For Klaus Lemke, the beginning of the end of German cinema was the day Alexander Kluge won a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival for “Farewell From Yesterday”. That was in 1966, twelve years after the German football miracle in Bern, which symbolically also marked the start of the economic miracle. For Lemke, on the other hand, the “Oberhausener” Kluge, who in 1962 with like-minded people proclaimed the New German Film, was something like the gravedigger of German film – he never tired of emphasizing that in the almost sixty years that followed.
Kluge and the film industry also sensed a post-war miracle after the Venice success and tactically cleverly secured “state dough” in order to be “promoted to death” in the long run: out “from the lowlands of service”, ennobled to “film art”, like Lemke like to put it smugly. He was never at a loss for pithy words.
An alternative German film history begins in 1964 in the Schwabinger Kiezkino Türkendolch, where the then 24-year-old Lemke – who had broken off his philosophy studies, among others with Martin Heidegger (which is probably also part of the self-mythification) – together with other “Munich natives” such as Rudolf Thome, Werner Enke and May Spils ran his own film socialization: French Nouvelle Vague, American classics and German trash films. True to the motto of the operator Fritz Falter, that if you really love film art, you have to have a heart for sex, crime and entertainment. That also became Lemke’s credo. At night they staggered out of the dark cinema into the night and roamed through the pubs on Leopoldstrasse until the early morning.
It’s hard to believe that this Klaus Lemke will no longer annoy his fellow human beings with his strong opinions and enchant them with his idiosyncratic, hip-shot films. Born on October 13, 1940 in Landsberg/Warthe, the “König von Schwabing” died unexpectedly at the age of 81 after a short illness. He had shot until the end. Just last week, his most recent film “Champagne for the Eyes – Poison for the Rest”, a love letter to Munich in the 1970s, celebrated its premiere at the Munich Film Festival. After that it went very quickly. But Lemke would not accept excuses when it came to his beloved cinema, and certainly not his own health. Now, in his signature Nick Knatterton flat cap, wiry and energetic, he won’t be standing around in underground garages giving an interview to anyone who asks his opinion.
But if anyone in German film could afford to make jokes, it was Klaus Lemke, who left behind a unique work – because he never allowed himself to be co-opted. For this he lived until old age in his Schwabing attic room: it was a small sacrifice. He was never after big money, for Lemke the cinema did not mean fame, but truthfulness.
He found his stories on the screen and in the street. His 1967 debut 48 Hours of Acapulco was inspired by American genre films, but in Hollywood the lead role would probably have been played by Robert Mitchum. He discovered the stars of his best-known film, the neighborhood comedy “Rocker” from 1972, on the Reeperbahn: the biker gang Bloody Devils around their legendary leader Gerd Kruskopf and the 15-year-old street urchin Hans-Jürgen Modschiedler. The cult film with its scene color still has a large following, and not only in Hamburg. Sentences like “Get straight” entered the vocabulary of the 1970s.
Munich and Hamburg were Lemke’s adventure playgrounds. At the end of the 1960s, he also met the young Iris Berben, who was intoxicated by LSD, here – and hired her right away for his SDS film “Brandstifter”, inspired by a short interlude with Andreas Baader in a shared student flat. Baader, who liked to stylize himself as a screen star, never cast Lemke (“that’s why he became a terrorist”), instead he discovered Rolf Zacher, Wolfgang Fierek, Cleo Kretschmer and Thomas Kretschmann for German films. The old catchphrase “Baby, I’ll make you a star”, Klaus Lemke actually meant it seriously.
At the transition from the seventies to the eighties, he and Kretschmer were the German comedy dream couple par excellence, with “Amore” and “Arabic Nights”. Not bad for an “ugly bird” who says he only got into filmmaking to pick up girls. As far as role models are concerned, Lemke was a macho. He often described the cinema as a “classic sport for young people”. Another Lemke bon mot, which also characterized his films, was: “In life, only one thing really counts: that you get punched in the face.” But underneath his gruff shell was an empathetic core. Lemke just didn’t feel like bullshit, he wanted real people in front of the camera, not self-promotion.
And at work he could be infinitely generous, which is also why his actors were so willingly taken in by the charismatic joker. In “Champagne for the Eyes – Poison for the Rest” he says of his longtime partner Cleo Kretschmer: “Just listening to Cleo made me a better director.”
One of the secret triumphs that Klaus Lemke will no longer take away from him is that none of his films ever screened at the Berlinale – although he tried long enough. His ongoing feud with festival director Dieter Kosslick is legendary and culminated in a bare butt on the edge of the red carpet in 2012. The establishment simply couldn’t domesticate Klaus Lemke, and German film will forever thank him for it.