Review: ‘Beauty and Decay’

Hot Docs 2019

7 mins read

Beauty and Decay
(Germany, 79 min.)
Dir. Annekatrin Hendel
Programme: Artscapes (International Premiere)

When director Annekatrin Hendel introduced Beauty and Decay at Hot Docs, she invited audiences to experience a country that hasn’t existed for 30 years. It’s an odd statement to make, since people come and people go, but geography roughly stays the same. Borders and social currents, however, are prone to change, and the sly German filmmaker was hinting at the fact that art is born out of a specific moment in a certain milieu. This sentiment is especially true of the subjects of her film Beauty and Decay, which transports audiences back to the punk photography scene of ‘80s’ East Berlin.

The doc features photographer/techno club bouncer Sven Marquardt and models/muses/collaborators Dominique Hollenstein (aka “Dome”) and Robert Paris as they revisit their work and create new art as the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall approaches. On one hand, Beauty and Decay is your typical arts exhibition documentary in that it chronicles the preparation for a big show as Marquardt readies a new vernissage and, on the other, it’s the story of what keeps him relevant as an artist so long after the Berlin Wall has fallen down. One hand of the doc is much bigger than the other, though, and Hendel delivers an engaging case study of a unique era of photography by exploring three voices who harnessed the negatives of divided Berlin (no pun intended) and turned them into art.

Marquardt’s photographs, then and now, are much like the east and west sides of divided Berlin as they are works of great contradictions. Hendel features a striking array of Marquadt’s photography that allows one to appreciate his uncanny eye for playing with the sacred and the profane, the bad and the beautiful, the new and the old, and the conservative and the radical. They’re wonderfully weird shots that could never have emerged from another scene. Hendel lets the trio reflect on the changing times as Marquardt and Dome continue to get by in their eclectic arty lifestyles while Paris’ choices are arguably more conventional. But all remember the past quite well. As character studies, the trio prove intriguing subjects that encapsulate the various stages of moving on and letting go, and how much a persona can be part of one’s métier. Put another way, some people leave the past and others carry it with them.

Between the still images that grace the screen and the photography sessions that Hendel captures in the present-day observational footage, Beauty and Decay captures the passage of time marked by documentary photography. The film tours contemporary Berlin and contrasts the images Hendel’s camera sees with the city Marquadt saw through his lens: the landscape is quite different between the periods with the disappearance of the Berlin Wall being the least of it. There are beautiful black-and-white images of old train stations and derelict ruins that stood tall during the “divided years” and Hendel taps into Marquadt’s grasp for the ephemerality of things. There’s a sense of impermanence that graces many of the photographs on display, as cracks and creases reveal a world weathered by age and changing times. The doc reminds audiences how film photography captures history and archives the world we live in, which is a fact too many people take for granted in today’s point, shoot, and delete selfie culture.

Perhaps the most striking element of decay appears in Dome, who still commands the camera when posing for Marquadt. Wrinkled and slightly weathered, but fearless and open with her body as it ages, Dome is a great character and a cat lady who would do Agnès Varda proud. Dome and Marquadt inject their work with a radical spirit that brings an essence of punk to the photography even though the spiky hair, leather jackets, and metal studs are all long gone. Marquardt and Dome are still punk, in a sense, by defying the expectations of a conventional lifestyle that frequently demand a nine to five job, a few kids, and a house in the suburbs. Dome even admits that she’s never held a traditional job in her life, nor does she want to, and is content to keep “flying” as she gets by through her modeling and her art.

The focus of the film is generally on Marquadt as he readies a new series and reflects upon his career-long body of work, but Dome arguably steals the show with her bubbly spirit. There is just something so wonderfully unpretentious about her. Marquadt captures this sense in his photography, as does Hendel in her documentary. The artists draw out some of their best work by creating portraits that renew the contrasts of their earlier portfolio. There is Dome, aging but still vivacious, clad in a wedding dress but disheveled and sporting her high heels as if struggling home on a walk of shame. On the other hand, Marquadt nabs what he believes to be the only shot he’s ever taken of Dome laughing. There’s something about her joyful, full-bodied mouth juxtaposed with the decrepit backdrop on which Sven shoots her that reveals her strong sense of timelessness, as well as the maturity of his own eye. It’s not the only image of beauty and decay in Hendel’s film, but it’s easily the best.

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Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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