In 1988 Jens Michael Schau killed his life companion of thirteen years in a jealousy fit. As his partner was Denmark’s best selling author and leading open homosexual Christian Kampmann the scandal was unprecedented. What went wrong?

Willemien Sanders
Dr. Willemien Sanders, lecturer, department of media and culture studies, Utrecht University.

In this new documentary by award winning director Jonas Poher, Jens Michael Schau tells his story for the first time.

What he did becomes clear quite quickly:  Jens Michael Schau killed his lover, the well known author Christian Kampmann; a horrible and unforgivable deed, Schau himself is the first to admit. Now he has served his sentence and has been placed back into society. He is not quite ready to cope with it and, so he fears, neither is society.

What he did is an exceptional film in that it shows a number of challenges in documentary filmmaking: how do you deal with a participant who is not very talkative, even if he has interesting things to say? How do you visualise events of which there are no images?  Filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen found a way to deal with both: he made the interaction with Schau part of the film and he uses recordings of a stage adaptation of Schau’s autobiographical novel by the Mungo Park Theatre to fill in some visual and audio-gaps.

The story of the tragedy is not very exceptional. Theatre director Martin Lyngbo even calls it “a textbook case” crime of passion. Schau was trained as a psychologist. In the mid-1980s he was at the beginning of his writing career. He was also 9 years younger than the acclaimed Kampmann, suffered from insecurity and had a hard time coping with the open relationship they had from time to time, which was the spirit of the 80s. In addition, he was worried about the AIDS epidemic raging in the gay scene at the time. His parents rejected him after his coming out. Afraid of being left alone and unable to cope with his anxieties, he killed his lover of 13 years in a fit of uncontrolled rage and jealousy, or so it seems.

Det han gjorde

Years later we see a fragile old man, bald, white moustache, struggling to accept what he has done and to allow the years he shared with Kampmann to have a place in his life. He is afraid to be rejected by society, avoiding the streets for fear of meeting former friends and offending people with his presence, and hence locking himself up – again – in his house. Being an author, he trusted his story to paper and apparently feels uncomfortable talking about it, represented as someone who only answers when posed a question, and he does it monosyllabic, while looking at the filmmaker with big, open, questioning eyes. Rather than the story itself it is the interaction between theatre and documentary, the interaction between Rasmussen and Schau, and the relationship between these two narrative lines that makes the film worthwhile.

The film starts with the Schau-Rasmussen relationship. In an audio scene, the first response Schau gives is: “Do we have to talk about that?” to then answer the question. It sets the tone. There are continuous negotiations about what they will do and whether that is suitable for the film. Schau decides that old photos are not. Little seems established beforehand. Rasmussen apparently learns about a public reading Schau is giving through an on camera phone call from the publisher. The collaboration seems to have gained shape on camera at least as much as off camera.

Jens Michael Schau

The other line in the film’s narrative is the theatre rehearsals and performances. They hypothesize what happened between the two men as the actors re-enact the events. They also include discussion of the play by the actors, both in reading sessions and on stage, and therefore the play works on reflexive level. The actors discuss how to interpret the story: “He’s killed another human being.” “Then let’s go with that.” This suggests that, even if it is a ‘text book crime of passion’, it is not desirable to just stage the events. They need to be framed, discussed, interpreted, and the play needs to be accounted for. As a result, the discussion that seems impossible between Schau and Rasmussen (“do we have to talk about this?”) takes place in the group of performers, as part of the play, connecting the two narrative lines and making the film come full circle.

The film also includes some archival material, such as news footage and animated sequences of statistical data about the gay scene in the 1980s. It sits awkwardly among the very personal and intimate story, as it feels detached and extremely impersonal. As a Brechtian  alienation tool is aligns with the discussion of the play by the actors in the play, but it is not very convincing and feels rather out of place.

But apart from that, What He Did is as much about the story of a crime of passion as about the question how to tell such a story.

What He Did

 

 


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