Film: A vision of hell on earth: the director's fight

German auteur Fred Keleman went without food to complete his film, Frost. Then the producer stole it. It's not easy being a visionary. By Roger Clarke

ARTIST-TURNED-film director Fred Keleman is as glacially reserved in person as his beautiful, bleak films would suggest. One would have thought he had little reason to be glacial with the kind of praise he's been getting lately. Pundits in his native country have rightly dubbed him "the most spectacular force in Germany since Fassbinder". Werner Herzog has virtually anointed him his heir. And of his first feature film, Fate, Susan Sontag wrote "[it] is a visionary, one-of-a-kind achievement" and went on to list the 34-year-old German as one of only three directors in the world capable of expanding cinema as an art form.

In fact, Keleman has every reason to be glum. He's currently a combatant in a war zone. Not many months after this ringing endorsement by America's most impressive grande dame (the NYC Museum of Modern Art has since acquired a print of Fate for its collection), he found himself in a situation which is probably the worst thing that can ever happen to a director-auteur. After a catastrophic falling-out with producer Bjorn Koll during the filming of his second feature, Frost, Koll impounded the negative and denied Keleman all further access to it. Keleman had lost actual physical possession of his own film

Koll's behaviour ever since has been somewhat shocking. Despite attempts by the Goethe Institute and MOMA to intervene, Koll has rebuffed all attempts to settle the matter amicably and seems to be conducting a personal vendetta against Keleman. A Koll-edited version of Frost has even been offered to the major film festivals, according to Keleman. And he has received only 10 per cent of his fee, admitting he was so broke during the filming, he went short of food ("I got very hungry," he says, clearly embarrassed to admit it). Not since Eisenstein had his most personal and most experimental film, Que Viva Mexico!, stolen by its American financier in 1932, has there been such a parallel. So where did it all go wrong?

I first met Fred Keleman last November, leaning against the wall in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, looking much like a big, trenchcoated ghost who had stumbled in on some revelries he didn't quite want to understand. There was something very isolated about him. It was a party in honour of Festen- director Thomas Vinterberg; Vinterberg was the toast of the London Film Festival and was lapping it up. Keleman - I was later to discover - summarily dismissed the Dogme philosophy as "a schoolboy joke, a game", and went so far as to say he had already made a Dogme film even before the playful Danish primitivist diktat was first postulated (Fate out-Dogmes Dogme: it is shot on hand-held camera, in only 12 long sequences over 80 minutes, without music, using only natural light and with no scripted dialogue).

The screening of Keleman's Frost in his own disintegrating "director's edit" (i.e. the print that has been physically chopped and spliced and edited) was actually the most significant moment of the Film Festival: the film had already received the International Critics' Prize at the Rotterdam Festival and had acquired an almost legendary status by the time it reached London. It was a samizdat, fugitive film: every time Keleman showed it the print disintegrated a bit more and the edits grew further apart. Here was a film physically decaying before the audience's eyes, the celluloid slowly and distinctively rotting away. It was a memento mori to send a shudder down the spine of every film director in the world.

The innately pessimistic Keleman, however, expresses little surprise about the way things are: his films, anyway, are largely concerned with human cruelty, thwarted passion leading to abject humiliation, and the deadening melodrama of despair. Fate concerns a Russian busker in the Berlin subway falling into a murder; Frost concerns a mother and young son trudging across a wintry countryside and being preyed on by low-lifes (leading to a murder); his recently completed third feature, tentatively called Nightfall, portrays an unemployed man and wife brutalised by their "barbaric surroundings".

"I think our world is cruel," he tells me when we met again just recently, the fate of Frost still bitterly unresolved. But he refuses to give up. "When I hope, I wake," he says. "When we stop hoping, we fall asleep and can be killed very easily." He has the crumpled but defiant air of a man who has survived every bone in his body being broken by his enemies: he wearily anticipates the inevitablity of pain. He's shabbily dressed and is very shy indeed. His face is flat and uncannily white, his hair a little greasy in the way of the recluse. Serious-minded as ever, and as if to put everything in perspective, he suddenly remarks: "Cruelty is everywhere - just look at the war going on."

I am struck, I tell him, by how the blasted landscapes in Frost resemble those of Soviet war movies so strongly. The characters seem to be moving across a zone where, you suspect, a war is going on. "We filmed on the border of Poland and there were still old tank-traps there," he confirms in his low, halting monotone. "For many years now I've felt there's a smell of war in Europe. I was filming Fate back in 1993 when the war in Chechnya broke out. As you can imagine, it affected my main actor, Valerrij Fedorenko, an opera singer from Chechnya, very strongly. When he wades into the fountain and you see the faces of children in the water, it came from that."

Keleman's antennae are more than usually attuned to the political currents of Eastern Europe: his father is German-Russian, his mother Hungarian, and he spent much of his childhood in Budapest. "Growing up in Berlin, too, while the wall was still there, instilled a sense of unease in me," he says. His pitched battles with the school authorities from the age of 10 also fixed a rebellious streak to his nature and a hatred of patriarchal institutions (tellingly, his father abandoned his family when Keleman was four).

It seems he's no stranger to fights over edits. When defying his tutors at film school over the editing of his graduation film, they brought in Werner Herzog to tame him; unfortunately, Herzog backed Keleman against his teachers. Plus ca change. Keleman, so mild-mannered to meet, surely far too haunted and introspective to be a threat to anyone, is fierce and resolute in the defence of his vision. It's rather refreshing. He really is prepared to starve for his art, as he did with Frost. And fight for it.

Will the wrangle over Frost ever be resolved? The world deserves to see this extraordinary film. Nursing the heavy-hearted air of a war poet waiting for a war, Fred Keleman is a man to watch, a Dante for the millennium whose visions of hell on earth have a gravid and spectral authority few can match.

`Fate' opens tomorrow at the Lux Cinema, London

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all