Film poet reflects on signals of the unfree

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The movie world is roughly divided between (a) storytellers who want to make a fortune and (b) documentarists who want to make a living. But attention must also be paid to a group that dwells apart from the commercial track: the film poets, concerned less with diverting or instructing us than with exploring the motion-picture image for its own sake. Such a one is Ernie Gehr, whose works have a rigor and purity that are exceptional even by the standard of serious ``experimental'' cinema.

Gehr's latest work, ``Signal -- Germany on the Air,'' is a remarkable attempt to capture on film some of the subtlest yet most unnerving currents of contemporary Western culture. Most of it was shot about three years ago in West Berlin, where he spent several months on a fellowship, and more footage was added after a follow-up visit earlier this year. It will have its premi`ere showing tomorrow night at the Millennium Film Work Shop in New York, on a bill with ``Mirage,'' a brief but stimulating a bstract study.

``Signal -- Germany on the Air'' consists of carefully composed cityscapes, photographed with a camera that rarely moves. The sound track is a compendium of street noises, excerpts from German radio shows, and other ``found'' material.

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At first the shots appear to be arranged at random. But patterns and configurations soon make themselves felt, both in the things we see and in Gehr's ordering of them on screen. The camera stays at a distance from its subjects, filming structures and people from a detached and clinical perspective, quietly seeking out significant details. What recur again and again in these seemingly casual views are ``signals'' of social and cultural control -- obvious ones like traffic signs, insidious ones like adve rtising images, and overtly sinister ones like a billboard proclaiming the ``historical site'' of a Gestapo torture chamber.

As the film proceeds and its design becomes more apparent, even commonplace urban objects come to be seen as reflections of a manipulative mentality not limited to any one nation. Impediments, barriers, and behavior-shapers of all kinds spring up in the expressive space between Gehr's discreet camera and the streets, buildings, vehicles, and passersby that anchor his shots. The impact becomes stronger still when he moves to objects that carry symbolic weight from the city's Nazi past, such as railroad t racks and freight cars. Things that seem innocent in themselves become laden with meaning under Gehr's unblinking gaze, which unites past and present into a seamless metaphorical web drawn from the most homely and unprepossessing visual materials.

Gehr tells me that the title, ``Signal -- Germany on the Air,'' comes from a couple of sources. Signal was the name of a German magazine (rather like Life in the United States) published under the Third Reich, and ``Germany on the Air'' alludes to the film's radio-generated sound track while suggesting a newsreel quality (``News on the March!'') that suits the documentary-like surface of the movie.

It's a dense work, enriching its deceptively ordinary images (a Gehr specialty) with complex picture-sound relationships and infrequent visual pirouettes -- a color shift, a camera movement -- that call attention to still more layers of meaning embedded within. When a rainstorm breaks out near the end, it seems to indicate a climax to both the bleakness and the cleansing honesty of Gehr's uncompromising vision. But the end of the film is ambiguous, suggesting a lack of final conclusions regarding the so cial issues he has raised. ``Signal -- Germany on the Air'' challenges the viewer philosophically as well as cinematically. It marks another firm step in Gehr's evolution as an archaeologist of the human spirit.

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