Film review

The Kühn Brothers – Jazz Across Borders

The Kühn Brothers – Jazz Across Borders
(Film by Stephan Lamby/ ECO Media. 90 Minutes. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

The German title of this new documentary film, which was screened last night on nationwide TV In Germany, is Brüder Kühn – Zwei Musiker spielen sich frei (The Kühn Brothers – two musicians play themselves free). That reference is significant. The German words ‘frei’ and ‘Freiheit’ are freighted with meaning, particularly for people such as these two significant figures in German jazz whose lives have spanned the  GDR era (1949-1990).

Rolf Kühn in a still from the film (Photo: ECO Media)

The film is in essence an extended double interview with the clarinettist Rolf Kühn (b.1929) who will celebrate his 90th birthday next Sunday 29 September, and his younger brother, pianist Joachim (also seen at one point playing alto sax), born in 1944. They were born and raised in Leipzig. Their father and his brother were circus artists who did indeed perform with the stage name of the “Brüder Kühn”. Their mother was Jewish, ran a tobacco store, and miraculously stayed and survived in Leipzig through the war and beyond. There is a poignant moment when Rolf stands over a ‘Stolperstein’ in Leipzig placed in memory of an aunt he knew well who was transported to Auschwitz where she and her husband were gassed.

The story traces the brothers’ lives through different episodes and follows them to locations where their memories come to life. Rolf became obsessed with Benny Goodman as a teenager, realised at the moment that the Russian tanks rolled into Leipzig that he would need to make his life elsewhere (“this can’t be”, he remembers thinking) spent years in New York, including living a couple of floors above Billie Holiday, played in the Goodman and Dorsey bands, then returned to Germany and ran, composed and arranged for the NDR television orchestra in Hamburg. Even at his advanced age, his enthusiasm for new projects still seems joyously undimmed. He has a band which he started in 2008 and includes top young drummer Christian Lillinger – the mutual admiration and respect between the older and younger musician is palpable and inspiring.

Rolf played a key role in getting Joachim out of the GDR in 1966 by persuading Friedrich Gulda to invite Joachim as an official representative of the GDR in a jazz competition in Vienna. The pianist managed to escape the pair of minders who had been sent to collect him, and made his life first in Paris and then in Ibiza where he now lives .

Joachim Kühn in the film (Photo: ECO Media)

One aspect of the film that gives it its charm – and will hopefully might give the film a life in screenings outside of Germany – is what totally different characters the two brothers are. Rolf is the responsible one, Joachim the free spirit. At one point the director Stephan Lamby asks each of them in turn to explain what the word ‘freedom’ means to them. Rolf answers in the clear ‘hochdeutsch’ that he has trained himself to speak, with virtually no trace of a regional accent, that to him freedom means having the financial means to do what you want, as he remembers all too clearly the times when he didn’t. For younger brother Joachim with his thick Leipzig accent, he quips that, to him, freedom means a life without constricting ‘Anhängsel’ (attachments) such as “Katzen, Köter, Kinder, Kirche” (cats, dogs, children, church). Joachim talks frequently about the desire to concentrate on what is essential and to remove remove the unnecessary; his attitude reminded me strongly of the themes of Saul Bellow’s later works like The Actual and More Die of Heartbreak.

The film takes a no-holds-barred approach to topics as diverse as Stasi files, drug-taking, previous marriages, prostate cancer, mortality, and even at one point bad hair, mud baths and bell bottoms in California in the late 1970s. What emerges is a well-paced and full picture of the two musicians, and also of the warmth of their feelings for each other. Rolf’s wife describes them tellingly at one point with a German word of her own invention: ‘streitunlustig’ (meaning non-belligerent or conflict averse). After what the two brothers – and indeed the German nation – have lived through in the past 90 years, that attitude is unsurprising. But lives so fully lived are also there to  teach us lessons about how artists react to and interpret the world, different ways to be. This film is an extended close-up, it shows us what it is that makes Rolf and Joachim Kühn tick, and does it very well.

ECO Media TV website

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