A black screen: a circle appears on the left, with the image of a man seen on his back, and the sound of a drill. Then, a second circle on the right, identical; the man turns around, looks at us looking, turns back. The observer observed. The circles: the front door peephole of an apartment, doubled and turned into two giant eyes, observing through the hallway the front door of the neighbouring apartment and the hallway onto which it opens.
This is the essence of Doctor Korbes: a condensed, prolonged observation of the entrance to the filmmaker’s neighbour’s apartment. The observer, positioning us viewers as identical observers, is filmmaker Derek Howard. The neighbour an older man named Doctor Korbes, who invites prostitutes, runs into trouble with other tenants, collects too much junk, and eventually leaves. We witness it all without much context.
From the start, when a man rings the doorbell and gets no response, we get the sense something is the matter, something is going on. But we only catch bits and pieces, stolen conversation. When later the door is forced open, it becomes clear that things are going from bad to worse. The door is a witness to the series of visitors, a physical witness, suffering; several amendments follow.
The images in the two circles are the same most of the time, but often enough they are not. The differences are sometimes small but when for instance at the end, when the apartment is cleaned out, the differences are substantial; we see different objects carried out simultaneously. It’s an inventive visual form of temporal compaction.
And so we witness the comings and goings of a variety of people: prostitutes, the fire brigade, the police. There’s shouting with the neighbours, and we watch it all as if spying on our own neighbour. The time lapses between events remain unclear. Is it chronological?
Howard’s film is voyeurism par excellence, but it is also voyeurism thematized. The peepholes have reflexive value, showing the limitations of any view of others and the strict positioning of a camera. Our view is first of all limited by the size of the peephole, surrounded by the dark surface of the rest of Howards front door. Second, our view is limited because of its immobility: we are stuck in one position and cannot turn and see what is around the corner or move closer. We remain fixed. (There are instances where the camera seems to zoom, tilt, and pan; how is this done?) And thirdly, there is a space separating us from the space of interest, the hallway that is between us and Korbes’ front door and apartment beyond it.
Secretly watching the neighbour’s front door and apartment; to what extent might this be a violation of his privacy? The hallway separating Howard’s peephole from Korbes’ private quarters is either a semi-public space, accessible to the inhabitants of the building and their visitors and guests, or it is a public space, accessible to all. The inclusion of images of other people, such as a lady sweeping the stairs, enforces this sense of public space, or at least shared and thus not fully private space. What Howard filmed is then accessible to many. We could all look at his door, and inside if it were open. In addition, in the hallway we could step closer and move our heads. Howard’s peephole position remains dissociated.
At times, Korbes approaches Howard’s door and bends in front of it; is he putting something down there? As viewer you almost feel caught out. The neighbour seems unaware of the filming, until he approaches the door and writes something, which – one assumes – is what Howard included as subtitles: “I know you are watching me…”. So what is the arrangement between Korbes and Howard? And how real is all this?
But it doesn’t matter that we don’t know. Knowing more after all would undermine the voyeurship and the sensation it brings with it. And that is what this film is about.