Much-loved German film critic Michael Althen died in 2011 at age 48. His premature death affected many, least of all his longtime friend and sometime collaborator, the director Dominik Graf. Both active figures in the Munich film scene, they worked together on several projects, including the essay films A Whispering in the Mountain of Things (1997) and Munich: Secrets of a City (2000). With Then Is It the End? The Film Critic Michael Althen (Was heißt hier Ende? Der Filmkritiker Michael Althen), Graf has constructed a film that acts as both documentary and obituary, Althen himself famous for his obituaries of film luminaries such as Audrey Hepburn, Robert Mitchum and Michelangelo Antonioni.1
At its world premiere at the Delphi Filmpalast, just a few blocks away from Althen’s former apartment in Charlottenburg, there was a warmth and familiarity in the packed-out crowd, far removed from the respectful anonymity of most international film festival screenings. The swathe of reserved seats indicated a large proportion of the crowd was there for a reason, made up of those who knew and loved Althen, gathered together to witness his cinematic exhumation. Adding to this feeling was the presence of his two children, Teresa and Arthur, assistant directors on Then Is It the End?, who feature largely throughout the film.
Then Is It the End? is as much about Althen as it is about an insatiable, lifelong obsession with cinema. His was the kind of cinephilia that leads to small fortunes spent on vast libraries of film books and collector’s edition Blu-rays, pilgrimages to international film festivals and compulsive behaviour like tallying at least 365 films per year or watching-every-film-a-director-has-ever-made completism. In his later years, Althen watched more films at home on his projector and fewer at the cinema. When his children are asked whether they sometimes felt like they lost their father to the cinema, his daughter Teresa replies, “You didn’t lose him there, you found him.” She also recalls how one of the last films they watched at home together was The Party, but only part of it. She remembered sensing that he didn’t seem to care what they watched, as long as they watched something (or “einfach nur Kino,” as she says in German).
The film is full of these anecdotes, extracts, reflections — affectionate sketches of Althen’s obsessions and idiosyncrasies, somewhere between a biography and a best man’s speech. Several interviewees tell of his “very particular” working habits, Althen mostly writing late at night into the early hours of the morning, often after a long night of socialising, only able to concentrate when everyone else was long asleep and he could be left alone with his thoughts. Althen saw writing about film as a process of reconstruction — a method of compensating for his self-proclaimed poor memory. 2 Graf brings Althen’s writing to life, transplanting one medium to another by displaying his text on-screen, reciting extracts from his most memorable pieces: on Tom Cruise’s “three-million-taler” smile, for example, or his aforementioned obituary of Audrey Hepburn, titled “The Girl Who Fell From Heaven”.
The range and quality of those interviewed is impressive, spanning subjects like cinephile culture and the greater role of film criticism, and featuring top German directors such as Wim Wenders, Christian Petzold and Tom Twyker and film critics Olaf Möller and Christoph Huber (who recently wrote a book on Graf). Films about film critics are rare, and rarely as good as Then Is It the End?, the success of which owes greatly to Graf’s deep personal connection with Althen and his effective and respectful formal approach, which does well in allowing both Althen and those interviewed to speak for themselves. A celebration of a man and his life in – and love of – cinema, Then Is It the End? The Film Critic Michael Althen is a real, one-of-a-kind delight.