The Transgressive Films of Kurt Kren

An exploration of Viennese Actionism and one of cinema’s most shocking, provocative filmmakers.
By  · Published on July 30th, 2018

An exploration of Viennese Actionism and one of cinema’s most shocking, provocative filmmakers.

From the car scene in Hereditary (2018), to the eyeball slicing in Un Chien Andalou (1929), to the final murders in Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), cinema has regularly presented us with disturbing, confrontational, and shocking images since its conception. Reactions to these unnerving sequences can vary depending on the audience member: a quick wince, a look away in dismissal, a walk outside the theater, or a redirection of our gaze back to the screen out of morbid fascination — did we just saw what we thought we just saw?

In 1960s Vienna, avant-garde artists Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler produced transgressive, nauseating art of the Viennese Actionism movement. Brus, Mühl, Nitsch, and Schwarzkogler intended to shock the Austrian state out of its bourgeois, regressive postwar complacency. To achieve this, they indulged in anarchistic live happenings (“Actions”) performed for an audience or a camera. Most of these Actions take the naked human body as its canvas for deeds of defilement, sexual perversion, and gory violence via the chaotic use of paint, meat, and bodily fluids. The grotesquely harrowing Actions are meant to visually assault the spectator and, as Amos Vogel notes in the seminal “Film as a Subversive Art,” “‘stir up’ resides of the concentration-camp guard, rapist, masochistic victim, or brutal oppressor in all of us, and reintroduce us, in painfully original fashion, to the concepts of collective guilt (or catharsis?).”

Based on its transgressive aspirations and Vogel’s praise, Viennese Actionism may seem gloriously over-the-top punk, a radical counterculture deserving of more modern recognition (especially for its influence on performance art). Yes, some Actions succeed as legitimately effective subversions of mainstream aesthetics and politics. However, most of the movement’s work is unbearably revolting insofar as it strays from the moment’s actual artistic and social merit; many Actions feature animal cruelty and sacrifice, and Mühl’s work is blatantly misogynistic and self-aggrandizing. Also, Mühl, Brus, and Nitsch’s stomach-wrenching public performances led to charges of public indecency and brief imprisonment for each of the artists, not to mention moral outrage and near riots.

Much of the more evocative work of the movement survives in the short films of Kurt Kren, an avant-garde filmmaker who documented Mühl and Brus’ Actions. While his involvement with the Actionists only comprised a small part of his prolific career, Kren’s compelling and innovative Actionist films stand as avant-garde cinema touchstones in their own right.

Mühl and Brus wanted their Action films to be unmediated representations of their art with a straightforwardness akin to a documentary. (For  16/67 September 20: ‘The Eating, Drinking, Pissing, and Shitting Film,’ Brus requested Kren to capture the artist’s own titular actions with the same precision Hitchcock used when filming Cary Grant’s forehead sweat.) Kren had other plans in mind.

Through the experimental manipulation of the film medium, Kren seized Mühl and Brus’ Actions and made them his own. The use of rapid editing and montage allowed the filmmaker to divide a singular performance into ragged, fragmented infinities of brief images — the antithesis of Mühl and Brus’ styless, naive conceptions of the films. Kren’s short Actionist films, therefore, subverted the transgressive art of Viennese Actionism: by inverting Mühl and Brus’ art with a creative vision of his own, he scrutinized the ephemeral power of their Actions, transmitting their intense physicality and grotesque visuals with an unbridled, incoherent, yet gripping excess.

The first of Kren and Mühl’s three collaborations, 6/64 Mama und Papa (1964), is a typical Mühl Action, with its four minute runtime consisting of the coating of paint, eggs, leafs, powders, and liquids on staged, meticulously arranged naked models. It’s sick, slimy, vivid, gory, and gross.

Kren later insisted that he shot the silent and frenetically edited film while severely intoxicated. However, the intricacy of Mama und Papa’s montages, as well as the two month editing job, suggests that Kren did not drunkenly or haphazardly approach the Action. Rather, he sought to juxtapose Mühl’s provocative content and mis-en-scene with his own Structural formal explorations, with an intention of imbuing the Action with crescendos, motifs, and general sense of disorientation.

While unsettling, Mama una Papa ranks among Mühl and Kren’s more accessible works; it certainly doesn’t go down easy, but it is fascinating (and not as vomit-inducing as Mühl’s other films like Sodoma (1970), Psycho-motorische Geräuschaktion (1967)). Specific images of the body, in its various stages of defilement, are returned to over and over again, propelling the singular Action into a pulsating, hypnotic, and rhythmic experience. While these leitmotifs of images grant Mama un Papa some sort of structure, their presence in the film is fleeting (no image is seen for more than a second or so), and Kren’s deranged, frenzied editing altogether ensures the viewer will never fully decipher the performance unfolding in front of them.

Unsurprisingly, Mühl was startled and outraged upon viewing Mama un Papa. The film both slimmed down Mühl ’s lengthy Action into a mere number of minutes and nullified his wish for a pure, unmediated documentation. However, Kren’s fixation on aestheticism ultimately worked in Mama und Papa‘s favor: the Action’s use of gore and sexuality is still palpably repellent, but the film’s montage effectively taunts the audience. Its urgency encourages us to become hyper-aware of our relegated roles as spectators, examine the very things we find disgusting, and furthermore reflect on our acts of looking at the salacious content onscreen — how we find ourselves comforted by the film’s repetitious and familiar images and flinching at the more offensive ones (the film’s climax, featuring Mühl himself, comes to mind).

Kren’s Mama und Papa, therefore, works on numerous levels: it sustains the shock value of Mühl ’s original Action, emerges as a transgressive film in its own right, and challenges the audience’s detached yet complicit gaze. Mühl was eventually able to recognize the merit of Kren’s work, and the two went collaborated on two more films together, the lesser 9/64: O Tannenbaum (1964) and 12/66 Cosinus Alpha (1966).

Meanwhile, Kren’s Actionist films with Brus noticeably differ from his collaborations with Mühl. The Kren-Mühl films entail a garish color palette, while the Kren-Brus films are starkly filmed in black-and-white. The Kren-Mühl films offer little symbolic meaning underneath its shock value, where the strongest of Kren-Brus films actually employ abstract and conceptual themes.

The first film Kren made with Brus, 8/64: Ana (1964), is even more fast-paced and manically edited than Mama und Papa. While centering on bicycles, nude models, and splattered paint, the content of the film is less extreme, but Kren de-famalizaries these ordinary objects into some deeply settling, nightmarish, and ineffable imagery. The film is so choppily stitched together that it’s difficult to actually clearly detect any movement or activity —  or extract any real meaning — but its visceral sense of anguish is worth a watch alone. Because of its impressionistic incoherence, the focus of the Ana is unequivocally on Kren’s innovative filmmaking rather than Brus’ actual Action, which renders Kren’s aptitude for using the film medium to convey new gestures out of another person’s art all the more evident.

Brus and Kren also created 10/65 Self-Mutilation (1965), the most remarkable film Kren ever made and perhaps the greatest achievement of Viennese Actionism. In the silent Self-Mutilation, Brus plasters his own face with viscous paste, rips his skin to shreds, and becomes subjected to a mauling by household objects: scissors, razors, knives, clips. Like Ana, Self-Mutilation is a pure expression of anguish, but this sense of anguish predominantly derives from Brus’ Action and harrowing performance, as opposed to Kren’s experimentation with form.

This is not meant to criticize Kren’s direction, which works fantastically for the film. Self-Mutilation is emblematic of Kren’s sensibilities in that he deconstructs the Action’s continuity via the editing. For Brus, the Action of self-mutilation was likely a straightforward process, a slow and linear unveiling of Brus scraping off his mud-white paste of skin and brutally reconstructing a new face thereafter. Kren subverts the Action’s narrative progression; Self-Mutilation doesn’t entail a beginning, middle, or end — it’s just a horrifying standstill of pain.

Self-Mutilation feels less mechanical and infinitely more human than Ana or any other Kren-Brus or Kren-Mühl films. Instead of treating the body like a passive recipient of defilement and abuse, Kren enables us to forge a deep concern and empathy for a man undergoing self-mutilation. Through a more languid pace and longer shots, Kren emphasizes Brus’ performance as he flails, contronts, and screams. With this, Kren communicates one of the central themes of Viennese Actionism: the imprisonment of the body. The suffering man is trapped by the constraints of his own being, unable to alleviate himself from his self-imposed yet cruel, undeserved pain. He can’t communicate anything other than a primal, barbaric yelp, and Kren’s constant framing on a closeup of Brus’ face — who expresses terror with fearful eyes and a mouth open in a silent, pleading howl — articulates these agonizing limits of our bodies and emotions. Kren’s filmmaking employs a relatively straightforward style, perfectly fit for the disturbing, tense, yet simple Action.

Kren’s involvement in Viennese Actionism transcended his role as the behind-the-scenes filmmaker who willingly repelled against Actionists to pursue his own creative preoccupations. As the main disseminator of Actions, Kren endured much harassment from authorities throughout his career. He was denied service from printing laboratories: when he attempted to get Mama und Papa processed, the lab employees looked at the film’s negative and demanded Kren to leave and never come back (the lab place that eventually agreed to develop the film was known for handling pornographic films in the Vienna suburbs).

At a public 1968 Art and Revolution event, Brus, Mühl, and other artists engaged in a variety of violent, anti-bourgeois, and outrageous performances near The University of Vienna. In a lecture hall, Brus cut himself, defecated, and masturbated himself while singing Austria’s national anthem. The police blamed Kren for filming the events, even though he had little participation in the performance (Ernst Schmidt Jr. was actually the filmmaker). Relying on the mere fact that Kren was involved with the Actionist movement, they raided his apartment and confiscated his films.

Kren’s close ties with Viennese Actionism resulted in getting fired from a bank job and self-exiling from Vienna. In the 1970s and 80s, he alternated between Germany and the US, where he made presentations about his films at universities, became involved in the early 8os Houston punk rock scene, and took a job as security officer at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

Kren’s short and aberrant alliance with the Actionists led to experiences of isolation and harassment by the police, which proves the extent to which Viennese Actionism was truly despised and condemned by the public. Kren’s films repulsed both the Actionists and the people the Actionists were rebelling against (the police, politicians, mainstream society), thereby cementing him as the ultimate transgressor of the movement. His collaborations with Mühl and Brus captures the intense energy of their Actions, though he the subject matter with an artful, invasive spirit. By scrutinizing the Actions and transforming them into products of his own fascination with the film medium, Kren remains one of the most subversive voices in avant-garde cinema, and his films retain their unsettling and raw power over 40 years later.

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