The City in Fiction and Film, week two

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Week one

This week we took on Fritz Lang’s M (1931).

We began with a quotation from Anton Kaes’s BFI classic, which describes the film as embodying:

‘the tension between the forces of modernity, with their emphasis on time, discipline, rationality, seriality, law and order and those recalcitrant counterforces – trauma, passion, illness, loss and, finally, death – that defy reason and resist integration’ (76)

Our discussion of these various concepts in relation to the film was supported by a number of clues and questions presented before the screening:

Look out for clocks, files, records, book-keeping, accounts and other evidence of bureaucracy in action.
Look out for communications networks and mass media.
Look out for shop windows and other displays of commodities.
Look out for mirror images/reflections and doublings.
What is going on with the narrative structure? To what extent is this a film about the contest between a protagonist and an antagonist? To what extent is classical narrative structure subordinated to a series of images of the city connected by sound? How are those images arranged? How do they relate to each other?
Pay attention to the ways the film uses sound (offscreen sound, sound from the following shot/scene present in the current scene, unusual sources of sound, silences).
At the end of the film, is there any conclusive evidence of Hans Beckert’s (Peter Lorre) guilt?

Clocks abound in this film (and other Lang films – see the Paternoster Machine in Metropolis for example) – from the child’s game that opens the film with clock-like movement to the pickpocket who calls the talking clock and then corrects all the stolen watches he is carrying; from the cuckoo clock in Frau Beckman’s apartment that signals the time as she waits for little Elsie to return home to the clocktower bells that drown it out. They signify the imposition of clock time on our experience of the world – imposed so the trains could run on time, to organize commerce, to discipline and control labour – and the ways in which this ordering of subjectivity also disorders us.

Building on this, the police investigation evokes the instrumentalisation, rationalisation and bureaucratisation of everyday life – files kept on people, fingerprinting, forensic procedures. The police amass information and process it in an orderly manner, an image graphically captured by the concentric circles drawn on a map to indicate the expanding radii of the investigation around a crime scene. The state panopticon’s vast archives of signifiers are bureaucratic abstractions of actual people – this is, as Foucault would argue, evidence of the growing management of populations by statistics. (Though we didn’t get on to Foucault or the panopticon or biopolitics in class!)

Likewise, the gang of criminals come up with their own systematic means of finding the killer (because he is bad for business) – surveillance conducted by the army of beggars in the street; and then, when Beckert is trapped in the factory/office building, despatching teams of men to work through it in an orderly manner.

This parallel between the police/administration and the criminals/beggars has already been indicated by the sequence which repeatedly cuts between them, in their respective smoke-filled rooms, as they plan their respective campaigns. (And boy, are those rooms smoke-filled – like the studio is on fire or something.)

We also thought about seriality – the children’s game, the serial fiction delivered to Frau Beckman as she waits for Elsie, the ordering of cigarettes and cigars and other objects in the beggars’ hideout, where food prices are listed in chalk as if share prices at a stock exchange. And of course serial killers, that modern and largely urban phenomenon, the US variety of which is typically said to start with HH Holmes in Chicago at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair (the subject of one of Edison’s early phonographs). The early twentieth century saw several notorious examples in Germany (Kürten, Grossmann, Denke, Haarmann), and they crop up in other German films of this period, such as Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), and The Lodger (1927), made under the influence of expressionism by Hitchcock shortly after his return from Germany to England (and remade in 1932 with sound by Maurice Elvey).

The idea of the serial killer returned us to the anonymity offered by cities – and the film’s recurring idea that anyone could be the killer. An idea that flips immediately into unreason – we three times see groups of people mistake someone for the killer, unleashing irrational violence, twice by mobs. (This is why it is important, I think, that we see no real evidence that Beckert is guilty. All the police know is that they have traced the man who wrote a letter to the newspapers confessing to the crimes – as many others have done. All the criminals know is that a blind man recognised a tune that was being whistled by someone to whom he sold a balloon for a little girl on the day Elsie went missing. Beckert’s own not entirely convincing confession is clearly that of a deranged man. And yet we, too, generally assume that he is guilty, leaping to conclusions.)

Violence lurks everywhere in this film. The streets are populated with men injured in the war: limbs are missing, and the one set of fingerprints we see are those of a man with only four fingers; there are blind people and deaf people, people who fake being blind and a blind man who sometimes wishes he was deaf so as to cut out the constant noise of the city. There are also psychological traumas: the anxiety of parents (shared to an extent by the viewer who joins them in being worried about their children) and the bereavements they suffer. Lang at one point considered including a flashback to explain the origins of Beckert’s derangement in the horrors of World War One; but that would psychologise him, and like Brecht, Lang is more interested here in moving from ‘psychology to sociology, from empathy to critical distance, from organic development to montage, from suggestion to argument’.

This is why the film narrative is decentred into montages of city scenes, without real protagonist or antagonist. It is about the social circumstances which enable serial killers (and other modern urban figures) to emerge, to thrive, to become a media spectacle. This is why we are not permitted – until the final scene – to develop any real sense of Beckert as a person with whom we might sympathise in some way.

We also situated the film in relation to
— expressionist art (Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Paul Klee’s Castle and Sun, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Nollendorfplatz and Self-Portrait as Soldier, Wassilly Kandinsky’s progression from The Rider to Composition 6 to On White II, James N. Rosenberg’s Oct 29 Dies Irae)
— German expressionist film (Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr CaligariGenuineRaskolnikov, Hands of Orlac, Martin’s From Morn to Midnight, Robison’s Warning Shadows) – though we only had time for clips from Caligari and the opening of Joe May’s Asphalt, which moves from actuality footage to expressionist images of the city, cuts to a calm domestic space, and then returns to expressionist images of the city (you can see it here.) Unlike Caligari, which films expressionist spaces and performances, Asphalt in places uses the camera and editing in an expressionist manner.
Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity or New Matter-of-factness, New Sobriety or New Dispassion), a post-impressionist movement that tried to get away from subjective expression to a more political art intended to provoke collective action (examples included Otto Dix’s verist Salon, War Cripples and The Trench, and Alexander Kanoldt’s classicist Still Life II and Der rote Gürtel). We also took  quick look at some footage from the great New Objectivity film People on Sunday (see it here).

Lang, after all, called a documentary!

The conclusion that I did not have time to get to included the sneaky reference to Foucault mentioned above, and one to the Adorno and Horkheimer – their argument that in capitalist modernity economics and politics become increasingly intertwined: business interests intervene in the running of the state for their own ends; the state intervenes in the economy to maintain conditions favourable to business. This leads to centralised instrumentalist bureaucracies and administration. As instrumental reason dominates, social life becomes increasingly rationalised.

Which kind of captures a large chunk of what M is up to. As in others of Lang’s German and US films, the city is the site of modernity, and this is what modernity looks (and sounds) like.

Additional information from the module handbook
Recommended critical reading
– Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Visions and    Modernity. London: BFI, 2000. See 163–199 on M.
– Kaes, Anton. M. London: BFI, 2000.
– Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 1, “Modernity and the City Film: Berlin.”
– Roberts, Ian. German Expressionism. London: Wallflower, 2008.
Recommended reading
The key German expressionist novel is Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). A more accessible vision of Germany in the Weimar period can be found in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), often bound together as The Berlin Stories or The Berlin Novels and adapted for film as I Am A Camera (Cornelius 1955) and Cabaret (Fosse 1972). Other serial killer fiction of interest includes Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl’s Court (1941), Dorothy B Hughes’s In a Lonely Place (1947), Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952), David Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter (1953), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and Susanna Moore’s In the Cut (1995). Erik Larson’s non-fiction account of HH Holmes and the Chicago World’s Fair, The Devil in the White City (2003), is also of interest.
One of the innovations of American hardboiled crime fiction was the introduction of the detective who could go anywhere in the city, crossing physical space as well as class barriers – such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, introduced in The Big Sleep (1939) – which enables a similar overview of society as that offered in M.
Recommended viewing
Other German expressionist films about the city include The Last Laugh (Murnau 1924), Metropolis (Lang 1927), The Blue Angel (von Sternberg 1930) and – made in the US – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau 1927).
German expressionism visually influenced American film noir, including adaptations of Chandler novels, such as Murder My Sweet (Dmytryk 1944) and The Big Sleep (Hawks 1946). Its impact can also be seen in such British films as Odd Man Out (Reed 1947) and The Third Man (Reed 1949).
Point Blank (Boorman 1967), Se7en (Fincher 1995), The Underneath (Soderbergh 1995), Dark City (Proyas 1998), Fight Club (Fincher 1999) and The Deep End (McGehee and Siegel 2001) find ways to create expressionist effects in colour.
Although it has expressionist elements, at the time of its release in Germany M was considered and example of New Objectivism, like People on Sunday (Siodmak and Ulmer 1930) and GW Pabst’s films of this period – Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), Pandora’s Box (1929), Westfront 1918 (1930) and The Threepenny Opera (19321 .
The Wire (HBO 2002–08) maps the urban complexity behind crime, from street-level drug-dealing to corporate and political corruption. Spiral (Canal+ 2005–), The Killing (DR/ZDF 2007–12) and Peaky Blinders (BBC 2013 – ) do some similar things, although they are less astute about economics.

Week three

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

People-on-sunday-poster[A version of this review appeared in Film International 22 (2006), 69–71.]

Even if it were not a remarkable film, People on Sunday (1930) would still have a place in film history because of the subsequent fame of its makers, all of whom sooner or later left Germany for America. It is based on an original story by Curt Siodmak, who later wrote and directed a number of horror and exploitation movies in Hollywood, but is probably best known as the author of Donovan’s Brain (1942), filmed several times. He developed the screenplay with his brother, Robert, who became one of the major directors of American film noir, and Billy Wilder, who became one of the major Hollywood directors full stop. Robert co-directed the film with Edgar G. Ulmer, who directed numerous Hollywood films, mainly for poverty-row studios, including The Black Cat (1934) and Detour (1945). Their cinematographer was Eugen Schüfftan. A decade older than the others, he was already an established figure in German cinema, probably best known for the special-effects process which he invented for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and which still bears his name (because of union disputes, his Hollywood career is largely uncredited, although he did eventually win the cinematography Oscar for The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961)). Schüfftan’s camera assistant was Fred Zinnemann, who later directed such films as High Noon (1952) and From Here to Eternity (1953). People on Sunday, the project that brought all these talents together right at the start of their careers might well have been remembered for this reason alone. However, it is much more than a mere curiosity or apprentice piece. It stands – alongside Berlin, ein Symphonie einer Grosstadt (Ruttman, 1927), Berliner Stilleben (Moholy-Nagy, 1929), M (Lang, 1931) and Kuhle Wampe (Dudow, 1932), alongside Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) and the writings of Rudolf Arnheim, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht and Siegfried Kracauer – as a key document of the late Weimar period.

plakat-menschen-am-sonntag-1933-werner-labbeSubtitled ‘A film without actors’, it cast five non-professional actors as young Berliners, each character with the same name and job as the person playing him or her. The taxi-driver Erwin lives with the model Annie. On Saturday evening, his friend, the travelling wine salesman Wolfgang, picks up the film-extra Christl, and arranges to go out with her the following day. He invites Erwin and Annie along, but next morning Annie sleeps in, so Erwin goes without her. Christl brings her friend, the record-shop salesgirl Brigitte, with her. The foursome travel out into the countryside, swim in the lake, picnic, listen to records and nap. Christl rejects Wolfgang’s advances and becomes jealous when he switches his attentions to Brigitte. At the end of the day, they all go their separate ways. Next morning, it is back to work, back to everyday life – four million Berliners all looking forward to next Sunday.

When I have taught this film, my students have generally been surprised by its casual attitude towards sex and struck by Wolfgang’s laddish preference to go to a football match with Erwin the following weekend rather than on the date he has made with Brigitte. Others are impressed by the energy and mobility of the camera – an example of the enfesselte Kamera (unchained camera) that was so central to the Kammerspielfilm (chamber play film) and Milieutonfilm (milieu talkie) traditions with which Robert Siodmak’s later Weimar work is associated. What I find most interesting about People on Sunday, though, is the way in which it blends together actuality footage and undressed (and uncontrolled) location shooting with events staged on location (some of which are presented as actuality footage) and on the film’s single set (Erwin and Annie’s apartment). It begins, like a city symphony film, with montages of Berlin’s streets and buildings, eventually selecting Christl and Wolfgang from its countless bustling inhabitants. Throughout the film are interspersed similar prolonged actuality sequences, cutting away from the characters to real Berliners as they too undertake workday labour or pursue Sunday leisure activities. Pedestrians weave through horse-drawn and motorised vehicles; streets are swept and hosed down; elevated trains race past ubiquitous advertising; people swim or boat or play field hockey (or a strange schoolboy spanking game); they eat and sleep; they play with their children; they visit memorials or listen to bands; they relax – while shop-window mannequins are left with nothing to do, no actual function, when the stores are closed and the streets deserted. And then, next day, Berlin goes back to work.

resolveIn the late 1920s, Germany’s left-wing intelligentsia formulated an array of artistic-political movements, including activism, expressionism and new objectivism (Neue Sachlichkeit). People on Sunday, along with Erich Maria Remarque’s fiction, is a prime example of the latter, which Walter Benjamin attacked in his essay ‘The Author as Producer’ (1934). He argued that, whereas Dadaism framed collages of picture fragments, ticket stubs, cotton reels and cigarette butts, thus demonstrating how the picture frame destroys time, new objectivist photomontage is ‘incapable of photographing a tenement or a rubbish-heap without transfiguring it … It has succeeded in turning abject poverty itself, by handling it in a modish, technically perfect way, into an object of enjoyment’ (Benjamin 1973: 94–95). Or, in Esther Leslie’s memorable explication of his critique, ‘The world is beautiful, it gushes, and [new objectivism] shows its skill by lavishing any soup can with cosmic significance, while unable to grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists’ (Leslie 2000: 59). While this might be true of the movement more generally, I think it is hard – or, perhaps, with the passage of time has become harder – to dismiss People on Sunday in this way. Without doubt, its images are pristine and its methods if not modish then at least cutting edge. But its blending of types of footage does weave its characters into a broader social and economic fabric than is common, and the images of contemporary Berlin form such a major part of the film that they are more than mere scene-setting, positioning the characters as typical rather than exemplary. This typicality is captured by non-actors Erwin and Annie destroying each other’s photos of movie stars. This scene – shot, ironically enough, on the film’s only set – announces the film’s sense of its own difference from dominant forms of cinematic realism, and critics have been quick to describe it as an influence on Jean Renoir’s films of the 1930s, Italian neo-realism, the French New Wave, the British Free Cinema movement, and others. It certainly raises lots of questions as to what we mean by ‘realism’.

One of the major early debates in film theory was about whether to consider the frame as a window opening on to a world that extends unseen into off-screen space or as a border which, like a picture frame, is an absolute limit, with meaning determined solely by the enframed image’s composition. The former position is typically associated with André Bazin, the latter with Jean Mitry. Curiously, for all the championing of People on Sunday as realist, the sequence most frequently recalled is one in which the filmmakers most decisively intervene in what we see. thenewyorker_movie-of-the-week-people-on-sundayPhilip Kemp describes it as ‘the famous shot where, as two people start to make love in a sylvan glade, the camera pans tactfully away – to a nearby rubbish tip’. The camera in fact performs a complex figure-of-eight pan-and-tilt movement, taking us away from Wolfgang and Brigitte as they recline onto the dirt. It moves away and up into the air, past phallic fir trees which also connote the naturalness of sex while suggesting some kind of transcendent experience, and then down to reveal garbage scattered on the forest floor. It then moves back across the forest floor, up past more trees until it reaches the tallest fir, again connoting the phallic as well as an orgasmic climax, and then down to find Wolfgang, fully dressed, standing over Brigitte.

This elaborate camera movement – there is a cut in the middle, but it is unclear whether it is deliberate, connoting the passage of time, or an ‘invisible’ cut we are not supposed to register, or a case of missing frames1 – goes right to the heart of the debate between Bazin and Mitry. Through its duration it reveals the world extending beyond the frame, while each individual frame does precisely the opposite. Likewise, its complex set of meanings is achieved not through the composition of the individual frame but through movement and duration, the juxtaposition of different frames some seconds apart from each other and, equally significantly, through activating and playing with fiction conventions. In the shots immediately preceding this one, Wolfgang takes on the air of a melodramatic villain about to force virginal Brigitte into despicable acts. That she responds to the kiss he forces on her is a cliché familiar from rape fantasies, from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) onwards. But as her willing surrender reconstitutes rape as lovemaking, the pan away should be to a roaring fireplace or a moonlit window or, bearing in mind their location, animals frolicking. And the camera movement initially works in this way, if only then to make the deflationary comparison with the garbage heap more effective. However, the shot does not end there. Instead, it makes quite compelling comparisons between the camera and the phallus, technical virtuosity and (male) sexual climax, before returning us to a scenario which is both comically deflationary – Wolfgang’s sexual prowess does not seem to include either duration or repetition – and potentially melodramatic: for a brief moment it looks as though he is standing over Brigitte’s corpse, and in the subsequent pair of shots of her she at least seems to have swooned. Her subsequent assumption that their lovemaking is a meaningful prelude to a relationship is depicted as a dewy-eyed romanticism, which even Wolfgang’s calculated indifference does not shatter.

The introduction of any new cinematic technique intended more realistically to capture the world inevitably draws attention to itself. By breaking with convention – even in order to make film more transparent – artifice announces itself. While People on Sunday might initially seem to compile elements that merely open up the debates around how the realist image of the world is to be regarded, this sequence, like the destruction of the photos, argues for a somewhat different position than those associated with Bazin and Mitry. The frame is neither a window nor a border, and realism is not about capturing the ‘real world’ or organizing it so as to ‘reveal’ its immanent truth. Realism is ultimately an argument, not about the world but about its representation. Regardless of whether People on Sunday overcomes new objectivism’s general failure to grasp human connections, it does question the place of representation in the world. And as the world it depicts is that of capitalist modernity, it warns, long before postmodernism, of capital’s colonization of both nature and the unconscious.

References
Benjamin, Walter (1973), Understanding Brecht (trans. Anna Bostock), London: New Left Books.
Leslie, Esther (2000), Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism, London: Pluto.

Notes
1 This is the fullest extant version of the film, reconstructed from several prints to 1837 of its original 2014 metres.