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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.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Marcus Stiglegger

 

Keiju eiga

Utopias and Anti-utopias in Japanese Cinema

 

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

Patrick Macias[1]

 

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

 

 

The incarnation of primal fear

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Cold War reflections in Japanese genre cinema

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Utopia of cultural superiority

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Keiju-eiga as utopia?

 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking at the world

Trough the sunset in your eyes

Trying to make the train

To clear Moroccan skies

Bugs and pigs and chickens call

Animal carpet wall to wall

American man is five foot tall and you

Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind

Had to get away to see what we could find

Hope the days that lie ahead

Bring us back to where they’ve led

Listen up to what’s been said to you

Would you know we’re riding

on the Marrakesh Express

All on board that train

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

I smell the garden in your hair

Take a train to Casablanca going south

Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth

Cold coffins hang in the square

Charming corporals in the square

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

They’re taking me to Marrakesh

All on board that train (X3)

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

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

‘The stories are woven

and fortunes are told

The truth is measured by the weight of your gold

The magic lies scattered

on rugs on the ground

Faith is conjured in the night market’s sound

Would you like my mask?

would you like my mirror?

cries the man in the shadowing hood

You can look at yourself

you can look at each other

or you can look at the face of your god’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography:

Freud, Esther: Hideous Kinky,  New Jersey 1992

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

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

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

Silver, Joel: Summer of Love, New York 1994

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

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

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.

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

In 1999 I was proudly working with Thomas Koebner on a huge German book film directors: “Filmregisseure” (Reclam Verlag). I was completing the texts, researching titles, providing films and finally writing all filmographies. A huge amount of work, which pays off successfully in a – what I thought – nice book, collecting essays on many well-respected filmmakers. For this work I was only briefly mentioned in the editorial.

In 2008 a new and 3rd edition hit the market: The good news is that it features my new text on Kim Ki-duk; and for the first time I am mentioned on the (inside) title page. The bad news is that many of my earlier text as well a several others were skipped due to new articles etc. This might make sense for a stupid publisher hoping to keep the same size for the costs, but it is simply a betrayal of the readers. They will get a new book, this time skipping Paul Verhoeven, Derek Jarman, Michael Cimino, John Woo, Paul Schrader etc. like they lost their importance within ten years!?

To state this very clearly: Avoid this book, dear readers! I distance myself from it. In fact stating this kind of ‘canon’ seems pretty silly in my eyes today. Stick to Steven Jay Schneider’s “501 film directors”, this number makes more sense than the 200 of “Filmregisseure”. And Schneider’s book is much less eurocentristic!

This week my course on Modern Japanese Cinema at the Clemson University, South Carolina, will be finished. I really enjoyed this teaching experience in a foreign language – yet it was quite complicated at times. My students were very supportive and engaged in their discussions. I have to thank them for their inspiring attendance.

The main toppic this week will be Post-Punk Cinema focussing on Shinya Tsukamoto and Sogo Ishii.

While the US-enonomy is slowly going down, I will take my flight with Lufthansa back on Saturday.