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October 21, 2007
The British New Wave: Social Realist film of the 1960s
The British New Wave
Julie Christie in John Schlesinger's Billy Liar
The beginning of the 1960s was marked by the appearance of a range of feature films which took up serious social issues and were placed within the contemporary cultural context. The films are described as social realist and described as a British ‘New Wave’. The description of these films as a 'New Wave' should not be confused with the contemporary French films that were coming out of France from the Cahiers du Cinema milieu of directors. Some commentators regard the British New Wave as being influenced by the French New Wave. This seems inappropriate as the period usually defined as the French New Wave was happening more or less simultaneously. Arguably there was at least a two way influence as the acceptance of Chabrol and Truffaut in the British Free Cinema series makes clear. What is more likely is that any French influences that were the precursors to the Nouvelle Vague proper such as Louis Malle’s Les Amants were being seen in Britain particularly as future British ‘New Wave’ directors Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson were organising the Free Cinema events at the National Film Theatre from 1956 - 1959 as well as developing film criticism on the magazine Sequence earlier on. Cinematically it was Italian neo-realism which had made a strong influence on both British and French directors although both groupings went in different directions. It is the ‘Left Bank’ documentarists not always seen as the heart of the French nouvelle vague such as Resnais, Duras and Marker who are seemingly more influential. To this must be added the legacy of Humphrey Jennings who was enormously important to Anderson, Reisz and Richardson.
Seeming Western Cultural and Economic Synergies
At the meta-level directors in Western Europe were part of the cultural moves towards creating fully modern societies in Western Europe. By the 1950s this process was generally gathering pace at this time. Both France and Britain were overcoming post-war shortages and whilst there was a new optimism being generated in Britain after the 1950 Festival of Britain and its espousal of new technologies the mid-1950s saw the post-Suez recognition within both Britain and France that the political world had shifted entirely to a mainspring centred upon the USA in tension with the USSR. The older empires were finally having to readjust to a new world order.
The growing postwar mood was not just restricted to the countries of Western Europe. Polish cinema was making its own mark as the Free Cinema programme which featured several Polish directors makes clear.
What is Social Realism?
Cinematically the British New Wave is part of a tradition of social realism within British film which has seen many shifts since the growth of the British documentary movement in the 1930s. Realism is a difficult concept because encapsulated within it there are a range of changing aesthetic conventions all of which have as a central concern the intention of representing ‘the world as it really is’ or ‘life as it is really lived’. Lay (2002) points out:
There is no universal, all-encompassing definition of realism, nor is there agreement amongst academics and film-makers as to its purpose and use. But what we can say is that there are many ‘realisms’ and these realisms all share an interest in presenting some aspect of life as it is lived’. Carroll (1996) suggests that the term should only be used with a prefix attached. This is because another important feature of all realisms is how they are produced at specific historical points. The addition of a prefix, such as social-, neo-, documentary-, specifies the’ what’ and crucially, ‘when’ of that movement or moment. What is regarded as ‘real’, by whom, and how it is represented is unstable dynamic, and ever-changing, precisely because realism is irrevocably tied to the specifics of time and place. ‘Moment’” (Lay, Samantha, 2002: p 8)
As Andre Bazin also noted, each era looks to the technique and aesthetic which can best capture aspects of reality, thus realism is in itself an aesthetic construct dependent upon a set of artistic conventions and forms. The British New Wave is a part of this process. It has been noted that for a film to be realist rather than just realistic there are 2 necessary fundamentals. There must have been the intention to capture the experience of the event depicted and secondly the film-maker must have a specific argument or message to make about the social world employing realist conventions to express this.
Raymond Williams has argued that the four main criteria of social realism incorporate the following features:
- Firstly that the texts are secular, released from mysticism and religion
- Secondly that they are grounded in the contemporary scene in terms of setting, characters and social issues
- Thirdly that they contain an element of social extension by which previously under-represented groupings in society become represented
- Fourthly there is the intent of the artist which is mostly a political one although some artists have used the genre as route into a mainstream film-making career.
Social Realism and Representation
Social realist texts usually focus on the type of characters not generally found in mainstream films. Social realist texts draw in characters who inhabit the social margins of society in terms of status and power. This ‘social extension’ has usually involved the representation of the working class at moments of social and economic change. Hill has noted that this is not just a matter of representing the previously under-represented but that these subjects are represented from different specific social perspectives.
For example there was a shift in modes of representation of the working class from the Grierson documentaries of the 1930s to British Free Cinema documentaries and the British New Wave features which followed on from the Free Cinema Movement. Free Cinema and New Wave chose to represent the working class neither in victim mode, nor in heroic worker mode as had been done previously. The working class were to be seen as more energetic and vibrant.
Critics generally accept that women have faired badly in the representations of the British New Wave, although Loach’s Poor Cow (1967) and TV docudramas Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home helped redress the balance. By the 1980s social realist films such as Letter to Brehznev (1985), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) reflected the changing nature of society and the growing importance of women in the workforce, not only women but humour too was more apparent. This approach continued into the 1990s with films such as Mike Leigh’s Career Girls (1997). Some have argued that the portrayal of women took a retrograde step in the mid to late 1990s as they became adept consumers unsupportive of husbands as in Brassed Off (1996) and The Full Monty (1997). Alternatively women became victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse Stella Does Tricks (1996), Nil By Mouth.
It has been argued that in general the representation of the working class has shifted from being producers to consumers reflected in a move which has seen members of the working class in more privatised domestic environments and leisure-time settings instead of as members of geographical communities or in workplace environments where collective bargaining procedures are in place. Hill sees this as starting with British social realist films of the 1960s and continuing into the 1980s and 1990s.
Whilst social realist representation has tended to focus upon white working class males there has been some breakthrough in terms of race in films such as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Bahji on the Beach (1994). The changing sense of Britishness has been represented through cultural hybridity and multiculturalism from the mid 1980s through until Chada’s Bend it Like Beckham moving from social real to a more fantasy mode in the process. Recently social extension has begun to be granted to the position of asylum seekers and refugees and those effected by the diasporic forces relating to globalisation and the collapse of the psot-capitalist states (Soviet Union / Communist China). Last Resort (Pawlikowski 2000) and Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002) which keeps in the frame wider issues of the structures of globalised inequality from a social realist perspective.
Another facet of social realist representation has been a tendency towards autobiography suggest Lay (2002). Starting with the work of Bill Douglas and Terence Davie, Lay suggests that this was present in films such as Wish You Were Here (A retro-social realist film), Stella Does Tricks, East is East and Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsey, 1999). It is arguable that these films contain within them a nostalgic look backwards from a working class perspective which in some sense echoes the growth and success of the ‘heritage film’ in British cinema.
The British New Wave
The ‘New Wave emerged in Britain at a time when Macmillan’s concept that the British as ‘a people’ had ‘never had it so good’ was a dominant feature. The long economic boom which had gathered pace during the 1950s alongside the developments in the welfare state and the growth in power of social democratic discourses of meritocracy had led to the emergence of a new social formation of better educated, assertive and frustrated, smart grammar school educated younger people who wanted to see the fustiness and stuffiness of a system based upon status and respect shift into a meritocratic environment. It is difficult to gauge exactly how important the effect of the liberated meritocratic consciousness of United States culture and the British experience of this during the war impacted upon the general level of consciousness but indicators from the work of Jacky Stacey on British working class women audiences who preferred the more meritocratic sentiments of Hollywood to the RADA driven accentuation of much British post-war cinema points to deeper underlying societal shifts.
The description of cultural phenomena as ‘New Waves’ is an important metaphor which if it is extended fully leads one to note that there were deep up-swellings and currents from which the wave developed. That theatre and cinema and book publishing were challenging the old mores driven by a combination of liberal and social-democratic sentiments can, ironically, be seen as a part of the success of the long economic boom which allowed the youth of the time the relative economic security to dream about other futures. Certainly it would be unwise to split cinema from this rapidly changing socio-cultural milieu. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the positioning and fantasy of Billy Liar (1963) which came at the end of the social realist phase of the ‘New Wave’ and has a more ambiguous nature both in its style and in a recognition that there is social change happening fast. Julie Christie and Schlesinger represent this dramatic shift in Darling.
The Major British New Wave Films
Room at the Top (1959): Dir Jack Clayton
Look Back in Anger (1959): Dir Tony Richardson
Saturday Night Sunday Morning (1960) : Dir Karel Reisz
Taste of Honey (1961): Dir Tony Richardson
The L Shaped Room (1962):Dir Bryan Forbes
A Kind of Loving (1962): Dir John Schlesinger
Lonliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962): Dir Tony Richardson
This Sporting Life (1963): Dir Lindsay Anderson
Billy Liar (1963): Dir John Schlesinger
Directors and Actors
The major New Wave directors were Anderson, Reisz and Richardson coming from a background of the Free Cinema. The films dealt with working class subjects and focused on a range of concerns particularly in relation to young people. The films dealt with abortion, prostitution, homosexuality, alienation due to lack of communication and relationship breakdown. The films were intent upon representing a non-London working class environment and were shot in towns such as Nottingham and Mamchester. Black and White fast film stock gave a grainy feel to the film. This was also necessary to cope with the shooting conditions which tended to go for natural lighting and outdoor sets.
Conventional stars were not used rather ,young, usually more working class actors predominated such as Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Richard Burton, Michael Caine and Tom Courtenay. Two of the women most associated with the movement Rita Tushingham and Rachel Roberts interestingly didn’t ‘make it big’ although Julie Christie who came in on the tail-end of the movement in Billy Liar did. The New Wave didn’t actually contribute to the growing pool of regional actors rather it was the way society was changing. Local authority grants for attending drama colleges meant larger numbers were attending and the growth of social realist theatre as well as the rapid growth of TV was creating the demand for more actors. The overall expansion of media was creating pressure for more representation of a wider number of subjects and the sentiments created around the ’People’s war’ had contributed to a widespread recognition of the need to represent the working classes. As Lindsay Anderson had written
‘The number of British films that have ever made a genuine try at a story in the popular milieu, with working class characters all through, can be counted on the fingers of one hand... This virtual rejection of three quarters of the population of this country represents a more than a ridiculous impoverishment of the cinema. It is characteristic of a flight from contemporary reality.’
The films were based upon books and plays who had direct experience of working class life such as Alan Sillitoe, John Braine, David Storey, Shelagh Delaney.
Tom Courtenay in The Lonliness of the Long Distance Runner
Frequently Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1959) is considered as the first of the British ‘New Wave’ films however Hayward considers that his film is best seen as one of the precursors to the movement with Richardson’s Look Back in Anger (1959) being the real beginning of the movement. The film starred Richard Burton. Following this came Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) starring Albert Finney then A Taste of Honey (Richardson 1962), with Rita Tushingham. A Kind of Loving (Schlesinger, 1962), Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner (Richardson, 1962), This Sporting Life (Anderson, 1963) with Rachel Roberts and Richard Harris. By 1963 over one third of film production was broadly New Wave showing that British cinema could resist Hollywood - at least for a short time.
Rita Tushinham in Taste of Honey
Losey / Pinter’s The Servant also came out in 1963 and their depiction of upper class decadence can be seen as exploring the same socio-cultural phenomenon that Visconti had begun to depict. Visconti was to explore this in depth through firstly The Leopard and later The Damned, Death in Venice and Ludwig. Pinter and Losey were to explore the impact of the growth of the New Universities and the changing media scene on the encrusted cloisters of academia and the upper classes in Accident a few years later. The sentiments in these films by Losey and Visconti are a serious exploration of the writing on the wall for the European aristocracy. Here it is possible to draw comparison with Louis Malle’s The Lovers in which Europe’s other well known upper class film-maker explores the decadence and isolated world of the French and international Haute-Bourgeois, the provincial bourgeois and the newly emergent class of the independent thinker and doer. That it is the representative of this class who ‘gets the woman’ who is herself marked by a break with a break in conventions about the role and position of woman is indicative of a changing consciousness at a European level, in the light of post-war disillusion with a class system which led Europe to disaster and was twice rescued by the USA.
This Sporting Life
The social realist films of this ‘new wave’ period were based upon a range of novels and stories which had already made significant inroads into the British psyche. They were adaptations which involved the original authors themselves. The crossovers with theatre were seemingly much stronger than in France. The point is also important as some critics such as Armes have in a rather small minded way pointed out that the directors associated with these films such as Richardson, Anderson and Reisz, were from an upper middle-class public school and Oxbridge background. Linking these directors with Visconti and Malle shows that the European aristocratic hegemony was clearly crumbling and that a new hegemonising process based around a meritocratic process was emerging. Over the longer-term Visconti in Italy and Anderson in Britain might be said to the most consistently left-wing of these directors. John Hill’s later review of the criticism of the British ‘New Wave’ directors attempted to undermine the reductionist sour grapes of Armes and Durgnat by taking a textual approach which noted that although the directors were outside of the class they were representing which can be discerned through the ’marks of ennunciation’ articulating a critical distance between observer and observed. As Aldgate and Richards point out this analysis still left the contextual aspects of criticism largely unexplored.
Hill’s Marxist inflected criticism led to a critique of these films which saw them as misogynistic and many commentators return to this point, however, Murphy has since commented that for the first time women were playing in roles that were far carrying a far more serious emotional weight than the ‘...pathetically trivial roles women had to play in most 1950s British Films.’  In many ways this gender issue needs a careful film by film analysis. By the time of Billy Liar (1962) for example Julie Christie is playing an extremely dynamic role. She feels able to hitch-hike anywhere and comes and goes as she pleases, she is able to transcend the petty provincialism of Nottingham and move to London where she knows that lots of things are happening. By comparison Billy Liar (Tom Courtenay) despite his fantasy life is unable to summon the courage to make the break and move to London and make his dreams come true. In that sense the criticism of the New Wave that it focuses on individuals rather than the possibilities of class solidarity is relevant. The underlying message of Billy Liar is that the newly emergent youth of the 1960s have the possibilities they must have the courage to take these opportunities. That is was a young woman who does this is encouraging from a gender equality perspective. In this the film can be read as a precursor of the ‘Swinging Sixties’.
Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life also 1963 is perhaps more ambiguous. It can be argued that the representation of the Rachel Roberts character is negative, to the point that she commits suicide however this representation of a woman who is left on a small widow’s pension and is struggling to survive financially yet resists the pressure to be made dependent upon a man is an underlying theme. That she finds suicide the only way out can be read as a comment upon a society that does not make the necessary social space for women. The pressure to succeed at any cost is one which Machin, played by Richard Harris, finds hard to bear. His working life is brutalising and he has come out of the mines into Rugby League a sort of modern gladiator he is unable to provide Mrs. Hammond with what she wants.
Unlike the cover which describes Mrs. Hammond as ‘frigid’ it is perhaps better to examine the character of Machin whose machismo soon expires when faced with advances from the wife of his boss. Machin likes to control and runs away when he can’t. In this sense it is not unreasonable to argue that there is a crisis of masculinity being represented in which power, sexuality and control allied to class position are all in the process of being renegotiated. The film is also a representation about the possibilities of escaping a drab and dangerous working class life. The professionalisation of sport is just beginning and the film strongly relates to the changing media environment. Stardom is counterpoised to living in a run down terraced house. The incongruity of the Mark IX Jaguar owned by Machin underscores the point.
In their brief review of the critical literature on the British New Wave Aldgate and Richards note that ‘probably the most trenchant critique’ of the British ‘New Wave’ came from Peter Wollen. Wollen’s criticism largely hinges on a textualist based comparative analysis which judges the British ‘new wave’ with the Cahiers group of French directors who for Wollen’s appear to encapsulate the whole ethos of the French Nouvelle Vague. The SPECT construction of the French New Wave is considered in depth in the section on France, here it can suffice to ask whether the methods and methodological approach were appropriate or rich enough to justify the scathing tone of the attack on the British directors. Drawing on Michael Balcon’s wartime pamphlet Realism or Tinsel Wollen notes that within the British cinema there has been a strong element of a preference for ‘realism’ over ‘tinsel’ an aesthetic structuring which Wollen associates with nationalism:
This system of value, though most strongly entrenched on the left, ran all the way across the political spectrum. For the right, as with the Left, the aesthetic preference was bound up with nationalism. ‘Tinsel’ was of course bound up with Hollywood escapism and, in contrast, realism evoked local pride and sense of community... British critics praised films they liked in terms of their realism and damned those they did not as escapist trash. The French New Wave, however, aimed to transcend this shallow antinomy.’
This mode of rhetoric has become a self supporting argument rather than a more fully coherent one based upon differing nuances and circumstances. In the same piece Wollen has conflated the ‘Left Bank’ artists such as Duras and Resnais, more renowned for making documentaries in the earlier 1950s. It is intersting how wollen attacks the crucial diffrence between representations of nation between British and French New Waves. French New Wave was very much a Parisien affair whiclst British New Wave had the guts to represent different parts ogf the country effectively. This could be read as two different nationalisms at work in different ways.
Wollen has seemingly eschewed linkages between how the Italian neorealists might have had an effect upon the British shift to realism, there is no linkage with the surrealist impulse which underpinned the work of Humphrey Jennings and which significantly influenced the Free Cinema movement. An appreciation of the non-realist approaches of Powell and Pressburger is also absent. If, for Pressburger especially, ‘Art’ was to function as a form of transcendence then Billy Liar can be seen as playing out the possibilities of transcending one’s social reality either through the growing media through comedy which reverts to fantasy as the limitations of the possibilities overwhelm. Fantasy is carried through the Julie Christie character which emerges in Darling. Both can be read as a critique of ‘false aspirations’ carried by the nouveau professional classes as well as a deliberate sidelining of the ‘Art for Art’s sake’ argument.
The British cultural milieu was certainly very different to that of the French in which certain overlaps such as their relations to empire could be noted. If there is a trenchant critique to be made of British ‘New Wave’ then it resides more in its failure to properly represent the diasporic influxes that were changing the cultural and social composition of the industrial cities that they were representing. In this the British were probably no worse than, nor better than, the French. Very few films of the period dealt directly with issues of diaspora and decolonisation. In that sense British New Wave was not realist enough!. In terms of the aesthetics of the British New Wave the use of locations such as back allies, cobbles, seaside towns in winter and empty railway stations works to create a feel which has been described as an aesthetics of urban squalor. Some commentators have considered that this acts to 'romanticise' the ‘decaying infrastructure of industrial Britain'  However given that many of the films are dealing with the changes in society the representation of urban and industrialised spaces needs to be considered alongside the representation of newer factories,
Another critique of British New Wave espoused by Wollen was in its lack of ‘modernism’. In fact the modernism classed as an aesthetic was apparent in the sound tracks, which incorporated British popular music in working class leisure venues, from the skiffle group in Saturday Night Sunday Morning to the dance hall scenes in Billy Liar and This Sporting Life. Interestingly the main music was written and performed by Johnny Dankworth in several of these films including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and the non New Wave The Servant and Darling. This reflected a strong rise in modernist aesthetics strongly influenced by the culture of the USA. While no sound track is likely to ever compete with the Miles Davis extraordinary and entirely improvised one for Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold, the incorporation of Britain's most influential jazz musicians of the time is indicative of an approach that belies Wollen’s seeming Francophilia and as pointed out above dates from the 1956 Momma don’t Allow . Arguably the British new wave films were tackling a more interesting range of discourses and were coming from a different place to the French processes of modernisation. The task of analysis is to be searching for a greater depth of understanding of these social processes not indulging in a ranking exercise.
Compare Wollen’s tone with that of John Orr for example; Orr takes a more measured synoptic view of the cinematic processes of modernity, noting in Resnais Nuit et Brouillard (1955), that he moves from the documentary to the imaginary, a shift managed by Schlesinger’s ‘Billy Liar’ in 1963 for example but one set against the changing cityscapes of postwar Britain. Orr refers to Deleuze’s argument that neorealism opened up cinematic space in the new open spaces of Europe’s damaged cities. Whilst Deleuze argues that these were ‘anywhere spaces’ in which the exterior location did not have to define itself the cinematic space of Nottingham which served as location shooting for Saturday Night , Sunday Morning as well as Billy Liar was symbolic of class representation, and the rise of the working classes, it was symbolic of ‘creative destruction’ that great economic engine described so effectively by Schumpeter, with war acting as the great catalyst to this enduring process at the heart of capitalism. It was also symbolic of social, economic and cultural progress. Rather than being associated with the deeply alienated cinematic/ geographical spaces of mainland Europe, British cinema largely avoided the apocalyptic mood of continental Europe.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
The story telling of the British new wave was outside of the frenetic and frantic pace of Hollywood and also outside of the cinematic time of the emerging mainstream European modernists like Fellini or Antonioni. British cinema had the intensity of the theatre underpinning it and much of British New Wave was like a kammerspiel on location. It was a variant on mainstream modernism and modernity which was perhaps informed by British pragmatism as much as aesthetic theorising but it also owed something to Rossellini and Visconti.
It is Rocco and His Brothers (1960) which charts the changing world of the Italian peasant classes as they come to industrial cities such as Milan to create new lives which is arguably one of the more influential films. The role of boxing for example as a sport drawing its workforce from people trying to escape working class drudgery is explored by Visconti. The treatment of the girlfriend of the Rocco by his brother who finally murders her has resonances with This Sporting Life. Where Visconti does score over the British New Wave in terms of class representation is his specific use of recognising that class solidarity is the way forward for the new working classes in that sense Visconti is more of a political film maker than the British New Wave directors.
In summary the British New Wave worked upon an emergent element of realism which sought to represent elements of the working class and its changing environment. Criticisms have been levelled that the films concentrated on characterisations at the expense of the possibilities of class solidarity as a way forward. This marks a break from the brief associations which were made between the Free Cinema movement and the New Left centered around issues of art, representration and didacticism. In that sense the underlying discourses can be seen as ones which promote a meritocratic society in which opportunities are available but it is down to the individual actor themselves about whether they make a success of these opportunities.
There have been many criticisms from feminist critics that these films are generally misogynistic as on the whole they don’t have positive representations of women playing roles as key protagonists within the films. It is possible to take Wollen’s critique seriously in one way for if the lack of ‘tinsel’ which he criticises within the realist mode of the British New Wave is extended to humour then many of the films fall into this category, Look Back in Anger never rated as a side-splitter neither did This Sporting Life. On the whole Billy Liar manages to transcend this tendency which helped to give the impression of British New Wave social realism its grim and gritty reputation. By comparison Truffaut’ 400 Blows, Tirez sur le pianiste and Godard’s A Bout de Souffle were welcome breaths of fresh air displaying a lightness of touch with parodies of gangster movies. In the content of location shooting in the latter two films and even in the more prosaic autobiography Truffaut finds a lightness of touch even in the grim institutions.
British New Wave: A Webliography
Jazz in 1960s British New Wave Cinema: An Interview with Sir John Dankworth http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/bitstream/2438/743/1/DankwortharticleJP.pdf
Open University History and the Arts on British New Wave
The Importance of Humphrey Jennings as an influence on the British New Wave directors should not be underestimated, several of these directors like Reisz, Anderson and Richardson were also deeply involved in thte Free Cinema Movement
Lindsay Anderson on Humphrey Jennings: Sight & Sound, Spring 1954
Free Cinema the Precursor to the British New Wave
British Cinema: Social Realism – Webliography
October 07, 2007
Claude Lanzman’s Shoah: Key Essays. A Review
Daniel Libeskind on his Berlin Jewish Museum project representing absence:
The third aspect of this project was my interest in the names of those persons who were deported from Berlin during the fatal years of the Holocaust. I asked for and received from Bonn two very large volumes called the 'Gedenkbuch'. They are incredibly impressive because all they contain are names, just lists and lists of names, dates of birth, dates of deportation and presumed places where these people were murdered. I looked for the names of the Berliners and where they had died - in Riga, in the Lodz ghetto, in the concentration camps.
Claude Lanzman’s Shoah: Key Essays. Edited by Stuart Liebman, Oxford University Press: 2007
Shoah is available from Masters of Cinema @ Eureka Video
The publication of this book this year is a timely one coming not long after the Eureka release of Shoah on DVD. There is increasing interest at an academic level in representations of the Holocaust (Shoah) / and the Nazi Concentration Camp & Death Camp systems as a whole. The latter is well represented by another book of essays edited by van der Knaap “Uncovering the Holocaust: The International Reception of Night and Fog" published by Wallflower Press in 2006 which will be reviewed in due course. Originally I was going to review them together but on reading them both I decided both deserve their own space particularly in the light of the argument of Shoah and the discourses surrounding it which make the case for highlighting the attempted eradication of European Jewry as an act which isn’t as yet taken fully into account by the majority of European countries. The argument of Shoah is that it is a crime which is on a scale which outweighs the other horrors committed by the Nazi precisely because of its specificity and the corresponding doubt which it which it created in relation to the future and nature of humanity itself. Lanzmann himself describes it as : ”Their extermination is a crime of a different nature, of a different quality; it is a nameless crime, which the Nazi assassins themselves dared not name, as if by doing so they would have made it impossible to enact. It was literally an unnameable crime.” (Lanzmann in Liebman, 2007p 28).
This book of essays covers an interesting range of ideas, perspectives and reactions. These range from articles like Gertrude Koch’s which are highly academic to the experience of how the distribution of Shoah was arranged in the United States to ensure the widest possible audience in a country where Hollywood output and the corresponding cine-machine rules out the exhibition of 9 ½ hour films. Given the range of different discourses which have emerged directly from the film it is difficult to give a clear overview of the disparate ideas which cohere in the field of Shoah. The fact that they do so bears witness to the power and integrity of Shoah itself. Even defining exactly what the film is difficult because its approach certainly redefines the idea of what a documentary is, indeed it is sen by Lanzmann as a performance.
I will therefore comment upon several of the essays which hopefully will attract the reader interest this book deserves and by inference encourage people to view the film itself for otherwise much of what is written remains largely meaningless. I have covered many of the points made by Stuart Leibman in his introduction in the first part of the expanded review of Shoah elsewhere on this blog. It is a powerful piece and is available in an abbreviated version with the Eureka DVD of Shoah. This book is thus an extension of the film and is the next place the viewer should go to deepen the viewing experience further.
The book is split into three parts. The first deals with its inception through production and distribution. The second section is comprised of appreciations, close readings and celebrations. The final section is called ‘Controversies and Critiques’. I have chosen two essays out section 1 and one out od the other two sections. All are useful essays and also accessible to the lay reader in ways which more specific essays such as Gertrude Koch’s about aesthetics are not. I have decide to deal with the essay Closely Watched Trains by Marcel Ophuls who made the powerful documentary about The Sorrow and The Pity which was very controversial because it attacked the mythology which surrounded the Gaullist construction of resistance and in part dealt with the role of the Vichy in collaborating with Nazism in the Holocaust. An interview with Lanzmann himself by Chevrie and Le Roux working for Cahiers de Cinema comes next. Daniel Talbot’s article about the distribution of Shoah shows the importance of the power of distribution in the chain of cinema itself as well as providing a moving account of committed engagement to ensure that it was seen, against the odds. Finally I have chosen a very interesting essay on gender issues and Shoah written by Hirsch and Spitzer both professors at Columbia University.
Closely Watched Trains: Marcel Ophuls
I simply had to read this essay early on partially because of the obvious link between Shoah and Different Trains by Steve Reich. Somehow it is the trains which come to symbolise the depth of organisation and also the depth of collusion in with the Holocaust. The eerie rhythm of the trains running on a parallel but unseen and unacknowledged timetable of eradication, an industrialised death machine feeding the Moloch which is presaged in Lang’s Metropolis is a sort of haunting embedded into the film. Here it is worth focusing on Lanzmann’s basic premise which he seeks to expose through his film.
Whilst Siegfried Kracauer can be accused of being teleological in his analysis of German cinema representing the almost inevitable path of Germany’s fall into Nazism there are strong anti-Semitic strands which can be discerned within Weimar cinema itself such as Nosferatu. Certainly there was a powerful structure of anti-Semitic feeling in Germany itself. This upholds Lanzmann’s idea that the Holocaust was not an aberration. It relied on: firstly “the basic consensus of the German nation” (remember the massive resistance against forced of disabled euthanasia was partially successful); secondly, it “relied on the existence of an aggressively anti Semitic world: Poland, Hungary, Romania, the USSR not to mention others.” (Lanzmann p 31) [self-explanatory and historically accurate]; thirdly, it was also made possible because “nations washed their hands of the Jewish persecution”. Countries such as Britain neither stood up firmly enough for the Jews of Germany nor did they rush to the rescue Lanzmann cites Lord Moyne High Commissioner in Egypt referring to the possibility to take in 1 million Hungarian Jews “what am I to do with 1 million Jews” (p32).
Ophuls puts his finger on the pulse of Lanzmann’s film instantaneously:
How can the unspeakable horror, the memories of total evil and complete degradation that the survivors themselves feel cannot be communicated, be forced back into the collective awareness, into the conscience of mankind.” (Ophuls in Liebman p 77).
Ophuls is very honest about his immediate reactions to being asked to watch Shoah. He states that he generally dislikes documentaries for reasons ranging from the hi-jacking of a popular art form ‘the movies’ into the service of a cause to the fact that he doesn’t trust the makers of these who often defend the form under the aura of a bourgeois respectability. However having experienced it he openly states that he considers “Shoah to be the greatest documentary about contemporary history ever made, bar none, and by far the greatest film I’ve ever seen about the Holocaust”.
Ophuls focuses on the issue of whether the film can be deemed to be ‘anti-Polish’ a reaction from the Polish authorities at the time the film came out. As Ophuls points out Lanzmann expected to find non participating witnesses to the arrival of the trains, to the herding of Jews into gas chambers:
“That some of the farmers profess compassion while obviously contemplating every detail of the proceedings with barely concealed relish is not the director’s invention. “ (p 81)
Ophuls also points out the toughness of Lanzmann’s exposure of the true underlying process. In response to the comments of a reviewer called Murat who at times thought Lanzmann a ‘benevolent torturer’ who he wanted to ‘reach out and slap’, Ophuls is scathing:
If being a gentleman is a documentary filmmaker’s top priority he’d better get into some other line of work.” Lanzmann he notes attempts no charm or ingratiation of the audience. However as Ophuls points out correctly there is no ‘intimidated awe’ which is an approach with which people usually approach the Holocaust and is an approach which Lanzmann is entirely counterpoised to.
Ophuls praise the subterfuge which Lanzmann at times resorts to when interviewing some executioners. Criminals are ‘outed’ why should one be critical of this? He asks rhetorically. A more effective justice system would have / should have dealt these people a far harsher hand.
Ophuls tries to attenuate Lanzmann’s critique of the TV series ‘The Holocaust’ which was broadcast in the states. For Lanzmann it was rather pusillanimous to say the least. Effectively He ended up being on the same side as nationalistic Germans who were doing their best to stop it being broadcast in Germany at the time. Ophuls makes an interesting and important point when he comments the Edgar Reitz’s Heimat coming in at around 16 hours ‘was a deliberate effort to defend the memories of his childhood against the foreign invasion of Holocaust’. Then Ophuls has a swipe at several directors not renowned for their right-wing ideals. Fassbinder’s Lilli Marlene he describes as ‘neo-fascist indulgence’ and Pontecorvo’s (maker of the Battle of Algiers) Kapo he describes as ‘crass voyeurism’. I’ll bear those comments in mind when I get to see the latter. The former I can barely remember but it didn’t strike me as neo-fascist at the time.
Finally Ophuls identifies with Lanzmann’s filming experience the moral catastrophe he has found in his filming in places like Latin America which is “murderous indifference”. With Lanzmann says Ophuls
Beyond the urge to persuade, and even the need to testify, I suspect that a new state of mind has come to guide and sustain this magnificent achievement: not resignation but defiance!” (p 87).
Site & Speech: an interview with Claude Lanzmann by Cahiers du Cinema
This interview opens with a prelude where Lanzmann declares that he wishes to talk about the film as a film. In the interview which takes place in 1984 he talks about a book which he will bring out on Shoah commenting that:
Certain people…… are so overwhelmed by the horror that they develop a kind of sacred and religious attitude towards it and do not see the film itself. One has to understand why and how this horror is transmitted. (Liebman p 37)
The interview proper starts with a straightforward question about how the project began in the first place. Lanzmann started out by reading a lot about the Holocaust as well as going through photo archives. He faced a fundamental problem when he needed to ask for money to make the film. The problem is the Catch 22 of making cinema and being reliant upon commercial production practices. Unsurprisingly he was always asked “what is your conception of the film”. Lanzmann comments that this was: … the most absurd question: I did not have any conception. Initially Lanzmann comments that he proceeded to collect theoretical knowledge he then started to find witnesses specifically “those who had been in the charnel houses of the extermination” (ibid p 38). It was when interviewing these witnesses that Lanzmann discovered:
…an absolute gap between the bookish knowledge I had acquired and what these people told me. I understood nothing. (ibid p 38)
This is already an effective underpinning of qualitative research methods and begins to highlight his unusual methods. At times they come close to a psychoanalytic method. Lanzmann discovered that a core problem for his film making was that the experiences the survivors had undergone were so extreme that they couldn’t communicate anything. Lanzmann discovered that a sense of place, a sort of geography of extermination, was required to start to make sense of the whole un-representable process. By visiting core sites of the extermination he discovered a sort of dialectic of cognition: one needed to know to see, and to see to know:
If you go to Auschwitz without knowing anything about Auschwitz and the history of the camp, you will see nothing. In the same way, if you know without having been there, you will also not understand anything. (ibid p38).
Lanzmann clearly states that the film is about site, about topography and about geography. Because there was a process of effacement of sites like Treblinka the places were becoming sites of non-memory. Accordingly Lanzmann had models made of the gas chamber at Treblinka moving from the landscape to this model when he was shooting in order to imbue the film with a sense of power created through the act of connectivity.
At this point in the interview Lanzmann is very scathing about the American TV series produced in the early 1980s called Holocaust which he accuses of being idealist. Here one is reminded of the concern voiced by Ophuls as discussed above.
There are many ways to communicate and many different levels of communication. Like Ophuls I would argue that productions like Holocaust have their place especially in education because they can allow some critical space to open up for new audiences.
Another comment made by the Cahiers interviewers was that the film was made “in the face of its own impossibility”. For Lanzmann the film was especially problematic to make because of the disappearance of the traces of the extermination and also because of the sheer impossibility of getting survivors to speak about it because of the un-nameability of the whole process of extermination.
The Lack of Archival Images
Contrary to some opinions the programme for the extermination of the Jews was not visually archived meticulously by the Nazis as Lanzmann points out the situation was quite the opposite. There is almost nothing:
About the extermination strictly speaking there is nothing. For very simple reasons it was categorically forbidden… the problem of getting rid of the traces was therefore crucial in every respect. (p 40).
At this point Lanzmann goes into some important aspects of film and documentary film making for even if there had been archival materials available he would not have used them:
I don’t like the voiceover commenting on the images or photographs as if it were the voice of institutional knowledge that does not surge directly from what one sees; and one does not have the right to explain to the spectator what he must understand… That is why I decided from very early on that there would be no archival documents in the film” (My emphasis p 40).
Here there is an important argument made for Lanzmann’s artistic method for instead of being set in the present the film “forces the imagination to work”. Lanzmann’s method became more akin to a sort of psychoanalytic method of reliving the traumatic experience so the one could speak it, where “speak” can sometimes mean body actions and non-verbal communications. For example, relating his experience with the barber when he placed the barber in a real barber’s shop with a real customer.
And from this moment on, truth became incarnate, and as he relived the scene, his knowledge became carnal. It is a film about the incarnation of truth.” (p. 40).
Framing and Mise en Scene
At this point the Cahiers interviewers discuss the issue of mise en scene and its inter-relationship with the methods so that form and method can be seen as entirely intertwined. The interviewers suggest that truth doesn’t emerge from archival images rather it emerges from a restaging of events and practices. Lanzmann explains how he rented the trains which became so symbolically powerful within the film. The boxcars at Treblinka station were actually the same ones that were used at the time. Here the underlying philosophy driving his method clearly emerges. By getting into the boxcars and filming:
The distance between past and present was abolished, and everything became real for me. The real is opaque; it is the true configuration of the impossible.” (p. 42).
It was only during the making of the film that Lanzmann became fully aware of the importance of site. When he initially visited Poland Lanzmann didn’t know what he wanted from the visit. He had arrived with the notion that Poland was a, “non-site of memory”, and that this history had been diasporized”. (p43)
It was when Lanzmann was in Poland that he noticed that the Polish people who had been witnesses to much of the extermination began to speak of their experiences: I perceived that it was very alive in their conscious’s, that scars had not yet formed”. As a result Lanzmann set about filming these witnesses without telling them what he was going to be filming in advance. When he filmed one of the train conductors who had helped to transport the Jews Lanzmann put him into the cab of the railway engine he had rented and told him they were going to film the arrival at Treblinka. It was on arrival at Treblinka that:
…he made this unbelievable gesture at his throat while looking at the imaginary boxcars (behind the locomotive of course there were no boxcars). Compared to this image archived photographs became unbearable. This image has become what is true. Subsequently when I filmed the peasants, they all made this gesture, which they said was a warning, but it was really a sadistic gesture.” (p 43)
For Lanzmann this became a cinematic method which meant that Shoah became a film that was fictional but deeply “rooted in reality”. In this way it crosses the boundary between fact and fiction just as it crosses the temporal boundary between past and present. It was a method in which they had to act out “they had to give themselves over to it “. (p. 44). It was through this method that speech communications thus came to carry an extra charge going beyond the talking heads approach of more conventional documentary making. The film thus becomes a “reliving of history in the present”(p. 45)
Some Polish witnesses.
The Distribution of Shoah in the USA
I found the chapter on distribution and exhibition of Shoah in the independent sector particularly interesting. Even though films by their nature are slightly less ‘prisoners of measured time’ than TV, there are clearly defined norms beyond which distributors and exhibitors will not go. Both arms of the industry are concerned with reducing risk as much as possible. In this type of climate being an art form comes a poor second. Great films of the past have suffered at the hands of industry manipulation such as Lang’s Metropolis and Visconti’s The Leopard. What would happen then to a nine & a half film made with no stars and by a little known director? Shoah can hardly be said to be a genre which has mass audience appeal either. Daniel Talbot’s methods were inventive and original and had everything with the film being so successful in the USA.
Daniel Talbot became responsible for distributing Shoah in the USA nevertheless he made a success of the task and became so convinced by the film that about six months after opening Shoah he thought about abandoning film distribution altogether : …for everything after this film would be anti-climactic, trivial, depressingly boring. (p 53).
Talbot and his wife went to Paris to view the film with a proven record of successful distribution of European ‘Art House’ movies in the USA. They immediately signed a deal and ordered one 35mm subtitled print. These prints were of course very expensive at around $15,000 each a lot back in the early 1980s. Talbot needed to connect intimately with his target audience which was the American Jewish population. Initially he screened the film for Lucjan Dobroszycki an important
Talbot had taken over a small cinema in 1976 splitting into 300 seat and 185 seat theatres which had built up a regular clientele of more arts oriented New Yorkers. Talbot opened the film and Lanzmann came over to speak. It had enormous critical success with the exception of Pauline Kael. The film ran for six months playing to an older audience than usual. As a result of this initial success Talbot generated a lot of interest and started to publicise it more widely and launch specific marketing initiatives. He invested in another 6 prints reinvesting the proceeds of the six month run.
Of course he still needed to develop a different distribution strategy which didn’t follow the normal pattern of NY followed by LA and then other large regional cities. With only six prints available Talbot chose to target the cities with large Jewish populations. He was also faced with the problem of not being able to afford long runs because of the wear and tear on the print and the enormous expense of replacing them. Talbot thus pursed a strategy of offsetting risk onto the exhibitor. Exhibitors were carefully chosen on the strength of them being able to attract a strong Jewish audience. The exhibitors also only had two weeks in which to make a profit and the film was sold to them at a high $20,000 flat rate. In return Talbot allowed them to raise money from the films for local Jewish charities. Lanzmann again came over to speak about the film visiting many American cities. Overall the film played in over 100 cities.
This huge success for a film which seemed unmarketable led to a campaign to get the film onto the PBS TV Network This required them to raise $1.5 million. Fortunately they were supported by many very wealthy backers which allowed them to meet the target. As a result over 10 million saw the film on TV. Hitler’s attempts to erase the Jewish people from history were thus entirely defeated.
Hirsch and Spitzer make a very useful critical contribution to the discourses surrounding the film and by doing so very firmly put issues of gender very firmly on the map of the Holocaust. They start from a position which notes how myriad reports of the Holocaust have managed to de-gendered the history. The dehumanising language of the perpetrators usually talks not of bodies but of “figures and junk”. Descriptions of the transportation of Jews across Europe resorts to clichés about being packed like Sardines, after being murdered they are laid out in mass graves ‘like herrings’. Jews become a ‘load’ in the train wagons. Whilst this use of language is dehumanising it also strips out all reference to difference. Hirsch and Spitzer thus comment:
“Ironically Lanzmann’s film itself also eradicates gender differences among the victims of the “Final Solution”’. (P 176).
In the film the experience of the Jewish women is represented by others and women survivors only appear fleetingly. Perhaps surprisingly there are a number of witnesses amongst the Polish and Germans interviewed who are women:
But among the Jewish survivors who speak and give their account in the film, the erasure of difference and particularly, the almost complete absence of women are striking”. (P 177).
They comment that for Lanzmann that gender is irrelevant to the death machine which is designed specifically to de-gender, declass and dehumanise and then destroy the traces.
Lanzmann therefore backgrounds the subjective experience of the victims. Yet they note that in other accounts of the Holocaust significant gender differences do emerge where:
… women speak of the effects of ceasing to menstruate and the fear that their fertility would never return, they speak of rape, sexual humiliation, sexual exchange, abuse, enforced abortions and the necessity of killing their own and other women’s babies.(P 177).
For Hirsch and Spitzer it is clear that the extermination selection process meant that maternity was a greater liability than paternity so they argue that the focus and method used by Lanzmann does enact an erasure of women ‘however’, they comment, “…traces of gender difference are nonetheless re-inscribed in his film.” They took as their task in this article to job differences making the gendered translation described by the title of the article.
Most of the women such as Paula Biren disappear after a brief interview unlike the male survivors. Only one women ain the film goes through Lanzmann’s methods of “reliving” of “experiencing in the present”. This was Inge Deutschkron who returns to
At this stage Hirsch and Spitzer point out that Shoah’s equalisation of difference “extends to the realm of morality as well.” Here we are dealing with what Primo Levi described as a ‘moral grey zone’. This can be applied to those Jews who survived because they became Kapos and participated in work details. Lanzmann avoids dealing with the implications of this participation. Although differences in testimony appear, differences in experiences are downplayed.
The highly gendered approach which has been identified in Lanzmann’s work perhaps reflects the gendered nature of Judaism itself. Hirsch and Spitzer comment on the reports in the film about Jewish leaders during the Holocaust Freddy Hirsch and Czerniziow who by committing suicide:
“…act out the masculine response to the realisation that there is no future left.”
This is a privileging of a male perspective within the film. By comparison Shoah only deals very briefly with the suicide of female suicide, yet the women’s suicides seem less self-centred than the men’s:
“For these women death is an act of final resistance: escape for themselves and their offspring from prolonged suffering at the hands of their oppressors.” (P 184).
Hirsch & Spitzer then proceed to argue that in Shoah the double position which women have in societies observed in a cross-cultural way - citing the anthropologist Maurice Bloch- has been reduced. This double position is one of representing both death and generativity:
“The feminine connection to generativity, is eradicated, which seems to make the first connection to destruction doubly terrifying. Within the context of the film women come to represent death without regeneration.” (p 184).
This insight leads them to re-examine events in terms of the Greek myth of Orpheus. On this reading Shoah is composed of a ‘bearing witness’ from inside hell or Hades in a way which is redolent of Orpheus. In the myth he has a hauntingly beautiful voice and he also leaves a woman behind. To develop this insight they turn to the work of Klaus Theweleit which examines Orphic creation as a form of false creativity. Thus the creativity of the Jewish survivors creating a range of institutions is an artificial ‘birth’. In the Orpheus myth women play the role of ‘media’ the intermediaries acting as voices and translators not as primary creators or witnesses. They argue that in Shoah it is Lanzmann and his male participants who give birth to a story which never should have been heard:
“In a modern manifestation of Orphic creation, together with these “Orphic” male survivors of the journey to Hell, Lanzmann circumvents women and mothers and initiates and new form of transmission for modern Jewish history”. (p 186).
The daughter of a survivor mediated so that her father would speak the unspeakable.
By relying on the women in Shoah who can virtually not be seen the process of inquiry – the methods – become a gendered translation – of events. Women in Shoah remain, “ … shadowy intermediary voices between language and silence, between what is articulated and what must remain unspeakable.” (p 186).
Hirsch and Spitzer also make another link to mythic structure of Shoah in relation to Medusa who:
“calls into question the very act of looking: to look is to be possessed, to lose oneself, to find oneself pulled into the absolute alterity of death. In that sense Medusa is the figure most endangering for cinema, especially for the cinematic evocation and representation of death.” (p 187)
They note that Lanzmann insists that his film is a performance not a documentary but “women are left out of these remarkable performances.” They conclude correctly that Lanzmann’s film has succeeded in bearing witness to the – event –without – witness, but that it erases the difference between past and present and that it has the mythic and artistic force of Orphic creation whilst revealing the politics of this mythology ‘by replicating the sacrifice of Eurydice and the slaying of Medusa”.
It has been the intention of this review to tackle a few of the contributions in depth rather than skim briefly over many. Those who are interested will I’m sure be prepared to persevere with the other essays for the book as a whole is full of fascinating and frequently poignant comments. The introductory essay by Liebman is very good and raises many interesting questions about the role of memory within history itself, a question which is outside of the scope of the review. For those interested in the cinema of the Holocaust and also those interested in documentary film making methods this book is a must.
September 09, 2007
Sally Potter Webliography
Sally Potter Independent Film Maker
Who is Sally Potter Video
Along with many other British director entries this entry is 'work in progress' nevertheless it will provide a basic signposting to other available resources on the web in the first instance until I'm able to make a fuller evaluation.
Pause for reflection
I think I may have had one of those epiphanic moments caused (surprisingly) by reading a recent book on Feminist Film Studies (McCabe 2004) which I will review shortly. Covering the developments and twists and turns in feminist film theory over the last 40 years I found it clear, fascinating and informative. But it also started to trigger cultural memory. Remembering back to the 1970s the desire of many of those involved in alternative politics including the Women's movement was the desire to have alternative representations made by people themselves, allied to alternative distribution systems and different spaces to experience these alternatives. Elsewhere on this blog I have listed the women filmmakers in the history of the UK that I could find any reference to. The list is gradually developing links to entries about these filmmakers. The list is pitifully short!
Whilst not decrying the importance of criticism and theory it is interesting that a body of theory which was politically motivated in a non-party way has so signally failed to develop through Feminist Films Studies a deeper engagement with production. Yet as a lecturer in a tertiary college the Media Studies course promotes production. In the AS level it has been interesting over a few years to see what women students have chosen to make an advertising campaign about. Some have certainly expressed concerns which young women in social reality face such as drink spiking and harrassement through mobile phones. What will the young women do for their Advanced Production Unit which is moving image based? This unit provides opportunities for young women to become more involved in the production side thus challenging the predominance of having men behind the camera. At a rhetorical level what happens to these young women film makers, because there are still very few out there making it? This posting will start to create a virtual hub from what is available on the web dealing with this gap between women film makers and feminist film studies. At the end of the day it is the current industrial and institutional structures which need to be taken on and a different policy framework created if the situation is going to change. Sally Potter's enthusiasm energy and committment provide a beacon but she can also be seen as an exception which proves the rule.
In her conclusion Janet McCabe makes a swift reference to German women film makers in the early 1970s. Although she doesn't dwell on this I had remembered earlier whilst reading her book how dynamic that period of New German Cinema had been. Julia Knight has written a good book about the period and the sudden emergence of women filmmakers often theoretically well informed. Sadly the films are currently unavailable in the UK. The role of TV as a commissioning body was important in ennabling this upsurge of women's film making to develop. There are lessons there for Feminist Film Studies which sadly seems only tangentially engaged in the important area of film policy which is where much of the power lies.
Sally Potter is the UKs most well known woman film maker and what follows is a webliography. When time allows more analytic and critical discussion about her work will be posted.
Sally Potter Webliography
Kristy Mckim Senses of Cinema article
The Tango Lesson (Sony site)
Yes (Sony site)
Sally Potter's own notes on her adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando
Sally Potter directs Carmen. Here Sally Potter is directing Carmen with English National Opera. The facts that Potter moves across different performance genres is rather like Visconti. Admirable!
Interview by Sophie Mayer with Sally Potter on Carmen. (Please note Mayer is bringing out a book on sally Potter with Wallflower Press in 2008)
BBC Review of The Man Who Cried
BBC Interview with Sally Potter
Rose Capp Senses of Cinema article on The Man Who Cried
Film Freak Central Interview with Sally Potter
Reverse Shot interview with Potter on Yes
September 06, 2007
Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City
Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. 2006. Mark Shiel. Wallflower Press Short Cuts Series Paperback
Return to film Studies Book Reviews
In all of this, the notion of representing ‘the real’ – real society, real cities, real people – has become more and more compromised and indeed commodified. In this cultural climate, perhaps the time is right to reclaim the real for its radical potential. (Shiel p 127)
I still think that Italian Cinema from 1943 to approximately 1980 is the most productive and interesting one of any national cinema. Sadly it is becoming less well known as this period disappears into history. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly any serious study of the period is embedded in Italian departments and knowledge is thus limited to a few cognoscenti. Neorealism is one of the few aspects of Italian cinema taught more generally on film studies courses however this is often restricted to a brief chapter in a more general film history book. Yet ,as Shiel’s last paragraph cited above notes, rather than the solidarity of early neorealism being an historical occurrence perhaps the sentiments and general approach of neorealism are due a revival. As globalisation runs its course leaving pockets of bitter poverty in even the richest countries and in countries like Brazil leading to bullet proof cars and helicopters for the upper classes representing the real seems to be becoming a priority.
Shiel’s recent book on neorealism is therefore more than welcome because it allows the interested follower of Italian cinema and also students an accessible but authoritative route into this fascinating period of European and Italian history in greater depth. The reader won't put of by the intensely theoretical work which is aimed at a very small target audience of those already in the know which is in part unfortunate outcome of the pressure of the research assessment exercise in Universities.
I strongly recommend this to colleagues in the tertiary sector who teach courses such as the neorealism option on the World Cinema unit for the WJEC A level. It may also be useful for student supervisors of the OCR critical research project area for those taking the World Cinema option. Whilst the book will be too difficult for most sixth formers it will prove a remarkable useful resource which is very well informed indeed as well as original and imaginative and well written as one would expect from somebody who is teaching on the recently upgraded film studies depart at Kings College London.
Technical Aspects of the Book
It may seem a little churlish and pedantic to be critical of the book’s organisation but it would have been useful to have had pages references in the index to mentions of specific films, perhaps under the name of the director as Bondanella does in his large general history of Italian cinema. It is very useful to be able to navigate straight to comment upon a particular film without having to trawl through the book. As none of the other books in this series do this perhaps Wallflower will think about doing this should the titles come out in revised editions which many of them deserve to.
What is Neorealism?
The iconic image of Anna Magnani as Pina moments before being gunned down in Rossellini's Roma Citta Aperta
(Link to BBC interview with Rossellini on this Rossellini page)
Defining Neorealism very precisely is fraught with difficulties. Discourse around Neorealism tends to fall into two schools of thought however Shiel neatly sidesteps this with a convincing argument. Defining any cultural moment is notoriously difficult and the more closely the object of research is gazed upon the more heterogeneous it can seem. Shiel notes that the term Neorealism can be used ‘flexibly’. For some, Neorealism runs from Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) until Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957). Other have preferred a more tightly defined range of films from Rossellini’s Rome Open City to De Sica’s Umberto D (1952). This kind of discussion can quickly fall into point-scoring and it is more useful to see the whole period as being inextricably linked and indeed being strongly influential well beyond 1957. In this sense Raymond Williams’ notion of ‘structures of feeling’ is a useful term to call upon when discussing cultural moments and movements. Shiel chooses the following approach:
Neorealism is also thought of not so much as a particular moment defined by starting and end dates, but as a historically – and culturally – specific manifestation of the general aesthetic quality known as ‘realism’, which is characterised by a disposition to the ontological truth of the physical visible world. From this perspective, the realism of Italian Neorealism manifested itself in a distinctive visual style. (Shiel: 2006 p1).
Importantly Shiel points out that not all neorealist films contain all of the cinematic strategies that neorealism is know for – location shooting, use of non-professional actors etc. There isn’t a precise formulaic set of rules to describe neorealism.
De Sica holds to the notion of having a non-professional actor in the leading role in Umberto D
Neorealism as a Wider Cultural Movement
Neorealism was a much wider cultural movement than just cinema. Many people will be familiar with writers such as Calvino who were strongly associated with neorealism however the movement extended to photographers and painters and interestingly also architects. This link to architecture was something new to me and is dealt with in chapter three of the book called neorealism and the City. Calvino’s book Invisible Cities is of course one link and Deleuze of course wrote about the different city space of post-war cinema because the spaces of the cities were opened up by the devastation of the fighting. Rossellini deal with this in Paisa particularly in the episode based upon Florence, but nowhere is more marked than in his Germany Year Zero where he was specifically invited by the authorities to film in Berlin because of Paisa and of course Rome Open City. Other critics and theorists apart from Deleuze also wrote extensively about the city and cinema especially Kracauer and Bazin.
Rossellini's Germany Year Zero
The Structure of the Book
The book is well structured with an initial chapter describing neorealism, here the importance of the French pre-war directors Renoir, Carne and Clair is emphasised. The chapter also contains some useful synopses of the emergence of neorealist directors under the Fascist regime such as Rossellini and De Sica. The book then moves on to examine the first phase of neorealism as Shiel understands it because he sees work of the 1950s as being part of neorealism which is adapting to changing circumstances rather than being a complete break with what had gone before. In the first phase the dominant feel of the films are built around a notion of solidarity.
I found chapter three perhaps the most interesting because Shiel has applied the growing interest within the fields of film and cultural studies with the city and representations of the city to the realm of neorealist cinema.
Neoralist images of post-war urban crisis are an especially important legacy because Italy was the only one of the defeated Axis powers whose cinematic representations of the city achieved iconic status internationally so soon after its military defeat. (Shiel p68)
He has also extended the concept of neorealism to movements in architecture allied to notions of building for community. Shiel also draws parallels in the shift from phase one of neorealism (solidarity), to the second phase (focusing more on disaffection and alienation) to shifts in architectural discourse and practices.
Modern Northern Milan meets Southern emigrants in Rocco and his Brothers from Visconti.
It is a great film and thoroughly embedded with the concrns of modernisation and modernity. Visconti meets Dickens with politics perhaps. It is a film which seems to be a direct descendent if not a continuation of neorealism. Its treatment of the city is well worth considering in depth. However it isn't a film which Shiel mentions, whilst writers like Bondanella rather sweep aside its powerful political insights suggesting it is more operatic and melodramatic than having the spirit of " a naturalist novel or a neorealist film". (Bondanella 2002, p198)
Chapter four is entitled “The Battle for Neorealism”. It focuses upon the rapidly changing circumstances within Italian society as Italian politics consolidated around the Christian Democrats who were victorious in the 1948 general election a time when Hollywood comes to dominate Italian cinema. Shiel also notes the demands from the more hard-line left such as the critic Umberto Barbaro ( http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/cinemaitalia/neorealism.html ) for a move towards an aesthetic based upon Socialist-Realism, which had less to do with reality and more to do with creating mythical heroes. In this chapter Shiel also makes a brief comment upon Visconti’s Bellissima largely following Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s position in which Bellissima carries:
…neorealist hallmarks but its light-hearted comedy and melodrama set it somewhat apart from the rest of Visconti’s generally political oeuvre. (Shiel p 93).
As can be seen from my review of the recently released DVD of Bellissima from Eureka Video I have a reading which gives Visconti credence for having a sharp political cutting edge whilst still maintaining the solidarity of neorealism which is hammered home (perhaps unconvincingly but that is an artistic comment not a political one).Hopefully readers won’t be put off Visconti’s excellent film by this comment.
A moving moment in Visconti's Bellissima as the built in advantages of the middle classes aremade abundantly clear
Poster of Antonioni’s Cronaca di’un amore
In chapter five Shiel reviews neorealism’s second phase. In this analysis he is in agreement with Andre Bazin who considers that it was in the closing shot of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria that finally closes the door on neorealism. The chapter opens with an analysis of Antonioni’s Cronaca di’un amore. Sadly I haven’t seen this film which along with I think all of Antonioni’s early work is unavailable in the UK so I’m unable to comment upon Shiel’s analysis beyond noting that there is no reason to think of it as anything but thorough.
Rossellini's Voyage in Italy
In chapter five Shiel also comments upon the films of Rossellini from this period, with some time spent on Voyage in Italy one of several from this time made with Ingrid Bergman. This film at least is available in an excellent BFI version with a very interesting analytical commentary by Laura Mulvey as an extra. Shiel says of Voyage in Italy:
Comprises an expansion of neorealism in the direction of the metaphysical or spiritual concerns and resembles the direction taken by Antonioni. (p 104).
Rossellini had commented as early as 1949 very soon after the Christian Democrats came to power that “ You cannot go on shooting in ruined cities forever”, a clear recognition of the rapid changes and that European reconstruction was beginning to have an effect. Shiel argues that in Francis God’s Jester (available from Eureka video) Rossellini was playing with a metaphor where the relationship with God and other humans was played out in the absence of material. A comment perhaps on the priorities of the CD party and the values being expressed as what became known as the ‘economic miracle’ got under way.
Above from Fellini's Nights of Cabiria
From here Shiel moves to examine the work of Fellini who made six films during this period of the early to mid-fifties. The focus here lies upon Nights of Cabiria. Shiel suggests that Fellini:
Employed realism as a window onto internal character although like the films of Antonioni and Rossellini they never strayed far from social concerns and presented their personal tragedies as narratives with real social implications. (p 113)
Shiel notes that it was this film which initially working within a neorealist framework grows out of it in its final moments. It was Bazin who noted that whilst the film remained largely neorealist he noted that Cabiria was looking at the spectator in a way that changed the relationship of the spectator to the film moving away from the objectivity of the spectator prized by neorealism.
Shiel’s conclusion which I have noted at the beginning of this review notes the legacy of neorealism. Here Shiel claims a wide range of important films on a global scale were influenced by neorealism. Whist I don’t wish to decry these claims I think that the social concern expressed in We are the Lambeth Boys by Karel Reisz (1959) may be underplaying the British documentary connection especially the influence of Humphrey Jennings many of whose films are considerably underestimated. In that sense the notions of realism which Shiel clearly thinks have been seriously downplayed in academia in recent years partially because of the rise of post-modern discourse has a wide and deep roots running through European film culture. Certainly the work of Francesco Rosi and Olmi kept the neorealist flame alive in Italy itself.
From Olmi's Tree of Wooden Clogs
As an excellent, readable, rigorously researched but accessible book this is the best that I have read on neorealism from the perspective of the more general reader. It would be an excellent book to have as a reference for those new to neorealism as it provides enough contextual information to place this loose movement in a holistic sense, it chooses a good range of films to use as brief case studies and provides an historical scope which includes both the origins of the movement and the long-term influences of this movement which has had a critical success which far outweighs the box-office returns of the time. The book provides a good range of films to be followed up and an excellent range of references which opportunities for the more committed reader to follow up. This book is a must for students, teachers and those interested in Italian and / or European cinema and comes strongly recommended.