Skip navigation

Tag Archives: violence

Marcus Stiglegger

Out of the graves, out of the rubble …

The German war film in the 1950s

 

 

The war film as historical revisionism

 

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

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

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

 

 

The war film as a German genre

 

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

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

 

 

The construction of the dissident

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The simple soldier as victim of a system of injustice

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Stauffenberg – the conservative dissident

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Dissident war films: Childhood as the last victim

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

I.

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

V.

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

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

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

VI.

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

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

Bibliography:

Joe Hembus: Western Lexikon, München 1976 / 1982

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

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

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


[1] Seeßlen 1995, p. 148