“Die Gregors” Charms But Lacks Formal Risks The Film’s Subjects Championed
Cinephiles will walk away from Komm mit mir in das Cinema – Die Gregors (Come With Me to the Cinema – The Gregors) with nostalgia-filled hearts, a yearning for the midnight movie, and a deep appreciation for the labor of Erika and Ulrich Gregor, the innovative German exhibitors, critics, and advocates for global cinema. Yet despite its depiction of two individuals who championed so-called “expanded cinema,” the film takes few formal risks, opting instead for the talking-head-style documentary, the new normal for such moving image profiles.
The film tells the life stories of Erika (b. 1935) and Ulrich (b. 1932), who met at university, married, and went on to help shape film culture in post-World War II Germany. Their numerous achievements include founding the Arsenal, a Berlin cinema where they prioritized the discussion of film. Such exchanges, the Gregors say, are as important as the artwork itself.
At their cinema, they programmed a range of underseen, underappreciated, and sometimes forbidden films. They brought to Germany works like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), the early films of Jim Jarmusch (interviewed in the film), and the country’s first screening of Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985). In 1971, they co-founded the (then) independent section Forum, now a sort of festival-within-a-festival at the Berlinale, much like the Quinzaine at Cannes. Forum showcases innovative and avant-garde films that expand our understanding of cinema, its relationship to the world, and often reflect on the medium itself.
International audiences may learn about the Gregors for the first time through the film. Director Alice Agneskirchner neatly weaves together their story with the history of the New German Cinema. The film features interviews with a number of notable filmmakers and Arsenal patrons, including Edgar Reitz, Helke Sander, Jutta Brückner, Wim Wenders, and Alexander Kluge.
Such interviews have become a fixture in contemporary moving image profiles, often used as a crutch to keep things moving and generate buzz. There are times when the film attempts a more poetic approach. For example, a pair of actors play younger versions of the Gregors. The performers reenact the couple’s journeys around Berlin on a moped, where their escapades included knocking on the door of the Soviet embassy in pursuit of films. These moments, sprinkled throughout the beginning and then quickly abandoned, add little to the film. Instead, they only serve to highlight the more derivative documentary methods: numerous interviews, narrated childhood memories accompanied by photographs, visits to places from the Gregors’ past, and a mix of historical and news footage that often over-contextualizes.
The fascinating lives of the Gregors and their influence on global film culture are interesting enough without all the extra stuff. For example, the film features a few engaging scenes where the Gregors go through their personal archive: photographs, film posters, showtime calendars, program notes, etc. One sees before them the material history of cinephilia, all too often left in folders and drawers, unseen. In such moments, the paper trail of film history briefly resurfaces. But then the film, in its haste to move on to the next interview or clip, leaves the viewer wanting more.
At its best, Die Gregors documents two essential figures in film history. Other times, the film opts for a host of subjective interviews aimed at drawing in a popular audience. Cinephiles should seek out the film and learn about its subjects. But we must also be honest, as moviegoers at the Arsenal would be, when it comes to form and substance. Does the film evoke the cinematic spirit and discourse its subjects deserve, or is it merely another journalistic profile of two life stories worth knowing?