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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 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.
March 30, 2007
Munchhausen,1943: Dir. Josef von Baky
This post is currently what I'm describing as a 'phase one' post. A synopsis and contextual and critical comments will be added at a later date. Through the webliography below this post thus serves to act as a resource page. This will allow prospective course members and other visitors to conduct some basic research into the relevant film. For further research you may also consuly the relevant bibliography. Please use the bibliographies tag in the sidebar to access this resource.
At the time of writing the following sites I consider the best researched academically or else are present because of the quality of their links. This is searched down to page 20+ of Google.
Link to Off Screen article which covers the range of cinematic versions of the Munchausen story:
Link to site page on Erich Kastner the writer of the screenplay:
The Triumph of Male Will: "Munchhausen" (1943) Eric Rentschler Film Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Spring, 1990), pp. 14-2. This is a Jstor journal article and will need a subscription:
Link to German Film Archive:
Deutsche Film Portal on von Baky the director:
The Blue Angel, 1930: Dir. Josef von Sternberg
Cooperation between the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung, The Filmuseum Berlin, The Universum Film GMBH and Transit Film of Munich has produced an excellent double DVD which contains, besides useful features such as biographies, portrait photos, screentests, trailers of the 1930s and 1960s and a chronicle of the film's gestation, digitally remastered copies of the best available German and English versions of The Blue Angel.
This post is currently what I'm describing as a 'phase one' post. A synopsis and contextual and critical comments will be added at a later date. Through the webliography below this post thus serves to act as a resource page. This will allow prospective course members and other visitors to conduct some basic research into the relevant film. For further research you may also consuly the relevant bibliography. Please use the bibliographies tag in the sidebar to access this resource.
At the time of writing the following sites I consider the best researched academically or else are present because of the quality of their links. This is searched down to page 20 of Google.
Link to Kamera.co.uk review:
Link to Senses of Cinema article on Sternberg and Dietrich
Link to Senses of Cinema article on von Sternberg
Link to POV (Point of View Journal) + Link to Spy & The Cabaret Singer
Link to "The Blue Angel": A Reconsideration
The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Autumn, 1951), pp. 48-53 this needs a Jstor subscription:
Link to German Film Archive
Link to German flicks.com
Village Voice Review
Cornell University commentary on screening of 6 Dietrich films:
BBC DVD Review:
Lee Russell article on Sternberg in New Left Review. Need subscription or must pay for article:
Bright Lights Review:
An honest undergraduate project with lots of images:
Diary of a Lost Girl, 1929 : G.W. Pabst
Coming from Eureka Video in early May
This post is currently what I'm describing as a 'phase one' post. A synopsis and contextual and critical comments will be added at a later date. Through the webliography below this post thus serves to act as a resource page. This will allow prospective course members and other visitors to conduct some basic research into the relevant film. For further research you may also consuly the relevant bibliography. Please use the bibliographies tag in the sidebar to access this resource.
At the time of writing the following sites I consider the best researched academically or else are present because of the quality of their links. This is searched down to page 10 + of Google.
Link to Senses of Cinema Article:
Link to German Film Archive
Link to German Film Archive on Pabst
Link to the Louise Brooks Society site:
Link to Goethe Institute Toronto
Link to BFI database entry:
Link to Eric Rentschler article on Pabst in German Quarterly. You will need a library subscription to access it:
Link to Deutsche Film Instiute (in German):
Link to a BBC page on Louise Brooks
Village Voice Article on Louise Brooks
New York Times review of a documentary on Pabst "The Other Eye" :
Also of Interest article from Senses of Cinema on Pabst's Kameradeschaft:
The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl,1993: Dir. Ray Muller
Please note that at time of writing this DVD also comes with the Eureka version Holy Mountain. this obviously provides excellent value for money.
This post is currently what I'm describing as a 'phase one' post. A synopsis and contextual and critical comments will be added at a later date. Through the webliography below this post thus serves to act as a resource page. This will allow prospective course members and other visitors to conduct some basic research into the relevant film. For further research you ma y also consuly the relevant bibliography. Please use the bibliographies tag in the sidebar to access this resource.
In addition to the main bibliography here are some links to recent of forthcoming books on Leni Riefenstahl. I haven't read the one in print and the other is forthcoming so no comments here on the quality of the content.
Date of last search 05 April 2007
At the time of writing the following sites I consider the best researched academically or else are present because of the quality of their links. This is searched down to page 10 of Google.
Guardian interview with Reifenstahl on 100th birthday by Christopher Jones and Andrew Pulver
Friday August 23, 2002
Guardian breaks news of Reifenstahl's death / Obituary of Leni Riefenstahl
New York Times obituary of Leni Reifenstahl:
New York Review of Books essay by Susan Sontag "Fascinating Fascism":
World Socialist site obituary and commentary on Riefenstahl
An odd page from the web which is a serious essay on Reifenstahl The Blue Light and Bela Balazs, which is properly researched and referenced:
Link to "German Flicks.com" posting on Leni Reifenstahl with a link to a YouTube upload of Triumph of the Will :
Link to a useful review in Senses of Cinema of Rainer Rother's Leni Riefenstahl the Seduction of Genius:
Link to article by Brigitte Peucker: The Fascist Choreography: Riefenstahl-'s Tableaux
Modernism/modernity - Volume 11, Number 2, April 2004, pp. 279-297. Please note you will need an Athens account to access the full article:
Link to article on Riefenstahl by Assoc. Professor Judith Keene is the Director of the European Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. One of Judith's specialities is fascism and anti-fascism. She has written several books on the subject of the Spanish Civil War. In one her courses at the University, 'Film and History', she covers the subject of Leni Riefenstahl:
Link to The Problem of Leni Reifenstahl by lloyd Eby:
Link to a student research paper by Celia Soudry on Riefenstahl prepared for web publication by Professor H. Marcuse of University of California Santa Barbara:
Link to Reappraising Triumph of the Will by Alan Marcus in Film Studies Journal:
Bright Lights review of the documentary:
BBC Storyville link on the documentary:
BBC Obituary of Reifenstahl:
Link to an interesting BBC page which reviews and provides links to the responses of the German press to the death of Leni reifenstahl;
Below link to a BBc Nick Higham video on Riefenstahl
Review of the documentary from Kamera.co.uk:
Link to Jewish Virtual Library:
Still from Faust
Still from Faust. Emil Jannings as Mephisto.
In 1926 Murnau was finally given the chance to make Faust a project he had been interested in for some time probably even before his production of Tartuffe which was designed by the studio under Pommer’s hand as a quick money making exercise. The Eureka 2006 double DVD edition of Faust is a very valuable document. There is a very useful interview for 35 minutes with Tony Rayns who is a highly respected and well informed critic. The interview offers many insights although I would question his analysis about the reasons for the financial crisis besetting UFA for which he provided only a limited analysis. On other issues his analysis was frequently refreshing he challenged the dominant notion that the film was in any sense ‘expressionist’. It clearly isn’t: rather, Rayns provides an explanation arguing that as a graduate Max Rheinhardt’s dramatic school Murnau was very aware of the power of lighting within the mise en scene. Rayns notes too that Murnau is best considered as more of a metteur en scene than an auteur.
Below the UFA finacial situation is contextualise, some comments on the production are included and a some thoughts contextualising the film in relation to the contemporary national identity crisis and the narration of nation are considered.
The UFA Finances
Erich Pommer had left UFA in the early months of 1926 at a time when the German film industry in general was beginning to struggle to survive. UFA under Pommer as head of production had been forced to reinvent its commercial strategy after the Dawes plan had stabilised the Weimar currency and it could no longer invest on borrowed money which became devalued through hyperinflation. Hollywood was beginning to gain a larger share of the German domestic market and UFA was finding difficulty in competing. Hollywood of course had the advantage of being able to amortise its most successful films very rapidly in its large domestic market.
After 1923 Pommer had already been strongly promoting the growth of Cinema Europe in which European cinemas could co-operate more fully on joint productions, marketing and exhibition to compete with the Hollywood machine but this never really got off the ground. Tartuffe made by Murnau prior to the start of Faust was one such enterprise which was reasonably successful in France. Faust along with Metropolis were the contemporary attempts at producing blockbusters which had the underlying aim of breaking into the American domestic market as a response to the growing influence of Hollywood in Germany . This was an aim which never came to fruition. Metropolis went way over budget and failed to take off with domestic audiences and ran into problems in America. Faust also ran over budget and was more of a success than Metropolis however it didn’t take the American market by storm as was hoped.
Faust as Blockbuster
From its inception Faust was conceived of as a blockbuster. Originally the film was to have all the ingredients vital to success in an international market. There were to be state of the art special effects, leading international cast and a story which had wide appeal. Whilst calling the film Faust would have had a strong appeal to the more middle class educated domestic audiences in Germany who would have been thinking of Goethe’s Faust, an appeal which would have resonances in art house audiences across Europe and America the narrative was rather different. Rayns equates it with Christopher Marlowe’s Faust as having the strongest underlying influence, a play designed for Elizabethan audiences which were mixed appreciating elements of knockabout farce, an element which was transferred to Murnau’s production.
Higher and more complex issues were deliberately excluded from the play with the original screenplay being rewritten from ideas by Karl Mayer who Murnau usually relied upon by another writer Hans Kyser to popularise it.
In terms of the leading actors Emil Jannings was by then a natural first choice with Conrad Veidt having already left Germany for Hollywood. Jannings was hugely popular with German audiences and his performance in Faust is excellent. For a leading lady Lillian Gish was intended to fulfil the role and she did get as far as the UFA studios however she wasn’t allowed to have her choice of cinematographer. She had wanted top Hollywood cinematographer Charles Rosher however Murnau wisely refused to be parted from Hoffman. But Gish pulled out of the venture. The role of Gretchen then went to the other extreme: instead of an international superstar they employed an inexperienced unknown in Camilla Horn who nevertheless made an excellent job of youthful naivety to fallen young woman. Nevertheless Faust still had two leading Swedish actors to maintain its international ambitions.
Costume design was by Robert Herlth and set design was by Walter Rohrig both amongst the best in their profession.
The film itself fell far short of the tragic ending which had been the staple of the original myth and its handling by great exponents such as Marlowe and Goethe. The ending was one of redemption and gave hope of the afterlife through love. This was the type of feelgood ending which seem to be required of blockbusters and it is a significant flaw in the film.
The critical reception wasn’t by any means universal praise. It was considered as a vulgarisation of the great Manichean conflict between good and evil and the accompanying booklet to the DVD quotes Ernest Lindgren once a curator of Britain’s National Film Archive:
The metaphysical conflict between good and evil was reduced to a sentimental love story.
Karacauer was also scathing arguing that the film ‘misrepresented, even ignored, all significant motifs in its subject matter.’
These criticisms can be largely upheld in terms of the content, which is sharply counterpoised to the artistry in the direction, camerawork and set design. In many ways the film is a fine example of how commercialism tends to subvert and create travesties in meaningful works of art in order to achieve popular appeal at the box office. However arguably there is something raised at the deeper level of nation as narration’ which I explore slightly in the concluding comments.
The essay with the DVD tries to put an unconvincing gloss on these rapier-like critiques:
“If everyone held those views we wouldn’t be watching this fully restored version of the film today” (Spooner p 22).
This is unconvincing in itself. There are many reasons for watching the film. This recently restored German version taken from the original German domestic negative is nothing short of excellent quality. The camerawork, direction and set design is often superb and Jannings’ jaunty performance is very witty in all senses of the term. The Eureka DVD also offers another disc with the export copy of the negative which aficionados the opportunity to compare prints and contemporary representations. Reading the film through the lens of exploring a fractured nationhood may have more rewarding outcomes.
In terms of its success at the box-office and general audience reception I currently have no available information. By comparison it is well known that Metropolis UFAs other great blockbuster attempt to scale the marketplace was a commercial flop. Ironically and despite their flaws, both films are probably seen by a larger global audience now than at the time of their release. Perhaps quality will out in the end.
As a film which says something useful about the state of the German National psyche and sense of identity it is hard to be precise the power of culture lies in its resonances and at a more unconscious level than things which can be easily measured.
The Narrating of the Nation
The film can certainly be seen as a form of heritage industry and as having recourse to myths and stories of a ‘golden past’ which cultural products often have recourse to at a time of national crisis. Points made by critics such as Homi Bhabha and Dominic Anderson. Certainly the film fits with the penchant for Medievalism which was frequently represented at the time not least in many of the films by Lang. It may be reasonable to understand the strongly marked theme of redemption as one which acted allegorically for a Germany keen in the mid twenties to outgrow the remnants of its international pariah status in the world as a result of its role in triggering the First World War. It can also be seen as part of what Bhabha highlights as a will to nationhood which is brought to bear in Renan’s comments about a nation’s existence being a ‘daily plebiscite’. Bhabha goes on to discuss that Renan’s discussions of nationhood focusing on the will:
…is the site of a strange forgetting of the history of a nation’s past: the violence involved in establishing a nation’s writ’ (Bhabha, 1990 p 310)
The Medievalism of early to mid Weimar cinema might well be legitimately perceived as a form of ‘forgetting’ and a semi-unconscious attempt to recast and rewrite the history of ‘nation’ usually solidified around a linear time of modernity. Ironically Weimar cinema is celebrated for using the most advanced media forms of the early to mid 20th century to achieve this end. That both Gretchen and Faust become outcasts to their communities and both desire to be recast within community with Faust specifically desiring to return Heim from the liminal mountain-top space which the psychoanalyst Lefort describes as the unbearable ordeal of the collapse of uncertainty (cited Bhabha 1990, p 300) or home by extension understands his position as uncanny an situation in which Gretchen also finds herself as her social world in the house after her return from the stocks is deliberately represented as unheimlich.
Perhaps the deliberate popularisation of Faust can be understood as an important if unconscious attempt to deal with the ambivalence of ‘nation as narration’. The appeal of the ending to a metaphysical universal signifier within Christian nations can be legitimately read as being a cultural appeal beyond the obvious level of the corny ending.
Overall Faust is a film which utilises the links with Goethe as well as a national myth which existed in the Mediaeval period to generate a variegated national and international audience which would also be attracted by the blockbuster like attention to production quality and high profile marketing. Superficially the storyline is weak however the net effect of the film considered in its postwar German context may usefully be read in the context of rewriting nationhood in the light of recent events an act of both forgetting and recasting.
Bhabha, Homi: ‘DissemiNation’, Bhabha, Homi ed. 1990.Nation and Narration. London Routledge
Spooner Peter. DVD Booklet Eureka Video 2006
After a search of up to page 25 of Google's search I found very little of high quality which was well referenced and available. There were two highly specialised academic article, but most entries were brief reviews and commercial DVD sellers.
Article by Michael Koller on Murnau's Faust on Senses of Cinema Site
A useful reviews page with links to recent books on Expressionism and Murnau
A useful synopsis of the work of set designer Walter Rohrig which includes an extract of an essay by early film historian and critic Paul Rotha on Rohrig:
For the in depth researcher a link to a documentary interview with the actress Camilla Horn who plays Gretchen:
Link to online article by Janet Bergstrom on Sexuality at a Loss the Films of F. W. Murnau. This is a JStor article and requires your library to be a subscriber:
Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler
The film and DVD are divided into two parts. The first DVD is 155 minutes long with the second being 115 miutes long. The DVD material is licensed from Transit films who painstakingly reconstructed the film as well as possible. Transit are the firm behind many of the German Weimar films which Eureka are distributing in the UK. The quality is very good. The newly commissioned soundtrack is very effective and goes well with the film unlike say the Michael Nyman soundtracked version of Man With a Movie Camera for example. The subtitling isn't up to the standards of many of the Eureka films with a clearly literal translation from the German which is certainly apparent to native English speakers.
On the matter of translation, the film is marketed in the UK under the title of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. This is not the best translation of the title for although Mabuse makes plenty of money targeting wealthy gamblers he is anything but a gambler, rather he is a 'control freak'. The meaning of term
spieler as player is far more appropriate, for Mabuse likes to play with people as much for the power and the pleasure in it as for the money. I shall thus refer to the film as player / gambler to emphasise this tension in meaning.
The film was originally from the Dekcla Bioskop group Uco-Film GMBH of Berlin. It was produced by Erich Pommer.
Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Thea von Harbou German version) & Fritz Lang (not accredited)
Director of Photography : Carl Hoffman
Dr. Mabuse: Rudolf Klein-Rogge
State Prosecutor von Wenke: Bernhard Goetze.
Below ihn confrontation with Klein-Rogge's Mabuse
Dancer Cara Carozza: Aud Egede Nissen (Norwegian)
Below surrounded by flowers after her nightclub performance
The first part is called "A portrait of out time: The Player/Gambler". Certainly it refers to the post-war mayhem which occurred in Germany and also many other parts of Europe in the aftermath of World War One. It must be remembered that there were attempts at social revolution or at the very least serioius industrial strife in many countries outside of Germany in the early 1920. As Lutticken below comments, the plot is 'meandering'. This is largely because it is more of a filmed series of separate stories which are held together after the first act through the character of the state prosecutor. For those who don't have the time to take all the film in one sitting (who has nowadays?) then it can very successfully be watched as a series of 'acts' which are more akin to watching 'Life on Mars' or some other TV series which is linked by an underlying thread.
Some episodes seem disassociated from others. The first act centered upon creating and exploiting a Stock Market rumour had little to do with the illegal gambling episodes which dominate much of the rest of the first part of the film. Similarly the forging of dollars using blind people to package them seems dissociated from the key plot. Rather it is a passing reference to certain types of illegality and allowed a wry comment on the state of European currencies of the time against the successful Amercian economy but it isn't developed further. Another theme which isn't developed is the pyschoanalytic aspect of the work. Clearly a reference to Freudian ideas by then becoming more widely known. Freud of course had access to many of the Viennese upper middle classes particualrly dealing with hysteria which Freud comes to understand and a societal and gender issue. For Lang it provides some sort of excuse for Mabuse to gain access to the Countess' mansion although the audience would have largely forgotten the presentation Mabuse made presumably to gain a reputation amongst the well off who were his primary target.
It is this aspect of the representation of the upper-middle classes which is of interest and might have influenced Kracauer's analysis of the film in his From Caligari to Hitler. There are many displaced and slightly confused upper class people who seem to have plenty of money but no real sense of purpose. There is a class idenity which seems to have ben fragmented by the war and subsequent relovuitions and uprisings. It is this vacuum which Mabuse is exploiting mercilessl. It is as though the elites are behaving like Ostriches. We don't see them represented as industrialists or leaders politically or socially. The State prosecutor seems to be acting as an isolated representative of the new social order struggling to gain legitimacy. The analysis provided by Kracauer which is quoted below is focusing on Mabuse as a tyrant, and when Mabuse talks of excercising will to play with people you could start to agree with Kracauer. But Mabuse seems to like playing for the sake of playing, it is his raison d'etre. One could almost see it as a self-parody of cinema itself with the incessant round of different costumes to 'entrtain' people.
Unlike tyrants who need to be seen as a part of their superior charisma Mabuse goes to extreme lengths not to be seen. Only a few close associates know exactly what he looks like. Mabuses' secret of creating mayhem is based upon invisibility. There are similarites there with 'M'. No the problem is legitimacy and an apparent problem of social anchoring. The presence of Mabuse requires an absensce of legitimacy. It is again a theme which Lang returns to in 'M' and is perhaps a preoccupation of von Harbou as a scriptwriter. Interesting of course that she stays in Nazi Germany where Hitler for a short time at least seemed to have solved the legitimation crisis. Like Mabuse 'M' too can strike fear into citizens through invisibility. Ironically it is the blind who make 'M' visible.
What the Web Critics Say:
There is some interesting material available on the web on the whole of the Mabuse cycle, not least from Thomas Elsaesser one of the leading critics on German cinema. I have extracted the relevant section of the article however it is well worth going on to read the whole thing as Elsaesser is reviewing the case often cited against Lang of being rather reactionary. It will make viewing the film in the light of these comments interesting.
Here Thomas Elsaesser (Sight and Sound 2000) puts the case for the Dr Mabuse trilogy as a radical critique of surveillance culture. http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/43/
Dr Mabuse was Lang's breakthrough film in Germany, as well as an early example of a marketing ploy in which the serialised novel and the film became each other's mutual selling points. Announcing itself in its title as a "portrait of its time" (part one: The Gambler) and "of its men and women" (part two: The Inferno) it was loosely based on motifs from Norbert Jacques' tabloid opus, peppered up with topical material by Lang and his then wife, the successful novelist and Germany's top screenwriter Thea von Harbou. The four-hour film starts at a furious pace, with a meticulously timed train robbery leading to a stock-exchange fraud. It then concentrates on Mabuse hypnotising a young American industrialist into running up large debts at gambling, after which the master criminal wins the favours of an aristocratic lady, drives her husband to suicide and eventually kidnaps her. Time and again outwitting the public prosecutor by a mixture of brutality, practical jokes and agent provocateur demagoguery, Mabuse is finally cornered in his secret hideout and either goes mad or feigns insanity when he is finally captured.
Social References to the destabilised Weimar Republic
The film is said originally to have had a pre-credits sequence depicting street battles from the 1919 Spartacist socialist uprising in Berlin, the assassination of foreign minister Walther Rathenau and other scenes of disorder masterminded by Mabuse ("Who is responsible for all this? - Me" was apparently the first intertitle). Although this opening is now lost or was never made, the various scams Mabuse is involved in (industrial espionage, stock-exchange fraud, forged banknotes) as well as the felonies he perpetrates (he runs a lab manufacturing cocaine, his gang controls gambling and prostitution and plots assassinations) all vividly point to the immediate post-World War I era, especially to Germany's raging hyperinflation between 1921 and 1924 and its black-market economy that pauperised the middle classes while creating a new urban subculture of war profiteers, Mafia-like racketeer organisations and vigilante units recruited from the growing army of the unemployed. The political references were not lost on contemporary reviewers or the censors, and even today Mabuse's several disguises seem taken out of a catalogue of Weimar types familiar from the drawings of Otto Dix and George Grosz: stockbroker in a top hat, derelict drunk in a housing tenement, Jewish peddler at the street corner, bearded rentier in a flashy limousine, industrialist with monocle and moustache, pimp, psychiatrist, the hypnotist and opium-smoking Tsi-Nan-Fu in a gambling den.
Elsaesser's comments are interesting but need to be considered a little bit cautiously for at times he seems to be waxing poetic and eliding a lot of years together when there were dramatic differences between them. Firstly the film premiered on April 27th 1922 in Germany. Inflation whilst high was by no means near the extraordinary levels it was to reach in the latter part of 1923. By July 1922 notes Richard Evans $1 US cost 493 marks. In November 1921 $1 cost 263 marks:
In the period up until the middle of 1922, economic growth rates in Germany were high, and unemployment low. ... The German economy managed the transition to a peacetime basis more effectively than some European economies where inflation was less marked." (Evans Richard, 2003, p 104)
The film itself was being made when conditions were still ostensibly OK although, as Evans points out, they were built on sand. Below Elsaesser notes that Mabuse was at least in part a reference to Hugo Stinnes who was an industrial magnate who was very successful after World War 1. Unsurprisingly Stinnes held right-wing views and in 1919 he joined with Alfred Hugenberg to establish the German Nationalist Party (DNVP). Where Elsaesser rails against the profiteers it is worth reminding readers that the remarkable success of the German post World War 1 film industry was founded on this high level of inflation. UFA like other successful entrepreneurial businesses was able to borrow cheaply in marks and pay the money back later with the same number of marks but which had become devalued through inflation. Furthermore the successful 'art' type films which we watch today were aimed at international audiences. As a result the hard currency could buy a lot of marks to reinvest in the next production. This was why Hollywood films had a hard time entering the German market prior to the Dawes plan of 1924 and the currency stabilisation.
Mabuse was taken to be modelled on Hugo Stinnes, a steel magnate who from humble beginnings amassed a fortune and occupied a key position in the post-World War I rearmament industries (illegal, according to the Treaty of Versailles). But Mabuse also doubles as a Houdini-like vaudeville artist, passes himself off as a soul doctor from Vienna and even has a dash of the Bolshevik agitator in the Karl Radek mould. The final showdown was modelled on the famous shoot-out between the police and the 'Fort Chavrol' bankrobbers from a barricaded house in the Parisian banlieue in 1921. In short, Lang's "portrait of its time" gathers up a fair number of contemporary references.
Elsaesser usefully comments on the post Second World War discourse about Germany in which Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler played an important role when it came to discussing the role of culture in Weimar Germany.
It was after World War II that Dr Mabuse in the eyes of the critics took on a less topical and more overtly metaphoric mien. As indicated, Kracauer ties virtually every significant trend in his diagnostic psychogram of Weimar veering towards totalitarian madness to one of Lang's films:
"[Dr Mabuse] succeeds in making of Mabuse an omnipresent threat that cannot be localised, and thus reflects society under a tyrannical regime - that kind of society in which one fears everybody because anybody may be the tyrant's ear or arm."
Lang later argued back, pointing out that if he had predicted the rise of Hitler in his films, then Kracauer was pinning the blame for the bad news on the messenger.
Elsaesser's comments below seem very pertinent. He ties Mabuse into the trend for 'expressionism' and recognises it in a self reflexive cinematic moment as a mechanism for creating audience. In some senses Mabuese's comment " Everything today is make-believe", resonates with a society which was struggling to reinvent itself. The defeat in the war saw the collpse of the political system which had been forged by Bismarck and had provided the cornerstone for Germany's successful rise to being the World's second largest economy. The Versailles Treaty saw the loss of 10% of Germany's population and 13% of its territory. The Saarland was 'lopped off' (Evans), and the Rhineland was under occupation for most of the 1920s. Germany was literally a shadow of its former self. A metaphor which could easily be read into the expressionist films of the time. Evans is less keen to emphasise a black market economy in the post war years than to emphasise the growth of semi-autonomous mainly right-wing nationalist paramilitary organisations who also ran assassination squads seeking out those they deemed as traitors. These included Ratthenau of the Social Democrats but also, the socialist Hugo Haase and the Centre Party deputy Matthias Erzberger. The key element was one of gaining political legitimacy. With 20 different cabinets between 1919 and January 1933, the coalition governments represented the deep political fissures present within the German body politic itself. Mabuse predates Germany's descent into total economic chaos. It was at the height of hyperinflation that starvation and rioting took palce (Evans pp 106- 107). However Evans notes the diaries of victor Klemperer who commented upon how many had taken to gambling on the stock market whilst making some modest gains compared to Professor Forster an well know anti-semite has said to be "making half a million marks a day playing the markets". Evans (p 107). It is therefore reasonable to suppose that Lang was being speculative about a growing trend which was discernible even when the film was being made.
Evidently the film's immense popularity at the time and subsequent status as a classic testify to a surplus of meaning, best readable perhaps across the designation of Mabuse as "der Spieler", meaning the gambler but also the dissembler or pretender. Highlighting both playfulness and risk, a refusal of identity and a slippage of reference, the epithet announces the question of what kind of agency Mabuse embodies as he 'stands behind' events as well as 'fronting' a conspiratorial gang bent on mayhem and mischief. One could call Mabuse a disguise artist, dissimulating both identity and agency, and suggest that he belongs to a rather large family of such creatures in Weimar cinema, whose kinship, but also generic diversity (Caligari and Nosferatu, Die Nibelungen's Hagen and Spies' Haghi, Tartuffe and Mephisto), allow some conclusions about the self-analysis of cinema during the Weimar period. Mimicry as metaphor, metaphor as mimicry. If Lang's German films are inventories of styles and if he provided much of the wallpaper for Weimar Germany's national or avant-garde ambitions, he also showed how flimsy it was. Take expressionism, the style intended to create an internationally valid brand name for German cinema in the early 20s - as Mabuse himself says: "Expressionism! - it's a game of make-believe! But why not? Everything today is make-believe." Mabuse both implicates and distances himself, in a gesture that joins mimicry and parody, a mottled person for a mottled ground.
Of course sentiment in stock markets in 'normal times' is moved on both rational analysis but also on rumour and speculation, "greed and fear" are the prime motivators. In an increasingly unstable society the class of people represented by Dr. Mabuse would have had increasing sway:
There are many such moments in Dr Mabuse. One would be the scene of Mabuse at the stock exchange in which he destabilises both stock prices and currencies by selectively planting information gleaned from the treaty captured during the train robbery. The scene ends with the superimposition of Mabuse's face on the emptied stock exchange, gradually surging from the background like a watermark on a banknote held against the light, as if Lang had tilted the world we have just witnessed and something else had become visible: not the truth, but the recto of a verso. What is left is a kind of hieroglyphic world, barely readable, strange, but consisting of all but the most familiar elements.
Sven Lutticken in New Left Review largely agrees with Elsaesser's take on Dr. Mabuse. It certainly seems to be representing and possibly contributing to the drift towards a 'casino economy'. Both Elsaesser and Lutticken focus on the key metaphor of hypnosis, and in many ways this could be read as a critique of the politicians and the politcal parties who for all their talk were allowing the country to slip into what many must have been feeling was an impending chaos.
Lang used lavish sets, leading actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge and a meandering storyline to paint a panorama of a decadent society—Weimar Germany—so weak that it can easily fall prey to the evil master-mind Mabuse, a hypnotist who can submit people to his will. One of the most memorable scenes shows Mabuse’s head, facing the camera against a black background, growing ever closer and appearing to hypnotize the audience as well as his unfortunate opponent in the film. With its overt ambition to give a portrait of the times, and Lang’s highly stylized and sumptuous scenes, the first Mabuse film claimed both artistic value (as opposed to ‘unsophisticated’ Hollywood entertainment) and kulturkritische ambition …For all its production values and aspirations to social critique, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler has a hopelessly hackneyed and melodramatic plot.” (Sven Lutticken Planet of the Remakes: New Left Review 25, January-February 2004
This webliography has at the time of writing identified what are considered to be the most useful and best researched links on the Web. Currently the search is going down to page 10 of Google.
Link to Deutsche Film Portal coverage:
Link to 1992 lecture given at the Sidney Museum of Contemporary Art by Ingo Petzke:
Deutsche Film Portal link to biography of Frit Lang
Link to British film Insitute pages on Fritz Lang
The Chiarascuro site has some excellent large size screen shots as well as some basic information about the Lang's next film in the Mabuse cycle; The Last Testament of Dr. Mabuse:
Link to a useful brief profile of Lang as well as a filmography on the Senses of Cinema site:
Link to Senses of Cinema site article by Michael Koller on the second of the Mabues Films The Tesatament of Doctor Mabuse:
German Films Archive Entry on Fritz Lang:
Dr. Mabuse a Modern German Myth:
Link to New Left Review article by Sven Lutticken on remakes which includes analysis of Spione and Dr Mabuse:http://newleftreview.org/A2491