Prolific, eclectic, and wholly disinterested in highbrow pretentions, Dominik Graf never sought the distinction of auteur for himself—he prefers ‘craftsman’—but others bestowed it upon him regardless, as with sundry other genre mavericks across film history, from Jacques Tourneur to Paul W.S. Anderson. This anointment has for the most part occurred in his home country of Germany and neighboring Austria, given that the bulk of Graf’s oeuvre, some 70 films shot over four decades, was produced for television and is all but unavailable in a language other than German. (So far, from his mammoth TV catalog, only The Wire-like miniseries In the Face of Crime  has been distributed with English subtitles.) A warmly received retrospective at the 2013 International Film Festival Rotterdam, co-curated by the critic/programmer Olaf Möller, helped spark wider interest in the director’s work. Möller is now bringing eight of the titles he presented in Rotterdam, as well as four new releases, to Anthology Film Archives for Graf’s first American retrospective, running May 24 to June 2.
The earliest film in the program, The Cat (1988), is a breathless, hugely enjoyable heist movie that harkens back, visually and tonally, to 1970s macho flicks à la Sam Peckinpah. Graf’s only big-screen hit to date, it’s one of his most compact and polished works, though not necessarily one of the more representative, precisely because of these qualities. The action takes place over a single day and is almost fully contained within one location, a bank and an adjoining high-rise hotel, from one of whose top floors the film’s villain orchestrates a robbery-cum-hostage situation inside the bank, executed by two accomplices. Flitting through the many characters and available vantage points, Graf amasses a staggering multitude of perspectives without sacrificing coherence, gradually revealing the robbers’ improbably intricate plan while also charting the countermeasures of the police. Within this complex construction unspools a sordid narrative—the robbers betray one another, the bank manager’s wife is in cahoots with the villain, the police screw over the hostages—that doubles as a reflection on the West German collective psyche of the late 1980s.
Although The Cat was released a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the deliciously cynical ending, with the bank manager and his wife agreeing to get back together solely because it’s in each of their best interests, now reads as a prescient comment on German reunification—one entirely in line with the withering critique expressed in many of Graf’s subsequent works, particularly The Invincibles (1994) and City for Ransom (2006). The former’s original title, Die Sieger, translates to “The Winners” and is meant to be taken about as literally as the repeated use of Eric Burdon & The Animals’ “Good Times” in The Cat. There is again nary a virtuous character in this convoluted plot involving a police special forces team that gets embroiled in a political conspiracy. What’s going on might not always be easy to follow, but the message expressed loud and clear is that fascism is very much alive in the newly reformed Federal Republic, the elite are hypocritical, short-sighted and self-serving, and the bourgeois family is an institution rotten to its core.
The Invincibles is Graf’s masterpiece manqué, and after it bombed at the box office he didn’t make another cinema film for 18 years. This commercial failure isn’t difficult to make sense of. For one, it’s an exceptionally dark film—it opens with a man murdering his newborn and doesn’t lighten up much thereafter—that clashed with the optimistic, self-congratulatory zeitgeist which formed its historical context. That this was intentional did not help its prospects, though the resulting rejection did arguably prove its point. Moreover, it’s an immensely ambitious yet bloated paranoia thriller in the vein of Alan J. Pakula, marked by wild tonal shifts as it incorporates elements from another half-dozen genres: one minute there’s a violent shootout, the next a melodramatic love affair, and the next the protagonist is attending his son’s kindergarten play. Such freewheeling pastiche would become a trademark of Graf’s TV work, but it was too risky for a big-budget cinema production, and the film was mutilated across a long and contentious struggle with the producers which Graf to this day describes in traumatic terms.
Graf has said in interviews that he owns a three-hour cut of The Invincibles on VHS that he would re-watch every few years, trying to see if the film could be salvaged. He eventually had the chance to try: a new, longer cut was produced under his supervision and unveiled at this year’s Berlinale (both versions are included in the Anthology retrospective). As the original negatives had been destroyed, the missing scenes had to be sourced from Graf’s private tape and their image quality stands out from the rest, making the redux version a unique document of a resuscitated film. Although a belated gratification, as Graf tells it, the real damage was done to the script during pre-production, meaning that his original vision will never be realized.
With its lower production values but greater creative leeway, television proved a better fit for Graf’s sensibilities, and the excellent City for Ransom helps one imagine how The Invincibles might have turned out with less interference from above. In an opening likely inspired by Die Hard with a Vengeance, in which criminals threaten to blow up bombs all over Leipzig unless a ransom of diamonds is paid, Graf shows off his talent for breakneck composite set pieces as several police teams execute a coordinated operation across the city and a nearby forest, attempting to track down the criminals while following their increasingly fanciful demands, which include handing the diamonds over to a trained dog. (Graf upped his own ante with an even more elaborately staged chase in 2016’s fun but overall lesser Manhunt: Escape to the Carpathians.) The typically dense and conspiratorial plot that follows brings the police to a nearby town engaged in a struggle against an expanding strip mine. The town used to be part of the GDR and the prospect of it being swallowed up by the mine, whose imminence Graf visualizes with a racing helicopter shot, is just one of many elements in the film that symbolize the socioeconomic subjugation suffered by the former East since reunification. The explosive finale—one of the bleakest in a filmography replete with unhappy endings—leaves no doubt about where Graf’s sympathies lie.
Graf fully indulges his melodramatic tendencies in Bitter Innocence (1999) and Cold Spring (2004), bookends to a trilogy (with Your Best Years , which is not included in the retrospective) that savages the image of the upstanding German family with a causticity worthy of Fassbinder. In Bitter Innocence, a man blithely takes advantage of a rape-in-progress to steal some documents he can use to get ahead at work, thus initiating the downfall of his picture-perfect family. Graf deploys cheesy music cues, overemphatic zooms and a plethora of other soap opera devices, taking dross and turning it into gold. Cold Spring implements a much more restrained, even classy, aesthetic in the service of an all the more outrageous script. Here the only daughter in an upper bourgeois family loses her stake in her father’s business after she contracts syphilis (and for some reason tells her parents) and flunks law school. Her odyssey to regain what she believes is her due will see her run away from home, shack up with a crack addict and then become, in effortless succession, homeless, a prostitute, a lawyer’s assistant and a corporate shark. Oh, and along the way she hires the man who gave her syphilis to sleep with her mother, while in a throwaway scene with no apparent narrative function the father is shown having an affair with his niece.
It’ll be interesting to see how an American audience receives Smoke on the Water (2014) and The Red Shadow (2017), episodes of the hugely popular series Polizeiruf 110 and Tatort, respectively. Tatort started in 1970 and is the longest-running series in Germany, while Polizeiruf 110 is a year younger and was born as the GDR’s equivalent, though it continued after 1989. Most Germans grew up watching these feature-length telefilms and they’re such mainstays of popular culture, especially Tatort, that people will get together to watch the new one every Sunday, with dedicated reviews and discussions then appearing in all main newspapers. Foreigners lacking the requisite nostalgia are for the most part baffled by this phenomenon, given that these are largely conventional (and sometimes downright schlocky) police procedurals of the type that airs anywhere in the world without fanfare. Graf’s contributions might be vastly superior to the average, but they too feel hamstrung by having to adhere to a template, however loose, with recurring locations and detectives, each with their idiosyncrasies, backstories and trademark investigative methods. (When Samuel Fuller was invited to direct an installment of Tatort in 1974, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street—which Graf reveres—he blew off the template, sidelining the regular protagonist by having him shot right away, and the reception was overwhelmingly negative.)
Smoke on the Water follows a detective (vaguely recalling an aristocratic Columbo) on a streamlined investigation into a vague arms trade conspiracy. The main appeal is the ridicule heaped upon a character transparently modeled after the odious, uber-aristocratic former Minister of Defence, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, but all in all it’s the most impersonal film in the retrospective. The Red Shadow is significantly better, with a murder case sending two detectives on the traces of surviving Red Army Faction members and, once again, uncovering a conspiracy, though this time one that is pleasurably pulpy and overwrought. And incendiary: the episode aired on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the RAF leaders’ supposed suicides in Stammheim prison, and Graf uses the fictitious narrative, supplemented with fake archive footage convincingly shot on 8mm, to revive the theory that the government had a hand in their deaths. The episode provoked widespread outrage, with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German President, publicly berating the show for upholding the terrorists’ “martyr legend.” Considering that 9.3 million viewers tuned in for The Red Shadow —compared to the 1.3 million tickets sold for The Cat—Graf clearly found the right medium to have his voice heard.