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.
"Suddenly something like this came up, and almost like a thorn in your skin, I constantly thought about it. After a while I said, 'Why, that's a big challenge which I guess won't be offered again in my lifetime,' and I was pretty sure later I wouldn't be able to handle it anymore. In a way, it was the last chance to do something very different."
At CalArts, he heads a department of almost 400 people, 320 of them students. "That's a lot of administration, which I have to learn by doing it," he said. "I'm still learning. What I've done so far is managing catastrophes."
Since the Jan. 17 earthquake and subsequent aftershocks made it impossible to conduct classes on CalArts' Valencia campus, a makeshift film and video school has been set up in a vacant Lockheed research center in Rye Canyon.
Bitomsky had been through one small jolt in Germany, "but nothing of this scale," he said. "This was a real initiation. What we didn't know in the beginning was the scenario of it. You see, we were expecting the end of the world after the very first shock. We thought, everything is standing, so this must be the beginning of it. It will get worse and worse.
"My wife--she was scared a lot in the beginning--she said, 'Let's go back to Germany. It's like California is a beautiful fruit from the outside, but in there, there's some evil. It's just the whole nature, which has some incredible evil depth which is calling for you.' "
For Bitomsky, it started "to get adventurous," he said. "In a way it intensifies your sensations. After a while this goes back to the normal, and you start to miss it, this being excited all the time. It's perhaps the same when you are making a film. You put so much in it, and when it's finished, sometimes it seems there's no purpose anymore for your life because you can't start right away with a new project because you're much too exhausted. But you miss this kind of excitement and investing all your forces and imagination into one focused spot."
Though no one seeks out catastrophes, the earthquake gave Bitomsky "a big chance to take a fast-forward look into the mechanism of this place," he said, referring to the whole of CalArts. "A lot of problems came from all directions at one time, and you had to be on alert. So many things I wouldn't have discovered--how things were linked to each other in the school. Nobody would tell me, since for everybody else, it was the normal way. So in a way I was benefiting from it."
There are some benefits in the temporary campus as well.
"My school had been dispersed all over the old campus. For the very first time, we are almost under one roof," he said. "I think a couple of students have seen their dean for the very first time. So a very good atmosphere of belonging together has been created by that."
And the earthquake has served as a catalyst for future improvements. "We have had three different computer labs belonging to different departments of the school," Bitomsky said. In the Lockheed facility, they had to put two of them together. "To make it short, I could convince all my program heads--who had territorial considerations--I could convince them for the future to form one big, very efficient computer lab making better use of our resources. This could happen only because we were here."
Bitomsky likened his school to a "huge tanker, and it takes time to give it just a slight new direction."
"You can't say, 'Here's the master plan, now everybody has to fit into it.' I've seen a lot of people running film schools, coming there and trying to design everything. They failed because you deal with people, with structures.
"I rather see myself as somebody who's digging out the talents which are there and giving them a certain direction. But that is more or less of a philosophical kind--how to handle things, reflect on them--than to set a completely different set of goals for the whole thing."
This semester, he is teaching a documentary class. He plans to teach "where I feel there is something missing," he said. "I teach a documentary class since there is nobody else who is teaching this area. And I think although students might not be interested personally in this area, it's still a healthy experience. Knowing something about documentary film could be something they will benefit from when they are making their own films.
"And I like teaching. I'll do it not only to escape from the administrative work, but because teaching is interesting. You always have to re-evaluate your position. Sometimes you meet some very old questions, which come up all the time, and every time there's something different to the question of students, and so it vivifies your own system of thinking."
He also sees potential for development in other areas.
"A lot of filmmaking here is strictly experimental, and experimental and narrative filmmaking seem to be in opposition. I'm astonished about that because there are a lot of highly advanced ways of telling stories," he said. "The 20th Century is full of writers who worked on different ways of telling stories and tried to reveal all the potential which is in narrative storytelling.
"But in cinema, it's still 19th Century concerning stories, always the same kind of structure. I think we can try to push narrative filmmaking in a different direction.
"What I would like to give back is the knowledge that we could do much more with our tools, with our means of expression. The range of what our tools permit us to do is much wider than the actual use of them."