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A New Direction : * Hartmut Bitomsky, highly respected for documentary work in Germany, brings international flavor to CalArts film program.

April 15, 1994|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly for The Times

The first time Hartmut Bitomsky came to America in 1980, he went to Atlantic City, N. J., paid $1,000 for a 1973 Chevy station wagon and drove west to San Francisco.

All along the way, Bitomsky, this distinguished documentary filmmaker from Germany, accompanied by a film crew of four, stopped and talked to Americans from different walks of life. After five months on the road during the year when Ronald Reagan was first elected President, he returned to his Berlin home to edit his curious encounters with Americans into the three-hour documentary, "Highway 40 West." He had been commissioned to make the film for German television.

Though he had never been to the United States before, Bitomsky had become familiar with several aspects of its culture at an early age.

"In a way, belonging to the generation after the war, in Europe, especially in Germany, you're in America all the time," Bitomsky, 52, said. "After the war, American culture was present first with cinema, then the literature, then the music. So it grows on you, the curiosity, since you're always confronted with it. It's not your culture; it's not your way of living; but you experience it all the time."

When World War II ended, Bitomsky was a small boy living close to the airport in Bremen, which was occupied by the American military. "Immediately after the war, they installed a cinema in one of these huge hangars, and every Sunday afternoon we kids were invited to see American films. And of course I went," he said. "So right from the beginning I've been exposed to American cinema."

Now, he has an opportunity to influence it. Today, Hartmut Bitomsky is the dean of the School of Film/Video at California Institute of the Arts. Chosen for the job after CalArts conducted a two-year search, he arrived on the Valencia campus in October to run a department that encompasses experimental film and video, narrative and documentary video production, experimental animation and character animation.

"The first thing we look for in a dean is the artistic quality of his or her own work," said CalArts President Steven Lavine. "Hartmut as a filmmaker is as major an artist as has ever taught at CalArts.

"It's absolutely clear to me that he is a person of imagination and stubbornness. Stubbornness is a very important quality in a dean because you have to set your mind on what you want to accomplish and then just stick with it, whatever the vicissitudes along the way. When you're with Hartmut, you're aware that he's in it for the long haul.

"Beyond that, Hartmut has this broad range of experience. He brings an international perspective to the act of filmmaking. He is interested in both experimental work and in the best accomplishments of Hollywood and of commercial filmmaking. I think he'll bring a breadth of vision to our film school, which is very important because the film school itself is very diverse."

In 1962, after high school, Bitomsky moved to Berlin to study theater and German literature at the Free University. The Berlin Wall had gone up one year earlier. When the German Film and Television Academy opened in Berlin in 1966, he enrolled. In 1968, he was one of a group of students who occupied the school, renamed it for an old Soviet documentary filmmaker, and got expelled.

In 1972, he became co-editor of the magazine, Filmkritik, for which he wrote essays and reviews. About the same time, he established his own production company, Big Sky Films, making more than 40 films including shorts, documentaries and dramatic features.

Among the documentaries is a trilogy--"Images of German Pictures" (1983), "Freeway" (1986) and "The VW Complex" (1989)--that incorporates clips from films shot during the Nazi era. The work investigates the history of labor in Germany since the 1930s and labor's connection to politics.

Though his company name sounds much like an homage to America's open spaces, the "Sky" actually represents the last syllable of his last name. The "Big" is from his wife's name, Brigitte, who is known to friends as Biggie. "And of course there's a film called 'Big Sky,' which I love," he said.

American movies are just one of many influences on his work. Other cinematic influences include filmmakers of the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) such as Jean-Luc Godard, and Italian neo-realist director Michelangelo Antonioni.

Bitomsky was teaching and making films in Berlin when CalArts gave him a call. "When they asked me for the first time if I would be a candidate for this position, I said no right away. I'd been rather successful in what I was doing over there in Germany, and I could almost regularly make a film once a year, so I was doing pretty well. But doing pretty well is tricky, because you are satisfied, and I was in a way too secure.

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