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Tag Archives: Nosferatu

Book Review: Shell Shock Cinema

Shell Shock Cinema by Anton Kaes
Princeton University Press, 2010

shellshockcinema

As someone who teaches film studies at the college level, I’m sorry to say that I think a lot of academic film writing is garbage. Too much of what passes for “serious” film writing is nothing more than literary theory — particularly as it relates to Freud and/or Marx — imported wholesale by academics who lack a thorough knowledge of film history and aesthetics. For some classes I am, unfortunately, forced to teach from such books from time to time. (If I have a say in the matter, I always use Film Art or Film History by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, two keen analytical writers and true cinephiles whose work straddles the line between academic and mainstream film criticism.) I mention all of this because I recently read a terrific film studies book that I could not recommend more highly: Shell Shock Cinema by Anton Kaes. Not only is this academic study an impeccably researched work of scholarship, it also offers penetrating and new insights into its subject matter — the massively influential and already much-written about movies of Germany’s Weimar era. More specifically, Kaes persuasively argues that several key works of what is often-termed “German Expressionist cinema,” a phrase the author barely uses, can be seen as coded responses to the first World War. This reverses the trend of most academic writing about silent German film, which, following the lead of the critic Siegfried Kracauer, has tended to view the masterpieces of Expressionism as harbingers of the rise of Nazism. Kaes’ view that Weimar-era movies were looking back rather than forward makes so much sense that one wonders why it took 80-odd years for someone to mount such an argument.

caligari The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Kaes’ book is structured around a close reading of four movies: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), and Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1927). Proceeding in chronological order, Kaes shows how each of these films can be seen as “entities that arise from and exist in concrete historical moments; that supply aesthetic responses to economic, social, political, ideological and institutional determinants; and that still resonate with us today.” Kaes makes good on this claim by specifically analyzing how all four films feature characters who seem to be exhibiting the symptoms of “shell shock,” a then-new and controversial neurological disorder occurring in soldiers who had participated in the first “technological war.” Many German government officials apparently felt that shell-shocked soldiers were mere “malingerers” who were faking psychological illnesses as a means of avoiding having to serve in the front lines. “War psychiatrists” were then brought in to essentially debunk the shell shock phenomenon, sometimes administering electroshock therapy to its sufferers — not so much to “cure” them than to scare them into agreeing to return to active duty. Is it any wonder then, Kaes asks, that the villain of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the evil director of a mental hospital who may be crazy himself? Or that the protagonist is a patient suffering from hallucinations induced by some unspoken trauma? If there is one flaw in Shell Shock Cinema it’s that this first provocative analysis is the most revelatory one in the book.

nosferatu Nosferatu

In Kaes’ primary reading of Nosferatu, the mysterious title vampire — a character continually associated with the plague — and his apocalyptic arrival in the small (fictional) German town of Wisborg is analogous to the mass death that swept across the country during the Great War. Kaes sees real-estate agent Thomas Hutter’s voyage to Castle Orlock as representing a soldier’s journey to the “eastern” front, and his wife Ellen’s adventures back home as standing in for the homefront experiences of a typical soldier’s wife. But Kaes also wisely refuses to limit his analysis to this single interpretation and also considers that the plot may be read as a disturbing anti-Semitic metaphor for then-contemporary fears about the migration of Jews from Eastern Europe. (I personally don’t buy this interpretation but am glad the author chose to include it.) Kaes then moves on to Die Nibelungen, analyzing its two parts as a reflection of changing German attitudes towards the concept of wartime heroism (i.e., the first part, Siegfired, valorizes fallen soldiers and arguably glorifies war while the second, Kriemhild’s Revenge, offers a somewhat surprising corrective in that it underlines the pointlessness and insanity of revenge). But Fritz Lang’s mythical period epic is also the film that seems to offer the most coded response to World War I and is therefore the book’s least interesting passage. Things pick back up with Kaes’ climactic discussion of Metropolis, a notorious commercial flop on its initial release, which many historians see as representing the final nail in the coffin of German Expressionism. Here, Kaes invokes Karl Marx — in a manner wholly appropriate — in his analysis of Metropolis‘ class struggle as a kind of “industrial battle” in which the members of the working class are seen as human fodder for an insatiable war god.

nibelungen Die Nibelungen

The analysis of this quartet of movies is followed by a swift conclusion that illustrates the connection between Weimar-era German cinema and American film noir, and a discussion of how the lessons of Expressionism remain relevant today. While Kaes could have undoubtedly viewed many other silent German movies through his shell-shocked lens — I think Murnau’s Faust, in particular, would’ve benefitted from the treatment — I applaud his decision to offer his theory as a primer rather than anything more exhaustive; not including the endnotes and bibliography, the entire text runs a succinct and imminently readable 216 pages. The fact that all four of the films under discussion are widely available on home video should only enhance the accessibility of Shell Shock Cinema: Die Nibelungen, Nosferatu and Metropolis have all been restored by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation and are available in splendid-quality Blu-ray editions (and Caligari, already available in a good quality DVD, will be released on Blu-ray following a new Murnau Foundation restoration later this year). As someone who devotes at least one class to teaching German Expressionism every semester, I am eternally grateful to Kaes and plan on using this text in future classes. Shell Shock Cinema is an ideal book for anyone — novices and experts alike — interested in one of the richest and most exciting periods in cinema’s history.

Thanks to David Hanley for making me aware of this book. Shell Shock Cinema can be ordered from Amazon here: http://tinyurl.com/mlcs7us

Six clips from the Murnau Foundation’s new restoration of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be viewed here: http://diastor.ch/2014/01/27/six-videos-of-new-caligari-restoration-now-online/

metropolis1 Metropolis

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Happy Halloween Weekend From White City Cinema (and Count Orlok)


Framing the Supernatural in Caligari and Nosferatu

My post for today concerns two of my favorite horror films – the German Expressionist masterpieces The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror. After showing both movies innumerable times in Intro to Film classes, I’ve come to believe that the awesome power of each ultimately lies in their shared sense of a wacked-out story structure: Robert Wiene and F.W. Murnau didn’t just make films about the supernatural, they made films supernaturally.

One of the hallmarks of the German Expressionist cinema is a keen interest in the supernatural. Incorporating techniques borrowed from Expressionist artists in other mediums (painting, theater, architecture, etc.) the major German Expressionist film directors sought to create a new, more personal form of expression that favored the unknown to the known, the power of the human imagination to knowledge acquired only through sensory experience and a cinematographic style that consciously rebelled against the “invisible” techniques of Hollywood narrative continuity filmmaking. The arrival of Expressionism in movies is usually credited with the 1920 release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a low-budget but revolutionary film written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer and directed by Robert Wiene at the Decla-Bioscop studio. Two years later, F.W. Murnau directed the landmark Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, the first movie adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for a small outfit named Prana Film (it would be their only release). These two works, which share a startling, little commented upon framing device, provided a shining example, in both form and content, for many other filmmakers to follow.

One of the key ingredients to the success of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is its narrative structure. Wiene employs a framing device so that the chief action of his film is a story being told within a story. This structure provides a wealth of stylistic and thematic possibilities that allow Wiene to bring out the haunting, mysterious nature of his tale to maximum effect. The movie begins with the protagonist, Franzis, telling his story to an old man on a park bench. These shots (and a few rhyming shots at the film’s conclusion) are the only exterior shots to actually be filmed outdoors by Wiene and his crew. The bulk of the narrative is comprised of Franzis’ story, about the sinister goings-on at a carnival, which Wiene presents as a lengthy flashback sequence. All of the exterior scenes inside of Franzis’ story (and there are many) were clearly shot on interior sets in the Decla-Bioscop studio and have a highly artificial, theatrical appearance. The discrepancy between authentic and artificial exteriors is the first subtle clue as to the fact that Franzis is an “unreliable narrator.”

There are several reasons why the framing device is effectively suited to movies involving fantastic and otherworldly elements. First, it provides the director with an ironic juxtaposition of tone and setting. This is immediately apparent in the opening of Murnau’s Nosferatu. The first several shots of the film are title cards, the first of which reads: “an Account of the Great Death in Wisborg anno Domini 1838.” The second warns against speaking the word Nosferatu aloud lest “. . . haunting dreams will climb forth from your heart and feed on your blood.” The third title card is the most curious as it introduces the mysterious narrator: “I have reflected at length on the origin and passing of the Great Death in my hometown of Wisborg. Here is its story: Once in Wisborg lived a man named Hutter and his young wife Ellen.” Incredibly, it is never made clear who the narrator is, or even if he appears physically within the movie, although several more title cards crop up that indicate what we are seeing represents a first person perspective.

The first shots of Nosferatu (following the opening title cards) depict a scene of domestic contentment between Hutter and Ellen in their small-town bourgeois home. Hutter is excitedly getting dressed in front of a bedroom mirror, preparing to go to work for the day. Nearby, Ellen is laughing and playing with a cat and a ball of yarn in front of an open window. The counterpoint of the spectral opening titles – with their gothic font and multiple evocations of the “Great Death” – against this backdrop of newly wedded bliss allows Murnau to establish a mood of foreboding; a feeling of uneasiness has permeated the setting that will soon explode into horror once the narrative proper begins.

Another function of the framing device is to allow for multiple narrators. The first narrator of Caligari is Wiene himself – omniscient, God-like, paring his fingernails. He is the rational narrator who provides the “frame” for the fantastical portrait of the second narrator, Franzis. Wiene takes care to show the mesmeric effect of Franzis’ story on his listener (the old man) in the hopes that we, the viewer, will become hypnotized too. (The theme of hypnotism next raises its head in this same scene when Jane, the female lead, walks past the two men in a zombie-like trance. This theme will recur throughout the film.) Wiene will not however return to the framing story until the very end of the movie, a device that makes many first-time viewers forget that there even is a framing story. Nosferatu, on the other hand, only has one narrator, the “I” who mysteriously appears in title cards on a semi-regular basis throughout the movie. This suggests that what we are seeing is perhaps the illustration of someone’s diary and, unlike Caligari, we can never be certain whether any of what we see in Nosferatu is “real.”

After Nosferatu‘s opening titles, the narrator’s presence doesn’t crop up again until almost twenty-two minutes into the film, when Hutter has traveled to the Carpathian mountains in hopes of making a real estate sale to the mysterious Count Orlok. After a memorable shot of Hutter crossing a bridge, the following intertitle appears: “As soon as Hutter crossed the bridge he was seized by the eerie visions he so often told me of . . .” At the 38 minute mark, Ellen, at home in bed, is also seized by eerie visions (of her husband in Orlok’s clutches). After a doctor visits her, this intertitle appears: “The doctor described Ellen’s anxiety to me as some sort of unknown illness. But I know that on that night her soul heard the call of the deathbird.” Later, when Count Orlok departs for Wisborg, we see this intertitle: “Nosferatu was coming. Danger was on its way to Wisborg. Professor Bulwer, a Paracelsian who was then investigating the secrets of nature and its unifying principles, told me about it: Caskets filled with dirt were loaded onto the double-masted schooner, Empusa.” What these crucial title cards establish is that, although there may only be one narrator, what we are seeing has been passed through several subjective filters (the narrator’s as well as Hutter’s, Ellen’s, the doctor’s and Professor Bulwer’s).

As in Citizen Kane, what we think of as the “truth” of the events depicted onscreen in Nosferatu is really just the sum total of a bunch of stories that many different people have told to the narrator. The chief difference, therefore, between Murnau’s approach to constructing narrative and that of Wiene lies in Murnau’s self-consciousness in regards to form. While the narrative strategies of the two filmmakers work on the viewer in a similar, almost-subliminal fashion, the repeated intrusions of the unseen narrator in Nosferatu make the construction of narrative itself the subject of Murnau’s film as much as the mass death that Orlok causes to sweep across the German countryside like the plague.

Finally, the most important function of the framing device, at least in relation to supernatural subject matter, is the distancing effect it has on the viewer. When filmmakers set their narratives in the distant past or in faraway lands (as Wiene and Murnau both do), they are, somewhat paradoxically, lending credence to otherwise fantastical tales in the mind’s eye of the viewer. This technique is still common in campfire ghost stories and urban legends today where “Something once happened to a friend of a friend of mine . . .” Because most of us do not experience supernatural phenomena in our daily lives, we are more ready to accept such phenomena when it is packaged in a story taking place outside the realm of our concrete experience. Hence the evocation of “exotic” settings in both of these films: Romania and the mid-19th century in Nosferatu, Italy and the early 18th century in Caligari.

In Caligari, the most obvious narrative function of the framing device is that it allows Wiene to set up his famous “trick ending” (the story Franzis tells turns out to be no more than the ravings of a madman). As disturbing as this conceit is on the surface, it provides the audience on a deeper level with a sense of relief (i.e., it explains why the rest of the film looks so bizarre, it allows us to feel that Caligari’s counterpart, the asylum director, may be able to cure Franzis, etc.). If Nosferatu remains the more unnerving film today, it’s partially because its ending offers the viewer no comparable sense of relief. Towards the end of Nosferatu the narrator informs us, “I have wondered for a long time why it was said that Nosferatu took his coffins with him filled with dirt. I have surmised that vampires can only draw their shadowy strength from the cursed earth in which they were buried.” In other words, Murnau’s narrator is just as clueless as the viewer, merely speculating as to the causes of the horror to which we have born witness. When the vampire is finally vanquished (through the self-sacrifice of Ellen), the abiding tone is one of bleakness and despair. For a country that had just lived through and lost an unpopular war (for which Nosferatu can be seen as an allegory), the end of the “Great Death” was no cause for celebration.

Few movies have proved to be as enduringly popular as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu; Shutter Island and most of Tim Burton would be unthinkable without the former and many key elements of vampire mythology were first introduced in the latter – such as the notion that vampires cannot be exposed to sunlight. As to the reasons for this popularity, some would credit the masterful use of atmospheric lighting, the brilliantly innovative set design, the unforgettable monster make-up or the legendary performances of the villains played by Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt and Max Schreck. Personally, I think both films still resonate today because Murnau and Wiene both illustrated that form is the most direct route to emotion.

The most complete versions of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are available on DVD from Kino Video. The most essential critical writing on the German Expressionist movement is Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen.


A Weimar-Era German Cinema Primer

As a result of the popularity of my “South Korean New Wave Primer” post (in terms of total number of views), I have decided to launch a “Primer series” – a periodic listing of capsule reviews of 10 – 20 films that exemplify a particular historical movement or national cinema style. These lists are in no way meant to be definitive. Rather, they represent a sampling of films that I consider essential to understanding a given period in film history. They are also meant to be an ideal introduction to various movements for students in my film studies classes who would like to broaden their knowledge of world cinema, although I will always throw in a wild card or two for the benefit of my more seasoned cinephile readers.

The second post in the Primer series deals with one of my favorite eras, Germany during the Weimar Republic (1919 – 1933). Although today this period is beloved for being birthplace and home to the movement known as German Expressionism, there were many remarkable films of different styles and genres made during this time, as the below list should make abundantly clear.

Madame DuBarry (Lubitsch, 1919)

Polish-born Pola Negri was a major international movie star and sex symbol during the silent era and Madame DuBarry, a biopic of Louis the XV’s mistress set (incongruously) against the backdrop of the French Revolution, is one of her finest star vehicles. Funny, tragic and sexually provocative for its time, this historical epic allowed German film studio UFA to break into the international market. Four years later, director Ernst Lubitsch would become the first of many German filmmakers to migrate to Hollywood (where he would achieve even greater fame).

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari) (Wiene, 1920)

This is the definitive German Expressionist film, in which all of the elements of director Robert Wiene’s mise-en-scene (lighting, set design, costume design, the movement of figures within the frame) have been deliberately distorted and exaggerated for expressive purposes. The end result, a view of the world through the eyes of a madman, single-handedly inaugurated the Expressionist movement, which dominated German cinema screens for most of the rest of the decade.

The Golem (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam) (Boese/Wegener, 1920)

A fascinating horror movie/political allegory about a Rabbi in 16th century Prague who creates the title character, a giant monster designed to defend the inhabitants of a Jewish ghetto against religious persecution. The Expressionist sets and monster make-up still impress today.

Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit) (Lang, 1922)

The first in a cycle of Fritz Lang films about a diabolical criminal mastermind and master of disguise who crashes the stock market and swindles countless innocents out of their money seemingly for no reason other than the sheer fun of it. Indebted to the mystery serials of Louis Feuillade, this four-hour movie (split into two parts of equal length) remains a fast-paced, rip-roaring entertainment from start to finish.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens) (Murnau, 1922)

The first and in my opinion best adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this influential horror movie introduced many now-familiar elements of vampire mythology (such as the notion that vampires cannot be exposed to sunlight). Max Schreck’s frightening incarnation of the title character is unforgettable, as is director F.W. Murnau’s equation between the vampire and the plague – a clear allegory for the senseless mass death that had recently swept across Germany in the first World War.

Warning Shadows (Schatten: Eine nächtliche Halluzination) (Robison, 1923)

A magician arrives at a dinner party and performs a shadow puppet play that seems to dramatize the desires, jealousy and romantic maneuverings of the various partygoers in attendance. This is the single best example of an Expressionist film using light and shadow in an explicitly symbolic way to underscore a film’s themes, which is saying a lot. Also notable for containing no intertitles.

The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann) (Murnau, 1924)

Murnau’s second masterpiece tells the sad story of a proud but aging hotel doorman whose entire world crumbles when his employers demote him to the position of bathroom attendant. Murnau’s new contract with UFA afforded him money and resources way beyond the relatively meager budget of Nosferatu and he put it all to good use by executing complex, elaborate and highly innovative camera movements.

Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) (Birinsky/Leni, 1924)

A lighthearted triptych in which the owner of a wax museum hires a writer to compose stories about his statues for the benefit of his customers. This clever framing device allows the filmmakers to juxtapose stories set in different historical eras, à la Griffith’s Intolerance, while simultaneously dabbling in the Expressionist style of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang’s Destiny.

Variety (Variete) (Dupont, 1925)

One of the major masterpieces of the entire silent era that, for reasons unknown to me, has only ever been released on VHS in the United States. This tragic, darkly ironic crime tale concerns a love triangle between trapeze artists that ends in betrayal and murder. Emil Jannings is at his best as the cuckolded husband but it’s Karl Freund’s brilliant cinematography that really makes Variety fly.

Faust (Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage) (Murnau, 1926)

The well-known story of an alchemist who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a second shot at youth is, in the hands of F.W. Murnau, an extravagant, virtuoso piece of filmmaking that shows why some film writers, including me, consider him one of the greatest directors of all time. Indeed, out of all the silent films I’ve seen, I can only compare it to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis from the following year in terms of sheer ambition. Disappointing box office returns for both films was a major factor in the decline of Expressionist cinema.

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt) (Ruttmann, 1927)

The “city symphony” film, an experimental/documentary hybrid in which filmmakers composed images of a typical day in the life of a major city, was briefly in vogue as the international art film of choice in the late silent era. Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Sypmphony of a Great City is a terrific piece of eye candy and a fascinating documentary window into Weimar-era Berlin. It also exerted a huge influence on Dziga-Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera.

Metropolis (Lang, 1927)

Metropolis is the most famous of all silent German films – a massively influential science fiction epic about class warfare in a futuristic Germany that dazzles with its visionary architecture and pioneering special effects. But the formidable formal qualities are nicely balanced by a stellar cast including veteran screen actors Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Alfred Abel and newcomer Brigitte Helm (terrific in a dual role). The “complete” version unveiled in 2010 is the great film restoration story of our time.

Spies (Spione) (Lang, 1928)

The Mabuse-like leader of a spy ring finds out about a romance between one of his employees, a beautiful Russian woman, and suave government agent “Number 326” who has been assigned to bring him down. Spies contains many incredible set pieces including political assassinations, heists of government secrets, a train wreck and a finale involving a clown performance that has to be seen to be believed. This is the real birth of the modern spy thriller, without which the James Bond series would not be possible.

Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) (Pabst, 1929)

A lot of German stars have tried their luck in Hollywood. In the late 1920s American actress Louise Brooks did the opposite, moving to Germany and teaming up with director G.W. Pabst for a trio of memorable films. Pandora’s Box is their masterpiece, a realistically told, naturalistically acted story of a woman forced into prostitution who meets her fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Although her career went into decline immediately after she returned to Hollywood, Brooks was rediscovered in the 1950s and today has become one of the most iconic visages (and bobbed haircuts) of the silent cinema.

White Hell of Pitz Palu (Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü) (Fanck/Pabst, 1929)

A major reference point in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, White Hell of Pitz Palu is a good example of the “mountain climbing film,” a popular genre in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The story concerns a young married couple hiking in the Alps who meet a doctor looking for the wife he had lost on a similar hiking expedition years earlier. This is chock-full of exciting climbing and rescue sequences and the minimal intertitles make it easy to focus on the film’s spectacular snowy scenery. The female lead is played by future director (and Nazi propagandist) Leni Riefenstahl.

The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel) (von Sternberg, 1930)

The Blue Angel is notable for many reasons, including its status as the first German talkie and the film that launched Marlene Dietrich to international stardom. The story is reminiscent of Variety with Emil Jannings again playing a man who is driven to ruin by a treacherous woman, this time a cabaret singer of loose morals named Lola Lola (Dietrich at her most iconic). This was the only German-made film by Austrian director Josef von Sternberg.

People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag) (Siodmak/Ulmer, 1930)

A remarkable documentary-like narrative film about a weekend in the life of ordinary Berliners, People on Sunday centers on five characters who are portrayed by non-actors with day-jobs similar to those of their counterparts in the story. The film is also fascinating in that it was made by a collective of young amateur filmmakers, all of whom would soon go on to notable careers in Hollywood: it was directed by brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann based on a script by Billy Wilder.

M (Lang, 1931)

My favorite German movie of all time is this police procedural/serial killer thriller based on the exploits of several real-life German murderers of the 1920s. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film and his innovative use of dialogue, sound effects and music (the killer’s habitual whistling) was hugely influential on subsequent movies. This was also the screen debut of theatrical actor Peter Lorre, chilling and believable as the killer, who would soon follow his director in carving out a memorable Hollywood career.

Maedchen in Uniform (Froelich/Sagan, 1931)

A beautiful film about a teenage girl sent to a boarding school where she falls in love with a female teacher, this is one of the earliest portrayals of an explicitly homosexual character in the history of cinema. The taboo-breaking content of the film, as well as its function as a plea for tolerance, are made exceedingly poignant knowing in hindsight that the rise of Nazism was just around the corner. Superbly directed by Leontine Sagan, one of the very few women to get behind a camera in this era of German movies.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse) (Lang, 1933)

Fritz Lang’s farewell to German cinema resurrects his supervillain Dr. Mabuse from more than a decade earlier (again played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) and has him match wits against Otto Wernicke’s Inspector Lohman character from M! Many critics and historians have interpreted the film as an anti-Nazi parable in which characters belonging to the criminal underworld are equated with the Nazi party. Indeed Joseph Goebbels promptly banned The Testament of Dr. Mabuse from German cinemas and Fritz Lang soon headed to America where he became one of the most prominent directors of film noir.


JLG: Now and Then

In honor of Jean-Luc Godard’s forthcoming Film Socialisme (the scandal of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, which will hopefully be opening in Chicago at the CIFF in October), I am reproducing a reworked version of an essay I wrote some years ago tracing the evolution of Godard’s art from Alphaville in 1965 to its semi-sequel Allemagne 90 Neuf Zero in 1991.

From Alphaville to Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro: The Evolution of Jean-Luc Godard

When writing about Jean-Luc Godard, most critics tend to separate his career into different phases, each embracing several individual works, in an attempt to view his prolific filmography in concise, easy correspondences. But this is a dangerous form of simplification, for most critics cannot agree on when a specific phase ends and when another begins -– or even how many phases there are. While many share a fondness for the iconoclast’s “earlier, more accessible work,” depending on the critic this might be a phase that ends with Weekend in 1967, Masculin Feminin in 1966, Pierrot le Fou in 1965, or even Breathless in 1960.

I would argue that for Godard, every film represents a beginning and an end in itself. Not one to stay in the same place for very long (how many have still not forgiven him for not making another Breathless?), nearly all of Godard’s feature-length film and video works can stand alone as individual “phases,” complete unto themselves while simultaneously looking forward to the next project. Charting the progression of Godard’s career can be a difficult task then, especially in short essay form. However, Godard has occasionally looked back, as in his 1991 film Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro (released stateside under the ungainly title Germany Year 90 Nine Zero), a surprise sequel to his popular 1965 film Alphaville: Une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution. A comparison of these two films should provide some insight into the evolution of this mercurial director’s style.

When Alphaville was first released, it was successful with critics and the public alike and remains one of Godard’s most enjoyable and accessible films; it is also one of only a handful of his films to have been released on home video in the U.S. in successive VHS, Laserdisc, and DVD editions, the latter two in deluxe versions from the prestigious Criterion label. (Unfortunately, Criterion has since lost distribution rights, which means Alphaville is not one of the half-dozen[!] Godard films to have already received a release on Blu-ray disc in the still relative-infancy of that splendid new HD format.) Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, by contrast, is typical of Godard’s late work in that it has never been released on home video in the U.S. in any format. This is partly due to the “difficult” nature of the work. It is neither pure narrative fiction nor essay, neither entirely film nor video but rather a crazy-quilt mixture of all of the above. Also typical of late Godard is that its challenging hybrid nature seems to deliberately mark it as a work of art that stubbornly refuses to function as an easily consumed cultural object.

The plot of Alphaville concerns the mission of secret agent Lemmy Caution to infiltrate the totalitarian society of the film’s title and destroy Alpha 60, the super-computer that controls the lives of Alphaville’s inhabitants. In keeping with a trend of the French nouvelle vague directors of the day, one of the film’s aims is to mix genres in order to explode them — Alphaville has been summarized as a “science fiction / detective thriller / romance comedy / with heavy political overtones.” (Dixon) While this genre-riffing aspect of the film goes a long way towards explaining its popularity, it does not, I believe, illuminate Alphaville’s most important function. Understandably, a lot of critics and historians have focused on the film’s nightmarish depiction of a negative utopia, which is destroyed, finally, by the transformative power of love. For them, the key reference points are the dystopian novels 1984 and Brave New World and they usually interpret Alphaville along similar lines -– as a fictional narrative set in an imaginary future in order for its author to comment on the horrors of the present day.

I believe, however, that Godard is more concerned with the relationship between the past and the present, especially in terms of film history. Keeping in mind that Godard wrote film criticism for nearly a decade before making his first feature, his early films can be seen as an extension of that criticism; “Instead of writing a critique, I direct a film,” Godard famously stated in a 1962 interview. When Alphaville is viewed in this light, as critical essay as much as narrative fiction, its key reference points are no longer George Orwell and Aldous Huxley but instead F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks. This is because, as criticism, Alphaville’s chief objective is to point up the link between two important movements in film history: the German Expressionist films of the post World War I era and the American films noirs of the post World War II era.

It is well-known that many of Germany’s top filmmakers, technicians and actors immigrated to Hollywood in the 1930s in order to escape the rise of Nazism. The new “Germanic” sensibility that could then be felt in American cinema was the direct result of the arrival of expatriate directors such as Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, 1944), Edgar Ulmer (Detour, 1945) and Edward Dmytryk (Murder My Sweet, 1947). The much beloved film noir cycle they helped to inaugurate might best be defined as a marriage between the shadowy visual style and exaggerated lighting effects of German Expressionism and the downbeat and fatalistic plot lines of the hardboiled American detective novels of the 1920s and 1930s. Since these new “black” films struck a chord in post-Pearl Harbor America, it wasn’t long before they proliferated, being created by both the original German Expressionists and the American directors, such as Welles and Hawks, on whom they were an influence.

So how, in Alphaville, does Godard use cinema to chart this evolution in film history? Most strikingly, he employs the self-conscious stylistic conventions of German Expressionism, such as exaggerated high-contrast and low-key lighting, but carries them to an almost operatic extreme. As critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has perceptively noted, “(Godard) comments on the implicit thematic values of light and darkness in German expressionism by making them explicit, even self-conscious, in the film’s symbology.” Self-conscious because the very concepts of light and darkness are so prominent in Alphaville’s universe that the film’s characters frequently discuss them. For instance, when interrogating Lemmy Caution, Alpha 60 asks, “What illuminates the night?” Lemmy responds, “Poetry.” Later, in his hotel room, Lemmy teaches his love interest, Natasha, the meaning of love by having her read a Paul Eluard poem: “Light that goes, light that returns . . . sentiments drift away . . . I was going towards you, I was perpetually moving towards the light,” she reads. (Of course, Godard also pays homage to specific German Expressionist films: a dolly shot through a revolving door is a visual quote from Murnau’s Der Letzte Mann [1924]. One character is named Professor Nosferatu and some scenes use negative film stock in reference to Murnau’s pioneering vampire film, Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens [1922]. Several of Alphaville’s inhabitants cling to walls like Cesare, the somnambulist in Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari [1920], and so on.)

If the film’s style, then, embodies Expressionism, it is the characters that embody film noir. With his trench coat, fedora and ever-present cigarette, Lemmy Caution is clearly modeled on Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade by way of Humphrey Bogart. This allusion also becomes self-conscious — Lemmy is seen reading Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep in his hotel room. (It’s also worth noting that Eddie Constantine was an American expatriate actor.)  Alphaville’s “seductresses” have an equivalent in the femmes fatales of film noir, while the presence of actor Akim Tamiroff is obviously meant to invoke Orson Welles. Here, Tamiroff essentially plays the same seedy characters that he essayed in Mr. Arkadin (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958), two Welles films for which Godard has professed his admiration.

Ultimately, Alphaville is the work of a cinephile. Through a complex series of inter-textual references, Godard successfully illustrates how film language evolved in the first half of the 20th century. In so doing, Godard is also celebrating the directors and films that helped make that evolution possible. But when he chose to resurrect the character of Lemmy Caution 26 years later, Godard’s purpose could not have been more different.

In 1990, Godard was commissioned by French television to make a documentary about the collapse of communism in East Germany. The resultant film turned out to be a semi-sequel to Alphaville with Eddie Constantine again playing the lead role. Although shot in 35 millimeter, the film premiered in France on television, thus lending ironic credence to Alphaville’s prophecy of the death of cinema in a line about movies only being shown in “Cinerama museums.” The title of the film, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, is an untranslatable pun; the word “neuf” in French can mean either “nine” or “new.” The title therefore refers to both 1990, the year the film was made and to Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 film, Germania Year Zero.

For Rossellini, “Year Zero” referred to the first year after the end of World War II when Germany had to start over from scratch, socially, politically and economically. For Godard, “Year New Zero” refers to the first year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Germany has to make a similar painful transformation. What does this have to do with Alphaville? Where Alphaville examined film history and the artistic impact of German cinema on a fledgling American cinema, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro examines world history and the impact of American cultural colonialism on a fledgling German society. In other words, it was a perfect time for Lemmy Caution to return.

As alluded to earlier, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro is not a fictional narrative (not even tangentially, like Alphaville), but neither is it a non-fiction documentary or, in the manner of Godard’s compatriot Chris Marker, an “essay film” (the category into which most critics feel comfortable lumping late Godard). It features fictional characters and a series of scenes but there is not the dramatic shape that we usually associate with commercial cinema and the dialogue consists mainly of quotations from literature, philosophy and other movies. At the film’s opening, Lemmy Caution, referred to as “the last spy,” is hiding out in East Germany under an assumed name. He is visited by an intelligence agent, Count Zelten, who informs him that the Cold War has ended and that it is safe to emerge and return to the West if Lemmy so desires. The remainder of the film is a rich tapestry of sound and image upon which Godard hangs his thoughts and feelings about Germany at the end of the millennium. Lemmy wanders around the newly reunified Germany, asking the people he encounters, “Which way is the West?” The first sign of encroaching capitalism comes in the form of a street vendor selling “a piece of history, only ten cents, stones from the Berlin Wall.” Scenes such as this are juxtaposed with clips from classic German films (some of which have been digitally slowed down) and punctuated with inter-titles quoting German literature. The film’s dense soundtrack gives Godard the opportunity to craft a kind of German fantasia, mixing quotes from Hegel and Goethe in voice-over narration with snatches of music from Bach and Beethoven. (The sound design, always a highlight of late Godard, won a special award at the Venice film festival in 1991.)

The film’s use of quotation is also in marked contrast to that of Alphaville. For example, when Lemmy first arrives in Berlin, he says, “Once I was across the frontier, the shadows came to greet me.” This is an allusion to a similar scene in Nosferatu where Hutter, the film’s Jonathan Harker figure/protagonist, crosses a bridge that will take him to the castle of the vampire Count Orlok. The corresponding inter-title in Nosferatu reads “When he reached the other side of the bridge, the phantoms came to greet him.” No longer content to merely celebrate the films he loves, Godard instead uses this reference to make an equation between capitalism and vampirism. This point is furthered, hilariously, by an advertisement for “West” cigarettes featuring a scantily clad woman. For Godard, the corporate capitalism that brought down the Berlin wall has already begun to “feed” off of the citizens of the former East Germany by wasting no time in aggressively marketing to them as consumers. As Lemmy surveys Berlin at night, all gaudy neon lights and department store window displays, he ruefully states, “Christmas with all its ancient horrors is on us again” (a quote from Raymond Chandler).

It is not until the final scene, however, when Lemmy checks into the Berlin Inter-Continental Hotel that Godard seemingly alludes directly to Alphaville. In the earlier film, Lemmy refused to let the hotel staff handle his bags, telling them to “Get lost” instead. In Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, not only does the more world-weary Lemmy relinquish his suitcase, he only gets it back after tipping the bellboy. Upon entering his room, Lemmy says, “Someone forgot this,” indicating a book on his bedside table. The hotel maid responds, “No sir, that’s the bible, it’s always there.” In Alphaville, the “bible” was a dictionary from which all words connoting emotion were systematically removed (hence, the need for Lemmy to teach Natasha the meaning of the word love). In the final shot of Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, Lemmy opens the slim volume and says with resignation, “The bastards.”

In the span of a quarter of a century between the release of two of his best films, Godard’s art had undergone a radical transformation. In 1992, the year after Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro was released, he described it thus: “When I made (Breathless), I was a child in the movies. Now I am becoming an adult. I feel I can be better. I think that artists, as they grow older discover what they can do.” For Godard, discovering what he could do meant broadening his concerns from film criticism to social criticism, from an appreciation of plastic beauty to an appreciation of pastoral beauty. After watching Alphaville, one knows that Godard loves movies, but after watching Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, one knows that Godard is deeply concerned about the world he lives in. The difference between the two films is the difference between criticism and philosophy, between innocence and experience.

Works Cited

1. Dixon, Wheeler Winston. The Films of Jean-Luc Godard. SUNY Press: New York, New York. 1997.

2. Jean Luc Godard Interviews. Editor, David Sterritt. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson, Mississippi. 1998.

3. Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Theory and Practice: The Criticism of Jean-Luc Godard”. Placing Moives. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. 1995.

4. Godard, Jean-Luc. Alphaville. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. Inc.: New York, New York. 1984.

5. Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Lemmy Caution. Film. Gaumont, 1991.

6. Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Dir. F.W. Murnau. Perf. Max Schreck. Film. Prana-Film GmbH, 1922


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