Obituary: Robert Kramer

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The Independent Culture
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.