Huldufolk (Hidden People) is the namesake given to mythical elves appearing in Icelandic folklore. These mysterious shape-shifters often assume human form and behave similarly to human beings. It is believed that huldufolk reside in a parallel universe, thus making them “hidden” to the regular world. But on rare occasions, they make themselves appear in the real world. People in Iceland, to this day, believe that the huldufolk are still out there somewhere in the real world. Some of them have excavated the rumoured hidden places of the huldufolk only to return empty-handed.
There is something uniquely idiosyncratic about Ferdinand Khittl’s 1960 documentary short film “Das Magische Band” (The Magic Band). This experimental documentary explores the impact of the magnetic tape (often referred to as the “magic band”) and sound recording on everyday lives. In addition to directing, Khittl also wrote and narrated the short. Though Khittl has explored the different roles of recording devices in his other ventures such as 1962’s ingenious experimental film Die Parallelstrasse (The Parallel Street), this film finds Khittl exploring the recording devices from a philosophical standpoint. The film consists of several sections; each separated by a well-crafted animated sketch. Each of the sections offers a brief look at the different areas on which the magnetic tape has had a significant impact. The various shots in the film have been taken by Khittl and his cinematographer Ronald Martini during the duo’s travels in 1959 and 1960. The way in which Khittl treats “sound” in this film is incredibly masterful. Case in point: the stunning Indian boat festival scene. This black and white scene which is introduced five minutes into the film is quite mind-numbing. Chants of the Kerala boat festival are recorded and replayed on a magnetic tape. The result is a resonant sound that’ll keep your ears ringing. Khittl shows us that the magnetic tape is not only the subject of this film but also a strong component of the filmmaking process itself.
The screen size Khittl chose for this film is 4:3 (Academy ratio). This choice makes the shots (especially the insert shots) appear claustrophobic, which is very reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis”. In both these films, this sense of claustrophobia is used to fetishize the machinery. These moments are often accompanied by composer Hans Posegga’s monotonous drones with a layer of vocal harmonies attached to them. Posegga’s music often guides the viewer through most of the film. An eerie drone indicates the working of a machine whereas the gentle percussion indicates an animated sketch. Due to machinery taking up a major portion of the screen space, humans are often sidelined. We are, indeed, in a world dominated by machines. Some of the best visual portions appear in the latter half of the film. The section “to transform” is a fantastic montage showing a Theremin being played unpleasantly in real-time (and simultaneously recorded onto a sound recorder). These unpleasant sounds quickly become cacophonous before halting abruptly. What separates Das Magische Band from virtually any other documentary is the absence of a cohesive narrative. The thing that ties all of these scenes together is Khittl’s narration. While using narration is a common theme in Khittl’s other films such as 1956’s Auf geht’s (Let’s go), the narration here often ascends into remarkable meta-commentary. The closing minutes of the film demonstrate this. Khittl argues that the technology associated with the magnetic tape has become so powerful that numbers have become abstractions.
“Numbers can mean anything.”
“121 Cyclists, 389 Yeses.”
“72 left-handers, 3 others.”
“37 % cyclists, 63 % non-cyclists.”
“40 % other, 60 % not other.”
Khittl is pointing to the idea of information overload. By presenting too much futile data, the conversation is often rendered meaningless. This situation creates distrust for data. However, soon after this flurry of futile data, Khittl starts presenting significantly serious numbers.
“30 % of the world’s population has 80 % of all available goods.”
“Number of those needing to be fed increases by 70000 every 24 hours.”
Given the distrust in numbers, how do we trust this data then? A conundrum for sure. But, at this stage we are helpless. Our lives are dependent on “the magic band”.
The film community has not been kind to Ferdinand Khittl. Die Parallelstrasse had been well respected but his other features such as Die Vergangenheit der Zukunft ist heute (The Past of the Future is Now) were never distributed and are presumably lost. Some of his other short films (including this one) have been restored recently. Despite being among the first ones to sign the “Oberhausen Manifesto” and ushering in the movement of “New German Cinema”, he is never discussed alongside new German cinema greats such as Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
This has happened to other filmmakers as well. Perhaps one of the most notable instances is Orson Welles’ 1965 film “Chimes at Midnight”. It is very fortunate that this film survived for 3 years before its complete restoration (and subsequent review by Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times). Another unfinished Welles film titled “The Other Side of The Wind” was restored and released by Netflix in 2018. But many directors are not as fortunate. Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” was a tremendous success at Cannes 2018. But when film enthusiasts started searching for his earlier features, they couldn’t find them. It was later discovered that the production company had stopped publishing these films and now some of them are lost. This is the giant hole in modern cinema; every cinephile’s biggest fear. How many great pieces of art could we have lost this way? Is it a hundred? Thousand? Ten thousand? We can never know. All we know is this; this number is increasing with each passing day. Distributors and OTT platforms are forcing filmmakers to make certain kinds of films, thereby disrupting the creative process. The biggest losers in this are indie and low budget filmmakers. With no one to show their films to, their creations are vanishing away into nothingness.
These are the “Huldufolk” of the cinema world. Their creations are trapped in an empty world, forever struggling to reach this real world of ours.