Manfred Kirchheimer, the greatest documentary maker you’ve probably never heard of

Manfred Kirchheimer, the greatest documentary maker you’ve probably never heard ofJune 4, 2021

The 90-year-old German American director, who completed a trio of documentaries during lockdown, reflects on his career, his black activism and asking his father difficult questions about Nazi occupation

Manfred Kirchheimer, the US’s least-known great documentarian, may be 90 years old, but his memory is as sharp as a knife. “I wasn’t always a film aficionado,” he recalls. “Then, in 1949, I was at Manhattan’s City College and the students were on strike against two professors – one antisemite, the other anti-black. I saw someone filming a police horse and I asked him why. He said: ‘I’m making this for the film department.’ I had signed up for chemistry, but I didn’t like chemistry. So I went to the office of its head – the film-maker Hans Richter – and I said, ‘Professor, are there any opportunities in film?’ He said, ‘Yes – opportunities are plenty. But no jobs!’ I went anyway.” He chuckles fondly.

Kirchheimer was born in 1931 in Saarbrücken, Germany. His Jewish parents, sensing which way the winds were blowing, moved to the US five years later, eventually landing in New York’s Washington Heights, where they joined a close-knit and prosperous community peopled by so many exiles it was sometimes known as Frankfurt-on-the Hudson. Kirchheimer might have stopped practising the faith in his early 20s, but across the decades, his films all benefit – rely, even – on his migrant eye. They’re endlessly curious about how his adopted city works, searching for its often-overlooked architectural or environmental details, alive to its marginal voices.

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