Tag Archives: Germany In Autumn

A Pair Of Book Reviews

On Tuesday, May 9th, 2017 two stories broke on my facebook feed. One was from indiewire that detailed David Lynch’s “retirement” from making films (2006’s Inland Empire is to be his swan song). The second appeared courtesy of the Sydney Film Festival blog and explained why Martin Scorsese believes that the cinema is dead. If one is to take the statements of these two filmmakers at face value than the forecast for motion pictures seems to be pretty dire. However, it seems to me that both filmmakers are speaking with too much haste.

Desiree Gruber, David Lynch and Kyle Maclachlan in Paris

It is true that the mainstream of Western film production is relatively bankrupt. I myself have gone on and on about the irredeemable qualities of the current Hollywood franchises. Yet, this corner of the cinema, the one that dominates our media intake online and on television, represents only a fraction of what the cinema is today. One cannot gauge the current state of affairs in the cinema by using something like the Academy Awards or the Cannes Film Festival as a barometer. Films from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia all indicate innovation and progress in the tradition of such renowned filmmakers as Fritz Lang, Elaine May, Stanley Kwan, John Cassavetes, Ousmane Sembène, Nagisa Oshima, Alan Clarke, Béla Tarr, and Abbas Kiarostami just for starters. Not to mention the legions of underground filmmakers working in the U.S., Great Britain, France, Canada, etc. This, the underground, is where the majority of films are being made today (this leaves out, of course, the iconoclastic filmmakers still working within the mainstream that Lynch and Scorsese have given up on such as Jim Jarmusch, Andrea Arnold, Terence Davies, Atom Egoyan, Claire Denis, Charles Burnett, and Abel Ferrara; to name just a few).

As someone who works as an educator in the medium of film I can attest to a continued interest in the history of world cinema amongst my students. During this last semester I had a student who made weekly trips to his public library to rent Criterion Collection DVDs. I also had a student who, at age 16, had already made two documentaries and has decided she would like to focus on making some comedic short films. I was also fortunate enough to work with some acting students on two short film adaptations of works by Hal Hartley and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. So as far as I can see, the cinema is nowhere near dying off anytime soon.

In the interest of preserving the cinema I would like to recommend two books on the cinema. I often wish I could assign more readings to my students during the time I have with them, but the length, the specificity and some of the academic language of these books would render them inaccessible to my students in the context of the classes I teach. So I will relate some thoughts and reflections concerning these two publications to those who read this blog instead (which, to my delight, does include some former students).

Fassbinder and Thomsen

The first text I would like to address is Christian Braad Thomsen’s Fassbinder: The Life & Work Of A Provocative Genius. First published in 1991, Thomsen’s piece is unique in the realm of studies surrounding Fassbinder’s work in so far as Thomsen actually knew Rainer Werner Fassbinder quite well and can offer some qualified analysis of his films. The title speaks to Thomsen’s regards for Fassbinder and the text makes quite an argument in support of those regards.

Unlike the work of Wallace Steadman Watson, Thomsen succeeds in contextualizing Fassbinder’s work in the theatre within his filmography. Drawing on aesthetic and political similarities, Thomsen paints a clear portrait of Fassbinder’s artistic development in both mediums. Their mutual friendship also gives Thomsen some unique insights into the more psychological readings of films such as Fassbinder’s segment in the anthology film Germany In Autumn, In A Year With Thirteen Moons and other personal films. Thomsen also brings the importance of the novels Effi Briest and Berlin Alexanderplatz as narrative influences to clearer light, going so far as to identify character types outlined by these two novels that find their echoes as early in Fassbinder’s career as Love Is Colder Than Death.

The true highlight of Thomsen’s book is the close analysis of Fassbinder’s more avant-garde films and videos such as Bremen Coffee, Nora Helmer, The Journey To Niklashausen, Pioneers In Ingolstadt and Eight Hours Are Not A Day. These titles in particular are often overlooked in studies of Fassbinder.

Thomsen’s weakness as a writer, and this may be due to the fact that the text is translated from Danish, is in the prose style. There are a number of instances where the language is casual, lending the text an air of amateurism that I am sure is quite unintentional. This style maybe appropriate for the anecdotal elements of the book, but it reads poorly in the sections of concentrated and deliberate analysis of specific works. That said, while Thomsen’s book is a highly informative and accessible piece of literature on the subject of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it is not as exhaustive in its presentation of information on Fassbinder as The Anarchy Of The Imagination, published by PAJ Books in 1992.

Ms. 45

The second publication I will address exists on the total opposite end of the spectrum of the literary discourse of the cinema. Nicole Brenez’s Abel Ferrara, published in 2007 as part of the University Of Illinois Press’ series on contemporary filmmakers, is an entirely scholarly piece of writing and represents the best of what film academia has to offer in the way of auteurist theory. The structure of Brenez’s book is to present a close analysis of Ferrara’s films in the first half, ending with a second half that is a transcription of a question-and-answer session following a screening of the film ‘R Xmas at the highly regarded Cinémathèque Française in 2003. By structuring her text in this manner Brenez allows her subject to support her own interpretations of his work in his own words, though in a less detailed and more casual conversational context.

Brenez’s book looks at all of Abel Ferrara’s films from Driller Killer to The Blackout in varying degrees of detail. The films that receive the most attention are Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, Bodysnatchers, The Funeral, New Rose Hotel, and The Blackout. Brenez’s exhaustive and highly specific analysis of these films is singular in film scholarship. The kind of thorough and detailed readings Brenez offers us of Ferrara’s films cannot be found elsewhere. Abel Ferrara is a filmmaker who is, for the most part, largely ignored within the discourse of film, often surfacing as a topic of interest in a limited capacity primarily in general overview studies of American Independent Filmmaking and its history.

Perhaps the most delightful portion of Brenez’s work on Ferrara is her analysis of the “time image” in relation to The Addiction. Brenez very successfully argues that the shared traumas of war and genocide in the 20th century are in fact what prompts the highly allegorical vampirism of The Addiction’s narrative. Not only that, but she successfully ties in the commentaries on society found within Bodysnatchers and King Of New York as being earlier iterations of the same social analysis found in The Addiction. Likewise, Brenez’s investigation into the modes of character duality in Ferrara’s Dangerous Game, Bad Lieutenant, Ms. 45, The Funeral and The Blackout is equally as impressive.

Brenez is wise in her analysis not to look to hard at Ferrara’s filmic influences. Often these kinds of studies on specific filmmakers become bogged down in the auteurist trap of tracing influences as a kind of aesthetic genealogy.  The weakness of Brenez’s book is that, for a few readers at least, the language is extremely academic and the prose highly refined and elaborate.

John Huston, Orson Welles, and Peter Bogdanovich
In conclusion I would like to return to the catalyst for this piece and discuss briefly my approach to writing this post. Originally I was going to open this piece with a quote from Orson Welles taken from This Is Orson Welles  concerning the nature of film in academia. But given the bleak forecastings of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese I think that the discourse that these two publications represent as well as the example of Orson Welles will dispel any anxieties surrounding the future of the cinema. Consider that these publications represent only a minute sampling of the literature on the subject of film. Then consider that Orson Welles spent the last decade of his life trying to complete a number of films that remain unfinished and yet he never lost hope nor did he ever give up. The cinema is alive and well, without a doubt.

-Robert Curry

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Contextualizing Syberberg’s Gesamtkunstwerk

In 1982, semiotext(e) published Vol. IV, No.2, The German Issue.  For this publication, Hans Jurgen-Syberberg contributed the piece Our Syberberg.  In a one-paragraph essay, Syberberg not only outlines the purpose of New German Cinema, but his own private agenda as a filmmaker.  Syberberg, never out of touch with the public consciousness, pinpoints, near the end of his piece, the fundamental difficulties of making films in West Germany.

Let’s put an end to art serving as the handmaiden of politics.  Art should be Divine Inspiration.  Art should be a yearning for the hereafter, the eternal, and the sublime.  It should be the way to the truth, wisdom, immortality, and what we call love.  Politics as an organizing principle for mediocre compromises needs the assistance of art, which always seeks justice and uses dreams to overcome death.  Art is the reason for living, today as in the past.  Since Hitler no one in Germany speaks of official government art anymore.  The Third Reich was guilty of the highest perversion when it turned the State and society into the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk.  For years we heard of the politicization of art.  Now you shall have it.  Art as the only true and total opposition. -Hans Jurgen Syberberg, 1982.

Like Jean-Luc Godard’s Dziga Vertov Group, Syberberg advocates film socialism.  A filmmaking industry owned and controlled by the artists and the people equally.  In West Germany during the early eighties, such a proclamation was considered extremely leftist, liberal beyond the established norms.  But it is socialism, the desire for it that connects not just the members of the New German Cinema, but those who first advocated such a movement a decade earlier in France, the New Wave.

The Cold War allowed governments an excuse to police and censor the arts in most of unoccupied Europe.  The idea was to prevent radical ideas from taking a foothold in the consciousness of the common man in an attempt to abate contamination by communist and Marxist ideas.  Of course the ideas were already there, but to put these ideas into action was strictly prohibited.  To navigate a film’s release around government barriers required a tremendous amount of independent financing, selective distribution, and most commonly a way to disguise a film’s political message.

In the early and mid-sixties, this kind of Socialist attitude began to shape the communal style theatres of Germany.  Here is where figures such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Jean-Marie Straub received their education on such matters, that they in turn would take with them when transitioning into film.  Almost immediately, filmmakers like Werner Herzog established their own production companies to avoid any government sanctioned meddling, whether it was necessary or not.  The fault in this kind of action Syberberg makes evident in his closing.  Syberberg uses the term Gesamtkunstwerk, meaning total work of art, in relation to State and society.  He very plainly calls for his fellow “film socialists” to organize and realize a Gesamtkunstwerk for the artists and the people.  In other words, Syberberg is asking for what Walter Benjamin terms an “auratic perception”(the aesthetic means by which a civilization may revive its myths and culture).  The tactics of the New German filmmakers had always been isolated and independent.  The fiasco of Germany In Autumn (1978) proved that this generation of German filmmakers was incapable of the unified action that their French counterparts had achieved.

Surely these circumstances troubled all the filmmakers of West Germany, Germany in Autumn is a testament to that fact.  What Syberberg wants, and based on his tone demands, is a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk.  But this concept isn’t popular outside the German intelligentsia.  The Americanized German every man is, and righty so, reluctant to take part in any emulation of The Third Reich in his society, no matter how distant.  This is the overriding issue that drives Syberberg to make his epic masterpiece Our Hitler (1977).

Employing various film dialects, styles, effects, and adopting an array of filmic vernaculars, Syberberg constructs Our Hitler as the most mammoth experimental film of all time, whose scope and vision recalls Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1936).  Through retelling Hitler’s story, delegating aspects of Hitler to various kinds of film techniques, Syberberg is metaphorically taking art back from Hitler.  The skill, effort and vision of Our Hitler is a testament to the power of art, meanwhile the means to which art is employed by Syberberg only condemn Hitler.  It’s an exorcism of Hitler from the consciousness of the German artist and filmmaker.

The inherent fear in Germany of a Fascistic Gesamtkunstwerk prevents the Gesamtkunstwerk from materializing in any other political form.  But it is also the only solution to the problems within the New German Cinema.  In effect, the patient is fearful of the cure.

1982 is historically the year when New German Cinema concludes, marked by the passing of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  That Syberberg was unable to or unwilling to publish a “call to arms” any earlier is troubling.  New German Cinema had begun twenty years earlier with the declaration of the Oberhausen Manifesto.  That’s twenty years of filmmakers fighting for an industry controlled by artists, whose only inhibition was the taboo circumstances surrounding socialism at the time.  Traditionally, proclamations like Syberberg’s occur at a crisis or climax within a film movement.  In 1959, Jonas Mekas published his own Call For A Derangement Of Cinematic Senses in the Village Voice.  But Mekas was on time, right when the New York Underground film movement really took off as Warhol began making his first films.  Syberberg is too late, though at the time I doubt he knew it.

So what film critics and historians are left with is a proclamation by a filmmaker who has found a solution to the troubles ailing his movement just as that same movement has come to a close.  This does not rendering Syberberg’s piece unhelpful.  The solutions and ideas he proposes could easily be employed by another group of filmmakers on either a regional or national level.  What is distinct about Syberberg’s piece is how overtly political its message is, as well as its affiliation toward contemporary issues circa 1982.  I find that it is its timeliness that gives the piece its quiet air of desperation.

-Robert Curry

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