Aimee Knight: Red Right Hand

A woman’s hand enters the cavity in a puppet’s back. It awakens, seems to breathe. She removes her arm, and it (perhaps ‘he’) deactivates, falls backward. A puppet is an inert figure with no autonomy. It knows a limited existence. A human can give it purpose and take it away at any time. In the German documentary Anmaßung (Anamnesis, 2021), a puppet and its human counterpart live on the fringes of such fluxing empathy.

Anmaßung follows its furtive protagonist – a man referred to only as ‘Stefan S’ – through the final four years of his term at Brandenburg Prison. Convicted of murdering his co-worker, here called Maria M, introverted Stefan participates in the film on the proviso that his face goes unseen. Necessity being the mother of invention, co-directors Chris Wright and Stefan Kolbe (Priests, 2014) turn this limitation into a provocation. “What do we see, when we can’t see something?” they ask. “How do we imagine someone who has committed murder?”

In a practical sense, Anmaßung examines the material and logistical challenges of documenting someone who doesn’t want to be recognised. There’s also an ethical component to the film’s thesis, which explores how the biases of individuals and societies mould conventional notions of masculinity, criminality, respectability and penance. In other words, how true can a work of true crime ever be, objectively? Whose truth does it hope to approximate?

“This is not a film about Stefan,” Wright’s voiceover explains. “It is about how we create our image of him.”

To this end, the co-directors take a pragmatic approach, retracing Stefan’s story in a largely linear fashion, from his East German childhood marked by chronic illness, to his young adult years spent working in factories and warehouses, through to the peak of his criminal behaviour and consequent sentencing in the early 2000s. His past is brought to life, or something like it, with visions of empty spaces: derelict school rooms, sterile factories, a courthouse out of session. The co-directors’ disembodied commentary wafts over these places – where people have been but are rarely seen, at least not in the film – like a residual haunting. But the matter-of-fact exposition and understated delivery belie the brutal subject matter. For the most part, Anmaßung avoids the overtly exploitative tone of most high-profile true crime churn – which often frames serial killers and sex offenders as celebrities, entertainers – though it is, arguably, a variation on the theme.

Standing in for middle-aged Stefan is a childlike puppet, about three feet tall, with a head like a boiled egg, and the frigid gaze of an apex predator. He, for the alarming avatar does seem too sentient to be an inanimate ‘it’, is performed by puppeteers Nadia Ihjeij and Josephine Hock. Visible on screen in their theatre blacks, the women use this unsettling vector of opaque naïveté to remount the co-directors’ prior interviews with Stefan, in which he displays simplistic views on health, therapy, recidivism and victimhood. Notably, the puppet’s mouth is not pliant, perhaps nodding to Stefan’s own difficulties with speech as a kid. The disconcerting effect is less Sesame Street, more Uncanny Valley.

Puppets have populated cinema since its earliest days, with their first known usage being in the children’s short Dolly’s Toys from 1902. Over the decades, all sorts of puppets – from the ventriloquist shtick of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy to high-strung marionettes like the Thunderbirds, and Jim Henson’s iconic hand-and-rod shenanigans with the Muppets – have starred in kids’ flicks, family comedies, musicals, action movies, slashers, porn and more. But whether they’re posing as earnest educators or edgy satirists, puppets often get away with saying and doing things that, for humans, might be taboo. In this way, Stefan’s puppet double plays out a thought-experiment around power and authority.

Similar to Marwencol (2010) and The Missing Picture (2013), Anmaßung uses an inorganic object to model the psychological scars of human trauma and violence. The puppet’s soft, fabric body evokes Stefan’s work at Mayer Textiles, where he met Maria, and, according to court transcripts, attempted to film her in the women’s bathroom. It also mirrors his interest in arts and crafts – an innocuous hobby evidenced by the greeting cards he hand-embroiders. Along with the puppet, thread becomes a recurring visual motif, running through several crucial locations from Stefan’s life outside prison. Together they beg the question: who’s pulling the strings here?

Wright and Kolbe’s relationship with Stefan is brow raising. Per their working methodology, which centres their subjectivity and dissolves conventional artist/subject boundaries, the co-directors enmesh themselves in Stefan’s life. They hold a market stall selling his handicrafts and tick off his shopping list with the profits. (Stefan is also paid an undisclosed fee for participating.) As the prisoner’s only visitors, the filmmakers take him on day-release excursions, manufacturing the intimacy required to access both his interiority and his camera roll. Yet Kolbe is shocked to learn that Stefan – a man described early on as “quiet, reserved… really nice” – might now consider the filmmakers his friends. Coming from an experienced documentarian, the admission feels disingenuous.

And what to make of Ihjeij and Hock: the women puppeteers manipulating Stefan’s flaccid, infantilised substitute? As they and the co-directors discuss Stefan’s interest in misogynistic music, it seems their presence is an attempt to balance the story’s toxic masculinity with a little female agency. This works in theory, though perhaps not in practice, while murdered woman Maria M and her loved ones remain all but invisible.

In the end, and despite his request, Stefan’s image is not entirely obscured; his body, hair, and some facial features are seen throughout. What’s more, the choice to use this specific puppet, clear-eyed and sinister, is flippantly brushed aside – he just happened to be found in the props room– though his cursed look of eternal immaturity is surely a deliberate comment on Stefan’s arrested development. Coupled with the creepy-clonky score, it obscures Wright and Kolbe’s ultimate stance on empathy, humanity and tolerance.

Anmaßung is, superficially, a film about creating Stefan’s image. Behind the curtain, it’s also about the filmmakers’ preoccupation with crafting a particular image of themselves. Where there’s a puppet, there’s always a master, strings attached.

Aimee Knight
Written for the Berlinale Talent Press of 2021