CAPSULE: TEACH A MAN TO FISH (1980)

DIRECTED BY: Felix Laurson

FEATURING: Felix Laurson, the music of Klaus Nomi, and a number of people documented as having been paid for contributing to the production

PLOT: Difficult to say; see below.

Teach a Man to Fish April 1 2021

COMMENTS: The movie industry is replete with legendary lost films, pictures–pulped to make space in warehouses or damaged beyond recovery by time–that aficionados agree, based on contemporaneous reviews and publicity stills, might today be regarded as classics. A very long list of such possible classics might include the little-known Teach a Man to Fish, a film that possibly no one other than its director (Felix Laurson, who also wrote the screenplay and did the editing) has actually seen.

What few details we have about the film come from three sources. The bulk of it comes from interviews Laurson gave to press outlets over the years, including a 1986 interview for Der Schaden from his residence in the Kugelmugel (a self-declared independent republic located in Prater Park, Vienna – see image); a 1993 interview with Texte zur Kunst while living in a villa in Gjirokaster; and a March 2014 interview he gave from his residence in Crimea for a German film podcast. Financial and legal documents also give us tantalizing hints of other details of the film’s contents. But we’ve never had the film itself; all ten copies of it were reportedly destroyed in a Berlin warehouse fire the night before they were distributed to theaters. Laurson did his best to embrace the tragedy, encouraging moviegoers to treat the entire film and its loss as performance art, asking his prospective audience and film reviewers to take part in the performance by imagining what the film must have been like, sharing how they reacted to it, and thereby contributing to the creative process.

What we know about the film suggests it was very likely weird. Laurson spent much of the late 70s as an avant-garde performance artist in the seedier end of Berlin’s countercultural scene, developing an ever-more grandiose scope for his absurd and anarchic view of the world, a scope that he eventually felt could only be expressed in the form of an art film. Teach a Man to Fish was an expansion of a performance he put on at several venues during 1978: he would goad the audience to demand he swallow live tropical fish as an expression of the cruelty to which everyday people can be driven by the lure of fame and eye of the public. In the interviews, he described a host of amateur actors hired from the Berlin art and punk scene, costumes involving brightly-colored electrical tape and Q-tips taped on actor’s faces in vortex patterns, and a warehouse festooned with fish skeletons as essential elements of his vision. He also mentioned his fascination with Klaus Nomi’s haunting rendition of “The Cold Song” as an inspiration.

Which is where the evidence from the legal documents comes in. Nomi recorded a soundtrack, expecting to be paid from the proceeds of the film and the right to all proceeds of the subsequent album. But with the film reduced to ashes before tickets were sold and no soundtrack to make an album from, Nomi sued Laurson for the right to rerecord the music as an album unrelated to the film. After two years of litigation, Nomi won, but was too ill with AIDS to record it. He died in August 1983.

From the financial documents, we know that 37 people other than Nomi were contracted to work on the film, but for most, it’s unclear in what capacity. Ten of the electrical-tape costumes were commissioned from a second-hand clothing store on Gitschiner Strasse. There’s no record of Laursen buying fish skeletons, but there is a receipt for a variety of odds and ends including, intriguingly, twelve one-pound jars of clotted cream from an Aldi supermarket. There are also at least three cameramen who were paid for four days of work, and enough film was purchased for 48 hours of footage, 48 hours that Laursen claimed to have edited down to 180 minutes.

It is from these and scant other elusive details that Laurson expects us to experience the movie. Mainstream papers did not initially focus on the destruction of the film in their reports of the warehouse fire, only mentioning the its loss in coverage of the later investigation into the electrical short that was the fire’s cause. No reviewer in a major paper decided to participate in Laursen’s vision by reviewing a movie they did not–and could not–watch. The art press was more enthusiastic, with reviewers alternately describing a colorful embrace of the free animal nature of the human species and the bleak expanse of industrial warehouse that has come to embody mankind’s imprisonment by modern society. East German samizdat literature embraced the film, with reviewers comparing their elation at the nonexistent film to their enthusiasm at their equally nonexistent prosperity and freedom as citizens of the GDR.

After the closure of the Nomi case, Germany, and by extension the rest of the world, largely forgot about Teach a Man to Fish. Apart from the occasional interview or update to Laursen’s legal problems, the whole episode more or less evaporated… until December, when Filmdienst published a short notice that Laursen had died of COVID in his residence aboard a Liberian-flagged Maersk container ship, and among his effects was a set of film reels that proved to be the sole surviving copy of Teach a Man to Fish. Negotiations to restore and show the film are underway with several German independent film production companies.

Is the world ready for what is, in essence, a director’s cut of the most ambiguous film ever not seen? It is hard to ignore four decades of the ultimate act of audience participation–the creation in each individual mind of an entire three-hour film, not in conjunction with the director and actors, but superseding them. Admit it, just reading about this project, you’ve already created in your mind a trailer for the film. It is at once the ultimate act of democracy, with every viewer participating, and of autocracy, giving each viewer absolute control over the artist’s vision. The result is, as its 180-minute length suggests, often pensive and drawn out, with the actors sometimes seemingly at a loss to explain their own presence. But much of the film sparkles with exuberance. The fish-eating scene from which the film was born is there in its horrifying glory, the crowd cheering along with Laursen for the needless destruction of hapless life. The ten electrical-tape-clad actors acting as a new-wave Greek chorus wryly observing the daily magnificence and beastliness with which people go about putting in 24 hours each day eating, working, communicating, sleeping, giving birth, killing, and, eventually dying. Add all of that to the etherealness of Klaus Nomi’s voice ebbing and flowing as the mass of actors rise and fall in their choreographed mime of their daily toil. With all its flaws, it is nonetheless a beautiful thing; who would prefer to be handed a fish when an opportunely-timed warehouse fire gave us each the chance to learn to fish for ourselves?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Felix Laurson’s ‘Bringe einem Mann das Fischen bei’ ist niemals ein Gong, der dich aufgibt; werde dich niemals im Stich lassen; Ich werde niemals herumlaufen und dich verlassen …”–Sophie Nacht, “Ein gefälschtes Underground-Filmjournal” (contemporaneous)

5 thoughts on “CAPSULE: TEACH A MAN TO FISH (1980)”

  1. As something of a Klaus Nomi fan, I’d read about this in some article back in my college days. There’s an oblique reference in the liner notes of Nomi’s self-titled debut album that, with this review, makes a whole lot more sense.

    1. While on that Dangerous Minds link, I’m listening to Nomi’s cover of “You Don’t Own Me” and it’s making my day. Man of many talents.

    2. Pete, while knowing nothing of your musical tastes, it would be remiss of me not to recommend that you investigate Kristian Hoffman, a singer/songwriter that Nomi worked with for some years. I suspect a man of your disposition might enjoy Hoffman’s caustically amused world view.

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