Dieter Rams is done giving interviews, and Gary Hustwit can only poke at his tempeh hash with a laugh here and a sigh there, hoping he did the legend justice.
I sit with Hustwit in a chilly Chicago diner before screening the film later that night at its Midwestern premiere. Hustwit cannot know this documentary represents the last time Rams will speak to the press, of course, but Rams has certainly left him with that impression.
“He feels that’s the last interview he has to do. Seriously, he’s not doing any others,” says Hustwit. “I think he’s tired of talking and saying the same thing. He wants his books and this film going out and doing the talking.”
You know Hustwit from his design trilogy of documentaries: Helvetica, Objectified, and Urbanized, about typefaces, industrial design, and architecture, respectively. Hustwit’s new film is not about a topic, but a person. Rams is a 75-minute profile of the most influential designer of our lifetimes–the architect-turned industrial designer whose team ushered in the modern era of consumer technology in the 1950s and ’60s at Braun, creating the de facto template of beautiful, usable minimalism upon which most devices are made today at companies across the globe.
Rams is known for saying that “good design is as little design as possible.” But in Rams, addressing a world that throws away its phones every two years and can’t look away from a screen, he’s tweaked the message a bit. “Less would be better everywhere,” he says.
If it is his last interview, though, Rams is a fitting mic drop that directly questions the design teams from companies like Apple and Facebook that have already lined up to see the film in idolization. “In a way, he’s kind of challenging the design world in this film, sort of laying down a challenge to do better,” says Hustwit.
Rams’s evolving philosophy regarding his own legacy is what drew Hustwit to profile the designer in the first place. The two first met when filming Objectified, and Rams revealed that, if he could do it all over again, he wouldn’t have become a designer, because design had been misused as a tool for excess. It’s an interview that would stick with Hustwit, even after his “design trilogy” was over. He always thought someone, perhaps a German filmmaker, would do the quintessential documentary on Dieter Rams. Then no one did.
“I could see the movie in my head. I could hear it,” says Hustwit. “Once I can see and hear a film that does not exist in my head, and think, ‘That would be amazing, I really want to watch that film!’–that kind of takes hold and pushes me to make it.”
Exactly how Hustwit courted Rams to be in the film is something he glosses over, even when pressed. What I gather is that Rams, now age 86, did not want to make the movie–he felt like he’d already talked enough. But Rams also hinted that the only way he’d consider making the film was if Hustwit himself directed it, which only put more pressure on Hustwit. “If I was the only one he was going to let do it, then I had a responsibility to actually, like, make it,” says Hustwit. So the moment Rams agreed, Hustwit booked a ticket to Germany and began his first week of filming.
Three and a half years later, we get a look at the resulting product.
In Rams, crisp cinematography, as poised as a T3 Pocket Radio, frames the designer through interviews in the two opposing worlds he primarily frequents. One is inside his home office, a heavenly shrine to his design that literally glows on screen. In this realm, Rams is almost a deity of minimalism, sitting amongst stark Vitsœ shelving and Braun equipment.
The other is outside his home, in a backyard, where deep green bonsai trees and a rich aqua pool flood your senses through the screen. In his office, Rams is an authority on design. But outside, he and his wife, Ingeborg, are gardeners, and both take turns giggling to the camera with delight of the natural. Where he is happiest, and why, isn’t even a question in your mind.
For the remainder of the film, Hustwit follows Rams to speaking engagements and museum exhibit openings, while digging deep into the history of Braun and the influential Ulm School of Design.
Through archival photos and footage, Braun’s sacred design team is outed as a jazz-loving, chain-smoking crew, obsessed with making stereos and lighters largely to satisfy self-interest as much as anything else. It’s clear that AMC missed the perfect opportunity for a German Mad Men spinoff.
“Were there any women on the design team?” Hustwit asks at one point during the film.
“Nein!” Rams shouts, mocking the ignorance of the times.
Indeed, the biggest surprise to anyone in the audience will likely be the same thing that surprised Hustwit himself: Rams, as buttoned up as he may appear, is hilarious.
At one point during the documentary, Rams is instructed to walk through the Vitra Design Museum and critique the extensive collection of priceless, influential chairs. He revels in the practice as only a designer in his golden years can. His shots at Frank Gehry and Philippe Starck–a perfect balance of academically grounded shade–filled the audience with deep belly laughs.
It’s also a moment that made me wonder who this movie was really made for. Hustwit’s design trilogy was actually posed to a more mainstream viewer–imparting, “hey, this is why fonts and buildings are important!”–which is an approach Hustwit attributes to his own outsider nature to the world of design. But I’m not sure a layperson could watch Rams and capture its full significance as a perfectly kerned “F U” to the contemporary design world.
That is because Rams clearly wasn’t made for normies; even Hustwit admits it was made for designers first. Many will be lured into this honeypot promising a rare peek into the world of a design god, only to be shamed for their complicity in the world he helped create. Over 75 minutes, Rams indicts himself, and his industry, for destroying the environment with objects people don’t need, and distracting the world with screens they cannot ignore. In what may be the film’s most damning moment, Rams walks into an Apple store in London, and looks at a tablet with a detached sadness, while lamenting that people don’t look each other in the eye anymore.
“I am of the opinion that all this digitization now is becoming more and more a part of our life. I think it diminishes our ability to experience things,” says Rams. “There are pictures that disappear, one after the other, without leaving traces up here [pointing to his head]. This goes insanely fast. And maybe that’s why we can, or we want to, consume so much. The world that can be perceived through the senses exudes an aura that I believe cannot be digitized. We have to be careful now, that we rule over the digital world, and are not ruled by it.”
As we wrap our lunch, Hustwit tells me how well the San Francisco premiere went two days earlier. 1,400 people bought out the theater, and nearly a thousand more people grabbed tickets for a second showing. “The whole Apple design team came, Facebook, everybody,” he says, still buzzing from the moment.
“I love that Apple and Facebook are there, and Dieter Rams is on screen yelling, ‘All this stuff you are creating is terrible!’” I respond.
“Totally. That’s why I do feel like it’s a challenge to the design world to reassess what we’re producing, why we’re producing it, and how we could do it better. Do we really need all this stuff?” asks Hustwit, in a way he knows his question isn’t even a question. “San Francisco is the center of the design world, packed with all these people, and they’re listening to this 86-year-old German guy in his backyard for an hour and a half, about like, how they’re fucking up. And they’re loving it, and they’re laughing!”
Hopefully, to the point of tears.
Rams is touring the U.S. and Europe now. You can buy tickets here. The film will be released to digital platforms this December.