The bad dream machine

Dan Edwards

Thomas Tielsch, Edifice - VW in Dresden, 2003

Thomas Tielsch, Edifice – VW in Dresden, 2003

Although the Festival of German Cinema this year offered, for the most part, formally conservative, if entertaining, mainstream cinema, there was one remarkable film which offered insight into developments in international documentary production that are perhaps passing Australia by, due to our resolute focus on the small screen. Edifice—VW in Dresden (director Thomas Tielsch) looks at the building of a Volkswagen assembly plant. On the surface this is not the most scintillating topic for a documentary, and it’s hard to imagine the idea even being mooted in an Australian context. What is unusual about the factory is that its walls are made entirely of glass, rendering the assembly process visible to outside observers. The edifice is constructed over the course of the film in the middle of working class Dresden, a poor city formerly of the Communist German Democratic Republic, where unemployment has been high since reunification.

Apart from its subject matter, what is immediately apparent about Edifice is its cinematic form. Shot on film and feature length, it unfolds at a uniform pace that is driven by analysis rather than by plot. The film’s dynamic evolves from 3 competing commentaries on what the factory represents and the role it will play in ‘revitalising’ Dresden. Firstly there is the factory’s architect, Gunter Henn, and the company executives, who articulate the factory’s innovative nature in explicitly philosophical terms. Their smooth rhetoric is balanced by commentary from German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. Lastly, there are the voices of the working-class residents of the neighbourhood around the factory, who watch its construction with a mixture of anxiety, envy and resentment. These 3 perspectives are gradually layered as the film progresses, illuminating the way class and philosophical outlook crucially inform the way we read the spaces around us.

Henn, for example, regards his architectural vision as entirely compatible with a world in which large corporations are increasingly responsible for the shape of society. Anyone with even a cursory understanding of the workings of modern free market economies would accept the claim that corporations are exerting a growing influence; what was striking was hearing this state of affairs so uncritically heralded as a progressive step by the Volkswagen representatives. As Henn explains, Volkswagen rejected the local government’s preferred site away from the city centre and took a site in central Dresden near the Zwinger Palace and Catholic Cathedral so that the factory could draw on their ‘energy’: “If the automobile is supposed to be emotionally charged then it has to be close to the valuable things that make up Dresden.” Physically, as well as symbolically, Volkswagen is seeking to occupy the site once held by the state, church and civil society.

The factory itself is more akin to a modern shopping centre: a transparent monument to consumerism which features a bar, bistro, restaurant and a museum displaying pristine products of the Volkswagen corporation. In one of the film’s most darkly funny moments, Henn reveals with straight-faced earnestness the inclusion of a special room at the end of the assembly line in which car buyers have their new vehicle revealed to them from behind a curtain of light. They are then left alone to bond before owner and car leave for their new life together.

The philosophical critique of the company’s position comes from Professor Sloterdijk who subtly illuminates the disturbing nature Volkswagen’s erudite-sounding rhetoric. The factory, he argues, is merely an extension of the design of modern cars, providing a sealed environment in which one can be in the world without ever being of the world: “[Modern] cars are dream machines. They help us hallucinate.” The implication being that a dream state is now something we buy and are permanently kept in by the cushion of consumer goods that surround us.

Sloterdijk goes on to claim that; “Nothing is more secretive than transparency, and when everything is transparent you don’t understand anything.” The key parts of the car production process—the extraction of natural resources, the actual manufacture of the parts, the operations of global capital that make industrial production possible—all take place elsewhere. What consumers see behind the glass walls in Dresden is simply an aestheticised space where sanitised “pantomimes of work are exhibited” for middle and upper class consumers kept utterly insulated from the harsh realities of modern globalised laissez-faire capitalism, allowing them to indulge without reflection in commodity fetishism gone mad.

The third element in the portrait presented by Edifice is of a more earthy nature. The factory is surrounded by working class residents whose applications to work in the factory are mostly rejected in favour of lowly-paid immigrant workers, a fact of the modern economy that helps turn resentment into racism. They watch the structure being erected with growing anger as it blocks the views from their Communist-era apartment blocks and the local, cheap trailer-based bar and eatery is carted away to make way for the factory’s expensive bistro. Volkswagen’s edifice is a symbol of everything they don’t have: money, a job and access to consumer goods. The supreme irony is that the plant is to build Volkswagen’s new luxury line, an attempt by the makers of the ‘people’s car’ to stake out ground in the higher end of the market. As one unemployed local observes of the factory’s products, “We press our noses against the glass and can’t even afford the tyres.”

Edifice provides a striking example of what is possible in the documentary form when filmmakers are afforded the resources to tackle unusual subject matter and the freedom to move beyond a classical narrative form driven by emotional conflict and resolution. It is precisely this kind of thought-provoking, open, analytical cinema that is markedly absent from the Australian screen cultural landscape. It is to be hoped that the Goethe Institut continues to program such challenging cinema alongside mainstream movies at next year’s Festival of German Cinema.

Edifice—VW in Dresden, director Thomas Tielsch; Goethe Institut, Festival of German Cinema 2004, various venues, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, April 15-25

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 17

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2004
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