrious names, I organized an Achternbusch retrospective. We had a play of his translated, and one of the best galleries in town showed his pictures. He came to Prague, and we hit it off right away.

And later on, you both lived in Munich and regularly got together there?

Before we were together in Munich, we were first together in Finland, where we became really close friends. For years, the director Aki Kaurismäki had been trying to invite Achternbusch to his film festival in Sodankylä up in northern Finland. Thanks to my efforts and to a beer coaster on which Aki had scrawled: “Herbert, keep your style and live,” we finally actually went. I videotaped the meeting of these two geniuses on a Hi8 camcorder. Shortly thereafter, I was transferred to Munich to run the film department at the Goethe-Institut’s head office and later the Munich Film Festival. And during that time, we’d hang out at least twice a week at the Weisses Bräuhaus.

One of my favorite art catalogs came about at the Weisses Bräuhaus: “Ein Bier geht um die Welt” (A Beer Goes Round the World): Achternbusch did watercolor paintings of the beers there. And that’s where you used to meet up. What did you talk about there?

Literally about God and the world [i.e. anything and everything]. Though I should add: about God, beer, and the world — those were our main subjects of conversation. God, beer, Greece, and the world.

Why Greece?

Herbert was into philosophy and well-versed in Greek philosophy, mythology, and history. Everything was basically a philosophical question for him, a question of the nature and extent of suffering inflicted by the world. That’s also the subject of a film I made at the time about Kaurismäki and Achternbusch in Finland. Two creative, highly sensitive alcoholics meeting there — I found that fascinating. And we continued to be preoccupied with such subjects: life and death, youth and old age, God and the world, weissbier and lager.

One of his films is about beer too: “Bierkampf” (Beer Battle).

Many of his films are about beer, but “Bierkampf” makes that most flagrantly clear. He invented a new genre there: the documentation of an art intervention. Achternbusch goes to the Oktoberfest and baits people in the beer tent who are so drunk they can hardly control themselves. The whole thing’s a massive slapstick number, and it’s a miracle he didn’t get beaten up there — as his cameraman Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, who shot the whole thing on a portable 16mm camera, used to say at the time.

Is “Bierkampf” your favorite film?

Hard to say. Herbert’s films are quite varied. I’d say “Die Atlantikschwimmer” (“The Atlantic Swimmers”) is my favorite... But so is “Servus Bayern” (“Bye-Bye Bavaria!”), come to think of it. “Der Komantsche” (“The Comanche”), “Bierkampf” (“Beer Battle”), “Das Andechser Gefühl” (“The Andechs Feeling”) — I consider them all masterpieces.

In an interview with Radio Bremen, you said that Achternbusch grew up without a father, which was representative of a whole generation and had a formative influence on his art.

There were two heydays of German cinema: the UFA era before the Third Reich and then the ’70s with New German Cinema. I think the search for the father was a theme that connected the leading filmmakers of New German Cinema. It reflected what was going on among that generation in West German society as a whole: the search for their wartime fathers — and not only those who’d died in the war, but also those who’d started the war and were Nazis.

Herbert Achternbusch was born in Munich and grew up in the Bavarian Forest. His father was a dentist who didn’t take care of his son until Herbert was already grown up. And his mother was very unhappy. She committed suicide, and Herbert was raised by his grandmother. So, in addition to the absent father, coming to terms with the mother also loomed large. But the search for his father and fatherland was something that connected him with other filmmakers of his generation, from Edgar Reitz and Alexander Kluge, who were the older ones, to the younger ones, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Volker Schlöndorff.

They were connected by this search for their fathers as well as trying to figure out what kind of art, if any, could still be produced in Germany...

...What kind of art, if any, could still be produced after Auschwitz. In one of his films, Achternbusch drinks six million shots of schnapps: one schnapps for every murdered Jew. It unnerved a lot of people that this guy who couldn’t even speak standard German and was raised on a farm in the woods was resorting to such devices. To all appearances, Herbert was no intellectual. The appearances were deceiving, of course. But he didn’t fit into the world of the ’68 generation at all, which rubbed people the wrong way.

And yet that didnt bother him?

I don’t know. I think he did suffer sometimes. Though he didn’t suffer that much because he wasn’t that famous, but someone like him simply suffers from the world. One time, he wasn’t paid an installment of a film grant because one of his films, “Das Gespenst” (“The Ghost”), allegedly offended those that were religious in the community, despite the fact that both the Protestant and Catholic churches warmly recommended the film.

He plays Christ in the film, climbs down from the cross, and hits the road  with a nun.

Exactly. With his partner at the time, Annamirl Bierbichler, Sepp Bierbichler’s sister. He spent ten years litigating with the federal government, and in the end, he won the suit and got the grant. It was about 75,000 marks. That film has an unequaled poetological power. There’s a similar scene in one of Paul Wühr’s works in which the author tries to find a way into his own work. The author is a lonely demiurge who creates characters for himself to relieve his loneliness. But then, this demiurge realizes the author can have no real communion with his characters. This is Herbert’s view of Jesus. In his film, we see Jesus wanting to go for a dip with Mary Magdalene. She’s already in the water and keeps urging him to join her: “Come on in.” But he can’t: he can’t bathe in water, he can only walk on water. People didn’t get the film on this level at all. On the whole, it was just interpreted as blasphemy. Sure, it had a funny, blasphemous side. But this tremendous statement is both theologically and poetologically insightful: the author simply cannot enter his work, God simply is not among men.

Like Thomas Bernhard, Achternbusch likes to lambaste his own country, and yet he loves it too.

He lambastes not only his own country, but also Thomas Bernhard’s: Austria. He hated Austria, which is why he moved there and bought a house. I remember him telling me once how much he liked driving past Salzburg.

That certainly could be a line from Thomas Bernhard. Do you think he could only live close to the Alps in the South? Did he feel at home at all in the North?

People tend to underestimate his cosmopolitanism. He was fascinated by many parts of the world. He shot a film in Greenland. He went to India a number of times and shot two films in the U.S.

A few Achternbusch quotes were printed in the obituaries. Do you have a favorite?

One line gets quoted all the time: “This country fucked me up, and I’m staying till you can tell by looking at it.” But I like the lesser-known ones. When asked what is funny, for example, he replied, “What’s funny? A bratwurst is funny.” That’s the kind of line I like. Or: “It’s easy to touch the ground when you walk.” That’s a good one. “Nothing is better than nothing at all.” I’d say he’s right about that.

That would make for a nice closing remark, but I do have one more question: He was a filmmaker as well as a writer. But he initially studied painting, in Nuremberg and Munich. What do you find so fascinating about his artwork?

Its immediacy, I guess, its archaic, very Bavarian, quasi folkloristic love-hate relationship with his own homeland. Nowhere in the German-speaking world do you find such consummate satirists, writers, and actors as in Bavaria and Austria. Nowhere do they suffer so much. For example, I can’t imagine blues being sung in any other German dialect than Bavarian. I can’t imagine blues in Hessian. But in Bavarian — that works.

What did you appreciate most about him as a friend?

I’ve dealt with many artists in the course of my life. And ordinarily, the closer I get to them, the smaller their art seems to me. Not so with Herbert. People always said what a piece of work he was, that no one could stand him. Which was true. He attacked everyone who wanted to do him a favor, including former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Munich’s former mayor Christian Ude. But he never laid into me.

Why not?

Maybe because I never wanted anything from him. We always had great conversations, and he was extremely reliable. I met up with him twice a week for ten years and went on lots of trips with him, where we were together 24/7 and many times even shared a bed. But we never got on each other’s nerves. And it was always interesting. Herbert Achternbusch was so brimming with ideas and creativity that he always came out with something new.