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By Andrew Tracy
The monumental film so easily inspires prostration rather than investigation, though surely that is at least partly the intention of its maker. Issuing from within a matrix of production geared towards certain regulations of duration, content, and legitimate claims on audience attention, the monumental film explodes that packaging to present itself in its own mode of consumption and reception: that of its monumentality itself, its very exploding of boundaries establishing the contours from within which we are to view the work. It demands new spaces for itself, asserts itself into the world, makes its weight felt even in its absence—for the fact that the work is so frequently exiled from conventional frameworks of viewing itself attests to the fact of its monumental existence.
Such is the “heroic violation” as celebrated by Susan Sontag, those works which subvert “the norms and practices which now govern moviemaking everywhere in the capitalist and would-be capitalist world—which is to say, everywhere.” Surely the attendant irony that the medium that has done more than any other to institutionalize those norms and practices gave issue to two of the greatest violations of the last quarter-century was not lost on her. “To see a great film only on television isn’t to have really seen that film,” says Sontag, and yet Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Our Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977), began their lives from within that most compromised and bastardized space of consumption, and now, courtesy of Criterion and Facets respectively, have become incarnated in the even more consumable medium of DVD—though their drastic length naturally precludes their being contained on a single disc.
The sacred space worthy of the monumental continually shrinks beneath our feet, yet this is only appropriate. The televisual origins of Fassbinder and Syberberg’s epic projects were an economic necessity rather than aesthetic determinant—both were conceived as works of cinema rather than mere TV miniseries. But surely the logic must work in reverse as well. If the aesthetic necessity of the work is not hampered by the economic determinants of the space of consumption, then surely that space is, aesthetically, a neutral one, one whose domination and fragmentation by capitalism is a contingent outcome rather than an inevitable one. Even Serge Daney’s enlightened speculations on cinema and television were predicated on an inevitable dissolution in the journey from large to small screen. “There must be enough faith in images (and in the audiences to come) to believe that where once there has been beauty, there cannot be nothing at all overnight,” said Daney; turning his formulation on its head, the Alexanderplatz DVD release has occasioned a controversy over whether the restoration’s brightening up of the reputedly impenetrable darkness of Fassbinder’s 16mm television original interferes with his intentions.
This is by no means intended as another hymn in praise of TV, the New Cinema. Rather, as Fassbinder and Syberberg gave early testimony to, the closer the two mediums move together, the more distinct they become as modes of practice and forms of art. Television—good, bad, great(?)—is sequential in both the narrative and franchising sense. Its aim is continuation and reproduction, until it is no longer economically (or, more rarely, aesthetically) feasible; its demands on our attention are an entreaty to survive. It is a (co-)dependent relationship, and thus one pursued with the weapons of dependence: persuasion, cajolery, seduction. The monumental work, by contrast, determines its own limits, assumes authority over its own boundaries; it is self-terminating, a dead fact rather than a grasping, going concern, and it speaks to us with the authority of the dead. In its progressive reincarnations from smaller screens to large and back again, by its inability to be consumed within any one medium, the work itself is the sacred space within which it enacts itself. It is both theatre and drama, a movable Bayreuth. Fassbinder and Syberberg declare their intention to make the psychic territory of their films ours for the still delimited, but still conventionally unimaginable, time of their extreme duration, to allow their monumental works free play away from our expectations of progression, culmination and resolution, to make their dreams enveloping, overwhelming, indisputable. Like the ocean liner in Amarcord (1974), our admiration is at least partly based upon the sheer awe of witnessing the behemoth move by before returning to its self-imposed darkness.
The debuts of Alexanderplatz and Our Hitler in the at once consecratory and demystifying form of DVD thus present some interesting questions to their aesthetic being. Rendered accessible to as many repeat viewings as the now-sovereign spectator desires, the two epics retain their imperial claim to our psychic territory precisely because they are both self-consciously premised on repetition—not only in their aesthetic design, but also in their awareness of their place within the cycle of consumption. The monumental’s desire for exalted singularity is self-contradictory within the medium of film, which is based from the very beginning on the repetition of a performance already past, already dead; “Dialogues of the dead, conversations in the land of the dead,” as Syberberg’s narrator intones. It is only through repetition that the film can convey its messages, only through passive spectatorship that it can be received, only through the inevitably capitalistic mediation from maker to audience that the film exists in the first place. The immersive world which Fassbinder and Syberberg aim to make of their cinema is not a metaphysical ideal, but a tangible reality corrupted from the beginning, a hope already bound up with its own negation. “What else is this world but, first of all, us who make, present, and watch this film?” asks the narrator—a remark as portentous as it is romantic.
This formulation of collective creation, of participation in the building of the monumental work, was implicit in Alfred Döblin’s monumental novel, the source for Fassbinder’s labour of love. Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz comprises not merely the rise and fall of Franz Biberkopf, but numerous overlapping, other-authored texts: interpolated newspaper reports, snatches of contemporary song, equations calmly illustrating the physical laws operative in Franz’s fatal beating of his girlfriend Ida. The totality of the world evoked is one of accumulated fragments, the effect kaleidoscopic. It is the city itself in all its ceaseless and senseless activity, the endless talk that fills it, the colliding social forces and masses of people teeming within it, that is the living protagonist of his work, and the human focal points chosen “randomly” from this multitude live at the whim of its relentless velocity. Phil Jutzi’s Döblin-scripted 1931 film version of Alexanderplatz (a thoughtful addition to the Criterion edition) adapts this effect in a conventionally “cinematic” way: as Heinrich George’s Franz is released from Tegel prison at the beginning, he hops a streetcar and is bombarded by the sights and sounds around him, a city symphony writ as torture.
To say that Fassbinder does more than adapt Döblin, that he forgoes such relatively easy cinematic shorthand, is not only to say that he performs the necessary task of imaginatively transmuting the work for another medium. Rather, he continues the process of repetition and multiplication inherent in his source. Stanley Kauffmann has speculated that Emil Jannings was a possible inspiration for Döblin’s Biberkopf, that “a film figure may have helped to crystallize what Döblin was trying to ‘assemble’ from observed life—especially since that figure was a popular vicar for most of that life.” One nexus of contemporary fantasies thus served as the model for another, which provided Fassbinder with a locus for further multiplications in his own time: many of his lead characters were named Franz, and he himself played “Franz Biberkopf” in Fox and His Friends (1975). Günter Lamprecht’s unforgettable Franz is not simply a particularly apt representation of Döblin’s hero, but both an addition to and sum of these previous fantasies, as fluid and unfixed as Syberberg’s parade of Hitlers.
Fassbinder moves in both the opposite direction and tempo from Döblin. Döblin’s protean city becomes Fassbinder’s amorphous protagonist; the exploration of an inexhaustible exterior becomes that of an inexhaustible interior; the method shifts from speed and traversal to distension and prolongation. Reinhold, the anti-Franz, slithers into the book almost unnoticed, simply a passing strange creature in a corner of Franz’s local watering hole who only gradually assumes his stature as this universe’s angel of death. In the film, Franz and Reinhold’s (Gottfried John) barroom encounter takes place in an atmosphere of portentous infatuation, a fateful coupling enacted with all due solemnity. Where Franz’s successive adopting of Reinhold’s cast-off mistresses is handled curtly in the novel, the speed heightening the sardonic humour of the situation, in Fassbinder the anecdote is spread out over two of the 12 episodes, with the stages of seduction, cohabitation, and dumping acted out at length. Not only narrative sequences, but mere incidents in the narrative chain receive the same distended treatment: the savage street beating of Franz’s fellow burglar Bruno (Volker Spengler) by a rival thug seems to go on for an eternity, as does the scene of Franz’s childlike play with his beloved Mieze (Barbara Sukowa), the two of them rolling around on the floor and spitting alcohol into each other’s mouths.
These are not merely the necessities of dramatization, nor of the kind of pedestrian sensibility that would view Döblin’s novel simply as a story to be told (as Döblin evidently saw it in his own film adaptation). The astute characterizations and sharply defined features of Fassbinder’s wonderfully cast actors—fittingly etched in blocky, thick-lined caricatures in the Criterion artwork—belie the amorphous, inexplicable, chaotic forces which course through them. Representation continually gives way to incarnation: Fassbinder does not seek to explore character in the psychological sense, but states of being; he is after essences, something eternal coursing through the present. The recurrence of certain blocks of text, in voiceover and inserted title cards, creates an air of incantation, of ritual. Where Döblin employed repeated phrases as indicators of the chugging, cyclical progression of the city and the biologies tethered to it, Fassbinder moves toward the mythic, to some inscrutable breed of eternal return. Reinhold’s murder of Mieze, in long shot and long take, not only heightens the crushing emotion of the scene but its feeling of chronicling a death foretold: Franz’s murder of the unfaithful Ida enacted this time upon the devoted Mieze by his opposite and doppelganger. Everything is connected, everything is arbitrary; patterns coalesce and diverge, original sins are entered into the catalogue alongside common ones. Repetition does not divulge meaning, it is meaning itself—a grand, ironic joke, if the human toll it took were not so great.
Morality, its gradations and its absolutes, is the fulcrum of both Alexanderplatz and Our Hitler, not as canned drama but as questions of universal significance, questions given form by the ultimately unknowable Everymen at their respective centres: the anonymous Franz and the infamous Adolf, the former immortalized by Alfred Döblin, Fassbinder, and Günter Lamprecht, the latter mortalized into banality, mocked, scoffed at, ridiculed, his constant abasement only sanctifying him further—the Devil as Hero of the 20th century, just as Döblin’s pimp, murderer, and thief becomes the embodiment of the Good Man. Neither of these are simple instances of moral transposition, nor are the moral dramas they enact fixed within a stable order of meaning. Despite its stylistic homogeneity, its Sternbergian “beauty,” Fassbinder’s deceptive narrative ultimately has no more internal solidity than Syberberg’s fantasia. The sudden and vulgar dissolution of Fassbinder and cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger’s carefully cultivated visual style in Alexanderplatz’s wild dream epilogue, venturing boldly and garishly into grotesquely banal symbolism and cheap flamboyance—piles of bodies in a human slaughterhouse, crosses and crowns of thorns, atom bombs and Dean Martin singing “Silent Night”—cannot be regarded simply as an unfortunate blot upon the film’s otherwise refined surface. Its radical atonality is a signal that the author cannot encompass the jumbled meanings he has assembled within the bounds of the work, that the work (and the world) itself cannot contain them.
Neither Fassbinder nor Syberberg believe in the truth of the image. Where truth is to be found is rather in the ubiquity of images, their ability to crystallize realities even as they banalize them. Franz as crucified Christ, as battered prizefighter, as pig to the slaughter; Hitler as Chaplin, as Napoleon, as Nero, as M’s Hans Beckert—all are pertinent, none can fully explain the cosmic drama being played out; none is the sole, generative source of meaning. The “original” is gone, has always been gone. Only its assorted copies remain, and only their juxtaposition can yield some slim chance of meaning.
In Syberberg’s underpopulated hall of echoes, Richard Wagner, John Ford, Caligari, Nosferatu, Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, Gone With the Wind (1939), Nietzsche, Syberberg’s own Ludwig—Requiem for a Virgin King (1972) and Karl May (1974) all circulate around the central absence, the criminal who escaped by making himself ubiquitous, disseminating himself into serious scholarship, opportunistic biopics, posters, parodies, pornography—that is, business as usual. He’s Not There even in his omnipresence, reflected in everything he touches even as everything is reflected in him.
Syberberg, however, is not simply playing a hat-changing semiotic game. While Todd Haynes’ schematic ode to his chosen 20th Century Man is content to swim around in recycled myths, to eagerly participate in and contribute to the obfuscating culture it pretends to analyze, Syberberg’s metatext is not a self-flattering mirror but an injunction to self-judgment. “We’ll make it a commercial film, for after all, film has always been a commercial business,” Heinz Schubert’s sardonic circus barker remarks. Syberberg’s critique is an immanent one, knowingly mired in the Dantean muck of commercialism that has made Nazism a sellable brand name even as it scorns it. His boundless rage is directed as much against the contemporary consumer society of the West as against the historical atrocity of Hitlerism.
While Syberberg’s rhetoric indulges in the same rather simplistic linking of fascism to consumerism then common on both sides of the Iron Curtain—as witness Mikhail Romm’s Ordinary Fascism (1966), another moral treatise in documentary guise—this relates to his major theme: that Hitler simply activated currents already circulating through the realms of society, thought, and belief that with the assent of the world he made himself a compendium of the endless clichés of hate. For Syberberg, the pornographic consumer society of the “good old democracy” that emerged in the wake of Nazism, that now peddles the wares of that which it “defeated,” is consigned to the same Hell as Hitler—the Hell of ceaseless repetition envisioned by Walter Benjamin, where “precisely what is newest doesn’t change, where the ‘newest’ in all its pieces keeps remaining the same.”
Sontag, in her marvelous essay on Our Hitler, one of those rare pieces of criticism that has established itself as the authoritative (even if eternally disputed) starting point for its subject’s interpretation—think Sartre on Genet, Kael on Last Tango in Paris (1973), Lester Bangs on the Stooges’ Fun House—quite sensibly points out that the Führer cannot be held accountable for the plastic consumer society that followed him, for it was well on its way to realization even as he railed against it. Syberberg, however, does not posit a direct causal relationship, but an even more damnable one of choice. In the wake of fascism’s dreadful legacy, to continue disseminating its myths in the name of profit is a moral renunciation, the same willing surrender to power—this time to that of the dollar—which allowed Hitler to rise to power in the first place. For Syberberg, the commodity society is the inverted mirror of fascism: where the latter sought to compress diversity into uniformity, the former markets uniformity in the guise of diversity.
This is not simply a polemical point, but an aesthetic quandary. How can an artwork be pure, how can art itself be possible when everything can be tagged for its niche market, when even the critical methods of modernism, as Sontag notes, can be assimilated into consumer society’s “huge variety of satisfactions—the unlimited proliferation, and devaluation, of satisfaction itself?” How to make a Great Work when the Great Work itself has become a saleable and readily available commodity; when, 30 years later, every new, shallow provocation is branded a masterpiece by someone, somewhere? With the temperament of a Romantic and the sardonic irony of a Brechtian, Syberberg tries to break through the conundrum by having it both ways. Like Godard’s own television-spawned monument Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-98), Our Hitler is a messianic work unmoored from any faith in the sacred, a purifying work littered with cultural detritus, a noble work steeped in vulgarity. It valourizes and romanticizes the unifying and totalizing power of cinema, that “new child of the century,” even as it derides that very power as the enabler of banalization, repetition, and commercialization. It is a work forever conscious of the hopeless contradiction, the impossibility of its chosen task, even as that very impossibility heightens the urgency of what it is compelled to say, over and over again.
It’s appropriately ironic, then, that the digitalization of Our Hitler and Berlin Alexanderplatz does not dispel their monumental aura, but only increases it. Their accumulated cultural capital has received official validation by their transmutation into graspable, ownable object, their newly commodified incarnations gilded with the sanctifying language of holiness and canonicity. Heroically violating the norms of production, they have been welcomed back into the fold that has accommodated them, in one form or another, all along. The monumental work has only ever been able to affirm its stature by contrast to that which surrounds it, without operating within the same system of compromising relations. Film has always been a commercial business, after all, but contrary to whatever claims the latest critically touted ephemera are having made for them, masterpieces have always been in short supply.