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

Deadly passions of a home invader

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

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

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

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

Inside the mind of serial killer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trapped in fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the circle

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

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

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

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

Shock value

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

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

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


NOTES

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

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

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Marcus Stiglegger

Beyond Good and Evil?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cinema as Historical Archive?
Representing the Holocaust on film

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

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

*

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

The Post-War Years: 1945-1960

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

Orientation: The 1960’s

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

Scandal and Experiments: The 1970’s

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

An iconography of it own: The 80’s

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

After Schindler’s List: The 1990s

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

The present day

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

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

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

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

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

Manipulation – Suggestion – Seduction?

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

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

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

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

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

Perspective, Seduction and Propaganda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Spirit and Magic of Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaze, Desire, Taboo, Dream

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

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

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

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

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

Film As a Modern Reservoir of Myths

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

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

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

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

Seduction as Subversion

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

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

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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.

Dear friends of sophisticated art, culture and lifestyle

I am a German scholar of film studies and will feed this blog with occasional ideas and opinions on film, literature, philosophy, music, life style, and art in general.

Enjoy

MS