The past is never delineated through Gehr‘s film, an unorthodox “city symphony” composed of largely static compositions of West Berlin streets. His refusal to dissertate an active through-line in the sights and sounds opens up a world in which we can identify, through metrical editing and angular snapshots of a city space, universal signifiers coursing through every frame. Combined with an embedded knowledge of the area’s loaded past and Gehr’s recorded, crackling radio broadcasts laid over the images, Signal–Germany On the Air (1985) is a challenging personal work precisely because, as Sicinski points out in the quote below, of its noncompliance with providing a pointed statement for the viewer. Its focus on the ground—the inadvertent bodies moving through the frame—offers little in the way of immediate historical or cultural insight and is, therefore, a subtle subversion of what we have come to expect from a film, essay or otherwise, conceived abroad. It’s much more concerned with forgoing the exoticism felt in observing a foreign land and its inhabitants—especially one the viewer has preconceived notions about.

Here are two wonderful essays on the film, which could be of some service in navigating through this austere work of art.

In “personal” filmmaking, we frequently feel that the film represents its maker’s point of view, as if we saw in it the world directly through the maker’s eyes. Obviously true of the Sonbert film, it is just as true of Signal, despite the absence of a hand-held or otherwise expressionistic camera. In Signal, the artist gazes into pieces of the city, searching for meanings. He realizes that a single storefront can tell us little, so the film’s pattern is to gradually expand its points of view. We see each piece of the landscape in terms of a constricting urban whole; we also feel that that whole is continually growing, following us wherever we go, like an unstoppable machine. And if we go far enough away from our point of origin, not only do we not escape, we come face-to-face with a ghost that had been haunting the images all along: the Gestapo.

-Fred Camper, Chicago Reader

Signal is located in a concrete space and time, that of Berlin in the early 1980s, and the film subjects this location to relentless scrutiny. In the course of the film, the formal properties of this physical space become articulated with that space’s historical specificity, the active relationships between the two revealing a shifting yet indivisible social formation. But the film never pins the space down, or halts its evolution in order to point at it and simply describe. Inevitably, Gehr finds history in Berlin, but in Signal, he never delivers a deceptively clear image of that history. The film’s power derives from its unwillingness to offer its viewers familiar, consumable pictures of “the Holocaust,” “the Nazis,” or “postwar Germany,” at which a comfortable audience might simply nod in assent. Gehr’s film disarticulates the stability of the nation, its imaginary coherence, as well as — perhaps most radically — the imagined coherence of the viewer, who may well understand him or herself to exist safely on the “other side” of that national border which quarantines the past of Germany.

-Michael Sicinski, Working Through The City: Ernie Gehr’s Signal–Germany on the Air