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Category Archives: film theory

Marcus Stiglegger

Gladiator, or:
The birth of peplum cinema from the spirit of the ancient tragedy

The continuity of the myths

The fact that media of modernity, especially cinema, literature and theater, soon had become the myth reservoir of modernity is not exactly a new idea to media-theoretical writings. Any way it is especially true for epic cinema such as the peplum films of Hollywood between the 1950s and today. Which definition of myth this is especially based on – because there are many – is yet to be clarified. It will not be possible to answer this question exhaustively in an essay like this, but it seems appropriate to outline some basic definitions and approaches to expand further on this idea.
In the context of cultural anthropology myth is recognized as an oral, written or otherwise mediated traditional story with sacred content. In Myths, Dreams and Mysteries (1967) Mircea Eliade has pointed out various elements that the myth may contain: 1. In the last instance myths tell a ‘true story’. Myths are based on the existential facts of life (birth, war, death) especially connected to the idea of cultural identity; 2. The mythical fable is sacred, that is: its content is removed from the secular area. 3. The myth is always associated with the time of the origin or creation; this origin does not necessarily belong to an earlier time, but can refer to any form of new beginnings. Consequently, the living mythos is a time in which all times fall into one. 4. The myth contains the justification and basis of the rituals; the myth has therefore morally binding normative force. 5. The protagonist of the mythical fable are usually super human beings.
Myth and life are closely linked and are suitable in particular for a structuralist analysis in the context of regional and social peculiarities, like Claude Lévi-Strauss in Structural Anthropology ([1958] 1963), demonstrated. Likewise a message is ‘formulated and condensed’ within a mythos – equivalent to Roland Barthes’ definition of myths in Mythologies ([1956] 1972). At the center of the myth lies the origin of the world, the people or the culture. It always involves elementary truths that are condensed in mythical narration and experience, even when it comes to the modern myth ‘ of everyday life’ (Barthes), which often revolve around cultural images (self).
If so with Eliade myth is understood as a key situation of a culture, it is also understandable how and why it can be transferred into other contexts. This may also explain, why well known myth collections – such as Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890; abridged 1922) – themselves are a major source of inspiration for international artists.
Another step of the mythos theory is important here: Mythical narrations operate on a level of cyclical repetition. Mythical thinking is cyclic thinking in a way that it works with recurring standard situations, archetypical characters and ritualized actions. This is a close connection to the medium of narrative film: especially in genre contexts, in western cinema, television series and in computer games – but even more so in the Asian film (e.g. Japanese cinema) the transformations of standardized texts is a generic continuum. As if the medium tries to grant permanent presence of the sacred mythical tales in modern formats to seduce its audience. This fact goes well along with the audience expectations demanding similar texts over and over again – which is finally proven by the continuing success of the DC and Marvel adaptations in recent years.1
The medium of film specifically works with either classical myths or mythological motifs (Orpheus, Oedipus, the Fall, etc.), but it can also create its own myths and cults – often charismatic protagonists such as James Dean, Bruce Lee, Marilyn Monroe, or Romy Schneider become the heroic protagonists of such neo-mythological narratives. Especially stars who die early or under mysterious circumstances, are suitable for the creation of neo-myths, because only their image remains as a cinematic phantom and as a fetishistic ritual – like in the repeated viewing of their films. In this way cult film phenomena can be explained. Cult films are cyclically revived neo-mythological texts.
The protagonists (heroes) of the mythical narrations are often described as beings of supernatural origin. But if we take the social intertwining of myth as given, one can see only the projection of humanity into a religious (or holy) form within these mythical creatures. And again the larger than life quality of Hollywood cinema qualifies as neo-mythology: Global audiences admire iconic heroic characters such as those that have been coined by John Wayne, Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood, or Sylvester Stallone. These iconic embodiments of martial archetypes are celebrated for their heroic ability to transcend the human boundaries. They resemble the sacred heroes of ancient narratives. As long as this quality is intact, the audience appreciates these heroes. Problems arise as soon as their mythical status is questioned and ultimately deconstructed. The audience sees this latent longing for a glimpse of otherworldly and divine quality being cheated within the process of deconstruction. Think of Clint Eastwood as a broken veteran in The Beguiled (1970) by Donald Siegel, here the sexual object and playground of a group of women and girls, or John Wayne – who was ill of cancer in reality as well as within the film – in The Shootist (1976), also by Don Siegel, desperately fighting for his heroic final showdown. In these films little remains of the mysterious and always superior ‘stranger with no name’ from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western or from the ‘upright defender of American values’ like John Wayne. The brokenness of the hero not always contradicts its mythical function: In the movies Gladiator (2000) by Ridley Scott, Pale Rider (1983) and Unforgiven (1992) directed by and starring Clint Eastwood the myth itself is the discourse of the films. Although these films deal less naively with their matter than their respective genre-typical sources such as the peplum film or the classic Western of the fifties, they let the heroes reach their goal and fulfill their violent missions nonetheless. As John Wayne in The Shootist dies in the end, he might have taken the lives of some malicious people, but basically he remains a tragic figure; when Gladiator Maximus in contrast kills the tyrant in one last stand he has granted the freedom of a whole empire.
So film generates its own take on myth and has its own superhuman protagonists. Cinema is also suitable as a mediator of myths because it can always be experienced in a relative presence: As the film is ritually re-seen (again: think here mainly of the phenomenon of the cult film), it becomes a genuine, present experience for the dedicated audience. At the same time the cinematic myth revolves around elementary and existential motives: birth, life, death, sexuality, violence, fear, joy, hatred, happiness, etc. It turns out to be counterproductive to regard the mythical content of the film as a kind of regression or more generally to consider even the myth as anxiety or an ‘enemy’ of enlightenment as you can occasionally see in the leftist theory of Theordor W. Adorno and Max Habermas ([1947] 2002). Film, popular culture and myth are closely intertwined in any case. In fact, it is rather the question of whether a cinematic artifact would incapacitate and manipulate the viewer or even be working productively with the myth. The intentionally manipulative American mainstream cinema builds its greatest quality on its mythical quality, even replacing ideology and historical consciousness by generally approachable mythical models. Such as in Ridley Scott’s neo-peplum Gladiator.

Myth and tragedy

Already in early epic cinema narratives – such as David Wark Griffith’s American epic Birth of a Nation (1915) – you can notice a specific dramaturgical structure, which is based on the myth as well as on the classical tragedy. And like the classic tragedy their materials refer to mythical primordial tales and national foundation myths (e.g. the frontier theory). It seems obvious that the epic cinema narrative still hints at elements such as the odyssey of the hero, martyrdom, regicide, the messianic quality of a culture founder and the pathos of the individual demise, which nevertheless may culminate in the victory of the Community. Analyzing the highly successful international historical film Gladiator I would like to illustrate how myth, pathos and ritual are brought in as a quasi-religious motives into a major American film to affect the audience and offer the viewer an ideological model, replacing the lost spiritual and religious trends by a new universal and trans-historical new quality of myth.
Some reflections on the tragic format of this film are important: In a sequence in the first third of the film the Roman general Maximus (Russell Crowe) is betrayed by the new Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). He flees towards his homeland Spain to save his native family and farm, but he’s too late: The Praetorian guards of the Emperor have already crucified and burned his wife and his little son. In front of their corpses he collapses in the dust. Behind him in the distance, we see his fertile lands, while in the foreground the charred feet of his family are visible. Ridley Scott’s historical drama Gladiator in this moment achieves the ultimate level of individual suffering that characterizes the efforts of this film to function as a tragedy of classic theatrical format. This tragedy form emphasizes the timelessness of its substance, which functions as an action-driven revenge drama as well as a morally challenging fable.
In Gladiator, the mise en scène is dominated by the pathos of that increased expression of the existential, which today often is blamed for being a platitude or an exaggeration. Here, the Greek pathos refers literally to suffering, passion and affection – elements so effective that even the narrative cinema of the 20th and 21rst century has always continued to use them. Probably the most obvious definition of pathos was given by the German dramatist Friedrich Schiller in his writings on dramatic theory (1793). Schiller sees the stage tragedy burdened with the task of moral education of the audience. The stage drama was the ‘poetic imitation of a continuous series of events (a complete action), showing us people in a state of suffering and intends to arouse our pity.’2
From the moral dilemma in which the recipient as a witness of the tragic events a mixture of emotion and desire results: the ‘pleasure in tragic subject’. The moral sensibility of the audience is challenged in the face of this suffering which is partially appropriated by identification and relation with or to the action. An important role is played by the sensuous affections. In sad emotions Schiller recognizes the most effective means because it employs the audience in the tragedy and challenges its moral judgment. To achieve this affect the tragic artist is allowed to mobilize all appropriate means – especially the representation of pathos. In pathos ideally lies the true emotion, the bridge to compassion: the compassion of the audience, which ultimately leads to the urge to take a moral or ethical position. The audience should understand that the protagonist can free himself from the suffering and therefore should be ranked above the purely sensual perception.
In dealing with the sensuous affections the experience of the sublime can be made. According to this model the recipients can observe within themselves that reason triumphs over emotion which makes a moral decision possible. The ambivalent reaction to the confrontation with the sublime is due to the inner split of the human being in sensuous and moral aspects. The tragedy is thus experienced as a pleasure in this confrontation. Interestingly, such a dichotomy is possible, even when an object is at the same time experienced as aesthetically appealing and as morally or ethically repugnant. In such a case, the dilemma of the protagonist is reflected in the ambivalence of the recipient.
To sum these aspects up, the key terms of the tragedy are pathos, pity and fear, emotions that are evoked through mimesis (the imitation of life) and which are dissolved in the catharsis of the concluding ritual. This ritual is often a final judgment or a blood sacrifice performed in a specifically established sacred space (a temple, an arena, a palace – or just a sacred ground signified by a symbolic or eminent border). Additionally films like Apocalypse Now (1979) or Conan the Barbarian (1982) would hardly be conceivable without this template – specifically related to the latent subtext of regicide.
The tragedy is based on the strict acceptance of a rationally comprehensible worldview which can be expressed in clear, rational words and concepts. Thus the tragedy refers to reason, order and harmony. The ancient tragedy, the ‘rising goat chant’, had been preserved by the Greek Aeschylus and Euripides through to the Roman writer Seneca. This leads to the dramaturgical form of five acts that is also reflected in the epic film narrative. These five acts follow a linear fable, presenting a unified, purposeful action, and include the final solution of the dramatic conflict and restoration of harmony. The five act scenario corresponds to following steps:
1. exposure
2. conflict construction
3. collision
4. deceleration and acceleration
5. disaster and reconciliation.3
On a dramaturgical level Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator follows this model by sending the hero on a tragic journey from the battlefields of Germania through Spain and Africa back to the Roman arena, where he kills the corrupt emperor in a fatal duel so the Senate can return to power.
The internal stress of the tragedy was traditionally justified rather by the metaphysical-mythical ritual in ancient theater and later increasingly on the moral level. This moral component also underlies Scott’s model: Maximus is established as a fearless warrior, in whose breast clearly the heart of a simple farmer beats rather than of an ambitious statesman. He rejects Marcus Aurelius’ offer to become Caesar himself, preferring to return to his family and his home country instead. Consequently it is this dream of a quiet family life that Commodus can destroy first, after Maximus has refused to follow him. From that moment on and with the death of his beloved family irrevocably in mind, Maximus (a telling name meaning ‘the ultimate’) becomes an incarnation of revenge. The film’s finale gradually becomes a pagan dies irae (‘day of wreath’) leading to the fall of the tyrant, a despot who embodies the spirit of a ruthless materialism. The focus of this pseudo-historical tragedy – the script refers to some historical figures and facts – is the fate of a man whose only purpose in life is revenge and his own heroic death. This heroic death in the arena is not presented as something negative but staged as a kind of spiritual ‘homecoming’: the restoration of balance and harmony. Along with Lisa Gerrard’s ethereal vocals Maximus enters the Elyzium which resembles his Spanish homeland where his wife and son already await him. But before this redemption the tyrant is killed and the democracy restore. A regeneration through violence is executed – a deeply American maxim that characterizes mainly the Western and Hollywood war movies.
As a further level of challenge of the participating audience the conflict between the individual’s duty towards the community and the personal interests is established in ancient tragedy. Especially in the ancient dramas an often cruel sacrifice by the tragic hero is required to restore the lost balance. René Girard4 points out that there are several expressions for the relationship between violence, desire and divinity admit in the Homeric epics, the term kydos particularly catches the eye: ‘Kydos is a quasi-divine prestige to define as mystical election associated with the military triumph. In the fight […] it comes to kydos. […] The kydos emanating from the fascination with violence.’ It is hardly surprising that in the context of massive re-mythologization of cinema at the turn of the millennium created a film like Troy (2004) by Wolfgang Petersen, who directly relates to Homer’s epics.
The sacrifice demanded by Maximus is final. Although he manages to survive his execution, he is degraded from general to slave. The ‘Fallhöhe’ (German for social and emotional drop height) is enormous and qualifies Maximus as a tragic, suffering hero of classical format. While the structure and dramaturgy of Gladiator follows the classical tragedy, Ridley Scott chooses comparatively opposite means of representation in his mise en scène – the cinematic performance is based on kinetic movement and sensation, the means of modern Hollywood cinema. Gladiator is therefore also encoded as a contemporary action movie in which all major conflicts are discharged on the physical level. All emotions here are evoked on a physical level before they reach a moral dimension. This is typical of the mainstream cinema approach from the 1980s onwards. The result is an international, timeless clarity of the underlying drama. While the ancient tragedy was dialogue based and aimed at intellectual and emotional identification, contemporary mainstream cinema goes for seduction, manipulation and immersion employing all cinematographic means.

Peplum cinema as popular mythology

The historical films of the 1950s and 1960s of the twentieth century were marked by Christian values and ambitions. Films like Henry King’s peplum The Robe (1950) or William Wyler’s Ben Hur (1959) told Christian salvation and redemption tales. Their pathos followed clearly, though banally, adapted specifications. This Christian impulse is missing in Gladiator, but not the mythical level. Here the identification with the heroically suffering individuum Maximus is established.
In the first shot of the film we see Maximus’ hand sliding through stalks of corn in the golden light of the setting sun. Later we learn that this vision expresses his longing for the return to his home in Spain and the fertile soil of his farm. This paradisiacal country he will reach the end: In the mythical Elysium, the ‘Valhalla’ of Roman legionaries, which unites him with his wife and children again. But before this redemption there are suffering and anger.
Before each battle Maximus grabs a handful of the soil on which he is struggling, smells it and lets the soil or the sand trickle through his fingers. As a farmer he has a strong connection to the earth, even if it is not his own – even to the dry chalky soil of the Roman Colosseum. But he gives us a sensual feeling for the space in which he acts. The film indulges the audience in this moment. In the initial battle the Germanic blood and soil splash equally against the camera, being unclear whether the country or its people are wounded.
Later Maximus enters the Arena with the equanimity of a man who has finished with his life: He fights without hatred. His weapon cuts almost elegantly and quickly through the bodies of the opponents. And in the evening he prays to his ancestors, in the face of small clay figures that symbolize his wife and son. Belief in spirits and ancestor worship mingle in this staging to an indifferent archaic religion, which give an impression of the comfort that lies in this prayer.
An important ritual element of the ancient theater is the persona, the mask, a medium of theatrical transformation. With his first appearance in the Roman Colosseum Maximus selects a mask-like metal helmet that is meant to conceal his true identity in the fateful meeting with emperor Commodus in the arena. At the same time it transforms him into that pure fighting machine, whose bloody craft is free of any emotion. Maximus literally become the avenging mythical half-god-hero of the ancient tragedy. Similar models appear in Scott’s other epic films like Kingdom of Heaven (2000) or Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014).
It is amazing how persistently those mythical motifs are being used in contemporary cinema. While in ancient drama the most horrific events, bloody body collisions, never took place on the stage, but were described mostly in speech and dialogue, narrative cinema brings those bloody rituals on the screen in graphic detail. While the ancient tragedies were based on ritual performances and mythical narration, a film like Gladiator refers back to both to confront the modern audiences with their desire for archaic, pagan and existential events. To achieve this goal Gladiator sticks to the means of the body cinema (movement and sensation) to evoke feelings and affects that under-represented in the Western industrial societies. Instead of ignoring and avoiding death and war, the film directly confronts the audience with these incidents on ritualistic and mythical level. Scott makes shameless use of the cultural image archive of Western culture, such as in the scene of the triumphal procession of the Emperor in Rome with image quotes from Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1934). Thus Ridley Scott’s epic adventure Gladiator may be seen as a prototype of post-modern neo-peplum cinema with a pagan edge, based on the ancient tragedy and the mythological narration alike.
As a conclusion I summarize the results of this analysis:
1. The classical and contemporary peplum cinema is linked in dramaturgy, construction and choice of subject to the mechanisms of the mythically structured classical tragedy.
2. Elements of classical tragedy actions such as the odyssey, the martyrdom, the regicide and the celebration of individual destruction, culminating in the victory of the community, can be found in the classical epic cinema and neo-peplum again.
3. While in classical era Hollywood films (1930s-60s) biblical salvation stories were dominant, this tendency gave way to a rather pagan perspective, which is meant to be accessible to all kinds of contemporary audiences, but also gives more space to archaic values and ultimately remains ideologically indifferent.
4. Pathos, martyrdom and even transcendence appear as key elements in these cinematic tragedies and appear to be in the service of a true conciliatory but very death-seeking plot construction. The constitution of the community is thereby chosen radically over the welfare of the individual.
Films like Gladiator or The Passion of the Christ (2003) and Apocalypto (2006) by Mel Gibson represent these strategies to seduce their audiences worldwide by serving the lust for mythical pathos of the tragic hero in face of death and destruction. Their ritualistic approach, resembling pre-theatrical forms of religious performance, grants international interest beyond any Christian agenda found in classical peplum films. Neo-peplum cinema like Gladiator is the rebirth of the ancient tragedy fueled by the rage of a pagan god of revenge.

Endnotes:
1. Marcus Stiglegger, Ritual & Verführung. Schaulust, Spektakel und Sinnlichkeit im Film (Berlin: Bertz + Fischer, 2006), 26-28.
2. Friedrich Schiller, Vom Pathetischen und Erhabenen. Schriften zur Dramentheorie (Stuttgart: Reclam 1999), 48, translated by the author.
3. Gérard Schneilin, „Aktstruktur,“ in Theaterlexikon, eds. Manfred Brauneck / Gérard Schneilin (Reinbek: Rowohlt 1986), 1011ff., translated by the author.
4. René Girard. Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1977), 152-154.

Bibliography:
Adorno, Theodor W. / Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press 2002.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang 1972.
Brauneck, Manfred / Schneilin, Gérard (eds.). Theaterlexikon. Reinbek: Rowohlt 1986.
Eliade, Mircea. Myths, Dreams and Mysteries. Trans. Philip Mairet. New York: Harper & Row 1967.
Frazer, James. The Golden Bough. One-volume abridgement. New York: Macmillan Company 1922.
Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Translated by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1977.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Trans. by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf. New York: Basic Books 1963.
Schiller, Friedrich. Vom Pathetischen und Erhabenen. Schriften zur Dramentheorie. Stuttgart: Reclam 1999.
Stiglegger, Marcus. Ritual & Verführung. Schaulust, Spektakel und Sinnlichkeit im Film. Berlin: Bertz + Fischer 2006.

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).

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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.

IV.

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.

V.

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.

VI.

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.’

Bibliography:

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.

Literature:

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.

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.


NOTES

[i] Haneke, M. “Director’s Statement”: http://www.attitude.hostrack.net/AttitudeFilms/.

[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.

Marcus Stiglegger

Beyond Good and Evil?

Sadomasochism and politics in the cinema of the 1970ies Paper held February 9th, 2007, at FU Berlin conference ‘Performing and Queering Sadomasochism’

1. The 1970ies proved to be an extremely productive decade for many nation’s cinemas: the seed of former revolutionary years began to grow and brought forth astounding film productions in America (New Hollywood), Germany (New German Film) and in Japan (New Wave). Together with this new progressive tendency and the simultaneous relaxing of censorship came an enormous wave of exploitation films, which began to push the boundaries of the portrayable in the direction of sensationalist entertainment. This exploitative trend did not even shy away from the holocaust theme: The pornographers Robert Lee Frost and Don Edmonds brought the so called Sadiconazista-films to the cinema with the Canadian productions Love Camp 7 (1969) and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1974). These films which, following a trivial structure, take a voyeuristic look into the concentration camp brothel and a pseudo-medical experimentation centre. Although this exploitative use of holocaust motifs caused a huge scandal, these films are still extremely successful in the form of home media. The Ilsa film starring playboy model Dyanne Thorn even gave birth to a number of direct and indirect sequels. Italian cinema did also experiment with the connections between sexuality, politics and history, albeit on an artistically higher level. In her psychodrama The Night Porter (1973) the former documentary filmmaker Liliana Cavani further develops some realisations from her previous documentary series on the third Reich, and tells the story of the fatal reunion of a SS man (Dirk Bogard) and his former victim (Charlotte Rampling) in the form of an amour fou. As the couple re-start the destructive relationship under now different circumstances, they land on the execution list of a group of SS veterans, who wish to remove all witnesses to un-pleasantries, in order to erase the past and, in so doing, their own guilt. Cavani’s film is both the representation of the continuing Nazi mentality, even after the war was finished and (arguably) an attempt at a psycho-sexual adaptation of the concentration camp system. Lina Wertmüller’s Pasqualino Settebellezze / Seven Beauties (1975) takes a more satirical slant: a Sicilian macho man falls into the hands of an female SS-thug, who makes him her ‘sex toy’. The split level narrative in Wertmüller’s film takes it to a level well above that of the Sadiconazista-motifs, and it develops through its fragmented montage a kind of ‘baroque world theatre’ on the screen. Although Pier Paolo Pasolini’s modernised Marquis-de-Sade adaptation Salò/120 Days of Sodom (1975) is rather a film about the fascist tendencies in Italy of the present day – as Pasolini stated –, it is still true that in this apocalyptic scenario the filmmaker has constructed an oppressive microcosm of the concentration camp system, which was only really understood for the first time when the film was recently re-shown in cinemas. Here the mechanisms of power and production have liberated themselves and are running amok in the collapsing fascist republic of Salò. The scandalous success of these three films also inspired the production of a series of concentration camp sex-films in Italy. It seems evident that all films mentioned in one way or the other develop a sadomasochistic model based on the principles of totalitarian politics and hierarchies. At first sight they seem to take the simple and wrong equation of sadomasochism and fascistic politics as a fact.

2. This phenomenon of mingling politics and sadomasochistic sexuality has sometimes been referred to as ‚il sadiconazista’. This term derives from the Italian pulp fiction of the 1960ies, where sexuality, cruelty and politics mingled to an exploitative and pornographic entertainment fare. It seems useful to transfer this term to the medium film, especially as the exploitative films in the wake of The Night Porter expanded on the unhistorical equation of sadomasochism and totalitarian politics. This also marks the huge difference between the reflected arthouse film of Cavani, Wertmüller, and Pasolini compared to the exploitation films of Sergio Garrone, Cesare Canevari, Bruno Mattei and the like. These exploitation films cash in on the same basic model to simply skip the reflective aspect of the forerunners. The English term exploitation already marks this technique of simply ‘exploiting’ a serious topic such as the holocaust, the inquisition, the slavery system, the prostitution or simply life in prison to reduce it to its sexual and violent content. Especially in the late 1960ies – when the rules of censorship were handled more liberally worldwide – there was a wave of exploitative films, many of them combining sexuality and violence in a way in which they provided a semi-sadomasochistic psychodrama. In many cases we can find a very popular and honourable forerunner being copied afterwards on a cheaper production level. Between 1968 and 1982 not only certain film directors specialized in making exploitation films, but production companies focussed on the ever growing market: Fulvia and S.E.F.I. Cinematografica in Italy, Eurocine in France and Erwin C. Dietrich in Swizerland, to name a few. All of them became involved in making women-in-prison movies, sometimes also dealing with Sadiconazista-elements. Most of the Sadiconazista-exploitation-films were not shown in cinema or on video in Germany, but some of them turned up as main examples in the British video-nasties-debate of the early 1980ies. In Phil Hardys ‘Encyclopedia of Horror films’ (1992, S. 315) he takes Sergio Garrone’s SS Camp 5 – Women’s Hell / Lager SS 5- l’inferno delle donne as a stand in for all the Sadiconazista-films of the time: ‘The box-office-success of Liliana Cavani’s picture about the pleasures of being tortured in a Nazi concentration camp, The Night Porter (1974) and, in America, the repulsively adolescent and racist torture-camp movies of Don Edmonds (Ilsa – She-Wolf of the SS, 1974), triggered the nostalgic fantasies of explicit as well as crypto fascists, spawning a filmic equivalent of the established literary porn sub-genre, ‘il sadiconazista’. Garrone contributed two filmic atrocities to this variation on the woman’s prison movies, SS Experiment Camp / Lager SSadi Kastrat Kommandantur (1976) and the one from 1974 which simply exploits ‘entertaining’ thrills such as Jewish women being undressed and divided into prostitutes and victims of medical atrocities. There is the obligatory Nazi lesbian, a crude abortion scene and a hefty smattering of assorted tortures. […]’.

3. The term ‚pornographic’ is a problematic one – especially in this context, on the borderline between exploitation and hardcore cinema. It seems more accurate call most of the Sadiconazista-films ‘sexploitation’, while a serious film like Saló is actually closer to Susan Sontag’s definition of pornography as a convention within the arts, which she outlined in her essay ‘The Pornographic Imagination’ (1969). Films and novels ‘qualify as pornographic texts insofar as their theme is an all-engrossing sexual quest that annihilates every consideration of persons extraneous to their roles in the sexual dramaturgy, and the fulfillment of this quest is depicted graphically.’ As in Georges Bataille’s transgressive prose (like ‘The Story of the Eye’ / ‘Histore de l’oeil’) – Sontag stresses out – the true obscene in artistic pornography will always show an affection towards death. In this sense she points out the special meaning of sacred rituals, the rite of passage and the sacrifice within pornographical contexts. Pornography therefor has a ritualistic structure. Concerning the exploitative Sadiconazista-phenomenon one can state that these films neither carry a political message nor do they represent real pornography or even violent pornography – therefor I think Phil Hardy is going too far in his opinion on the target audience. These films simply try to reduce their artistic forerunners The Night Porter, Seven Beauties, Salò, and Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969) to a sadomasochistic fantasy in order to gain entertainment out of a pure imaginative destruction drive. Historical elements as well as true sadomasochistic dialectics are abused here and transformed for this aim.

4. Susan Sontag has also reflected extensively on the fetishising of Nazi symbolism and iconography in sadomasochistic rituals in her essay ‘Fascinating Fascism II’: ‘In pornographic literature, films, and gadgetry throughout the world, especially in the United States, England, France, Japan, Scandinavia, Holland, and Germany, the SS has become a referent of sexual adventurism. Much of the imagery of far-out sex has been placed under the sign of Nazism. Boots, leather, chains, Iron Crosses on gleaming torsos, swastikas, along with meat hooks and heavy motorcycles, have become the secret and most lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism. […] But why? Why has Nazi Germany, which was a sexually repressive society, become erotic?’ Sontag writes this – taking in consideration a militaria book called ‘SS-Regalia’ – to reflect further on the erotic attraction of the SS uniform. It is a well-known fact that military uniforms are handled as a sexual fetish. In her book ‘Fetish’ (1996) Valerie Steele states: ‘Military Uniforms are probably the most popular prototype for the fetishist uniform because they signify hierarchy (some command, others obey), as well as membership in what was traditionally an all-male group whose function involves the legitimate use of physical violence.’ The uniform seems to be an abstraction of the martial in the form of fashion. It symbolizes the belonging to an elite and embodies dominance and attraction. Especially the black service tunic of the SS can be seen as the ambitious trial to combine eccentric chic, elitist elegance, and death symbolism. But as Susan Sontag remarks: ‘[…] uniforms are not the same thing as photographs of uniforms – which are erotic material and photographs of SS uniforms are the units of a particularly powerful and widespread sexual fantasy.’ Although her essay discusses a military antiques fact-book this idea is also true for the appearance of SS-uniforms in the cinema of the 1970ies. In the context of entertainment the presence of SS-uniforms in fiction films has its own rules of reception – in contrast to the documentary for example. Sontag suspects that the dramatic pathos of the SS-uniform serves as the basis of this presumed effect: ‘SS uniforms were stylish, well-cut, with a touch (but not too much) of eccentricity’. Not only Sadiconazista-films refer to the dramatic effect of the SS-uniform. There are also plenty examples of different genres making use of the sexually charged appeal of these elements: Star Wars (1976) by George Lucas, Ken Russell’s biopic Mahler (1976), Alan Parkers Pink Floyd – The Wall (1981), Richard Loncraines film of Shakespeare’s Richard III (1995), Paul Verhoeven’s SciFi-Satire Starship Troopers (1997) or the Casablanca-parody Barb Wire (1995) by David Hogan, to name a few.

5. The works within the Sadiconazista-complex can be divided by their motivations into various directions: – films that try to create some basic assumptions about fascist systems; – films that chose the totalitarian compulsory system as a radical and frightening historical background, on which rather interpersonal obsessions are played out: In Night Porter by Liliana Cavanis the director tells the story of a passionate relationship, marged by dominance and repression, this relationship is emotionally charged by the historical background, heavily loaded by the recipient’s knowledge; – films that push forward the totalitarian compulsory system as a dramaturgical justification, in order to wallow in widely acted sadomasochistic excesses: Sergio Garrone, the Italian old hand director of Lager SS 5 has stated in an interview that it is only possible to justify the drasticality of the pictured cruelty if one is basing it on that historical background (the national socialism). What all films have in common is the connection between sexual contexts and stereotyped pictures of the national socialism. The relationship between the executioner and the victim is being sadomasochistically transfigured and transferred on a level of sexual passion. The result is a cultivation of un-politicizing and un-historizing the phenomenon of national socialism. It is therefore possible to turn the picture of national socialism by laws of popculture into a toy of popaesthetics. What especially strikes here is the annihilation of time-levels in some of the discussed works: Lina Wertmüllers Seven Beauties as well as Cavanis The Night Porter and her later film The Berlin Affair (1985) are told in intricate convoluted flashbacks; the historical component is being transferred to the subjective and therefore “obtional” world of remembrance of the single protagonist, thus it reaches a nearly mythical quality which doesn’t allow an approach towards the historical phenomenon anymore. The concentration camps in Seven Beauties and The Night Porter look like dantesque limbos, filled with existential and sexual nightmares. As far away as the exploitative scenarios of the Sadiconazisto-Genre may be from the National socialist reality, it may still be possible to recognize a sequence of standardized situations based on the documented scenes of that time, this can be found in all thematically relevant films: the arrival of the concentration camp prisoners and the selection on the platform; the roll call out on the free places between the barracks; the actions in the brothel camps; the disastrous punishments and tortures (it is here where some critics observe the sadomasochistic appeal); executions; medical experiments; the massacre. By a comparative study it seems astounding that those elements appear as well in artistic ambitious as in exploitative films.

6. I would like to prove these theses by using Cavanis The Night Porter: When the young wife of a conductor , Lucia, recognizes the night porter Max as a SS-officer to whom she was a slave to back in the concentration camp, this incident breaks up her marriage. Her husband leaves for Frankfurt and she rebounds with Max after some agitated doubts. Because some other former Nazis recognize in her a cumbrous witness from the past, they force Max to kill Lucia, an order which he refuses to follow. Instead he withdraws with her to the loneliness of his small apartment and they turn in isolation from the environment. His former comrades besiege the house and threaten Lucia. After a time full of privation the as-good-as-dead-couple leaves the apartment and they are shot at dawn on a Donau bridge. It seems that the way of lovers can only lead up to their common death, just following the tradition of amour fou, this unconditional crazy love which has a long history in the conventions of European cinema – and both of them devote themselves in complete stylisation (him in his black fancy uniform, her in her childhoodlike-dress). It is the place of death – a lonely steelbridge at dawn – which bears the characterization as a rite of passage. Cavani seems to suggest that there is a world for lovers, but it it’s not ours. It is also the camera that departs from the action, right at that moment. The place of action turns into something stage-like, the protagonists to small figures who fit right into the outlines of their surroundings. It seems less important to the director to develop a political microcosm as to design a plausible mechanism for an unconditional desire. Every step of the encounter between Max and Lucia takes the role of a key scene, and far more drastical than usual in the genre of melodrama. Many actions and incidents grow to be allegoric and mythisized. It’s the desire that seems to be unconditional and, in the end, brings the surrender. It seems consequent that even destructive acts of love serve as loving proof, the best example being the split up between Lucia and her husband, when she recognises the hopelessness of her desire. Only one experience of pain seems to be appropriate when it comes to the intensity of her feelings: When Max enters the hotel room for the first time, he slaps Lucia in the face, the coming-to-be-love-nest full of broken glass is just a drastic symbolization for their frenzy. When Max visits his former lover Bert, who is gay, this meeting culminates into a strange sort of ballet at the beginning of the film. Max – using a single haunting spotlight – is lighting up the silent gestures of the dancer, who – although grown old by now – still seems fragile and even kind of young. Whereas Max acts like a puppeteer, spooky surrounded by the shadows, it is Bert who seems to dedicate all of his elegant gestures devotedly to him. This homoerotic ballet seems to take the same position as we can find in a comparable scene of vision in a portrait of Nietzsche which Cavani made in 1976, Beyond Good and Evil, in which Nietzsche is watching a homoerotic ballet of two persons. We also find here the clear isolation of characters, who can only embody their own cosmos. It is an isolation of characters based on relativisation of their social relationships; they are – even in The Night Porter – reduced to pragmatical relationships (mainly professional) and they lack an emotional ground which is then violently claimed back within the amour fou. The relationship between Max and Bert, the homosexual, is also affected by a vague gentle compassion which contrasts the established circumstances and can therefore only flourish secretly. When those relationships come out in the open the result is a chain reaction which can only bring a downfall. The film gives a hint that Bert may shoot the couple simply out of jealousy.

7. To sum it up it can be said that the Italian Exploitationfilm of the Seventies is the one which prosecuted and boosted up the stereotyping of pictures from national socialism and the Holocaust, even when it only got lukewarm support. The American film Ilsa – She Wolf of the SS became emblematic for the Sadiconazista-Genre. It fulfils all formerly described categories, has been released on DVD and is even to be distributed as a print on a T-Shirt. There is no debate whether or not those stereotypes have made an impact, because they certainly did: I have formerly been saying that even Steven Spielberg has pointed out to these mechanisms in Schindler’s List. So Sadiconazista may be – as a drift – a curiosity out of the off-limiting Seventies but the sexualisation of the picture of the Nazi-torturer has positioned itself deeply within the contemporary and popcultural consciousness in Europe, Japan and America. To conclude I want to use a polemic comment by Michèl Foucault in 1976 about the Sadiconazista-phenomenon: “This is a massive misapprehension about history. Nazism was not brought upon by the crazy folk of Eros in the 20th century, instead it was brought upon by those bourgeois people, and by that I mean the nastiest, stiffest and most disgusting ones that one can imagine. Himmler was some sort of a farmer who married a nurse. One has to considerate that the idea of the concentration camps was a result from the fantasies of the shared illusions of a nurse and a hen-breeder. Millions of people have been killed there, so I’m not saying that in order to devitalise the accuses which have to be made against this operation but rather to disenchant it from its erotic values one combines it with.” Or, as Martin Büsser is saying: “The occidental society has taken de Sade in by such an amount that they can only imagine it now as the last form of lose sexual freedom in the form of the faschistic tortures und murders. How indigent is our supply on education!” On the other hand there are few films depicting sadomasochistic sexuality which manage to be so fatally convincing in creating such a microcosm besides Liliana Cavanis The Night Porter. After its scandal is long forgotten it may be the right time to re-discover this great and multilayered melodrama, a film truly located ‘beyond good and evil’. Translation: Kathrin Zeitz

Cinema as Historical Archive?
Representing the Holocaust on film

Presented at the IPP conference 2006, University of Mainz (GER)

Note:
To reflect on historical, social and political events could be considered the ‘duty’ of the audiovisual media, in particular narrative television and cinema. The great success and the influence of programmes and films such as HOLOCAUST and SCHINDLER’S LIST on public opinion about historical events prove that the worldwide audience is more open for fictionalized history
than for more challenging documentary work, like Claude Lanzmann’s SHOAH. This poses the question: Has cinema finally reached the status of an historical archive for some audiences. If this is the fact it would be the goal of film studies to analyse the specific value of such representations, especially in the case of a significant phenomenon, like the according to Lanzmann ‘un-filmable’ Holocaust. The findings of such an analysis may well be trivialization and not representation of history. In my article I will
attempt to break down the history of holocaust cinema into several phases and take a closer look at recent films like THE GREY ZONE (2002) that effectively challenges many of the rules set by former ‘Holocaust-cinema’ – and offers a new perspective on a topic that usually only regenerates established images.

*

Significantly it was by no means the historians, who made the decisive contribution to the long term establishment of the problematic term ‘holocaust’ – and the crimes connected therewith – in both the European and the north American collective consciousness and memory. They may have critically researched sources, documented their findings, published textbooks and produced documentaries on and around the topic, but when compared with the effect by one television melodrama, a family saga, staged in the midst of vicious of Nazi-war-crimes, suddenly their efforts seem to have little value other than that of confirming the historical accuracy of the scenes of persecution and extermination of ‘imaginary’ figures. The four part television show Holocaust, whose transmission in 1978 was followed by around 100 million viewers in the U.S.A , was seen in West-Germany one year later by an audience of 16 million . From a media-historic perspective, the television event Holocaust can be described as a decisive point in the social roll of television as a medium of mass communication. Knut Hickethier comments on the effects the series had on the formatting of public television as follows:
“The defining television event at the end of the 70’s was the transmission of the American series “Holocaust” (1979), which showed the murder of European Jews by the Germans. In setting its focus not on social criticism and resolving the past but rather on fictionalisation and entertainment this film marks a turning point (…) The success was considerable, and uncontested. The series was accused of emotionalising, trivialising, and falsifying history”.
In Germany, Holocaust made a lasting, one could almost say the first, deep impression, especially on the sons and daughters of the perpetrators. The fact that this impression can be traced back to the transmission of a commercial television mini-series, which intentionally slipped under the customary ductus of distanced impartiality, has to be seen as an important indication of a strong change in the social and medial handling of history in general and the history of the genocide of the third Reich in particular. From then on the mass-extermination practiced under the Nazi regime had a name, which everyone knew. At the same time the expression of sober documentation of the complex topic was unavoidable in order to further develop the staging of scenes in successful socio-dramas.
The lasting effect of this phenomenon can still be seen today, especially in the many ‘made-for-the-box office’ cinema films of the 1980’s, which attempted to cash in on the success of Holocaust. Parallel to the change in the televisual handling of this sensitive topic it is also possible to trace a general change in attitude towards the subject: Cinema: Films were produced purely on the basis of the commercial and aesthetic considerations of the entertainment industry (dramaturgy, imagery, casting in conjunction with Hollywood’s star system). The fact that among these, there were also productions, which, by means of a complex narrative and the more considered use of forms of expression, left television far behind them, can be seen in films such as Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice (1982). However these more demanding films also fuelled the debate, which today still questions the legitimacy of ‘artistic’ processing of the Nazi genocide. According to Matías Martínez, art cannot possibly ignore the largest crime of the twentieth century, yet at the same time such art is essentially impossible, “(…) because in the opinion of many, the holocaust, defies aesthetic portrayal, in a special, perhaps even unique, way”. In this respect Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) marks a turning point. As in its case, the questionable symbioses between commercial and the ethical production is widely acknowledged, by both the public and critics, to have been a success. ”Unlike Marvin Chomskys and Gerald Greens Holocaust the Hollywood film seemed, in the opinion of the critics, to have resolved the conflict between popular reception, aesthetic content, and appropriate thematic” . Schindler’s list can also be seen as a turning point in another respect. If one looks at the film as a social phenomenon (which it unquestionably was and is), various modes of interpretation present themselves, two of which will be referred to here.
Firstly, one can speculate that in the film Schindler’s List a trend, which started in the 70’s with the mini-series Holocaust, came to a provisional end in the 90’s: Little by little a culture of remembrance, which attempted to find access to the events and environment of Nazi terror by way of fictional film and always searched anew to defining methods of staging, established itself next to that of the immediate witnesses of the concentration camp terror, the victims and the perpetrators. However, because the witnesses are now increasingly withdrawing from public life, both new and old films need to be critically analysed regarding intention and principle.
Secondly the arrival of Schindler’s List made clear the importance of film as an archive, whose influence on the formation identity in present day culture is ever growing.
If we accept that film, as an archive, exists as a threshold between the cultural and communicative/collective consciousness, only by way of the critical reflection of the viewer and discourse about old and new films, then this paper can be understood as a proposal for the critical handling of the film as cultural archive.
The representation of Nazi genocide in the form of feature films is a subject which has already been widely discussed and documented. As one can imagine, the filmic representation of events under the Nazi occupation developed sluggishly at first, then feeling its way, underwent several ‘experimental’ phases, until by the end of the 1970’s it had developed into a form of filmic mediation which could be compared to ‘Auschwitz literature’, in which a unique iconography of genocide and the concentration camp developed. This process of development ended, in effect, with the television series “Holocaust”, even here it is necessary to look from the cinema to the television in order to be able to take all relevant intermediate interaction into account. This instructive overview covers all films after 1945 which explicitly handle the events of the holocaust, not films which merely busy themselves with the Nazi regime (or came in to being earlier than 1945).

The Post-War Years: 1945-1960

Film theorist Béla Baláz remarked in a review, which was only made accessible after his death, that the polish film Ostatni etap (1947) by Wanda Jakubowska had founded its own genre, and in so doing he almost prophetically lent the ‘holocaust film’ an emblematic character similar to that of ‘Auschwitz literature’. Jakubowska’s film reconstructs the fate of a group of female prisoners, she utilises both professional and lay actors, survivors from Auschwitz, who return to the camps barracks two years after the end of the war. Numerous standard situations in filmic Holocaust representation are to be seen in the film: the roll-call, informing on ones fellows, torture, and in particular the nightly arrival of the prison trains, to swirling flakes of snow or ash and sludgy muddy ground… Alain Resnais quoted this scene in Nuit et Bruillard, George Stevens integrated it completely into a nightmare sequence in The Diary of Anne Frank, and lastly, Steven Spielberg reconstructs the scene authentically in Schindler’s List. In his essay ‘Fiction and Nemesis’ Loewy stresses that this film, which reconstructed these events directly after the historic horror of their passing, is regarded as an historical document (Fröhlich et al 2003, S.37).
Shortly after the end of the war a German Jewish producer Arthur Brauner and his CCC-production company produced a film about the Holocaust: Morituri (1948) by Eugine York. In a sober documentary style the film tells the story of a group of fleeing concentration camp prisoners and Jewish and polish families who are hidden in a wood awaiting the arrival of soviet troops. Parts of the film have an affinity with the novel ‘Das Siebte Kreuz’ (The Seventh Cross) by the Mainzer author Anna Seghers, which also tells the story of the flight of seven prisoners, who are hunted mercilessly by the camp commandant. The commandant has constructed seven crosses, of which only the seventh remains empty, as one of the prisoners is successful in his escape thanks to the charity of a handful of villagers. Fred Zinnemann had already directed the un-pathetic feature film The Seventh Cross in 1944, with Spencer Tracy in the lead, the film was however first shown on German television in 1972.
With regard to the concentration camp system, one of the most important filmic documents of the 1950’s is not a feature film but rather an essay film. In Nuit et Bruillard/Night and Fog (1953) Alain Resnais cuts material which he himself produced together with scenes of the liberation of the death camps, in which masses of dead were found and filmed by allied troops. In his very subjective, poetic film Resnais established a technique which is also of importance for later holocaust-film: ‘meaningful montage’, which reflects on the connections between history and memory, between past and present. In this respect the influence of this widely screened non-fiction film upon later fictional cinema films is not to be underestimated.

Orientation: The 1960’s

One of the most drastic and effective stories of a prisoners fate is the Italian film Kapo (1960) by Gillo Pontecorvo: Susan Strasberg plays a young Jew, who ‘rises’ to the rank of warden or ‘Kapo’ in the camp system and from this position torments her fellow prisoners. The film portrays the woman’s moral dilemma in uncompromising images. Kapo shows the painful dehumanisation of the prisoners so vividly in order to make the point that survival in an extreme situation is often contingent on the suffering of our fellows. Sadly, because the director died in an accident while still filming, only fragments of Andrzej Munks Pasazerka/the passenger (1961/1963) remain: On a cruise a former Kapo-woman recognises one of the passengers as being a former prisoner. The film was presented in the cinemas as a mixture of film sequences and photographs. A tragic monument, from which one gets the impression that this was the most ambitious attempt to handle this theme up to now – by means of a complex montage this film was to interweave past and present.
In 1963 in the DEFA studios Frank Beyer filmed Nackt unter Wölfen. Based on the novel by Bruno Apitz the film handles an episode of uprising in the Buchenwald concentration camp in which political prisoners successfully manage to hide a child. Beyer’s film places the roll of the political prisoner in the forefront, especially in the uprising and in so doing cultivates a so called ‘socialist realism’. According to East German critics in stead of ‘martyrdom’ he presents the story of a successful uprising against tyranny. West German critics however, reacted more sceptically, remarking on the one sidedness of the action and the one dimensional virtuousness of the resisting prisoners. It is clear that in this case one can not speak of a realistic representation of events.
Sydney Lumets dark New York city drama The Pawnbroker (1965) tells the story of the Jewish pawnbroker Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger), who is haunted by his memories of the concentration camp, which mix themselves with his present (a gang war). Lumet’s film was, aside from the passenger, the first holocaust film to mixes the past and present by way of ‘meaningful montage’ (Anette Insdorf), a dramaturgic technique which was often used in later productions to add an air of authenticity. One can find a similarly structured use of flashbacks in Karl Fruchtmanns television film Kaddisch nach mein Lebenden (1969): the plot centres on the trauma suffered by the protagonist, who was tortured by a fellow prisoner. The man, who later lives in Israel, becomes analogous with the viewer, an affected witness plagued by memories of past injustice. The director also dedicated later works to the discussion of the destructive effects of an ideology on the individual.

Scandal and Experiments: The 1970’s

The 70’s were, an extremely productive decade for many nation’s cinemas,: the seed of former revolutionary years began to grow and brought forth astounding film productions in America (New Hollywood), Germany (New German Film) and in Japan (New Wave). With this new progressive tendency and the simultaneous relaxing of censorship came an enormous wave of exploitation films, which began to push the boundaries of the portrayable in the direction of sensationalist entertainment. This exploitative trend did not even shy away from the holocaust theme: with the Canadian productions Love Camp 7 and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1974) the pornographers Robert Lee Frost and Don Edmonds brought the so called Sadiconazista-films to the cinema. Italian cinema also experimented with the connections between sexuality, politics and history, albeit on a higher level. In her psychodrama Il portiere di notte/The Night Porter (1973) the former documentary filmmaker Liliana Cavani further develops some realisations from her previous series on the third Reich, and tells the story of the fatal re-meeting of an SS man (Dirk Bogard) and his former fantasy victim (Charlott Rampling). As the couple re-start the destructive relationship under now different circumstances, they land on the execution list of a group of SS veterans, who wish to remove all witnesses to un-pleasantries, in order to erase the past and, in so doing, their own guilt. Cavanis film is both the representation of the continuing Nazi mentality following the war and (arguably) an attempt at a psycho-sexual adaptation of the concentration camp system Although Paolo Pasolini’s modernised Marquis-de-Sade adaptation Salò/120 Days of Sodom (1975) is rather a film about the fascist Italy of the present day, in this apocalyptic scenario Paolo Pasolini has constructed an oppressive microcosm of the concentration camp system, which was only really understood when the film was recently re-shown in cinemas. Here the mechanisms of power and production have liberated themselves and are running amok in the collapsing fascist republic of Salò. The scandalous success of these three films also inspired the production of a series of concentration camp sex-films in Italy.
A rare satirical production, the East German comedy Jakob der Lügner/Jakob the Liar (1974) by Frank Beyer appeared in the mid-seventies. It tells the story of a Jewish man (Vlastimil Brodsky) who creates and spreads rumours about the advances of the Red Army, in the Warsaw ghetto, thus strengthening the hopes of the ghetto inhabitants. The criticism against the film was directed towards the ambivalent effect of Jacobs lies, which were thought to placate the ghetto inhabitants with a feeling of security and therefore cripple their spirit of resistance (Anette Insdorf).
One of the most consequential feature film portraits of a perpetrator is Götz Georges presentation of the Auschwitz Commandant Rudlof Höss (here: Friz Lang) in Theodor Kotullas Aus einem Deutschen Leben (1977). The film shows key episodes from Höss’s biography, his journey from being a Freikorpsman to the SA and SS and up to the war crimes tribunal, which sentenced him to death. With a distanced and minimalist coldness we are shown the inhuman rationality with which he organised the gassings in Auschwitz. Here the representation concentrates on the perpetrator and shows the unimaginable horror from a distance. Breaks are found in single moments, such as when Himmler’s eyes meet those of a prisoner and then look nervously away.

An iconography of it own: The 80’s

The most important impetus for intensive media discussion of the holocaust thematic was the four part American television series Holocaust (1978) – a term which was used to describe the Nazi genocide against the Jews in particular, and later became synonym for this genocide. Marvin Chomsky’s epic series follows the fortunes of two families in the third Reich both on different sides of the genocide: the Jewish family Weiss and the German family Dorf. Where as one family has to flee, and is deported, Eric Dorf (Michael Moriarty) joins the SS and becomes implicated in organising the holocaust. The series was criticised for its melodramatic and oversimplified structure, which clearly followed the successful family epic Roots, which told the story of the enslavement of Africans in the southern states of the USA. Regardless of its trivial aspects the series Holocaust made a massive impact, comparable only to that of Spielbergs Schindlers List, and must therefore be recognised as a milestone in holocaust dramatisation.
The block buster Sophie’s Choice (1982) by Alan J.Pakula is another film which makes use of the concept of ‘meaningful montage’. A melodrama about the polish catholic Sophie (Meryl Streep) who survived a concentration camp because she attracted the attention of an SS officer, who then posed her the question, which destroyed her life: he asked to choose which of her children should be spared death. The film tells of this harrowing event by way of long flashbacks from the midst of its melodrama structure. As in Il portiere di notte the victim is not of Jewish origin, Sophie is even able to secure herself a special position by stressing her Christian heritage. Palukas film reconstructs the scenes of the concentration camp in faded, monochrome images, a style which, can be seen as an own iconography and was later adopted by other productions, occurring sometimes as ‘an empty quotation devoid of meaning ’(Matthias N. Lorenz) e.g. recently in Brian Singer’s X-Men (2000).
With an elaborate and in places naive naturalism the Arthur Brauner production of Europa, Europa from Agnieska Holland focuses on the story of a Jewish boy’s spectacular escape, he first find sanctuary with the communists, then with the Nazis and finally he is educated in a Napola (national political educational institution), until it is dismantled at the end of the war. Unlike Volker Schlöndorffs pathetically simplified Michel Tournier adaptation Der Unhold / The Ogre (1998), Holland’s film is, alone by means of its fable/story, able to distance itself from the dark fascination of the re-staged Nazi spectacle.

After Schindler’s List: The 1990s

In the early 1990’s all filmic work on and around the holocaust stood in the shadow of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1994). Liam Neeson plays the industrialist Oscar Schinlder, who saves the lives of several hundred prisoners in Poland, by giving them work in his factories. Spielberg shows the relationship between the socialite Schindler and the concentration camp commandant Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes) as an ambivalent almost dialectic relationship. In an interview the director describes Göth as being “the shadow which Schindler cast”. The film makes use of elaborate historical reconstructions of ghetto and camp life, but never the less concentrates the events of the film on a few key figures, which brings its melodramatic structures to the fore front. The use of typical Hollywood ‘thrill’ scenarios (such as the ‘selection’ or the march to the shower room) were widely criticised, that said, few other films have managed to awake such broad public interest for this historical event. Another ground for controversy was that the ‘Shoa’ foundation, which was financed from the films profits, was also responsible for the collection of eyewitness accounts world wide.
Four films of the nineties dealt wit the Holocaust thematic in a comical way: La vita bella / Life is beautiful (1998) by Roberto Benigni can be partly taken as a remake of Jakob der Lügner, which was also re-made by the American director Peter Kassovitz as Jakob the Liar (1999) with Robin Williams in the title roll. In Michael Verhoeven’s Mutters Courage (1995) we are told, by means of brechtian meta-reflection, the tragic-comic story of the mother of poet Georg Tabori, who himself appears as narrator. The mother survived the Jewish deportations by managing to win the favour of an SS man. In Train de vie (1998) by Radu Mihaileanus the prisoners apparently deport themselves in order to escape persecution. However in the end the whole story is revealed to have been no more than a camp prisoners fantasy. Due to its bitter end this film can be seen as the darkest of the ‘holocaust comedies’.

The present day

Following Schindlers List only one ambitious feature film has succeeded in creating a convincing Warsaw ghetto drama: The Pianist (2002) by Roman Polanski tells of the historic events surrounding the suffering, fighting and death in the ;forbidden zone’, from the extremely personal point of view of the Jewish pianist Szpilman (Adrain Brody). In this mature work Polanski creates a mostly un-pathetic reconstruction of this human drama, which does not shy away from the protagonist’s physical deterioration. At around the same time Tim Blake Nelsons film Grey Zone (2002) using the typical New York actor troupe (Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino, Steve Buscemi) recreates the story of the Jewish ‘Sonderkommandos’ in Auschwitz. For the first time in a Hollywood-production Nelson creates images according to eye-witness-account that no film before dared to present: the privileges of the Sonderkommandos, they dinner meals with red wine, people having a break on stairs outside the crematory, the green lawn around the crematory being watered artificially. These images – although historically correct – seem cynical, artificial, metaphoric. But yet this film may be closer to the fact than Schindler’s List. For the average viewer Spielberg’s film seems more accurate simply because his sharp edged black and white images are congruent to the image-archive the film- and media-industry has reproduced so far. Images of images seem more historical than accurate reconstruction. Being the opposite of The Grey Zone, another film falls in every trap on the way: Jeff Kanews Babij Jar (2002) should have been the glorious finale of Arthur Brauners work on the holocaust, however through its simple structures and stereotypical staging the film hardly even portrays this unimaginable massacre, in which over 30,000 people were killed in two days. “To show, how it was“ does not mean mixing the documentary with the fictive – as this film does -, neither does it mean recreating an historical event by means of media influenced images. To really be able to create an impression of the ‘horror’ still requires artistic vision, a gift, pars pro toto, to find sounds and images for an event, which one hardly dares to imagine. Film history contains such portrayals, of such events, but they are rare and must be attempted and re-attempted. For that reason the chapter on the artistic portrayal of ‘an imagined place of horror and suffering’, is a long way from being at an end.

Literature:
Agamben, Giorgio (2004): Ausnahmezustand. Frankfurt a/M.
Agamben, Giorgio (2003): Was von Auschwitz bleibt. Das Archiv und der Zeuge. Frankfurt a/M.
Assmann, Jan (1997): Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen. München.
Foucault, Michel (1983): Der Wille zum Wissen. Sexualität und Wahrheit 1, Frankfurt am Main 1983
Fröhlich, Margrit und Hanno Loewy, Heinz Steinert (Hrsg.) (2003): Lachen über Hitler – Aschwitz-Gelächter? Filmkomödie, Satire und Holocaust, edition text + kritik
Früchtl, Josef u. Zimmermann Jörg (2001): Ästhetik der Inszenierung. Dimension eines gesellschaftlichen, individuellen und kulturellen Phänomens. In: Josef Früchtl u. Jörg Zimmermann (Hg.): Ästhetik der Inszenierung. Dimension eines gesellschaftlichen, individuellen und kulturellen Phänomens. Frankfurt a/M. 9-47.
Goetschel, Willi (1997): Zur Sprachlosigkeit von Bildern. In: Manuel Köppen u. Klaus R. Scherpe (Hg.): Bilder des Holocaust: Literatur – Film – Bildende Kunst. Köln, Weimar, Wien. 131-144.
Halbwachs, Maurice (1985): Das kollektive Gedächtnis. Frankfurt/M..
Hobsbawm, Eric (1996): Wieviel Geschichte braucht die Zukunft. München.
Hickethier, Knuth (1998): Geschichte des deutschen Fernsehens. Stuttgart, Weimar.
Insdorf, Annette (1983ff.): Indelible Shadows. Film and the Holocaust, New York: Cambridge University Press
Jackob, Alexander and Marcus Stiglegger (ed.) (2005): AugenBlick 26: Zur neuen Kinematographie des Holocaust. Das Kino als Archiv und Zeuge?, Marburg: Schüren
Junker, Detlef (2000): Die Amerikanisierung des Holocaust. Über die Möglichkeit, das Böse zu externalisieren und die eigene Mission fortwährend zu erneuern. In: Ernst Piper (Hg.): Gibt es wirklich eine Holocaust-Industrie? Zur Auseinandersetzung um Norman Finkelstein. Zürich, München. 148-160.
Koebner, Thomas (2000): Vorstellungen von einem Schreckensort. Konzentrationslager im Fernsehfilm. In: T.K.: Vor dem Bildschirm. Studien, Kritiken und Glossen zum Fernsehen, St. Augustin: Gardez!, S. 73-91
Köppen, Manuel (1997): Von Effekten des Authentischen – Schindlers Liste: Film und Holocaust. In: Manuel Köppen u. Klaus R. Scherpe (ed.): Bilder des Holocaust: Literatur – Film – Bildende Kunst. Köln, Weimar, Wien.145-170.
Kramer, Sven (ed.) (2003): Die Shoah im Bild, edition text + kritik
Martinez, Matías (1997): Authentizität als Künstlichkeit in Steven Spielbergs Film Schindlers List. In: Compass. Mainzer Hefte für allgemeine und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft. Nr. 2. 1997. S. 36-40.
Novick, Peter (2001): Nach dem Holocaust. Der Umgang mit dem Massenmord. München.
Hübner, Heinz Werner (1988): Holocaust. In Guido Knopp u. Siegfried Quant (Hg.): Geschichte im Fernsehen. Ein Handbuch. Darmstadt. 135-138.
Ravetto, Kriss (2001): The Unmaking of Fascist Aesthetics, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press
Stiglegger, Marcus (1999/2002): Sadiconazista. Sexualität und Faschismus im Film, St. Augustin: Gardez!

Excerpt from the book Ritual & Verführung. Schaulust, Spektakel & Sinnlichkeit im Film, Berlin: Bertz + Fischer, 2007, revised by the author. Authorized final version, 24 February 2007

Marcus Stiglegger, Dr. phil. habil., born 1971, is working as a lecturer for film studies at the University of Mainz (Germany) and has published several books on film history, film theory and film aesthetics both as a writer and as an editor. His publications include books on Ritual & Seduction on film (2006), Western (2003), Pop and cinema (2004), the cinema of extremes (2002), and Abel Ferrara (2000) among others; regularly contributes to film conferences national and international (Chile in 2001, Japan in 2002); member of the FIPRESCI and regular contributor for the German magazines Filmdienst, Testcard, Splatting Image and editor of :Ikonen: magazine. International articles appeared in Kinoeye (USA) and Eyeball (UK). Contact: ikonenmagazin [at] hotmail com.

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Seduction … becomes the metaphor for how meaning is always figured as a beyond in this theorising of film. We are seduced towards a sense of meaning, only to be drawn elsewhere. That is to say, that no matter how much we might try to resolve, what remains in both cinema and theory is the seduction towards another point.
Patrick Fuery, New Developments in Film Theory

Manipulation – Suggestion – Seduction?

The concept of seduction has accompanied the analysis of the film medium ever since the debate about the cinema began in the 1920s. To proceed from the assumption that cinema has a seductive quality is apparently a matter of course—why otherwise has it enjoyed such lasting success? Why else has the media of film been repeatedly exposed to moralistic attacks charging it with having a “corrupting quality” linked with its power of seduction? Even if André Bazin, Siegfried Kracauer, Rudolf Arnheim or Béla Balázs were not explicitly preoccupied with this concept , the descriptions and definitions they developed constantly revolve around the phenomenon of completely absorbing the audience, even of transporting the spectators from a supposedly fixed position A to the not initially considered position B. The seductive strategies of the cinema start out on three levels: firstly, the intention of the cinema is to captivate and enthral moviegoers using all means possible, ultimately enticing them into indulging in the film itself; secondly, a film contains a message that is to be conveyed explicitly in and through the production, and thus seduces us into taking in special kinds of information (such as in manipulative and ideological propaganda films); and thirdly, all means available in directing and dramatizing a film are used by the cinema to create a seductive construct that ultimately intends to seduce us into receiving information found on the meta-level, which is not discernable at first sight.

An important point in defining the medium of film as a medium of seduction is the phantom-like quality of the cinematic projection. This ghostly presence was even observed by the philosopher Hugo Münsterberg in 1916 when he defined his theory of film in terms of the aesthetic illusion of the nineteenth century:
The massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time, and causality, and it has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness. The mind has triumphed over matter and the pictures roll on with the ease of musical tones. It is a superb enjoyment which no other art can furnish us.
Several elements that Balázs and Kracauer also dealt with can already be found in this quotation: firstly, the relationship of the cinematically reproduced or re-orchestrated world to social reality, as well as the comparison of these levels; secondly, the ability of film to resolve the space-time continuum; thirdly, the connection between producing a film, perceiving a film and human consciousness; fourthly, the fleeting “ease” of cinematic events; fifthly, the musical quality of cinematic orchestration and montage; and finally, the voyeuristic “superb enjoyment” that this medium furnishes its audience.

From the early period of film theory up to the present the relationship of film to reality has again and again been subjected to examination. Kracauer, for example, in those writings in which he is critical of ideologies, diagnoses the film medium as a “seismograph” of societal trends and changes. In his book Der sichtbare Mensch (The Visible Man, 1924) Béla Balázs sees the development and realization of a completely new way of viewing the human being—in particular through the close-up shot, which turns the human face into a landscape reflecting a host of experiences and conveying deep meaning, creating a profound intensity using those tools specific to the cinema. The polished “image gestures” (Balázs) thus sharpen our look at social reality. And it is primarily in the camera perspective and in film editing where Rudolf Arnheim defines the cinematic artefact’s independence in space and time.

Although Adorno and Horkheimer do not explicitly mention the concept of seduction in their work Dialektik der Aufklärung (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1947) in connection with the film medium, they nevertheless see the—at times fatal—quality of film instead in its “power to manipulate”, with which the “culture industry” (in this case the reference is to Hollywood) affirms the social status quo. This manipulative power makes film an attractive instrument of control and propaganda in carrying out social policy—a thesis that particularly the latest developments in American mainstream cinema can once again confirm. Moreover, the medium of film works primarily with a mythical view of the world, which reduces historical events to the level of supra-historical and apolitical fables. In the sense of the dialectic of enlightenment, mythical thinking can be viewed as a counter-movement against universally called-for enlightenment, a circumstance that, however, benefits precisely the efforts of the culture industry to bring about conformity. What Adorno and Horkheimer fail to take into consideration is the constant presence of subversive movements in the mainstream, which result in phenomena in which the cinema’s manipulative power (and hence its seductive energy) is directed against the system itself. Such trends can be clearly observed in the films of Robert Aldrich or more recently in those of Oliver Stone. It remains doubtful, however, whether these efforts are ultimately important for idea of “enlightenment” as outlined by Adorno and Horkheimer. The concept of seduction inherent in the Dialektik der Aufklärung, it must be noted, is associated with a negative definition that judges the commercial feature film as a form with tendencies of a “propaganda film”.

Although the notion of “seduction” has only been applied specifically to the media of film in current film theory, it is worth taking a look at these earlier approaches, which make use of other concepts but nevertheless deal with the same phenomenon.

Perspective, Seduction and Propaganda

In his early work Film als Kunst (Film as Art) Rudolf Arnheim never uses the concept of seduction; in several passages, however, he attests to that very quality of the film medium to absorb the look of the audience, “to force the audience to enter the perspective of the medium”. He assumes that for human beings the faculty of seeing is only of trivial significance: Man makes use of this sense merely as a “means of orientation”. We see selectively, as when wearing blinkers, and just enough to act correctly in a pragmatic sense towards objects in our environment. Even of his fellow human beings the “ordinary human” only perceives those details that appear beneficial to him for the purpose of interaction. “It is indeed an exceptional situation when—apart from aesthetically inclined and trained people—suddenly someone loses himself in pure contemplation.” Thus, our everyday view of reality perceives the world; the cinematic view can, however, expand this quality. In the cinematic image it is no longer important simply to discern an object as such, but rather in addition to ascertain its specific qualities. “How the massiveness of a figure is accentuated by shooting with the camera from below upwards.” Arnheim refers strongly to the great significance of the camera perspective, to the significance attached to the image/object. Here he emphasizes—in a last step—the propagandistic quality of film: “There are tricks to force the viewer to enter such a perspective.” In this way he is made “to view something well known to him as something new” and is only then able to grasp the actual message of the film. Out of the necessity of working with a two-dimensional representation (as opposed to three-dimensional reality) here the film artist makes a virtue: He directs our view with such intensity at the object he wants to focus on that this causes a hyper-reality to emerge. The object as represented in the media appears more real to us than it does in the feeling of reality we have.

Arnheim repeatedly devotes particular attention to the audience-friendly “ready-made film”, which may correspond to today’s blockbuster or to what simply would be referred to as mainstream cinema—films that attract audiences by affirming their needs: “In film everything happens in such a way as it would happen in reality if it happened in a way that seems just and beautiful to us.” Just for economic reasons the “ready-made film” is forced to make concessions, which according to Arnheim is what distinguishes it from the artistically ambitious film.
In his two works on film theory, From Caligari to Hitler (1947) and Theory of Film (1960), Siegfried Kracauer goes one significant step further. Especially in his Caligari book his idea of the seduction of the audience corresponds quite clearly to the propagandistic motivation, particularly of the cinema during the period of the Weimar Republic. With Gertrud Koch we can assume that this book is an attempt “from (1) formal qualities of films (2) to gain mental patterns that are then (3) interpreted in a social-psychological way”. On the formal level of cinematic production Kracauer develops theses on the superordinate social relevance of the German films during those years. He thus notes that there was a striking increase in the number of doppelgänger motifs during the second decade of the twentieth century. The doppelgänger motif is repeatedly also taken up again later when the point is to portray a conscious or unconscious splitting-off of the condemnable, abject aspects of someone’s personality. At the same time this “Mr. Hyde” can indulge in all of what the person of integrity would never dare. The character with a split personality feels morally above his rejected double. What we are confronted with here is a clear depiction of seduction towards that which is evil or rather morally unacceptable. This quality is particularly evident in Fritz Lang’s early paranoia thriller The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, which at the same time was viewed as a criticism of the totalitarian rule of the National Socialists, and which also developed a huge fascination for the mysterious figure of Mabuse, the super villain whose name appears in the film’s title.

In his Theory of Film, which is often wrongly viewed as being reduced to the attempt at the “Redemption of Physical Reality”, Kracauer undertakes several tasks including an attempt to develop an analysis of the effect of film. Although the writer confesses that an examination of this effect cannot be generalized without exception, it is precisely here that we make important observations that later will become of great value. Like Arnheim he also differentiates those “effects” that captivate the audience. In particular it is movement that appears important to him as a primary motif in film:

Movement is the alpha and omega of the medium. Now the sight of it seems to have a “resonance effect,” provoking in the spectator such kinaesthetic responses as muscular reflexes, motor impulses, or the like. In any case, objective movement acts as a physiological stimulus.… It is our sense organs which are called into play.

Thus, there is apparently a sensual seduction brought about by means of the cinematic depiction of movement, whose effects are seen right up to the physical reactions of the audience. In this regard, the cinematic image acquires a special quality—in contrast to, for example, viewing a theatre play: The camera “takes the eyes of the viewer along with it” (Balázs), it “forces” the audience to identify involuntarily with what is shown on the screen. The total absorption of the audience using cinematic mechanisms controls their senses and weakened consciousness. The medium opens the viewer up, making him susceptible to receiving motifs and messages (audience’s expectation), which at first may possibly be unwanted but are usually desirable nonetheless. It is here that we find the first attempt at an explanation of how a film can succeed in taking an essentially “steadfast” spectator from the moral standpoint A to an unexpected standpoint B, which initially appears inconceivable and foreign to him. Kracauer goes so far as to see this quality of the medium taking on an existence of its own:

…what they [the spectators] really crave is for once to be released from the grip of consciousness, lose their identity in the dark, and let sink in, with their senses ready to absorb them, the images as they happen to follow each other on the screen.

Kracauer goes one step further and views the cinema as a medium of hypnosis. The spectator is spellbound by the luminous rectangle and succumbs to the suggestions “that invade the blank of his mind”.

A generally accepted opinion views the cinema of Hollywood as a “dream factory”. Also Kracauer subscribes to this position and analyses film quite generally as a “play of dreams”. Once film has lowered the consciousness of the audience, it then invites them to dream. The reception of a film itself becomes a condition halfway between being awake and sleeping, and the spectator finds himself abiding somewhere between reason and irrationality. It is particularly for this reason that the cinema has also become a domain of myths, which for their part have settled between the poles of consciousness. “Myth lies at the heart of cinema” is how Jean Baudrillard will later put it. In discussing this cinematic play of dreams Kracauer distinguishes between “manufactured dreams” and “stark reality”. The “ready-made cinema” (Arnheim) produced in Hollywood makes films that correspond to the utopian dreams of the audience: “…otherwise expressed, the events on the screen can be supposed to bear, somehow, on actual dream patterns, thereby encouraging identifications.” Of course, the reverse may be true, namely that from the cinematic staging of the audience’s dreams we can draw conclusions about the condition of the film-producing country and the film-viewing country. However, Kracauer plays down this superficial game with people’s wishful dreams: “Much as they may be relevant as indices of subterranean social trends, they offer little interest aesthetically.” What appears interesting to the writer is the moment in which documentary shots of “naked reality” attain a dream-like quality. And once again it is the specific camera perspective that counts, as well as the relationship between sound and image. Thus, the cinematic reproduction of life apparently changes life’s conditions. A visual impression in reality can have a totally different effect when the same impression is captured on film.

Perhaps films look most like dreams when they overwhelm us with the crude and un-negotiated presence of natural objects—as if the camera had just now extricated them from the womb of physical existence and as if the umbilical cord between image and actuality had not yet been severed.

This allegorical description again points to an intermediate world between image and reality—between sleeping and being awake. Kracauer thus sees this “simulation of authority” as a further quality of film, in particular for those in modern society who can no longer cling to common notions of belief, moral valued or a clearly comprehensible political system. For the moment in which the film is viewed, the complexities and ambiguities of the cinema cease to be in effect and they open our eyes to a transparent system, a world that (apparently) is easier to control. Film as a play of dreams and reservoir of myths continues to serve the modern individual as a valuable way to escape: Not only are wishes and dreams fulfilled here; we also find here fixed frames of reference, which make is easy to orientate oneself in life.

On the Spirit and Magic of Film

For the film theorist and film practitioner Béla Balázs, film has “taken over the role which myths, legends and folk-tales used to play.” He is not, though, referring here to film as a “reservoir of myths”, but rather as the form for the production of new myths. In the process he would like to view film as far away from literature as possible, because in contrast to abstract literary works, or rather to text that has its basis in printed writing, the main focus in film is on a new way of looking at the human body: “the visible man”.

Balázs thus views the cinema first of all as the anthropocentric cinema of the body, whereby to the cinematic image of the body are added expressive gestures: Cinema is a sign language. According to Balázs it is the “subtlety and power of the images and the gestures that constitute the art of film.” Because it was not yet possible for the silent film actor to express himself verbally, the writer emphatically points to the equally important gestures accompanying spoken language, which may resemble those of a dancer but nevertheless are not the same. Balázs was one of the first film theorists who did not shy away from acknowledging the “superficial beauty” of film. In the beauty of film lies at times even its power of expression:

There is nothing “purely” external about film and no “empty” decorativeness. This is just because everything inside can be recognized by one external thing, and for this reason one thing inside is also recognizable by everything external. Even by beauty. In film the beauty of facial features appears as a physiognomic expression.

Indeed the writer goes considerably further than media theorists later dare to do: Since the medium can rely exclusively on externalisation, every visual gesture (also independent of the performers) must become an expression—and only in this way can it be grasped by the audience. This “complex superficiality” thus makes use of beauty (just as it also does of ugliness) as a conscious expression that should also not be underestimated. Balázs’s thesis, which at first sight is so simple, proves to be amazingly radical and up to date, yet he specifically avoids allowing himself to be “dazzled” by beauty.

Within the framework of cinematic forms of expression Balázs regards the close-up as the most important, because it allows the spectators and the performers to display the art of using facial expressions and subtle body movements. Thus, “each little wrinkle in a person’s face can become a determinative feature of character.” The close-up is the “magnifying glass of the cinematographer”. The long shot may serve the purpose of creating spatial orientation in a scene, but the essential aspect of a film always occurs in the close-up shot, which is that form of composing the cinematic image that is most likely able to captivate and direct the perspective of the audience. Using the camera “the director can guide our eyes”.

At the same time the cinema, even more than the theatre, is in a position to overwhelm the spectators by presenting simulations of immense size and monumentality. It can create crowd scenes of absorbing intensity, melt together human bodies into “surging masses of people” and stimulate the imagination to additionally enhance the size of objects, that is, ultimately to visualize images that no screen could display. Up to the present day the mainstream cinema has been built on the all-engrossing power of this effect to overwhelm the audience, and this trend extends from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the computer-generated crowd scenes in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (2002) and The Matrix: Reloaded (2002) by the Wachowski brothers. In this connection the medium of film becomes also for Balázs a play about dreams and visions, which in hardly any other art form can be materialized with such intensity.

A further quality of the medium lies, according to Balázs, in the way velocity is staged on the screen, especially when the camera accompanies a vehicle or someone running and conveys to us from a subjective perspective the feeling of speed. This results in sensational and spectacular effects, which the audience can hardly escape from for the very reason that they can experience the illusion of danger from a safe position. According to Balázs, this staging of sensations achieves artistic expression when it involves an “accent of the most extreme intensification”. In particular in the American mainstream cinema as well as in the cinema of Hong Kong we find to this day such strategies that are used to give inner nuances expression in a spectacular way (the films of Tsui Hark and John Woo or even James Cameron’s melodramatic disaster movie Titanic , for example, come to mind). It is precisely the inviolability of the audience that seductively indulges in the cinematographic display of heighten moments of danger, and yet the spectators react to what happens on the screen as if it were actually taking place. To intensify this effect, the cinema makes use of the slow build-up of tension, which presages the “disaster”, truly “sees it coming”, but cannot and will not avoid it. The camera not only becomes the viewpoint of the audience; it subjugates and holds them spellbound, as it were, in moments of suspense—as Alfred Hitchcock repeatedly defined it.

In The Spirit of Film, another work on film theory written by Béla Balázs and published in 1930, he again takes up central theses and, taking into consideration new developments (sound film), modifies and revises them. In his opinion, film has in the meantime become a “new organ” of man, through which he can experience the world in a new, or rather different way .
The most radical device used in camerawork continues to be the distance-reducing close-up shot, which makes it possible to see feelings and thoughts, that which “does not exist in space”. Balázs’s idea of film is in every respect anthropocentric: The main focus is on the human being, and the filmed image of the face becomes a reflection of a person’s psyche, which as a “micro-physiognomy” can make visible nothing short of the subconscious. He talks about the “invisibly clear” expression. Since the enormous enlargement capability of the close-up causes the slightest nuances to come to the fore, the spectacle is, as a logical consequence, transformed from the theatrical overacting characteristic of the silent film era to the more subtle psychological realism of the perfectly engineered sound film.
The essential elements of the medium are, according to The Spirit of Film, the guided look and the resulting power of film to force the spectators to identify with events or figures on the screen. Balázs sees in this power both the specific style (the “type of image”) and at the same time the propagandistic quality of film:
The composition of the images is a reflection of the director’s attitude towards the object—his tenderness, his hatred, his pathos or his ridicule. This is what is meant by the propagandistic power of film, because it does not have to prove any standpoint—it causes us to hold this standpoint visually ourselves.

The writer sees the power of the cinematic image literally in a personified form: “The entire image makes one gesture. The gesture of ecstasy” is how he illustrates an allegorical shot from the film The Battleship Potemkin.

The last chapter of The Spirit of Film deals with the ideology that can be affirmed or criticized using the medium of film. Here the cinema’s formal forms of expression converge at a sometimes propagandistic but in any event seductive meta-level, which seeks expression beyond the narrative dimensions of the work. These theses are, however, not seeking out an “elitist” form of art, but rather are associated with the medium of film as a popular art form:

Film is the art of seeing. Its inner inclination is thus to reveal and expose. Despite the fact that is provides the most powerful illusions, it is by nature the art of opened eyes.

The theses of Béla Balázs revolve again and again around Dziga Vertov’s “cinema eye”: the journey to an “unknown vicinity” using the medium of film, which generates a mind-expanding look at what is only apparently familiar. In his epilogue to The Spirit of Film, Hanno Loewy sums up that Balázs’s primary motif, the “physiognomy” in film, i.e., that point of transition between the eye and the screen, between viewer and image, is “the passionate dizziness with opened eyes that no other art form would be in a position to induce, the feeling of dizziness aroused by letting yourself fall into an ‘approximate danger’.” How, according to Balázs, the audience is “opened” for the seduction of the medium can hardly be more concisely outlined.

Gaze, Desire, Taboo, Dream

To the present day the psychoanalytic model of analysis as developed by Sigmund Freund, or rather later by Jacques Lacan, has continued to be an important instrument in appreciating works of art. The cinema appears here apparently as a “male-constructed” art form in which the image of the woman at the same time represents a threat of castration, a personified flaw that needs to be fetishized. In the fetishizing stage the image of the woman in turn becomes a phallus-like object, which detaches itself from the original female identity and can be fixated (= captured) with voyeuristic or rather fetishistic mechanisms (Mulvey, Kaplan, Brauerhoch). Already here we discern the mechanism of the exclusion of the other, the division into subject and abject that Julia Kristeva develops in her literary analysis Pouvoirs de l’horreur (Powers of Horror, 1980). This section intends to present an overview of these aspects of psychoanalytical concepts. Any possible abridgements will be explained in more detail and expanded on later. The key psychoanalytical concepts in this analysis of film as a seductive construct include the look, the desire, the other, the mirror and finally dream and taboo.

In L’être et le néant (Being and Nothingness, 1943) Sartre summarizes the close connection between self-definition and the distribution of power by means of the look:

If we assume that our first revelation of the other occurs as a look, we have to acknowledge that we experience our unascertainable being-for-others in the form of being possessed. I am being possessed; the look of the other person forms my body in its nakedness, causes it to arise, sculptures it, creates it as it is, sees it as I will never see it.

The look, in Sartre’s opinion, thus lies between the subject and the other, but at the same time it is also the means by which we take possession of the person we interact with. Film is basically a medium in which the line of sight first of all seems to proceed in one direction, namely from the eyes of the spectators to the play of lights—the moving picture—reflected on the screen. The projected images convey to the spectator the illusion of power over the displayed objects. That which is depicted is “captured on the screen”. At the same time, however, the cinematic image appears as “the other”, who looks back at the observer. This can occur as a calculated part of the production—so to speak, meta-cinematically—or it can come completely as something fundamental, when the film succeeds or fails to meet the expectations of the audience. In that moment, when one becomes conscious of whether an expectation has been met or not, the cinematic image itself can be described as being a kind of other. This cinematic image viewed as the other reflects as such the look of the observer and “casts” this look back, exercising on its part power over the observer. If we pursue this thought further, we can say that in the moment of becoming aware of this, the cinematic image creates intimacy and at the same time draws boundaries of demarcation—it confirms the expectation, defines the subject and distances itself—eternally a fugitive and incomprehensible—from the observer. This reflection precedes Laura Mulvey’s thesis about the mainly male perspective of the cinema. Thus, the look proves itself to be power and subjugation at the same time. The active look wants to gain power over the object being perceived, while on the other hand identifying itself as the subject. The experience of being looked at, though, results in unexpectedly being subjugated by the look.

A central concept of Freud’s classic model of psychoanalysis is wish (Wunsch): He uses this term to indicate an instinctive inner craving that arises from the existential needs of childhood. Jacques Lacan translated Freud’s concept with the French word désir, which on the other hand means desire and in many aspects is a more discriminating concept that wish. The term wish appears very goal-orientated and singular, but desire also involves a continuous force, a motivation. According to the literary scholar Vladimir Biti the term desire also evokes Hegel’s notion of lust or longing (Begierde), and as a result becomes more abstract and theoretically more prolific. Desire, in Lacan’s sense of the term, always remains unconscious and becomes the motivation behind action and bodily movement. Lacan places desire somewhere between striving for satisfaction and craving for love: It is “the difference that arises when the former is subtracted from the latter.” It is thus not primarily a biological instinct, but rather an articulated craving that hungers for reciprocation. Desire wants to be acknowledged and reciprocated; ultimately, it is “the desire for the desire of the other” (Lacan). The interrelationship between the film and the spectator outlined above is reflected again here. Especially those moments are felt by the potential audience to be particularly disturbing when the film 1) refuses to satisfy desire—and thus also its need for acknowledgement—in the development of the story, and 2) the film looks back at the observer, appearing also to demand something from him. We encounter gazes like these in, for example, the films of Stanley Kubrick: in 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1970) or The Shining (1980). That complex process we regard as seduction unfolds in this gap between the film and the observer: It encompasses far more than the purely suggestive element of a production that Balázs and Kracauer already observed; seduction is the result of a reciprocal “activity” between medium and recipient, whose desire at times becomes the playing field of the seductive strategies of cinematic production.

Film As a Modern Reservoir of Myths

That the cinema quite soon became the reservoir of myths of the modern age has already been observed in early writings on film. The definition of myth on which these writings, however, are based—for, as is generally known, there are a great number of them—has, though, not yet been clarified.

According to a basic assumption that is rooted in the field of ethnology, a myth is understood to mean a story handed down orally, in writing or in any other form with sacral content. In his book Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958), Mircea Eliade listed various elements that are contained in myth: 1) Myths relate in the final analysis a “true” story; this can perhaps also mean such an elementary, undeniable “truth” as birth or death. 2) The mythical fable is sacred, which means its content is detached from the domain of the profane. 3) Myth is always assigned to the time of origin or creation; this origin need not belong to an earlier time, but rather can denote every form of the new beginning. Consequently, the experienced myth is a time in which “all times fall into one”. 4) Myth contains the reason and basis for rituals; thus myth has morally binding and normative power. 5) The protagonists of mythical fables are “superhuman” beings. In this respect myth denotes the incursion of that which is sacred into everyday existence—or also vice-versa, the moment of everyday existence in that which is sacred. Myth and life are closely linked and are particularly suited for a structuralist analysis in the context of regional and social peculiarities (as Claude Lévi Strauss has shown in his Structural Anthropology). At the same time a “statement” is formulated and condensed—this corresponds to Roland Barthes’s definition of myths in his work Mythologies. At the core of myth there can be the creation of the world, of man or also of culture; it always concerns elementary truths that are condensed and made tangible in myth, even if it involves “modern myths” of “everyday life” (Barthes), which often revolve around cultural (self-) images.

A further step in the theory of myths becomes important here: Ernst Cassirer in Mythisches Denken (1925) (Mythical Thought, 1953-57) and Claude Lévi-Strauss in La Pensée sauvage (1962) (The Savage Mind, 1966) view myth additionally as a conceived idea, as a way of comprehending the world. In doing so, that omnipresence of mythical happenings are again brought to bear; mythical thought is laid out in cycles, and using ritual structures it works towards a repetition of the key event. The medium of film also has taken on this cyclical form: in Western cinema—but even more so in the cinema of Asia (for example, in Japan)—it is always the same fables that are specifically varied and reproduced, as if it were necessary to grant permanent presence to the sacred myth. This goes so far that the audience even expects the familiar, but also that which forever moves us anew, to return in cycles.

The medium of film works either with classical myths, or rather mythological motifs (Orpheus, Oedipus, the Fall of Man, etc.), or it creates its own myths and cults—often through charismatic protagonists such as James Dean, Bruce Lee, Marilyn Monroe or Romy Schneider. Precisely those movie stars who die either early or under mysterious circumstances lend themselves to being turned into myths, since from them it is only the image, the cinematic phantom, that remains, and like a fetish this can be worshipped—for example, by watching their films again and again—much like attending a ritual. The protagonists (heroes) of myths are often described as beings of supernatural origin. If, however, we take the social complexity of myth for granted, then in these mythical creatures we can only recognize the projection of the qualities of being human in a religious (or sacred) form. And again the “larger-than-life” quality of Hollywood shows itself to be suitable for the development of myths: In the heroic figures that have long since become idols, such as those brought to life by John Wayne, Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone, we admire and worship precisely that quality that transcends the human and profane scope of experience. Films in which these “mythical” qualities are destroyed and dismantled have, on the other hand, far fewer chances. The audience sees in this dismantling the betrayal of its latent longing for a semblance of the “otherworldly” and the divine. The brokenness of the hero himself, though, does not always contradict his mythical functions: In Gladiator and Unforgiven, for example, myth itself becomes the subject of discourse. Even though these films treat their subject-matter in a less naïve way than the basic genres typical of each of these films, the epic film and the classical Western of the 1950s respectively, they nevertheless allow the hero to reach his objective and fulfil his violent mission.
Thus, film creates its own myths and summons up its own “superhuman” protagonists. Just for this reason it is suitable as a carrier of myths, because it can always be experienced in relatively present time: By seeing the film anew as if it were a ritual (the phenomenon of the cult film in particular comes to mind here), it becomes for the audience a genuine, present-day experience. At the same time the myth in film revolves around elementary and existential motifs: birth, life, death, sexuality, violence, fear, joy, hate, happiness, etc. Film and myth are in any event tightly interwoven. It is, in fact, rather the question of whether the intention of a cinematic artefact is to rob the spectators of their freedom and ability to judge clearly and rationally as adult human beings and to manipulate them, or even to work productively with myth. In particular the enormous appeal of the manipulative American mainstream cinema is built on the mythical qualities created by Hollywood, which even replaces ideology and awareness of history with generally more accessible mythical models. The concept of myth is thus important when we go about examining the seductive power of film, because this concept can appear in film as subtext (for example, in Apocalypse Now, Gladiator or Titanic).

Seduction as Subversion

In the scope of the cinematic reproduction of life, the laws governing life can be changed and rendered invalid. The depiction in film of a particular plot must occur according to its own rules and strategies of cinematic production, which are different from those affecting the real model it is based on, because the audiovisual reception of one and same story does not necessarily produce the same effect. In order to stimulate the desired sensual emotion in the observer and to truly “seduce” the audience, specific cinematic rituals have developed that are designed to provoke the desired emotional reaction on the basis of a strictly codified set of surrogate stories and simulations. The complex notions of sensual seduction, seduction as a strategy of cinematic production and the dramatized appeal to desire serve as an orientation in this film-archaeological search for these kinds of cinematic strategies and rituals.
Thus, if we view the cinema basically as a seductive system, it seems reasonable to conclude the following: Watching a film means, in certain respects, being “seduced” by it. In doing so, the observer reads his own subjective desires, illusions and obsessions into the film and reconstructs it into his own individual way of receiving it. The seductive quality of film, however, can be seen on various levels, whether they be of an external nature (movement, corporeality, sensuality) of a dramaturgical (fable, drama) or of an ethical-moral kind (inner conflict, ambivalence). These strategies are all the more effective the more hidden they operate and the more they want to seduce the observer into not discovering himself—Fuery calls these “seductive signs”—but rather into discovering something different, located somewhere on a meta-level—for Fuery these are “signs of seduction”. These “seductive signs” can be understood to mean both the obvious constructions in ideological propaganda films as well as the iconic presentations of film stars in the classic sense (Marilyn Monroe, Tyrone Power, Greta Garbo, etc.). “Signs of seduction”, on the other hand, do not display their seductive character openly, but rather appear first as “something different”. They function as subversion within the cinematic production.

The further development of the seduction theory of film presented here makes it therefore possible—it would be hoped—to take a deep look into the “fine mechanics” of cinematic productions and to analyse a work internally, disregarding to a large extent the time it was made and the genre of film, thus ultimately understanding its system of manipulation and suggestion by examining our delight in looking, the role of spectacle and also sensuality.

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