Top ten nonfiction lessons – for those who take the time…

We asked the director of the Austrian Film Museum to nominate ten nonfiction films for our Documentary Poll. Instead he sent us this proposal for a screening programme…

Alexander Horwath

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How to Live in the German Federal Republic (Leben BRD, 1990)

How to Live in the German Federal Republic (Leben BRD, 1990)

The great dream still resonated with Fassbinder: “Movies must at some point stop being movies, must stop being stories and begin to come alive so that one wonders: what do they mean in terms of my own life?”

It is a dream worth dreaming, in personal as well as political terms. The phantasm of authenticity, immediacy and nonfiction, however, is no longer viable. There is no such thing in cinema (or any other medium), and no ‘real life’ beyond the mediated.

This is not just because of the well-known constructedness of all films and realisms. It is also because of the constructedness of human lives. Film, in its attempt to capture and understand life, must always also penetrate the inauthentic and look for the manifold places where ‘life itself’ appears in all its artifice. Some films in my list – eg The Society of the Spectacle (1973), How to Live in the German Federal Republic (1990), Close-Up (1990) or eXistenZ (1999) – comment upon or bear witness to this.

Instead of a list of ten isolated, shrink-wrapped canonical works, I have chosen to answer this poll with a format closer to what I think is at the heart of the ‘documenting impulse’ – putting one thing in relation to another thing, and then to another thing… One of those things is always ‘the machine’, the film medium and its specific capacities. The second of those things is always ‘the world’, ‘actual life’ – whatever we mean by it.

The programme format (or seminar, if you will), in which several outstanding individual results of that ‘documenting impulse’ speak to each other, is the only way, for me, of finding a meaningful answer to the poll’s request: to “reflect on what makes a great documentary, and what this art form means to you.” As someone who prefers the actual experience of seeing and showing films – films in dialogue with each other – to all the ‘wording and voting’ that much of film culture seems to consist of these days, this is what it means to me.

Top ten ‘nonfiction’ lessons – for those who take the time…

(…the time it takes to return from our fictitious paradise of ‘nonfiction’.)


The Garden

Frederick Wiseman, USA 2004
196 mins

Talk about time… I included this great film even though – and, of course, also because – it has never been shown publicly. Frederick Wiseman completed it in 2004, but ‘the law’ (i.e. lawyers representing Madison Square Garden, the subject of the film) has kept the film from view – as was the case with Wiseman’s 1967 Titicut Follies; it took 25 years for the verdict to be overturned and that film to become visible. How long will it take for The Garden?


Entrée du cinématographe à Vienne

Cinématographe Lumiére, Austria/France 1896
1 min

Tramway en Vienne

Pathé Frères, Austria/France 1906
4 mins (at 16 fps)


Stan Douglas, Canada 1986
Loop installation

Man with a Movie Camera

Dziga Vertov, USSR 1929
74 mins (at 21 fps)


Land without Bread

Luis Buñuel, Spain/France 1933
29 mins

HA.WEI. 14. März 38

Anonymous amateur, Germany 1938
13 mins

Spare Time

Humphrey Jennings, UK 1939
15 mins

The Death Mills

Hanuš Burger, Germany/USA 1945
22 mins

A Day in Barbagia

Vittorio De Seta, Italy 1958
10 mins

The House is Black

Forough Farokhzad, Iran 1962
20 mins

Litany of the Happy People

Karpo Godina, Yugoslavia 1971
15 mins

Coup de boule

Romuald Karmakar, West Germany 1987
8 mins



Robert Drew & Richard Leacock, USA 1960
52 mins


Bruce Conner, USA 1986
13 mins


Santiago Álvarez, Cuba 1965
5 mins

Remington Cal. 12

Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann, East Germany 1972
15 mins

Hat Wolff von Amerongen Konkursdelikte begangen?
(Did Wolff von Amerongen Commit Bankruptcy Crimes?)

Gerhard Friedl, West Germany/Austria 2004
73 mins



Stan Brakhage, USA 1963
5 mins

Screening Room

Morgan Fisher, USA 1968
5 mins


David Cronenberg, Canada/UK 1999
96 mins

Röntgentonfilm der Sprache
(X-Ray Sound Film of Speech)

Robert Janker, Germany 1937
4 mins


Meet Marlon Brando

Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, USA 1965
29 mins

La Rosière de Pessac

Jean Eustache, France 1968
65 mins

La Rosière de Pessac 79

Jean Eustache, France 1979
70 mins


All My Life

Bruce Baillie, USA 1966
3 mins

The Society of the Spectacle

Guy Debord, France 1973
80 mins

How to Live in the German Federal Republic

Harun Farocki, West Germany 1990
83 mins


Microcultural Incidents in 10 Zoos

Ray L. Birdwhistell, USA 1971
33 mins

Outer and Inner Space

Andy Warhol, USA 1965
Double projection, 33 mins


Abbas Kiarostami, Iran 1989
93 mins


Les Maîtres fous

Jean Rouch, Ghana/France 1954
28 mins

Unsere Afrikareise (Our Trip to Africa)

Peter Kubelka, Sudan/Austria 1966
13 mins

Community of Praise

Richard Leacock, USA 1981
58 mins

Mysterious Object at Noon

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand 2000
89 mins

Semiotic Ghosts

Lisl Ponger, Mexico/India et al/Austria 1991
15 mins


31/75 Asyl

Kurt Kren, Germany/Austria 1975
9 mins

Work Done

Robert Beavers, Italy/Switzerland/USA 2000
22 mins

News from Home

Chantal Akerman, USA/Belgium 1976
85 mins

Routine Pleasures

Jean-Pierre Gorin, USA/France 1987
81 mins

The Present

Robert Frank, Canada/Switzerland 1996
24 mins

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