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August Sander: People of the 20th Century

by Reiner Holzemer, Director
First Run / Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2002
VHS/DVD, 44 mins., col.
Sales Video/DVD: $379.00; rental Video: $75.00
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls Iowa 50614-0362 USA


This excellent film is the first documentary about German photographer, August Sander (1876-1964), whose best work was created in the 1920s during the Weimar Republic, in advance of the rise of the Nazis. A portrait photographer who posed his subjects in their typical home and work environments, instead of in artificial studio settings, he is surely one of the most interesting photographers of the Modern era. His intention, as he once explained, was to make "a picture of our times absolutely true to nature," but he did not hesitate to stage the way in which his subjects stood. For example, in "Young Farmers" (1913), three dapper German farmers, dressed in suits and sporting canes, pause as they walk side-by-side on a path in the position that Sander arranged them. Two on the right stand together in almost identical postures, while a third on the left stands apart, in contrast to the pattern made by the other two (he also smokes a cigarette, and his hair is out of place). This is not unlike a three-phase joke, when an expectation is set up by the first two examples, then delightfully felled by the punch line. Looking more closely, it is apparent that the hats and canes of the two figures on the right are perpendicular, in contrast to those of the third man, which rhyme but are set at an angle. Typical of Sander’s work is his skillfulness at implanting clever, quiet rhymes, while also recording what Henri Cartier-Bresson would call a "decisive moment," albeit a moment that Sander designed. Using his own unforgettable photographs, this film adroitly walks us through the long and often tortured times of Sander, a brilliant observer of human behavior, who created evocative images of citizens of all classes, ages, and occupations (a cross-section of Weimar-era society), in a documentary series he called People of the 20th Century.

(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review, Volume 21 Number 1, Autumn 2005.)



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