I owe Peter Sempel $20.
At some point in the mid-'90s, walking with N.U. Unruh of Einstürzende Neubauten to a pizza parlor on Fairfax Avenue, a man asked if I'd wanted to buy a copy of the poster for "Dandy," a 1988 film about Neubauten frontman Blixa Bargeld. I didn't have the money, but he just gave me it - a sleek 47"x 63" number that seems like it would have become unwieldy over the miles accrued by that Neubauten world tour -- and said I could pay him later, as though we were just going to see each other the next day.
Fast-forward to 2014.
That erstwhile poster salesman, Peter Sempel, is in the U.S. on a tour of Goethe-Instituts. In L.A., he'll be screening and introducing five of his films over the course of eight hours as part of Sempelfest, covering more than three decades of his chronicling the life and times of some of our most challenging musicians and artists: Nina Hagen. Motörhead's Lemmy. Bargeld. Butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno. His latest film is "Ameise der Kunst (Animals of Art)," concerning the intersection of art and film starring Bargeld, avant-filmmaker Jonas Mekas, Antony & The Johnsons, and free jazzer Peter Brötzmann.
"Personal portraits," he calls them.
He also calls himself a poet -- a calling that most filmmakers, like scientists, are loath to pursue in their eternal urge towards evolutionism. "It's very important to me. Poetry gives you the freedom to bring things together that are actually more than your feelings -- rather than knowing why, or what for, you just do it. You cannot plan these things; they have to come somehow from themselves in you." The thing about poetry is that it's not always something you can explain -- or, really, are even obligated to. "Kazuo Ohno said that the best things are those you cannot explain -- and the best things are also free."
Speaking of which: "Did I tell you how I paid Blixa for Dandy? I was planning to make a short film - five or ten minutes -- with Blixa, on 16mm. The first scenes we filmed, with him naked on the floor, I said to him, after seeing it on the screen, "These pictures are so fantastic, it would be stupid just to make it a short film." He said, "If you want to make a long film with me, you have to pay me! How much are you going to pay me?" And I said, "For a film with you? How about 10,000 marks?"
"He said, "10,000? That's too much. Give me 1000." I said, "No, that's not enough. I'll give you 9000." "2000." "8000." "3000." We were serious about this! But we wound up at 5000 marks. It was a lot of money for me -- but in the long run, I think it was the right thing to do. These things don't happen so often these days -- people interacting, and wanting less like that. They always want more, don't they?"
His relationship with Einstürzende Neubauten began with a characteristic jolt. "I saw the very first Neubauten concert in Hamburg. "What crazy people are they -- they're terrible!" I thought. But then it didn't take long and they were my best friends!" he says with a laugh. "In every film I make, I have music by Neubauten -- except in Lemmy (2002). With Lemmy, it didn't fit! But Lemmy said I did a good job with his film, so that's good enough for me." High praise from the subject of a film; he's seen throughout the film in his natural element -- onstage, at the Rainbow Room on Sunset, and, at one intensely remarkable point, singing the heavy metal classic Orgasmatron a cappella.
How did the U.S. tour and Sempelfest come to pass? "It was more a coincidence, actually -- I was invited (by the Goethe-Institut) to Los Angeles," he admits, "and I asked them, "If I'm coming to L.A., why don't we do more events at other Goethe-Instituts around the U.S.? I'm going to be in America, anyway." I'm in Chicago as part of the Chicago-Hamburg (sister city) partnership."
Which of the films at Sempelfest proved to be most difficult to make? "That's a difficult question," he chuckles. "Maybe the Nina Hagen one!" he laughs. A window into Hagen's incessantly interesting life of Indian ragas, Neue Deutsche Welle punk rock and Christ consciousness, the 1999 "psychodocumentarymusicfilm" starred everyone from Nina to Lemmy to Blixa to enigmatic L.A. billboard pinup Angelyne. "But then again, because Nina is such a special person, it's really not that easy to make a film about how she is. She's extremely plus-and-minus -- when she has a plus, she's genius." She's still a star in Germany, he explains. "She's a German institution. She says what she thinks and she does what she wants to do -- and that's very important for young people to see. She's not just becoming just one part of the big mainstream, saying "Yes yes yes!" like all others do. It's not that easy to do!"
And his next film? "I'm beginning my new film about jazz: (saxophonist and clarinetist) Peter Brötzmann. He's 73 and is one of the heroes of free jazz; I've known him since 30 years. I've kept saying I was going to do this, and now I'm making it -- it only took 20 years! The city of Hamburg gave me a grant so I could follow him around the world; the thing about that is that I get some other fantastic musicians, too. It's going to be something extremely special, I think, just hanging out in his world."
It's an opportunity that is without a doubt, much like Peter Sempel, constitutionally priceless.
April 26, Sempelfest Art+Music Marathon with filmmaker Peter Sempel in person introducing and discussing his films from 2 p.m. onwards; 1:30 doors, Goethe-Institut L.A., 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. #100, 323 525 3388, $10. Films in order: Dandy, Lemmy, Nina Hagen Punk+Glory, Kazuo Ohno: Just Visiting This Planet, Ameise der Kunst (Animals of Art).
Top Image: Still from "Dandy"
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