We Sell Our Ass, Not Our Friends: Robert Kramer’s Diesel

The following is published in conjunction with Laurent Kretzschmar’s English translation of Serge Daney’s review of Diesel, first printed in Libération, August 15, 1985.

No one wrote about Robert Kramer like Serge Daney but not even Daney could understand Diesel, Kramer’s only foray into commercial filmmaking, produced in France in 1985. “From Ridley Scott to Luc Besson, today’s images feed on […] survivalist mythology,” wrote Daney. “With Diesel, Robert Kramer also attempts to institute this minimal ecology. He doesn’t pull it off, unfortunately. Fortunately, he doesn’t pull it off.”

Diesel is that most auteurist of treats, the interesting failure. Even Kramer seems to have considered it a defeat: “I had a couple experiences with full professional crews of 60-75 people, which I found extremely painful and uninteresting. It puts me in the position of military commander.”

It’s a movie made in the past, set in the future, about problems that haunt our present:

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Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927/1984)

Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis (Lang, 1927/1984)


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Capitalism = Patriarchy:

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The City as Dystopia, the City as Brothel:

The world on a wire, its environment on the line, figures surrounded by railings:

Everything gets in the way of the camera, even a woman’s posterior:

A future that looks, to the eyes of 2014, almost like a past, with tube TVs galore, pixels the size of polka-dots, and so many grates and lines it’s like the world were interlaced:

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Kramer went in front of the camera to stand behind it in Wim Wenders’ The State of Things (1982), playing a cinematographer; Diesel, with its derelict Martian wasteland just outside The City, would seem to occupy a space somewhere between The Survivors, that film of nuclear winter survivalist mythology the characters try to make in The State of Things, and Wenders’ more commercial pictures, which introduce elements of genre but rarely generate tension because Wenders, like Kramer, is too sensitive or compassionate to render villainy without humanity, too observant or personal to succeed at the business of being a big-budget director.


What made Diesel a failure also makes it interesting: like Daney said, “its cruelty is not sincere.” If Kramer, that ex-pat, that American chronicler of the spirit of ’68, could’ve seen the future we find ourselves in today, where corporations are people, and the victims of climate change are the ones that had nothing to do with causing it, he might still have made Diesel, this strange movie against contracts, where heroes drive tow-trucks, women stick together, and handshakes are everything…

Where one sells oneself in desperation but one’s friends, never.

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[Screencaps come, like rude proof that the future can never escape the past, from a pan-and-scan VHS cassette tape.]