Serge Grebiot died this week, to little fanfare. The deaths of fellow French filmmakers Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol this year were rightly mourned and their lives celebrated, as two quite different men who produced worthy art up to their deaths. Grebiot lacked their consistency, for sure, and perhaps more precisely, their desire to make films (his last completed effort was 1997's How To Make An American Quit, a lazy and outdated jingoistic diatribe, displaying, finally, his complete loss of ju-ju), but when his powers were firing, most notably between 1968 and 1973, the art he offered could stand toe-to-toe with almost anyone.
One reason for his annexing from the canon could be that he was a Frenchman who made films in Germany, thus falling between the cracks of two national cinemas in various stages of revolt and reform. Young France had enough angry philosophers in-situ. Young Germans on the other hand, wanted to wipe out the old guard, in their desire to make a hopeful new statement about their forlorn nation. But this also meant a rejection of outside influences too; they could not mimic the stylings of American or British idioms such as rock'n'roll, pop, nor the strong-armed glamour of dizzy Hollywood. Same went for anybody else. Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Kraftwerk, Can and Neu, all flying on the fumes of '68, painted new future possibilities, built new roads, distinctly German but not stiflingly so.
Serge Grebiot; Die Französisch Deutsch ('The French German') was born in Montpellier, joined the resistance as a teen to subvert the Nazis, and was subsequently stationed in Frankfurt as the Allies carved up the corpse of a land. Grebiot stayed, fell in love with a German girl, and made movies. It was a deeply unfashionable place to be making art in the late fifties; whereas Grebiot's countrymen were harvesting international acclaim with chic new-wave manouvres, Germany had yet to find her post-war feet, and as such much of the art produced was samey and fearful. 'Remember; we could not sweep away all of the Nazis; we still needed school teachers and policemen and judges. Many witnesses to atrocities were still in power. As such, most art tried to ignore the past quietly, and was thus beleagured and anodyne.' said Uschi Obermaier, model, activist and member of freeform radicals Amon Duul.
Grebiot, as an outsider, was freed from this compulsion toward self-invention, but also humbled and challenged by it. As such, his films can be seen as definitively German at times, in much the same way that it took immigrant talent (von Sternberg, Chaplin, Garbo, Dietrich, Wilder, Lang, Ophuls, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera) to define Hollywood in the first half of the 20th Century.
Nie Für Den Bus Laufen (1) was dubbed 'Hausfrau Noir' (the delicious mangling of two languages in the phrase a doff of the chapeau/kappe to Grebiot), and it rings true; the noir is there in the sharp silhouettes on-screen, which carry echoes of the Weimar gargoyles that went by boat to Hollywood and paired with a hard-boiled and pulpy American sensibility. Here, Grebiot reinherits the stylings, refurnished as they are with various detective-in-morally-complicated-waters motifs, and ties them, incredibly, to a one-room drama about a working class household in Frankfurt. Instead of a weary but smart Sam Spade, we have mother of four Irma (Betty Schneider), whose tired demeanour betrays a domicile at the end of its tether (a 'digs' in a hole, if you will, or an abode of corrode, or a crashed pad, even a dwelling of dwelling (2)). Her husband is absent, presumed dead, and the action (or lack thereof) centres on Irma's quiet inquisition of her children, who, it seems, are purpetrators of various minor misdeeds such as being messy and drinking all of the milk.
Grebiot centres on such mundane details that the viewer is thrown; Irma seems like normal mother and simultaneously insane, and the way in which the regular seems irregular (the checkerboard territories of the tablecloth, the luminous whiteness of the plates, the endlessly held stares of the children) offers a Realism/Realisn't duality of a Beckettian lean. The narrative, in which she slowly pulls out clues and jumps on hunches, spins like Chandler in a kitchen-out-of-sync. And the conclusions Irma draws about the slack moralities of her own generation and the potential of her children is equally hopeless and angry. This was taken as a harsh indictment of his adopted country, but Grebiot refuted this at the time. 'I do not speak of Germany. I speak of the world.' (3)
Immer für den Bus überfahren, Nein, Nie für den Bus laufen Directed by Serge Grebiot Produced by Karl Stuch Written by Max Friedl, Serge Grebiot Starring Betty Schneider, Patty Ernst, Lukas Fricker, Tomas Fricker, Roland Schneider Futurefilm/Octocinema Productions Release date UK: Oct 1970/ US: Nov 1971 88 mins Tagline:'Mutter Weiß Gut' ('Mother Knows Best')
1. The full title of the film was Immer für den Bus überfahren, Nein, Nie für den Bus laufen, translated as 'Always Run For The Bus, No, Never Run For The Bus', apparently to reflect Irma's indecisive nature, for their are no buses mentioned in the film. She betrays a confusion over the correct punishment for her children, or even whether they merit punishment, and speaks frequently with a muddled folksy wisdom. Even if we do not hear her say these words, we imagine them in her voice.
2. Such inane punning and repetition to diminishing effect (the lines above were especially selected to illicit annoyance and groans; that is why such crackers as 'crib of glib fibs' and 'grovel hovel' were deliberately hidden out of plain view in a footnote.) is relevant. As Irma grills the kids, she constantly clicks from accusation to apology and back, each time trying to cover her anger with humour and her sadness with a joke. Her lines are filled with many desperate jokes that are meaningless to an English speaking audience, including refences to German Shibboleths used during wartime to oust non-native spies.
3. Cahiers Du Cinema, March 1971.