For Auld Lang Syne

A few nights ago I watched Eberhard Fechner’s sublime and shattering Nachrede auf Klara Heydebreck (60 minutes, 1969).

I first heard of the film in the context of its monteuse, Brigitte Kirsche. She was one of the interviewees on the double DVD that the Deutsche Filmmuseum has released on the art of editing, Schnitte in Raum und Zeit (2006). Her insights on weaving together still photograph documentation and diverse sources of interview testimony were profound. It seems her long film partnership with Fechner was truly rich.

Fechner’s 1969 TV-commissioned documentary investigates the life of a 72-year-old, single German woman who was born just before the 20th century and took her own life in 1968.

The film sets out to answer the question, “Who was Klara Heydebreck?”, collecting and displaying for us her personal belongings, official records, correspondance and snapshots. These materials are the base support for the memories of the interviewees who knew Heydebreck: her surviving family, from whom she had become estranged, the policemen assigned to her suicide case, the neighbors in her apartment building whom she anxiously avoided, and her closest friend from childhood.

Interspersed with these interviews are the unsentimental and studied findings of Fechner himself. In voiceover, he attempts to reckon together her passion for the arts, her failure to thrive after the death of her mother, her unknown suffering in the aftermath of World War Two and her pauperism, reclusivity and loneliness after middle age.

What traces do we leave on life? Can others see and comprehend the traces it leaves on us? These are the more fundamental questions that Nachrede auf Klara Heydebreck asks without answering. The film leaves us with a resonant sense of how expansive and yet how negligible every human soul can be–or more accurately, how expansively or negligibly it can be treated by its fellow human souls and the socio-economic systems in which all human souls exist.

This is one of the finest, most moving and most sparing documentaries I have ever seen; it is a terrible shame that it isn’t available with foreign language subtitles. Translator friends: a project for the new year? We’ll take a cup of kindness yet… 

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