Between 1957 and 1960, Manfred Kirchheimer and his partner Walter Hess shot thousands of feet of 16mm film for a planned documentary about New York City. For years the footage sat in storage, until Kirchheimer began editing it in 1968. Since then he fashioned two features from the material—Claw in 1968 and Dream of a City in 2018. Free Time is the third film assembled from the material.
Shot mostly on the streets and sidewalks of Manhattan’s Washington Heights, Free Time unfolds in areas apart from business and work. Children play games, chase each other through empty lots, hang around hydrants and alleys. Their parents gather on stoops or in shaded doorways to talk and smoke. Some drag out lawn chairs to soak up the sun. Shoppers return home, apartment residents clean windows or carry out old furniture, a janitor bundles up cardboard to recycle. It’s a portrait of a city that even at the time was vanishing.
Free Time screened at last year’s New York Film Festival and opens virtually through Grasshopper Film starting Wednesday, November 11. We spoke with Kirchheimer by phone.
The Film Stage: Can you talk a bit about the original project?
Manfred Kirchheimer: It was something about the glass boxes that were going up and destroying the inner city. I wrote a script, more than two hours I think, that included all sorts of scenes in addition to the glass boxes and the buildings that were being demolished because of them. Walter Hess and I were partners back then. At the time we called the project Dream of the City.
How detailed was the script?
It was shot-by-shot, really. And then as we traveled the city, through Manhattan mostly, we saw things and we converted them. For example, the script called for shots of a wrecking ball, but at the time they were banned from the city. Instead they had this claw-like machine that would grab things. In film terms it was much more dramatic than the ball. So we had an elaborate script which identified shots, but we went outside it whenever necessary.
How much footage did you shoot?
45,000 feet on a 16mm Bolex. I shot it between 1957 and 1960, but we weren’t able to edit it together.
In 1968 I took the material and made a film called Claw, which is all about that machine and the buildings that were being taken down for those glass boxes. The original script called for all sorts of scenes of construction as well as scenes of neighborhoods and nature. Last year I went back to the footage and edited a piece called Dream of a City, which played at the New York Film Festival. And then at the beginning of this year I edited another piece from other material, neighborhood scenes, that turned into Free Time.
And this was all shot on a Bolex?
Yes, a hand-wound Bolex, with a hundred-foot drive. It gave you images that were rock solid—unlike the Éclair, for example.
We had three lenses on a turret and one extra lens we could screw in. A ten millimeter, 16 millimeter, 25—which was considered the normal lens—and a 75 millimeter. In a lot of the neighborhoods we used the telephoto, the 75, so we could set up across the street from the action and not be noticed.
We used Plus X reversal, which had an ASA of 50.
So you were limited to pretty bright conditions?
Well, let’s say daylight. It was okay without sun. We shot the sculptural material in the shade on purpose so you could see the details. Plus-X 50 has quite a range, except it’s no good at night or in dark or rainy situations.
There’s an unusual spontaneity to much of Free Time. How did you decide what to shoot?
Take the first sequence, the kids playing stickball in front of the older people sitting outdoors. That was in Washington Heights. We went up there knowing we wanted to shoot some older people, some younger, and we wanted street games. Nowadays you don’t see kids on the street anymore—not in Manhattan, anyway. When I was young, I would try to get my homework done and then go out in the street and play. We had lots of games, more than I show in Free Time. There’s stickball, and skelly which was played with bottlecaps, and we see kids playing with streamers and balancing on logs.
Where would you place the camera? Were you worried about people making eye contact with the lens?
We were mainly across the street. Occasionally people look into the camera and are aware of the camera, but that doesn’t stop them from doing their thing. Some people we directed. For example, the janitor who’s looking for his broom: he knew what was going to happen, that the kids were going to take his broom. But I think you’ll agree that most of the people look natural. They’re not playing up to the camera except in one little scene, where you see my dad dancing a bit. He had picked up the Sunday paper and was coming back home.
Do you think people responded differently to cameras in the 1950s?
Absolutely. A camera was a rare thing. I lived in Washington Heights and I don’t have a single photo of the neighborhood. You took a camera with you when you went on outings to Fort Tryon Park or Staten Island, but otherwise they were rare.
But I think also my experience after shooting with cameras all my life is that after the beginning, people get used to them. They might look at the camera for a few minutes, but then if the camera sticks around and they don’t hear it running, they stop. Sometimes kids would say, “Take a picture of me, mister.”
Your camera captures so many contained moments, distinct actions that start and end within one shot. How do you prepare for those?
It’s mostly improvised. I mean, we would be across the street, maybe at the top of a stoop so we were higher than the sidewalk, and we shot whatever we saw across the street. And that’s one of the things we saw.
In one shot a man walks down the steps of the stoop to throw away some trash and then a woman walks by in the opposite direction with her dog.
All in the same shot. It amazed me when I saw it after all these years. Back then we knew we wanted to show stickball, street games, we knew we wanted people sitting. That probably would have made up about five minutes of the film we were making. But now I can come back to the footage I like because the material works.
About the stickball, when the cops came, the kids really had to run because it was illegal to play on the street. The cops would take their sticks. And I read in the Times once that they would use the sticks out in their backyards in Queens or wherever to prop up their tomato plants. I wrote a little scene for that in the script, but we never got around to shooting it.
Free Time has a distinctive soundtrack. Did you record any live sound while you were filming?
No, I used a sound-effects library later when I was editing.
Were you thinking about what music to use while you were shooting?
I wasn’t even thinking about music when I edited the silent version. Only when I finished a silent cut did I start planning the music. When you have an MOS film, you edit it first, before the soundtrack. That’s not how editors work today, now they have to do everything at once. The picture editing, the sound editing, they have to do a provisional mix—they have to find music and so on. Back then we just did the silent edit and then sent the film to the lab. Nowadays you do everything on a computer, which I adore. I love editing. And I’m still on Final Cut 7.
Right now I’m on sort of a [Maurice] Ravel kick; I don’t think he ever wrote a bad piece. So I chose some of his music when it worked and went from there to [Hanns] Eisler and some jazz where I thought it was appropriate.
Did adding music affect your cut?
No, I didn’t touch the film after I made my silent cut. I never do. Occasionally I cut a scene for timing, but I didn’t have to do that here.
I’m curious about your influences. There’s some feeling of Helen Levitt’s In the Street in Free Time. I also thought of Ralph Steiner.
Levitt, of course, of course. Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke were small influences. Walter Ruttman and the city symphony movement, they didn’t really have an influence on what Walter and I were shooting. Reviewers have been calling Free Time a city symphony, but I call it montage. Everything I do is one shot slapped to another: montage. I’m a film editor, I’ve been a film editor all my life.
My greatest influence was Leo Hurwitz. I saw his films and I wanted to be attached to him. We turned out to be friends; we would meet twice a week. I shot four films for him, maybe more, I can’t remember. Sidney Meyers was a big influence, and of course there was Hans Richter, who was my teacher at City College.
Richter ran the film department there. We became buddies; I worked for him after school. He was so direct and honest. And even though he didn’t make the kind of films that I made, he had great integrity and enthusiasm for film. He was his own man, I learned that from him. He wouldn’t let anything influence him. He expressed himself in his own way, even though that wasn’t the way I was going to go. So those were my big influences.
Do you have more projects planned?
I’m working on a film called Daughters in which I interview nine older women whose mothers have died. They don’t pull their punches. I interviewed them about their relationships to their mothers and a bit about their fathers. So it’s a talking-heads film. What I like to do is I alternate styles in my films. Between last year’s Dream of the City and this year’s Free Time I made a film called Middle Class Money Honey, a talking-head film about people’s relationship to money.
Free Time enters virtual cinemas on Wednesday, November 11.