The Adventures of Tyler the Film Student
by Bill Hutchison
Graduate Fellows Manager
While there’s only one Maya—there she is, walking there in the tall grass—her audience realizes how many actors must have played her during the filming of the movie. The actors playing Maya didn’t quit, of course. They died. Or were killed. Or accidentally flew out the window. That’s how it goes when you’re filming a movie in which your actors are mostly bugs. Wolfram Junghans’s 1925 film, Die Biene Maja und ihre Abenteuer, or The Adventures of Maya the Bee, took three years—and countless insects—to film. Jittery and sepia-tinted, the 90-year-old film tells the story of Maya the Bee’s adventures in the world beyond her hive. She encounters caterpillars, wasps, grasshoppers, and a feisty beetle who rescues her from a spider’s web. But of course, the beetle doesn’t really rescue her. Once the spider has killed Maya, her umpteenth replacement steps in to star in the escape. To contemporary audiences, Junghans’s movie looks a lot like bugs doing bug stuff while someone films, with some intertitles suggesting a rough narrative. But it’s so much more. It’s one of many films made in Weimar Germany that took a didactic approach to science and hygiene, aimed at the moral and sanitary education of its citizens. And in terms of capturing insects on film, it’s a cinematic marvel.
The Arts, Science & Culture Initiative has among this year’s Graduate Fellows an expert on this strange and revealing subgenre of interwar German film—Tyler Schroeder, a fourth year PhD student in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies. As an undergraduate, Schroeder’s academic interests were mostly literary. But his interest in a 19th-century German realist novel called Effi Briest led him to write a thesis on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 film adaptation of the novel. He liked the result. “Dealing with films and images allowed me the pleasure of taking something apart and getting some real critical distance on it,” Schroeder says. “Also, at the time, Fassbinder seemed really cool to me. He wore a lot of leather, did a lot of drugs, made around 40 films and died in his 30’s.” Though he’d never really been a “movie guy” before that, Schroeder’s intellectual curiosity was piqued.
The turn to film led Schroeder to the University of Chicago and his project on the “Kulturfilm”—instructive movies about best practices in life and work, and illuminating views of scientific subjects. But Schroeder isn’t driven to these films simply by enjoyment of them. It’s something more important than that. “One of the best things this work does is help me find purchase in the world around myself.” The fact of a material world that exists around and behind the flickering images on his screen makes it possible for Schroeder to think carefully about the whole chaotic business of existence, organized momentarily into long strips of celluloid.
There’s a place where they have innumerable strips of such celluloid, and Schroeder wants to go there. He’ll be using his Fellow’s grant to travel to Berlin and Dresden to look at state and federal film archives. Schroeder has great archive stories, like visiting film vaults where specialized employees had to carefully thread film into a projector for an audience of one. Or the time a museum administrator handed him a stack of DVDs—“no one has asked for these in a year!”—to which he responded by holding up his DVD-drive-less MacBook Air and shrugging. He ended up watching the DVDs hunched over the administrator’s office computer while she sat right outside. “After that first day,” Schroeder says, “I immediately went to Saturn, the German Best Buy, and bought a DVD drive.”
As Schroeder prepares for his trip to study in Germany, he reflects on the year spent with the other Fellows. He describes it as a year of “down to earth” conversations, without the stress or competition that can come with some academic environments. “It let us think more freely,” he says. “I could be exposed to the environments of other people and see what worlds they lived in.” He had a soft spot for the lab visits – “when I was 11, I had a little laboratory set up in our basement where I could look at things under a microscope. I’ve always been drawn to laboratory spaces, whether real or imagined.” Whether under the microscope, on the screen, or around the dinner table with the Fellows, Schroeder is looking in order to understand. Of the Fellows, and with the insightful summary that characterizes most conversations with him, Schroeder says, “We were all looking for ourselves in each other this year, and the further away the discipline, the harder I wanted to look. That’s the great constructive challenge of this program.”