Essential Opinion: Beauty & Decay (Schönheit & Vergänglichkeit)

From Germany, this documentary has a strongly nostalgic tone as it follows a group of artists from the punk scene in 1980s East Berlin as they reminisce about the old days and put together a new photographic exhibition. Premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival, Beauty & Decay (Schönheit & Vergänglichkeit) sharply captures their thoughts and feelings, as filmmaker Annekatrin Hendel follows them around the city, encouraging them to explore both past events and the bigger ideas that have defined their lives.

Beauty & Decay

The documentary’s focus is the tatooed/pierced photographer Sven Marquardt, who first began shooting Dome (aka Dominique Hollenstein) in 1983. Together they took the art-punk scene by storm as uncompromising artists who challenged a controlling system. They worked their friend Robert Paris, both a model and a photographer. Hendel follows all three of them around the city. Sven and Dome decide to shoot some new photos after all these years, which will be added to a new show of his work, and they quickly find that they still work effortlessly well together.

As they travel around Berlin, they visit locations of previous events, including major art performances they staged together. Part fashion show and part rave, these events look epic, revealed in home videos that pulse with energy. By contrast, Sven’s black and white photos are staged and dramatic, distilling the punk attitudes through stark images of people and places. Through all of this, the soundtrack is full of these three friends recounting lively anecdotes about their antics. Both Sven and Dome confess that they were in love with Robert. While Robert shares his own journey (with accompanying film and photos) about moving to India, marrying a local and becoming a metalworker.

All three have so many stories to tell that this film could easily have stretched longer than this relatively brief 1 hour 20 minutes. But Hendel’s central idea is to juxtapose the angles of these people’s lives in a restrictive society where they relished being persecuted. “I thought all people had wild, incandescent lives in which they could live out their fantasies,” Dome says, noting that she was surprised that anyone gave into the oppression. All three mix their nostalgia with a clear love of the vibrant city Berlin has become today, letting their artistic curiosity express itself through their words and their images.

And as the title Beauty & Decay (Schönheit & Vergänglichkeit) suggests, this is also a film about the realities of aging. It’s not just about the brittle division of Berlin (they were born just after the wall went up), nor is it a documentary about the loss of the olden days. More importantly, it’s about how growing older makes these artists appreciate their health more, valuing it even greater than the beauty they create. That said, they’re not even 60 yet, still working and bristling with observations that put their memories into telling context. Yes, this is a story of an artistic world that doesn’t exist anymore, but in these three people, it’s clear that life is still packed with opportunities to be wild and incandescent.

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All pictures reproduced courtesy of It Works! and Sven-Marquardt

Rich Cline

Rich Cline

Journalist
As a freelance journalist, Rich Cline has covered films and major events on five continents. The founding editor of Shadows on the Wall, he is vice chair of the London Film Critics' Circle, chair of the London Critics' Circle Film Awards, and a member of Fipresci, Online Film Critics Society and GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics. A native of Los Angeles, he grew up in Ecuador and has called London home since 1992.
Rich Cline
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