Cinema of Germany


A German Party, Simon Brückner’s magnificent political documentary about the workings of the far-right outfit Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), begins with a declaration of its own uselessness. Allaying the worry of party members that a camera in the room might make their financial discussions public, senior leader Frank-Christian Hansel informs them that the film will not release until 2022, that is after the 2021 parliamentary elections, and by then it won’t be of much value. A German Party has nothing to be embarrassed about the comment, for its goal is not to persuade voters or influence elections.

Founded in 2013, the AfD experienced a meteoric rise in its first years, winning 12.6% of the votes in the 2017 federal elections to become the first far-right party since the Second World War to enter the Bundestag. Feeding off anxieties triggered by the migrant crisis, the AfD gained as much as every third vote in certain regions of erstwhile East Germany, but has since experienced a backlash for its shift further to the right of the political spectrum. In 2020, the domestic intelligence service placed large sections of the AfD under surveillance, classifying them as a threat to the constitution.

Outside of opening and closing title cards, however, the film gives very little contextualizing information. There are few markers of time and place, no direct interviews or archival clips to aid the viewer. The film follows a handful of party members, but we learn their names only incidentally, if at all. Divided into six chapters and spanning three years, Brückner’s fly-on-the-wall documentary instead drops us into the middle of the operations, alternatingly walking us through cool deliberations of top-level meetings and high-temperature confrontations of grassroots activism. The result is a markedly composite picture that offers a sense of the heterogeneity of an organization popularly considered an ideological monolith.

The very first scene, where party workers discuss slogans coined for the upcoming campaign, lays down the orientations and beliefs of the AfD: distrust of the establishment (“Courage for Truth” goes the main catchphrase), the European Union (“More Europe, Less EU”), immigration (“Integration Needs a Dominant Culture”), eco-socialism (“Stop with the Windmills”) and a support for the army (“Modernize the Army”), heterosexuality (“Only Mom and Dad Make the Future”) and the family (“Grandkids Safeguard Grandma’s Pension”). “Screwing for pensions,” jokes one skeptical member, prompting another to point out that the slogans are there to galvanize the voter, not the partymen: the bait is for the fish, not the fisherman.

These hot-button topics recur throughout A German Party, but the film avoids sensationalism and instead emphasizes the ordinariness of the AfD’s day-to-day negotiations — a risky move that could invite charges of mainstreaming the group. The film was made with the consent and cooperation of its participants, who perhaps saw in it an opportunity to polish their public image. The individuals we see here aren’t the tattooed, tonsured skinheads of Vice documentaries, but ordinary citizens and politicians formulating responses to specific issues, solving logistical problems or involved in public outreach.

Yet, what we get is far from an attempt at white-washing, and the film sheds its mundane garb at regular intervals to reveal the pathologies of movement we are dealing with. “Those who don’t love Germany can leave,” states a speechmaker of the party’s youth faction. Another one talks about land-grabbing migrants from Africa taking up too much space in public transport. Supremacist jokes, anti-mask rhetoric, badmouthing of news media and references to Prussian valour should ring alarm bells even for the uninitiated viewer. In one sequence, party members dressed in suits drive to a refugee camp near the Bosnian border to make incendiary videos for their TikTok accounts. When they spot three figures in the far distance, they get into a mini panic and prepare to leave.

These incriminating evidences aside, the film pronounces no further judgment. It is so focused on the mechanics of party operation that every viewer is likely to walk away with their own evaluation of the AfD. There are thematic connections between the chapters, but A German Party doesn’t aim for an exhaustive portrait. Condensing five hundred hours of footage into a commercially viable two-hour runtime, the film instead positions the AfD as an elephant that can only ever be partially apprehended.

Indeed, even the members of the party perceive it in highly divergent ways. Each one has a theory of what its identity, strengths and failings are, of why the party isn’t succeeding or how it should correct course, but these assessments are riddled with contradictions. Unity is important to some, getting rid of dissidents to others. The AfD is too niche and must reach out to a wider audience, believe a few. It is already spreading itself too thin in trying to appeal to the entire right half of the political radar, think others. The fact that many of AfD’s leaders are not seasoned politicians like those in other parties is seen as both an advantage and a shortcoming.

These contradictions have to do with the evolution of the AfD itself. What is so compelling about A German Party is that it presents a political outfit fully caught up in the dialectical process of self-definition, an organization trying to identify itself through differentiation — a body at its mirror stage, as it were. The need for the party to go mainstream, to form alliances and influence policy, runs up against the image that it has built for itself, namely that it represents a force outside the establishment. The most intriguing suggestion of Brückner’s film may be that rightward shift of the party, far from signalling the formation of a coherent ideology, may actually be the fruit of a lack of clear identity; the AfD is the AfD because it is not the CDU or the NPD.

A German Party shows the degree to which AfD is caught up in an internal war between the ‘moderates’ and the ‘extremists.’ Party chief Jörg Meuthen calls the provocateurs of the party’s extreme-right factions “pubescent schoolboys,” which convinces some that Meuthen must go. (He did, in January 2022.) In convention after convention, we witness radicals elbowing out their rivals for candidacy and party positions. The fight is not just at the level of leadership; at a tiny borough meeting of three people, an elderly member bats for the deportation of Muslim families, a proposal that doesn’t go well with the meeting host.

There are other internal incompatibilities too. We see politicians promising higher financial security, better welfare, more protection from international competition to impoverished towns of the east. But a significant cross-section of the party, including its aggressive economic wing, appears to be of a libertarian tendency. The tug-of-war is most apparent on the issue of Covid-19 measures. We discover that as much as 70% of the party membership doesn’t believe that the restrictions are excessive. Yet we get the impression that the AfD condones, or has no control over, its extremist wings, Flügel and Junge Alternative, who conduct strident anti-vaccination, anti-masking rallies.

Whether this lack of consensus points to a healthy culture of debate and democracy within the party, or a kind of doublespeak that appeals to two different voter bases or simply ideological inconsistency is left to the viewer to decipher. Towards the end of the film, the residents of a flood-ravaged town refuse to take the relief money offered by the AfD, reportedly out of concern about associating with the party. Is the refusal a reflection of Germany’s robust democracy and its people’s moral courage, or is it a sign of their cowardice and self-destructive political correctness? For you to judge.

 

[First published in News9]

I learnt a new term on social media this year (or maybe it was last year, who knows?): the Overton Window. Wikipedia defines it as “range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time.” By extension, it also designates the gamut of utterances that defines the limits of a discourse at a given point in time. As we sit aghast here in India watching this window slide to the right of the political spectrum—to a point that inclusion of conservative and extreme-right figures on televised debates constitutes diversity of opinion—the pandemic appears to have redrawn the old battle lines of film discourse. Forget the fight for celluloid over digital cinematography and projection. The old fogeys of today are those that think the theatrical experience means something, while the median of the Overton Window consists in debating what makes for good OTT content.

I don’t feel particularly compelled to take sides on this debate. As it happens, 2021 was the year that I did not go to the cinemas at all, and truth be told, it wasn’t entirely due to the health crisis. A number of other projects kept me busy in these twelve months, including the release of the hardcover version of my first book, and as it is, I find it increasingly hard to get excited about this or the other production. Except for the end-year binge that made this list possible, I must say I hardly saw films in 2021 and that includes older ones. I regret not being able to watch West Side Story, which had a run of less than a week in my city and was elbowed out by another Disney tentpole released on the same day. Who would have thought that the Overton Window now ranges from Spielberg to Spiderman? Anyway, here are my favourite films from this cursed year.

 

1. France (Bruno Dumont, France)

What comprises the blight of modern life? The reverse shot, answers Bruno Dumont in his scorching new dramedy about celebrity news reporter France, played by a dazzling Léa Seydoux, who cannot help but make it about herself in every story she does. Fresh off two films on Joan of Arc, Dumont gets his hands dirty with the profane world of modern media. And yet, it’s a spiritual tale that he tells. The filmmaker often quotes Péguy about the need to “stand up where one is.” That is what France does after she is subject to one moral crisis after another in her professional and personal life: rattled by a minor accident that she causes, France begins to see things “as they are”, subtracting herself from the reverse shot, but this grasping at saintliness doesn’t last long. She returns to her profession, not necessarily wiser but more authentic, and in doing so, reaches a state that may be seen as one of grace. It isn’t a media satire that France is after, but something all-pervasive, the simultaneous genuineness and falsity of our emotions faced with harrowing images of the world. Dumont’s film is daring, tasteless, compelling, overblown, contradictory and superbly stylized. Familiar but uncanny, it is everything you don’t want it to be.

 

2. Dear Chantal (Nicolás Pereda, Mexico)

An apartment evermore waiting to be occupied, letters responding to inquiries not heard, a voice never embodied in the image: Pereda’s five-minute short is a haunting, haunted tribute to the late Chantal Akerman that is structured around absence and substitution. We hear Pereda replying to fictitious queries by the Belgian filmmaker about renting out his sister’s apartment in Mexico City, and we see his sister readying the apartment, moving out paintings or clearing foliage from the skylight. In the film’s robust organization, Pereda, his sister and Akerman become mediums, connecting links in each other’s (after)lives: Pereda, unseen, serving as a middleman between the apartment owner and the impossible future tenant; his sister, unheard, taking the place of Akerman who will never feature in Pereda’s film; and Akerman herself, unseen and unheard, bringing the siblings together in a non-existent real estate deal. In an act of respect and love, Dear Chantal creates a physical space for Akerman to continue to exist, even if not in flesh and blood, just as No Home Movie, Akerman’s final work before her suicide in 2015, grappled with the physical absence of her recently deceased mother. The film imagines an alternate reality that brings Pereda and Akerman together not in artistic collaboration, but in the banal transactions of everyday living.

 

3. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Aleksandre Koberidze, Georgia)

How would Lubitsch do it? Well, if the old master were a contemporary filmmaker, ‘it’ would probably resemble Koberidze’s off-kilter, disarming romantic comedy about two lovers-to-be who work at a shop around the corner without recognizing each other all summer. What Do We See is obviously designed to please, but there is never a sense that it panders to its audience. Like the best storytellers, Koberidze knows that pleasure can be deepened by deferring gratification, and to this end, his film takes surprising excursions away from its central story, restarting at will and relegating its lead couple to the margin as though reposing faith in destiny to bring them together. This vast negative space of the narrative clarifies the larger objective of the film, which is to integrate its characters into the landscape of the ancient town of Kutuisi, whose faces and places, ebbs and flows, become the central subject. Pinning down the fable-like story on the voiceover allows the director to employ a complex, highly unusual visual syntax—that nevertheless derives from classical Hollywood cinema—without disorienting the viewer. The film involves magic, but Koberidze demonstrates that a towel flying through the frame can be as enrapturing as the most outlandish fairy tales.

 

4. Babi Yar. Context (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine)

The title says it all. Loznitsa’s new documentary represents a modulation of style for the filmmaker. Where his found footage work so far dropped the viewer into specific historical events in medias res, without much preparation, Babi Yar. Context offers a broader picture. With the help of archival material, but also uncharacteristic intertitles, the film details the events leading up to, and following, the Babi Yar Massacre of September 1941, where over 33,000 Jews were killed over two days in the eponymous ravine in Kiev. We see Ukrainian citizens welcoming the occupying Nazi forces with enthusiasm and collaborating in the persecution of their Jewish compatriots. In an illustration of the failure of archival, the massacre itself isn’t represented except in photographs of its aftermath. Loznitsa’s shocking film is a rousing J’accuse! directed at his nation, at the willingness of its citizens in enabling genocide, at the amnesia that allowed for the valley to be turned into an industrial dumping ground. Loznitsa’s newfound desire to contextualize his material should be construed less as a loss of faith in images to speak ‘for themselves’ than as a critical acknowledgement of their power to deceive. After all, the Red Army is welcomed with comparable pomp after they liberate Kiev, this formal continuity with the reception of the Nazis concealing a crisis of content.

 

5. Bellum – The Daemon of War (David Herdies, Georg Götmark, Sweden/Denmark)

The spectre of Harun Farocki hovers over Herdies and Götmark’s excellent documentary about war, technology and the production of images. A meditation on Western attitudes to armed conflict, Bellum unfolds as an anthology of three human interest stories: a Swedish engineer involved in designing an AI-powered military drone that will take autonomous decisions on bombing a perceived target, a war veteran in Nevada suffering from PTSD and having trouble reintegrating into civilian life, a photojournalist from the East Coast who covers the aftermath of the Afghan war. Well-meaning though these individuals might be, their lives and work are marked by a certain guilt surrounding the fact of war. This is evident in the case of the vet, but the photographer’s own activity may not be untouched by a liberal sense of culpability about her country’s interventions in Afghanistan. The engineer’s efforts to bypass the human factor of war, too, is an attempt to eradicate feelings of guilt about liquidating an enemy, which, the film’s narrator notes, is the only real restraining force in armed conflict. Bellum cogently points out the ways in which technology—of training, of intervention—increasingly eliminates human fallibility from the equation of war, for as Colonel Kurtz put it, “it’s judgment that defeats us.”

 

6. The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, USA)

I don’t know if Bruno Dumont and Paul Schrader saw each other’s films this year, but I’m certain they would both have much to say to one another. If First Reformed (2017) was the subtext, The Card Counter is the text, a film that is all surface. Where the earlier work stood out in the authenticity of its character and milieu, the new film aspires to an artificiality worthy of the casinos and bars it mostly unfolds in. Schrader tells the same Catholic story he has always been telling, that of God’s Lonely Man who is mired in mud but has his eyes on the skies. Oscar Isaac portrays William Tell, convict turned cardsharp who tries to save a younger man from self-destruction, but faced with divine indifference, decides to play God himself. Formally, Schrader doesn’t deviate from the Bresson-Ozu-Dreyer axis of the previous film—what Schrader rightly or otherwise called the Transcendental Style—and this reserve produces a productive friction between the film’s style and noir setting of the story. In that, The Card Counter is highly reminiscent of American Gigolo (1980), which is to say that, despite the references to Abu Ghraib, it is a work completely out of joint with the present. It is incredible this film even exists.

 

7. The Year Before the War (Dāvis Sīmanis, Latvia)

Even if we are done with the 20th century, suggests Sīmanis’ singular, absurd period comedy, the 20th century isn’t yet done with us. When Hans, an opportunistic doorman at a Riga hotel, is falsely implicated in a bombing, he flees the Latvian capital to shuttle from one European city to another. The Europe of 1913 that Hans traverses is less a real geography than an abstract zone of competing political currents. War is around the corner, and there are several groups trying to influence the course of history. Zealous ideologues seek to entice and co-opt him, subjecting him to what Louis Althusser called “interpellation.” All through, Hans fights hard to follow his own moral compass, flee subjecthood and retain his individuality. A historical picaresque, Sīmanis’ film is interested in the singularity of this particular juncture in Western history—a point at which fin de siècle optimism about technology and human rationality came crashing against the reality of trench warfare—where countless isms sought to impose their own vision on the world. It would seem that Sīmanis views Latvia of the early 20th century as something of an ideological waystation, an unstable intellectual field where free radicals like Hans couldn’t help but be neutralized. And that vision isn’t without contemporary resonance.

 

8. Mr. Bachmann and His Class (Maria Speth, Germany)

Maria Speth’s expansive documentary about a batch of preteen students, mostly of an immigrant background, in a public school in Stadtallendorf, Hessen, is a classroom film that achieves something special. Remaining with the children for almost its entire four-hour runtime allows it to individuate them, to look at them as independent beings with their own skills, desires and prejudices, just as their charismatic teacher-guide-philosopher Dieter Bachmann adopts a different approach to each of his pupils. For Bachmann, it would seem, whatever the students accomplish academically during the year is of secondary importance. He knows that he is dealing with a group with an inchoate sense of self: first as pre-adolescents, then as new immigrants. Consequently, he spends a great deal of effort in giving them a sense of community, creating a space where they can be themselves. At the same time, the classroom is a social laboratory where new ideas are introduced and the children brought to interrogate received opinion, all under Bachmann’s paternal authority. Speth insists on the particularity of these individuals and there is no sense that our star teacher is indicative of the schooling system in Germany at large. Bachmann is an exception, and in his exceptionalism lies a promise, a glimpse of how things could be.

 

9. Out of Sync (Juanjo Giménez, Spain)

It’s an ingenious, wholly cinematic premise: estranged from family and friends, a sound engineer spends her nights at her film studio until she starts to experience a lag between what she sees and what she hears. Juanjo Giménez’s absorbing psychological thriller riffs on this setup, weaving its implications into a coherent character study of a young woman out of sync with her life. The result contains some very amusing set pieces constructed around the delay between sound and image, but also one of the most sublime romantic scenes of all time, one that begins with rude abandonment and ends at a silent movie show. Marta Nieto is brilliant as the unnamed protagonist who withdraws into a shell and then reconnects with herself and the world. She brings a fierce independence to the character that nuances its vulnerability. Its claustrophobic premise notwithstanding, Out of Sync feels like a very open work, integrated gracefully with the urban landscape of beautiful Barcelona. Watching the film in 2021, when so much of real-world interaction has been rendered into digital images and sounds, using Bluetooth speakers with their own latency to boot, is an uncanny experience.

 

10. Shared Resources (Jordan Lord, USA)

Ambitious to a fault, American artist Jordan Lord’s new work is nearly unwatchable. Yet it bends the documentary form like few films this year. Shared Resources is a home movie made over a considerable period of time, presented in scrambled chronology. We learn that Lord’s father was a debt collector fired by his bank, that his health is deteriorating due to diabetes, that the family lost most of its possessions in the Hurricane Katrina and that they had to declare bankruptcy shortly after Lord’s acceptance into Columbia University. All this material is, however, offered not directly but with a voiceover by Lord and his parents describing the footage we see, as though intended for the visually challenged, and two sets of subtitles, colour-coded for diegetic and non-diegetic speech, seemingly oriented towards the hearing disabled. In having his parents comment on images from rather difficult episodes in their lives, the filmmaker gives them a power over what is represented. Through all this, Lord initiates an exploration of debt in all its forms and shapes: paternal debt towards children, filial debt towards parents, the debt of a documentary filmmaker towards their subjects, one’s debt to their own body, the fuzzy line between love and indebtedness. This is an American film with an Asian sensibility.

 

Special Mention: From Where They Stood (Christophe Cognet, France/Germany)

Favourite Films of

2020 • 2019 • 2015 • 2014 • 2013 • 2012 • 2011 • 2010 • 2009

It is in leaving the Lumière factory that the workers give themselves over to cinema, that they attain the status both of actresses and of future spectators. Moving away from work, they enter the enchanted world of entertainment. For the world of work is only weakly enchanted (enchanting), and unlikely to be enchanted in return by cinema, except in the form of a nightmare…

– Jean-Louis Comolli, Images Documentaires 24

On 22 March 1895, in the Rue de Rennes in Paris, inventor and industrialist Louis Lumière presented a private demo of a motion picture system he had devised with his elder brother Auguste. The device was called Cinématographe, and the 17-metre strip of celluloid used to show its working was titled Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon-Monplaisir. Lasting about fifty seconds when projected at a certain speed, it showed a mass of labourers, mostly women, leaving the Lumière facility at lunch hour from either side of two gateways. The audience at the demo, composed of businessman, researchers and photography enthusiasts, was very different from the people on screen, as most movie audiences would be in the coming decades. Traditionally considered the first ever motion picture, Lumière’s film bound labour and cinema together for eternity, the image of workers leaving the factory being a veritable birthmark for the medium.

What is less well-known, however, is that there were at least three versions of the film. In the first two iterations, the gates are already open, and the workers flood out from the first frame onwards. Even so, the factory is not emptied by the time the picture ends — that is, by the time the camera runs out of film. The culprit appears to be a horse buggy that takes time to come out of the facility. The third version premiered in the first commercial showing of Lumières’ films in the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris on 28 December, 1895. In it, the door opens only after the film has begun, and thanks to the absence of the buggy, the workers get out in time and the door is (almost) closed. Now considered the definitive version, this “first film” in the history of cinema, was in fact a remake of a remake.

Why did Louis Lumière make several versions of the film? One theory is that, since there were no internegatives in the film development process at the time, the original negative degraded with every new print made. The picture had to be therefore reshot onto a new negative so that fresh copies could be made for various screenings across the continent. Another hypothesis is that the Lumières didn’t like the quality of the picture and judged that the factory gates should close before the camera ran out of film. After all, a door opening and closing in the manner of a theatrical curtain had a certain spectacle about it that is missing in the first two versions, which drop us in medias res, so to speak.

Whatever the reason, it is believed that, after the first version of March 1895, the brothers summoned their workers for repeated takes, sometime in early summer. The planned day of reshoot falling on the Lord’s Day, the Lumières requested their employees to come to the factory after the Sunday mass to simulate the scene of workers leaving for lunch on a workday. As a result, in the second and third versions of the film, the participants’ hats and clothes are fancier, their mood more cheerful: one female employee mischievously tugs at the skirt of another just as they take leave from each other. The actors themselves seem wiser to the presence of the camera, more professional, so to speak. In comparison to its predecessors, the third film is on the whole more harmonious, less chaotic, the flow of workers out the gates more streamlined. Except for an implacable canine and his bicycle-bound master, who appear in all three versions, the play of chance in this definitive version is minimal.

It is not known whether the participants were paid for any of the versions, if not as the first actors of cinema, at least as workers doing overtime (on a Sunday to boot — France wouldn’t become officially secular until ten years later). At the time, there was no law in effect in France limiting the working hours. Labour unions were illegal in the country until 1884 and the General Confederation of Labour (La CGT), France’s first and largest confederation of labour unions was established only in September 1896, sometime between the private and the commercial screenings of Lumières’ film. On 1 May 1891, incited by Paul Lafargue (a son-in-law of Karl Marx’s), textile workers up north organized demonstrations in favour of the eight-hour work day. In the town of Fourmies, soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators, killing nine young people.

The protests were an emanation of the ferment across the Atlantic, where there was considerable labour unrest in the preceding decade. In May 1886, workers in Chicago rallied in favour of a universal adoption of the eight-hour work day, until then applicable to only certain sections of the American workforce. The rallies turned violent, a bomb exploded and several people died. Three years later, the Second International, adopted the 1st of May as the International Workers’ Day to commemorate the events in Chicago and to continue the campaign for the eight-hour work day. The demonstration at Fourmies was part of this campaign.

Much has changed in the nature of labour, its conditions and its screen representation in the century since Lumières’ film. Workers Leaving a Factory seems to possess a historical innocence that is impossible to recapture now. The men and women leaving the Lumière factory did so in an era of industrial optimism and ground-breaking scientific progress. It wasn’t until the First World War, and its technologized warfare, that this faith in scientific rationalism was seriously questioned. With Fordism rendering skilled labour ever more marginal and the Great Depression causing unprecedented levels of unemployment, industrial work could no longer be viewed the same way. The downbeat image of hunched, robotic workers changing shifts in an underground industrial-city in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) or the cut from a herd of sheep to contemporary workers leaving the subway in Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) altered the primal scene of Lumières’ film irrevocably.

For the centenary anniversary of Workers Leaving a Factory, German filmmaker Harun Farocki made a video work of the same name, which traces the cinematic genealogy of the “first film”. Analysing photographed images of workers at factory gates through the years, Farocki deems it “an image like an expression, which can be suited to many occasions”. His film views the area outside the factory as a dialectical space. For one, it is the place of direct confrontation between Labour and Capital: between picketers and guards, between strikers and the police. The factory gate becomes the membrane that separates work from workers, an economic system from its constituents. It is at the factory gate that Labour and Capital identify themselves by identifying the other

Farocki also regards this space as facilitating diverging definitions of the public and the private. On one hand, the factory entrance mashes private individuals into the mass being called workforce. It is for this reason that much of popular cinema centres on life outside work. In these films, narratives about individual lives begin once work is over and the impersonal, faceless workforce dissolves into separate somebodies. They replace the viewer’s leisure time with that of the characters, our problems with theirs and provide vicarious pleasures and catharses. “Whenever possible, film has moved hastily away from factories” says Farocki’s narrator, noting that in one hundred years of cinema, there have been more prisons and correctional facilities than factories and workers. It is indeed telling that mainstream cinema has shown itself better equipped to depict work when it is a form of punishment or a crime than when it is part of an everyday reality.

On the other hand, suggests Farocki’s film, the area in front of the factory gates is itself subject to competing notions of property and theft. While the territorial imperative of Capital defines this liminal space as the company’s private property, for the workers it becomes a public area of discussion, congregation and protest. “Where the first camera once first stood, there are now hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras”, goes Farocki’s narrator, pointing out how cinema unwittingly became an instrument to safeguard Capital. The apparent innocence of Lumières’ film may, however, be fallacious too. With the camera cranked by Louis Lumière himself, and his employees dutifully hurrying out of the factory under his instructions, it could be argued that even the first film was a form of surveillance footage.

Surveying the factory gates is evidently in the interests of owners, but what happens when employees do the surveying? In the era of invisible labour — the rise of the class of knowledge workers, the erosion of the boundary between workplace and home, and the ceaseless digitization of all work in general — does it even matter if the factory gates are watched over? Some companies certainly think so. In his digital video Workers Leaving the Googleplex (2011), American artist Andrew Norman Wilson recounts the repercussions of filming and talking to workers leaving the “ScanOps” facility at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. These temp workers, responsible for digitizing printed matter for Google Books, are comprised chiefly of people of colour and don’t have the same rights as other contract employees at the firm. Wilson, himself a contract employee with the tech giant at the time, was sacked for violating the non-disclosure agreement even though his footage barely shows any worker leaving the building. If Lumières’ film has any lasting politico-cinematic lesson, it’s that bosses will always want to be the ones holding the camera.

[Originally published at Firstpost]

Is it possible to say anything about this world-historical year without some amount of preliminary hand-wringing? Culture writers, film critics included, appear to feel obliged to present their bona fides, to relativize their work in view of the pandemic and to pre-empt any accusations of frivolity. We are already masters at the art; it is, after all, a profession that hits you with the question of relevance every single day. The silver lining, if one can call it that, in this catastrophe that has touched every person on the planet may be that barely any other pursuit seems any more relevant. Here’s to all those who lost their lives to the virus, to those who have been fighting to save us, and to those who haven’t lost sight of causes for justice, peace and compassion amid the global health crisis.

The enormous impact of the pandemic on film production, distribution and exhibition has been obvious. Streaming giants, namely Netflix, Amazon and Disney, who have been successful at vertical integration in the past few years (and are poised to go even further), seem to be the biggest gainers from this disruption. Whatever their claim about increase in consumer choice, it seems to me that it hasn’t really resulted in a diversity of viewing patterns. (Consider, for instance, the Sight & Sound critics’ poll: the 2019 edition had a total of 353 films chosen by 100 contributors whereas the 2020 version has 353 films from 104 contributors—hardly a sign of a paradigm shift.) Given their subscription model, these firms have every incentive to pump more and more money into marketing and hog the discourse. If this annus horribilis has proved anything, it’s that publications are more than willing to bend over and serve as unaffiliated PR organs for these companies.

While the cancelling of film festivals across the world was unfortunate, it gave publications and critics an unprecedented opportunity to bypass traditional tastemakers and widen their horizons. Considering that so many organizations, by generosity or lack of choice, presented their programs online for international viewers for the first time, it was an invaluable chance for film journalists to let their readers know that there was good, smart, moving and entertaining work—old and new—available outside of subscription walls and subcultural echo chambers they have themselves helped create. To my limited knowledge, this opportunity was squandered. Publications, predictably, saw their task as giving readers “what they want” instead of elevating them.

My own viewing this year was dominated by older films. Thanks to torrent archives and illegal websites, which are seemingly the only platforms making any effort to save and make older work accessible, I had the privilege of seeing countless great works from across decades and across the globe. Watching dozens of films by William A. Wellman, Luc Moullet and Alfred Hitchcock, most of which are available for free online, remain especially fond memories (Waltzes from Vienna (1934) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) are top-drawer works!). I had great fun writing about some of them for my classical Hollywood column until it was scrapped in June.

Of the 130-odd new films I saw this year (of which three in theatres), I found no masterpieces, several accomplished works amidst a sea of middling-to-uninteresting efforts. (Shoutout to Malmkrog, Siberia and The Last City for plunging into territory conventionally considered bad taste and coming out trumps.) What I sense is that, thanks to cheap digital media, more and more independent and experimental filmmakers are simply documenting every aspect of their lives, amassing vast amounts of footage without any specific purpose in mind, and reusing them when a chance arises. With the production halt of 2020, I suspect this habit will only be more apparent in the coming months. While that is certainly a valid method of working, I can’t help but feel that so many films I saw this year came across like half-cooked soups, disparate material thrown together with the hope that it will all, somehow, result in poetry—one reason why works on this list, with their rigour, intelligence and feeling, stand out in my mind.

 

1. Hopper/Welles (Orson Welles, USA)

I’ve had no greater screen delight this year than watching two white dudes chat for two hours. Orson Welles and Dennis Hopper hole up in a dark room with half a dozen technicians to talk filmmaking, politics, religion, love, magic, news, television and literature while dutiful assistants scurry about readying one refill of liquor for them after another. Welles plays the Grand Inquisitor, pressing his timid interlocutor to state his artistic and political beliefs, conjuring theories to counter him and never allowing him a resting ground. We never see him, save for rare glimpses of his bellowing pin-striped trousers moving at the edge of the frame. As Hopper’s cinematic forefather, Welles looms large, appearing to be incarnating some kind of metaphysical force, orchestrating a Kafkaesque trial for the young man. What results is a stark power imbalance between the seen and the unseen, the subject and the author, the one who is recorded and the one who wields the camera. But the primary pleasure of the film lies in seeing two artists in a terribly absorbing conversation, grappling with the cinematic-aesthetic problems of their time. Going public after fifty years, Hopper/Welles is both a standalone film and an anniversary celebration. It hasn’t dated one bit.

 

2. Forensickness (Chloé Galibert-Laîné, France/Germany)

Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s funny, sharp and dizzyingly smart video work begins as a commentary on Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives (2017), a desktop film about the crowd-sourced investigation on Reddit following the Boston bombing of 2013. As the director breaks down Kennedy’s film, analysing its narrative construction and its tendency for geometric abstraction, she voluntarily gets caught in an ‘analytical frenzy’, not unlike the Redditors themselves. As Galibert-Laîné seamlessly chains one stream of thought after another, her film evolves into a meta-reflection on our relation to images and our compulsion to create meaning from visual material. If Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (2019) saw cinephilia as a self-made prison of images, Forensickness digs deeper, revealing the epistemological malaise that is the search for meaning that animates all cinephilic pursuit. Her film lays bare the adventures of the critical mind, throwing open not only its own making, but also the thoughts producing it. Forensickness may look like an object of pure play, the result of a filmmaker “seduced by her own jokes”, even a solipsistic game in the way it asserts the inescapability from these self-imposed maps of meaning, but this magnificent work is unmistakably insightful regarding the way we make sense of the world through images.

 

3. A Machine to Live In (Yoni Goldstein & Meredith Zielke, USA/Brazil)

What remains of the modernist dream of reshaping human societies from the ground up based on scientific, rationalist principles? Goldstein and Zielke’s ambitious, erudite and formally complex city symphony seeks to find out. Its subject is Brasilia, the artificially created capital of Brazil that architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa forged out of the wilderness in the late fifties. The imposing geometric forms of the city, expressly conceived in cosmic terms and perfected like Kubrickian monoliths from outer space, appear to have all but snuffed out human presence. Machine sees this city as an otherworldly geography unfit for human life, but also allowing the possibilities of imagining utopias, catholic cultists, freemasons, biker gangs and Esperanto evangelists all finding a home within Brasilia’s orbit. Employing heterogenous narrative modes, Goldstein and Zielke develop a visually striking portrait of a city that has come to resemble a religious monument in itself, demanding awestruck worship and constant maintenance by people who can’t afford to live here. Their Brasilia is either a place that inspires dreams of reimagining life or an abyss where dreams come to die. Even as it looks back at a moment in modern intellectual history, Machine evokes questions about the future, inviting us to reflect on the eternal human desire to play demiurge.

 

4. The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane, India)

Tamhane’s superb second film feels like home territory for him. Sharad, an apprentice Hindustani music singer, is not the greatest of talents, but imagines himself as part of a tradition, one that gives a structural meaning to his life. But, the promise of omnipresence and instant gratification of the modern world beckoning him, not only does he find himself unable to live up to the lofty ideals of his tradition, he’s also is gradually disabused of these ideals themselves. In a very direct manner, The Disciple zeroes in on a fundamental, civilizational sentiment that underpins artistic succession in the subcontinent: that of filial piety, as opposed to the parricidal narrative that informs the Western conception of self-realization. Even when his faith has been questioned, Sharad continues to serve his elderly teacher, caring for him till the final days, like icon worshippers who hold on to their idols even (and especially) when the meaning behind them is lost. Tamhane builds up gradually to this assault on Sharad’s worldview, with humour, suspense and a calculated formal reserve that redoubles the impact of the emotional violence. His film invites viewers to constantly process narrative information in order to access it, providing a rich dividend for the effort.

 

5. Unusual Summer (Kamal Aljafari, Palestine)

In Unusual Summer, Aljafari repurposes CCTV tapes that his father left behind after his death in 2015. The tapes are from the summer of 2006 and were used record the parking spot outside his home to see who’s been breaking the car window. Despite the dramatic promises of the CCTV aesthetic and the location of the house in the crime-ridden district of Ramla, what we get in this film are quotidian incidents, sightings of neighbours passing by, the picture of a town going about everyday business. Aljafari adds a sparse ambient soundtrack that imparts Tati-esque colour to the proceedings, with the passers-by on screen becoming veritable characters. This transformation of private surveillance footage into a session of window-watching and people-spotting produces a feeling of community and forges a relation of inheritance between the filmmaker and his father, the only two people to have seen these tapes. Supremely calming though it is, Unusual Summer is also seared by loss and mourning, the familiar faces, places, animals and trees that register like spectral presences on the lo-fi video having vanished in the intervening years following intrusions by the Israeli state. A minimalist gem that speaks to our now-amplified urge to reach out to others.

 

6. The Game of Shifting Mirrors (Amit Dutta, India)

Dutta’s richly dialectical new film draws out themes from Chitrashala and Finished/Unfinished (both 2015) and puts them in a stimulating new conversation. The first section, set in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum in Mumbai, jumps across artefacts from several centuries while a voiceover describes an encounter with tribal artists and paintings. This contrast between the linear time and historical narrative of the British-era museum and the mythical worldview underpinning ‘indigenous’ art is given a third dimension by the film’s latter section that showcases the 8th century rock-cut temples of Masrur. Like tribal art, the temple complex has a founding myth that departs from the rigorously documented secular accounts of archaeological practice. As the industrial working hours of the first section make way for a day-night cycle, we observe the complex’s sculptural reliefs that have been partially eroded by nature. The film’s evocative organization then embodies an ambivalence towards museological conservation: while modern museums salvage art from natural degradation for the benefit of posterity, they wrench objects out of their original context, severing them from the knowledge systems and traditions that gave birth to them. In its fruitful frictions, Game suggests that perhaps all preservation necessarily entails a loss.

 

7. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross, USA)

The Ross brothers’ new docuficion follows the last day of operation of The Roaring 20s, a downscale bar fictionally set in Las Vegas, at which a bevy of social castaways gather to mourn and celebrate. While all the actors play themselves, the filmmakers loosely fictionalize the scenario, giving direction to it with certain pertinent themes. Set against the backdrop of collapsing American businesses, Bloody Nose is a hymn for failure, a note of solidarity to what the American lexicon calls “losers”. The Roaring 20s is the opposite of everything one associates with the glitz and glamour of Sin City: it’s a floundering venture that is the negative image of the American Dream. For its regulars, however, the bar is something of an institution that provides them with a public (and, at times, private) space that has become scarce elsewhere and where they can be themselves. The film’s broader view of class is compounded by a specific generational perspective that refutes the idea that the young, the ‘millennials’, can’t make it because they don’t work hard enough. A film that hits the right moods without tipping over into condescension or miserabilism, Bloody Nose deserves all the plaudits it’s been getting.

 

8. Corporate Accountability (Jonathan Perel, Argentina)

Perel continues his exploration into Argentina’s military dictatorship by examining the role of large private corporations in enabling and carrying out state-sponsored pogroms against political dissidents of the junta. He photographs the company facilities as they are today while a brisk voiceover lists out how each firm helped military and security forces detain, torture and get rid of problematic workers in exchange for financial perks. The text, read out from an official 2015 report, is numbingly repetitious, and drives home the pervasiveness of these military-industrial operations. Perel’s decision to frame the sites through his car’s windshield creates a sense of illicit access, even though there is visibly little stopping him from going nearer the facilities. Some of the companies continue to operate under their own name, while some others have changed, with at least one site carrying a memorial sign for the injustice perpetrated there. Perel is, in effect, photographing the ur-filmic image of factory entrances, but all we see is a handful of vehicles leaving the gates. This eerie absence of human figures evokes the disappeared workers who, at some companies, were picked up at the entrance, a site, as Harun Farocki has demonstrated, of class dialectics. A tough nut, but wholly rewarding.

 

9. Film About a Father Who (Lynne Sachs, USA)

Lynne Sachs’ frank, morally messy documentary turns around her father, Ira Sachs Sr., a ‘hippie businessman’ whose unconventional living and constant womanizing comes down heavily upon his nine children, some of whom have known the existence of the others only after decades. Sachs weaves through footage shot over half a century in half a dozen formats and layers it carefully into a simple, direct account with a voiceover addressed at the audience. She takes what could’ve been a narrow family melodrama into much stickier territory. Her film isn’t a portrait of her father, but a meditation on relationships with this man as the connecting element. Sachs goes beyond all gut responses to her father’s behaviour—disappointment, rage, disgust—towards a complex human reality that can elicit only inchoate sentiments, as suggested by the film’s incomplete title. She isn’t filming people or their stories, but the spaces between people, and how these spaces are always mediated by the actions of others. Father’s wayward life, itself rooted perhaps in a traumatic childhood, profoundly shapes the way his children look at each other. Sachs’ film is ostensibly a massive unburdening project for her; that she has been able to draw out its broader implications is a significant accomplishment.

 

10. Victoria (Sofie Benoot, Isabelle Tollenaere & Liesbeth De Ceulaer, Belgium/USA)

As part of his work, Lashay T. Warren, a young family man from Los Angeles, is posted in Cal City, California, a town wrought in the fifties by a lone developer out of the Mojave Desert with the hope that it would become the next Los Angeles—a dream that didn’t come to fruition. Along with other men and women his age, Lashay is responsible for maintaining this ghost town by reclaiming its streets from nature and restoring some semblance of cartographic order. Victoria teases out various thematic layers from this singular scenario. On one level, it is an absurd tale about one of the many dead ends of capitalist enterprise, a kind of anti-Chinatown portrait of a Los Angeles that could’ve been. Lashay is like a worker repairing a remote outpost in space, marvelling at every sign of life in this almost otherworldly landscape. But he also resembles the American pioneers, whose diaries on their way to the West he emulates in the film’s voiceover. Ultimately, Victoria is a poignant, humanist document, in the vein of Killer of Sheep, about the dignity of a young Black man providing for his family, trying to graduate from high school, all the while fighting the gravity of Compton’s streets.

 

Special Mention: Red, White and Blue (Steve McQueen, UK)

 

Favourite Films of

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[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

III. CONCLUSION

 

Lang and Our Times

 

Lang’s body of work is among the most important in Germanic cinema. It’s generally placed before those of Lubitsch and Pabst, but immediately after that of Murnau. From an international perspective, Lang is always cited among the greatest, but never among the highest echelons, often because of a respect for tradition rather than a knowledge of his work. He tends to be considered a filmmaker of the past, an academic director. Rare are those who love his entire body of work, from 1919 to 1960: older critics see him disappear from cinema in 1926, reappear furtively in 1931 (M), or even in 1936 (You Only Live Once). The youngest don’t like his first expressionist films, and locate his real beginnings towards 1924, or 1928, or 1936, or even near 1946. Leftist critics consider only the films between 1928 and 1938 as valuable. There’s a fierce and vain battle between the supporters of German Lang and those of American Lang, which hasn’t facilitated the understanding of his work.

As a matter of fact, Lang’s body of work is one and indivisible. That’s what makes for its power and its weakness. Its power, because this unity is evidently made of equal (or almost equal) films, or at least ones worthy of interest, except Guerrillas. It can’t then be said that Lang, who has more than thirty successes to his credit, has made bad films. It’s a performance that was equalled, by Hawks, by Hitchcock most notably, but never surpassed. None of these films is really independent of the others. The body of work is to be explained, in its totality, by the course of its evolution. And it’s nothing less than the moving course of a human life that we have the pleasure of following, a pleasure superior to the one felt before any one of these films taken alone, which is only one moment in the evolution, and thus incomplete.

The period of search, of artistic youth, is logically completed by the period of maturity, which marks an end point. The contrary is equally true, for this second period lacks the power, the ardour of youth. Hence the difficulty in selecting films that are representative of Lang in the public’s eyes, films that stand apart from others and allow us to describe his art to the layman who has neither the time nor the possibility to see his forty-three films, of a total length of sixty-seven hours. Der müde Tod, Siegfried, Metropolis, M, say the old. M, You Only Live Once, say the more moderate ones. M, Fury, Hangmen Also Die, affirms Lang. Human Desire, Moonfleet, While the City Sleeps, according to the young. Finally, the two Hindu films for the extreme-right among our critics. The game is rather vain, and I don’t think it’s any useful to play it. But it shows clearly that there aren’t any perfect masterpieces, superior to the rest of the films, like it is the case with Buñuel, Capra, Dreyer, Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Gance, Mizoguchi, Murnau, Stroheim, Sternberg, Vidor, Vigo, Welles, who are “auteurs of films”. Along with Godard, Griffith, Hawks, Hitchcock, Renoir, Rossellini, Lang belongs to the class of “auteurs of bodies of work”.

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A Fish Swimming Upside Down (Eliza Petkova)

Philipp, an affluent, middle-aged widower (Henning Kober), marries young Andrea (Nina Schwabe) and installs her at his swanky house. Also living in the house is his son Martin (Theo Trebs), a young man who holds onto his mother’s photos and resents his father bringing home a new wife. Philipp is constantly away on business, and with little to do outside of her work with developmentally challenged children, Andrea languishes in the spacious house. It’s peak summer, and with the beautiful Andrea lounging around the swimming pool, you can be sure Martin isn’t going to end up calling her ‘mommy’. Petkova’s second feature is reminiscent of early works from the so-called Berlin School: stories about rich, white people suffering existential ennui presented in a clinical steel-and-glass style made of static shots or discreet camera movements and no music. This is a resolutely low-key work that limits itself to the love triangle at the centre. Like the outsider in Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), Andrea is a mysterious figure with no past whose love is boundless; everyone comes under her aura. But this inclusivity doesn’t sit well with Martin, who becomes blind with jealousy. The film moves along this unveiled Oedipal rage that takes many victims and eventually implodes. Petkova populates the film with several children’s games, presumably with a view to impact some psychological nuance to the relationships. She finely evokes the languid mood of summer afternoons, and is able to introduce a vital element of sensuality into the Berlin School style. But the rewards are minor: the film is so enamoured with its provocation that, minus the underlying myth, its characters become shadow beings outside of society and history.

The Metamorphosis of Birds (Catarina Vasconcelos)

Catarina Vasconcelos’ debut feature is a very easy film to like. There is, firstly, its spellbinding plastic beauty. Shot in 16mm, the film lovingly combines soft diffused lighting, oil-painting colour, richly detailed period objects into striking tableaux, often seeking to emulate Renaissance still life. Then there is its evocative voiceover, in which Vasconcelos details the life of her grandparents through poetically reimagined letters. Grandfather Henrique is at sea touring Portugal’s colonies while Grandmother Beatriz raises her many children alone. The exchange between them revolves firstly around, of course, the distance between them, and then the children, who haven’t seen their father for years. In Vasconcelos’ rarefied, romanticized re-conception, they become quasi-mythical figures—the absent Father, the suffering Mother—who come alive through the objects associated with them. The items chart the passing of the years, reflecting political changes: the fall of the empire, counterculture stirrings and the end of the Salazar regime. Jacinto, the filmmaker’s father, comes of age, discovering love and death. When Grandmother dies, and as the film’s focus shifts to Jacinto and the loss of his wife, the tone changes from yearning to mourning, and the narrative devolves into pure metaphor around a Tarkovskian desire to become one with nature, reprising symbols established earlier. On its face, Metamorphosis is a tribute to Vasconcelos’ father, one that preserves the memory of his parents and narrativizes his life for him, sharing the burden of bereavement in the process. The film recalls the work of Victor Erice and Sergei Paradjanov to some degree, especially in its capacity to create ravishing images out of personal history. It is evident that the film seeks to be a work of aching beauty, but there’s the lingering feeling that it does the aching for us.

Garage People (Natalija Yefimkina)

Natalija Yefimkina’s creative documentary centres on a small-town subculture in the far reaches of Russia. In a chain of garages located at a remove from their low-income homes, mostly middle-aged men spend their free time working on their passions. They have converted these tin-shed structures into a veritable ‘man cave’ serving various functions: carving workshop, metal foundry, scrap recycling yard, quail breeding facility, music room, even a WW2 cosplay warehouse. For these men on the fringes of Putin’s Russia, such privately-owned garages are a ‘third place’ away from their soul-crushing mining work and the strictures of domesticity, a space that helps create meaning to their lives. Like a primitive artist par excellence, Viktor has built four floors underneath his garage by digging with a shovel for over fifty years. He doesn’t know its purpose yet, but the digging has provided him with a purpose—a purpose that he inexplicably loses all of a sudden shortly before his demise. The whole town seems stuck in time, isolated from the rest of the world, save for a train that passes now and them. The younger folk hope to escape to greener pastures, while the older ones have found some sort of meaning between individual pursuit and communal life. Whether they are belting out a heavy metal number or getting into drunken brawls, director Yefimkina observes the garagists from a distance, synthesizing these vignettes along different thematic lines such as work, family, romance and community. Garage culture isn’t exactly news, but Yefimkina succeeds in infusing the film with a melancholy mood that is usually the reserve of fictional works. By imaginatively rearranging her material and slightly fictionalizing it, she has been able to convert it into an empathetic portrait of dead-end lives comparable to wistful snapshots of small-town America such as The Last Picture Show (1971) and Ham on Rye (2019).

Camagroga (Alfonso Amador)

Alfonso Amador’s absorbing documentary about the Horta of Valencia, said to be one of the most fertile corners of Europe, pivots around the Ramón family: farmer Antonio, his daughter Inma and her son Marc. Over one year, they grow, harvest, sort and ship tiger nuts to milk extraction facilities. There are highways and railway lines running adjacent to their land, which is under the threat of being invaded by commercial establishments and public infrastructure projects. Camagroga shuttles between two types of documentaries, at times uneasily: one that follows the lifecycle of a food commodity from production to consumption and one that observes life in a rural region under the throes of ‘globalization’. It complicates the former narrative further by intercutting it with shots of other crops being grown and processed, such that it’s not always clear at what stage of the cycle we are in. But what is most striking about the film is its rhythm. Director Amador cuts close. When there isn’t much movement within a shot, he lets it linger for no more than 3-5 seconds. This almost metronymic, Emigholz-like editing imparts a slightly frenetic pace to the film. As a result, we don’t get a sense of the rhythm of life in the region, in a way that we do from Shinsuke Ogawa’s A Japanese Village (1982), an important precursor to Camagroga. What is gained, however, is the knowledge of how labour intense the process is, involving manual intervention at all stages of production, with the only ‘dead times’ being Antonio and co. breaking for a sandwich or a cigarette while talking to the camera. It’s notable in this regard that Amador only shoots in daytime, that is to say work hours, keeping out all private aspects of his subjects’ lives. A tribute, then, to the labour of these folks whose faces seem as worked over by time as their land.

Forensickness (Chloé Galibert-Laîné)

Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s funny, sharp and dizzyingly smart video work is an antidote to the overdose of audiovisual soup that passes for essay film these days. Forensickness begins as a commentary on Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives (2017), a desktop film about the crowd-sourced investigation on Reddit following the Boston bombing of 2013. As the director breaks down Kennedy’s film, analysing its narrative construction and its tendency for geometric abstraction, she voluntarily gets caught in an ‘analytical frenzy’, not unlike the Redditors who ascribed meaning to every detail that caught their eye in photographs from the bombing site. As Galibert-Laîné seamlessly chains one stream of thought after another, her film evolves into a meta-reflection on our relation to images and our compulsion to create meaning from visual material. Even as she exposes how we live in an era of debunking that firmly believes that images conceal messages, she can’t help but point at similar motivations driving her interrogation. Every proposition, every experience of hers on the desktop is turned on itself and subject to interrogation. And it works perfectly because Forensickness is precisely about the need to meaningful synthesis of divergent experiences. If Frank Beauvais, in Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (2019), saw cinephilia as a self-made prison of images, Galibert-Laîné digs deeper, revealing the epistemological malaise that is the search for meaning that animates all cinephilic pursuit. Her film lays bare the adventures of the critical mind, throwing open not only its own making, but also the thoughts producing it. The film may look like an object of pure play, the result of a filmmaker “seduced by her own jokes”, even a solipsistic game in the way it asserts the inescapability from these self-imposed maps of meaning. But even as a snake eating its own tail, Forensickness is unmistakably insightful regarding the way we experience the world through images. If it isn’t the desktop film to end all desktop films, it’s hard to imagine what lies ahead for this form.

The American Sector (Pacho Velez, Courtney Stephens)

The American Sector takes up a subject matter that ships with a bundle of contained themes: scores of Berlin Wall fragments scattered across the United States. Anyone (like me) who has hunted for fragments of the Wall or even looked at the Wikipedia page of the location of the fragments must’ve had at least a faint thought about the implications of decontextualizing a historical object. Velez and Stephens’ film latches onto these incongruities, giving us a tour of Wall fragments installed in various public and private spaces including five-star hotels, movie studios, army bases, corporate retreats, hobbyist clubs, universities, museums and even the CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia. Shots of the fragments quietly towering over surroundings alien to it are sometimes mixed with soundbites by citizens and public officials about the provenance and the meaning of these monoliths. The filmmakers probe interviewees for what the Wall means to them, and we get fairly interesting and varied answers: a symbol for the abstract notion of freedom, a sign of hope for immigrants hoping for a better life, a reassurance for Black families that they are historically not alone, a token of cordial US-German political relations, a remembrance of a simpler time when the enemy was clear, even a container of religious truth serving as the backdrop for Christian passion plays. The overarching irony—the appropriation of foreign history to reinforce American exceptionalism—is echoed by two students at the University of Virginia, who see the amplified presence of the fragments in the campus, which has little relation to the Wall’s history in the first place, as an affront to the local history of slave labour that built the university. Thanks to its fertile subject, the film doesn’t have to sweat to bring these frictions to the surface. The American Sector accomplishes what it sets out to do, but it may have had been more rewarding had it been willing to stick its neck out and embrace a larger debate, especially at a moment where our discourse on monuments and their context is more fraught than ever.

[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

Contemplation (1954-60)

 

The last phase of Lang’s work embodies, not the view of a man who asks himself painful questions about life, its meaning and the moral value of men of his time, but a superior view, that of God, which observes the indifference of the external world to the individual, the difficulty of communication between individuals caught up in the Social Order. Lang responds to it with an equal indifference that establishes his superiority. That was already the attitude of his positive heroes, stingy when it came to gestures and movements.

Critique now gives way to contemplation. Films like Ministry of Fear, The Woman in the Window, Rancho Notorious, and The Big Heat at times demonstrate this contemplative style inherited largely from a tradition of objectivity in classical American cinema and from the commercial necessity for double games. But now contemplation attains an excessive degree, moving far away from classicism.

Truth be told, there was a film foreshadowing this tendency even in the German period. Twenty-six years before Human Desire, Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon, 1928) reconciled its sets and its style: it’s indeed a lunar film. The plot, centred on the conquest of the moon and on the conflicts between scientists and profiteers in search of precious metals, conflicts aggravated by the presence of Gerda Maurus, is simply a pretext to showcase the sets and to place characters within these sets. There’s no human emotion. Everything here is a decomposition of the emotional and physical movements of characters who are analysed with a meticulousness, a mania that makes Frau im Mond the longest (two-and-a-half hours), the most boring and the most painful film by Lang for those who aren’t interested in following the work of the creator through the plot. There’s here the same abstract scheme as in Kriemhilds Rache, a scheme based on the repetition of identical movements, on the rotation of similar acts that end up bestowing even such excess with the outline of a vertiginous, wholly intellectual fascination, producing a new form of poetry.

Five films fall in this line, two American works, one of them rather Germanic in its style, and three other German ones. All five reprise earlier attempts made from a very different point of view, one which isn’t that of contemplative maturity: Human Desire (1954) is an improved version of Clash by Night (1951), in the similarity of its atmosphere and themes, and The Big Heat (1953), whose actors reappear here, but not in their critical virulence. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) takes While the City Sleeps (1955) further, minus the critique once more. Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal (1958), Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960) rework Lang’s earlier films (1922, 1932) and scripts (1919).

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Birds (Or How to Be One) (Babis Makridis)

Makridis’ peculiar third feature is inspired by Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds, but it exists between three narrative registers: a documentary about an ‘off’ production of the play by Nikos Karathanos and Onassis Stegi, a freewheeling screen adaptation of the play featuring the same actors in several exotic locales around the world and a poetic essay film about human beings’ relationship to their avian peers. Divided into nine thematic chapters answering the titular question, Birds teases out our eternal quest to emulate our feathered friends: the desire for flight, the yearning for lightness, the urge to escape gravity (literal and social), the impulse to rise to the skies through the construction skyscrapers, the fear of falling and the thrill we harness from it, the fantasy of crossing political borders, but also the need for community and for defending it against outsiders, manifesting ultimately through aerial warfare. Makridis does not emphasize or linger on these ideas, instead suggesting associations through fugitive but evocative images. It is the strength of his film that it does not attempt to ‘interpret’ or ‘modernize’ Aristophanes’ comedy. While it dips in and out of metaphor, Birds takes the outlandishness of the original premise at face value. As a result, the adaptation it offers is literal, one in which the human characters imitate bird cries and indeed audition to become birds, not unlike the two prospectors of Amit Dutta’s The Golden Bird (2011) who try to rise above the human form. In doing so, Birds offers another intriguing demonstration of the Greek taste for the absurd. (The equivalence between man and animal is, moreover, a significant motif in Lanthimos’ work.) This loose, opaque treatment produces results that are as funny as they are flummoxing.

This Is Paris Too (Lech Kowalski)

Kowalski’s freestyle documentary seeks to offer images of Paris not generally seen on screen: homeless immigrants on the outskirts of the city leading a nomadic, shadow existence under bridges, on abandoned sites and in urban interstices. It’s winter, and we watch them fight the cold with inadequate blankets and cheap anoraks, subsisting on community kitchen and standing huddled in the daytime without much to do. A few have built some form of shelter, but most just find a spot to sleep. We see them through the eyes of Ken Metoxen, a native American friend of the filmmaker’s, who wanders the breadth of the city on foot and in public transport. Sometimes Ken interacts with individuals such as Aman, an over-enthusiastic boxer from Afghanistan who cannot participate in ring fights because he lacks the necessary papers. The communication is awkward—Ken does not speak French; Aman doesn’t speak English—and is soon replaced by Aman fervently showing his boxing skills to a compliant Ken. The latter listens patiently as Aman pulls out his phone to show videos of Taliban bombings and tortures in Kabul. Ken empathizes with the suffering of the immigrants through a shared history of oppression. But Kowalski’s choice to refract these vignettes of Paris through a native American’s point of view has no theoretical underpinning. He simply wants to film Ken as a flaneur, experiencing (and revealing to us) a foreign city from an outsider perspective, which leads to an exceedingly long, final tracking shot on Ken spanning several blocks of Paris. Much of all this is impressionistic, and there’s very little that seems to have been thought through, the result coming across like outtakes from a larger project between Kowalski and Ken. In a surprising coda, the director discusses his experience as a child of immigrants to America and his relationship with Ken, who is revealed to be a cross-dresser—a gratuitous, inward-looking turn that hints at several unexplored possibilities.

The Last City (Heinz Emigholz)

Emigholz’s return to fiction opens with a reminiscence by the filmmaker about a dream city that keeps changing place and about people who keep changing shape. This personal statement gives way to five interconnected stories taking place in five different cities: a filmmaker and a weapons designer talk about war in the Israeli city of Beersheba; an elderly artist converses with his 30-year-old self in Athens, a mother finds contentment in her incestuous family in Berlin; in Hong Kong, a Chinese woman schools a Japanese woman on her country’s unspeakable war crimes; an art dealer and a cosmologist discuss the possibility of life outside earth in São Paulo. The Last City scans like a long pedagogical exercise demonstrating everything that shouldn’t be done in films: camera that is constantly canted and misaligned with the horizon, eyelines that never match, cuts that break the 180-degree rule, camera setups that keep changing, actors who play multiple roles of ethnicities different from their own, blatant discontinuities in makeup, costume and décor not just within scenes, but within a single line of dialogue. All this, of course, is part of the setup. Filming pieces of buildings through extreme angles, Emigholz is integrating the city space into the conversations. His ‘last city’ is an ever-changing, universal town that has been homogenized out of its history and identity, just like its people who seem to have no ethnic essence. A wild, entertaining speculative fiction, Emigholz’s film recalls Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) in the way its characters work on each other’s memory and history in fraught urban encounters. Only that there is neither Hiroshima nor any social taboo conditioning the encounters anymore. Edited in a brisk rhythm, The Last City is also a very funny work in the way it pokes fun at its own ridiculous, disparate premises, which are tied together in some sort of a logic-defying hyperreality.

Undine (Christian Petzold)

If, in Transit (2018), Petzold drew on American film noir to create fruitful frictions with his basic realist style, in Undine, reportedly the first of a new trilogy based on elemental beings, he leans on the legend of the eponymous water nymph whose curse it is that her human lover will meet his death if he is ever unfaithful to her. In Petzold’s version though, it is Undine (Paula Beer) who appears to be cursed, unable to break the tragic mould of the legend. Jilted by her boyfriend, Undine finds an ideal love almost immediately in Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver who seems to be as ethereal a creature as her, but fate plays a nasty hand. The film harks back to Yella (2007), firstly in its forked narrative in which the protagonist enters a new life just when everything closes in on her. More notably, like Yella, Undine transposes a supernatural reality onto the banal, hyperrealist surface of reunified Germany. Petzold offsets stretches of dead time showing characters doing everyday activities with evocative images of heightened intensity that signal the coexistence of a fantastic realm. Both Undine and Christoph experience each other as quasi-spectral beings, and because they take turns leading the narrative, we are never sure whose fantasy we are in. Petzold, moreover, imposes another layer of signification onto this composite: Undine is an urban historian dealing with the many narratives that impose themselves on Berlin. Professionally and personally, the past for her, as for Yella, is never dead and buried, but something to be always reckoned with. So the film offers a three-fold narrative, with the romantic story, the Undine legend and a political allegory finding echo in each other. If this layering allows Petzold a way to animate his clinical style with mystery, at times it also gives the impression that he is hedging his bets.

Glauber, Claro (César Meneghetti)

In 1975, Brazilian auteur Glauber Rocha made a film in Italy titled Claro in which he reimagined Rome as the historical centre of imperialism. Meneghetti’s documentary about the film—and about Rocha’s sojourn in Italy—assembles archival footage and interviews with surviving cast and crew members, film critics and the director’s Italian friends. The interviewees watch clips from Rocha’s film and recall how such and such scene was shot. The discussion blossoms outward to include the general social situation of the time: the cultural permissiveness that allowed Rocha and co. to live in apartments without paying rent, cohabit while blurring the boundary between friendship and love, and spike each other’s drinks before shoot. With interesting anecdotes about the Brazilian’s bluster and idiosyncrasy, the testimonies help locate Rocha within the intellectual landscape of Italy at the time. Throughout, Meneghetti cuts outdoor scenes from Rocha’s film with shots of the same places in current-day Rome, suggesting the demise of radical political dreams, but evoking certain continuities as well. Interestingly scored, these interludes also serve as spaces of reflection for the viewer, a respite from all the talking heads. In all, we get a sense of Rocha’s complex relationship to the European country: even as he was criticizing it as a ‘colonizing’ empire, the filmmaker saw in Italy a channel for distributing Cinema Novo works and, indirectly, a rampart against the growing authoritarianism back home. But there is hardly any rough edge to Rocha himself. His Latin American background gets little notice and he comes across as a mad prophet conjured into existence in Rome. Most collaborators describe him as an eccentric visionary who saw beyond his time, some others speak of their great love for him. But one piece of priceless archival clip at the end alone makes up for any deficiency: Rocha having a glorious public meltdown after the 1980 Venice Film Festival, where he destroys Louis Malle (‘second-rate filmmaker’), Cassavetes (‘commercial director under avant-garde garb’), Michel Ciment (‘takes American money’), Andrew Sarris (‘CIA-backed imperialist’) and other ‘Hitchcock lovers’.

Film About a Father Who (Lynne Sachs)

At first glance, Lynne Sachs’ latest documentary comes across as another iteration on the now all-too-common work of ‘personal archaeology’ in which filmmakers trace their roots through public and private archives, at times rending open the specific ways their unhappy families have been dysfunctional. Sachs, for one, employs home movies shot over half a century in half a dozen formats—8mm, 16mm, VHS, Hi8, Mini DV and digital—by herself, her father and her siblings, filmmakers Dana and Ira Sachs. The material turns around their father, Ira Sachs Sr., a ‘hippie businessman’ who sowed his wild oats across the world and virtually birthed a baseball team. Senior’s constant womanizing comes down heavily upon his children, some of whom have known the existence of the others only after decades, but also upon his mother, with whom he nevertheless shares a close but complicated relationship. Sachs weaves through years’ worth of footage and layers it carefully into a simple, direct account with a voiceover addressed at the audience. She takes what could’ve been a narrow family melodrama into much stickier territory. As she says, the film isn’t a portrait of her father, but a meditation on relationships with this man as the connecting element. Sachs and her siblings sit with their father, now infirm with age, and ask him to recollect episodes from the past. What do they expect? Confession? Reckoning? Simple testimony wrought from a gradually vanishing consciousness? Sachs goes beyond all gut responses to her father’s behaviour—disappointment, rage, disgust—towards a complex human reality that can elicit only inchoate sentiments, as suggested by the film’s incomplete title. She isn’t filming people or their stories, but the spaces between people, and how these spaces are always mediated by the actions of others. Senior’s wayward life, itself rooted perhaps in a traumatic childhood, profoundly shapes the way his children look at each other. Two living room discussions are intercut as though they are unfolding in the same space, the only way the filmmaker is able to bridge these invisible branches of the family tree. Sachs’ film is ostensibly a massive unburdening project for her; that she has been able to draw out its broader implications is a significant accomplishment.

Autofiction (Laida Lertxundi)

Autofiction, the first of Basque-origin artist Lertxundi’s films I’ve seen, opens with an establishment shot of a city skyline. A while later, we are on the sunlit roads of the metropolis, where a cavalcade of police motorbikes prepares for a rally. Cut to bodies of various unconscious women being dragged on concrete and loaded on to a truck. Before we can figure out what’s happening, we are presented with short testimonies of women talking about motherhood, abortion and loneliness, testimonies that are cut with vignettes from the MLK day parade in the city. The bright pastel colours that compose the studio the women are photographed in, combined with the big, yellow typeface of the title and the sunny outdoors, suggest a pastiche of cheerful Reaganite suburbia. At one point, a woman crawls out of her living room couch into her large, suburban backyard to settle into a foetal position under the sun. But what’s the connection? I presume that the crimes taking place in broad daylight, whose perpetrators we don’t see, tie metaphorically with the women’s accounts, in which post-maternal deracination, post-abortive disorientation and post-separation depression are all conceived in terms of personal choices and experiences, independent of structural forces conditioning them. By intercutting these testimonies with a civil rights rally, Lertxundi is restoring the political character to these personal experiences. At the end, a rectangular opening on a card frames parts of women’s bodies separately, hinting at the unity behind these fragments, just as Lertxundi evokes the socio-political unity shaping individual experiences. The title, moreover, implies that Lertxundi might be articulating details of her own life through these accounts, thereby scattering her subjectivity and rendering it interchangeable with those of the women she films.

Orphea (Alexander Kluge, Khavn)

In Orphea, 88-year-old Kluge and 47-year-old Khavn revive the Orpheus-Euridice myth as an avant garde punk musical. In this version, Orpheus becomes a woman named Orphea (Lilith Stangenberg) while Euridice is a man called Euridiko (Ian Madrigal) and the underworld itself is Manila at night time. The filmmakers treat the myth rather loosely, converting it into a string of ‘set pieces’, in which Orphea is either navigating one lair of degenerates after another or reading out lines of Ovid from a teleprompter, or belting out arias and folk tunes in half a dozen languages in front of a matte screen. Unlike Straub’s inconsolable one, Orpheus here seems to get along just fine without Euridice. The result resembles a blithe experimental video game produced by Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger. Through Orphea’s valiance but also her ultimate impotence, the filmmakers mount something of an elegy for the revolutionary potential of art. One of the suppositions is this: what if, despite Orpheus’ desires, Euridice didn’t want to be rescued? Orphea is regularly transported to wartime USSR, and mourns its countless dead, seeking, like the Soviet ‘biocosmists’, justice for the dead. Towards the end, the present also makes its way into the film in the form of border surveillance footage and refugee camps. The connections are often only suggestive, such as Orphea’s descent in the Lethe river invoking the sea route of contemporary migrants. Strangenberg appears in most every frame and is a hypnotic presence, and there is never a dull moment in the film. Kluge’s heterogenous style—on-screen texts, multiple sub-frames, stop-motion animation, declamatory text readings, archival photos and found footage—goes really well with the atmosphere of pure play. But it is literally a mixed bag where anything goes, so your mileage may vary.

Movie That Invites Pausing (Ken Jacobs)

Ken Jacobs’ film is dedicated to his teacher and abstract expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, whose legendary classes are part of almost every historical account of 20th century art. Hofmann’s painting and pedagogy emphasized the use of flat colour fields to generate the perception of depth, the impression of planes emerging or receding out of the canvas surface. Jacobs finds a filmic equivalent to this idea, producing the illusion of movement and dynamic colour without relying on pro-filmic reality. This is the setup: over the camera lens lies a fabric (or a translucent material) made of a hexagonal beehive pattern that gradually changes orientation over the course of the film. With what seems like a slightly mobile camera, Jacobs appears to photograph a liquid surface, first, and then some crystalline solids lit by stroboscopic light flashing at 120BPM (either that, or he has inserted these ‘black leaders’ artificially). At first, the result registers like the sight of a patterned gold foil slowly melting, but soon the hexagons vanish ‘underneath’ the liquid. Towards the end of the film, however, the fabric/material dominates the foreground, with the hexagons strongly asserting themselves with their dark borders. This receding and the emerging of the textured plane and the creation of new depths ties to what Hoffman called the ‘push and pull’ of the painting, the feeling of airiness that you get when you stare long enough at a Pollock, for instance. The strobing light also causes the hexagons to ripple like the liquid and ‘animates’ the surface into repetitive, gif-image like movements. More than pausing, which allows you to see various hues of gold and orange on the image, it’s speeding it up or slowing it down that the film tempts you to; playing it at 0.25x or 4x its speed illuminates its process better.

Inventing the Future (Isiah Medina)

Inventing the Future, Medina’s second feature, is adapted from a book of the same name by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. The text in question describes the limitations of the current ‘folk politics’ of the left and contrasts it with the long-term vision with which Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society conceived, disseminated and installed Neoliberalism into the ‘political common sense’ through universities and think tanks. An accelerationist outline for the future, it calls for a radical increase in automation that would result in fewer jobs, which, combined with a Universal Basic Income, could help reinvent newer forms of the self and the social. These rather weighty political ideas of the text are concentrated and tossed at us by the soundtrack—as read out by a girl who appears on screen from time to time—which Medina uses as a foundation for some extremely aggressive imagery. His blindingly rapid montage solders together what may be 25,000 shots in such a way that, in many stretches, we barely have time to register what we’re seeing. Even when a locus of anchoring images—crowds, people with phones, Lego blocks, the voiceover girl—constitute a set of identifiable visual motifs, the truculent editing forecloses any possible synthesis. Even the voiceover text, whose relative simplicity allows us to gather ourselves, is periodically chopped up and interrupted by an atonal piano melody or by another overlapping voiceover saying something else. Medina’s film appears to bear a mimetic relation to its source text in the sense that seeks cinematic correlatives to the ideas expressed. While the lightning-fast montage may be said to imitate the cognitive processes of the schizophrenic attention economy, the notion of UBI translates here to a universal access to image-making—thanks to ubiquitous cell phone cameras—which questions the need for new image production and shifts the burden of creative expression onto editing—a proto-Godardian idea. Conceptually strong though it may be, the punishing formal violence of Medina’s film makes it physically painful to watch.

IWOW: I Walk on Water (Khalik Allah)

While it continues and refines the street portraiture of Field Niggas (2015), Khalik “Danny” Allah’s IWOW also addresses the central moral-aesthetic issue weighing down on the earlier film, namely the filmmaker’s fraught relation to subjects whose consent in collaborating with him may not be wholly free and who, by dint of this power imbalance, run the risk of being commodified. As though in response to this problem posed by his obscured authorial position, Khalik places his self squarely at the centre of IWOW, where he claims to be nothing short of Jesus himself. This claim is, of course, tongue-in-cheek as Khalik confesses to having been inspired by the psychedelic mushrooms he keeps consuming. But it’s also a dramatic ruse that allows him to brashly interpret his work of ‘saving people’ in terms of Christian iconography and test it against the charity of his well-meaning family and friends, who are understandably concerned by his radical altruism. Khalik interrogates the limits of his own goodwill through his relation to Frenchie, an elderly Haitian street dweller with a speech impediment and a drug addiction, with whom he has worked over the past seven years. By his own admission, Khalik is a universalist who sees the same human essence binding everyone. To this end, his editing pattern disregards social hierarchies, cutting between extreme close-ups of outcasts and his friends and family in a manner that is often very provocative. Yet his focus is on the stories of those at the absolute bottom of the social ladder living on the streets of Harlem. The reason for this comes by way of an explosive monologue by one of his subjects, who describes the historical process behind the neighbourhood’s impoverishment and the real threat posed by gentrification; we then understand that the people Khalik films won’t be allowed to exist as they are once the district becomes ‘respectable’, i.e. the kind of place that will screen Khalik’s films and organize his exhibitions—a contradiction that the filmmaker reveals to be fully conscious of.

Sportin’ Life (Abel Ferrara)

Ferrara’s new documentary follows works by Daido Moriyama, Vanessa Beecroft, Bret Easton Ellis, Gaspar Noé and Wong Kar-wai as the sixth project commissioned by Saint Laurent as part of their project titled Self, which purportedly celebrates self-expression in the arts. Running for just over one hour, Sportin’ Life combines personal footage from Ferrara’s festival Q&As, media interviews, his concerts as a bass guitarist, television reports, internet videos, sessions from the US congress, Ferrara’s family photographs and clips from his own films. The interview excepts are quite direct and present Ferrara, invariably accompanied by his favourite lead man Willem Dafoe, talking about collaboration, making films with friends and family, and his approach to his craft. Interspersed with them are news reports about the Covid-19 crisis, Donald Trump’s feckless response to it and the mounting deaths in Italy and the US. It’s indeed striking how Ferrara is able to mould such pre-charged, disparate material into recognizable, personal imagery, with its references to Catholicism, its sense of being locked indoors, and the general end-of-days ambiance that pervades so much of his films. It’s as though the world has finally caught up with the dystopian fiction of 4:44 (2011), and so Dafoe gets to deliver his Dalai Lama-like monologue once again. On one level, Ferrara, holed up with his family in his apartment in Rome, is meditating on creation at the time of global destruction. The way he ironically superposes his concert music on low-fi footage of people dying drives home the idea of art’s impuissance in a more unequivocal manner than does Orphea. But the film is also Ferrara’s answer of sorts to public narratives about his oeuvre. In interviews and Q&As, we see journalists attach labels to his work—dark, radical, indie—that Ferrara doesn’t bother acknowledging. With this film, he appears to be simply ‘making his next move’ unmindful of the end game, i.e. responding to his immediate circumstances, remaining alert to the moment and, if we go by the equation ‘Pasolini=Dafoe=Ferrara’, making films as an existential coping mechanism. Towards the end of the film, however, Ferrara casts these sundry elements into a malevolent vision of the universe; the killing of George Floyd, the ensuing riots and violence are all stripped of their immediate, political meaning and shaped into a metaphysical picture of chaos. Maybe Ferrara is playing Nero more thoroughly than he imagines.

[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

Man Seeks to Conquer the World (1922-1938)

 

The defeated man of 1918 tries to gather himself, and with the improvement in his condition, he forges a less tragic metaphysics for himself. In this normal reaction, we find two successive variations: the revolutionary impulse, where man seeks to become the master of the whole world, and the asocial impulse, where he seeks simply to become the master of his own life and must transgress an all-too-arbitrary law in order to do that. The revolutionary impulse dominates in the German films, while the asocial impulse belongs rather to the American period.

 

The Revolutionary Impulse (1922-1932)

The theme of the man who wants to dominate the world was already present in Die Spinnen (1919), before sporadically resurfacing in the expressionist period (Siegfried, Metropolis). But it’s a motif deriving most of all from the convention of crime stories. As always, Lang starts from the thematic and artistic traditions of his time, and not themes particular to his personality, and deepens them, finding their latent meaning.

In the two parts of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, 1922), the first carrying the same title and the second Inferno, we find not a deepening of the theme, but a realist depiction of facts and atmosphere which are its most evident components: secret societies, hidden vices, hypnotism, unlimited violence, multiple disguises, lust and depravity, secret doors and betrayals, thieves and forgers. Mabuse the sorcerer’s apprentice, whom we successively see as a psychiatrist, a drunk sailor and a great financier, seduces a degenerate, the countess Told, the top informant of his enemy, the prosecutor Wenk. He kidnaps her and does all he can to ruin her husband. He forces his regular mistress, the dancer Cara Carozza, to poison herself. He tries to get rid of Wenk twice. He hypnotizes him, drives him to commit suicide in his bathtub. The police intervene in time and rescue the countess as well. Mabuse ends up in an asylum.

Doctor Mabuse’s goal is of a practical, and not metaphysical, order: he seeks power for the benefits it brings him, material and sexual benefits in particular. This need for pleasure is justified as compensations for deprivations of the war and for the moral rigidity of the Empire. By way of an extravagant crime story, moreover, the film only reproduces facts prevalent in the depraved and divided Germany of the time: “The fight between the villains and the police recalls the street clashes ordered by Noske, the socialist home minister” (George Sadoul, Histoire du Cinéma mondial, p. 154).

Keeping things at a descriptive level means that there’s no moral judgment yet: Wenk employs the same sneaky means as Mabuse to defeat him, and he is as amoral as him. He intervenes, not as much to rid society of a criminal as to get back at a rival in love and win back his mistress. But one could say that this comes at a price: the first part, very different from the second as always in Lang, an excellent but banal soap opera, can be defined as a study of human gestures and attitudes, their movements and the relation between their movements, a phenomenological study that owes everything to improvisation and observation and almost nothing to expressionism, and which comes close to modern cinema, particularly Lang’s more recent works like Human Desire. With almost nothing—characters that move from one chair to another, light cigarettes and play cards—Lang creates an autonomous world more captivating and original than the mostly spectacular one of the second part, with its by-the-numbers fights and its car chases inspired from the exploits of the Bonnot Gang and the Apaches of Paris in 1910.

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