Two men at work. Blocks of expanded polystyrene being assembled. No sooner are they stacked one on the other than the pair begin to scratch and scrape the material away. Polystyrene snow gently falls upon the camera. Shapes emerge--hooves, horse-legs, two huge testicles. The sound of scraping has hardly ebbed when the shapes are covered with wet cloth. Plaster is applied. A woman's voice is heard, singing a Schubert lied. An enormous female figure, wrapped in scaffolding, her head enshrouded. The black and white picture slowly takes on color. Red, white and blue. The Tricolor scheme is underscored by a woman's voice singing a communard song. The sculpture is taken apart, the head glides down, suspended from a crane. The sculpture is put together again, the upper part of the body is heaved onto another fragment. The sculpture is sawn into pieces, dissected...
A principle, a recurrent theme of this film becomes explicit during the opening sequences: montage and demontage. Again and again the film shows us something being produced, taken apart, put together, destroyed. It is appropriate: the history of the monument at the center of the action is a checkered one. The equestrian statue of Kaiser William I was also known as 'the Guard at the Rhine,' standing at the Deutsches Eck, or German Corner at Koblenz, where the Mosel/Moselle flows into the Rhine. The film is about the construction of the monument and its destruction near the end of World War II in which only the head survived the American soldiers' cannon blast; and it is about the monument's reconstruction. And, of course, the topic begs the film treatment: to cut something up and put it together again is what is done in montage (and demontage!). Stephan Sachs plays with construction and deconstruction at almost every register. He boldly mixes time periods, styles, form, and content. He scatters confusion adeptly in what began as a chronological course of events, deliberately defying the observer's compulsive search for orientation. In this inconsistent stream the spectators are forced to create their own productive associations, a strategy recalling Surrealist film technique. The would-be continuity captions with their pretense of providing chronological orientation recall Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou: 'April 1991'; 'a few months earlier'; 'a few months later'; 'July 1991'; 'German Unity Day.'
The colors of the French flag are brought into play at frequent intervals, becoming a leitmotif and highlighting French aspects in this history. After all, the Kaiser's monument was, and so remains, a monument to the 'victors' over the French nation in 1871. We are also reminded that William I, as the Crown Prince, was a notorious enemy of the revolutionaries of 1848. The red-white-and-blue reappears when a fragment of the Kaiser, with his great clenched fist, is carried away to the sound of a Russian revolutionary song. In a different sequence, we learn that our Eastern neighbors currently supply bronze for casting monumental sculptures at very reasonable rates.
Sound recordings from a film made in Nazi Germany 'celebrate' the victors of 1871, and its architect, Bismarck, the founder of German unity. Then, in 1953, Theodor Heuss, the post-war Republic's first President, dedicates the rump of the now Kaiser-less Deutsches Eck as a 'monument to German unity.'
And saw what should be done is a masterpiece of ironical refraction which constantly challenges the truth of the images shown. The filmmaker's investigatory tools include quotations from his own work: watching the craftsmen climbing the scaffolded monument, one might easily be watching the ascent of some 'Holy Mount' out of an Arnold Fanck film. It is accompanied by the hero-making incidental sounds of wind from Paramount, another film by Sachs. Lines, numbers, and letter marks identifying different sections of the sculpture are combined with a voice-over about the correlation of war and cinema, and so become sketches for strategic operational plans and fronts.
All this bustle of construction and dismantling is dotted with moments of satire. During short breaks, the otherwise ever-busy craftsmen suddenly stand around as if helpless. Just what are we doing here? Then, there is the generous donor of the restored monument, shown alongside the reconstructed Kaiser--the generous benefactor who did not, in fact, live to see his triumph in place. Or the art-collecting, museum-endowing chocolate factory owner, explicitly avowing his support for this feat of German cultural initiative and so exposing himself publicly of his own free will. The location transforms tourists into chauvinists, carnival parades become ridiculous and, at once, menacing military marches, while pictures of the monument's inauguration by William II in 1897 resemble a nationalistic carnival.
It takes only a short montage to open gaping political abysses. We are made aware that the reconstructed Kaiser is to be restored to his pedestal on September 2, 1993, 123 years to the day since the French humiliation at Sedan on Sept. 2 1870. What a jolly slap in the face for our European partner to the West!
And saw what should be done is no 'documentary' in the standard sense. Plainly it is no 'feature' either, but neither is it an 'experimental film'. It defies the received genre categories (which have outlived their usefulness in any case). Through its very own cinematic means and saw is a poetic contemplation on our confused idea of history, on a new German nationalism following the opening up of the East, on restoration and reconstruction. It is also about much more. Last, but not least, it is certainly not only a 'film about...' but above all an excellent enjoyment.
Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews