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Marcus Stiglegger

Out of the graves, out of the rubble …

The German war film in the 1950s



The war film as historical revisionism


The war film as a genre has never had it easy in Germany. Even today people prefer the label “anti-war film” to avoid the impression that a film is guilty of glorifying or trivialising warfare.[i] There is a suggestion that a war film in and of itself exhibits an affirmative attitude – an argument which, when considered analytically, is as difficult to maintain as it is for films which were indeed anti-war films.[ii] The problematic war film discourse may well have its origins in the German position in the Second World War: with the attack on Poland, the occupation of France, the air war over England, the battle for Stalingrad, and not least the “scorched earth policy” in Eastern Europe, Nazi Germany left countless war crimes of Nazi Germany in its wake. In contrast to the United States which intervened as a regulative counterbalance on the side of the Allies, from a German perspective there can be no conceivable utopia of a just war. Both the German Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS were guilty of committing horrendous massacres including against the civilian population. Underlying all this were the regime’s inhuman policies on deportation and extermination. To depict the war from a German perspective meant it was necessary to deal with this part of the nation’s own history – or to edit it out which is tantamount to historical revisionism.

Therefore a compromise was reached which reflected the historical picture of the postwar period. In the films of the 1950s – and it is no coincidence that these films appeared at the same time as the rearmament of the Federal Republic in 1955 – internal polarities were created which circumvented the embarrassment of a friend-foe polarity which often lent itself to the generic war film from the United States. Instead of the demonisation of an external enemy – from a Nazi perspective undoubtedly the United Kingdom and later the Soviet Union – the enemy was conjured up from within the German ranks themselves. Evil manifested itself in loyalty to the recognisably destructive and corrupt Nazi regime. As a member of a supposedly neutral Wehrmacht, the honest soldier was ultimately well suited to be a tragic identification figure, as “one of the people”, initially only following orders, until he rebels at the pivotal moment.

This rarely takes on the form of a system-toppling revolution, but rather is a precarious revolt by the individual against autocratic tyrannical superiors and which ultimately represented the purported dichotomy between the “people” and the “Führer”. The war films of the postwar period essentially suggest that the simple soldier, the submariner or the gallant airmen was an upright and humane representative of Germany who had sometimes himself become a victim of the fanatical elite. The crimes of the Wehrmacht did not fit into this picture. The German war film of the 1950s confirmed the myth of the upright Wehrmacht which Hitler and the SS had led to ruin. The Holocaust – the persecution and extermination of Jews and other victim groups – was usually discussed only on the periphery and almost never in a visually explicit way. According to the logic of the films, responsibility for the crimes lay first and foremost with Hitler, Himmler, Göring, and other representatives of the Nazi regime. The simple soldier on the other hand served as a suitable point of identification for an audience that only too well remembered the bombings, the fallen relatives and sons, and the invasion of the Allies.



The war film as a German genre


From around 1955 the German war film generated a wave of successful productions which were motivated by the establishment of the Bundeswehr and quite possibly also by historical distance (a decade), and by the Cold War between the USSR and the Western powers. They were not always combat films along the lines of the American model which were primarily concerned with battle experience, but harked back to the tried and tested formats of the barrack yard films of the Weimar period or the ever popular doctor films. The film series 08/15 (from 1954) by Paul May, with Joachim Fuchsberger in the lead role and based on the novel of the same name by Hans Hellmut Kirst, dealt with the lives of ordinary soldiers in the army barracks (“Gunner Asch” and “08/15” became familiar terms for the average man). der arzt von stalingrad (FRG 1957/58, The Doctor of Stalingrad) by Genre-Profi Géza von Radvanyi and based on the bestselling novel by Heinz G. Konsalik blended the war film, melodrama, and the medical film. The character of the doctor appeared here as an unproblematic identification figure – a guardian angel free from all ideology. In more combat-oriented films such as Frank Wisbar’s hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben (FRG 1958/59, Dogs, Do You Want to Live Forever) and haie und kleine fische (FRG 1957) the German soldier was depicted as an intrepid and inherently apolitical warrior who of course opposed the Nazi system.

Even the feature films which were directly based on historical characters offered a “critical perspective” when portraying the resistance to Hitler. This is true of the spy thriller canaris (FRG 1954) by Alfred Weidenmann as well as for the Stauffenberg drama of der 20. juli (FRG 1955, The Plot to Assassinate Hitler) by director Falk Harnack. With die brücke (FRG 1959, The Bridge) Bernhard Wicki ultimately created the bitter endpoint of this blossoming of the German war film and in so doing successfully avoided the ideological traps that had exposed his predecessors to criticism. The following text will analyse the war films of the period according to their motifs and approaches and thereby show how these films summarised the social mood of those years.



The construction of the dissident


ein leben für deutschland – admiral canaris: the alternative title of canaris almost overarticulates what this biopic promised its audience at the time. It constructed a hero of the resistance against the criminal regime of the Nazis, and someone who was also in and out of the upper echelons of the leadership. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (O. E. Hasse), head of German counterintelligence between 1937 and 1944 is – so the film reveals – more than critical of the Hitler regime. This eventually brings him into the circle of conspirators against the “Führer”. As a result of this, the chief of security Heydrich (Martin Held) becomes his most dangerous enemy. Heydrich tries to undermine the system from within and in so doing mirrors Adolf Hitler’s earlier insidious subversion of the Weimar Republic.

After Heydrich’s assassination at the hands of Czech dissidents, Canaris temporarily assumes control and warns – in vain – against a war with the Soviet Union. When he joins the conspirators of 20 July he is unmasked by ardent Nazis, removed from his position, and executed as a traitor. He thus becomes a mythical hero of the insurrection, of the failing regicide, who although unable to change the course of history nonetheless shows that there were “upright Germans” even in times of terror. However, measured against the historical figure, this mythologising strategy reveals itself to be a nostalgic image that shamelessly condones historical revisionism. The film also became a censorship case because before the film’s release and following pressure from the Foreign Office, the FSK (Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle der Filmwirtschaft or Voluntary Self Regulation of the Film Industry) recommended the removal of newsreel images of the crowds cheering Hitler’s arrival in Nuremberg. People were reluctant to be reminded of the popular reception which facilitated Hitler’s road to power.

Weidenmann’s production is interested in the elitist but unequivocally moral German of integrity. O. E. Hasse plays Canaris as a superior agent who foresees the downfall of the system in its excess of power. With technical tricks and at the side of beautiful women he projects a type of superior white “elite man” which anticipates a famous British counterpart: James Bond. Unlike his English colleague he has to pay for his rebellious spirit with his life. The German intelligence service is portrayed here as a highly effective and forward-looking institution which to all intents and purposes could have prevented the war – had the upright officer class remained in power. Weidenmann’s film conveys the attitude of “Hitler’s right-wing opponents” around Stauffenberg, who would have indeed eliminated the unpopular tyrant, but who would also have affirmed militarism as a power bloc.

In the same year Helmut Käutner filmed the international success des teufels general (FRG 1954/55, The Devil’s General) based on Carl Zuckmayer’s play and with Curd Jürgens in the title role.[iii] Like canaris the film constructs a spy story around members of the Wehrmacht and SS who are clearly characterised as good or evil. The conventional hierarchy of loyal Wehrmacht officer, SS collaborator, and SS bully is spun out effectively. The film takes place in December 1941. Air Force General Harras (Curd Jürgens) is a bon vivant with a penchant for women and alcohol. Although he is known as a cynical opponent of the Nazi regime, the SS seeks to establish contacts with him for strategic reasons. SS-Gruppenführer Schmidt-Lausitz (Viktor de Kowa) tries to win over Harras at a party but the latter only has eyes for the young Dorothea. Against the warning of his friend Oderbruch (Charles John), Harras ignores the SS threats. He is immediately arrested. His two-week captivity makes him realise that in the Air Force he has made a pact with the devil. In order to take a counter-stance to the regime, he keeps secret a design fault in one of the new aircraft prototypes and in so doing Oderbruch hopes to weaken the its combat effectiveness. Despite further harassment from the SS, Harras protects his friend and at the end he climbs into one of the faulty machines to fly into the airport control centre.

Filmed in Hamburg and Berlin, des teufels general formulates in the same way as canaris the mythical image of the critic of the regime and saboteur in the leadership ranks of the Wehrmacht harassed by the fanatical SS. The protagonist’s end is presented as a soldier’s suicide against the backdrop of a fatefully sombre overcast sky. Helmut Käutner demonstrates in such directorial moments his desire to go far beyond the source play cinematically. Underscoring this ending is the allusion to Airforce General Udet, friend of the author Carl Zuckmayer, who was reported to have crashed in 1941 during a test flight, but who was actually shot. Käutner changed numerous details to make the criticism of the regime clearer and to raise Oderbuch and Harras to the status of clear identification figures. The commercial success of the film and several awards proved him right, even if he had once again affirmed the myth of the upright Wehrmacht and the devious malignant SS.



The simple soldier as victim of a system of injustice


While the aforementioned films thematised resistance among the decision makers of the Nazi regime, a whole series of productions was devoted to the individual hardships and the spirit of revolt among the common soldiers, the so-called Landser. Based on the novels of Hans Hellmut Kirst, Paul May filmed the trilogy 08/15 beginning in 1954 and ending the following year with the second part and 08/15 in der heimat.[iv] The first part takes place in the years before the war and has links with the barrack yard comedies of the Weimar period. In the film we experience the training and bullying in a Wehrmacht barracks from the perspective of Gunner Asch (Joachim Fuchsberger).

Asch adapts and takes sides with his sensitive comrade Vierbein who is almost tortured to death by the “slave-driver of the company” Platzek (Hans Christian Blech). In the second part we meet the protagonists again in the winter of 1942. The section led by Lieutenant Wedelmann (Rainer Penkert) is stationed on the Eastern Front. The non-commissioned officer Vierbein (Paul Bösiger) is meant to be obtaining radio sets in Germany whilst Asch is able to act strategically to relieve Wedelmann’s bullying. Just as they are about to withdraw, the Red Army soldiers strike. Asch loses his comrade Vierbein in battle. The third part takes place again in Germany during the last days of the war. Asch’s battalion is scattered and left to its own devices. The military leadership has disappeared. The fighting had stopped, but Lieutenant Asch pursues his plan of bringing several war criminals to justice.

All three films describe the war events as the everyday life of the soldiers. In military jargon “08/15” meant routine actions which were not to be questioned, even injustices, and to which the soldiers had become accustomed.

This was the experience that the bestselling novels of the veteran Kirst wished to convey and which was welcomed by former Landser as authentic, but which members of the General Staff accused of amounting to “nest-fouling”. The film trilogy creates a lively, entertaining picture of numbing routine with the experienced images of cinematographer Heinz Hölscher. Consequently, the films function somewhat as anecdotal military comedies and avoid overly drastic settlement with Prussian drill. Much more, a joyful vitality shines through in the face of terror and the film spreads a mischievous humour. Again, it is made clear that those responsible for war crimes were the men in the command post: the ordinary soldiers were not to blame.

Frank Wisbar, who had initially emigrated to America, was more consistent in what was later called his “war trilogy” which started with the navy adventure haie und kleine fische (FRG 1957). Based on the novel by Wolfgang Ott (1954), this absorbing U-boat film dramatises one of the most remorseless fronts of the Second World War. The titular metaphor (“sharks and little fish”) which distinguishes minesweepers and submarines refers once again to the rank and file (the “small fish”), who are prey to the generals and the “Führer” (“the sharks”). Wisbar’s film tells the narrative from the perspective of four friends and sailors, Teichmann (Hansjörg Felmy), Heyne (Horst Frank), Stollenberg (Thomas Bride), and Vögele (Ernst Reinhold) who are selected from a minesweeper in 1940 and allocated to a submarine crew. The very first engagement at sea results in one death and several casualties. Unrequited love leads Teichmann to volunteer for a risky submarine mission. When the submarine is hit by a British destroyer, only eight sailors are saved including Teichmann.

As the title suggests, Wisbar is entirely on the side of ordinary servicemen who fight to the best of their knowledge and belief for survival and repeatedly experience their own powerlessness. The example of Heyne, who commits suicide when he learns about the death of his Jewish father in a concentration camp, serves as an indication of the inhumanity of the Nazi system. The famous theme song Verloren, vergessen (“Lost, Forgotten”) by Lotar Olias and Peter Moesser prosecutes a claim for recognition for the selfless military sacrifices of the fallen. Time and again, Wisbar integrates real newsreel excerpts – including in his later works – so that the film has a contemporary feel: haie und kleine fische creates a dense simulation of the submarine war, but remains ideologically indifferent. This is legitimate as long as the film is an attempt to shed light on individual fates in borderline situations, not a reflection of the society of that time. haie und kleine fische is an intensive reflection of the mood of those years in which the war is still a very vivid memory.

The equally successful combat film hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben based on the literary work by Fritz Wöss refers in its title to a quotation of Frederick the Great in the battle against the Austrians: “You damned rascals, do you want to live forever?” We witness the downfall of Paulus’ army at Stalingrad, widely reproduced in historical newsreel images, from the perspective of the idealistic, National Socialist-educated Lieutenant Wisse (Joachim Hansen). The ending is dominated by the lingering prophetic chorus of the Russian propaganda: “Stalingrad – mass grave” Based on detailed research, Wisbar recounts here the attrition of the individual as a consequence of a fatal military logic. In order to manage with relatively simple means of production, Wisbar creates a montage of documentary material from the historical battle with studio-created street scenes. His idea of the authenticity of representation also led to the recruitment of genuine war veterans as extras. In order to leave the audience alone with the ending, Wisbar dispensed with closing credits.



Stauffenberg – the conservative dissident


For many decades Claus von Stauffenberg was considered an aristocratic hero figure in the fight against the Nazis. Current discourse, however, emphasises the assassination attempt as an act of “right-wing resistance” against Hitler since the circle from which Stauffenberg came was in no way interested in overcoming militarism[v]: he was a conservative dissident representative of a group of military personnel disappointed by the Nazis but who had nonetheless come to power through Hitler. Georg Wilhelm Pabst was a filmmaker interested in early psychoanalysis and, based on this idea, developed inter alia an exemplary portrait of the political events through which the Nazi Reich came to collapse.

der letzte akt (The Last Ten Days) was made by Pabst in 1954/55 in Austria and is a long-forgotten chamber drama about the last days in the Führer bunker. Based on a book by Michael A. Musmannoi,[vi] the situation is described from the perspective of Richard Wüst (Oskar Werner), a holder of the Knight’s Cross but critical of the regime. Wüst is sent to request reinforcements from Hitler (Albin Skoda) but fails in his attempt to gain admittance. We experience the collapse of the system with him. Wüst is only received when Hitler decides to blow up the tunnels of the Berlin U-Bahn, a source of shelter for the population.

Pabst’s film was the first German postwar film to depict Hitler. The film only attracted small audiences in Germany but interest was greater abroad. The author of the original text later became a judge at the Nuremberg Trials. Although he and Pabst consulted Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge during their research, they respected her request not to appear in the film herself.

After he had told his version of the end, Pabst set about making es geschah am 20. Juli (FRG 1955, It Happened on July 20th) in which he reconstructed Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt of 20 July 1944 in a quasi-documentary form using Erich Maria Remarque’s novella as a basis. Some actors of the previous film kept their roles (for example Willy Krause as Goebbels). As if following the agenda of the day, the film begins like on the morning of 20 July with Stauffenberg (Bernhard Wicki) flying to the Wolf’s Lair in Prussia where he is to place the briefcase he has already prepared under Hitler’s desk. Unexpectedly Hitler survives the attack but the conspirators have already launched their coup, “Operation Valkyrie”. When Stauffenberg arrives in Berlin, the “Führer”, who has been spared from death, has already ordered the suppression of the conspiracy. Stauffenberg is executed in the Bendler Block.

In this film Pabst also avoided the presence of too many Nazi symbols and flags – a picture that newer productions correct. In addition, the director established a spiritual level by having Stauffenberg attend church before the assassination. There, the shocked sacristan comments on his appearance with the line, “I will never forget the face. He had something to arrange with God!”[vii]

Like his co-writer Günther Weisenborn, Falk Harnack was a member of the left-wing resistance and made a parallel film der 20. Juli, also in a semi-documentary style and which to some extent addresses the preparations for the assassination attempt in greater detail.[viii] Apart from their style, the Stauffenberg films strongly resemble earlier resistance films where the positive utopia of effective damage to the dictatorship was linked to the dictatorship’s own protagonists rather than having the theme of resistance “from below”. This also distinguishes the West German point of entry from DEFA films which placed the dissident common soldier or prisoner at the centre.



Dissident war films: Childhood as the last victim


The highly emotionally charged, often melodramatic war film that aimed at identification was soon joined by the dissident war film, a typical example being kinder, mütter und ein general (FRG 1954/55, Children, Mother, and the General) based on the novel by Herbert Reinecker. The film is set towards the end of the Second World War when the regime has lost its power of seduction and most Germans are fearing for their own survival. Nevertheless, young male volunteers are still being won over for the war effort. When a group of fanatical high school students leaves for the front, their mothers determine to bring their sons back. In the Dornberg detachment they encounter army straggler who is stationed there in a unit with disillusioned veterans and stubborn Nazi zealots. In the face of the boys’ idealistic delusions, a disillusioned soldier helps the mothers to hide their sons in a barn before they depart. The film functions over long stretches as a dialogue-driven chamber drama in which different political positions are played out. Fittingly, many of the male and female actors come from a theatre background, amongst them Hans Mahler who later became director of the Hamburg Ohnsorg Theatre. Strikingly, in contrast to the German version the international versions of the film finished on a more pessimistic note: the boys are transported to the front. This film could be seen as a melodrama that distinctly feeds off the emotionality of the mothers towards their sons rather than relying entirely on the criticism of the war policy of the Nazis.

Bernhard Wicki’s now incomparably more famous war film die brücke based on the novel by Gregor Dorfmeister (published in 1958 under the pseudonym of Manfred Gregor) received numerous awards including an Oscar nomination. It depicts the final days of the war in 1945 in a small Bavarian town in which seven still underage boys receive the militarily senseless command to defend a bridge before the advancing American troops. The only adult involved in the mission, Sergeant Heilmann, does not survive long. Left alone to complete their mission, the schoolboys lose their life one after another. At the end when the Allied tanks advance, only one of them is still alive.

False pride, a martial male image, the loss of the father, and the ideological demonisation of the enemy: Wicki makes it clear that these will lead the children to certain death. In the current discourse on child soldiers in the Arab and African context, this model could be re-discussed since die brücke shows emphatically how the Nazi regime was able to hold out for such a long time at the expense of the most vulnerable.

Wicki increases the height of the tragic fall by having the teacher, Stern – who is to blame for their political indoctrination – plead for the boys, not realising that they are to be sent to the home front after one day’s training. The film conveys the image of an innocent but deluded and abused youth[ix] and in doing so has similarities to the redemptive Wehrmacht films, the difference here being that it is indeed about naïve schoolboys.[x] The Florian Geyer Bridge in the Cham district of the Upper Palatinate which can be seen in the film no longer exists, but a plaque refers to this iconic film which more than others before it has created a concentrated image of seduction and destruction in the context of the Second World War. Therefore, it is this work which formulates the clearest appeal against war of the West German war films of the 1950s and offers an effective antidote to the previous revisionist works. The bridge and the children who defend it – that is Germany at the end of the Nazi regime. With the final sentence Wicki recalls another anti-war classic, all quiet on the western front (US 1930): “This occurred on 27 April 1945. It was so insignificant that it was not mentioned in any military report.”


[i] See also Thomas Klein, Marcus Stiglegger, Bodo Traber (eds.): Filmgenres: Kriegsfilm. Stuttgart: Reclam 2006.

[ii] Marcus Stiglegger: Kriegsfilm. In: Thomas Koebner (ed.): Reclams Sachlexikon des Films. Stuttgart: Reclam 2002, pp. 375–378.

[iii] Ulrike Weckel: Geheimnisse eines Kinoerfolgs: Die Verfilmung von des teufels general 1955. In: Gerhard Paul (ed.): Das Jahrhundert der Bilder, Vol. 2: 1949 bis heute. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2009, pp. 130–137.

[iv] Knut Hickethier: 08/15, 08/15 – 2. teil, 08/15 in der heimat. In: Klein, Stiglegger, Traber, et al, pp. 101–106.

[v] Cf. Wolfgang Venohr: Stauffenberg: Symbol des Widerstands. Munich: Herbig 2000.

[vi] Michael A. Musmanno: In zehn Tagen kommt der Tod. Augenzeugen berichten über das Ende Hitlers. Authentische Darstellung der dramatischen Ereignisse der letzten Wochen im Führerbunker der Reichskanzlei. Munich: Droemer 1950.

[vii] Robnik Drehli: Geschichtsästhetik und Affektpolitik. Stauffenberg und der 20. Juli im Film 1948–2008. Vienna: Turia-Kant 2009.

[viii] Claudia Dillmann, Ronny Loewy (ed.): 2x 20. Juli. Die Doppelverfilmung von 1955. Frankfurt: Deutsches Filminstitut 2004.

[ix] Klaus Kanzog: “Warten auf das entscheidende Wort”. Pubertät und Heldenwahn in Bernhard Wickis die brücke (1959). In: Klaus Kanzog (ed.): Der erotische Diskurs: filmische Zeichen und Argumente. Munich: Schaudig, Bauer, Ledig 1989.

[x] Elisabeth Wicki-Endriss: Die Filmlegende Bernhard Wicki: Verstörung – und eine Art von Poesie. Berlin: Henschel 2007.

’SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY was something that was traumatizing me since I was 15 years old,’ says Canadian underground film director Karim Hussain (Offscreen, 2000). ‘I had been doing a Super-8 version of SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY over a period of many years. I started in a very bad place called Ottawa, a very conservative city in Canada where I grew up. I was doing little odd jobs, since about 7, and I would buy Super-8 and shoot film. The Super-8 version had taken a few years, and eventually I came to Montreal where I met Mitch at a film festival. We were interested in the same films, and he was also making short films. So we got together, I helped him out on one of his short films, and afterwards I came to Montreal again to shoot a chunk of the Super-8 SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY.’ Karim Hussain and Mitch Davis are two radical visionaries of independent cinema. Among their very rare projects, mostly made over a long period of time, are the apocalyptic compilation-film SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY and the intense psychological drama DIVIDED INTO ZERO. Both films have earned reputations of legend on the international festival circuits, but neither have been easily available for viewers to encounter on video…

‘I would rather see people have a film experience that they will hate, but never be able to forget…’ is an artistic  credo of Mitch Davis. DIVIDED INTO ZERO and SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY keep this promise. Karim Hussain, a filmmaker specializing in art-house, fantasy and genre cinema, has been making films since seven years of age, starting in Super-8mm and then moving up his first feature film. He has Co-Written the screenplay for the Spanish film BLOODLINE to be shot by Nacho Cerda, Co-Wrote, Co-Produced and Photographed the 35mm short film LA DERNIÈRE VOIX.. His 2nd feature film, the 35mm ASCENSION, he wrote, directed and photographed. His films were shown at many festivals worldwide and were awarded equally often. Very similar reads the biography of Mitch Davis: The Haunted Mansion of Disneyland left a lasting impression on him when he was only six years old. Ever since, the iconography of horror had an iron grip on him. His filmmaking abilities were acquired autodidactly by the extensive study of his favorite films, particularly George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, MARTIN and Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA. ‘I’ve always been a sort of celluloid masochist’, he said in an interview with the :Ikonen: magazine, ‘I really love the films that flood my emotions and make me feel haunted for hours or even days. I love films that hurt me.’ Since 1997 he could go on a quest for such works, as he became a co-director of Montreal’s  FanTasia film festival, where he collaborated with Hussain for many years. He writes for many film publications and has contributed chapters to such books as EYEBALL and ART OF DARKNESS. Davis has also produced RICK TREMBLES’ GOOPY SPASMS LIVE CARTOON SHOW (2004), is Associate Producer of Phillippe Spurrell’s 35mm feature THE DESCENDANT (2005) and is now completing his new film GOD’S LITTLE GIRL (2005), about a woman’s hallucinatory crisis in faith following the cribdeath of her baby.


Looking on Davis’ own cinematic efforts, you will observe, that he has fulfilled his wish for a ‘hurting cinema’ himself: Particularly DIVIDED INTO ZERO cultivates a bizarre visual world that spares no unpleasant detail. This is even more staggering as the movie touches multiple taboos at a single blow: Reclusion and isolation, masochism and sadism, age and pauperization, and last but not least, child abuse – one of the greatest taboos of the western industrial society. In pithy sequences, all these topics are being transformed into highly symbolic arrangements of images and sound, sometimes disconnecting themselves during the film’s 30 minutes of running time from all narrative coherence and evoking a cinema of immediate moments: Davis’ films thus work like a happening, a performance that is eager to raise a direct sensual affect in the viewer. Neither DIVIDED INTO ZERO nor SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY are about a coherent story in the sense of commercial cinema. Both films rather work as collages of desire, fear, of rage and desperation. Human crises are not played down or euphemized by ways of overflowing estheticization – which distincts Davis from his idols Bava and Argento – but are virtually exaggerated into the unbearable. This transforms the short film DIVIDED INTO ZERO, which actually portrays the subjective psychogramme of a dangerous and neurotic killer, also into a ‘cry for help’. The film drives its audience into an ambivalence of agonizing empathy and absolute disgust. Even though the short culminates in the murder of a young girl, it doesn’t solely portray the way of a killer that is paved with anonymous corpses, but also grants some respectful space for the victim. The images of the staring girl, who is already badly wounded, fade just as little as the haunting moments showing the degeneration of the killer’s aging body. DIVIDED INTO ZERO has screened at countless film festivals and museums, including Sitges, Fantasporto and the Warhol Museum. It won the Jury prize at the 1999 Chicago Underground Film Festival.


SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY extends a comparably dramatic concept to feature length. Karim Hussain took on the director’s duties this time, worked on the film for five years. The movie depicts man’s (disturbed) relationship with his environment in three main episodes. In an expressively illuminated introduction, the viewer is prompted to destroy his left, rational half of the brain and to obey to the right, the instinctive hemisphere. The film works on this level: associative, instinctive, animalistic. After a short overture – the ovarian eyeball episode – we slither head over heels into ‘Human Larvae”, the story of a love-hate relationship between a man and his pregnant sister that ends with a dramatic birthing sequence. ‘Rebirth”, the second – less narrative – episode portrays a pagan ceremony, the orgiastic-sexual worship of nature. Naked bodies, soil and trees merge into an archaic celebration of life. The film’s climax and end is ‘The Right Brain / Martydom’, the destructive episode of the movie. Here we take part in the Hieronymus-Bosch-inspired voyage of a man who experiences the violent disintegration of his body and a crucifixion. The individual stations and themes already imply that this film is less about suspenseful story-telling, but rather about the ritualistically structured staging of a shamanistic death vision. ‘It was structured like a fever dream,’ says Hussain in Fangoria (2000), ‘there is not necessarily one consistent narrative. Sometimes it will go off in a very comprehensive tangent and then sometimes it will go completely surrealistic and stream of consciousness. Which is why there are narrative segments in the film, and sometimes valleys, almost like strange commercial pauses in-between the full-on narratives. […] In fact the film is also inspired by education films from the National Film Board of Canada, especially at the beginning, with the very cold and dry explanations about the right brain.’


Hussain’s and Davis’ vision of cinema is that of a deliberate crossing of boundaries. Thereby, the mis-en-scene consciously seeks after niches that allow for a deeper penetration into viewer’s mind. In that respect, they achieve in their own way the cinematic vision of a ‘Theatre of Cruelty”, as conceived by theater-theoretician and actor Antonin Artaud at the beginning of the 20th century. Artaud intended a comprehensive expansion of the audience’s consciousness by all means of the theater. His intention wasn’t necessarily the depiction of violence – admittedly that was also part of it – but the ‘cruelty’ of the mis-en-scene for the viewer. Even before, the Parisian ‘Theatre of Grand Guignol’ presented violent spectacles during which shocking scenes and other sensual motives produced similar effects.


On the other hand, cinema in the likes of Hussain and Davis would not be conceivable without the ever newly defined social boundaries and taboos that are meant to be broken by art. The French philosopher Georges Bataille deemed the artistic crossing of boundaries, the ‘transgression”, the only way to advance to an essence of being, to the ‘sacred’ itself. What Bataille sees as the ’sacred’, manifests itself in a deeply personal existential experience that he expresses in his theory of eroticism. Eroticism in its transcendental quality can only be lived within the realms of a ‘crossing of boundaries”, during which the excess energies are to be ‘wasted” in an orgiastic way. The self-determined existence of man can only unfold in these acts of crossing and the abandonment of an ‘ostracized part” of the self. Thus, Bataille’s theories are of great value for the interpretation of works of art that reside in the irrational. SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY may be regarded in its very own way as a version of border-crossing, transgressive cinema. Hussain and Davis are seeking after an absolute, final truth beyond the banal experience of the ordinary. In their terrifying, oftentimes taboo-breaking visions of sexuality, decay and death, they are approaching the ‘sacred’ that Bataille talks about. For this purpose, they disintegrate rational and narrative references more and more, concentrating entirely on the unsettling ‘dream play’ that originates from the ‘right half of the brain’ (as it is said in the film).

Marcus Stiglegger

Masks and material

Remarks on John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up


52 Pick-Up, a film sadly overseen during his initial run in 1985, is probably one of John Frankenheimer’s more interesting late entries. It is the second adaptation of a thriller novel by Elmore Leonard – the first was done by Cannon regular  director J. Lee Thompson in 1984 (The Ambassador) and moved its plot far away from the source, while 52 Pick-Up stays stunningly close and true to Leonard’s hardboiled dialogue-style and neo(n)-noir aesthetics.

New-Hollywood-star Roy Scheider – who became iconic via Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1974), where he is the over-anxious cop Martin Brody – plays the L.A. business-man Harry Mitchell. This executive type is well-equipped with his  expensive car and villa as well as his attractive wife (Ann Margret) just starting her career in the city council. His life is turned upside down, when three masked hoods appear showing him a videotape of him and his mistress (Kelly Preston). They want 105,000 Dollars. Mitchell refuses to contact the police to protect his wife’s political ambitions.

Harry Mitchell immediatley appears to be a typical Frankenheimer-‘anti’-hero – he fights with his intelligence instead of physical force and starts playing with the gangsters on their own ground. Therefor he is not exactly the typical Charles Bronson-style vigilante character of the Reagan-era of the early eighties. While Mitchell is tracking down the hoods and tries to turn them against each other – which works out at first – the psychopathic leader Alan (John Glover) kills the mistress, a deed the gangsters also film on video, and threatens Mitchell’s wife. Mitchell has to go further – in his own way.

52 Pick-Up, a film buried in the bankruptcy of the Cannon productions studio and only later discovered as a video gem, on the first glance tries to cash-in on the then fashionable Death-Wish-plot, which was the idea of most of Cannon’s films at the time – a normal citizen confronted with depraved gangsters fighting for his own right and taking the law in his hands. In fact Frankenheimer’s effective thriller plays mostly on the psychological level and shows the triumph of tactic and intrigue over archaic violence.

The film is originally cast and can be seen as one of the most effective adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s hardboiled writing on the screen to date. The delicate balance between humour, drama and thrill is still there, spiced with some unsettling scenes of snuff-violence. The most interesting aspect is Harry Mitchell’s attempt to keep his all-day-identity intact while working out his intrigue against the kidnappers. This fight for the perseverance of ‘normality’ is also reflected in the visual style of the film lingering between the ’glitz’ of the Hollywood-Hills and the noir-flavour of the red-light-districts.


The film begins with some panorama air shots of Harry Mitchell’ house outside of Los Angeles. The business man seemingly leads the life a satisfied rich man. Synthie beats by Gary Chang develop the theme of easy going routine in the world of the rich and secure. His wife watches him lovingly, but also with a strange touch of knowledge.

He leaves with his silver sports car, while she also goes to work in a business costume. Floating camera travelling shows their respective ways to work. Harry works in industrial metal and deals with explosives, while she applies for a local political position.

When the couple talks on the phone the wife clearly has a knowing gaze. And indeed Mitchell uses his spare time to visit his mistress Cynthia. But instead of her this time three masked men await him in her shadowy, noir-style apartment. They present him a video showing him and Cynthia, his recent all day double life and his wife. 105,000 dollars is the price for this intimidating tape. Even if we only hear their voices, three characters are already present: a cynic, a fool and rap-style ‘gangsta’.

At home Mitchell has a hard time not to show off in front of his wife. For a long time we only see his face in the foreground, while she works behind him. Again the camera pans back to her, as he hesitates to answer. Masks are what their lives dominates: social masks, but also emotional masks in front of each other. They reduce their relationship to pure materialistic presence.

At work Mitchell tells a friend of his situation. In fact he decided to end the affair at the time he was kept hostage by the gangsters. He decides no to go to police because his wife candidates for council woman of the 13th district of L.A. He does not want to threaten her position. In an impressive melancholic moment Mitchell leaves her election party to get a cigarette. The camera begins to pan back, his face in focus, accompanied by toned down horn harmonies on the soundtrack. As he reaches a window where he can observe the party from the outside, the official and the private room are mingled: We see a photo from happy times showing the couple as if Mitchell’s gaze and his inner vision melt. And in fact the next scene is his confession. He knows that trying to hide this from his wife will weaken him. He tries to play it down: “She’s just a kid,” he says. Barbara insists that their marriage lasted longer than Cynthia has been alive. As he tries to defend his position referring to his loneliness she seems to resign and leaves the room: “You have no idea…” Secretly Barbara watches her husband leave home again by night.

Frankenheimer continues with his associative montage in cutting from this scene to a wooden building with a huge American flag. As the camera moves closer we see Cynthia at a window, staring sadly into the darkness of the night as if reflecting her abuse as a tool in this dirty business: the blackmail of Mitchell with whom she really fell in love. Behind her pop music is pounding and one of the gangsters, the cynic Alan, moves a video camera through the masses of half naked people, as if making a gonzo porn. In fact this scene, in which we see porn star Ron Jeremy in a whirl pool amongst naked girls, reflects the change in the adult film industry in the beginning of the eighties, when the hay day classic 35mm-porn was overrun by a majority of cheap direct to video hand held stuff like filmed here. In his portrayal of this new and totally corrupted porn industry Frankenheimer is clearly on the moralistic side.

Cynthia obviously feels dirty and outworn. She wears pragmatic jeans clothing and marks herself as not part of the scene (any more?). Only her black girlfriend Doreen (played by eighties-pop-star Vanity, then girl-friend of pop singer Prince) seems to care. Cynthia looses her will to live. As the cynic Alan Raimy tries to film her, she violently refuses. Here we see a clear expression of hate in his eyes. He gets her thrown out – only the beginning of fatal events, which we will see. While his gay buddy Leo and rapper Bobby Shy are mainly freaks, Alan is clearly a greedy and dangerous psychopath. And it is he whom Frankenheimer’s direction focuses upon.


At the office Mitchell is offered two tickets for the Dodgers – for him and his girlfriend it says. In fact Bobby is to meet him there to receive the money. Shocked the three gangsters realize later that Mitchell handed them fake money. Alan is out of his mind and immediately overreacts to a passer by. Metal beats on the soundtrack clearly signify a rising danger – a stylistic means well known from Cannon-produced thrillers of the time with Charles Bronson.

Again the montage creates a suspenseful association: Barbara comes home and Alan waits for her posing as an insurance agent. She immediately senses the danger. At the same time Alan calls her ‘slim’, an equivalent to naming his pals ‘sport’. In the car we see the purpose of his breaking in: He has stolen Mitchell’s jacket and his gun. The music now signifies the fatal stream of events by a melodic, nearly bombastic but pulsing synthie-track.

As Bobby forces Mitchell into a darkened room things turn rough: The man is held captive. He senses with shock what he has to witness here. In Alan’s typical gonzo-style camera-work we see how Cynthia is shot with Mitchell’s gun. A piece of wood in front of her breasts is proof of the reality of this execution. We see her shooting in slow motion, see the holes in the wood and the gunshot wounds in her breasts. This brutal and intense scene is remarkable as being probably the closest a narrative film actually came to being an actual snuff-movie. Alan clearly acts as the director of this scene and even gives a director’s running commentary, while Michell is the unwilling audience being confronted with the unnameable: a true crime made into a cynical music video-clip.

The idea of snuff-films showing the real torture and death of human beings goes back to the series of so-called Mondo-documentaries[1] in the 1960s as well as the film Snuff (1972) by Roberta and Michael Findlay that fakes the killing of a naked couple for sexual pleasure. This film is actually the extended version of a originally shelved C-picture called Slaughter (1970) that already referred to a death cult like the Charles Manson-Family. Ed Sanders’ popular account of the Manson-affair The Family (1975) later spread to rumour, the Family might have made snuff-films at the Spahn ranch themselves and came up with the phrase snuff. Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1978) moralistic account of a father saving his daughter from the L.A. porn industry also refers to snuff films said to be made in Latin America – where ‘life is cheap’.[2] Frankenheimer goes the certain step further and states: In every purely commercial and materialistic system life can be cheap. It is material to be used and consumed – the ultimate pornographic philosophy.

To close the circle Mitchell finally realizes that it is the actual site of the murder that he sits on: A shock signified by his shivering face in a close shot. He takes the Mulholland Drive with full speed. This time Frankenheimer uses no music but actual car sounds to dramatize the situation. When Mitchell has finally reached the mountains at sunset a crystal-like harmony underlines his crisis which clearly leads to a certain decision.


The first step is that he shares the story with his disturbed wife. The key image here is remarkable: Husband and wife sit back to back, yet the dialogue shows that they might come closer together.

As Mitchell enters the strip club where Cynthia used to work and which the gay thug Leo Franks (Robert Trebor) owns, Gary Chang fades in the martial drums. Mitchell’s crusade has begun. On the other hand Frankenheimer avoids to step into the action-trap of the time in celebrating a vigilante killing spree. Although Mitchell is clearly the fighter type Korea veteran Roy Scheider shows more wit and intelligence than pure hate and lust for destruction. His revenge will be much more sophisticated than expected.

Yet in this scene another of Cannon’s at the time typical exploitative moments actually occurs: Doreen – interrogated by Mitchell – continually undresses in this situation. Frankenheimer’s direction of this scene uses this sexual overtone to great effect, again stressing out the commercial degradation of the human body. And Doreen’s acquired cynicism. Mitchell takes a picture of the gangster and leaves with Doreen. She gives him the next hint, in form of a riddle. And obviously she takes Mitchell’s money. She still is part of the system and thus – following the logic of the film – is also guilty.

The same happens when he enters Alan Raimy’s adult cinema. The girl at the box office insist on him paying five bucks, although he only wants to see the owner. That is Frankenheimer’s idea of Los Angeles: a city of the fallen Lost Angels.

Alan also refuses to take the money, but this time Mitchell is in charge. He invites the gangster to his company office at night. There he ‘proves’ that he actually is not able to pay the price. Here we learn that Raimy has actually studied economics, but later he discovered ‘better ways to make money’ as he says. Raimy is still cool and chews his gum. But Mitchell seems even more controlled. From being the victim he steadily develops his whip-hand. ‘I want to deal only with you,’ he demands, and plants the seed of his revenge. Asked who gave Mitchell the name he blames it on Leo.

The bond of the thugs is now broke: They don’t trust each other any more. The first result is Bobby threatening Doreen, a scene that begins like a game between lovers, slowly turns into an aggressive torture scene as Bobby is attempting to kill Doreen with a white teddy bear. That again is sexualised by the camera perspective showing the woman’s struggling legs in lingerie. The tension additionally is pushed by the fact that we know what the gangsters are capable of.

As Barbara discovers Mitchell working on his car, she freaks out. On first sight it only underlines his nerves of steel in a moment of crisis – we will later learn what he really does. And as Bobby enters the house, he actually shows that he can fight. This is Frankenheimer’s rare reference to the typical Cannon-style of these years: Hammering synthie-beats and two man fighting for their lives. Again this scene ends in a dialogue, while Barbara takes Bobby’s picture. Mitchell tells Bobby of the money deal with Raimy. Thus the second act of revenge is sealed. And Barbara touches her husband lovingly again. A new kind of trust is established.

It is remarkable here that 1986 was the era of Ronald Reagan’s politics of the new Cold War. It was the era of trained hard bodies, aerobic and body building. And it was the era of what Yvonne Tasker calls the ‘spectacular bodies’: Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan the Barbarian (1982), Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in Rambo – First Blood Part 2 (1984) and later Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1988). Cannon Films followed this trend with action films featuring Jean-Claude van Damme, Dolph Lundgren and in some respect also Charles Bronson. Typical eighties thrillers showed violent heroes solving the problems with brute force. They reflected the martial politics of their time with a gesture of constant threat opposing the ‘liberal’ idea of negotiating and using intelligence instead of a weapon. Harry Mitchell acts the opposite way: He embodies John Frankenheimer’s ideological critique of the affirmative tendencies Hollywood provided at the time. Mitchell turns the systems against itself by recognising its weakness and pushing the right buttons. In this way 52 Pick-Up may be regarded one of Frankenheimer’s late political statements referring back to his earlier Films about individuals against the destructive system. He will later return to this concept in a very radical way with Kyle MacLachlan’s character in the HBO-TV-movies Against the Wall (1994) where the protagonist is clearly marked as a liberal. Harry Mitchell only appears to confirm the system on first glance by representing its executive force – the violent incidents will teach him to change very fast.


Later Bobby catches Raimy shooting a new porn video. He starts to destroy Raimy’s apartment, and finally points the gun between the pornographers legs. This is convincing. Frankenheimer stresses their new pact by changing from confrontational counter-shots to a low wide shot connecting both men.

As Mitchell visits the crying and desperate Leo, this man has already lost. He even proposes to go to the police. His whimpers seem to disgust Mitchell who leaves the place soon.

The kidnapping of Barbara by Raimy is pure thriller routine, done in the professional way by Frankenheimer who is clearly in his element. Raimy’s game showing Barbara the weapon – ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ – is shown from the victim’s point of view, a triumphant smile on his lips and the water reflections on his face. Things now develop fast: Barbara’s attempt to escaped is quietened by force. Later Bobby visits the resigning Leo and his homosexual friend. He plays the macho killer game, even making fun of the man.  Frankenheimer is in his element again: Bobby seemingly has left, and Leo’s lover stands in front of the blue lit shop-window, talking to him. Then the phone rings and at this very moment the glass breaks and a bloody wound appears on the young man’s body. As he falls out of the focus, Bobby is seen in front of a neon-gas-station. Here Frankenheimer clearly aims at stylish and pessimistic neon-noir-aesthetics Abel Ferrara and Michael Mann will be so famous for a few years later. Leo’s time is out. His shooting at the desk is reminiscent of as closing scene in Michael Mann’s Thief (1981), when Robert Prosky is shot in his own living room. But the final mask has yet to fall.

Barbara is not the easy prey as Raimy has to discover, she fights for her dignity. Raimy has to quieten her with drugs. Later he also kills Bobby Shy and Doreen, who also struggles to escape. The women here do not deliver themselves easily into the role of a victim. Frankenheimer uses this incident to play out the spectacle. It ends fast and bloody like before. And while Gary Chang’s beats hammer the two men finally meet on the Terminal Island railroad bridge outside L.A. They exchange the ‘material’ of their macho-game, woman for car and money. But the destructive play of ultra-materialism stills lacks its final twist. In a very over dramatized scene Raimy is finally killed by his own greed. He takes over Mitchell’s sports-car, turn on the stereo and discovers: „This is the first of the last ten seconds of your life.“ As a military march plays in high fidelity, Raimy’s attempts to break out fail and the car blows up in several takes. This might be a second reference to Cannon standards, the happy ending with some drops of blood, the bad guys punished and dead. The camera is slowly panning away into a glorious wide shot of the burning car and the united couple. Synthie beats close this cynical play of masks and material for good.


While 52 Pick-Up is typical for the often cynical or ironic noir-novels Elmore Leonard is so popular for – and clearly an inspiration for the screenplays of Quentin Tarantino – it also provides a lot of resources for the old maverick John Frankenheimer. At this point of his career his glory years were long past. Black Sunday (1976) still had some good reviews, but few critics could understand why he would film a special effects driven nature’s revenge flic like Prophecy (1980). The post-samurai-thriller The Challenge (1982) might have been ahead of its time and was also rejected.

When Cannon Group emerged out of Golan-Globus fused with Thorn EMI in the early eighties, these busy producers were eagerly searching for old professional directors to develop marketable genre films for them. Besides Michael Winner (of Death Wish-fame) John Frankenheimer seemed the right choice for Cannon and they produced three films in row with him. The first one was a rather old fashioned adaptation of a Robert Ludlum best selling novel. With The Holcroft Covenant (1985) Frankenheimer actually reached the end of acceptance for most of his early fans. This international conspiracy thriller only awoke shadows of his early paranoia thrillers made in the sixties and featured a very confused hero with Michael Caine. Originally James Caan was to play the naïve son of a former Nazi business man, whose money was meant to build the Forth Reich.  The film never managed to clear up the twisted plot lines based on the long novel. However the second Cannon-adventure turned out surprisingly different for Frankenheimer. It was made on a similar condition: using at that time second rate stars from the sixties and seventies – Roy Scheider, Ann Margret – and some b-picture new comers – such as Vanity and John Glover, b-picture regulars such as composer Gary Chang and a fairly popular novel as the source, this film also confronts exploitation and trash film elements with the wit and ambition of the old auteur. What could have become a typical Cannon-outing in the hands of their action-regular J. Lee Thompson – who is even older than Frankenheimer – profs to be very tricky in style and direction. Frankenheimer managed to show how a true auteur in the sense of the cahiers du cinéma-theorists can use the Hollywood-mechanism to develop a very personal and original film by combining his favourite elements – the intelligent and flexible man in crisis, a totally corrupted system turned against itself – with the sensations of the day.

So 52 Pick-Up is a truly remarkable Cannon-achievement: It delivers all the goods and still has a European sense of style and artistry. That was probably what they had in mind, even when they hired younger directors such as Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train, Maria’s Lovers, Shy People). Anyway their concept failed and by the time of the third Frankenheimer-collaboration Powerplay (1990) Cannon Group was already in financial problems. All three cannon Group/John Frankenheimer-productions went down in the financial disaster and were later re-distributed by MGM who overtook many Cannon-productions and published them on the international home market.


Most of John Frankenheimer’s films happening around 52 Pick-Up deserve re-evaluation. And 52 Pick-Up and The Challenge might now be seen as typical but also prototypical and at the same time undeniably original eighties-thrillers. Both are playfully and noirishly directed, share a certain amount of viciousness, and especially 52 Pick-Up was directed against the values of Ronald Reagan’s America: with an intellectual hero, who uncovers the corruption of the purely materialistic Hollywood business, says farewell to the new economy status symbols in favour of his beloved wife and wins by using his mind instead of a gun.

And then again: Alan Raimy, who favours the materialistic game that society dictates, is a perverted prototype of the capitalistic boom of the mid-eighties gone mad. He can be seen as the first step leading towards Brad Easton Ellis’ wall-street-serial-killer Patrick Bateman, the ultimate American Psycho, the master of masks and material, for whom human life is just a another commercial toy.


Yvonne Tasker (1993): Spectacular Bodies. Gender, Genre, and the Action- Cinema. London.

[1] Named after Gualtiero and Jacopetti’s pseudo anthopological documentaries Mondo Cane 1 and 2 (1960), both mixing newly shor documentary material with made up sequences and manipulative montage and commentary.

[2]    Mikita Brottman: Offensive Films, Nashville 2005. Here he stresses out that so far no evidence for actual snuff-movies from South America have been discovered by the FBI.

Marcus Stiglegger


Keiju eiga

Utopias and Anti-utopias in Japanese Cinema


Art attempts to create the impossible with limited means. Sometimes this gives birth to works of greatness. Sometimes it leads to giant monsters.

Patrick Macias[1]


‚Each summer a typhoon comes over the southern seas to Japan. Can you imagine what a typhoon is like? A mobile catastrophe. Additionally there are many volcanoes and earthquakes in  Japan, therefore we have to live with this situation. Monsters are a metaphor for this situation. Japanese people are afraid but also in respect facing them. I suppose these feeling are incarnated in the giant monsters from Japan. During the war Japan was bombed. Many cities were turned into burning deserts. Within Japanese people the idea arose that someday all of our cities could simply disappear. That is a premonition rooted deeply in Japanese hearts.’[2] These words by Shinji Higuchi, special-effect-designer of the giant monster film GAMERA – REVENGE OF IRIS (1999), perfectly sum up the end of a cycle, when the traditional giant monster genre in Japan, the keiju-eiga, had long passed its climax. As the series of nuclear explosions happened in the power plant of Fukujima on March 11, 2011, reality broke into this metaphorical culture again. But originally this history began much earlier: right after the Second World War.



The incarnation of primal fear


Japan in the year 1955 – over a decade after the disastrous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the American air force: Near the island of Odo a huge battleship explodes virtually without any reason. Another army ship sent there to uncover the mystery is also destroyed by an unexplainable force. A huge part of the island seems to be under severe attack. Scientists discover huge footprints at the beach of Odo, seemingly radioactive and filled with sand grains and a ‘Trilobite’-crab which are located 10000 miles beneath the sea… Finally the scientists uncover the disastrous reason for all the destruction: a gigantic dinosaur walks the island. They call him Godzilla (from ‘godjira’, the ‘gorilla-whale’), inspired by an ancient myth. This beast is a mixture of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, with the bonespikes on the back reminding of a Stegosaurus. Similar to a dragon’s deadly habit his breath consists of fire.[3] This monster was awakened by the nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean and now is obviously very angry – seeking to destroy the creatures bothering him. Therefore Godzilla is heading towards Tokyo…

All the attempts to stop the giant (including a trap made of high voltage cables and an air force attack) fail. Godzilla crushes huge parts of the city. Within this crisis the administration turns to the scientists: A young man, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), presents his new invention, a mass destruction weapon: the ‘oxygene destroying bomb’, which is capable of sucking oxygen out of the water and disintegrating flesh in this process. This weapon seems to be even more dangerous than the monster itself. The scientist follows Godzilla onto the open sea and sets off the bomb, which kills all organic beings within several miles. Godzilla is destroyed. To prevent the weapon to be misused by the army the scientist burns all his papers and kills himself afterwards to insure that this doomsday weapon might never fall into the wrong hands…

The main source of inspiration concerning the films of the fifties was an American monster-film called THE BEAST FROM 20.000 FATHOMS (1953), where a Rhedosaurus (created by Ray Harryhausen) is revived by nuclear tests in the arctic circle and invades New York. On Coney Island it is trapped in the rollercoaster-construction and killed by an atom bomb (which seems to be no problem for New York). Tomoyuki Tanaka, the producer at Toho-studios then, was impressed by this b-picture, which had such a huge success world wide. He stopped another film-production (BEHIND THE GLORY) in favour of recreating an own Japanese version of this monster-story. Although the contracts were already made there was still no certain idea how this monster could eventually look like. The working title DAI KAIJU NO KATEI NIMAU MARU (‘the beast from 20.000 miles beneath the sea’) pointed out the first idea by special effects designer Eiji Tsuburaya, who went for a giant octopus. Incidentally this was the same idea that Ray Harryhausen realised at that time for the film IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA. So Toho skipped the octopus and decided to create a tyrannosaurus-like monster, a predatory giant walking (or better: stomping) upright on two legs. Science-fiction-writer Shigeru Kayama developed the story and hundreds of storyboard-sketches were drawn in a hurry.

The protagonist of GODZILLA is played by the then popular Japanese actor Takashi Shimura who is also seen in Akira Kurosawa’s films RASHOMON, IKIRU and THE SEVEN SAMURAI. Director Inoshiro Honda, who already was a regular Toho-worker, also had strong connections with Kurosawa (even until KAGEMUSHA in 1980). The main difference to the sensational monster-films by Ray Harryhausen was the principal use of an actor in a rubber costume as GODZILLA rather than the miniature-stop-motion-effects from THE BEAST OF 20.000 FATHOMS. Only the mouth was directed by remote control and the heavy tail hung upon thin wires. To make the movements more ‘gigantic’ all GODZILLA-actions were filmed in slow motion. Only for some minor scenes a hand-puppet respectively a little mechanical model was used. The two actors in the GODZILLA-costume became a legend of their own. Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka could only carry the 50 kilo-costume for some minutes before they collapsed in the heat of the lights on the set. Nakajima went on to carry this costume in 12 following films… In GODZILLA he is also seen as a ‘normal’ actor: He plays the technician trying to kill the monster by activating the high voltage cables… The characteristic sound of GODZILLAs roars – which is very rarely heard in the first film – was created by an electronically distorted contrabass.

This film was also going to launch a new kind of film promotion predating the blockbuster-marketing of today. The film was finished in November 1954, after a production period of 180 days. From July on the marketing department of Toho had produced a radio series introducing the main protagonist to the public. GODZILLA had a budget of 60 Million Yen, which was three times the costs of an average Japanese movie then. But the huge success paid off.

GODZILLA is one of the few Japanese monster movies to emphasise human suffering as well as the physical destruction caused by the monster since GODZILLA is at least the metaphor for the atom-bomb. This encoding comes as no surprise as Japan is the only country to have actually been attacked with a nuclear weapon so far. The scene with the children’s’ chorus singing a hymn to the dead is reminiscent of this real background. The lost war and the disastrous after-effects of the atom bombing with thousands of people affected by the radioactivity appeared as a nation wide trauma to the Japanese people. According to their strange code of honour the Japanese officials decided to simply ignore these ‘shameful’ events with the result that the surviving victims of the bombing were never really accepted and cared for within Japanese society after the war. Even in school these wartime events are not analysed or taught until today. The naive idea of this film therefore worked on this level of encoded ‘Erinnerungsarbeit’ (‘memorial working’). ‘”Awakened” by the A-bomb and put to rest (again and again) by selfless Japanese scientists, Godzilla became a kind of barometer of the political mood. From punishment-figure-from-the-past he turned friendly and finally took to defending his country (right or wrong) from not only foreign monsters but also the machinations of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.’[4]

For the American audience a purely Japanese film seemed inadequate back in the fifties. New scenes with Raymond Burr were filmed by Terry O. Morse and included in the overall shortened original version: Injured in a disaster that has destroyed most of Tokyo, foreign correspondent Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) recounts the events leading up to the catastrophe. This altered American version adds footage of Raymond Burr talking to Asian actors, interacting with characters from the original if the producers could arrange someone who resembled them from the back, or if he talked to them via telephone. Some scenes are dubbed, but most of the scenes are handled by having another actor explain and translate to Burr what the Japanese characters are saying. The American version cuts out a lot of the anti-nuclear stuff for the obvious reason that it was the USA that dropped the bomb on Japan…



Cold War reflections in Japanese genre cinema


After the huge success of GODZILLA Inoshiro Honda rearranged some of the familiar elements and produced this intergalactic war-film: CHIKYU BOEIGUN / THE MYSTERIANS (1957). There is not a lot of giant monster-action this time – only a Godzilla-like robot in the beginning causes some destruction round the area of Fujiyama…

Astronomer Ryoichi settles down in a small village for health reasons as suddenly, the village is destroyed by a forest fire. The next day, an earthquake virtually swallows up the village. Radiation is stated in the area. The military scientists are clueless – until a giant robot appears stomping down buildings and firing heat rays from its eyes. Bombs and canons seem to be useless, therefore the soldiers lead the robot to a bridge, which they bomb… The giant weapon of foreign origin falls into its death…

Later a huge luminous dome rises from the ground where once the village was located. The military forces assume their position. Soon the invaders from outer space mark themselves as Mysterians, former inhabitants of the planet Mysteroid, which was located between Mars and Jupiter. A nuclear war destroyed their homeland – and now they want to occupy some square-kilometres of land at the Fujiyama as well as intermarry with some human women – for their own race is severely damaged by radioactivity. ‘The Mysterians have chosen Japan as party headquarters, because (we are told) the Japanese represent the best qualities of humanity.’[5] At the same time the Mysterians insist that their mission is peaceful – that they only want to prevent the humans from using nuclear weapons and destroy their own civilisation. The robot had only been a demonstration of their superiority. Japan gets together with the United Nations and forms an attack-treaty. The Americans come up with a reflector weapon that will hit the enemy with his own weapons. With united forces the international team succeeds to blow the Mysterian station to pieces. The United Nations decide to stay united in case the Mysterians come back one day.

This kind of peaceful message appears somehow hypocritical for the Mysterians are clearly identified as anthropomorphic beings – dressed in coloured robes and funny motorbike-helmets. Their longing for land and women reminds of the mechanism of World War II-propaganda. The weapons used bear strong resemblance to phallic formations, while the Mysterian local station appears as a giant egg – a symbol for fertility and female sexuality. At first the human canons are melted by the Mysterian rays (castration), then the mission succeeds by a cigar-like rocket. This comes across as silly as it sounds – and finally the giant robot Mogella with his anteater-head seems to be nothing more than a gimmick to satisfy the needs of the monster-film-audience.

‘Although the plot isn’t particularly original, the concept of aliens using monsters as instruments of domination was quite unique. After this film, the idea has been used and re-used in many Japanese rubber-monster pics, including the cult fave DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968), MONSTER ZERO (1965) and SPACE MONSTER GAMERA (1980).’[6] And once again a Japanese film uses the nuclear subtext as a revision of the own history. Therefor the Mysterians are only the projection of real human enemies.



Utopia of cultural superiority


In 1963 Honda returned with another Cold-War-inspired Science fiction film, that combines utopian and anti-utopian elements. In KAITAI GUNKAN / ATRAGON – UNDERWATER BATTLEBOAT the threat lies within the earth itself, not in the deep space. Miles beneath the sea the legendary kingdom of Mu sends out its agents to regain the power over the world. 12000 years ago – as the legend has it – Mu sunk into the sea – but it survived beneath thick walls, guarded by a giant sea-snake. That is how this Japanese Science fiction film puts it: ATRAGON.

Originally the legend of Mu was described in detail by James Churchward in the 1920ies. He claimed to be initiated into the secret of the Mu-empire by a Indian high-priest, instructed by ancient inscriptions which no one saw besides himself. In his books he tells the story of the first human beings living the continent of Mu located between the Fidji-islands and Hawaii. Atlantis and the ancient Egypt would have been colonies of Mu, a population of over 60 million inhabitants. 12.000 years ago Mu was destroyed by earthquakes – but the people of Mu managed to spread over the continents and were the founders of many different races. It should not be obscured that this theory of (Aryan) origin perfectly fits into the racist ideas of that time Churchward lived in… The film ATRAGON only refers to the name of Mu, and exploits this myth to tell a colourful fairy tale of hypermodern technical superpower versus ancient ideology…

Here Mu’s agents try to kidnap the beautiful photo model Makoto Shinguji (Yoko Fujiyama) because they are after her father, who disappeared shortly after the world war and now hides on a deserted island where he created his secret weapon to avenge Japan: Shinguji (Yu Fujiki) is this chief in command of the atomic ‘super-submarine’ Atragon, an elaborate machine which is able to swim, dive and fly as well as to drill through massive rocks. Shinguji seems to be a Japanese nationalist who never accepted the ‘fall’ of Japan after the second world war.

Fashion photographer Hatanaka (Tadao Takashima), who is in love with Makoto, decides to fight against the menace from beneath the sea side by side with the girl. When the Japanese government is informed by the plans of Mu to invade the country, they send their battle-submarine ‘Red Devil’. This mission ends as a failure. The boat never returns. Finally they find out where Shinguji lives, but he refuses to collaborate – he is only interested in revenge for the lost war. But when his daughter and Hatanaka are finally kidnapped by an agent of Mu he goes to war. With the multiple weapon systems of his boat he kills the guardian serpent, invades Mu and threatens these people, which possess the newest in technology and the most ancient of totalitarian systems. His daughter, her friend and the world are saved in a final big bang…

ATRAGON is a psychedelic pop art colour-feast working on a mainly sensual level in all its intellectual naivety. All the stereotypes of childish event cinema are present: a stubborn patriotic warrior, a young hero in love, a beautiful lady, agents of a dark conspiracy order, some dumb but sympathetic fools, and – not to forget – the rubber monster. But the main attraction of this film is not the monster but the submarine ATRAGON itself with its unbelievable abilities; and there is the fantasy-world of Mu – an underwater kingdom reminiscent of the Atlantis myth and the inner-earth theory of Edward Bulwer Lytton in his novel The Coming Race alike. Despite some monster-action the screen-time of the huge sea-snake is very limited. This monster looks exactly like a Chinese dragon and is well known from the publicity photos of this film.

There is a lot of unintended humour involved: In the beginning Mu-agent 23 kidnaps a man with a fake taxi. When his victim touches agent 23’s shoulder he cries out hysterically: the kidnapper seems to be boiling hot! A little later the taxi sinks into the bay and one witness realises the bubbling and steaming water, which leads to the question: ‘What is cooking there?’ The agent is later referred to a ‘the steam-man’. – When the protagonists are brought to Mu, the present cultists, who immediately decide to sacrifice them, look like early Japanese pop-idols with their multi-coloured wigs and pseudo-egypt costumes… Even the Jules-Verne-elements in the second half of the film seem more like a parody of his novel ‘20.000 Miles beneath the sea’. But probably it is exactly the use of miniature models during the actions scenes which make such event movies that fascinating for children: they simply see their toys in action.



Keiju-eiga as utopia?


All Keiju-eiga and related Science fiction films from Japan share a balance between utopian and anti-utopian elements: A pure anti-utopia like the George Orwell-adaptation 1984 (1984) for example does not appear. Either the system itself or the invading super power stands in for the anti-utopian idea, yet it is confronted with a steady nationalism and belief in the own superiority by Japanese heroes in the 1960s genre films. The positive utopian aspects are often connected with new technical inventions which a without doubt very dangerous but may be used in favour of the people. The anti-utopian aspects are either ancient forces awakened by abuse of technology or superior technology used by the non-Japanese enemies.

In the early 1970s the Keiju-eiga took a strange turn when some of the monsters, especially Godzilla himself, now seemed to change its destructive character and became a guardian angel for Japan to be called whenever danger was approaching. These new breed of Keiju-eiga focussed on very young audiences and helped promoting the connected merchandising like rubber-dinosaurs. Also the budgets were cut and special effects suffered significantly during that era.[7] The last time the concept had worked was Ishiro Honda’s own keiju-round-up Kaiju Soshin-geki / DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968), where extra-terrestrial invaders set all classic giants free and cause huge destruction and even monster duels.

1984 the alpha monster Godzilla returned in GOJIRA / RETURN OF GODZILLA by Joji Hashimoto, which appears to be a re-launch of the series with Godzilla invading Tokyo just as in 1954. Even an American version was re-cut. After the box office failure of Roland Emmerich’s American remake in 1998 the Japanese cycle reincarnated again: in GODZILLA 2000 MILLENIUM / GODZILLA 2000 (1999). This film is remarkable because here Godzilla attacks a nuclear power plant in Tokai, exactly the same location where a nuclear accident happened on September 30, 1999. What appears like a very simple allegory was in fact written down in the screenplay well before the incident happened. But anyway: It shows that Japanese artists and audiences live with a constant consciousness of big scale disaster.

It may be too early to speculate which impact the latest nuclear catastrophe at Fukujima will have on Japanese cinema – especially considering the fact that the last original GODZILLA-movies war produced in 2004 and Japanese genre cinema is in a crisis for several years now. Undeniably the intrigues and corruption surround the Fukujima-incident, which is not fully under control as of today (November 2011), and the huge level of vulnerability obvious in the aftermath is frightenly close to the concept of the early GODZILLA-films. (Anti-)utopian genre cinema became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in Japan during the decades – and it reflects at the same time the nearly unbreakable durability and stoicism of the people of Japan. Thus keiju-eiga are the collective mythology for modern post-war Japan, like samurai-films are the mythological icon of traditional pre-war Japan. Therefore keiju-eiga remain a depiction of primal and modern fears as well as a celebration of Japanese intelligence and courage. They are anti-utopia and utopia at the same time.

[1] Patrick Macias: Tokyo Scope, San Francisco 2001, p. 16

[2] In: Jörg Buttgereit (ed.): Japan. Die Monsterinsel, Berlin 2006, p.175

[3] William M. Tsutsui: Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters. New York 2003, p. 23

[4] Donald Richie: A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, Tokyo 2001 (revised: 2005), p.178

[5] Thomas & Yuko Mihara Weisser: Japanese Cinema Essential Handbook, Florida 1996, p. 225

[6] Thomas & Yuko Mihara Weisser: Japanese Cinema Essential Handbook, Florida 1996, p. 225

[7] Georg Seeßlen: Vom großen Zerstörer zum großen Freund – die japanischen Godzilla-Filme. In: epd Film, 8/98

In 1967 the so-called ‘Summer of Love’ resulted in the climax of the hippie movement at Haight Ashbury/San Francisco as well as in the off-springs of San Francisco’s hippie-commune. When the climax of this revolution of teenage love utopia happened it was to be spread all over the world, preferably in those areas that seemed open to drug use and so called free love. The great popes of psychonautics, Timothy Leary, but also William S. Burroughs, had already discovered Morocco and Tanger especially as their true utopia. Paul Bowles wrote his most intense stories there, telling of the great love lost in the desert. In this context Marrakech happened to be a city of choice for hippies from all over the world. Besides Tanger, Marrakech was to be the city being discovered for a second time by European invaders after the time of French colonialism.

Marrakesh is the second largest city in Morocco after Casablanca, and was known to early travellers as ‘Morocco City.’ Its political importance in the region changed over the centuries, but concerning religion Marrakesh is known for its ‘seven saints’. When sufism was at the height of its popularity Moulay Ismail decided to move the tombs of several renowned figures to Marrakesh to attract many pilgrims. The ‘seven saints’ is now a firmly established institution, attracting visitors from everywhere. Sufism is a kind of islamic mysticism and became one of the utopian ideas that attracted the hippie comunity in the 20th century.

When Morrocco was occupied by the French colonial forces a certain image of oriental aestethics and clichés were importet into the circles of European decadence, resulting in a certain oriental image of colonial longing. The idea of the orient was signified by mysteries, strange eroticism, sensual freedom, secret drugs and eccentric beauty. Since Morrocco, much like Egypt for the British, had a lot to offer to feed this colonial longing, the certain clichés of oriental life and culture never ceased – even after colonialism ended officially.

In the early sixties of the 20th century the hippie community prove to be a huge cultural phenomenon, influencing youth culture worldwide and building communities even in parts of the oriental world. The hippies as part of the American counterculture had an important political influence besides the American Civil Rights Movement and the American New Left in the late sixties – mainly connected with the protest against the Vietnam war – but lost influence and declined till 1975. Originally they inherited a tradition of cultural dissent from the earlier Bohemians and the beatniks in the USA who also cared for alternative lifestyle, creative drug use and alternative religion. Their idea of the advantages of psychedelic drugs and sexual liberation lead the hippie movement to an intense interest in oriental cuture, where they discovered freedoms long lost and an alternative way of life and thinking. Hippie culture spread worldwide through a fusion of rock music, folk, blues, and psychedelic rock; it also found expression in literature, the dramatic arts, fashion, and the visual arts, including film, and album covers. Timothy Leary described the hippies as a new religious movement, opening itself to ifluences of paganism and mystic cults from all over the world.

As it used to be in the colonial world, Marrakech became an image and idea of postcolonial longing in the hippie counterculture as well. As other places in the oriental world like Goa, Bombay or Pattaya beach, the Morroccan city was handled as synonymous for the idea of a lost sensual freedom, of mental expanding and religious enlightment.

Due to the fact that travel was a prominent feature of hippie culture, both domestic and international, Marrakech also became the place to visit in the late 1960ies amd early 1970ies. Hippie culture was communal, and travel became an extension of friendship and communication. Originally the iconic VW bus was a popular vehicle, because groups of friends could travel together very cheaply. In the case of foreign countries many hippies favored hitchhiking as a primary mode of transport because it was economical, and a way to meet new friends. Pre-planning was rejected as hippies were happy to put a few clothes in a bag, stick out their thumbs and hitchhike anywhere. Hippies rarely worried if they had money, hotel reservations or any of the other standards of travel. Hippie households welcomed overnight guests on a spontaneous basis. Unfortunately not all cultures understood what this movement was about and hippies were not always welcome where they appeared.

One of the global problems was the hippie attitude towards drugs. As did the Beat people before them, hippies used cannabis, which was considered relaxing. They enlarged their repertoire of creative drugs to include hallucinogens such as LSD or mescaline. Harvard University professors Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert became their drug popes and forethinkers, who advocated the use of these psychoactive drugs for psychotherapuetic, self-exploration and religious or spiritual purposes. Despite the fact that the drug use was severley punished especially in the oriental world, more and more hippies travelled through those countries – including Morrocco – in search of a real life utopia.

Due to the mixture of spiritual and psychedelic life style Marrakech also became a symbol for a drug connection. ‘Taking the Marrakech Express’ was not only about travelling towards utopia but also using the actual drug connection to Marrakech. The Marrakesh Express was in fact a popular route for traveling hippies during the mid-to-late 1960s who sought out this Moroccan city for its mythical Arabic appearance and for its renowned hashish. In 1969 the folk-pop-group Crosby, Stills, and Nash released their famous song ‘Marrakesh Express’ on the selftitled album. The lyrics written my Graham Nash were initially intended to be played by The Hollies, but they refused to record this ambivalent song. The lyrics clearly reflect the two-sided interpretation of the title:

Looking at the world

Trough the sunset in your eyes

Trying to make the train

To clear Moroccan skies

Bugs and pigs and chickens call

Animal carpet wall to wall

American man is five foot tall and you

Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind

Had to get away to see what we could find

Hope the days that lie ahead

Bring us back to where they’ve led

Listen up to what’s been said to you

Would you know we’re riding

on the Marrakesh Express

All on board that train

I’ve been saving all my money just to take you there

I smell the garden in your hair

Take a train to Casablanca going south

Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth

Cold coffins hang in the square

Charming corporals in the square

Don’t you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express (X2)

They’re taking me to Marrakesh

All on board that train (X3)

Many years later this title prove so iconic it was used as a title for the Italian movie ‘Marakech Express’ (1989), were some people go to Marrakech to help a fiend imprisoned there. Also the French release title of the programmatic melodrama ‘Hideous Kinky’ (1998) was ‘Marrakech express’.

In later popmusic the Morroccan city sometimes appeared within the same context of postcolonial longing. Loreena McKennitt’s gothic popsong ‘Marrakesh Night Market’ from her album ‘The Mask and Mirror’ is also inspired by her extensive travelling and reflects her experiences in Spain and Morrocco. ‘Marrakesh Night Market’ is a poetic description of a reality directly recepted as mystic and spiritual:

‘The stories are woven

and fortunes are told

The truth is measured by the weight of your gold

The magic lies scattered

on rugs on the ground

Faith is conjured in the night market’s sound

Would you like my mask?

would you like my mirror?

cries the man in the shadowing hood

You can look at yourself

you can look at each other

or you can look at the face of your god’

A clear perspective of her spiritual search gives Loreena McKennitt in her introduction to ‘The Mask and Mirror’ (1994):

‘I looked back and forth through the window of 15th century Spain, through the hues of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and was drawn into a fascinating world: history, religion, cross-cultural fertilization… For some medieval minds the mirror ‘was the door through which the soul frees itself by passing’… for others the pursuit of personal refinement was likened to ‘polishing the mirror of the soul.’ From the more familiar turf of the west coast of Ireland, through the troubadours of France, crossing over the Pyrenees and then to the west through Galicia, down through Andalusia and past Gibraltar to Morocco … The Crusades, the pilgrimage to Santiago, Cathars, the Knights Templar, the Sufis from Egypt, One Thousand and One Nights in Arabia, the Celtic imagery of trees, the Gnostic Gospels … who was God? and what is religion, what spirituality? What was revealed and what was concealed… and what was the mask and what the mirror?’

‘Marrakech’ is also a song by German DJ, musician and producer of dance music ATB, born André Tanneberger. ATB’s chilling track ‘Marrakech’ appears on the album ‘No Silence’ (2004) and may serve as an example of the late techno and goa movement as an extension of the original hippie movement, sharing their ideas and utopias, but combining them with postmodern philosophy and technology.

One of the most significant pieces of art deriving from hippie spirit is Esther Freud’s novel ‘Hideous Kinky’ (1991) that reflects her childhood experiences as the daughter of a hippie mother seeking for spiritual enlightment in the Sufi religion on her travel to Morrocco. Esther Freud is a British novelist born in 1963 in London. She is the daughter of painter Lucian Freud and his former partner Bernadine Freud and is the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud.

As a child Esther Freud and her sister Bella travelled with their hippie mother around the world, and lived only sporadically in London as a child before returning at the age of sixteen to become an actress. The novel ‘Hideous Kinky’ is strictly told from the view of a five year old girl and therefor lacks deep rooting psychological reflections. The description of the events in Marakech and Morrocco in general concentrate on the impression that the little girl shares with her two year older sister. When her mother meets the street performer Bilal the girl hopes to have found a new father replacing her real father who lives in London with a new woman. Her mother tries hard to establish some semblance of normal life, but once in Marrakech immerses herself in Sufism and a spiritual quest for personal fulfillment. Her daughters try to rebel against the latent uncertainty of their everyday life by re-establishing the English lifestyle or trying to find a new father. It works out as a smart twist that not the narrator herself but her mother is the one being involved in the postcolonial longings of hippie utopias and obesessions and therefor can easily document the disturbing effects of this behaviour on the upbringing of the two young daughters who even try to stop their mother in further involving in Sufi mysticism.

While Bea, the older daughter, is more and more sceptical and down to earth (until she falls ill in the end and is brought back to England), the narrator becomes easily enchanted by the magical atmosphere she experiences in the strange surroundings of Marrakech. Her mother, her sister and Bilal – who is the assistant of a wizard on the huge Marrakesh market anyway – sometimes appear like otherworldly creatures connceted with oriental fairy tales. The narration therefor shifts between a magical realism and the usual all day problems of a split up family trying to survive in a foreign culture.

When ‘Hideous Kinky’ was adapted into a British motion picture with Kate Winslet as the mother, the subjective world view became much more dramatic and darker than it appears in the book. The magic realism here evolves into the realms of a mysterious threat, beginning with a nightmare on the Marrakech market where the little girl gets lost …

For the contemporary people living the hippie utopia again – mainly the goa and trance-techno-movement – Morrocco may deliver the same tempting oriental clichés than before, dating back to the time of colonialism. But as the film ‘Hideous Kinky’ shows these images of postcolonial longing can easily be transformed into nightmarish mysteries and symbols of transcultural fears today.


Freud, Esther: Hideous Kinky,  New Jersey 1992

Booth, Martin: Cannabis: A History, New York 2004

Fieldhouse, David K.: Fischer Weltgeschichte Band 29: Die Kolonialreiche seit dem 18. Jahrhundert, Frankfurt am Main 1985/1991

Muller, Adam: Theorizing Nostalgia: Postcolonial Longing and European ‘Heritage’ Cinema.’ Rocky Mountain MLA,. University of Colorado at Boulder, September-October 2004 (unpublished)

Silver, Joel: Summer of Love, New York 1994

Shapiro, Harry: Drugs & Rock’n’Roll. Rauschgift und Popmusik, Wien 1989

Stevens, Jay: Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, New York 1998


Although Great Britain is the homeland of many pilgrims emigrating to North America in the beginning, there has never been a primary British interest in the ultimate and mythical American genre: the western. The frontier myth – so eminently important for North American identity politics – is not a suitable key metaphor within British cinema. Frontier- and pioneer-mythology is not too close to British experience over the last centuries, except probably the nightmare of colonialism. In fact there is a scepticism about American myths like the civil war, the declaration of independence and the idea of ‘regeneration through violence’. But anyway: the British western does exist.

British cinema has brought forth very few constant genre traditions which established themselves in film history. Besides the monumental success of David Lean’s epics and William Wyler’s dramas, there is most notably the huge influence of Hammer horror films since the late 1950s, establishing Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as leading men. In their wake actors like Oliver Reed and Dirk Bogarde appeared who made their own way during the 1960s. In their search for remarkable projects Hammer studios also experimented with the western genre and made The Singer, not the Song (1961), a psychological and moralistic western-drama about the eternal fight of good against evil. In fact it is about a well intentioned priest, caught between his own feelings and the duties to the church (John Mills) and the local bandit, Anacleto, a truly intelligent atheist at the mercy of his own (Dirk Bogarde). Horror professional Roy Ward Baker had never been fond of this project in the first place, also facing the fact that several Hollywood stars declined to playing the role of father Keogh: Richard Widmark, Peter Finch, Richard Burton, James Mason, Paul Newman, Harry Belafonte, Anthony Perkins and John Cassavetes. In the end the actor duel between Mills and Bogarde delivers the necessary depth, so Baker later admitted that his only western is in fact a beautifully shot drama.

Anacleto, or ‘El Malo’, dominates and exploits the village through fear and violent threat. When crossed, he orders his men to kill, but always in a way as to make it look like an accident. The police forces are not powerless, but without real evidence they cannot act. The old priest has been left in a state of desperation, but the new one, Father Keogh, is ready to face the challenge. A young girl, Locha, shows love interest in the new priest, and Anacleto – against his better judgement – begins to like the priest. Father Keogh in return is increasingly obsessed by the idea of saving Anacleto’s soul. ‘Isn’t that your job, Father; To keep hoping that any soul can be saved, even mine?’, asks the bandit. Anacleto in fact is a complete atheist, who has been taught to hate the church from youth. In the end, Father Keogh is forced to choose between the benefit of the village and his goal of bringing Anacleto back on the rightful path. When Locha is kidnapped by the bandit to make the priest ‘speak to the congregation’ favourably about him. Incidentally the priest returns Lochas emotional ambitions. When Anacleto comes to the church expecting the favourable sermon, Father Keogh instead denounces him and brings in the police to arrest him. A gun battle is unleashed, during which both men are shot. The dying priest sitting without sight or hearing by the dying Anacleto implores him to an act of contrition, and to press the priest’s hand if he is doing so. The bandit does that murmuring: ‘It’s the singer, not the song.’

The Singer, Not the Song is the first typical example of a British western, and it already shows all the differences between Euro-western and US-western: The subtext is not American mythology, but general ethics and moral questions. The character constellation is mainly psychological, not archetypical in the traditional western sense: the hero is a priest while the villain is homoerotic fetishist in tight black leather gear. The film takes place in the early 20th century, so automobiles are already in use. Even the most action-packed sequence takes place in a car with a cut break-wire rolling down the hill – more of a thriller scenario than a western sequence. And finally: The film itself focuses on the fetishist use of costumes, weapon props and imagery know from US-western, but on a meta-level. Thus Baker’s drama is not naïve at all as many US-western out side the Hawks/Ford-canon may seem. Baker’s film predated the huge international success of the Italo-western by some years and remains as a genuine non-American access the western genre. Yet the financial payoff of Sergio Leone’s and Sergio Corbucci’s Euro-western was in fact an influence of further British western – but some years later.


The idea of the Euro-western always included the casting of at least one international star, and the British western logically made use of one of ist most important super stars: James-Bond-veteran Sean Connery. Edward Dmytryck cast him in his nearly epic widescreen adventure Shalako (1968) as a western professional, a pathfinder and tracker for a group of Europeans: arrogant and snobbish hunters, who are keen on killing deer and shooting savages. That is the tone set by the group’s  leader, Baron Frederick Von Hallstatt (Peter van Eyck). He and his group, a German and a bunch with British accents are invading the frontier country. Carlin – or Shalako, how the Indians call him – tries his best to keep the group together. Female confusion is introduced by Brigitte Bardot as Countess Irina Lazaar and Honor Blackman as the femme fatal Lady Julia Daggett. So Shalako has a very classical melodramatic twist, ending up with Countess Irina staying with Connery. Despite very mixed reactions Shalako’s qualities are mainly on the atmospheric side and in a very honest perspective on European decadence in supposedly colonial territory. Shalako is also about British mentality.

George Seeßlen points out that Shalako-producer Euan Lloyd stayed with the genre for some time and initiated two other outstanding action-western: Catlow (1971) by Sam Wanamaker and The Man Called Noon (1973) by Peter Collinson, both films shot on location in Spain – as many Italian western and later British western as well. In Seeßlen’s opinion there is no true identity to British western because they mainly use American cast and crew to appear like genuine American procutions. Anyway the shooting location in Europe is certain a link to Italo-western and marks British western as a hybrid between American and Euro-western.[1]

While Shalako was the British version of a serious star-ridden western-adventure, there was also a genre parody called A Talent for Loving (1969) shot at the same time starring western-veteran Richard Widmark.


The key element of British western nevertheless was not humour but violence. American TV-professional Don Medford was hired by British investors to shoot a quintessential hard-edged anti-American Euro-western featuring all elements banned from classical western: rape, savagery, torture, and nihilism. The Hunting Party (1970) is in fact the most nihilistic chapter in general western history – very surprisingly facing the fact that it is cast with Hollywood-stars like Gene Hackman and Candice Bergen as well as British genre and character star Oliver Reed. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) planted the seed that The Hunting Party brings to full bloom. The American land owner and ranger appears even more depraved and corrupt than in Leone’s and Tinto Brass’ already very anti-capitalist Italo-western.

Oliver Reed play Frank Calder, a tough leader of an outlaw gang who wants to learn to read. Assuming she is a school-teacher, he kidnaps the young and attractive Melissa (Candice Bergman), wife of the very wealthy cattle baron Brant Ruger (Gene Hackman). Ruger in fact is a cruel sadist, what we learn  in the first sequence, when the branding of a cow is intercut with Ruger abusing Melissa. Later his abuses and mistreats a prostitute with his cigar. When Melissa is abducted Ruger talks his wealthy colleagues into hunting down the outlaw gang and picking them off one by one with new generation long distance rifles. He actually proposes it more as a game of revenge or sport than out of love or fear for his wife’s safety.

Calder and Ruger are both brutal men, but Calder values human life and relationships while Ruger only cares for satisfying his passions at any cost. Though his friends start to sicken of the game and beg him to stop, the fanatic won’t be deterred from the game. As the movie develops, Calders emotional and sexual involvement with Melissa deepens, while Gene Hackman’s ultra-violent character brings a disturbing single-minded intensity to the screen. Candice Bergman as a young actress just survived the Soldier Blue-adventure (1969, directed by Ralph Nelson), where he plays a white woman raised by Indians and later rejected by her own people. In The Hunting Party her character is caught, both literally and figuratively in a war of emotions. Bergen’s looks made her a hippie role model, so she appears as the female victim and the self-conscious modern woman at the same time. It has a macabre logic that her raving husband in the end shoots her by aiming between her legs. His misogynist impulse is carried to a final solution, even facing his own death.

The Hunting Party is the ultimate nihilist western, stripped bare of any romantic ideas about the American myth, reduced to cynicism and pure violence, beyond any moral relations. There is no justice in this world, only the power of the wealthy. Medford’s film in this aspect is much closer to Leone, Corbucci and Brass (Yankee, 1966), yet it at least visually appears as a Peckinpah-spin-off done within the critical New Hollywood of the early 1970s.


Michael Winner is a true British director, making his name with typical black humour comedies and a very eccentric Henry James adaptation called The Nightcomers (1970), where Marlon Brando is seen as a gardener corrupting two innocent children in a fin de siècle villa. Winner made his way into mainstream with a couple of films starring Charles Bronson, who became famous in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1967) and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1964). Inspired by Ralph Nelson’s Vietnam parable Soldier Blue about the historical Sand Creek massacre he directed his own vision of revenge for the genocide of American Indians. His western thriller Chato’s Land (1971) is a true classic: Long seen as a western predecessor of director Michael Winner’s later urban Charles Bronson-thriller Death Wish (1974) it shows Bronson as a quiet and dangerous Indian, whose wife is raped and tormented by a group of vigilantes after he has killed a man in self-defence. Chato’s Land signals its politics by a very clear title: it’s the Indian country which is raped and invaded by white men. While Robert Aldrich’s Indian western Ulzana’s Raid (1970) still has the view point of the American soldiers hunting Apache Indians – although creating a kind of understanding of the Indian acts of cruelty – Winner’s film is on Chato’s side. He marks the American Indian as the true American, knowing his homeland inside out. Always a step ahead of his hunters. What might have been seen as another Vietnam war parable at its time may be considered a truly un-American western today.

With similar nihilism and savagery Winner directed Burt Lancaster, Aldrich’s favourite star, as the upright Lawman (1971) and then turned to contemporary police films and thrillers. As British/American co-productions Winner shot his films in two versions, with Chato’s Land featuring a much more explicit rape-scene in the British Cut, but omitting several provoked horse-falls which are forbidden under the British law against animal cruelty.

Again the main focus of British based western is excessive violence with a political edge.


It is obvious that Sam Peckinpah’s pessimistic late western films inspired several British attempts to feed the genre. Some of his cast and crew appear in British films of the time, while Peckinpah himself came to Great Britian to shoot his first non-western Straw Dogs (1971) in Cornwall. Burt Kennedy, US-genre professional, was engaged to shoot the rape-revenge-drama Hannie Caulder (1971) with Raquel Welch in Europe ‘Italian style’, casting Peckinpah-veterans Ernest Borgnine and Strother Martin. Hammer-star Christopher Lee is seen here as the weapon master providing Welch with her superior gun. Hannie Caulder is a rough and bloody rape-western at the same time as it is a macabre parody of the genre – caught between American genre basics and Italian eccentricity. Hannie Caulder is therefore typical of its time, with an A-cast and B-action, a hybrid between national cinematographies and their respective genre variations.

On the other hand Captain Apache (1971) by Alexander Singer is more of western-crime-drama. It features Lee van Cleef as Captain Apache, an Indian Confederate scout, who solves the murder of an Indian agent. As several British western before it this film features an Indian hero opposing the white decadence and corruption. While this film has the usual American stars like Carroll Baker and Stuart Whitman, Lee van Cleef is imported from Sergio Leone’s Dollar-trilogy. He is the odd outcast between the lines and cultures – and probably because of this splintered identity the only upright and just westerner left in a dying world.

Italian western are sometimes regarded as political subversive, especially when done by Damiano Damiani, Tinto Brass or other left-wing-directors. The British western does not follow suit, but the closest one of them comes to the political revolution-based western is Robert Parrish’s A Town Called Hell (1971) a.k.a. A Town Called Bastard. This films unfolds on the background of the Mexican revolution, where Robert Shaw plays a legendary revolutionary leader later to become priest. Greed and violence explode as a dual man-hunt reaches its terrorizing climax at the town called Bastard and everyone in there is held hostage. Starring such American genre and TV-regulars Telly Savallas, Martin Landau, Fernando Rey, and Al Lettieri, the film introduces Stella Stevens (from Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue, 1970) as a vengeful widow who is called ‘the witch’ and sometimes appears in nightmarish context. While the film superficially tries to deliver a meta-mythological commentary on revolution – following Joe Hembus’ review – it is in fact not much more than a reverb of the mentioned Italian predecessors.


Long before the mid-seventies the British western phenomenon died along with it other European counterparts like the German Karl-May-films and the Italian ‘spaghetti-western’. It was quiet for some years within the British motion picture industry, which even rushed into a severe crisis. With the huge success of Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1980) the renaissance of British cinema  finally happened. Known as the New British cinema it focussed mainly on British social context and logically developed a new breed of British Ganger films and thrillers. The only director experimenting with western elements was ex-punk-filmmaker Alex Cox, who directed the semi-spaghetti-western-parody Straight to Hell (1987) and the Latin American revolutionary drama Walker (1989), strong inspired by the political aspects Italian revolution western. In the bloody show down he again paid homage to his idol Sam Peckinpah and the iconic monument The Wild Bunch. But western seemed to be a mere relic from a distant past not at all connected to British all day problems.

This changed again with the huge financial success of Kevin Costner’s Indian western Dances With Wolves (1991), a film that was partly inspired by the growing spiritual interest in Indian culture and religion, but also by genre classics like Soldier Blue, Little Big Man (1970) and Chato’s Land. He established the western genre again as one of many possible means of expression for mainstream cinema. In its wake masters of classical and New British cinema made huge star-ridden productions like The Hi-Lo County (1998, Stephen Frears), Grey Owl (1999, Richard Attenborough) or The Claim (2000, Michael Winterbottom). Now it was mainstream and art house cinema using genre pattern to create their visions, and although western films a not a constant phenomenon in British cinema they nonetheless may be considered a recurring phenomenon with very more or less impact. Finally it always depends on who is handling the material – or how Dirk Bogarde says it: ‘It’s always the singer, not the song.’


Joe Hembus: Western Lexikon, München 1976 / 1982

Christian Kessler: Willkommen in der Hölle. Der Italo Western im Überblick, o.O. 2001

Georg Seeßlen: Western. Geschichte und Mythologie des Westernfilms, Marburg 1995

Studienkreis Film: Um sie weht der Hauch des Todes. Der Italowestern – die Geschichte eines Genres, Bochum 1998

[1] Seeßlen 1995, p. 148

Marcus Stiglegger (Mainz, Germany)

Guest lecture held at the ‘Body colloquium’, Clemson University (SC), 22nd of September 2008.

1. Bataille’s ‘general economy’ and the potlatch

The complex of eros and thanatos is not new to the world of film. In fact it prooves to be a main motor of cinematic expression from the beginning. But yet every era had to find its frontiers, its limits of expression. For many cinematographic ideas narrative constructions involving moments of violent and/or sexual excess and ultimate loss are cruxial. The ultimate gift – connected to the idea of the religious sacrifice – is at the same time the highes possible gift: the own life. Giving the own life is the irreversible gift and the final point of exchange. It can not be topped.

While many cinematographic genres deal with these idea of excess and the ultimate gift (which equals death), is seems appropriate to take a look at Georges Bataille’s theory of expenditure within his concept of what he calls ‘general economy’:

‘[…] the extension of economic growth itself requires the overturning of economic principles—the overturning of the ethics that grounds them. Changing from the perspectives of restrictive economy to those of general economy actually accomplishes a Copernican transformation: a reversal of thinking—and of ethics. If a part of wealth (subject to a rough estimate) is doomed to destruction or at least to unproductive use without any possible profit, it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return.’ (Georges Bataille [1949], The Accursed Share, Volume 1: Consumption, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1991), pp. 25–6)

In the modus of over-production, energy appears that is not ‘necessary’ in the strict sense of the word. This energy is what Bataille calls ‘le part maudit’,  the ‘accursed share’. According to Bataille’s theory of consumption, the accursed share is that excessive and non-recuperable part of any economy which is destined to one of two modes of economic and social expenditure. This must either be spent luxuriously and knowingly without gain in the arts, in non-procreative sexuality, in spectacles and sumptuous monuments, or it is obliviously destined to an outrageous and catastrophic outpouring in war.

Thus the notion of ‘excess’ energy is central to Bataille’s thinking. Bataille’s inquiry takes the superabundance of energy, beginning from the infinite outpouring of solar energy or the surpluses produced by life’s basic chemical reactions, as the norm for organisms. In other words, an organism in Bataille’s general economy normally has an ‘excess’ of energy available to it. This extra energy can be used productively for the organism’s growth or it can be expended. Bataille insists that an organism’s growth or expansion always runs up against limits and becomes impossible. The wasting of this energy is luxury. The form and role luxury assumes in a society are characteristic of that society. ‘The accursed share’ refers to this excess, destined for expenditure for its own sake.

Bataille explains his idea according to the anthropological phenomenon of the potlatch-festival of the Kwakiutl-indians of the Northern Pacific coast of North America. Marcel Mauss refers to this phenomenon in his influential essay ‘The Gift’ (1923-24): potlatch is translated ‘a gift’ and signifies festivals of family gatherings, where the host shows his generosity up to the point of total bakruptcy.

A society that does not develop strategies of expendition according to Bataille is not souvereign any more and has to suffer from war, crisis and catastrophy that imply the destruction of the accursed share and more by force and without control. The western model of overproduction bears this kind of danger.

2. The body in excess

Like a society also the individual body has its accursed share that has to be expended in excess. Based on Sigmund Freud’s idea of the destructive death drive presented in ‘Beyond the Lust Principle’ (1920) that he paralleled to the already stated drive to live, Bataille imagined the idea of a turning from life to death drive. Sexuality as the ultimate expression of the will to live may turn into a celebration of death in what Bataille calls the sacred act of transgression. The act of transgression combined the idea of eros and thanatos and might be dubbed ‘thanateros’.

The playground of transgressive excess is logically the human body. While the conventional sexual act is still placed within the order of biological production-process, the transgressive sexual excess moves closer to the destruction of the body itself. Of special value here may be the dealing with bodily fluids (blood, saliva, genital fluids etc.) which belong to the realm of the abject (referring to Julia Kristeva’s essay ‘The Powers of Horror’, 1982). In his own erotic prose Bataille often refers to such elements while conventional sexual acts are very rare within his work.

After an age where the consumtion of limitless sexual freedon was considered an utopia (following the hippie-movement of the 1960s), the human body had to be regained in conscious shaping and modification. The 1980ies brought a fashion of body building, aerobic, but also beauty surgery. The modern primitive movement of the early 1990s can be seen as the peak of the ultimate transformation of the body: beyond tattooing and piercing there was scarification, amputation and every kind of body technique imaginable. These games on the physical playground led to an inevitable loss of transgressive quality. What would have been excess ten years before, was convention by the standards of the mid 1990s.

The conclusion could be: After the body has lost its abjection it has still to be re-abjectified via techniques of body-modification. And James G. Ballards novel ‘Crash’, which was written in the aftermath of the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ to mark a dystopian turing point, appears still to be prophetic by today’s standards. The Canadian director David Cronenberg, already famous for his disturbing body horror films, recognized this twist and adapted the novel for the 1990s.

3. Cronenberg’s Crash: the expenditure of the own body

It is popular for films dealing with transgressive sexuality to point towards a fatal end: the amour fou will not work for human existence within society and leads to the ultimate sacrifice: the death of the lovers. Or at least one of the, thus ending the relationship. Classic films like Godard’s Breathless, Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, Almodóvar’s Matador, Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, Fassbinder’s Querelle and many more might be seen in this light.

In Crash a community of people is portrayed that is clearly devotet to a strictly ritualized and sexualized  death drive

-the central seductive figure is Vaughan: tattoo, staging of crashes

He says he is aiming for the ‘re-shaping of the human body by modern technology’; later he makes fun of that idea and actually points out his psychpathology of staging and aestheticizing crash situations and sites.

-for Helen Remington and Ballard the trauma of the first crash is elementary: re-staging of accidents

-all of them are well equipped middle class people bored by life and heading for somethign new and unpredictable – ultimately death by crash

-Catherine Ballard is the ultimate empty character who has lost its drive to live and enjoys the idea of being close to death; in conventional sexual acts she seems totally replaced

-Gabrille as the fetishized and selfstyled object of desire as a re-abjectified body:

‘And Gabrielle is now not only deviantly and hence authentically sexually desiring, she is more sexually desirable to the male who craves female abjection: pierced, penetrated, deformed, leaking like a punctured radiator, and even manifesting a variety of extra crash-created orifices that become the explicite sites of James’s desire in a more redemptive sexuality.’ (Beard 391)

The key sequence is the crash site which is staged in a very serious way by the stuntman acting out the Jayne Mansfield death. His offering is the ultimate and irreversible sacrifice: His own life and additionally that of unknown crash victims causeed by him. As Vaughan sees him in the Mansfield outfit, he is aware that he might not be able to top that. In the logic of the film he seeks for expenditure of his own life as well.

He handles the crash site as a tableau of art, very similar to Andy Warhol’s series „White carcrash Nineteen Times’ (1963).

Vaughan may fail in his idea of the re-shaping of the human body but David Cronenberg’s film have its own idea: ‘I am trying to change the audience’s aesthetics. I want them to start with the normal revulsion that they have and by the end of the movie to see some kind of beauty or some possibility of beauty in things they thought were repulsive. That’s my own project,’ he says, ‘transforming the human aesthetics.’

‘Maybe the next one’ are Catherine Ballards remarks on not having an orgasm in the beginning. And ‘maybe the next one’ will be the phrase that comments her near death in a car crash provoked by her husband. The so-called little death of the orgasm is in her world already replaced by the final experience replacing it: the ultimate death.


William Beard: The Artist As Monster. The Cinema of David Cronenberg, Toronto/Buffalo/London 2001

Marcus Stiglegger: Ritual & Verführung. Schaulust, Spektakel & Sinnlichkeit im Film, Berlin 2006

The world is full of spirits – there is a world beyond our imagination. Who knows what lives between heaven and earth – between life and death. Who knows where souls go when death finally arrives. All animistic cultures believe in the soul and in spirits. Japan has its Shinto religion which builds a perfect spiritual background for the traditional and the new ghost stories – a culture in its own right. But we do not have to turn to the Far East… At the end of the Nineties we witnessed the rise of another cinematic new wave: the New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers. These films – among them THE OTHERS, THE NAMELESS and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE – create a special vision du monde, influenced by catholic ideas of guilt and sacrifice, occult rituals, and ancient myths. This article will try to shed some light on this phenomenon and present the key elements of a special kind of European suspense cinema that is slowly but steadily acquiring a cult following.

Abandoned souls

A mother, Grace (Nicole Kidman), and her two children (Alakina Mann and James Bentley) are living at a lonely country estate. It is the year 1944, briefly before the end of World War II. Walls of fog are covering the English countryside in autumn. Grace’ father and her husband are missing in action, the house-keepers have mysteriously disappeared. Out of the blue, it seems, a trio of caretakers appears at the estate: a friendly old lady, Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), a mute girl (Elaine Cassidy), and a grumpy old butler, Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes). They could not have been aware that Grace was looking for servants, but as they are in the right place at the right time, they are hired… This is the beginning of Alejandro Amenabar’s film THE OTHERS (2001), a gothic dream-play inspired by Henry James’ classic novella of psychological horror ‘The Turn of the Screw’. This is a least what it seems…

But the young mother has more severe problems: her children both have a deadly allergy to light. They have to live in darkness by day, the curtains must be closed all the time. In their isolation the children seem to have developed a disturbing obsession: they report strange noises, curtains are opening and closing by themselves, piano music is playing… A family of ghosts seems to visit them from time to time. As the film lingers through the gothic twilight of the foggy surroundings, Grace tries to unveil the secret. Some day her husband returns home, but his behaviour is as strange as everything in the house. He is apathetic, like a living dead person. And finally the housekeepers are threatening the children.

The last sequence presents one final twist to the almost classical storyline: the point of view changes to neutral observation and it turns out that we have spent one and a half hour with a family of ghosts. All the obsessions and neuroses find their explanation in the fact that the ‘ghost’ haunting the mansion are the real people living in the house, who are not aware of their neighbours in another dimension. THE OTHERS is not a real terror-movie but a highly stylised drama about the loneliness of abandoned souls, living in a half-world between our world and the beyond. Amenabar created a sterile surrounding, often missing any atmospheric sound, totally reduced to elementary sounds. The visuals are dominated by brownish and golden colours, often washed out, monochromatic, sometimes covered by rising mist. THE OTHERS live in a world between the boundaries: a world of fog and darkness. But they still have the urge to preserve their essential family values. Grace desperately tries to save the family. She is blind to the fact that everyone around her is devoid of life and vitality. Amenabar’s film breaks the rules of ‘reliable narration’ that genre-film normally depends on. But at the same time his film does not lie. He simply demonstrates the subjectivity of cognition and narration. THE OTHERS is not a film about death – it is in fact a film identifying with the dead, a bleak portrait of useless longing for life.

Even in his earlier cinematic efforts, Amenabar concentrated on the darkest aspects of existence: TESIS (1996) is a tense thriller about snuff-films produced at a film school. As a female student realizes that a teacher and other students are involved in this macabre project she finally has to fear for her life. OPEN YOUR EYES (1999) – which was remade in the USA as VANILLA SKY (2002) – tells the baffling story of a successful womaniser (Eduardo Noriega) who is trapped between two different women, one of which tries to kill him in a car crash. But he survives and is forced to wear a mask to hide his horribly damaged face. More and more reality-levels seem to shift. His consciousness begins to jump between past and present. The mystery of the film is finally solved in the science-fiction-context: he is struggling with implanted memories while his body is frozen to wait for better medical care in the future. Even here the ambitious director brings to life a cold and stylised film-noir-world, the artificial dream-state of a haunted and disturbed character – perfectly executed in the first sequence in which Cesar (Noriega, here named after the somnambulic hero of Robert Wiene’s CABINET OF CALIGARI) wakes up in the morning, gets up and drives downtown – only to realize that he is the only living person in this world. Then the bell rings again… But where does imagination end and reality begin? Cesar as can be seen as one of those twilight creatures, an abandoned soul lost between memories of the past and an imaginative present.

Another dark ghost-story, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001) by Guillermo del Toro, offers its audience a gothic-horror-variation of Agustí Villaronga’s intense TBC-asylum-drama EL MAR (1998), which also takes place in the time of World War II. Del Toro’s film is paradigmatic for this New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers, especially for its monologue, which is spoken by an old male voice over images of an abnormal embryo with a comb-like spine: “What is a ghost? An emotion, a terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over? An instant of pain perhaps? … A sentiment suspended in time? … like a blurry photograph … like an insect trapped in amber?” The ghost as a phenomenon questions the nature of life and death, of reality and imagination. It transcends the physicality of the human body and signifies the existence of a soul…

The world of DEVIL’S BACKBONE (a reference to the embryo of the title sequence) is very complex, and there are several possibilities of defining its ghost-like nature… In an impressive top shot we follow a huge black bomb falling down to earth and crashing into the inner yard of an isolated mission estate in the desert. The year is 1939, the Spanish Civil War. Ten year old Carlos, whose father was killed in battle, is brought to the mission, which now has the function of an orphanage. There he discovers the secrets of this estate: the unexploded bomb in the yard is a constant threat to the people, like a ticking time-bomb; in the basement below the kitchen, the ghost of Santi seems to live, a boy who was drowned there and finds no peace; and there is Jacinto, an angry young man who spent his whole youth in the mission and now tries to rob the gold that Carmen, the headmistress, and her elderly husband Casares guard for the rebels. Carlos soon realizes that Santi has been killed by Jacinto for he had discovered the young man’s secret longing for the gold-treasure. Now he speaks to Carlos to warn him: Something terrible is going to happen… Indeed, as Jacinto violently tries to get his hand on the gold, a huge explosion kills many of the boys and Carmen. The survivors are locked away to be killed later. But the boys manage to drown Jacinto in the fountain where he had killed Santi. Casares unlocks the door and the boys escape.

The film reaches its turning point right in the last frame where the old man Casares stands in the shadow. In the background we see the boys run away. Casares repeats his introducing monologue, closing with the insight that he himself is a ghost, having been killed in the explosion long before he could have freed the orphans. THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE can be seen as classic gothic fiction, like THE OTHERS very similar to Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’. For a long time the film shifts between psychological and metaphysical levels of reception. It is never made clear whether we see Carlos’ subjective visions or an objective incident (dealing with the supernatural). It also appears very strange that the film starts with an old man reflecting the key phenomenon and then switches to a young boy. We could easily take the old man’s voice as the adult voice of Carlos – but the turn in the end changes the perspective radically: With the shadowy ghost of Casares the film finally enters the world of fantasy. Del Toro’s best film to date is therefore closely connected to the ‘unreliable’ narration of THE SIXTH SENSE and THE OTHERS which are also told from the viewpoint of the dead. And yes – a ‘ghost’ is probably everything that Casares mentions: a terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over – like an insect trapped in amber… But what happens if the dead envy the living?

THEY’RE WATCHING US (2002) by Norberto López Amado in a way refers to Robert Harmon’s Horrorthriller THEY (2002) about living shadows behind the mirror terrorizing and kidnapping the unhappy chosen few who are able to be aware of ‘them’. Amado’s dark film tells the story of police inspector Juan (Carmelo Gómez) whose sister disappeared in a mysterious manner during a school play. In the present Juan has a family of his own with two children. But a new case will knock his life out of balance: During his research on the disappearance of a wealthy businessman three years before he discovers that during the past decades thousands of people have disappeared without a trace. The final proof of the disappeared man’s life is a videotape – filmed via a mirror – on which Juan discovers strange shadowy creatures who seem to exist in a twilight-world between life and death. Even in the city and on the subway he begins to see those shadows, appearing in reflecting surfaces. He discovers that these are abandoned souls who never totally passed away into the realm of death. Now they envy the living and therefore terrorize them. Juan realizes that his children, especially his daughter, see them as well. Even in his past the shadows were there and pulled his little sister over to their side. To save his little daughter the policeman sacrifices himself: He enters the real ‘night-train’ into the abyss. In the last sequence we witness that he is still present for his daughter – who is the next of the chosen ones, but with a shadowy guardian angel on her side…

Amado’s film creates a very dark and brooding atmosphere via stylistic means that we know from Jaume Balaguero’s films THE NAMELESS and DARKNESS: monochromatic, mainly brown and green colour-schemes, a low frequency drone on the soundtrack, high-contrast chiaroscuro-lightning, and finally the discovery of occult symbolism (within a dream sequence). Juan is yet another haunted soul (as in DARKNESS), a dark father figure that becomes a threat to his family (especially when he shoots at his children in panic). He is the original source of evil within the family – although that is not his fault, for he is a victim of the twilight world himself. The only way to save himself and his kin he has to sacrifices himself for the benefit of a (fleeting) peace. In the end it is clear that he passed the curse over to his daughter. The idea of self-sacrifice to restore the order is clearly a very conservative element in most of these Spanish films. On the surface, a scepticism concerning supernatural and spiritual elements seems to dominate that slowly passes away. Without being explicitly ‘Christian’ or ‘catholic’ in their attitude these films nevertheless glorify conservative Old Testament ideas of martyrdom and redemption.

Pain and sacrifice

Deeply connected with Spanish mysticism is the myth of pain, sacrifice and martyrdom. It comes therefore as no surprise that the New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers often contain connections of physical pain, spiritual suffering and redemption.

THE NAMELESS (1999) by Jaume Balaguero, the most complex key-film in this context, goes far beyond any moral ideas: here we come to know the leader of a sect that glorifies pain and agony and longs for the total destruction of individuality. The believers are called THE NAMELESS for they loose everything except the ability to give and receive – pain and agony. Their guru had once been the victim in a Nazi concentration camp, but the conclusions he drew from his painful experiences is not the fight against inhumanity but the celebration of pure and total agony. This is a truly radical model, and the film deals quite consistently with it: The female protagonist – the mother who seeks for her daughter – will finally realize that her ex-husband belongs to the cult and uses their daughter as a means to provide her with the greatest pain of all: She will loose her beloved a second time. The adolescent girl shoots herself in front of her mother (and that’s the end of the film!). From this point of view everything that happened throughout the film has been in vain: the reporter dies in vain, the mother’s hopes are destroyed. Her future is bleak. In Balaguero’s film we are confronted with total nihilism. The world as he sees it is built of guilt and latent evil that can break through the walls at any time. It comes as no surprise that his follow-up circles around ‘darkness’ itself … the end of everything. Total nothingness.

In KILLING WORDS (2002) by Laura Maná the attractive psychiatrist Laura (Dario Grandinetti) is in a desperate condition: Bound to a chair he kidnapper forces her to watch videos that show him a vicious serial-killer. At the same time he shows her his list of victims – and her name is already at the end. The killer begins to play a cruel game with her: in case she wins, she will be free – but if she looses, he will extract on of her eyes. And so forth… – This kind of sadistic cruelty to an unwilling victim seems essential to catholic societies. It reminds us of the great success Mel Gibson’s idea of the PASSION OF THE CHRIST had in Latin America, Italy and Spain. Catholic dominated culture seems obsessed with violent sacrifice, passionate suffering and redemption through violence. And the New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers perfectly mirrors this moralistic excess.

IMPULSE (2002) by Miguel Alcantud  shows some similarities to KILLING WORDS but appears to be more of a psychological drama than a thriller. Here a young suicidal woman, Sara (Ana Risueno), witnesses an act of murder by a passionate serial killer, Jaime (Daniel Feire), – who is an elementary-teacher in his everyday life. The attractive and cultivated man pushes someone in front of an underground train. What appears as an accident is actually part of a killing spree. Jaime has this uncoordinated impulse to kill people spontaneously, sometime in a row, sometimes within several weeks. Later he collects the newspaper articles on his victims from the internet. Supposedly out of her latent death wish, Sara starts to blackmail the killer. She says that she has filmed the murder. Between the two disturbed characters, a strange relationship begins to grow, one that circles around the fatal ‘impulse’ to take lives… Secretly Sara hopes that Jaime will finally help her to find – death. This could have been a suspenseful thriller filled with sadomasochistic subtexts etc. but turns out to be a very tame psychological drama about a lonely woman in trouble. Music – in this case very jazzy –, advanced photography, and eccentric editing contribute to an existential seriousness that finally damages the sensual and metaphorical impact of the idea. What could have been a most intimate gaze into the human abyss is in fact a conventional and lame vehicle for ideas. In the last frame Sara finally sits in the bathtub with the blade in her hand to slit her wrists while Jaime is filming her with a video-camera – but she refuses. This strange love between two people obsessed by death gave her power to live – a macabre ending in its own right.

Father, Son, Unholy Spirit

A dark male figure slowly walks through a dimly lit hallway toward us. Photographed from a low angle central perspective, such shots remind us of classical gothic horror films. They are also a key framing device in the Spanish mystery thriller, mainly focussing on one of the most important protagonists: the evil father. We see such shots in Jaume Balaguero’s Darkness (2002) and The Nameless, as these films build up the whole drama around the haunted, possessed and threatening father who is unable to protect his family.

Also based on a novel of British writer Ramsey Campbell (the author of NAMELESS) is SECOND NAME (2001) by Paco Plaze, a dark psychological thriller that appears to be a kind of prototype of this New Wave along with THE NAMELESS. This time the plot is told from the perspective of a young woman Daniella (Erica Prior) who used to have a very close relationship with her caring father. Right at the beginning of the movie this man commits suicide – seemingly out of the blue. Daniella is shocked – and even more so when his grave is discovered empty some days later. Since the police doesn’t care too much about the vanished corpse, she takes the investigations into her own hands. Soon her father’s body is found at an old cemetery: mutilated and bound with barbed wire to a piece of wood. Her research lead sher into two different directions: the first one is connected to a strange professional hitman who seems to follow her and collects photos of Daniella; the second track has to do with a religious sect called the ‘Abrahamites’. They believe that biblical Abraham did in fact kill his first-born child – and that the bible is interpreted erroneously. To gain success in life, the ‘Abrahamites’ ritually kill their first-born children. And that’s the key to both the evil-father theme and the solution of Daniella’s father’s suicide. The woman soon realizes that a lot of people are involved in the death-cult, even her father who tried to run away from his ‘ritual duty’. Like THE NAMELESS this film has a downbeat shock ending that seems to affirm the continuity of the ‘Abrahamitic’ cult.

Paco Plaze, for whom this is his debut to feature films, does not have the stylistic strength of Balaguero, but SECOND NAME succeeds in several aspects: it has a very bleak piano-score, spiced up with gothic chorals; it makes effective use of make-up and violent special effects, and it features some impressive camera angles. Nevertheless the theme of the evil father is not very elaborate in this film – simply because it is split up into different characters. Nonetheless, SECOND NAME presents a whole society based on the concept of a destructive patriarchy. From this perspective the female point of view makes absolute sense. Unfortunately, it is not Plaze’s talent to build up tension as effectively as THE NAMELESS or the supernatural examples mentioned above. The highlight may be Daniella’s discovery of a dead child buried under a tree in the garden of her close relatives. At that point there seems no way out of this destructive system…

Jaume Balaguero’s DARKNESS also culminates in a ritual executed by a possessed father getting deeper and deeper into a fatal system. But the genre-context is completely different: the film simply works on the basis of elements taken out of THE SHINING (1980) by Stanley Kubrick and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979) by Stuart Rosenberg. A family with two children moves into a Spanish country house where something seems wrong. The mentally unstable father drifts more and more into the obsessive idea that there is ‘something’ in the past of the house, while the adolescent daughter Regina (Anna Paquin) discovers bruises on her younger brother’s (Stephan Enquist) face and body. She tells her mother (Lena Olin) – who is very passive and ignorant – that she suspects her father of violating the boy. Annoyed by an aggressive father and an ignorant mother Regina escapes to her Spanish boyfriend Carlos (Fele Martínez) to help her. As the films offers up some genre-quotes, director Balaguero is finally in his element: Connected with a scientist, a friend of the family (Giancarlo Giannini), the disturbing truth about the house is revealed. It was once owned by three strange women who used to performs human sacrifices in praise of the World Serpent (Uroboros). Beneath the living-room-floor is a ritual place where a number of young boys were sacrificed. When the last blood is spilled darkness itself will cover the earth. The father-turned-abuser in this case seems to be the last chosen ‘high priest’ to close the circle. But things are not as they seem: Not his son has to die but he himself. And he is finally killed by his family as he became a threat to their lives. Unfortunately this preventive killing closes the circle. Finally darkness is raised… Rarely has a film bathed in such apocalyptic ideas: In the end, light simply disappears out of the frame. Total DARKNESS is raised. The cult of the evil father has succeeded. The supposed ‘bringer of life’ is really the destroyer of everything.

At another place: Santiago de Compostela 2002. Jacobo (Juan Diego Botto), a young sculptor of twenty years, returns to his hometown after many years. His mother is mentally ill and lives in an asylum. Jacobo wants to care for her and visits her. In the asylum he meets some figures his doomed past whom he would have preferred to forget. They remind him of strange incidents of his past from which he tried to escape his whole life: Xavier Villaverde’s WHEN THE BELL Chimed 13 (2002) finally turns out to be the ultimate evil-father-drama. In the first sequence we see him as a young boy trying to copy the art of his father. When the father arrives he is dissatisfied with his son’s work. Actually it is the night when he wants to leave his wife together with his son – ‘to protect him from the mentally unstable mother’ as he says. But right at midnight, when the bell chimes, the mother seems to shoot her unfaithful husband. As Jacobo remembers just at that time the bell chimed once more: 13 times. All his life he secretly believes that this incident had been of supernatural origin. This belief is linked to his mother’s obsession that her husband never really died and is haunting her with his ‘eyes in the walls’ around her.

Indeed Jacobo soon meets the ghost of his father in an old cathedral where the sculptor was supposed to build a marble statue. The evil ancestor wants to force his son to fulfill the unfinished work. Jacobo – who is not as talented as his father – agrees. In a strange supernatural act their hands melt together within a clay sculpture. The young man is now obsessed by the ghost of his aggressive father. Not quite himself any more, he tries to rape the woman his father once loved. His mother dies of a heart attack, and the woman is killed by accident. Every act of resistance against the will of his father results in another catastrophe. But with the skill of his father’s hands Jacobo finally manages to finish the statue.

The film makes it increasingly clear that this is only one side of events: Jacobo’s point of view. A young girl who loves him tries to solve the mystery surrounding Jacobo and realizes with the help of a befriended psychiatrist that our antihero suffers from schizophrenia – like his mother. His father seems to live within him. Villaverde’s direction shifts between supernatural horror and sophisticated psychological thriller. In the film’s final within the cathedral we reach the level of latent guilt again: The bell did actually not chime 13 times. Between 12 and 1 there is one hour lost in Jacobo’s memories. And the viewer can guess what really happened: The little boy killed his father himself – trying to stop the man from beating up his mother. When this truth is revealed Jacobo is freed of his haunting visions. Or so it seems – for the final sequence shows him in his father’s working place now threatening his own little son. But he again manages to keep control…

WHEN THE BELL CHIMED 13 may not be as strong as the cinematic predecessors – but this film works perfectly within the father/son/unholy spirit-context: the generational conflict is being passed on from one generation to the next like a virus. Villaverde makes prominent use of sacral locations, especially the cathedral, where father and son create a huge crucifixion scene in white marble. Even the showdown takes place in the tower of the cathedral. The sacred place can not protect the victim’s of destructive patriarchy.

The ‘rightful path’

As we have seen, the New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers celebrates, in a very stylish and at the same time strikingly conservative way, the battle of occult versus Christian powers. They show a world of permanent temptation – the latent seduction to go the ‘wrong path’ willingly. Even if they show characters with a connotation of ‘innocence’ – e.g. the children – the seed of evil is already present. The innocent become guilty simply by being the tool of evil – as shown to great effect in the end of THE NAMELESS. The only way to be granted redemption is through self-sacrifice – a totally violent act to purify the ‘stained’ world.

Most of these Spanish thrillers avoid admitting that they are constructed within a system of catholic guilt complexes. They focus on the stated opposite: the occult world, the shadow world, the twilight zone. In these destructive circles of fate, the protagonists get punished for their involvement in occult rituals and practices. On the visual level of the films, this is represented by a conflict of ancient symbolism and the icons of Christian belief. In this context, it is also quite very fascinating that, despite being mainstream films, the films I have discussed also avoid happy endings: in the end there is either the destruction of the protagonist’s soul, ultimately his death, or – as in DARKNESS – apocalypse itself. Through the back door, a restrictive moral, a kind of reactionary ‘medieval’ Christian vision du monde, sneaks in. And this is truly frightening.

“Inade visit places that even the most ambitious specialists for dark soundscapes have yet to come across.” J. C. Smith, Spectrum Magazine (2000) Music and space – a direct relationship has to be defined here: Music unfolds in space, but also simultaneously creates a new, virtual space: the sound space. Entirely independent from this rather general association, there exists another specific circumstance. It has a name that seems diffuse at first: Ambient. Generally, Ambient Music is perceived as an unobtrusive soundscape that has an affirmative effect on its sound space – the environment in which it resounds. However, the term Ambient Music made music history in a different context. Introduced by British conceptual artist and musician Brian Eno, it simultaneously describes a musical style as well as a specialized method of dealing with the relationship of sound and space. He writes: “Ambiance is defined as atmosphere or enveloping influence […]. It is my goal to produce original compositions for specific times and situations, the aim being a comprehensive catalog of background music with a wide variety of moods and atmospheres. […] Ambient Music must be able to address several levels of the listener’s attention without forcing itself onto a certain one.” The musical means of this sound art are gradually crescending frequencies, overlapping layers of sound, voice modulations, effected field recordings, piano accents, and more seldomly, also darkly droning layers of sound. Eric Satie called this “musique ameublement,” “music as interior decoration,” which should be present yet should not interfere with the conversation of those present. But this aspect of “background music” was not as simple after all. Ambient Music in turn influences the perception of space. It guides the listener’s attention, and is able to virtually contract or expand the space. Especially when used for artistic installations, Ambient Music can receive an elemental significance and guide and support the attention of the viewer. On its quieter improvisations dating from the late 1970s, but especially on the soundtrack to Derek Jarman’s “In the Shadow of the Sun” (1981), the British performance quartet Throbbing Gristle created extremely opressive, dark soundscapes: distorted modulations, producing ‘mournful’ frequencies, overlayed disturbing bass drones, reverberating crystalline sounds accompanied metallic vibrations… With this latter composition, “Dark Ambient,” an apocalyptic inversion of Eno’s original definition, had been born. It managed to combine the concepts of noise music (according to “L’Arte dei Rumori” by Luigi Russolo) and Satie’s “music d’ameublement” into a singular style which was refined throughout the 1980s, but has only reached the apex of its popularity within the last ten years. Back in the early 1990s, Dark Ambient sounds could already be heard emerging from Aue in the Erzgebirge (the “Ore Mountains” region of Saxony), specifically on two audio cassettes by the duo Inade: “Schwerttau” (“Sword Dew”, 1992) and “Burning Flesh/Seelenhain” (“Grove of Souls” 1993) were still testing the limits of the sound equipment at their disposal, and searching amidst the stylistic territories of Post-Industrial and Ambient Musics. In 2000, a few of these early recordings could be heard again on the “Burning Flesh” CD and unfolded a darkly fatalistic world view with its reverberating noise textures, chorales and occasional monotone ritualistic rhythms. The terrifying images evoked by the CD title were reinforced in corresponding titles “Shattered Bones,” The Coming of Black Legions,” “Final Prayer,” “Outcry” etc. The first vinyl release came in the form of a 7″ that was part of Stefan Knappe’s legendary “Drone-Series.” In this lovingly realised series, the visual presentation of the first edition is always designed by the sound artist(s) themselves. “The Axxiarm Plains” (1994) is dedicated to the Russian Futurist Vladimir Vladimirowich Majakowski (1893-1930), who declared the need for an “Art in Movement”: “Movement! We do not need a mausoleum for art, where dead works can be viewed, but rather living factories of the human spirit.” This quote from his work Movement and Construction is included in the 7″ insert. Consequently, this three-part miniature is totally dedicated to invoking energy through sound. The reference to the theme is not made through declarative exclamations or samples, but rather via carefully layered walls of sound that undergo an ongoing differentiation and almost take on a melodic character in the third part. Thematically, this release is still far removed from the occult concepts of later works, although movement, space and energy already are central concerns. Inade is an artistic moniker, an invented or possibly constructed name. Whether it constitutes a condensation of the artists’ will, a sigil, does not matter in the end. Inade has long since become a surface for projection, the source of a certain expectation. Inade is a complex conception of the world via language, image and sound. In this presentation, and also in live concerts, the human voice plays a equally important role as the electronic components and treated sounds. Already on “Burning Flesh,” we hear this voice as invocational mantra over the cascades of droning soundscapes… “It is our main interest to transform ideas and concepts that correspond to our own thoughts and interests. Inade is like a sonar, an echo location into unseen and unheard regions and abstract spheres, where the nameless and unnameable is alive” the musicians stated in Spectrum magazine (September 2000). It is their intention “to go beyond the in part static and often repetitive working principle of Ambient Music by adding further attributes” (Black, Autumn 2001). The first milestone work of Inade is the CD “Aldebaran,” released in England in 1996 and named after that dying sun that radiates its violet light on many an evening. For some, Aldebaran is synonimous with the esoteric “Black Sun,” the ‘divine light of knowledge.’ It is not necessary to delve into such notions in order to perceive this constellation as a symbol of a deeply spiritual source of energy, somewhat comparable to the “creative vortex” of the English Vorticists (Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, etc.). In the booklet of “Aldebaran” we read the following, written in almost biblical tone: “This is the beginning of the end for you and me. The black light of the universe illuminates the inner world. Open your eyes – the 68 dimensions… This is the step where the shadows of the secret knowledge darken reality. Ascertain the traces of the past, they could show you the way to the light. All is one! Breathe the energy! Feel the pulse of the universe! Invoke the power as part of the law! Die! Become! Become! Die! This is a dream. And this is the end of the beginning.” The cosmic cycle indicated here corresponds to the basic assumptions of alchemy, which in turn inspired the idea of the invisible black sun that forms a reciprocal relationship with the visible white sun. Like an endlessly turned hourglass, these two suns send and receive the energy of the other. They form the cyclical relationship of “Sun-Ur” which is hinted at by the motto “Die and become!” In addition, this work ends with the visionary words of Ernst Jünger: “The real is equally as magical as the magical is real.” With “The Crackling of the Anonymous” Knut Enderlein and René Lehmann continued the cosmic concept of “Aldebaran.” The title describes “the symbol of a bright shining unexpected impact, followed by a calm vibration, as a kind of disharmonic phenomena whose repolarisation is effected through divine signs or even through anonymous factors. The radiance emitted by such gates of incidence can also have a physical effect and can even be visible, but of course people almost always only see that which they believe and only in seldom cases that which they cannot fathom. But the meaning and purpose of all manifestation is the coming into consciousness that results from these fields of radiation. Here, the symblic overcoming of pain takes place, a cosmic necessity that precedes all realization. In this context, pain does not correspond to physical suffering but instead is the threshhold to the vortex of life which in turn leads to eternity.” (Black, Autumn 2000). This idea directly refers to the sound space which is conjured up by the music: “an aural journey, guiding the listener into a transcendent cosmic state of agitation full of kinetic structures, bizarre shapes and titanic sculptures.” (ibid). Even though it was conceived as a sequel to “Aldebaran”, “Crackling…” has turned out to be decisively more complex and multi-layered. Since the last album, the musicians had developed a new and unique stylistic attribute on a few singles and contributions to compilations: a turbine like rhythm and heavily delayed beats that seem to weigh in with tons of force. This sound was perfected on the piece “Cherub” from the Saturn Gnosis 10″ box and on track 3 of “Crackling…”: “Chapel Perilous.” Similar elements were already hinted at on parts of “Burning Flesh” but now reached markedly increased tonal depth. As already indicated, the philosophical aspects of their worldview or Weltanschauung, play an important role in Inade’s work. Sofar, two compilations dedicated to the occult underground in early 20th century Germany have appeared in the series “Germania Occulta” which is produced in collaboration with Turbund Sturmwerk and also features other musically and conceptually kindred musicians. “Saturn Gnosis” dealt with the concepts of Gregor A. Gregorius and “Peryt Shou” with the ideas of the “spiritual seeker and teacher” of the same name. In these elaborately designed combinations of vinyl records and booklets, sound space, spiritual idea and conceptual art have merged effortlessly. And on their numerous contributions to other compilations, the musicians from Leipzig have dedicated themselves to further developing their concept. “The Quiet Room” an exerpt from a larger unreleased work that can be found on “…in the Crystal Cage” (2004), uses Jim Morrison’s words to remind us of something which we had long forgotten: “We’re trying for something that’s already found us…” The music journalist Martin Büsser once remarked that sound art tended towards the realm of the ‘esoteric.’ This probably stems from the fact that musical sound evades the intellect even easier – and is more fleeting – than the filmic image or even the written word. At the same time, sounds are difficult to transform into language in order to subject them to a generally comprehensible analysis. In his phenomenology of the media, “Unter Verdacht” (“Under Suspicion” 2000), Boris Groys refers to the suspicious impetus of modern art. The possibly banal appears special since it arouses the ‘suspicion’ in the viewer that something ‘else’ is hidden under the perceptible surface, in the “submedial space.” And what if this suspicion should be in fact confirmed? Büsser’s misgiving that sound art tends towards the ‘esoteric’ – his ‘suspicion’ – is perhaps completely undone by the occult sound art of Inade. Of course, their works can be consumed out of the pure enjoyment of ‘physical’ sound, but Inade’s idea to symbiotically join sound and concept in order to explore new, uncharted territories promises much more than just aesthetic enjoyment. “Aldebaran” and “Crackling of the Anonymous” have established themselves over the years as convincing total works of art (“Gesamtkunstwerke”) that reopen the gates of perception with every new listen and uncover vistas of realms that are usually obscured by the everyday ballast of a materialist industrial world that has forgotten how to listen to its most subtle receptors. That is why it most likely requires a musical tremor like Inade in order to once again conjure up such a state of ‘transcendental trembling’… I N A D E Colliding Dimensions 4xCD / 4xLP BOXSET At the intersection between dreams and ears wide open cognizance, between the known reality and the spiderweb cluster of dimensions dissecting it, reside the premier purveyors of dark ambience, Inade. But it’s more than simple dark ambience that they traffic in, for their dreams are vast and unrestricted, and their imaginative, ears wide open approach to sound manipulation is audacious and unparalleled. It’s as much weird ambient as it is dark ambient; strange, perplexing sounds in which origin must be questioned. Arcane musings from the cosmic wasteland collide with insectiod utterances culled from ancient alien terrain; deep audio ripples pulsing across dark matter plains collide with the ephemeral flotsam of German occult murmurings. Pterodactyl’s squeal in atavistic joy, space itself breathes–inhalations like crackling Cthulhuian dread, exhalations etched on the machinery whine of Forever–and the ever shifting cartography of the infinite is sonically translated along the ridge of collision, where Inade dare to explore. What remains is incomparable: the audio mythology they have nurtured, and the legacy that is Colliding Dimensions. Announced for several years we can finally present the long requested compendium of INADE that closes a circle from near the starting point of the project to their Peryt Shou release and concert in December 2002. All material of this set was recorded and sculptured during live shows and rehearsal sessions from 1995 to 2002 and was especially selected and mastered to receive high quality audio recordings with no compromise in sound. A third of the tracks has not been released in any form yet and this release brings back as well a lot of long sold out material like Vitriol, Flood Of White Light and more in new and powerful live versions. The vinyl edition is limited to 525 copies only. CATALOGUE-NUMBER: LOKI 38 AVAILABLE 25. April 2005

A genre such as the horror film is virtually non-existent in Austrian cinema. Well-known especially for their avant-garde and experimental productions, everyday topics and problematic dramas, Austrian films are comparable to the art films of New German Cinema or to the kind of German TV movies that share a similar “anti-cinematic” take on the medium. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Gerald Kargl’s serial-killer film Angst (Fear, 1983) has never been distributed commercially, not even on videotape or DVD. Even today this disturbing horror-thriller—which follows the bloody course of a twice convicted serial-killer through the Austrian countryside—can hardly be seen because of its disgusting crime scenes, scenes which are not suitable for television either. In contrast to Kargl’s only film to date, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) was shown at film festivals all over the world (from Cannes and Munich in 1997, to Rotterdam and Miami in 1998), and could be considered something of a box-office hit. But even if writer-director Haneke—born in Munich, Germany in 1942—had already received several prizes for Der Siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989), Nachruf für einen Mörder (1991), Benny’s Video (1992), Die Rebellion (1992) and 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, 1994), his films have been heavily criticized, even by young Austrian film critics, for their didactic approach to the mass media and mainstream cinema. Nonetheless Haneke’s “Kammerspiel”-like Funny Games is a rare and important example of the Austrian horror-thriller, as is Kargl’s semi-documentary psychodrama Angst.

Deadly passions of a home invader

Angst is based on an actual case of triple-murder, the “Kniesek case”, which is as famous in Austria as the Fritz Haarmann and Peter Kürten trials in Germany, or the Ed Gein case in America. Like these and other serial killers, Werner Kniesek from Salzburg—who killed three people out of pure lust in 1980—stands as a threatening symbol of senseless death and destruction for its own sake. “I just love it when women shiver in deadly fear because of me. It is like an addiction, which will never stop”, said Kniesek in front of the judge. His psychiatrist classified him as “extremely abnormal but not mentally ill”— an explosive mixture of lust for destruction and addiction to physical violence. He probably should never have been set free.

Kniesek was born in 1946, the spoiled son of an Austrian widow and an African-American soldier. His mother used to call him a “cute little black baby”, and as a child he really was what his mother expected: a nice young boy. In his adolescent years, he developed a criminal instinct which lead him to commit a number of burglaries in his hours off school. In 1962, Kniesek planned to leave the country. First he took a great amount of money from his mother, then he stabbed her several times with a breadknife. Kniesek was then sixteen years old. He left behind his critically-wounded mother and took the train to Hamburg. Two days later he was caught by police, convicted, and sent to prison. Only two years later he managed to obtain his release. He married a prostitute, committed several house break-ins, and again tried to kill a woman, but his 73-year-old victim survived. For the second time in his short life, Kniesek was locked up in jail.

In 1980, a few weeks before his sentence was up, Kniesek got the chance to go free to search for some work. Immediately he drove to Upper Austria, the town of St. Poelten, where he broke into the villa of a middle-aged widow named Gertrud Altreiter. There he found the son of the family, who was dependent on a wheelchair. In his confession, Kniesek explained that he knew he would kill the boy, but not at that moment. Later that day the mother and her daughter returned home from a shopping trip. Kniesek threatened the two women with a gas-pistol, bound and gagged them, and carried his helpless victims into two different rooms. In self-defence the daughter tried to seduce Kniesek, but the cold-blooded killer just stated that soon they would all be dead. His first victim was the disabled son whom Kniesek strangled to death, subsequently showing the corpse to the panicking mother before killing her as well. The horrifying chain of events climaxed in the violation and torturing of the 25-year-old daughter for several hours. Finally, Kniesek murdered her, along with the family cat, whose crying had bothered him. Afterwards, the killer spent the night side-by-side with his dead victims.

“I killed them simply out of the lust for murder”, Kniesek later stated. “I even gave the elder woman some medicine so that she would live longer.” His attempt to commit suicide in his single cell failed. During the trial, the killer expressed the wish to be jailed in a special institution for pathological criminals, because from childhood on he had felt the desire to kill people, and given the opportunity he would commit murder again and again. The case escalated again when Kniesek nearly managed to escape from prison three years later. During this period of public outrage, the possibility of reintroducing the death penalty in Austria was discussed more seriously than ever.

Inside the mind of serial killer

In Angst, Gerald Kargl’s cinematic adaptation of the Kniesek case, some of the authentic facts are changed, the names of the people and cities altered, and certain of the events modified. The most obvious and significant change is the director’s decision to add the killer’s voice-over, as he quotes passages from other serial-killers’ confessions, especially those of Peter Kürten, the so-called “Vampire of Düsseldorf.” This strictly subjective one-person drama is shot with a strong use of high-angle shots and handheld camerawork, and the minimal narration shows similarities to Aristide Massaccesi’s Italian stalk’n’slash-epic Rosso Sangue (Absurd, 1982). But in fact, Kargl manages to direct a European counterpart to John McNaughton’s Henry:Portrait of a Serial Killer (USA, 1986/1990): irritating, gory, and absolutely hopeless.

Angst is exceptional in Austrian cinema for at least two reasons: it is both a “true crime” semi-documentary, and a horror-slasher film resembling those from the Italian tradition. Yet it is different as well. The film confronts the viewer with the most horrible details of the authentic case, and stands as the collaborative effort of first-time-director Kargl and his writer-cameraman Zbigniew Rybczynski; the third “author” is composer Klaus Schulze (from the “Krautrock”-group Tangerine Dream), whose cold yet haunting electronic rhythms add a great deal to the alienating atmosphere. The soundtrack mainly consists of pre-existing pieces, most notably the charming melody of “Freeze”— a track also used to great effect in the moonlight love scene of Michael Mann’s serial killer drama Manhunter (USA, 1987).

Angst uses real-time narration nearly all way through; only a few ellipses appear in the second part, but most of the film is staged in detailed on-screen action, filmed with long handheld shots, sometimes even in planned sequences. Dialogue scenes are extremely rare, due to the concentration on a subjective, one-person drama. The film starts in a prison cell, establishing the killer (Erwin Leder) through an off-screen monologue in which he reflects about his past, his deeds, his needs, his sexual desires, and his supposedly lost childhood. The film’s irritating atmosphere is established via clear, often high-key, but always greyish visuals— only broken by some stylish chiaroscuro in the cell. When released from prison ten years later, the off-screen narration leaves the viewer with no illusions: the killer will be stalking his next victim soon. When he enters a small diner we are forced to “scan” the guests through the killer’s eyes. Every human being is a potential victim. First he enters a taxi, directs the female driver into a forest, and tries to strangle her. But he fails, as she has sensed something weird the whole time. His potential victim manages to kick him out of the car and escapes. The killer flees through the forest until he reaches a huge villa. He breaks into this supposedly empty house and meets—here the semi-documentary begins—a disabled and mentally retarded young man in a wheelchair (Rudolf Goetz). Soon the other occupants of the house arrive: a middle-aged woman (Silvia Rabenreither), and her adolescent daughter (Edith Rosset).

Accompanied by his own quietly spoken voice-over, the killer starts his bloody “work”: the son is drowned in the bathtub, and the mother gets strangled in her bedroom. The daughter tries to escape, but the killer hunts her down in the basement garage and viciously stabs her with a bread-knife. Here the most disturbing sequence of Angst runs its course: after massacring the young woman in a total frenzy, the killer rapes the corpse post-mortem. All of this is shot in real-time. After this disturbing climax, the film returns to its low-key narrative, and shows us the killer’s actions after the murders: having slept at the crime scene, he washes himself, stuffs the corpses in the trunk of the family’s car, and—once again—visits the diner from earlier in the picture. While there, he behaves so suspiciously that immediately the police are on to him. Finally they force him to open the trunk, a sequence filmed in the long, circling tracking shots Hollywood-cameraman Michael Ballhaus would later become popular for, symbolizing the circle of crime and punishment in which the killer is so consciously trapped.

What is so frightening about Angst, what makes the film a horror film in the true sense of the word, is that the killer is characterized as a threat to every human being crossing his path. To be seen by him is to be his potential victim. He easily invades the residence of a bourgeois household— a place that is normally synonymous with warmth and safety. And he brings murder to a dispassionate middle-class society in which “death” would appear to be the only and last taboo. Interestingly, the disabled son seems to be “hidden” by his own family in this villa by the edge of the forest.

As noted earlier, Angst’s dramatic structure is reduced to only a very small amount of narration: we are simply shown the killer’s murder spree on his one and only day of freedom. What might cause some empathy with this dangerous character—his own first-person-narration—in fact functions to alienate the viewer even more. This because the voice-overs simply double on the verbal level the monstrous incidents shown to us in all their graphic horror. Through the use of this technique, the film creates a distance between audience and protagonist that never really subsides. The murder sequences may be visually shocking, but they are also deeply reflective. Kargl avoids providing any type of entertainment, conventional thrill, or suspense. In fact, both Kargl and Haneke seem to believe that entertainment through stalk’n’slash splatter films is a sign of cynicism and should be avoided. As a result, both have tried to develop directing methods marked by intellectual distance. Austria is a true middle-class society, and the greatest fear of the middle class is the invasion of the bourgeois home by unpredictable elements, be they of foreign origin—this is where racism comes into play—or be they mentally ill. To make his fable even more extreme, Kargl avoided the African-American origins of the real Werner Kniesek; in his film, the killer looks more like a “normal” guy no one would recognize or pay much attention to in the streets. Angst’s killer belongs to virtually the same bourgeois background as his choice of victims. This would seem to be the real Austrian nightmare, one which Michael Haneke has used as inspiration for several of his films.

Trapped in fear

The situation is quite simple, clearly structured, and well-known from numerous thrillers and horror films: an upper-class family (father, mother, son) is trapped in an isolated house (their own luxurious holiday home nearby some Austrian lake), captured by two dangerous criminals who turn out to be serial killers. But unlike other home invaders—for example the psychopathic criminal in Cape Fear, played by Robert Mitchum in 1961 and by Robert DeNiro in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake—Funny Games confronts the viewer with a pair of seemingly harmless, almost innocent looking young men. They aren’t much older than eighteen, and they look just like regular boys from a bourgeois neighbourhood. They are both wearing white sweaters and short trousers; only their white gloves, which may remind viewers of the “horror-shows” in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1968), don’t fit in with the fresh boyish look. Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch)—who refer to themselves with nicknames such as “Tom and Jerry” or “Beavis and Butthead”—seem well-educated, talk eloquently, and act politely. At least at the start. They are not the “usual” criminals who will break into a house to steal money, or to commit rape. They are just boys who want to play games. Only their kind of game is a very disgusting and ultimately deadly one.

First of all, Peter and Paul (two Christian names, as we know) have to choose their “teammates”, and the newest member of the cast is the Schober family, who has just arrived at their holiday residence. Anna Schober (Susanne Lothar) is preparing supper in the kitchen, while husband Georg (Ulrich Mühe) and son Schorschi (pronounced “Georgi”, Stefan Olapczynski) are busy fixing the sailboat for tomorrow’s voyage. Meanwhile, Peter waits at the entrance, and when Anna finally notices the shy-looking, embarrassed boy at the front door, he introduces himself as a guest of the Berlingers, a neighboring family, and kindly asks if he might borrow some eggs. Unlike the family dog, a German shepherd named Rolfi who instinctively attacked him in the garden earlier, Anna doesn’t recognize the danger posed by Peter. So she believes it is an accident, mere clumsiness—not bad will or a calculated act—when he drops the eggs in the hallway and a little later on the mobile phone in the sink.

Soon the awkward- looking boy is joined by a pert and insolent friend. First, Paul asks Anna if he may use one of her husband’s golf clubs (with which he will kill the dog a little later), then he begins to patronize her harshly. At first the woman is irritated, and then she is frightened, but she is not willing to be in a “game” she does not know and the rules of which she cannot understand. In a first act of resistance, Anna bravely orders the home invaders to leave. But Peter and Paul won’t go, leaving Anna feeling upset, insulted, and humiliated. She attacks Paul. Just at that moment, father and son return from the lakeside. Georg doesn’t understand what is going on, and is willing to believe in a kind of “unfortunate misunderstanding”, as Paul puts it. Although Peter and Paul are back to behaving very politely, the situation is already strange, explosive, and threatening— getting out of control. So it comes as little surprise to the viewer when Paul threatens Georg with physical violence after being ordered to leave, and that Georg reacts by slapping Paul’s face, like a father might do to punish his naughty child. But it comes as a total shock when Peter responds by striking Georg with the golf club, shattering his kneecap and sending the entire family into a state of utter panic. From that moment, right up to the end of the film, we are all involved in a “game” that we cannot accept or explain, one which isn’t “funny” at all— not for the terrorized family, and not for the viewer who is terrorized as well because he or she can’t help but identify with the victims.

All the way through the film—and increasingly as Georg, Anna, and their young son Schorschi are degraded, tortured, and eventually “dehumanized” by the cold-blooded home invaders—one thinks about how this innocent family might escape from their horrible, inhuman, and apparently fatal situation. Although there appear to be several chances for a happy ending (e.g., some friends come along with their boat, Schorschi escapes from the house, Peter is shot by Anna), in the end we come to realize that there is no way out, just as there is no real reason for the brutal and cynical actions of the assailants. For Schorschi, Georg, and Anna—and for the viewer as well—the “game” goes on and on, until the family finally loses the “bet” made on their behalf by the young men: that, as Paul says, “in twelve hours, you three will be kaput.” It is a bet the family is forced to accept, and one it never had a chance to win.

First the family has to guess why Paul still has a golf ball in his pocket, even though he has already used the club (to kill the dog). Afterwards, Anna must search for Rolfi’s corpse with Paul—who leads her around by saying “hot” or “cold”—acting as her guide. Later she has to take off her clothes in order to stop the torturing of her son. Her husband too must participate in this “game”: “Take off your clothes, my sweetheart”, he is forced to say. Up to and including the final “Good Wife” game, in which Anna is presented with two options—one, she must choose whether her husband dies by knife or by gunshot; or two, she can take his place and die first—all of the “games” are based upon physical torture and psychological humiliation, beginning with Paul’s killing of the family dog with a golf club (off-screen), and reaching a dramatic climax in Peter’s murder of Schorschi with a hunting rifle. We do not see the shooting of the little boy, because the camera stays with Paul calmly making some sandwiches in the kitchen. But we can hear the shot, despite the fact that the television set is roaring the whole time. And we can hardly ignore the screams of Georg and Anna, filled as they are with grief and despair.

Haneke and his cinematographer Jürgen Jürges—who worked with Rainer Werner Fassbinder several times in the 1970s, and with Helma Sanders-Brahms on Deutschland Bleiche Mutter (Germany Pale Mother, 1980)—withholds from the viewer all the familiar images of blood and gore. As opposed to Kargl or (to mention just one example of a prominent and ambitious Hollywood auteur) Oliver Stone, Haneke seems to have no confidence in the cathartic effect of violent images. Haneke’s films instead force the viewer to listen to, and imagine, violent action, it’s effects discovered afterwards, reflected on the victims’ faces. In Funny Games, it is Anna’s ravaged face especially that we must stare at again and again: a face that gradually loses—torture by torture—all traces of human dignity, destroyed by escalating acts of humiliation forced upon her by her tormentors.

When Paul returns to the living room after Peter’s killing of Schorschi, all we see at first is the blood-splattered screen of the blaring TV set. We can’t see the perpetrators or the hostages; we just hear the broadcasting of an auto race, and Paul talking with Peter about the latter’s “bad timing.” With a simple cut, the entire perspective changes. From a distance, the camera now shows us the whole room, revealing the immediate aftermath of a horrible act of senseless brutality. The boy’s dead body lies on the floor; Anna, legs bound and hands tied behind her back, squats in a corner, staring motionless at the floor; and Georg lies between two sofas, tied up and semi-conscious. For almost ten minutes—what seems like an eternity—we are forced to stare at this scene, without any cuts to alleviate our discomfort. We watch Anna hop about helplessly, first to the television set in order to turn it off, then out of the room, into the kitchen. The killers have left (but only for a while); their victims are all alone. When Anna returns to her bound and injured husband, she puts her arms around his tortured body. Georg starts crying, filled with a despair so intense that he quickly reaches a point of near-total exhaustion. It is during the moment of silence that follows that we as viewers might begin to understand what Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) could have meant by the phrase, “the horror”, at the end of his journey through darkness in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). In a situation that is both terrible and absurd, one that exists beyond the pale of all reasonable behavior, psychological motivation, or logical explanation, monsters rule the imagination— monsters of a deranged mind which can be evoked but not exorcised by violent pictures. Imagination is thus the true home of horror.

Welcome to the circle

Haneke’s The Seventh Continent confronts us with the suicide of a family. Benny’s Video presents a young video freak, played by Arno Frisch (“Paul” in Funny Games), who first watches the killing of a pig several times, then murders a young girl just “to see what killing is like.” In 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, a confused boy runs amuck in a bank. In Funny Games, Georg asks his torturers at least two times, “Why are you doing this?”, but Paul’s replies can’t be taken seriously. He is just playing “answer the question”, and repeating the kind of psychological verbiage offered in numerous crime stories again and again: his parents got divorced, and therefore the boy became homosexual, or had an incestuous relationship with his mother, or became a drug addict because of the brutalizing milieu in which he lived, etc. But none of these more or less “politically correct” explanations fits the “game” being played here. The only aim and motivation of these killers is fun, pleasure, amusement, or—as Haneke himself believes—the satisfaction of that pure, sadistic lust typically evoked and fulfilled by mainstream sex-and-crime cinema, and especially by horror movies.

Paul is upset about the premature killing of the boy, but only because Peter’s rash action reduces the perverse possibilities of their sport. When Georg begs him to finish the deadly game because “it’s enough”, Paul replies that “We are still under feature length.” Directing himself to the viewer, he continues: “Is it already enough? You want a proper ending with a plausible development, don’t you?.” The rules of the game determine the action, and the supreme rule is to obtain pleasure from humiliating one’s captives. As soon as the victims can no longer stand the torture, and so submit to their predicted fate—as soon as they surrender unconditionally—the lustful possibilities of the game are exhausted, and these “teammates” aren’t of interest anymore. Only now can the dehumanizing play be finished. Georg, lying tied up and practically unconscious on the sofa, is shot with the hunting rifle, just like his son before him. Anna is thrown overboard off the boat in the morning, her legs bound together and her hands tied behind her back; “Ciao, bella”, is Paul’s cynical farewell. All dead, game over, time to start a new game, maybe a variation of the last game or perhaps just the same old game once again. It is 8 a.m. when Peter and Paul arrive at another luxurious holiday home on the same Austrian lake. This time it is Paul who gently asks for some eggs, and as the young man enters this next victim’s house the frame freezes, with the home invader’s diabolic look staring directly into the camera, right into the viewer’s eyes.

“I try to find ways of representing violence as that which it always is: as unconsumable”, Haneke says. “I give back to violence that which it is: pain, a violation of others.”[i] Most of his films, not only the well-known Benny’s Video and Funny Games, are reflections on violent life in a media saturated society, or, to be more precise: reflections on mediated life in a violent society. Haneke studied philosophy, psychology, and drama in Vienna, then became a playwright with the Südwestfunk Theatre Company from 1967-70 before writing scripts for German television. As a film-maker, he uses generic topics as experiments in which the protagonists—the good ones as well as the bad ones—are forced to behave like laboratory rabbits. There is no such thing as free will allowed, and no “emotional development” either.

The characters we watch in Funny Games are just figures (“experimental subjects”, one might say) playing roles, testing the limits of the human subject. When Anna shoots Peter in an act of desperate resistance, Paul panics. Having lost control over the “game”, he hysterically grabs the TV remote control and rewinds the scene— the same diegetic episode we have just witnessed. This sequence, criticized for its obvious didacticism, may remind us of Pirandello, or it may be understood as a kind of “class-action revenge” taken by the director against all those viewers who fastforward through the “boring” parts of movies watched on video (as David Bartholomew puts it). Nevertheless, the sequence does makes sense within Haneke’s vision du monde. The issue is not whether the viewer mixes up fact and fiction. For the fact of the matter, according to Haneke, is that fiction is real and reality a fiction. During their sailboat ride on the way to their next victims, Peter tells a science-fiction story which deals with two “parallel” universes, one real, the other fictional. The hero of the story lives in cyberspace, in the “anti-material world”, while his family remains in the “real” world. There is no communication between these two worlds, and if there is any difference between them, one has no way of telling what it is. The fiction you see in a movie is as “real as reality”, Paul says, a reality you can observe “as well as a movie.” In today’s mass mediated society, the “ecstasy of communication” just doesn’t make sense anymore.

Shock value

Kargl’s almost unknown psycho-thriller Angst and Haneke’s notorious “Kammerspiel”-like horror-drama Funny Games are separated by a gap of almost fifteen years. During this time, cinema itself underwent major changes. In the early 1980s, when postmodernism emerged as a dominant cultural form, the last lethal whimpers of the sexual revolution which took place in the late 60s-early 70s finally led to the success of the slasher genre. In Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and the like, juvenile bodies, once engaged in “free love”, were stalked and slashed by perverts who represented the restrictive morality of a “new conservatism.” In effect, the psycho-killers of these films act as moral executors to punish the lustful behavior of a sinful youth. At their hands, the “sexual body” experienced its total destruction. “Free love” was shown to be a risk—corresponding to the era’s new conservative politics, especially in the USA—in the age of an ever-growing HIV plague. Kargl’s Angst appeared shortly after the slasher genre reached its height with Lucio Fulci’s graphic and disturbing Lo Squartatore di New York (The New York Ripper, 1982). But the Austrian director was not willing to join the ranks of his exploitation horror peers. His work is contrary to the likes of Fulci’s misogynistic thriller or Ruggero Deodato’s home invader-class drama La Case Sperduta nel Parco (The House on the Edge of the Park, 1980).  Angst avoids any moralistic subtext in its pursuit of depicting the ultimate in alienating, antisocial behavior. The killer embodies the precise opposite of the utopian sexual being the 60s so desperately attempted to invoke: his sexual pleasure is the termination of life.

Funny Games also employs the theme of bourgeois-home invasion, but in a very different way. Haneke’s film was made around the same time that Wes Craven began his comeback with the semi-ironic high school slasher Scream (1996), in which two boys terrorize and finally kill their classmates just for the fun of it, and corresponding to genre rules.[ii] Scream may be seen as the sensationalistic, mainstream companion to the Austrian film. When the “master narratives” of bourgeois morality have all but disappeared, the killing game becomes party event— nihilistic but entertaining. Like the Kniesek character in Angst, the killers in Funny Games enjoy the “angst” of their victims, so long as they show the will to resist. But unlike him, they are not driven by destructive instincts; in fact, they don’t seem to have emotions at all, save perhaps a desire for amusement. Here, all efforts at psychological explanations fail, all negative emotions expressed are simulated, just strategies in a game. Haneke doesn’t show the gruesome act of murder itself— the destruction of the body actually happens outside the frame. This makes a kind of sense, considering that the death of the victims marks the end of the “game.”

The pleasure of these (not at all funny) games lies precisely in breaking the victim’s will to resist. When that will is broken, the killers loose interest, get bored. Killing becomes a mere triviality. Thus, the end of the film marks the beginning of a new circle. Playing with the last taboo of western civilization, the taking of life, the killers manage to rise up against the unwritten laws of materialistic society. Their “game” produces nothing but morbid entertainment. What makes no sense, what lacks any productive value, may not be, and probably never has been. The fatal system of the boys’ game reflects the Sadean orgies of destruction: every living body is just another toy in the hands of the “master.” What is truly shocking about this cold and cynical film is the fact that two well-educated, sometimes seductive young killers are shown to embody the apocalyptic, self-destructive side of a society that has already lost its ethical values: if “anything goes”, nothing will preserve the utopian dreams of the reasonable, moral human being.


[i] Haneke, M. “Director’s Statement”:

[ii] For more on the slasher/stalker subgenre and its revival in the wake of Scream’s phenomenal success, see Dika, V. (1987) “The Stalker Cycle, 1978-81”, in Waller, G. (ed.), American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film (Chicago: University of Illinois Press), and Schneider, S.J. (2000) “Kevin Williamson and the Rise of the Neo-Stalker”, Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 19.2, 73-87.