Obituary: Robert Kramer

IN THE American cinema of the 1960s, there were two directors named Kramer. On my right, Stanley Kramer, still alive at the age of 86; on my left, Robert Kramer, who has just died in Paris at the age of 60.

What they had in common, that surname apart, was a belief in cinema as an agency of political activism. Stanley, a leftist softie of the old school, went the mainstream route. Though his films addressed such polemical themes as racism (The Defiant Ones, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), the threat of nuclear extinction (On the Beach) and the Holocaust (Judgment at Nuremberg), they were made in complete accordance with the industrialo- corporate norms then in practice in Hollywood: basically, big budgets, big stars and big premieres.

Robert Kramer, by contrast, was a confirmed marginalist. Indeed, his earliest and most overtly political works (The Edge, Ice, Milestones) were not merely marginal but way, way out on the margin of the margin. Filmed on minuscule budgets, cast with non-professional performers, systematically denied access to the commercial circuits, they were screened only by festivals and college film clubs.

In the polarisation of these two mutually incompatible film-making modes, this "Kramer vs Kramer" antithesis, neither director has emerged victorious. Stanley's films, esteemed in their day, have retrospectively been dismissed as crude, turgid and simplistic; while, with the ebbing of the passions once aroused by their subject-matter (the Vietnam War in particular), Robert's have been all but forgotten. The fact, too, that the latter elected to exile himself from the United States at an especially lively and turbulent period of its contemporary history further contributed to the decline of his reputation.

Born in New York in 1939, Robert Kramer became one of the pillars of the 1960s anti-war movement and his first, often privately financed films, those on which his fame continues to be based, belonged, in their aesthetic style as much as in the conditions of their fabrication, to the so-called "underground" movement.

Shot without official harassment, they nevertheless contrived to appear as objects of bureaucratic suspicion, as though they had been smuggled out of some beleaguered totalitarian state. For many potentially sympathetic spectators, however, they also foundered on an oddly puritanical variant of the imitative fallacy, whereby any tedious incident, for the characters, was made no less so for the audience; political debates were served up raw, without much evidence of editorial mediation; and nocturnal scenes (of which there were many) were rendered practically invisible by underexposed 16mm stock.

The Edge (1968) took as its subject an assassination attempt on the American president in reparation for the slaughter in Vietnam, while Ice (1969) dealt with urban guerrilla insurrection in an imagined period of war between the United States and Mexico (a war that could be interpreted either as a paranoid foretaste of the future course of American imperial expansion or else as a metaphorical allusion to Vietnam itself). And, at 195 minutes, Milestones (1976, co-directed with John Douglas) was a mammoth orgy of lugubrious self-questioning in which random groups of Americans of mostly Wasp origin meet to discuss their lives, projects, ambitions and achievements in the light of their experience of the previous decade. It was dedicated to Ho Chi Minh and "the heroic Vietnamese people".

Kramer settled in France - where his admirers far outnumbered those in his native land - in the 1980s. There he made a ragbag of films as little seen as his American work had been, if now for the melancholy reason that his never very substantial public was starting seriously to shrink. Among the successes were his documentaries, most notably Notre Nazi (1983), a haunting reverie on the insidious tenacity of Hitlerian ideology in post-war Germany, and Route One USA (1989), a curious road movie which followed the trajectory of one American emigre as he rediscovered his homeland from the Canadian border to the Florida Keys. Among the failures were his ventures into pure fiction, most (or, rather, least) notably Diesel (1985), a disastrously misjudged misfire of a thriller.

If he is to be remembered at all, though, it will be for his American films. Not just noir, they are what might be described as pitch noir, all the more so as, eschewing the neo-expressionist stylistics of conventional thrillers, they risk striking the unwary spectator as straightforward, documentary recordings of a world that is objectively noir. But if they share with nightmares the quality of eerie, preternatural vividness, it tends to be rather difficult, as also with nightmares, to recall them in detail when they are all over.

Robert Kramer, film director: born New York 14 June 1939; died Rouen, France 10 November 1999.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

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.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn