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FreeFocus: Research Film

Between Aspiration and Reality: Folklore Film Work in Times of Upheaval


This essay reconstructs the origins of the film Bird-Song Contest with Chaffinches in the Western Harz Mountains (1991), a contribution to the eight-part series “Lower Saxonian Folklore Films” produced by the Göttingen Institute for Scientific Film (IWF). Besides conserving the cultural heritage of Lower Saxony, another aim of the film series was to reform the IWF’s understanding of folklore film. From the mid-1980s onward, scholars had criticized IWF films for their positivist character and argued that IWF film work should engage more with the discourses of university folklore studies. By outlining Bird-Song Contest’s genesis, from draft to revision and the finished version of the narration, this essay demonstrates how strongly institutions can act as control systems that, among other things, resist external influences.

The first time the film Bird-Song Contest with Chaffinches in the Western Harz Mountains (Original title: Finkenmanöver im West-Harz) was screened for a broader professional public, at a folklore conference in November 1990 in Salzburg, it was severely criticized. The accusation was the same one that had been leveled against Göttingen Institute for Scientific Film (IWF) productions for years: namely that, owing to their positivist and reductionist approach, they lagged far behind the contemporary epistemological and methodological understanding of folkloric film as it was advanced at the universities. Even though this line of criticism was not new, it is noteworthy that it was directed at a film that was part of a series that was actually supposed to modernize the folkloric film work of the IWF. Thirty years later, Ulrich Roters, who had produced the film on behalf of the IWF and screened the preliminary version at the Salzburg conference, recalled: “I was naively speeding into a trap. I was ready for anything, but not such a brutal … overreaction.” The fact that he never tried to publicize the completed film—it was released in 1991 under the IWF call number C 1787 (university and documentary film)—was the result of this experience.1

Figure 1. 
Figure 1. 

Judges evaluate the longest chaffinch song. Film still from Bird-Song Contest with Chaffinches in the Western Harz Mountains, by Uda von der Nahmer (IWF, 1989),, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 DE. See the film here.

The TIB AV-Portal categorizes the film under “ethnology,” identifying it as a contribution to the eight-part series “Lower Saxonian Folklore Films.” The metadata and credits list Uda von der Nahmer as the author and Gerhard Matzdorf as the cameraman, with sound by Klaus Bertram and Klaus Kemner and editing by F. Uwe Fanelli. Roters is named as part of the editorial team.2 The film depicts a competition, called the “finch maneuver” (Finkenmanöver), in which trained chaffinches compete to produce the longest and most beautiful song. These are evaluated by judges, who award prizes in various categories. The bird breeders, the so-called finchers, take advantage of the territorial behavior of the animals, who defend their territory by singing. The film shows the competition itself, as well as the training of the finches, and provides insights into the club life of the finchers. Of all the films in the series, Bird-Song Contest with Chaffinches in the Western Harz Mountains has the second-highest number of hits on the TIB AV-Portal; it can also be found on the “Kulturerbe Niedersachsen” (Lower Saxony Cultural Heritage) website and on Wikipedia.3

The story of the film reveals something of the efforts of German folklore studies from the mid-1980s to reflect critically on and modernize the films produced within the discipline. Because the IWF was an important institution for folkloric film in Germany at that time, the folklorist community attempted to reform the institute’s understanding of film through collaborations, which also involved the targeted creation and filling of (new) positions there. Bird-Song Contest and the series to which it belongs are the result of such a collaboration. The story of the film is representative of how the IWF, despite its willingness to enter into external cooperation and to hand over the selection of film themes and their implementation to its partners, hindered attempts at renewal through its institutionalized norms and routines.

The initiative for this film series goes back to the early 1980s and originated from the Folklore Commission for Lower Saxony (Volkskundliche Kommission für Niedersachsen [VKN]). Founded in 1983, this professional association seeks to promote folklore research in the German state of Lower Saxony.4 Its chairman at the time was Rolf Wilhelm Brednich, former director of the Department of Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology, then still called the Department of Folklore, at the University of Göttingen. The first issue of Volkskunde in Niedersachsen (Folklore in Lower Saxony), a journal published by the VKN, called for support for its plan to increase the state’s representation in the IWF’s folklore film inventory. For this purpose, the journal called for submissions of suitable topics for filmic treatment, which would be passed on to the responsible person at the IWF, Franz Simon. At the VKN annual conference in the spring of 1984, the board announced that many people had responded to the call and that “nearly 100 topics” had been submitted.5 That summer, the VKN board chose ten of the proposed topics, six of which were eventually realized in film.6 Initially, the finch maneuver was not among the ten selected topics. However, when it became apparent that some of those chosen could not be realized as films, they were replaced by others, among them the finch maneuver. It is no longer possible to be certain whether the finch maneuver was selected from the hundred or so submitted proposals or if it was a brand new suggestion.

Because the VKN had little money of its own, and the IWF was likely either unable or unwilling to finance the films itself, the project could not be realized without third-party assistance. Günter Petschel from the Rotenburg (Wümme) Research Office / Lower Saxony State Office for Folklore Research initiated the process of acquiring funding. Not only was Petschel a founding member of the VKN; he was also chairman of the folklore section within the Lower Saxony Heritage Association (Niedersächsischer Heimatsbund e.V. [NHB]), an umbrella organization for local associations active in heritage preservation.7 With the help of the NHB, he convinced the government of Lower Saxony that the film series was a valuable project that both highlighted and sought to preserve the cultural heritage of the state and ultimately persuaded them to finance it.8

A new appointee at the IWF, Edmund Ballhaus, was responsible for the implementation of the first four films. Ballhaus had studied at the Göttingen Department of Folklore under Brednich and was probably also involved in planning the contents of the film series through the VKN, as indicated in the minutes and attendance list of a conference at which the issue was discussed.9

The realization of the first films coincided with intensive discussions about the reinvention of folklore film in the German-speaking world. For some years, the IWF had been subjected to criticism by representatives of ethnocultural studies and filmmakers. Many of them, including Ballhaus himself, considered this form of scientific film work to be no longer appropriate.10 Critics mainly targeted what was held to be the naive belief that adhering to rigid principles, aided by the reductionist aesthetics they produced, could result in cinematic objectivity.11 This criticism was also taken up by the German Council of Science and Humanities, which regularly evaluated the IWF as a nonuniversity institution financed by the federal and state governments. Its 1986 statement recommended that “conventional folklore film production should be reviewed and, if necessary, revised.”12 In making this recommendation, the report listed “the filmic documentaries on Lower Saxony’s folklore” as an exemplary case of the attempts to rectify the problems.13 Indeed, the research literature discusses Ballhaus’s 1988 film Saline Luisenhall, Göttingen—Daily Routine in a Boilery as a serious attempt to reform the IWF from within. It is above all Ballhaus himself, who through his diverse publishing activities knew how to use the academic system as a communication tool, who repeatedly refers to this film as an important turning point.14

In 1989, when Ballhaus moved to the Göttingen Department of Folklore, he was succeeded by Roters, who was tasked with realizing the remaining films in the series. One of Roters’s first projects was the finch maneuver film. Another graduate of the Göttingen department, Uda von der Nahmer, was entrusted to author the film.15 At the end of February she began field research, meeting the finchers for the first time in Hohegeiß, which was close to St. Andreasberg, the location near the GDR border where the finch maneuver was eventually filmed. Von der Nahmer, who made only that one film and—unlike Roters—can no longer recall many of the details of its creation, still remembers that the finchers were initially skeptical about the project. Regularly subjected to the hostility of conservationists, they did not want to give their critics any ammunition. In the end, through multiple conversations with the fincher Dieter Spormann and his father—referred to only as “Spormann Jr.” and “Spormann Sen.” in IWF documents and the film—she was able to obtain important information about finch sport, dispel concerns, and enlist Dieter Spormann as the film’s main protagonist.16

Meanwhile, Roters coordinated planning for the film and made the necessary production requests under the internal IWF project number V 2711. The original budget was DM 6,887, to be covered by funds raised by the VKN. However, the production ended up costing DM 43,238.17 The main reason for the additional costs, borne by the IWF, was that the film was not recorded on video, as originally planned, but on 16-mm film.18 Roters submitted the necessary application for this to IWF management on 30 March 1989. The reasons given were that the necessary power supply for the video equipment was not available at the location and “lack of mobility” for the camera operators. According to the handwritten note on the application letter, the application was granted the same day.19

Shooting began on 28 May 1989. St. Andreasberg was chosen because the finch contest there takes place relatively late in the year compared to contests in other towns in the Harz Mountains. It was not possible to start shooting earlier: another film for the series, Schüttenhoff in Förste/Nienstedt 1989, also produced under Roters’s aegis, documented a celebration that only takes place every five years and was therefore given priority. The finch contest was recorded by two camera teams: in addition to Matzdorf, Fanelli, listed in the credits under “editing,” also filmed. The remaining recordings, such as the so-called sing-off (Absingen) in July and an on-camera interview with the finchers in their club restaurant, would be shot later. The following year, an off-camera interview with Spormann Jr. was recorded in the IWF recording studio.20

Fanelli and Roters dealt with the editing and postproduction work. Von der Nahmer wrote the narration. Her first draft and subsequent edits can be found in the project folder.21 It becomes clear that the new direction in folklore film work was also being negotiated in the finch maneuver film. Both the draft of Nahmer’s narration and the interview questions she formulated referred to a number of aspects that go beyond the specific custom itself. Notable were questions about the finchers’ contact with GDR officials, but historical and regional contextualizations of finch sports that extend beyond the Harz region to other European countries are presented as well.22 Attention is also given to the role of women—and, for that matter, to criticism of finch sports, among other activities, by conservationists.23 However, the film ends up giving these matters far less weight than the author originally intended. Instead, the off-camera narration and the original sound mostly duplicate what is visible in the film; indeed, the narration is required to explain what’s being shown. The result is the neutral stance aiming at objective description that was typical of IWF films. The three steps outlined here—from draft to revision and finished version of the narration—show how strongly institutions can act as control systems.24 We can only speculate whether a film with a different emphasis would have been received as a representative of the “new” folklore film to which the film series aspired. Nevertheless, instead of consciously restricting the focus to the external processes of the custom and their explicit elements, the film at least hinted at the broader everyday cultural basis of the finch sport.

From 15 to 18 November 1990, the second conference of the Commission for Folklore Film, part of the German Society for Folklore, took place in Salzburg. There Roters presented his film. Following the screening, he sat on the podium and awaited the feedback of the professional public. The “story of a traumatization,” as Roters calls it today, took its course. According to Roters, Ingeborg Weber-Kellermann, Emerita Professor for Folklore Studies at the University of Marburg, was the first to speak. She had become well known to a wider audience in the late 1960s through several folkloric television series and was the first chairperson of the film commission, a working group within the German Society for Folklore representing and supporting research on and with film, which had been reactivated in 1988.25 She criticized the film, severely. Roters no longer remembers the exact words used, but he is certain that the film was censured because it was considered outdated. “Afterwards nobody dared to even faintly praise the film.” A conference report would later speak of an “active and emotional discussion.” “They wanted to … target, and did target, the folklore film work of the IWF, no question,” says Roters.26 But the criticism went further: the negative assessment of the film encompassed the conception and realization of the series to which it belonged.

“Lower Saxonian Folklore Films,” and the cooperation between the IWF and the VKN on which it was based, sought to revitalize the IWF’s folklore film work by tying it more closely to the discourses of university folklore studies. The linchpin here was the only folklore department in Lower Saxony and thus the only one represented in the VKN: that of the University of Göttingen. In this respect, the criticism of the emerita professor from Marburg was ultimately also directed at Brednich and Ballhaus, since they were jointly responsible for the film series, through both the VKN and the department. Because both of them also worked together with Weber-Kellermann on the film commission, which all three had used as the mouthpiece for their criticism of the IWF, her criticism probably hit them hard and unexpectedly, coming as it were from within their own ranks. Above all, however, Roters felt targeted: “That wasn’t exactly motivational.” Roters remembers that Weber-Kellermann apologized to him the next day. Both agreed that the film “was not exactly the shining light of the new folkloric film.” Today, Roters says that both Bird-Song Contest and Schüttenhof were throwbacks to an earlier era of filmmaking. Unlike Ballhaus, who tried to break new ground in the IWF, Roters does not retrospectively see himself as an innovator: “I didn’t want to revolutionize or redesign filmmaking; I wanted to produce reasonably solid documentation.”27

Back in Göttingen, Roters received a letter from Spormann Jr., who had watched the film again and provided the final corrections. Two reports on the Salzburg conference also appeared in journals for folklore studies. One reads: “The IWF film Bird-Song Contest with Chaffinches in the Western Harz Mountains … is an example of how decisions made in advance about scientific topic selection and treatment play into the film. The relevance of the footage of the competition twitter here is highly questionable… . The claim to objectivity is particularly problematic in the case of Bird-Song Contest: with its completely uncritical attitude … [it] neglects both animal and human protection aspects.”28

After the film was shown to the protagonists in Hohegeiß at the beginning of 1991, the official review meeting took place at the IWF on 9 July 1991. Apart from two changes to the English translation of the title, the minutes did not record that any revisions were required. The film was accepted the same day. Although the minutes designate the film as suitable for festivals, conferences, or symposia, Roters remembers that he did little to distribute it publicly.29

The film appeared amidst an epistemological clash within folkloric filmmaking. On the one hand, the positivist goal of the IWF was to document neutrally, and thus preserve, crafts and customs that were considered to be threatened by cultural change. As surrogates for what they depicted, IWF films were intended to serve as pseudo–primary sources for researchers. On the other hand, university-based folklore studies were advocating for films that narrated aspects of everyday culture relevant to contemporary audiences: ethnographically close to the people they depicted, to be sure, but always recognizable as the work of an inquiring filmmaker. Not only was Bird-Song Contest made at a time when this shift in disciplinary epistemes could no longer be ignored; it was also a constitutive part of this transition. Presumably, folklorists made little use of the film in terms of the IWF’s stated goals of cultural salvage. Rather, we can assume that, even before its official appearance, its reception was primarily framed by the transformations that were taking place in the history of folkloric filmmaking and that it was instrumentalized primarily as a source of controversy.

Club-based finch breeding in the Harz, whose viability as a cultural phenomenon the film—in line with the salvage-ethnographic character of the whole series—repeatedly questions, still exists today. In 2014, the German UNESCO Commission added the finch maneuver to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list, which has certainly played a part in the relative popularity that the film is now experiencing in its reuse.30


Video S1. Bird-song Contest with Chaffinches in the Western Harz Mountains by Uda von der Nahmer (1989, Göttingen: IWF). The film portrays an annual competition in which chaffinches compete to produce the longest and most beautiful song. Judges evaluate the songs and award prizes in various categories. Furthermore, the film provides insights into the training of the finches and the club life of their trainers. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 DE.

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Torsten Näser is a permanent lecturer and head of visual anthropology at the Department of Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology at the University of Göttingen. His research interests comprise various aspects of film studies, media anthropology, and visual studies. He is also the spokesperson of the working group “Visual Anthropology” within the German Society for Folklore (DGV). Department of Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology, University of Göttingen, Heinrich-Düker-Weg 14, 37073 Göttingen, Germany; .

1 Torsten Näser, interview with Ulrich Roters, Göttingen, 16 Jan. 2020 (hereafter cited as Roters interview), 01:02:47 (quotation), 00:58:49 (lack of publicity). Here and throughout this essay, translations into English are my own unless otherwise indicated.

2 Bird-Song Contest with Chaffinches in the Western Harz Mountains, by Uda von der Nahmer (IWF, 1989); the credits begin at 00:34:35. For background information on the TIB AV-Portal see the introductory essay to this Focus section.

3 Kulturerbe Niedersachsen, (accessed 7 Oct. 2020); and Finkenmanöver im Westharz, (accessed 7 Oct. 2020).

4 Volkskundliche Kommission für Niedersachsen e.V., (accessed 7 Oct. 2020).

5 Franz Simon and Rolf Wilhelm Brednich, “Volkskundliche Filmarbeit in Niedersachen,” Volkskunde in Niedersachen, 1984, 1:21–22; and Brednich, “Jahrestagung der Volkskundlichen Kommission für Niedersachsen e.V. am 9. April 1984 im Institut für den Wissenschaftlichen Film in Göttingen,” ibid, 1984, 2:56.

6 Minutes of the VKN General Assembly, Brunswick, 22 Apr. 1985, p. 3, loose files, Archive: Lower Saxony Folklore Commission, University of Göttingen, Institute for Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology, Göttingen, Lower Saxony, Germany (hereafter cited as Archive: VKN). Apart from Bird Song-Contest and the film Klaasohm sin HunkNikolaus auf Borkum 1990, by Marlies Backhus and Thomas Hauschild (IWF, 1993), these are the films that can be viewed at the TIB AV-Portal:

7 VKN Founding Protocol, 24 Oct. 1984, p. 2, loose files, Archive: VKN (Petschel as founding member); and Der NHB, (accessed 25 Apr. 2020).

8 Günter Petschel to the President of the NHB, Heinrich Reimers, 30 Apr. 1984, loose files, Archive: VKN; and “Die Volkskundliche Kommission für Niedersachsen e.V. Aufgaben und Ergebnisse” (lecture manuscript), 17 Jan. 1986, loose files, Archive: VKN.

9 Attendance list for the VKN workshop in Göttingen (IWF), 9 Apr. 1984, loose files, Archive: VKN.

10 For Ballhaus’s view see, e.g., Edmund Ballhaus, “Der volkskundliche Film: Ein Beitrag zur Theorie- und Methodendiskussion,” Hessische Blätter für Volkskulturforschung, 1987, 21:108–130; for the general view about this form of scientific film work see, e.g., Werner Petermann, “Geschichte des ethnographischen Films: Ein Überblick,” in Die Fremden sehen: Ethnologie und Film, ed. Margarete Friedrich et al. (Munich: Trickster, 1984), pp. 17–53, esp. p. 17.

11 See, e.g., Peter Fuchs, “Wissenschaftliche ethnographische Filmdokumentation,” Wissenschaftlicher Film, 1991, 42:178–184; and Hans-Ulrich Schlumpf, “Warum mich das Graspfeilspiel der Eipo langweilt: Gedanken zur Wissenschaftlichkeit ethnologischer Filme,” in Mit der Kamera in fremden Kulturen: Aspekte des Films in Ethnologie und Volkskunde, Vol. 1: Interdisziplinäre Reihe, ed. Rolf Husmann (Emsdetten: Gehling, 1987), pp. 49–65.

12 Council of Science and Humanities, “Stellungnahme zum Institut für den wissenschaftlichen Film in Göttingen” (Statement on the Institute for Scientific Film in Göttingen) (Berlin, 1986), p. 50, (accessed 28 Apr. 2020). For more on the council’s tasks see Über uns, “Wissenschaftsrat,” (accessed 28 Apr. 2020).

13 Council of Science and Humanities, “Stellungnahme zum Institut für den wissenschaftlichen Film in Göttingen.” In its reply to the council’s statement, the IWF noted that a research assistant was employed for the film series on a temporary basis. See “Stellungnahme des IWF zur Stellungnahme des Wissenschaftsrats,” 9 Feb. 1987, loose files, Archive: VKN.

14 Saline Luisenhall, Göttingen—Arbeitsalltag in einer Siedepfannensaline, by Edmund Ballhaus (IWF, 1986), Regarding the importance of this film see, e.g., Peter Gürge, Kulturwissenschaftliches Filmen im Umbruch: Die Filmarbeit von Edmund Ballhaus (2007), pp. 98, 111, 430, 431, (accessed 28 Apr. 2020); and Edmund Ballhaus, “Rede und Antwort, Antwort oder Rede: Interviewformen im kulturwissenschaftlichen Film,” in Interview und Film: Volkskundliche und Ethnologische Ansätze zu Methodik und Analyse, Vol. 9: Münsteraner Schriften zur Volkskunde/Europäischen Ethnologie, ed. Joachim Wossidlo and Ulrich Roters (Münster: Waxmann, 2003), pp. 11–49, on p. 18.

15 Agreement between IWF and Uda von der Nahmer, Folder V 2711 Finkenmanöver, TIB-Archive: IWF-Bestand, Hannover, Lower Saxony, Germany (hereafter cited as V 2711, Archive: IWF).

16 Torsten Näser, interview with Uda von der Nahmer, Göttingen/Hessisch Oldendorf, 4 Feb. 2020, 00:07:01 (finchers’ skepticism), 00:02:32 (Dieter Spormann).

17 Production Application 1, 9 Feb. 1989; and Production Application 4, 17 Sept. 1991: V 2711, Archive: IWF.

18 Production Application 2, 25 Apr. 1991; and comparison of Production Application 1, 9 Feb. 1989, and Production Application 2, 25 Apr. 1991: V 2711, Archive: IWF.

19 Communication to the management, 30 Mar. 1989, V 2711, Archive: IWF.

20 Information regarding the course of events during shooting comes from Roters interview, 00:31:20–00:39:29. Handwritten notes for planning the interview with the finchers are in Hohegeiss, V 2711, Archive: IWF; see also transcript of interview with Spormann, 17 Sept. 1990, V 2711, Archive: IWF.

21 Regarding the editing and postproduction work see Roters interview, 00:52:55. For a draft of the narration by Van der Nahmer and revisions, probably by Roters, see V 2711, Archive: IWF.

22 Draft narration text by Von der Nahmer, pp. 4, 5, 3, V 2711, Archive: IWF.

23 Questions for the Spormann interview, V 2711, Archive: IWF.

24 See, e.g., Jochen Gläser, Wissenschaftliche Produktionsgemeinschaften: Die soziale Ordnung der Forschung (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2006), p. 69.

25 Roters interview, 00:59:01 (“story of a traumatization”); Walter Dehnert, “Volkskundlicher Film im Fernsehen: Die Filmautorin Ingeborg Weber-Kellermann,” in Kulturwissenschaft, Film und Öffentlichkeit, ed. Edmund Ballhaus (Münster: Waxmann, 2011), pp. 133–141; and Torsten Näser and Frauke Paech, “Inventur und Perspektive: Die dgv-Kommission für Film und audio-visuelle Anthropologie,” Kulturen, 2016, 2:7–19, esp. p. 9.

26 Roters interview, 01:0318, 01:02:30, 01:03:43; and Olaf Bockhorn and Ulrike Kammerhofer, “‘Brauch und Fest im Wandel’: Arbeitstagung der Kommission für den volkskundlichen Film in der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Volkskunde in Salzburg,” Österreichische Zeitschrift für Volkskunde, 1990, 1:466–469, on p. 467.

27 Memories and present-day assessments of the conference discussions are from Roters interview, 01:01:37–01:11:31.

28 Dieter Spormann to Ulrich Roters, 9 Dec. 1990, V 2711, Archive: IWF; and Karoline Gindl et al., “Wenn die Bilder doch endlich laufen lernen dürften … Anmerkungen zu einer Arbeitstagung über den volkskundlichen Film,” Österreich. Z. Volkskunde, 1990, 1:469–472, on p. 471.

29 Registration for approval/Minutes of review meeting, 9 July 1991, V 2711, Archive: IWF; and Roters interview, 00:58:49.

30 Unesco, (accessed 13 Dec. 2019).