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Marcus Stiglegger

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

The continuity of the myths

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

Myth and tragedy

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

Peplum cinema as popular mythology

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

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

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

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

Abandoned souls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pain and sacrifice

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

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

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

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

Father, Son, Unholy Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘rightful path’

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

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

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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