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A documentary film by José Zegarra Holder and Adele Schmidt
Produced by Zeitgeist Media LLC
Featuring: Can, Damo Suzuki’s Network, Electric Orange, faUSt, Floh de Cologne, Japandorf, Kraftwerk, Krautwerk, La Düsseldorf, Neu!, Wume.
Total time: 129 minutes

Four years (and counting) after Canterbury Tales, Washington DC-based filmmakers Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder have finally released the fourth instalment in their Romantic Warriors series, simply titled Krautrock. In fact, this documentary marks the beginning of a series within the series – a trilogy dedicated to the German progressive scene of the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Among the myriad subgenres in which progressive rock has splintered almost 50 years from its inception, Krautrock is probably the one that most fully deserves the definition of “acquired taste”. In fact, for many “traditional” prog fans Krautrock has more or less the same appeal as RIO/Avant – that is to say, not very much at all. In terms of sheer “difficulty”, Krautrock can beat any but the most complex forms of RIO/Avant hands down. People who love the ambitious scale of traditional prog, but at the same time crave melody and a judicious sprinkling of hooks, will view a lot of Krautrock as unmitigated noise.

In terms of sheer innovation, however, Krautrock leaves most British-style progressive rock in the dust. Nothing in the prog pantheon even remotely approaches the genuinely radical attitude of those seminal Krautrock artists who emerged at the tail end of the Sixties, upending rock conventions and introducing elements into the rock fabric that went beyond European folk and classical music. Light years ahead of their time, they experimented with things that would have been too far-fetched even for the likes of King Crimson, and that some RIO/Avant bands such as Henry Cow would only attempt a few years later. This explains the subgenre’s enduring popularity with musicians who otherwise look at prog with disdain: name-dropping Can, Neu! or Kraftwerk among your influences is definitely cooler than mentioning Yes or Genesis, or even King Crimson.

That being said, Krautrock IS an acquired taste, and the bands and artists featured in the film do nothing to dispel that notion. A lot of Krautrock does not make for easy or even comfortable listening, and might be defined as the kind of music that people find more admirable than truly enjoyable. However, it is hard to deny its vitality, its groundbreaking power. Even the movement’s rather dubious name – based on what amounts to an ethnic slur – seems to be worn with a sort of defiance, emphasizing the music’s uniquely German nature as opposed to the slavish imitation of anything coming from the English-speaking world. The DVD’s minimalistic artwork  aptly complements Krautrock’s unique mix of austerity and intensity, running counter to the whimsicality of “standard” prog as embodied by Roger Dean’s stunning fantasy landscapes.

Though the bands examined in the first instalment of the Krautrock trilogy did not actually sound like each other at all, they shared a similar attitude towards music-making – as well as an intent to break free from the pervasive influence of British and American rock. On the other hand, with the exception of some of the protagonists of the Düsseldorf scene – such as iconic drummer Klaus Dinger – artists from the same hometown hardly ever collaborated from each other. On the other hand, the presence of non-German musicians – Malcolm Mooney (from the US), Damo Suzuki (from Japan), Jean-Hervé Peron (from France) – highlights the international outlook of the Krautrock scene, in contrast with the insularity of British prog.

With a nice touch, and a nod to Germany’s massive contribution to Western culture, the film opens with the words of Wolfgang Goethe, one of the undisputed icons of German culture,. The description of the coming of spring works as a metaphor for the changes brought to a staid musical scene by this bunch of musical bomb-throwers. It also reflects the reality of a country that was still rebuilding itself – and its reputation – after having been left in ruins at the end of WWII. The serene beauty of the Rhine at Cologne, dominated by the cathedral’s majestic Gothic towers,  the neat and orderly city streets, the verdant countryside all provide a modern foil for the palpable restlessness animating those young people born shortly after (or even before, as in the case of Can’s founders) their country’s disastrous defeat.

For Adele Schmidt, one half of the pair that makes up the Zeitgeist Media team, this trilogy is clearly even more of a labour of love than the previous three films, as it has allowed her to explore a unique aspect of the culture of her homeland. As an expat myself, I can relate to the care and love that permeate every shot, to her desire to spread the knowledge of the cultural climate of  her native country in those years of social and political turmoil, but also of immense creative ferment. Like my native Italy, Germany was experiencing the pains of rebirth after the devastation of war – further exacerbated by the division of the country itself, which made it a battleground for opposing Cold War forces. However, while Italy also produced a progressive scene that was amazing in terms of both quantity and quality, the Italian prog movement of the Seventies mostly operated within the framework of British-style progressive rock, albeit with unique cultural features.

Even more so than its predecessors, Krautrock 1 is beautifully shot, alternating interviews, archival photos and footage, and the lovely views of cities and countryside that give each of the Romantic Warriors documentaries the alluring look of a travelogue. Some sections of the film are somewhat light on live material – especially the one on Kraftwerk, which occasionally comes across as a long monologue by the band’s former drummer, Wolfgang Flür. This was obviously not the filmmakers’ choice, but rather caused by licensing issues. On the other hand, the section about Can, which opens the film, is probably the most complete, featuring not only enlightening comments by the band’s founder and keyboardist, Irmin Schmidt, but also the input of their two iconic singers, Malcolm Mooney and Damo Suzuki – two lovely gentlemen who exude the kind of positive energy that is becoming increasingly rare in this cynical world. As in Canterbury Tales, care has also been taken to emphasize the continuity between the original protagonists of the Krautrock scene and their contemporary heirs, as well as the subgenre’s continuing relevance in today’s progressive music scene.

The film’s next-to-last section, dedicated to Hamburg-based outfit faUSt, seems to encapsulate the authentically subversive nature of Krautrock – starting with the band’s name (“the fist of revolution”) and their alternative lifestyle, then detailing their drive towards the creation of consistently ground-breaking soundscapes – a drive that continues to this day, as illustrated by the sequences filmed during the band’s 2017 US tour. faUSt’s founding members, Zappi Diermaier and Jean-Hervé Peron, and their younger collaborators clearly share a vision that transcends generational differences;  the music they produce on stage still pushes the envelope, perfectly at home in the arty surroundings of Louisville, Kentucky’s thriving cultural hub, and Tennessee’s cult Big Ears festival.

Although the deep poignancy that pervaded Canterbury Tales also emerges in Krautrock 1 – particularly in those sequences that feature the warm, gentle presence of Can’s drummer extraordinaire, Jaki Liebezeit, who passed away a few months after filming was completed – the documentary never lingers too long on feelings of loss, but celebrates the unbounded vitality of the movement and its protagonists. This is especially true of the sequences featuring Neu!’s larger-than-life drummer, Klaus Dinger. Though he is indeed missed, and his enormous influence on the whole movement emphasized on various occasions, there is nothing elegiac in the tone of those who speak about him. While the music produced by Canterbury bands possesses a sort of fragile, ephemeral beauty, Krautrock can be brash, defiant, even proud of its own anti-aesthetics. Indeed, the anecdote about Dinger splashing blood everywhere after cutting his hand on one of his favoured broken cymbals outpunks punk and its often contrived theatrics.

All in all, Krautrock 1 does a great job of summing up the long-debated difference between “progressive” and “prog” in a nutshell. In many ways, as the film shows with unrelenting clarity, Krautrock ran counter to the original prog movement, being closer in nature to punk and new wave than to Yes and ELP, though equally ambitious in its outspoken goal of creating a kind of music that was uniquely German.

The film works both as an introduction for those who are still unfamiliar with the movement, and as a fascinating insight into its development for those who are already invested in it. Whether it will be enough to convert any unbelievers remains to be seen. In any case, even if the music may not be everyone’s cup of tea, Krautrock 1 is a must-see not only for fans of progressive music, but also for those interested in the history and culture of post-war Europe. The release of the second instalment of the trilogy, dedicated to the Munich scene, is expected at the end of 2019.

 

Links:

www.progdocs.com

http://www.zeitgeistmedia.tv/

 

 

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