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Herbert Achternbusch is dead: The true ghost

Maverick and universal artist: On the death of Herbert Achternbusch.

Anyone who wanted to be sure of Herbert Achternbusch’s mockery only had to give him an award. The filmmaker, poet and painter’s response to the Petrarch Prize donated by Hubert Burda is well known: he burned it. But even in Bielefeld one is still not on good terms with him. At the suggestion of the critic Frieda Grafe, who knew him well, he was awarded the renowned Murnau Prize in 1996. On the agreed day of the award ceremony, of course, instead of the honoree, only an article by him appeared in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” – with little praise for the city in Westphalia. The wording of the reply postcard should have made you suspicious: “… I never wanted to come to Bielefeld – now it seems to be inevitable.”

By then, however, Achternbusch had already had relevant experience with the evaluation bodies of the German cultural sector. In 1983, the then Federal Minister of the Interior, Friedrich Zimmermann, refused to pay out the last installment for the scandalized film “The Ghost” – a decision that was finally overturned in 1992. In the meantime, however, the minister’s anger at the artist’s personally embodied Jesus, who descends from the cross to run a pub with the superior of a monastery as waiter, has borne fruit. Achternbusch was denied film funding, television stations banned or cut his films.

At the beginning of the week, Herbert Achternbusch died at the age of 83 in Munich, as the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” reported on Thursday, citing friends. But it will probably be some time before his rich and complex work finally emerges from the shadow of these scandals. In the USA, this type of artist, who doesn’t fit into any category, is called “maverick”. In our language area, people tend to use the popular term of the loner.

Anyone who only knows the black-and-white “ghost” and his raw, unpolished pictures will be amazed at the painter Achternbusch: in the art genre that he studied at the Nuremberg Academy, he could not deny his virtuosity, even if he had wanted to . He was a brilliant colourist and had an incorruptible sense of composition. His drawings were sometimes reminiscent of ancient Indian miniatures. When Hatje-Verlag published its sumptuously illustrated children’s book “Das BuchArshi”, the banderole wrote: “The little prince of the nineties?” As if Herbert Achternbusch had ever wanted to create something timeless and consensual.

As a universal talent, he ranks with Jean Cocteau, who may have been a better director, but Achternbusch was the better painter. But even without the incorruptible individualism of his films, the New German Film would have looked significantly worse. And considerably more after television. The crude play and the anti-naturalistic style of speech in his quirky comedies combined into a kind of modern Bavarian peasant theater with the means of the art cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet. Even if Achternbusch himself might have been thinking more of John Ford.

He would have loathed such comparisons anyway, even if he didn’t mince his words in his own film articles. One falls to me as I open “Das BuchArshi”. He begins with sentences that he might have chosen for his own obituary: “To say the worst: Stanley Kubrick is dead, one movie idiot less. At some point I stopped looking at and admiring his nonsense. The same thing happened to me with Volker Schlöndorff … .”

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