The Bedeviled Medium

September 29, 2009

Reality

Saturday brought a stormy conclusion to the Kamera als Waffe conference, which might have been expected given the topic of Nazi propaganda cinema within a larger historical context.  But first the uncontroversial papers:  Kay Hoffmann (University of Stuttgart) presented Roel Vande Winkel’s paper on the Nazi newsreels made to export, and how foreign audiences wouldn’t just accept the German newsreel dubbed into their language (ironically like the Germans’ present means of consuming the world’s TV/film culture), but required new perspectives on propaganda events.  Rainer Rutz presented on the fascinating magazine “Signal” that the Nazis produced for European sales, combining images of well-groomed soldiers taking some hot-bodied time off and blonde beauties bathing on captured French beaches.  Martina Werth-Mühl from the Bundesarchiv told us not to use YouTube to watch these newsreels, but received resounding applause when she suggested a reduction of price per newsreel at the Bundesarchiv might be to everyone’s benefit.  Judith Keilbach argued that the use of propaganda footage in television documentaries generally reproduce the same effects of their original intended purpose:  to demonstrate Nazi dynamism and power in elaborately staged war spectacles.

Then the moment of controversy struck when Michael Kloft, the main historical film producer for the ZDF (Das Goebbels Experiment and 29 others), took the podium and said, effectively, that he uses Nazi newsreel footage because it was the footage taken at the time, and it educates the children visually about a time period that is fast losing all of its eyewitnesses.  His talk produced visible tension in a room where the medium of television had clearly already been consigned to the 11th circle of Hell.  Thus once Kloft was done with his speech, several very eloquent arguments about the “Gleichwertigkeit” toward Nazi footage since the introduction of television in the 50s were posed against Kloft’s flippant remarks.  You could tell that among these history professors, a kind of ferocious anger concerning all of the facts they had to make their students unlearn every year thanks to television was promptly unleashed.  We ended up staying past the end of the conference to conclude the very intensive discussion with the question of whether television can be allowed to become an “open” medium like film, where the eyes and ears are permitted to wander in a space and evaluate the “rough edges” of history on their own terms.

On Sunday morning, I had breakfast at the famous Café Bilderbuch – my third visit since I’ve arrived – on Akazienstrasse.  The café has a reputation thanks to its Viennese style décor, classy music selection, newsletter-styled menus and, of course, excellent coffee and meals named after storybook characters.  There I sat and wrote most of what is to be the next chapter in the Peppersmoke Players series.  It gives me something to do with my hands, after all.

After the usual laundry and dishes labor befitting Sunday, I found some time to attend Kino Arsenal yet again for a series of underground 8mm films made in eastern bloc countries.  Claus Löser – journalist, film historian and curator of the exhibit – was present to introduce the films, as was one of the filmmakers Ramona Köppel-Welsh.  The crowd itself was interesting:  a mostly silent bunch of maybe half-a-dozen Poles, two Russians, two Germans and myself.  I think the language barrier was significant enough that only the Germans and I had a conversation after the film.  The nice thing about the Kino Arsenal, of course, is that they give you free wine and pretzels afterwards, so Claus, Ramona, the Germans and I stood around for a time and chit-chatted about the GDR and the United States.  Ramona, it turns out, was invited to Los Angeles in 1993… during the L.A. riots.  That gave her a lasting impression of the States I maybe wouldn’t envy but, hey!, it was probably a more accurate picture of our divisions than most visitors get.

I’ll finish the “Reality” section of this blog with a brief summary of Monday, when I visited a personal Mecca:  the Filmmuseum Potsdam.  Located in a beautiful building with horse statues leaping from the walls near the train station, the Filmmuseum Potsdam is a repository for, well, all things DEFA (with a spot of UFA and Pro-Babelsberg here and there).  Seriously, though:  every major film and a good chunk of the minor ones had some sort of artifact or remnant on display in the museum, from the concentration camp outfit used in Jacob the Liar to the bow Gojko Mitic fought the white Americans with in Falcon’s Trail.  Even the counterfeiting kit from the Oscar-winning The Counterfeiters was there in all its faux-1940s glory.  At the end of the tour, I went to sign the guest book and noticed a lot of people complaining about the overflowing presence of DEFA materials over UFA and other materials.  “Bah!” I said, and wrote a proper defense of the East German studios right there in the guest book.

Blog entries to come:

• A poem on my surreal and awful experience at the Ausländerbehörde

• Several short reviews of academic books I’m reading for my dissertation

• Peppersmoke Players Chapter 3 – Rehearse or Die

Fantasy

Naked Lunch (dir. David Cronenberg, USA 1991)

Boy, what a trip!  Similar to Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (1993) as a kind of tribute to a whole surrealist author’s body of work, Naked Lunch is a film about the destabilization of the armored male subject through the psychic/psychotic transformative experience of writing.  This time around I noticed several things:  the rampant homoeroticism (complete with talking anuses), the Orientalism (kind of done Madman style:  a stereotyped “chinaman” and Moroccan “exoticism” are both foregrounded at different points), the utter fakeness of the sets, Peter Weller’s droll mumbling as Bill Lee (see Ralph Fiennes in Cronenberg’s Spider for the same), and the dissonant soundtrack created by Howard Shore and Ornette Coleman.  Now I kind of see the Naked Lunch story as kind of a cross between Camus’ L’etranger and Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle:  the former due to the narrator’s utter lack of Self becoming grounds for a murderous act, and the latter because there’s a sort of extraordinary sexual journey that Bill Lee goes through without actually having sex with anybody (e.g., Fridolin and his night wanderings).

Vivre sa vie (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, France 1962)

Twelve scenes that show Godard’s contempt for conventional Hollywood narrative that’ll leave you breathless.  The movie was rather dull this time around, but maybe it’s because I’ve worked extensively with One Plus One, Tout va bien and Alphaville, which I find to be much better executed films (and don’t all revolve around Anne Karina’s visage).

The Third Man (dir. Carol Reed, UK 1949)

Speaking of well-executed films, Carol Reed’s nihilistic classic put its hooks back into me after I watched The True Glory for the first time on Friday.  An incessant zither soundtrack backs this film noir story set in the dark streets of Vienna, where sharp lines such as “death is at the bottom of all things” are delivered so non-chalantly that they make this sort of filmmaking look easy.  My theory is that Reed, along with Billy Wilder, did his time during the war with the allied propaganda, thereby earning the right to be totally sarcastic about the peace afterward.  Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948) and, more to the point, Sunset  Boulevard (1950) both peel back the post-war consumer society to reveal a disturbed undertone of fractured identities and incoherent culture.

Ein-Blick (dir. Gerd Conradt, FRG 1986)

Conradt set up a camera to take 1 frame per second for 12 hours, and then recorded East Berlin from West Berlin.  Every time anyone looks at the camera, he freezes frame for just a moment.  The film gives you a good overall impression as to what a day in the life of a security camera might be like, except with more exciting motion and lighting.

Z mojego okna (dir. Józef Robakovski, Poland 1978-2000)

Another stationary camera set-up, this film is translated to roughly “Outside My Window.”  Indeed, Robakovski basically took footage from outside his window for 22 years, recording people running errands, assorted state parades and ultimately a five-star hotel being built that cut off his magnificent window view.  What struck me about this film was that, unlike Conradt’s, it wasn’t anonymous surveillance.  The filmmaker expresses in a voice-over the story of every person whom he spies on, revealing an urban environment that’s actually more like a community than most U.S. cities.

Trabantomania (dir. János Vetö, Hungary 1982)

A music video for a Hungarian band Trabant, Trabantomania is not so much about the East German car – the Trabant – as it is about showing us silly footage of dolphins and seals, and of the band sitting around in a messy apartment.  You still get a definite impression of the interdisciplinarity and intertextuality that underlie such experimental films.

Zestokaja bolezu musicia (dir. Igor and Gleb Aleyinkov, USSR 1987)

This abrasive picture is about this guy who gets on a subway car, two security officials proceed to sodomize him, then leave.  I liked the high-contrast film filters used.  It looked a little bit like Aronovsky’s π (1998).

Lesorub (dir. Yevgeny Yufit, USSR 1985)

This amusing film is about bodies against snow, mostly wrestling with each other, but sometimes doing perverse things with a dummy.  This one’s probably my favorite of the short films.

Sanctus, Sanctus (dir. Thomas Werner, GDR 1988)

In 1988, Thomas Werner and a lot of the East German 8mm scene walked in a May 1st parade, passing Erich Honecker, Egon Krenz and all the party cronies at the time.  The soundtrack is a beautiful church hymn that at once mocks and commemorates the GDR within a single musical line.

Konrad, sprach die Frau Mama (dir. Ramona Koeppel-Welsh, GDR 1989)

An anxious picture if I’ve ever seen one, Konrad, sprach die Frau Mama (ich gehe weg und du bleibst da! – Struwwelpeter) has been released on our Counter-Images DVD at the DEFA Film Library, but it was much better on the big screen.  Disturbing images of little children weren’t what almost got Koeppel-Welsh thrown in jail over this picture, but rather a little footage of the Berlin Wall shot from a hospital window.  The realm of the politically/culturally forbidden past 1961 usually centered around the thematization of the Wall, and this film proved to be no exception.

Night of the Nazis

September 25, 2009

Reality

I decided it might be a good idea to get out of the apartment and do something remotely academic before my brain shrinks with age (my birthday’s six days away… and I have no plans yet).  The Deutsche Kinemathek was having a symposium called “Kamera als Waffe” (“Camera as Weapon”) on the propaganda films of World War II, so I cast in my lot and registered for it, thinking I might meet some interesting people there.  Turns out I was right.

The first day (Thursday), I grabbed a coffee at the beginning of the conference and stood near another gentleman, who asked me in which room it was to take place.  We struck up a conversation and we were nearly inseparable for the rest of the night.  He was Herr Göres, a former GDR customs-agent-turned-journalist who had worked for Den Tagesspiegel among other newspapers.  He was also one of the most outspoken people in the audience, who’d make loud comments to people sitting next to them (i.e., me) during other people’s academic talks… as if it were a press conference or something.  The summary of the papers were as follows:   Rainer Rother, director of the Berlinale, introduced the whole shebang.  Klaus Kreimeier depicted war propaganda newsreels as a kind of sensory-motor means of warfare, inciting people toward war activities through the creation of a coherent fantasy world with all the clichés.  According to Kreimeier, the films were shot with a “secret screenplay” in mind, not as documentation.  Miriam Arani showed us some gruesome pictures and told us about how the Germans pretended dead Poles whom they killed were dead ethnic Germans (kind of like The Gleiwitz Case).  Klaus Hesse, a big guy at the Topographie des Terrors, showed us some private photos of propaganda photographer Arthur Grimm that illustrated German occupation in Poland as a kind of civilized police activity – all staged for the cameras.  There’s a kind of collapse between public and private sphere there.  Then Karl Prümm introduced Feldzug in Polen as a symphonic newsreel designed to make the invasion of Poland itself seem like a work of art.

On the second day (today/Friday) Ralf Forster from the Filmmuseum Potsdam demonstrated how the newsreel production process was a well-oiled, highly modern machine that, well, more or less delivers on the “camera as weapon” thesis.  Matthias Struch provided an array of clips to show how authorship and individual directorial signatures could be found in the films of Walter Frentz, Hans Ertl and Heinz von Jaworsky.  Dirk Alt highlighted a few newsreels fragmentarily shot in color and why WWII wasn’t generally shot in color.  Hans-Peter Fuhrmann elaborated on the acoustic dimension of the newsreels and how music and/or sound effects frame the works’ sense of realism.  Brian Winston introduced The True Glory as a very effective piece of indirect propaganda:  acknowledging the negative and cynical sides of reality before turning to its myth-making, collectivist project.

After tonight’s screening, I had the pleasure of having a beer with Mr. Winston, Kay Hoffmann and another very nice woman who worked heavily with documentary film.  It turns out that this is THE Brian Winston who wrote Misunderstanding Media as well as Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries, and who produced this classic Paper Tiger analysis of TV news.  So now that I understood that I was gossiping with one of the luminaries of documentary ethics and Communication Studies, I realized that when he talked about “Ricky” needing to get his autobiography out, he meant Richard Leacock, and when he referred to “Bobby” or “Stuart,” he meant Robert Flaherty and Stuart Hall respectively.  He’s currently working on the documentary on Flaherty, which caused a lot of discussion about Nanook of the North (1922) and Louisiana Story (1948).  I learned maybe more in that one hour than in several Kamera als Waffe conferences, but so it goes.

Naturally, I remain without a student U-bahn pass and I’m cheap so I hoofed it back to my apartment from Potsdamer Platz after the beer.  My 30-minute nighttime journey on foot revealed the following items of note:

• A row of aggressive prostitutes near the Bülowstrasse U-Bahn station (but I was on the other side of the street)
• A hookah bar covered in a pale haze that was sucked outside as soon as someone opened the door.
• An older man with an open bottle of Baileys who nearly wandered into traffic.
• A local barber shop has a lot of activity behind its steel doors at night, meaning I think it’s a front for something else

Ah, the City of Sand.

Fantasy

Feldzug in Polen (1939/40, dir. Fritz Hippler)

Fritz Hippler, that lovely cutting-room documentarist who later put together the anti-Semitic montage The Eternal Jew (1940), worked together with Herbert Windt, composer of the score for Triumph of the Will (1935), on the first major documentary about the German blitzkrieg victory in Poland.  With enthusiastic marches, maps with big arrows on them, and exciting house-to-house fighting footage that may or may not have been staged, the film shows us how the Wehrmacht kicked the living tar out of the Polish army.  The general dynamic revolves around A) the continuous victory of the advancing German army and B) the continuous retreat of the cowardly-but-threatening Polish army, conspicuously eliding the presence of both German casualties and the nuances of Polish defeat (something about concentration camps?).  In my humble opinion, it reminded me of a music video:  structured more around its own self-gratifyingly simplistic narrative and the foregrounded symphonic music than around documentation of an event or the commemoration of something significant in detail.

The True Glory (1945, dir. Carol Reed)

An epic piece of propaganda filmmaking that kicks the living tar out of Feldzug in Polen, The True Glory provides a picture of the WWII battle on the western front toward victory told entirely through voice-over by real troops and General Eisenhower.  It is, in a word, gripping.  Ken Burns’ The War (2007) shows the message hasn’t changed a bit from when the U.S. and the UK hadn’t even defeated Japan yet:  the war was hard and fought by regular people called to do a great, global act of goodness requiring epic bravery, etc., etc.  The point is that, after this film, you feel both educated about the basic military history of the UK/American/Russian victory and certainly feel very good that all those Nazis are conquered, even though the Nazi Germans are not necessarily portrayed in a negative light.  Another key difference from Feldzug in Polen:  the bodies of American and British soldiers are depicted, which forces how “hard” the war was.  See this to see from where Saving Private Ryan (1998) effectively culled its most powerful material for the first 20 minutes.