All entries for August 2007
August 23, 2007
This is entry is still being developed however the links may be helpful. They will be added to gradually. Unfortunately some writing got lost in a hard drive crash and will have to be redone.
Women Stars of the French New Wave
Jeanne Moreau, Bridgitte Bardot, Anna Karina, Catherine Deneuve
French Postwar Cultural and Film Policy Overview
This article provides a brief overview of French Post Second World War Film Policy. It is a small section of my overall project which is to provide a synoptic overview of the history of European cinema in the major European industrial countries. It skims over the background political developments of this period as well. As this blog develops there will be the capacity to zoom into to resources and articles on individual films / movements / directors and to zoom out to gain an overview of developments at a synoptic level.
After the liberation of France in 1944 Charles de Gaulle (above) the leader of the Free French becomes leader of the provisional government. This is replaced by the Fourth Republic in 1946.
Finally, in October 1944, Roosevelt and Churchill recognised the French Committee of National Liberation as the provisional government of France and de Gaulle as its leader. De Gaulle curtly responded, 'The French government is happy to be called by its name'. De Gaulle had won and, in the process, inflicted on the American President his greatest personal defeat of the Second World War. (BBC The Allies at War)
French Cultural and Film Policy
French cultural policy has historically been strongly centralised and interventionist. From 1960-1993 France has been Europe’s leading film-making country which Graham[i] attributes to three interrelated factors; the cultural policy environment[ii], interacting with a large pool of talent and a receptive public[iii]. The argument here is that the latter conditions are dependent upon the cultural policy framework for without this structuring feature local talent would be attracted either abroad or to other industries such as television which would provide a more secure income.
The construction of a receptive audience is more complex requiring considerable sociological research to provide more substantial reasons for the existence of particular audiences. The Cannes film festival was founded in 1946 primarily as a showcase for French films functioning as the tip of a lively film festival culture. The role of cultural policy and planning initiatives in ensuring that these festivals are financially sound is beyond the brief of this work. When Cannes was started Venice was the prime festival venue in Venice, but, over a period of years Cannes managed to reach the position it still holds today has as the premier European film festival.
An important aspect of the development of French cinema is in the highly ambiguous relationship which exists betwen France and the USA. In hindsight it can be seen that French cinema has acted synechdocally, as a part signifying the greater whole, for this relationship which is also coming to terms with their own post-colonial past and issues of modernisation. While it is hard to evaluate there is also the issue of French national identity and repairing national pride. France’s international reputation regarding cinema had come to be built on what has developed as an 'auteurist-industrial' mode of production.
Film as an Assertion of National Identity
The cultural strands of auterism existed before the war, however Nazi and Vichy controls had limited this aspect of French cinema which was an important source of cultural pride amongst the intellectual elites. In the wider cultural sphere the Second World War saw the global pre-eminence of France in the field of fine arts almost entirelydisappear . Modern art and modern artists moved to the USA,
France's Position in a Changing World
French troops in Algeria 1954
The French relationship with America was not just in the realm of arts and cinema. The history of the 20th century itself is the story of America coming to reach hegemony as a power with a global reach which has never been seen before. This was at the expense of the European empires of which France was one. France had always been been behind in the empire-building stakes. Prior to the rise of America Britain had held pride of place. During the 20th century France has been invaded twice and rescued largely by the Americans. It had failed to modernise prior to WW II which can be seen as partially being responsible for its defeat. This was taken on board as a primary task by de Gaulle’s provisional government 1944-45 and then the post-war Fourth Republic[iv]. Women - whose position in society is a powerful indicator of the rate of progress of a state - didn’t have the vote until after the war for example.
Vietnamese soldiers hoist a victory flag at the battle of Dien Bien Phu 1954
France had been largely marginalised in the establishment of post-war Europe, primarily conducted between Stalin and Roosevelt then Truman with Churchill having some say. The French empire started collapsing around it immediately afterwards. The huge defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese nationalists at DienBien Phu in 1954 led to the establishing of an independent Vietnam organised into northern and southern zones. Morocco and Tunisia were also awarded their autonomy by 1956. This was the year in which the 1954 revolt in Algeria had turned into war. 1956 was also the year in which both Britain and France had become involved in the Suez crisis, an incident which politically sealed their fates as leading players on the world geo-political scene and effectively marked the end of European imperial ambitions. The hostility of the United States towards this adventurist action led to ignominious withdrawal and governmental crisies in both countries. The routes taken by France and Britain were quite different. France eventually installed General de Gaulle (08 / 01 / 59) as an archetypal strong leader in 1958 with the ability to change the constitution approved by referendum. [de Gaulle biography]
De Gaulle becomes President of France January 1959 (Above)
From the end of the war a tension between France and the USA emerged around cinema. The trade agreements established between France and the USA included film export quotas as part of the agreement for delivering Marshall Aid. Marshall Aid was the funds which the USA made available to help fund post-war reconstruction in Europe and thus stabilise the region conditional upon providing support for liberal democratic politics. These quotas were to prove a symbolically important bone of contention. The history of protectionist measures instituted by the French to ensure the survival of their own film industry go back to 1928 the Herriot Decree introducing a quota system. Following this a ceiling was created of 150 American films per year in 1936. In 1952 this was lowered to 110. In May 1946 the Blum-Byrnes agreement was established which stipulated that that French films must be screened for at least four out of every thirteen weeks - equivalent to slightly less than one third of available screen time.
This created a strong negative reaction amongst the French film industry who felt extremly threatened by the immediate post-war ‘swamping’ - or massive popular demand depending on your point of view! - of French screens with American output. Arguably this represented huge pent-up supply and demand. The French film industry which had been largely unchallenged during the occupation started a defensive mobilisation at the end of 1947 and early in 1948. As a result there was a demonstration from all parts of the industry in Paris of approximately 10,000 people. This accompanied a vigorous publicity and lobbying campaign. As a result of the pressure the quota was renegotiated giving French films a minimum of well over 40 % of available screen time, five weeks out of twelve.
Of course read through eyes which are not driven by self-interest or nationalist hubris it could be argued that the French general public much preferred the output of Hollywood, its narratives and its content. Hollywood for millions of ordinary people across Europe signified progress and liberal democracy firing idealism and hope at a time of reconstruction and revelations about the horrors and deep traumas of war in general and the Holocaust in particular.
The First Plan of the post-war republic between 1947-1950 incorporated concerns about cinema and proposed to reduce taxes on the cinema, build studio capacity, to modernise and rebuild cinema theatres and establish a specialist body to co-ordinate cinema. As a result as early as 1946 the Centre National de la Cinematographie ( CNC ) was established. In 1947 it took over responsibility for the film festival at Cannes. In 1948 the loi d’aide was set up. This didn’t provide any subsidies but ensured that a proportion of profits from the industry were reinvested in the industry.
Financial assistance was also offered to producers in proportion to receipts of the last film they had made. This policy was an attempt to ensure continuing financial support for the creation of new French films. The policy was moderately successful and during the 1950’s it provided approximately 17% of the total investment in film production in France. This system was reliant upon high attendance figures to be successful. However many of the films failed to receive critical acclaim and audiences began to decline partly due to the mediocrity of the products. As a result the French parliament in 1953 set up a development aid fund which was designed to promote higher quality and innovation. Projects were to be: “French and of a kind to serve the cause of cinema or to open new perspectives in the art of cinematography”[v]. Speakers in the National Assembly also argued for the importance of education over pure profits. This position was clearly a conflation of aesthetics and national identity. This added selective aid to that of automatic aid designated in 1948 thus making available funds for low-cost independent film-makers also coincided with much lighter and more effective cinema technologies made production cheaper and location shooting possible.
Postwar French cultural Policy & the Links to Vichy France
Whilst the aesthetic nationalist traditions can be traced to 1918, the industrial cultural policy framework influencing present day France has its origins in Petain’s Vichy collaborationist government. A new ruling body for the industry was established in Paris the Committee for the Organization of the Cinematographic Industries (COIC). The regulations they introduced laid the basis for a more stable financial structure, policies to boost short film production, establishing controls oer box-office receipts and establishing a new film school IDHEC (Now Femis).
The convergence of political and financial support alongside technological innovation provided the basis for the emergence of the ‘New Wave’ in 1958 coincided with the recent installation of the Gaullist regime which was concerned with protectionist ideas particularly in relation to cultural concerns and considered Hollywood as threatening to dilute the culture, as it was increasing its market share of cinema takings. Government aid to the industry came through establishing the avance sur recettes (which still exists) system. This advance on potential takings acted as a form of subsidy to those films which didn’t become profitable and acted as a soft loan for those films which did move into profits as some of the profits was used to pay back the advance. Acting as a form of underwriting this enabled many people to become directors for the first time stimulating production.
The inception of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) [Sample chapter available here!] allowed space for critics and policy-makers to support cinema in the form of the ‘art film’. As a cinema for audiences with considerable cultural capital and those concerned with increasing their cultural capital and the financial means to do this, French government policy enabled indigenous cinema to compete against Hollywood at a time when TV was beginning to erode the mass-audience base of cinema. On average between 30-40 films a year received the avance, which represented approximately a quarter of the production.
Francois Truffauts 400 Blows (1959) was the film which announced the arrival of the Nouvelle Vague only months after de Gaulle came to power.
Falling Box Office Receipts and Audience
In common with cinema in general there was a continuous steep decline in cinema-going dropping from around 400 million attendances in 1959 to around 180 million by 1969. The context had moved from a crisis of production to one based upon exhibition, a crisis which was general in western countries at this time largely because of the impact of TV. French cultural policy had to adapt to the changing circumstances and in 1967 the first step to try and halt the decline was put into place by allowing exhibitors to benefit from the development funds through the Fonds de soutien. This helped to modernise cinemas but benefited larger chains rather than smaller independents leading to rationalisation and concentration, a process which happened amongst the distributors thus reducing the numbers of films available. This could be seen as bad for consumers by limiting choice but it signalled a clear problem of supply outstripping demand.
Furthermore there is the issue of the viewing experience! The rapid improvements in TV technologies and the failure to re-invest in making cinema an attractive outing was a failure to adapt to newer audience requirements. Consequently from some consumer points of view consolidation of exhibition space was beneficial to consumers. The financial support for exhibitors helped to establish multiplexes in the larger towns and cities. This reflected an international tendency to make widespread releases of films in order to increase the speed of receipts on a given film thus amortising the costs of production quickly.
Alongside the specific help given to exhibitors the relaxation of censorship after 1968 which was general across the west encouraged both the production and exhibition of sex films and it wasn’t until 1976 that a law was passed preventing sex-films from benefiting from government support. At the same time new taxes were instituted on the production and exhibition of these films. The intention was to reign in the pornography market back to the approximate 10% of market share which had always sustained it.
Throughout the period of the 1960s through the 1970s TV ownership blossomed as it had done over the rest of Europe. As disposable incomes rose leisure other leisure pursuits developed reducing audiences. In parallel to this TV became an important exhibitor of films. Between 1965 and 1975 the number of films screened on TV doubled. Films were a relatively cheap way of filling up continuously expanding broadcasting schedules, and the French TV monopoly ORTF was broken up into seven separate companies. This was partly motivated by an attempt to control costs making a proportion of each channel’s income dependent upon viewing numbers to increase competitiveness. Popular films which were also cheap were popular with schedulers too. This led to the numbers of art films which had received the avance de recettes being shifted from prime-time viewing.
TV also steadily became important producers of films and there was a special budget allowance of 8 million francs allowed for film production in 1979 for the TFI and Antenne 2 channels which joined the 2 channels which had had a production license since 1974. By 1982 the Bredin report on French cinema pointed out that joint production and advance sale of broadcasting rights had significantly transformed film production and distribution. Becoming exhibition-led rather than production-led, the influence of cultural policy that was directly intervention declined changing to a more regulatory role, whilst TV has taken over as the ‘effective controller of the industry’ suggests Forbes.[vi]
In many respects Forbes’ analysis effectively shows that the processes of globalisation, in the form of centralising capital were gradually becoming focused upon media concerns. Cultural policy at the level of state control was being eroded. Historically it is likely that the period of French film history from the inception of the nouvelle vague to the awarding of several TV companies with the rights of film production will go down as a period when the auteur film flourished in a way that no other single country has ever seen or is likely to see. These films were somewhat elitist in that they were made for a largely intellectualised audience, it is nonetheless important to ensure that cinema seen as a form of public sphere operating at levels of both form and content should have some relative autonomy from purely commercial concerns. Arguably the way forward for European cinema and the institutional frameworks supporting it needs to be multiperspectival utilising some of the insights which informed French cinema policy.
1 [i]Graham, Peter. 1997 p
[ii] Forbes, Jill. 1992, p 2 makes a stronger case arguing that the audience has been constructed and maintained by ‘supporting the production of films that are intended ot for the mass audience but for the smaller , educated, middle-class
3 [iv]Joll, James.1990, p 448.
4 [v]Forbes, Jill. ( 1992 ) p 6.
5 [vi] Forbes ( 1992 ) p 10 .
Roberto Rossellini & the French New Wave
It is generally acknowledged by most critics that Roberto Rossellini was an enormous influence in the development of the French New Wave. Andre Bazin considered that Rossellini was hugely important in the development of a realist aesthetic within cinema and his viewpoint strongly influenced the young critics cum filmmakers especially Truffaut and Godard. McCabe in his recent biography of Godard emphasises the point:
McCabe argues that it was Voyage to Italy that was the most admired. McCabe notes that Le Mepris by Godard can be read as a remake of Voyage to Italy although of course the endings are radically different with Rossellini being immensely optimistic at the end whilst for Godard there is death. I argue elsewhere on this blog discussing Visconti's Bellissima that Godard's metacinematic approach to Le Mepris links his work to that of Visconti as well.
The connections between Truffaut and Rossellini are if anything even stronger as Ingrams and Holmes (1998) point out. Bazin had introduced Truffaut to Rossellini in 1954 and Truffaut worked with him ‘intermittently’ as an assistant director between 1955-1956. Rossellini didn’t make any films in these years but Truffaut gained experience of pre-production in the preparation of scenarios rather than the process of practical production.
The recent re-release of Voyage to Italy from the BFI with a commentary option by Laura Mulvey opens up an opportunity to reassess Rossellini’s work and its influence upon the Nouvelle Vague Cahiers critics. For Rossellini location shooting was a pre-requisite of cinema and although he used the well established Hollywood lead actors Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders part of the reason that they were affordable was because they had already peaked in Hollywood. Mulvey notes that Rossellini gave Sanders a hard time during the shooting and that Rossellini was seeking to breakdown the Hollywood professionalism of Sanders and to get the real Sanders to come through. As for the rest of the cast it was a mixture of minor actors non-professionals and friends. The music was scored by Rossellini’s brother who had worked with him on many occasions. This then was a classic authorial approach to production. With regard to the realism of the shooting it is worth noting the many shots taken from the point of view of the car and in the car. There is a marked contrast between the way these are shot and the studio work of Clouzot’s car scenes in Les Diaboliques made two years later.
Apart from the actual conditions of film-making the film can be marked out as distinctively modernistic in terms of how it treated narrative. Mulvey emphasises this aspect of the film describing it as ‘the first modern film’. By this she means that the film is resistant to a modernity marked by its instrumentalism and its emphasis on driving forward narrative goals in a way which emulated the instrumentalist ethic of capitalism itself. By comparison Rossellini had chosen a short story by Joyce upon which to base the film. As such the film meanders, there are cinematic asides such as Mr. Joyce’s little adventure to find some wine during siesta time. Mulvey notes that this scene was cut by many distributors when the film was released. The narrative itself marks time and the content at this point highlights the northern Protestant impulse ‘to do’ marked against the different Neapolitan time. This attitude to time is something which Mulvey sees as an elemental theme throughout the film. The narrative structure itself still seems to fall within the schema suggested by Todorov who argues that stories have distinct phases in which the balance of equilibrium is upset, there is a recognition of this and eventually a balance is restored. In Voyage to Italy the equilibrium of the London life is upset by the dislocated space of holiday and the chance for self-reflection by the couple. The crisis develops is identified and then in this case somewhat miraculously the couple are brought back together again.
Mulvey also emphasises that in Voyage to Italy it is Naples itself that is the star of the film seeing the film as largely an excuse for Rossellini to film in and around Naples. This is of enormous importance when one comes to think about the representations of Paris in the work of the New Wave for most of the early films of the Cahiers group were shot in and around Paris. In a bout de souffle Belmondo specifically enters into a verbal architectural discourse. The full length feature films of Truffaut also resonate with the sounds and the feel of Parisian streets.
It is in the representations of cityspace that a sceptical or nostalgic form of modernism is given reign. There is a certain nostalgia for the old which in Voyage to Italy becomes quite literally archaeological whilst the archaeology is more metaphorical in the Nouvelle Vague. It is the ambiguities of modernity that are also explored in Tati’s satirical cum slapstick films with Mon Oncle (1958) being a fine example of the juxtaposition of the modern Corbusian ‘machine for living’ set against Hulot’s labyrinthine pre-modern living space which is softer, more human and more in touch with nature itself where a song-bird sings when the sun shines on it whilst the fish fountain a modern vanity only comes to life when the visitors bell is pressed.
For more on notions of cityspace try the work of Guiliana Bruno
August 22, 2007
Review of Shoah Disc 1
First Era Part 1
Different trains by Steve Reich was first performed in 1988 by the Kronos Quartet
Perhaps the most haunting Reich work to date is Different Trains......It stemmed from the memory of those long rail-road journeys of childhood, and also from the adult reflection that if Reich had been a child in Europe in the 1940s his fate might have been different. "As a Jew, I would have had to ride on very different trains". The elecronic component mingles voices of African-American Pullman porters with those of Holocaust survivors and the neutral voice of train whistles. As the instruments sing along to these memory-shrouded sounds, they don't tell us what to feel; they set forth a glistening grid, on which we can plot our own emotions. The result is a music of precision and tears.
(Alex Ross 2006, Introduction to Steve Reich Phases Nonesuch 7559-79962-2
How to review a film of such magnitude. Listening to Steve Reich's piece Different Trains before bed I decided I would just respond to what was on screen in the first instance to give a sense of the feel of it and how it works on the viewer. Of course every viewer will make a separate negotiation with the text especially with so many different experiences and levels of knowledge about Shoah.
The film opened with script rolling up a black screen. The story was starting in Chelmo in Poland 50 miles North West of Lodz.
Chelmo was a killing field where Jews were first exterminated by gas on December 7th 1941. Here I paused for although this was a commonly accepted fact at the time my understanding is that the first organised gassing was in mobile gas chambers in Lithuania by the regional Einsatzgruppen only a few days after the Nazi invasion of Operation Barbarossa in the last week of June 1941. This was a detail probably not available to Lanzmann at the time. It was a way of building up the Holocaust. Reactions could be tested... How acceptable would it be to the German population?
In Chelmo over 400,000 Jews were murdered in small gas chambers. There were only 2 survivors...
Chelmo Survivor: Simon Srebnitz
In 1945 Simon was executed by shooting two days before the Soviet Army arrived in 1945. Astonishly the bullet missed all the crucial parts of his brain and he survived eventually moving to Israel. Lanzmann persuaded him to return to the site of Chelmo. simon was by then 47.
Mise en scene
Simon was known to be a good singer, a factor which may have saved him from gassing. He was used to go and pick alfalfa under guard for the Nazis. He would sing in the boat.
The opening shots are of Simon singing in a puntlike boat on a slow flowing river on a bright high summer day on a tree-lined verdant river. A pastoral idyll...
Voice-over a local inhabitant reports that hearing his voice immediately brought her to relive those times....
Cut to a backwards tracking along a long unmetalled track in the forest. In close up Simon glances at the camera and then glances around hessitantly: It is hard to recognise but it was here ...
Immediately the viewer is drawn into an understanding that a process of erasure is underway.
Speaking in German he confirms: Yes it is the place....
The camera cuts away and pans slowly around the large clearing surrounded by tall, thick, pine forest.
It reminds me of visiting Belsen just after 'O' Levels. Heat and silence just the buzzing of insects and ominous mounds which marked the mass graves... a sense of the incomprehensible...
The camera shows the remains of the stone foundations of the long narrow huts which housed the temporary residents... The only clear visible evidence of the history of the place.
Simon explians the impossibility of actually comprehending the enormity of what happened at the site - literally unthinkable.
A long shot of Simon walking down the top of the foundation walls stretching into the distance evokes an imagination of the starved and beaten victims, freezing in winter, deep snow perhaps? sweltering in summer... rank stench! NO MERCY.
Flames and the stench of the ovens reach up to a darkening night sky....
December 1941 Nazi voters are preparing for Christmas the war has gone well for the Nazis so far. Troops are at the gates of Leningrad and Moscow. In Leningrad the inhabitants are just beginning to starve and freeze. Eventually children will be lured by the unscrupoulous for food...
No rationing for Nazis in winter 1942... They sing a different song to Simon: Silent Night
Simon comments that even when burning 2,000 Jews per day the camp was always silent just like his present visit. They just got on with their work.
Only 10 minutes of the film have passed, I have been pausing and writing already nearly 40 minutes have passed. In some strange wat the film does create a differetn temporality. 9 hours 20 minutes to go and even that is only a minute snapshot of all the millions of lives and experiences, the totality does seem beyond comprehension at this point...
Can't deal with every episode however as the film progresses characters reappear the editing is making a sense out of this patchwork of experience which is non-chronological non-linear yet bristles with meaning
We soon meet Hanna Zaidl in Israel. Her father is a survivor, she explains how she saw little of him as a child however once more adult she continuously questioned hi:
Until I got at the scraps of truth he couldn't tell me
In the room he was silent at that point. He was a survivor of the Vilnius Jews in Lithuania but was then Poland.
The camera cuts to an Israeli forest. It reminded him of the Lithuanian forest at Ponari where the Vilna Jews were massacred - but not so thick and with more stones.
Cut to the forest in winter at Sobibor in Poland. A local witness comments that the only hunting in the forest at that time was 'man-hunting'. Mines would go off in the forest - sometimes a deer sometimes a Jew trying to escape. cut to a high angle shot of the forest, it is thick and verdant the wind lightly rustles the trees, the slow pan and tilt shows the wider view which stretches as far as the eye can see.
Cut to ground level Medium Long Shot. Slow Zoom out to reveal another peaceful clearing. Once it was full of screams / barking dogs / shots...
The memory of it was engraved in the minds of the local inhabitants.
There was a revolt at Sobibor. The Nazis tried to erase the camp afterwards destroying the buildings and planting 4-5 year old pines.
The camera cut back to Michael the sencond lone survivor of Chelmo. Earlier he hadn't wanted to talk, but now the interview becomes an exorcism his previous smiles just a facade - the tears roll down his face ...
There is a cut to a forest in winter, bare silver birch in the foreground a thick background of pines, a thin layer of snow...
In a temporal shift we discover that in winter 1942 bodies were buried not burned.
The camera pans to a clearing with more hut foundations. They are slightly overgrown signifiying an archeology of erasure.
The crew drives by the wall for many seconds. Only three metres wide but how long must it have been?
Battery house of death / dehumanisation / indusrtrial killing machine.
We are in present day Lithuania near Vilnius, back with Hanna Zeidl and her family. A shift in policy from burying to burning meant that the remaining Jews had to dig out the bodies with their hands. A friend also at Hannah's recognises his whole family...............
This is the story of Isaac Dugin. The filming situation becomes unheimlich for there is the sound of plates being cleared and washed up in the background. It is the ontology of their everyday life.... unspeakable but present.
Suddenly I understood at a visceral level the need for an Israeli state to exist!
We are taken through the details of the disinterrement - all the time the plates are clattering -
They work without tools / bodies moved by hand / spontaneous sobbing causes the guards to beat them sometimes nearly to death / the bodies are crumbling / the bodies at the bottom are squashed nearly flat / don't say victims or bodies you are beaten / Call them rags, puppets, figuren / TWO DAY DEADLINE Systemic clock time is all = DEHUMAMISATION
There are over 90,000 corpses but after burning no SIGN
Cut to Treblinka.
An account of the fires in the camp. These started in November 1942 for the first time.
The bodies were piled inot huge pyres / petrol was poured on / flames touched the sky / ALL IMAGINABLE COLOURS / Burned for 7-8 Days / Bones were crushed / Bone Powder was chucked in the river.....
Only now do we come to the bitter icon of Auschwitz.
The Original town of Auschwitz was about 80% Jewish
The Jewish Cemetry is shut there is no use for it now
The old synagogue was eradicated
Lanzmann is interviewing old Poles who were young witnesses at the time.
Another Polish Town Wlodawa to Solibor = 10 miles
The large Jewish poulation ended up there
It is a grey damp late autumn day in Kola where there used to be more Jews than Poles. locals were again interviewed.
Jews were herded together to the station some were beaten to death on the way.
The train took them to Chelmo it:
Happened to all the Jews in the area
The camera takes us to Treblinka on a steam train:
Voiceover it wasn't even a small village as we cut to a survivor by the sea in Israel - Abraham Bomba.
Local Polish farmers and peasants are interviewed. you could go right up close or view from a distance. You weren't supposed to look: The Ukrainian guards took potshots at you if you did.
Some time is spent interviewing locals trying to establish a feeling for the situation.
We eventually cut to a polish farmer being interviewed against a background of a goods train slowly chugging past a static train in front of it.
Surely Steve Reich was inspired by this film?
THE CONVEYS CARRYING JEWS TO TREBLINKA
HAD 60-80 WAGONS
THERE WERE TWO ENGINES
Mise en scene: A goods trains reverses very slowly over overgrown tracks, the long grass is full of plants with small white flowers - Trembling
Trains often took over 24 hours to arrive. There was no water. sometimes Poles would give them water at great risk to themselves as the trains waited just outside Treblinka.
In Winter it is -15 / -20 degrees, in summer + 30. Many died on the way and many committed suicide.
Some Poles commented on how inconceivable it was that humans could do such things
Abraham Bomba reports that many Poles they could see through the cracks enjoyed the spectacle of the Jews being 'resettled'.
The man in the image above was a Polish driver forced to drive the trains. They were paid in vodka. The Nazis kept them drunk.
They would even buy extra vodka: it helped fend off the stench at the camp.
More Polish rail workers are interviewed soon there is a secretly filmed interview with an ex SS Camp guard who had been an NCO.
He went into gruesome detail about the stench and clearing the bodies. He didn't want his name mentioned but it was. He said it stank for kilometres aqround depending upon the wind direction.
August 21, 2007
French Cinema in World War Two
The Nazi invasion of France and the rapid capitulation of the French resulted in the division of France into an occupied zone in the north and west with an unoccupied Vichy controlled collaborationist zone in the south. The Vichy period lasted from 17th June 1940 - 24 August 1944.
Map of France showing the arministrative set up after the occupation by the Nazis. The Vichy part of France was administered by Marshal Petain. The main parts of France were under direct Nazi control.
(Map sourced from Michael Williams' website on Oradour-sur-Glane)
After the fall of France approximately 1,500 artists and intellectuals escaped into exile helped by the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) a privately funded American organisation. Many within the film industry including Jean Renoir, Rene Clair and Max Ophuls benefitted from this. Many important figures in the French film industry stayed in France and worked relatively smoothly under the new regime, suggests Vincendeau (1). There were political differences about whether it was better to stay. The Communist run Resistance paper L’Universite libre argued that France’s culture shouldn’t be left to the Nazis. It must, of course, be remembered that at this time the Soviet / Nazi pact was still operational seriously distorting the political field.
The complexity of the situation is epitomised by nationalists supportive of Petain such as the Catholic playwright Paul Claudel. Claudel was nevertheless highly critical of outright collaboration and castigated the open support of the Nazi anti-Semitic programme, only allowing a play of his to be performed providing the music of the Jewish Darius Milhaud could be performed (2). Claudel became increasingly critical of Petain.
Whilst many argued that no work should be published under the Nazis even Sartre had a play performed in Paris. There were also different attitudes dependent upon which zone people were in. Louis Aragon had developed a notion of ‘contraband literature’ which argued for creative work to be coded with messages of resistance.
Nazi Attitudes to Cultural Production
The Nazi attitude to cultural production emanated from the basic positions that no anti-German sentiments were allowed and that any Jewish presence should be eliminated. French cinema prospered but few of the films were direct propaganda. This is consonant with the argument that the Nazi use of popular narrative features were deliberately kept away from real issues.
To gain a fuller understanding of the times the whole context of viewing needed to be taken into account (3) . Vincendeau comments on the emergence of the rare appearance of the ‘fantastic’ trend in French cinema which in fact accords with the content of Nazi feature films made in Germany especially as the war progressed and the general construction of narratives needs to be seen within this Nazi context.
The complicity between the Nazis and the French film industry can be read either as a survival strategy for the industry or opportunism, for French cinema did well under the temporary hegemony of Nazi cinema in mainland Europe in terms of producing films and generating audiences. The French industry was clearly not unaware of the likely industrial outcomes of any invasion.
Many French directors had been working in Germany since 1933. The fact that there was significant collaboration on co-productions is evidence that many in the French film industry were strongly aware of the sort of conditions which pertained in Nazi Germany and that would ensue in France with the onset of occupation. Yet it appears that relatively few members of the French cinema industry chose to flee to America rather than collaborate with Nazi cinema. The fact that some did flee especially Jewish personnel focuses on the need to study the motivations and opportunities for those who remained.
Film production and audiences during the period
The Vichy government under Petain created a new ruling body for the cinema, the Committee for the Organisation of the Cinematographic Industries (COIC) based in Paris. Vincendeau maintains that this was part of an endeavour to limit German control over the industry however it did impose the elimination of all Jews from the cinema, as well as overhaul the industrial organisation of French cinema making it far more efficient.
Very few films were produced in Vichy France the vast majority were produced in Paris. This was partly because initially no French films were allowed to cross the demarcation line. When the ban was lifted in 1941 films passed by the German censors could be distributed in the South without any restriction. But this created a difficulty for films initially produced in the South and only 35 were produced there. The Germans also established Continental films in Paris, which made 30 features out of the total of 220 made in the course of the war. By comparison only 22 were produced by the Pathe and Gaumont companies which were still the largest indigenous French companies.
American and British films were banned and French movies dominated the screens, so, although output was lower, there was increased profitability. German film distribution grew from 5% of the market during the previous decade to 56% in 1941, settling to 22% by 1943. Attendance was very high as cinemas were warm and relatively safe places to be. In 1938 attendances were 220 million rising to over 300 million in 1943.
The strategic film policy established a sounder financial framework, control of the box-office and a boost for short film production were amongst the measures introduced. How far this was shaped by the Nazi exhibitionary policy of newsreel and documentary shorts as an accompaniment to feature films is something else which needs greater research. Armes comments that these were so unpopular that to deter disruptions the lights were left dimmed so that troublemakers could be spotted.
Regulations requiring professional accreditation were part of the legislation designed by the Vichy government to exclude Jews. Other measures included censorship to protect under 16s, the double-billing of features was eliminated and fostered short and documentary production. A grand prize for artistic film was established as was the national film school IDHEC initially under director Marcel L’Herbier.
Poster of La Main du Diable by Maurice Tournier (Father of Jacques Tournier), a 1942 horror film
The content of the films produced during this period is best understood as ambiguous and paradoxical. In common with much of the German cinema of the period Jews were not represented whilst hostile representations of Jews were common during the 1930s. In Germany anti-Semitic sentiments were projected onto particular characters who were developed in a very unpleasant way such as intellectuals and small businessmen.
Detailed comparative research with cinematic output of France and Germany during this period might reveal homologies between the projections and structured absences regarding Jewish people in both countries. General antagonism towards foreigners was considerably reduced. Many films can be read as representing Vichy conservative values.
The shift to the genres of the fantastic was important utilising magical and legendary subjects such as Carne’s Les Visiteurs du soir and Cocteau’s L’Eternal Retour (1943) directed by Jean Delannoy which was a reworking of Tristan and Isolde while the former was about the devil visiting a mediaeval court . The positions taken in regard to this generic outpouring range from Bazin’s notion of a Cinema of Evasion, to allegory, to approval from collaborationist critics such as Rebatet who supported this trend as a return to a ‘pure’ French cinema free of foreign influences such as Jews and Hollywood.
A new genre was the rise of the ‘woman’s film’. These were melodramas from well established directors such as Gance’s La Fille du Venus aveugle (The Blind Venus, 1940), Jean Gremillon’s Le Ciel est a vous (The Sky is Yours, 1943), Pagnol’s La fille du puisatier (The Well-digger’s Daughter, 1942). Readings of these films vary: some see these films as reactionary representations of women as they represent the Vichy ideology of domesticity, sacrificial motherhood and patriotism a new form of oppressed role.
Other readings argue that they are positive films because they featured strong women which wasn’t the case pre-war. Perhaps the reason for this, ventures Vincendeau, is because of the larger numbers of women in the audience. Women tended to become the centre of the narratives of the comedies produced at the time for example.
In the case of the Vichy style melodramas strong women would have been necessary to the plot, and their roles require further analysis than merely evaluating the position of women in this way. These could be seen as mirroring the changing status of women in Nazi genre cinema After the war the representation of women slipped back to a pre-war mode.
It has also been argued that high quality production of French cinema was an assertion of vitality of 'Frenchness' against the odds. As Jackson points out this needs to be read against Nazi cultural policy objectives. For them it was necessary to try an ensure docility of the local populus however there were dreams of establishing a challenge to the previous Hollywood stranglehold over the European film industry. Jackson following Erlich argues that :
Conscious of the greater popularity of French over German films the Propaganda Ministry authorised the export of French films to other Axis-controlled countries: France would play the role of entertainer in a Europe where power lay with Germany.
This suggestion needs to be evaluated in the context of long-term industrial links between the German and French film industries going back to the days of UFA in the Weimar during the 1920s including attempts to establish ‘Cinema Europe’ to determine the exact strategy being developed to oust the power of Hollywood. Jackson sees the Continental film company under Greven as a strategic player in this ambitious strategy.
Laissez Passer Bertrand Tavernier (France 2001) provides an excellent introduction to the role of the German run Continental Films in occupied France. As such this film is a metacinematic one.
Continental films was established under the leadership of Dr. Alfred Greven in 1940 once the occupation was established, Greven remained there for three years. Greven established himself as the central producer allocating groups of films to directorial teams based upon year long contracts. (Crisp p 280). Crisp argues that Continental clearly moved towards the central production concept with the main directors Henri Decoin (3 Films), Maurice Tourneur (4 films), Andre Cayette (four films ), and Richard Pottier (5 films). Greven would read all production reports and scenarios.
Continental was better resourced and ironically was less censored than the French companies. More liberal sexual attitudes were allowed and films such as La Symphonie fantastique had French patriotic overtones. There was a complex battle to develop the dominant discourse. Jean Gremillon’s Le Ciel est a vous for example was very warmly received by both Vichyites and the Resistance press with the conjunction of approval being distinguished upon lines of French identity.
By comparison Le Corbeau was based on real events in the conservative provincial Tulle in 1922. At this time poison-pen denunciatory letters were being circulated about the inhabitants. The Vichy authorities saw this as an unhealthy representation of Frenchness furthermore the Vichy was dependent upon these denunciatory letters to help maintian control through fear. Louis Malle's representation of this aspect of Vichy life can be seen in Lacombe Lucien (1974), a film which touched raw nerves when it was released. In Germany it was considered as a critique of delation - an essential aspect of Nazi control - and remained unreleased. It may well be that the Vichy response was underpinned by this although it was left unstated. The resistance press were also highly critical on the grounds of representing 'Frenchness' unfavourably.
Ambiguities in production and reception
Armes argues that there were a considerable number of ambiguities contained within the films produced in the Vichy period and that it is important to avoid over-simplistic evaluations. Some directors, like Daquin, were working but were also members of the resistance within the industry. In the post-war period Daquin became a militant trade-unionist. Daquin’s fourth film of the period Premier de cordee ( 1944 ), involved making a mountain film, a tale of courage against diversity. It can be seen as an expression of French resistance but it also contains elements of Petain ideology, with return to the land and a struggle against nature.
Armes argues that the output can’t be usefully taken on a film by film basis but is better evaluated over the range of films produced by any one film maker. Delonnay for example produced one film hailed as a fine resistance film Pontcarral (1942), while L’Eternal Retour (1943) was received as an apologia for Aryanism.
What place should the documentaries have in film history of the period?
Jackson raises the issue of the content of the documentaries produced during this period. Over 400 were made however few seem to have survived:
... they remain the hidden face of the Occupation cinema. The available evidence suggests they were fairly anodyne, but not without ideological significance.
A fuller picture of developments within French cinema of this period requires considerably more audience research whilst those of the period are still alive to provide ethnographically based accounts.
Le Corbeau (1943): A Case Study in Cultural Schizophrenia
The place of production, the content, and the importance of the surrounding political and social context, particularly in matters of an ideological nature are all factors which can influence the reception of a film and the construction of its dominant readings. These factors played an important role in the critical reception of Le Corbeau ( The Raven, 1943 ) directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. On release it became popular amongst the occupation French film-goers. It was immediately banned after the liberation. More controversially there were punishments meted out to most of the people involved in the film’s production. Amongst the most vituperative critics there were calls for execution of the most important people involved. The recent release of the film on DVD with an English commentary by Ginette Vincendeau brings in a range of possible readings which are not raised in the main general histories of French cinema. At the time of writing a forthcoming monograph on Le Corbeau in the new but excellent Cinefiles: French Film Guides series should prove very interesting.
These attacks were the result of two major political forces playing for the hearts and minds of the French people. They had little to do with the content of the film which can be read as the most strongly anti-facist film of occupied France. The film is also opposed to the authoritarian moral and political values of the French Right. It does not offer any solutions to the corrupt society it depicts - it was after all, produced under conditions of occupation. Fictional films and other art forms are not political programmes and do not have to be prescriptive, arguably they can be more powerful when they are not prescriptive but raise issues to be worked through. People who can reach their own conclusions about subsequent proceedings.
Le Corbeau’s content was anti the authoritarian right. It also struck a sour note with the voices of the French resistance which had a very strong core element belonging to the Stalinist communist party and the aesthetic of socialist realism. For both Communists and Gaullists the immediate post-war aims were to excise the shame of occupation. Anything which could be deemed to have been an aspect of collaboration was seen as anti-French. The Stalinist left considered the film as ‘decadent’ and ‘demoralizing’.
‘Clouzot’s image of a France in which only a few outcasts and malcontents could behave with a semblance of morality and good will was completely unacceptable for those trying to promote a very different image of a nation capable of unity, collective heroism and self-sacrifice in the face of a powerful enemy.’
(Williams, 1992: p 261 )
As a result of this criticism Clouzot was banned from film making for two years after the war. He made a successful return making popular suspense thrillers which owed much to the style of Le Corbeau which Williams (1992) describes as a ‘masterpiece’.
The initial reception of the film and the continued popularity of Clouzot after his exile show that a significant membership of the French public was voting favourably with its feet. They were making readings of the film which fitted neither Nazi, Stalinist nor traditional French authoritarianism. Artistic considerations of life do not always fit easily into ideological schemas and a wide range of readings of a cultural object can be produced. The conditions of reception influence the creation of a dominant reading.
The film was produced by Continental Films, the German run production company established in the early months of the war. Films produced by this company received constant criticism from the underground press organised by the resistance.
The film itself consistently denounced bourgeois values by mocking the leading citizens of a small town in France. The scriptwriter Louis Chavance had worked with Jean Vigo the anarchist filmmaker on L’Atlante as the film’s editor. The script had first been drafted by Chavance in 1933. The production designer was In 1943 André Andrejew. It was based upon a true story of a woman in a small town who had deluged it with poison-pen letters. It was continuously rejected as too risky on commercial and political grounds. Ironically if it was not for the existence of Continental films and its policy of creating and supporting a strong French film industry the film would never have been made. Filmmakers working with Continental suffered less censorship and had better budgets than the Vichy controlled production companies.
The contents of the film would have been unlikely to pass French film censors as the film was anti-authoritarian, anti-Vichy as well as anti-Nazi in a number of ways. The plot features a doctor who was an abortionist as its leading actor, this in itself could only offend the Catholic right. The doctor’s lover who was rather promiscuous had a minor deformity of the foot. These meant that the film offended both Vichy moralism and Nazi eugenics theories and practices. The plot is about a person in the village who writes anonymous letters which eventually lead to suspicion, a suicide and ultimately a murder.
The perpetrator of the letters -a seemingly respectable citizen- is finally revealed as a mad intelligence in the form of the psychiatrist. The film openly asks a question which many in France may have found difficult to stomach at that time. Questioning the easy division of life into issues of good and evil a lamp is swung which creates differing patterns of shadow and light. The commentary asks where the borders between good and evil are, asking whether people know which side they are on ?
Any film at the time would be seen as having an allegorical reference to the occupation. It could be seen as avoiding crucial issues which combined with the gloomy mise en scene and the atmospherics of violence present within the film were interpreted as very pessimistic by many left film critics. Perhaps its popularity at the time of release struck a chord with the French viewing publics who had to adjust to the realities and difficulties of occupation, which threw up in real life a continuous series of unwelcome situations requiring decisions to be made about the depth and breadth of compliance necessary.
The film certainly touched upon the reality of the Occupation. Many millions of letters of denunciation were sent to the Vichy and Nazi authorities. The issue was to remain a highly sensitive one for decades. In the early 1970s a representation of this in Louis Malle’s film Lacombe Lucien raised a storm of protest not least from critics such as Foucault who dubbed the film as a right-wing plot. Foucault’s libertarian politics has always been suspect and showed just how difficult it was for the French to work through the realities of the occupation years.
A Film Noir
Film Noir is renowned for its occluded mise en scene many shots taken with blinds, through fencing which distances the subject of the camera adding to the chiascuro effects, making all not seem quite as it is.
Le Corbeau can be read as a film noir style thriller . What is interesting about the concept of Film Noir is that the original term was invented by French film critics who viewed the backlog of American thrillers such as Double Indemnity and Laura immediately the war was over. They considered it as an American ‘genre’ with antecedents in German expressionist cinema. This ignored the development of the French poetic realist pre-war films and also ignored the fact that many German film makers spent some time in France before going to Germany. Europe can be said to have made a strong contribution to the development of film noir during the war through Clouzot’s Le Corbeau and also Visconti’s Ossessione. Arguably the French critics of the time were in denial of the French wartime experience and with Clouzot in the dog house they preferred to ignore these strands to the genre. The existence of this European strand of noir in Europe itself and the ways in which it developed allow us the opportunity to develop a reading of the noir thriller as being not a so much a critique of modernity and the city as an allegory for the shadow of fascism and Nazism which fell over the whole of Europe.
Paul Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc (Filmography)
Vincendeau’s 2005 comments on the DVD develop an interesting range of comments on how the film can be read as a crisis of masculinity for the French male. Neither the Doctor played by the important star Pierre Fresnay nor the psychiatrist come across as powerful men in control of their work, destiny or the situation. The psychiatrists betrayal of the town and his wife could easily be linked to Vichydom whilst Dr. Germain could be seen as a failed example of French leadership. The character of the town playgirl played by another French star Ginette Leclerc is a spirited one and far from being a typical femme fatale who is ultimately punished for her ways it is she who realises who the Raven actually must be. Her sexuality, intelligence and honesty about herself shine through in the film against the weaknesses and dishonesty of the male characters.
August 20, 2007
Shoah: Claude Lanzmann, France (1985)
The seemingly interminable pans over the empty field and pile of stones that was Treblinka are among the film's most powerful and haunting images. On a primary level, they constitute a documentary record of the site today. The absence of people in this field of stones suggests that absence which haunts every moment of the film, from its very title (which means "annihilation" in Hebrew): the absence of those generations that number six million. When we eventually see the stones in closer shots we realize that some are memorial gravestones to whole nations, and the sense of emptiness deepens.
Fred Camper Motion Picture No. 4, Winter/Spring 1987
Eureka DVD cover of Shoah
The nature and content of this film and the ongoing discourse it has generated as well as the extreme length of the film at nine and a half hours means that it deserves an extended treatment. The blog format means that one isn’t tied to the limitations of the normal print medium. I shall take the opportunity to contribute to the discourse of Shoah in a more relaxed way, the pure temporal physicality of watching the film is exacting. Analysing content and the creation of meaning through form, and the discursive field around a film itself is time consuming. A brief synopsis is insufficient and for the reader who requires this there are some links provided in the webliography. This can be considered as an introduction to the film and the intellectual discourse it generated and will be followed up with a more detailed analysis of the film in another posting.
Introduction: Contemporary Traces of Anti-Semitism in Europe Today
The opportunity to review Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) - recently released in the excellent Eureka Masters of Cinema series - on my return from holiday from the Baltic States was a serendipitous one. The relevance of a film 12 years in the making and released in 1985 about events which took place between 1933 – 1945 right across Europe still has and will continue to have an indelible sense of shock as the enormity of the 'Holocaust' project - which the French now describe as Shoah after this film - strikes at the very heart of Enlightenment Reason itself. How could this have happened? We ask ourselves rhetorically because the events which led to the systematic destruction of millions upon millions of Jews in some of the cruellest and most perverted ways imaginable still seems beyond comprehension. It is this sense of incomprehensibility which is one of the key features of Lanzmann’s Shoah.
I returned from the Baltic States especially angry at a piece of news I had read in the Baltic Times - a weekly English language newspaper which covers the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The news which had made me especially angry was an article about how the survivors of the Estonian SS Division had marched in remembrance of a losing battle against the Soviet / Allied armies. That SS division veterans could publicly march and celebrate in the name of “freedom” was quite sickening. The depredations which the Estonian and Latvian SS Divisions administered were legion. This was an insult to all who fought against Nazism and Fascism and most of all those victims of the Holocaust. For the Estonian government to have allowed this event was injudicious to say the least and for a country now in the European Union and NATO positively shameful! This points to a need for more senior partners in the EU to keep a closer eye on the newer members.
The Baltic Times justifiably reported that Russia saw this as support for Fascism. My only disagreement here is that fascism of the Italian sort wasn’t entirely premised upon racial supremacy in the way the Nazism was from its very inception. For this in reason I prefer to differentiate the two as ideologically different although in terms of attitudes to egalitarianism there are obviously many similarities.
Absence versus Erasure
The erasure of any evidence of Jewishness and the covering up of traces has been an important defence mechanism by the perpetrators. Absence on the other hand has been a way of creating memory of Shoah by many artists such as Kitaj’s work on Auschwitz for example and it is a mechanism also used by Lanzmann.
The issue of erasure is properly an issue of cultural policy and should be dealt with at government level. I was at one point involved in researching the issue of vision and identity through monuments, museums and other forms of public art in post-Soviet Lithuania. In Kaunas (Kovno) there is a remarkable lack of any recollection of Jews in Lithuania yet with an interwar population of around 8% most of whom were based in Kaunas (Vilnius at the time was under Polish domination) this is a fundamental issue, the lack is so marked that it is clear that erasure is taking place.
On my first visit to Lithuania some 10 years ago I was unaware of the importance of Jews within the growth of interwar Lithuania. I stayed in the city of Kaunas which was the interwar capital of the country. As such it has a cultural infrastructure in terms of museums which is far larger than one would expect in a second city, yet in none of the main centres was there any recognition of the mass slaughter of Jews, nor were there any artefacts in terms of images, writings etc which had been produced by Lithuanian Jews from that period. This attitude is in distinct contrast to the reconstruction of the Jewish quarter in Vilnius for example. On a later visit to Kaunas I discovered that the current mayor of the time had come out with a clear anti-semitic statement of words to the effect that Jews were only fit to clean his boots. That this rabid anti-Semitism exists when virtually no Jews are left in Kaunas or Lithuania is clearly ludicrous as well as being entirely obnoxious. This gives credence to a point made by Slavoj Zizek that in Nazi Germany the fewer the number of Jews there were and the less possible threat they could possibly be the greater the fear and zealousness of Nazi anti-Semitism. There is no clear underlying logic to any form of anti-Semitism, rather it exists at the level of myth for ideological purposes. The sheer incomprehensibility of this attitude points to pychoanalytical explanations as a way forward for there is clearly some sort of pathology driving the key instigators of these tendencies.
Shoah's lack of coverage in Academic Texts
When it came to doing the review itself my first step was to check my books on French cinema for references to the film. Having done a fair amount of work on French cinema I hadn’t come across Claude Lanzmann, yet surely a documentary nearly 10 hours long as well as other documentaries deserved some mention. Neither Alan Williams’ useful general history of French cinema The Republic of Images, nor Jill Forbes’ The Cinema in France after the New Wave make any mention of Lanzmann. Forbes’ book opens with a chapter on the changing nature of French documentary production and deals with Marcel Ophul’s The Sorrow and the Pity (1971) and one might have expected a comment here.
For basic research into Lanzmann and Shoah I turned to the Internet. ‘Googling’ the term “Claude Lanzmann” brought forward a host of vituperative “Revisionist” historical sites. For “Revisionism” read Nazi apologists / Nazis. This proves the importance of this documentary but it also shows that as a film it is under-researched by respectable academia and critics. It is a form of lack which allows Nazis to creep in between the cracks. Googling the term ‘Shoah’, thus there is an academic responsibility to take this film far more seriously within the discourse of film studies as well as historical method, Europe and history in general. Nazis are clearly better at search engine optimisation at present.
What generic category is Shoah? Art or Documentary?
Whilst doing my preliminary research Shoah arrived with the postman in a weighty looking box. The DVD box comprises of a three disc DVD with a book of 180 pages. This Eureka project was clearly a huge undertaking and the enormity and gravitas of the subject matter is clear from the outset.
Usefully the enclosed book contains an excellent and thought-proving article by Stuart Liebman (Professor of the History of Cinema, City University of New York Graduate Centre) which is actually the introduction to a book published this year (2007) called Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: Key Essays from Oxford University Press. This book takes the most important contributions to discussions raised by Shoah over the last 20 years. To this extent Shoah is far more than a film, it is more of an open ended project deliberately designed to create an ongoing discourse on the European Judeocide perpetrated by Nazis and their allies. Many of the following points of are based upon Liebman's analysis for his range of knowledge and his understanding of the issues both cinematic and historical is admirable and his book will be going onto my shortlist.
At the beginning of his essay Liebman cites Lanzmann who comments upon the impossibility of his project, not only was it an impossibility of dealing with the disappearance of traces but:
…the impossibility of telling this story even by the survivors themselves; the impossibility of speaking, the difficulty – which can be seen throughout the film – of giving birth to and the impossibility of naming it: its unnameable character.” (Shoah book p 44).
Lanzmann took 12 years to complete the project travelling around the World and shooting an extraordinary 350 hours of testimony, much of which had never previously been revealed. This was then edited down to nine and a half hours.
The issue then became one of how the film should be generically categorised. Most refer to it as a ‘documentary’ however Lanzmann himself understands his work rather differently notes Liebman: Lanzmann insists that it is a work of art, an “originary event” constructed with “traces of traces”.
The film premiered in Paris in April 1985. Simone de Beauvoir reviewed the work for La Monde commenting that the film combined both beauty and horror:
…it highlights the horror with such inventiveness and austerity that we know we are watching a great oeuvre. A sheer masterpiece. (de Beauvoir cited Shoah Book p 46).
This makes a lot of sense in terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis for on this thinking it is impossible to examine directly the Lacanian sense of the ‘Real’. It is something which can only be understood indirectly. Marcel Ophuls director of the influential The Sorrow and the Pity welcomed the film as the best film about the Holocaust he had seen but he also understood the film as a ‘documentary’.
Liebman’s introduction returns to this problematic some time later noting that techniques of composition within the mise en scene remove Shoah from the realm of the documentary. Those who compare Shoah to the more familiar ‘talking heads’ models of documentary film-making:
…ignore those aspects of Shoah that explode crucial features of the talking heads genre, transforming it from a mere history lesson into something much greater: a meditation emphatically modernist in form, on the genocide of the European Jews. (Ibid p 81).
The film adds materials foreign to the documentary form as well as eschewing the standard organisational principles of historical documentary. There is a rejection of the linear narrative form because Lanzmann ‘believes that it is grounded in an ultimately misleading conception of historical causality that he rejects.’ Notes Liebman (ibid p 82). There are still narrative structures but they are stitched together as local small narratives which overlap and resonate creating an unusual form and sense of temporality. In this way the viewing experience becomaes far more visceral and palpable opening up an horizon of possibility ‘beyond any human limits evoked by these witnesses’. (ibid p 84).
Some of the cinematic techniques include extended takes of long shots of empty forests and fields as a form of 'interpolation of blocks of imagery' which resist the moving on of the narrative and force the spectator into open-ended reflection. Such takes of empty countryside are often overlain with non-diegetic soundtrack such as voiceover or the sounds of trains – I’m reminded of Steve Reich’s Different Trains here which has enormous power in a live setting. Artistically the film, like so much non-mimetic artwork which indirectly represents the process of Judeocide, becomes a haunting a summoning not just of a memory which can become a closure but a presence, an umbra etched into European consciousness. In a footnote Liebman cites Derrida:
The Presentation of the Traces is neither a simple presentation nor a representation, nor is it an image. It is incarnated in the body, harmonises gestures with speech, as it recounts [a story] within a landscape in which it is inscribed. (Derrida ibid p 99)
Shoah doesn’t attempt to represent in documentary format all aspects of the Judeocide. There is no reference to the work of the Einsatzgruppen who went to work immediately after operation Barbarossa the invasion of the Soviet Union and the Soviet controlled states such as the Baltic States. Apart from the savage beating to death of Jews by local Lithuanian Nazis in the main square of Kaunas (Kovno) secretly photographed and available in ‘Kovno’s Hidden Ghetto’ the SS mainly got there first. In Lithuania the Einsatzgruppen for the region was closely following the frontline with portable gas chambers which were put to immediate use and they later went into Latvia and Estonia. One reason that there was no representation of this aspect of Shoah was that Lanzmann couldn’t get accounts from the participants. On one occasion he was discovered making a secret recording whilst interviewing an ex-Einsatzgruppen officer. Lanzmann was beaten up, hospitalised for 8 days and his equipment destroyed!
The generally resounding critical success led to greater than expected audiences in France and it received very widespread audiences in the United States. This was helped by a careful distribution plan targeting cities with high Jewish populations and promoted through special benefit screenings which Lanzmann often attended. Lanzmann has written that he only expected around 3,000 viewers however with many TV screenings as well as other mechanisms of distribution the audience numbers millions. It is interesting to note that Liebman makes the point that Pauline Kael at the time a highly respected film reviewer – although she hadn’t gained Liebman’s - was a notable exception:
As was her wont, Kael substitutes words of dismissal for anything resembling a thoughtful analysis. (Shoah Book p 91).
The resonance that the film had was the very public nature of the testimony or bearing witness to events. Liebman notes that prior to this film, testimonies were usually written and even when filmed these testimonies were quickly archived.
This clearly proves the point that a successful media product requires excellent systems of distribution.
Such was the importance of reaching this wider audience that Liebmann suggests that this film marks a caesura of representation of this highly complex episode of history. Prior to this film most cinematic representations had resorted to:
…dramatalurgical formulae or documentary conventions that intentionally or inadvertently, transformed the slaughter of Europe’s Jews into something less momentous and more comprehensible than it was. (Shoah book, p 52).
Liebman therefore emphasises the point that nobody before or since had spent so much time and effort as Lanzmann on how to represent the Holocaust, furthermore:
…no director had ever demanded so much dedication and forbearance from his audience in order to confront what many Jews and non-Jews alike, though for different reasons, did not wish to think about. (ibid p 52).
Naming the Film
For Lanzmann the issue of naming was an enormous issue. Had the whole chain of events been properly named by the Nazis then it is unlikely that it could have been carried out it therefore became literally an unnameable crime. In writing an essay upon what he considered the bad TV series called the ‘Holocaust’ Lanzmann explained why he couldn’t call this genocide a ‘Holocaust’. The TV film was a complete misrepresentation because it entirely underplayed the thought-going brutality of the whole process, the beatings, whippings etc all part of demonising the Jews to make them literally sub-human thus providing in the minds of the perpetrators justification for the killing. Instead the ‘Holocaust’ had provided a representation of a Bourgeois family stoically facing up to their eventual murder. It was an “assassination of memory” said Lanzmann. Another meaning of ‘holocaust’ was ‘burnt offering’. Lanzmann rightly discarded this as entirely unsuitable. The choice of the title Shoah was last minute and quite spontaneous. Although this was the way Israeli discourse described the Nazi Judeocide, Lanzmann didn’t know Hebrew.
The word Shoah appears 13 times in the Jewish Bible and was used to describe natural disasters, however by the mid 1940s the word had become used within the pre-Israeli state Jewish community to describe the Judeocide. For Lanzmann “’Shoah’ was a signifier without a signified”, its opacity and impenetrability thus signifying the difficulty of comprehending these shattering processes.
Vienna Holocaust War Memorial
Currently this isn't arranged in any particular order. There are currently many good sites about Shoah / The Holocaust under the search term Shoah. The search term Claude Lanzmann brings up many vituperative sites attacking Lanzmann even on the early pages of the Google search. Time for some academics to start publishing with links to this term and relagate the Neo-Nazis to history!
(Link to Eureka Shoah page)
(Link to brief review by Derek Malcolm in the Guardian)
(This provides a link to Stuart Liebman's book at Oxford University Press UK. It is also available in paperback in the USA).
(Link to a course on cinema of the Holocaust in the US)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AD_GFqDY2sU (Shoah trailer on YouTube can be seen here)
(This shows a seminar with Claude Lanzmann at the European Graduate School)
http://hearingvoices.com/special/2005/shoah/ (This has a reference to the Kovno (now Kaunas in Lithuania) Ghetto and the infamous Ninth Fort where many Jews were slaughtered after being incarcerated in very grim circumstances. It is one of the Holocaust sites I have visited.
http://www.cicb.be/ (Museum about the deportation of the Belgium Jews and their resistance during World War II.)
August 19, 2007
Bellissima: Luchino Visconti (1951)
A bleak view of Cinecitta as Maddalena and Maria return from the screenings with hopes dashed
The September 2007 release of Bellissima (1951) by Luchino Visconti in the ‘Masters of Cinema series from Eureka video is nothing short of a red letter day for followers and students of Visconti and his oeuvre. It is a film which is sadly underwritten in English. Before any critical comment is made it is important to note that this film makes for excellent viewing. Visconti's direction is superb and Anna Magnani excels in the leading role.
The well known post-war history Italian Cinema by Peter Bondanella surprisingly fails to mention the film at all. This film is very important for a number of reasons. It marks a transition from Neorealism to post-neorealism within Italian cinema; it is a meta-cinematic film which deals in a biting comedy a critique of the institution of cinema itself – it thus predates Fellini’s well known La Dolce Vita (1959) by several years; it can be taken as a strong indirect critique of the political direction Italy was taking at the time as well as a critique of the Christian Democratic government's relationship to America it gives many insights into the way Visconti worked as a director with his performers (Anna Magnani & Alessandro Blasetti); lastly and by no means least as a film it is good viewing – it appears as a favourite of Richard Dyer’s in one of Sight & Sound's surveys about favourite films of critics.
This article cum review of the DVD will firstly place the film in its historical context and then provide a brief synopsis of the film. I will then follow this with an analysis in relation to the key writing in English on Bellissima by the leading critics Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Henry Bacon and Millicent Marcus all of whom are very positive about the film in general whilst all providing a range of different insights into Bellissima. I will then provide a few comments on the Eureka DVD itself which contains a useful booklet with comments from Nowell-Smith amongst others as well as a documentary as an extra. I have also provided a webliography based upon a ‘Google’ up to page 20 of a search in English only. The results are generally disappointing and reinforce the notion that this film is much underwritten in the English speaking world. Hopefully this posting and the DVD will encourage more engagement with Visconti’s work and also provide some impetus for translation from the work of Italian critics making this available to a global audience. Nowell-Smith commented many years ago that this film was underwritten perhaps because it is the most ‘Italian’ of Visconti’s films. He has commented that this is to miss out on an important film:
But it is the most subtle and elusive thing of all, the element of self-criticism and irony and the expense of its own ‘Italian’ quality, which has most effectively prevented it from being assimilated and appreciated by foreign audiences.” (Nowell-Smith, 2003, p 45).
Generically Bellissima is a sub-genre of comedy which is called neorealism rosa or pink neorealism. As such it makes for good viewing and importantly helps to undermine the commonly held stereotypes within the discourse which has developed around Visconti. This is a point which Nowell-Smith brought out in the first edition of his book many years ago:
The commonly held stereotypes about Visconti are that he is totally humourless and incapable of self-irony, that his imagination is sensual rather than intellectual, and that he is a crude social-realist with a taste for ‘positive’ heroes, and an anti-feminist who neither likes nor understands his women characters. (Ibid)
These aren’t stereotypes that I recognise within Visconti’s oeuvre however if these are widely held today then this welcome release of Bellissima will hopefully lead to a greater understanding of a director whose contribution to the development of cinema has yet to be fully recognised in the English speaking world. Certainly Eureka has done the world a favour by releasing this film in its most prestigious series giving Visconti the recognition he fully deserves.
Italian Cultural Policy & Political Context
Out of the three main critics referred to here Henry Bacon has usefully provided the contextual background to Bellissima. Released over three years after La terra trema (1948) Italy had undergone significant political change which strongly effected the cultural policy background of the production of Bellissima, indeed Bellissima can be read as an indirect political response to this changed political environment.
The Christian Democrats had won the 1948 elections. At the same time the Vatican excommunicated all those who had voted communist or had collaborated with communism – one wonders if they cared! – Films with a left-wing social agenda were now deemed to be very risky investments without government support; furthermore, there was a strong risk of the film being confiscated by the authorities. The Christian Democrats controlled the production grants and also the mechanisms for exporting film. Overall this control acted as a de facto form of censorship. The neorealist movement was itself branded as left-wing despite the fact that directors such as Roberto Rossellini were politically quite close to the Christian Democrats. The then Undersecretary of State Giulio Andreotti specifically attacked De Sica’s Umberto D as unpatriotic:
…De Sica has done a disservice to his country, if people around the World begin to think that Italy in the twentieth century is the same as Umberto D. (Cited Bacon, 1998 p53).
Neorealism as a form was also under attack from elements of the Left. The great Soviet filmmaker Pudovkin took the Stalinist social realist approach to filmmaking at a meeting in Perugia exhorting filmmakers to focus on content rather than from and to generate ‘positive heroes’.
As if this wasn’t enough to deal with, a key problem for the Italian industry as a whole as well as the neorealist elements was the rapidly increasing domination of the cinema by Hollywood productions. In 1946 Italy had managed to produce 65 films even in the aftermath of the war. By 1948 this had dropped to 49. Between1945-1950 they controlled 60%-75% of the market share.
One response of Italian filmmakers to this changing environment was to use aspects of Hollywood within their own cinema. Increasingly the features of Hollywood gangster movies appeared in post-neorealist films. Another important development was the development of a comedy sub-genre called neorealism rosa (pink neorealism). It was a genre with its roots in pre-war light comedy of the fascist period and according to Bacon had a similar social message which was keep to the status quo and forget ideas of social mobility and egalitarian society. This sub-genre developed the use of highly eroticised stars such as Gin Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren. Bacon comments that the films were rather more successful than true neorealist films in creating a wide audience for Italian cinema.
During the period between La terra trema and Bellissima Visconti had returned to the theatre. Bacon (p 51) suggests that this was because …he wanted to create something grandiose , to take some distance from realism. Visconti was accused by the purist wing of the neorealists of betraying neorealism however Visconti himself saw neorealism as a method and in response called for the use of fantasy as a complete display of liberty (Bacon, 1998 p 52). It was during this period that Visconti met Thomas Mann, a writer Visconti held in enormous respect. Visconti gained Mann’s permission to create an opera-ballet using Mann’s novella Mario & the Magician. Sadly this was postponed several times by La Scala and was only finally put into production after Mann’s death.
Maddelena (Anna Magnani) is projecting her desires for success onto her daughter Maria
Working class Maddelena Cecconi hears a request from the film director Allessandro Blasetti for the prettiest young girl in Rome to star in a film he is making. Maddelena takes her child Maria to Cinecitta and joins the crowds of middle class mothers and their daughters in the herd to get an audition. Maria is chosen as a finalist and Maddelena sacrifices everything to train Maria up for the audition including lessons in acting and ballet. She also goes to dressmakers and hairdressers to prepare Maria for the big day to put Maria on a par with her better off peers. During this time she has fallen in with a local hustler who promises to get her the right contacts for a fee. He then starts to make sexual advances towards Maddelena. All the time relations with her non-aspirational husband deteriorate. Maddelena gains access to the projection booth during the viewing of Maria’s screen test. Maria is in tears and the film production team watching become intensely derisive of the small girl. Maddalena is outraged and despite the part being offered to Maria Maddelena has had an epiphany and understands that she has ignored the needs of her daughter by substituting her own desires. She refuses to sign the contract and returns chastened to the family home.
The scene in which Maddalena takes Maria to get ballet dancing lessons is very poignant. Maria is identified as being only 5 in the film whilst the casting is for a little girl of between seven and eight. This age and size difference becomes a visual trope throughout the film to emphasise the impossibility and impracticality of Maddalena's desires. This impossibility is emphasised in the ballet school by the tiny figure of Maria at the bar. The emphasis within the mise en scene between Maddalena and the fashionably dressed middle class mothers who have been taking their daughters to ballet lessons for three years emphasises the class divide which is at the core of this film. It is the illusion of possibility of entering this world of illusion as a route out of poverty which is being thoroughly critiqued. It is a theme which Visconti would return to when dealing with the illusions of boxing in Rocco and His Brothers (1960).
For a person who can't keep up with very fast often histrionic Italian which has many local references to such things as the local Rome football teams having this film available on DVD is a huge benefit. The possibility to return quickly to repeat particularly dynamic moments of interaction is essential. In this sense Nowell-Smith's explanation that this film is the most 'Italian' of Visconti's films and most difficult for a non-Italian to watch is relevant.
The film itself is a joy to watch. The power and charisma of Magnani in full-flight drags the film along in her wake, however, this power is more than just a diva taking control and totally dominating, it is a performance which brings out the best in those around her. For those who have seen Rome Open City (1945, Rossellini) or the later Mamma Roma (Pasolini, 1962) this will come as no surprise. Visconti himself notes this in his interview with Michele Gandin:
...Magnani's improvisatory flare has natural instinct behind it, not theatrical artifice. Moreover she knows how to place herself on the same level as her fellow performers, and she also knows how to carry them along with her - how to raise them up to her level as it were. I wnated this particualr - and extraordinary aspect of her personality, and I got it. (Bellissima booklet p 24)
Bellissima is the first of the postwar Italian films to be metacinematic in others words to be providing a critique of the institution of cinema itself. Fellini and Lattuada's film Variety Lights (1950), had already begun a reflexive exploration of the illusion / reality of performance and entertainment exploring the creation of an opportunistic singer to become a stage diva. Much of Fellini's later work was to continue in this reflexive vein commenting critically on film and media, perhaps most notably in La Dolce Vita (1959). Of course Godard's Le Mepris(1963) is also a metacinematic representation, dealing with divisma and an inceasingly tawdry Cinecitta as well.
Bellissima was very much the initiative Salvo d’Angelo who had lost money on La terra trema, nevertheless he still retained confidence in Visconti’s abilities as a filmmaker. Initially Visconti was disinterested in the project and wasn’t impressed by Zavattini’s original script, however when he was offered the opportunity to work with Anna Magnani the much loved Pina in Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945). The inclusion of Magnani as the leading lady:
…would allow him to build a self-conscious reflection on the workings of divismo (stardom) and the power of spectacle into the very structure of his film. (Marcus, 2002, p 40).
The inclusion of Magnani would also help to target a much wider audience for she was widely identified as a ‘woman of the people’ after her role as Pina. Using her as a lead would help considerably in subverting the neorealism rosa and using comedy: in a way that is consistent with the director’s ethical commitment. (Bacon,1998, p 54).
The Importance of Performance & the Role of Anna Magnani
Of the three critics referred to here it is Marcus who draws out the importance of the use of Maganani most effectively and she specifically cites an interview with Visconti which shows the underlying importance of Magnani to the project:
“I was interested in working with an authentic “character”, with whom many more interior and meaningful things could be expressed. And I was also interested in knowing what relationship would be born between myself as director and the “diva”Magnani. The result was very felicitous.” (Visconti cited Marcus, 2002, p 40).
(This interview is available on this Eureka DVD in a new translation).
Henry Bacon also refers to the importance of Magnani to the success of Visconti's wider project of providing a critique of the illusory aspects of mainstream cinema: “On the whole, Magnani amply demonstrates how theatricality and stylization can be used to reveal aspects of reality that might otherwise remain hidden. (P 57).
The tension between mainstream Hollywood cinema - which Maddelena is besotted with - and the losing struggle of Italian cinema especially the neorealist ideal is highlighted when Maddelena is watching Howard Hawks' Red River from the yard outside their basement flat where they can overlook screenings of an outside cinema. This outside cinema firmly places the importance of cinema in the lives of working class people and shows the illusory and exotic world which can be projected. It is a theme which reappears in Umberto D (1951) which was also scripted by Zavattini. It is clear that some of those involved with the neorealist movement were adapting to the political shifts and cultural in Italian society and fighting something of a rearguard action against the incursions of Hollywood.
Visconti is astutely working within this tension and the use of Italy's most universally loved star allows Visconti to make a very powerful film which would be full of very specific meanings for the contemporary local audiences. Magnani herself is clearly aware of the ironies for her own position as a diva was clearly threatened by the increasing incursions of Hollywood into mainstream culture and corresponding shrinkage of the Italian industry. Her own background was from the working class and her own history of success within the entertainment industry undoubtedly gives her an edge in this performance. At the time her personal life with Rossellini who had gone off with Hollywood Star Ingrid Bergman providews another very personal take on the powers of Hollywood.
Another point which was probably attractive to Visconti was that Magnani was the epitome of the organic intellectual in Gramscian terms. With a working class background and total dedication to professionalism she was the embodiment of a popular figure rather than a populist one. Visconti was highly sceptical of idealist versions of neorealism which solely promoted the use of the non-professional actor. More minor characters such as Spartaco (Maddalena's husband were ordinary people. Walter Chiari (The Hustler) was a rising star and according to the DVD documentary interviews with Zefirelli and others from the production team Chiari was needed as Maganani at that time didn't have the pulling power any longer.
The Politics of Mise en Scene
The importance of mise en scene within Visconti's political critique is very marked. The working class environment of Maddelena's home in a basement where she can be spied upon by boys in the neighbourhood and which is full of blaring loud music raises the general attitude of the environment to a cacophony at times (it is an early version of the banlieu in Kassowitz's La Haine).In Bellissima escape is provided by the outdoor cinema, whilst in La Haine the lads attempt a more physical escape. The protagonists are in both films faced with class barriers.
Maddelena is differentiated immediately from the middle class mothers and their children who flock to Cinecitta to propress the future of their daughters. The size and age of Maria in contrast to the middle class girls one of whom was eleven in the first audition emphasises class difference. The representations of Cinecitta itself as a tawdry site of dream production can be contrasted to representations of Hollywood where entrance to the studios is always guarded and stars appear in chauffeur driven cars driving through gilded gates. The dreams manufactured in Cinecitta can only be second rate ones anyway, Visconti seems to be implying.
The basement flat which Maddelena's family occupies is bare of food and comforts. They are planning to escape as a family anyway as they want to move into a new house symbolised by plans. The patients whom Maddelena administers injections to are a mixture of genuine cases and pampered hypochondriacs. It appears as though Maddalena as a nurse isn't paid on a regular salary but on the work completed. Administering another course of anti-biotics will allow her to buy a coat. Her income is unstable and insecure and this seems to link intertextually to Bicycle Thieves (De Sica: 1948). There is an important point to be made here because several of the critical writings have identified Maddalena as somebody who just goes around giving injections to diabetics and associate her with a kind of charlatanism which is just as illusory as cinema itself. Certainly the dressmakers are cynical about what she does a reference to a scene where she administers an unnecessary injection to a lazy and overfed woman who lies around in bed a lot who Maddalena teases mercillesly in a scene played for laughs. Then she has to go to see the Commendatore a diabetic who also needs a course of streptyomycin prescribed by the doctor. This will allow her to afford a coat.
The use of cinematic spaces - particularly the ballet class scenes alluded to above - emphasise the huge class differences and the real lack of social mobility within the system. This can be read as a clear critique of the Christian Democrats who have deliberately and systematically closed down the routes to social equality which were ideals at the heart of the solidarity combining national identity and meritocracy at the heart of the neorealist idyll. Again the use of particular stars and their performance is all part of mise en scene understood in its wider meaning. The star persona of Magnani precisely embodied the possibilities of social mobility and success which she had achieved in her own life adding a rich layer of interpretive possibilities for audiences who would have been highly aware of these changes in the Italian environment as well as the filmic references.
Visconti's Ending & Zavattini's Ending
The ending of the film really emphasises Visconti's political agenda and shows how the whole film uses cinema itself as a synechdoche for the changed class and power relations in Italy. His ending is in marked contrast to Zavattini's original script. Zavattini's approach often seemed to be pessimistic and fatalistic with the structures of society set to overwhelm individual agency forever leaving the suffering individual on the margins of society. Nowhere does this seem so marked as in Umberto D. The original script of Bellissima written by Zavattini was generally pessimistic. Maria was to be turned down by Blasetti end of story.
Visconti's ending was far better. Not only did it give Maddelena moral power at a personal level but this power needs to be understood as an embodiment of national identity for it is precisely her iconic status as the visual trademark of neorealism (Marcus, 2002 p 41) which she earned as the character of Pina being ruthlessly gunned down by the Nazis in Rome Open City which allows her to become a form of critique in itself. In this sense Bellissima is where her star status carries over character martyrdom to elide into a personal martyrdom in her relationship with Rossellini ousted by a Hollywood star. Magnani as off screen persona / on-screen persona is a double signifier of invasion and a compromising of Italian identity firstly with the Nazis and then with the power of the USA and its influences on Italian society in the immediate postwar period as it helped to undermine the communist and left political agandas.
Here Maddalena and Maria are pictured in the projection room secretly watching the initial screenings of the children for the role. The is the second part of Maddalena's initiation into the workings of the cinema as an institution. The editor Iris who has smuggled them in had herself played minor roles but explained to Maddalena that this was luck and that she had been consigned to the editing room. clearly this is a possible outcome for Maria.
The whole of Maria's screen-test is fascinating as it leads Maddalena towards her epihany. Maria is too small to blow out the candles on a cake. The gradual snuffing out of the candles a projection of Maddalena's emotions as her dreams are slowly snuffed out as well. She isn't going to taste the cake of success just beyond her reach. Then the mood changes from disappointment to one of shock as Maria bursts into tears because she has forgotten the lines of her poem. This creates a ripple of ruthless laughter around the theatre amongst the men in power. The mood again shifts as an enraged Maddalena bursts in on Blasetti and his production team. Maddalena's barging past is again an intertextual reference to Rome Open City where the Nazis line up the occupants of the appartment block to conduct a search and ther is much pushing and shoving.
Visconti's ending resulted in Blasetti offering the role to Maria. Maddelena turns down the contract. At one level this gives her a moral credibility on a par with Pina as Marcus has noted. However it goes much further than this, because the ending isn't just a simple closure. It leaves the audience with the question as the the last shot focuses upon the sleeping innocent child: what will the future then be for Maria? - again her role is synechdocal for the future of Italy itself. This shot can also be read intertextually for the role of children and the closing shot of children in Rome Open City as the way to the future is clearly referenced.
Rather than struggling to join a world of petit-bourgeois parents endlessly scrapping to crawl up the ladder using their children there has to be a way which doesn't complacently accept the status quo in the way that Maddalena's husband is doing, nor does it mean sacrificing the genuine needs of ones children to the illusory world of show business and entertainment parasitically built on the dreams and incomes of the working classes. The promise Maddalena makes to her husband is that she will work hard on her own merits to earn them their new house. There is of course a jokey reference made to giving the population of Rome diabetes but this can be overread as a form of illusion on a par with cinema.
The end scenes have an even greater irony in them than intended because as Maddalena jokes about Burt Lancaster as being such a nice star to tease her husband about her recently lost fantasies about Hollywood today's audience is aware of how Burt Lancaster was initially foisted onto Visconti to play the lead role in The Leopard (1963).Lancaster again appeared in Conversation Piece (1974) this time as a friend of Visconti's.
It seems that Visconti is thowing problems at the audience, they are being seduced in the short-term, but there is no clear future for Italy if they follow this path. The path for the country is dependent upon solidarity and hard work but it will provide more stability and more satisfaction in the future. The open ending requires the audiences to participate in making thier own future or else the illusionists would pull the strings. This reading of the ending differs considerably from Nowell-Smith's who reads the film as a straightforward criticism of the cinema as an industrial and social process (Nowel-Smith, 2003 p 55). Nowell-Smith then argues that Visconti doesn't have the open endings of the type which Antonioni uses rather he relies on a rigid and self-contained structure. (ibid). Here Nowell-Smith reads the husband as a concrete pole of attraction which allows Visconti to clearly treat the central theme. Bacon too argues that the ending is one of family unity, unique amongst Visconti's films. Here I would suggest that it is a return to class and that a sense of solidarity is represented through the family which would seem to be an excellent way of passing on a coded political message in a censorious cultural environment promoting 'family values'. Here it would be interesting to undrstand how audiences of the time read this.
One issue which none of the three main critics of this film writing in English have dealt with in depth is that of gender relations. Maddalena clearly suffers some degree of physical abuse although this is unseen. There is a furious argument in the flat when the dress is delivered and in front of the other women in the flats who come to rescue her she complains of being bruised. Again in the final scene she admits defeat to the husband and says that he can give her the usual four slaps.
Unsurprisingly it is Marcus who raises the issue of gender and notes that Visconti exposes the self-serving notions of motherhood by reversing the gender roles in the Cecconi household... (2002, p52-53). Certainly superficially he takes some care of Maria, undressing her and promising ice-cream but for him there is no discussion about Maria's future he doesn't say that that Maria's future should be in the school, rather it is Maria who wants to go back there. Rather it is better to read Spartaco's role as one of acceptance of the status quo with a few dreams about a better place to live if he works steadily. This isn't an Italy that Visconti wanted any more than an Italy in thrall to America (it must be remembered here that the "Economic Miracle" was underpinned by Marshall aid).
Spagnolo’s survey on the consequences of this American conception of economic assistance on home affairs is straightforward. The CDs’ role accounts for the economic policy they attained in the short run. U.S. grants were used to fund productive investments rather than to foster industrial investments with a clear employment-creating effect as the American authorities in Europe suggested. (Selva 2004 p 4).
Marcus talks of Maddalena's parental failure, but rather than failure it is a missplaced energy put into illusions of cinema which we can see as an allusion to Christian Democracy and its American backers. It is the false dreams of American capitalism as Visconti saw it which was the core issue. Arguably it was less Maddalena living vicariously through her daughter as a genuine but missplaced attempt to ensure a better future for her daughter. Her reaction when Iris the editor tells her of her failure to become an actress and her being cast aside that genuine doubt emerges and a recognition that all is not what it seems becomes apparent. Bacon notes that the role of Iris was played by Liliana Mancini and that this was very much what had happened to Mancini in real life. (Bacon 1998 p 57).
Gendering is clearly apparent in the control of power in the film and here the industry / country is clearly run by men. Arguably here Visconti is again challenging the return to family values being promoted by the Christian Democrats in which women are returned to the family by utilising the iconic status of Magnani again. Solidarity in Rome Open City was through both genders as epitomised by Magnani. Again the dynamism of Magnani and her committment to the future of Maria / Italy meant that she would be developing a different route, not selling out to Cinecitta / American capitalist ethics.
There are many more things which can be discussed about this film and Marcus, Nowell-Smith and Bacon all provide useful insights. The suggestion that there is a class position being indirectly proposed is my own. Whatever thoughts turn out to be if you are interested in Italian cinema or european cinema at all the release of the imprtant DVD for the English market is an opportunity not to be missed.
Section under construction awaiting copy of the DVD
Advertised Extras include:
A PROPOSITO DI BELLISSIMA [31:42]. This is a useful documentary and consists of interviews with the Rosi, Zefirelli, Ceccho D'Amico and others on the processes of making Bellissima.
• Video interview with Bellissima co-screenwriter and assistant director Francesco Rosi [10:31]. This interview is a useful extract taken from a longer interview with Rosi who also worked with Visconti on La terra trema. It gives some useful insights into neorealism.
• Original theatrical trailer [3:51]
• 32-page illustrated booklet containing the chapter by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith from the 2003 3rd edition of his well known book on Visconti. This is an important and useful bonus. The booklet also features a short interview with Visconti with Michele Gandin in a new translation by Bert Cardullo, Professor of American Culture and Literature and author of Vittorio De Sica:Director, Actor,Screenwriter.
Key Production Details (taken from Henry Bacon, 1998)
First performance: Italy, December 28th, 1951
Length: 3,162 metres
Duration 113 minutes
Director: Luchino Visconti
Assistant Directors: Francesco Rosi, Franco Zeffirelli
Scriptwriters: Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Francesco Rosi, Luchino Visconti. (NB Interestingly Bacon has acknowledged Zavattini as being the original scriptwriter in the text but hasn’t included him in this list presumably because as he points out the final script moved so far away from the original and included so much improvisation that Zavattini’s contribution was obviated.)
Leading Actors: Anna Magnani (Maddalena Cecconi), Walter Chiari (Alberto Annovazzi), Tina Apicella (Maria Cecconi), Alessandro Blasetti (As himself).
Marcus, Millicent. 2002. After Fellini. Baltimore & London: John Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-6847-5 (Pbk)
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. 2003 (3re). Luchino Visconti. London: British Film Institute. ISBN 0-85170-961-3 (Pbk)
Selva, Simone. 2004.State and Economy in Italy before the EconomicMiracle: Economic Policy and International Constraints from the Reconstruction through the Pre-Boom Years. Business and Economic History Online.