The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970) “The Psychology of Fascism”

Bernardo Bertolucci’s tour de force follows a fascist agent of the secret police whose assignment is to assassinate his former university professor. Set mostly in 1938., it doesn’t deal with broader societal aspects of the rulling regime, it is a study of a personality, Marcello’s, who willingly serves the fascist regime. When one of the fascists interviews him, he says that most people do it for money, some because of fear, and few out of conviction. What motivates Marcello to serve the fascist cause seems to be the main question which is a driving force of the film. Beautifully shot, famous for Bertolucci’s unique use of colors, for example the use of yellow in the scene on the train when his wife tells him of her former lover, symbolizing jealousy, is one of the obvious examples of Bertolucci’s delicate use of color, a stylistic feature shared with Jean-Luc Godard.

Bertolucci claimed: “The Conformist is a story about me and Godard. When I gave professor Quadri Godard’s telephone number and his adress (in the film), I was kidding. But later I said, ‘Well perhaps it has some meaning… I am Marcello and I make fascist films and I want to kill Godard who is a revolutionary, who makes revolutionary films and who was my teacher. This seems to evoke Sigmund Freud’s analysis of primitive cultures in his Totem and Taboo and the killing of the father which results in guilt and worship of he father (Freud sees the origin of religion in Oedipus complex). In other words, Bertolucci’s killing of his cinematic father in the film seems to be the result of an obsession with Godard and The Conformist is a totem dedicated to Godard himself. It is hard to believe  that Bertolucci is serious when he says that he makes fascist films, but his obsession with Godard led him to “reject” him in the most radical manner; since Godard is a Maoist, he shall call himself fascist.

The word which is pronounced most frequently in the first part of the film is normalità, normalcy, Marcello strives for the complete normalization of his life. For Marcello, to be a normal man means to be a “true fascist”. He is engaged to a petty bourgeois woman, who is, in his words, good only for bed and kitchen, becomes an active member of the rulling party. Freudian interpretation of Marcello’s personality seems to be the most obvious approach, but considering the historical moment and Marcello’s commitment to fascism, a more interesting interpretative approach is to apply Theodor Adorno’s concept of “authoritarian personality” to Marcello.

Adorno+and+the+Reproach+that+a+View+is+‘Too+Subjective_+
Theodor W. Adorno

Adorno designated nine traits of the authoritarian personality, and we will see that Marcello fits in with most of them, yet not all. The first is conventionalism, rigid adherence to conventional middle-class rules, which is present in Marcello’s personality, evident in the fact that he married a middle class woman who is “mediocre”, in his own words, in his acceptance to go to the confesssion although he is not religious etc.. The second is authoritarian submission, an uncritical attitude toward authority, which is evidently Marcello’s trait. He obeys the commands, even if they involve murder. The third is authoritarian aggression, for example an attitude: “Homosexuals are hardly better than criminals and ought to be severely punished.” This is vividly present in the words of Mangianello, Marcello’s accomplice: “Cowards, homosexuals, Jews – they’re all the same thing. If it were up to me, I’d stand them all against a wall!”

Anti-intraception is a trait which characterizes those who are antagonistic toward the subjective and imaginative, and in this respect Marcello is not authoritarian since he is educated in liberal arts, loves poetry and is well-versed in Latin; shows affinity to it. It seems that Marcello is not completely authoritarian and this may be the reason why his professor, when they meet, hopes that he will renounce fascism. Superstition and stereotypy is a trait which seems to fit Marcello’s personality due to his acceptance of fascist values. He says that “mumps, scarlet fever and German maesles” are “moral maladies”. All this shows that Bertolucci presents a highly complex character who is not like Mangianello, a fascist to the bone, but someone who will obey authority and strive to normalization, most likely due to his family background.

Power and toughness and the “preoccupation with dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension” is shown in Marcello’s character when he “wins” his former professor’s wife over, he does it by force. Destructiveness and cynicism, a view that war is a natural state of humanity is present in the fascist vocabulary which Marcello accepted, so it is safe to conclude that as a fascist, he shares this trait. Projectivity, “the projection outward of unconscious emotional impulses”, is particularly vivid at the end of the film, after the breakdown of the fascist regime, and the breakdown of Marcello’s psyche. He belives he murdered a young homosexual, with whom he had an encounter in his early youth. At the end of the film, after the collapse, he hears him speak of “Madame Butterfly”, the same words he heard him speaking earlier. He attacks him verbally and asks him where he was on the dates when the abuse and the violence ocurred and on the day when he murdered his professor in 1938. The two traumatic experiences are associated through the mechanism of transference.

Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in his seminars speaks: “Transference is the enactment of the reality of the unconscious”. He projects the murder he committed on the homosexual who assaulted him and whom he tried to murder at young age. The whole scene has the quality of a dream and the ancient architecture amplifies the feeling of the unreal. The final trait Adorno emphasizes is the preoccupation with sex, which is shown when Marcello orders Manginaello to beat his mother’s lover; he seems to be disgusted with her lifestyle. The fact which makes Adorno’s F scale so valuable is its scope of application in the contemporary times. Its application to a fictional character can hopefully sharpen our senses to the signs of the rise of authoritarianism in our own surroundings. We can conclude that Marcello shows predisposition to the authoritarian mode of thinking and his obsession with normalcy and conformism made him an easy target for the fascist regime.

Vigorous lines:

In all these years do you know what remains stamped on my memory? Your voice. ‘Imagine a large subterranean place, like a cavern. Inside are men who’ve lived there since childhood. All in chains and forced to look at the back of the cave. Behind them, in the distance, shines the light of a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners, imagine a low wall like the tiny stage of a puppet theatre.’ It was November 1928… Now try to imagine men walking past that low wall carrying statues of wood and of stone. The statues are higher than the wall… They see only the shadow fire projects on the cavern wall.

Marcello

Shadows, the reflexions of things… as you experience in Italy today.

Professor Quadri

If those prisoners were free to speak might they not call their visions reality?

Marcello

In these lines Marcello elaborates  Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. They apply it to the condition in fascist Italy. After the scene, Marcello’s shadow on the wall is seen, and then it disappears; Bertolluci toys with the idea that since the shadow is gone, Marcello now sees reality as it is. Of course, it is an illusion. Mussolini’s subjects saw the shadows of reality as they were presented by fascist ideology. It dominates all aspects of life and doesn’t leave a place for authenticity, there is only conformity. This scene is particularly nuanced since Marcello tries to win the sympathy of his former professor, but at the same time, he presents himself openly as a fascist – he raises his hand in a fascist salute while explaining the argument.

Professor Quadri doubts Marcello’s allegiance to the cause, since he does not show anti-intraception which is common for a fascist, but shows capability for philosophical insight, a moral one. This relationship is all the more interesting since professor Quadri, a man who prides himself for living in a place where freedom of thought and action is possible [in France], is ready to show trust to the self-proclaimed fascist on the account of his excellence in liberal arts. This precipitates his downfall. When Marcello drives with Mangianello to assassinate professor Quadri, he tells him: “I’ve just had a fantastic dream… I was in Switzerland. And you were taking me for an operation in a hospital because I was blind… And professor Quadri did the operation. The operation was a success and I was leaving soon with the wife and the professor. And she loved me.”

This dream is a direct reference to the discussion about Plato’s allegory of the cave. Marcello dreamed that he was blind and professor Quadri did an operation on him and he could see again. He is no longer a slave to the fascist lies and blindness. They are in Switzerland, a safe, democratic and later neutral country, with a possibility for a better life. Professor Quadri is a father figure who has the capability to lead him to the path of rightousness, yet he assassinates him. In Bertolucci’s own words, the film is a reversed catharsis, in the place of a liberation, there is continued enslavenment and in the end, collapse of the life as he knows it. It is a tragedy without the hand of fate, unless it is his unconscious which led him to forsake his individuality and be a slave to the murderous regime.

 

References:

Vera Dika, Recycled Culture in Contemporary Art and Film: The Uses of Nostalgia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003

Duckitt, J., 2015. Authoritarian Personality. In: James D. Wright (editor-in-chief), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Vol 2 Oxford: Elsevier. pp. 255–261

Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, 2015) “Fragments of Life’s Evening “

To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

We might add that this applies to the filmmakers like Paolo Sorrentino as well. Sorretino portrays the holiness of days passing and the divine in men with particular visual and stylistic eloquence in his La giovinezza (Youth). Sorrentino can be rightfully called Fellini’s heir, just like Kore-eda in Japan can be called Ozu’s heir. Being a “cinematic heir” does not mean that the following director is an emulator. It can be stated that the director manages to use central themes and cinematic style of his predecessor in an authentic manner, and develop them even further. Perhaps he never accomplishes the grandeur of his predecessor, yet he manages to evolve and adapt to the radically new environment and create admirable pieces of art.

For Fellini, life is akin to circus, it is a feast for the senses, and Sorrentino seems to take this basic assumption and develop it in a manner which is distinctly his own. For example, Fellini’s stance about Catholicism is less ambivalent than Sorrentino’s is. The celebration of the carnal and divine merge into one in Sorrentino’s La giovinezza. The Buddhist monk and Miss Universe are both an integral part of the same cosmos which celebrates life and its gracefulness.

At the beginning we see the composer Fred Ballinger (Michel Caine) browsing the magazine and pausing at the image of Miss Universe. She appears three times later in the film, symbolizing the eroticism and the voluptuousness of youth. She represents carnal Aphrodite for the aged composer and filmmaker Mick (Harvey Keitel). The Queen’s emissary comes to the hotel in the Alps in Switzerland where they reside, and asks Fred to conduct his Simple Songs for Prince Phillip’s birthday.

Fred says that he finds monarchy endearing “because it’s so vulnerable. You eliminate one person and all of a sudden… The whole world changes. Like in a marriage”. He dreams that he is surrounded with wondrous buildings with arches on the first floor (presumably of a hotel) which give light to the water around him; it is night and it imbues the water with blackness. A narrow  path is in the middle of the water, functioning as a bridge. As Fred walks across it, Miss Universe crosses paths with him and her breast touches his body as he moves by. The black water, similar to a melancholic lake, rises and he is drowned; he wakes up with a gasp.

The major part of the film takes place in the Swiss Alps, in a resort similar to the one from Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain. Mann’s novel takes place in a tuberculosis sanatorium where the cultural elite comes to in the hope of recovery. Death plays a prominent part in Mann’s novel, it is concerned with time, the nature of its passing, the narration of time itself. In The Magic Mountain, young Hans Castorp is influenced by Settembrini, who advocates democratic republicanism and Naphta who is a romantic, conservative revolutionary. Sorrentino’s La giovinezza deals less with illness, and more with the joy of life and sensuality of youth. If it deals with time, it is concerned with the shifting of perspectives of the young and of the old, the time which has already passed, with the solidness of time.

Swiss Alps

The old are confronted with the irrefutable fact that the time has passed: “It’s too late”, Fred says a few times. Sorrentino is less concerned with the passing of time in the Alps; they are a place where the time which has passed is contemplated. The film is mostly apolitical, save for the fact that the overweight Diego Maradona has a huge tatoo of Karl Marx on his back. It seems that Sorrentino jokes about the Marxists in the film, just like he does in his La grande bellezza when he puts the words communismo puro in the mouth of a middle class woman. On the other hand, we can see that in La giovinezza the residents of the resort are an elite, actors, composers, filmmakers, the rich, and Karl Marx’s tatoo seems to be a form of self-irony on the part of Sorrentino.

In a distinctively Bergmanesque scene on the massage table, Fred’s daughter Lena, while her father is next to her, tells about her and her mother’s suffering regarding Fred’s behaviour throughout life. The camera is fixed on her face in a close-up and the scene strongly resembles the scenes from Bergman’s films, Autumn Sonata for example, in which a character shares his or her suffering with a family member. Her face is calm, without expression, yet her pain can be discerned throughout the shot. Fred cared only about music, and showed little affection toward his daughter, and had “a stream of women”, hurting her mother in the process. We find out that Fred’s wife was in Venice, paralyzed, and Fred hadn’t visited her for years.

He says to her later: “Music is all I understand. Do you know why? Because you do not need words, only experience to understand it. It just is.” Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote: “The inexpressible depth of all music, by virtue of which it floats past us as a paradise quite familiar and yet eternally remote, and is so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.” When compared to Schopenhuer’s understanding of music, we can understand Fred’s relationship with music, which “just is” and is remote from the pains of reality. The music in the film gives the scenes a drop of the divine celebrating life’s youthful passion.

 

Vigorous line:

[Mick asks the Girl screenwriter if she sees the mountain across them. She replies affirmatively and says that it looks “really close”]

This is what you see when you are young. Everything seems really close. And that’s the future. And now. And that’s what you see when you’re old. Everything seems really far away. That’s the past.

Mick

In showing his screenwriter the mountain and telling how it looks really close, and comparing it to the young age, Mick points to the change in optics when you are older, when everything seems far away. This change of view is symbolically enhanced through a spyglass. La giovenezza is not only a film about youth and old age, it is also a film about time, although not in the same way The Magic Mountain is a novel about time. This change in optics is conditioned by the passing of time, when the past seems to be far away. It is also a change in perception; the film’s title La giovenezza points to the fact that Mick and Fred are constantly trying to perceive youth, their own youth in the past. They are surrounded with young men and women; Mick has young screenwriters working for him and Fred befriends the actor Jimmy, played by Paul Dano, who was possibly casted, among other reasons, because he looks younger than his age.

The interesting thing is that the passing of time is associated with seeing. It is not the question about “feeling” young or old, it is the question of perceiving through the eye, the distance of the past and the closeness of the future (when one is young). This change of perspective is also qualitative; not only does one see less when he is older, but the view is also distorted, when the close objects are shown through a spyglass. Nevertheless, the closeness of things in youth is also an illusion, since the mountain is only perceived to be close, but in reality it is not. In La giovenezza, youth is celebrated precisely for that reason, because it can easily come to terms with illusion, while contemplation of the past is left to the older generation. In the final scene, the music brings the two worlds together, with an aesthetic tour de force.

 

 

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmack, 2006) “Auschwitz of the Soul”

Introductory remarks: The painting selected alongside the headline of the article is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Mountains and Houses In the Snow”. His expressionism conveys the overstressed colors which are on the verge of puncture. For this article, white and its sublime horror presented in the painting are particularly interesting. The symbolism of this use of white will  be present throughout this article.

Regarding the title, I chose “Auschwitz of the Soul”, an expression used by a scholar of the German Democratic Republic, which implies the torture, submission and in the end extermination of souls of subjects in GDR. Kirchner’s painting may as well be an outline for the concentration camps with its strict order of the objects in the painting (the trees most particularly); its composition gives the impression that the mountains are subordinating the houses at the bottom with their immense might.

 

I repeat once again: we must know everything! Nothing can get past us. And some directors are not yet doing this. They don’t even notice it, comrades, some of those among us. They don’t even really understand it yet. That, precisely, is the dialectic of class warfare and of the work of the Chekists.

Erich Mielke, 1981.

[the head of  the  East German Ministry for State Security (Staasi)]

 

The film can be roughly divided into three acts. In the first, the actors are grouped on the stage according to their social status: a writer (Georg Dreyman), a Staasi officer (Wiesler), an actress  (Christa-Maria), a dissident, a theatre director, an ambitious and corrupt Staasi official. They are each shown in their own distinct light and are “waiting” to be fully developed. The interesting part of the first act is the abundant use of irony, even humor, but each of these figures of speech are either very close to cynicism, or are explicitly cynical. The second act begins with a suicide of the theatre director Jerska.

The reading of the film which tends to explain it in the terms of the Staasi officer being closely entangled with the lives of Christa-Maria and Dreyman as a catalyst for his transformation into a “good man” is only partially true. The tears appear in his eyes in the moment when he hears Dreyman playing Beethoven’s Apassionata and claiming that no man who actually hears this music can be evil. Georg’s expressive performance of Apassionata as a eulogy for his dead friend, seems to move the Staasi officer deeply. Georg quoting Lenin’s impressions on the musical piece most likely induced strong feelings in the man loyal to the regime, as well.

 

A few scenes after, Wiesler is reading Brecht’s romantic (in terms of a movement) meditations. It is art, combined with a genuine reaction to the terrible loss that moved Wiesler, not “passionate sex” of the couple as some may argue. Sex “moved” a voyeuristic officer who likes to supervise artists rather than priests since they are more sexually active. Wiesler tells Christa-Maria in a bar that she is a great artist, and he seems quite sincere. It is true that he starts to feel affection for both of them, but the reading of the film which emphasizes the role of carnal  and amorous relationship between the artists as Wiesler’s main motivation is simply incorrect.

In the third act, after Georg succeeds to get his article about suicides in the GDR published in Der Spiegel, the tragedy occurs once again and the transformation of  the Staasi officer Wiesler into a “good man” is complete. He uses all resources available to him to help Georg. Slavoj Žižek calls the presentation of Staasi in The Lives of Others “too modest”, but I tend to object. Horrors of Staasi are not presented on a “massive scale” in terms of intensity of prosecution, yet the horror of elimination of healthy interpersonal relationships and means of self-actualization is all too vivid. The aim of the film is not to present Staasi in a neo-realist manner; a certain romanticism in unavoidable.

Žižek also objects to the presentation of the minister’s vices  (the use of blackmail to get a woman) as a major plot element, since it is a universal phenomenon which is possible (and is often actualized) in all societies, democratic ones as well. That may be true, but the director’s goal was obviously to present a distinctly liberal argument of the power that corrupts absolutely, since it is absolute (lord Acton’s argument, which is disputable as a law of moral natures, but still highly relevant). The moral corruption is present not only at the highest levels of power structures, but at the lowest as well; it does not destroy bodies – it destroys souls. In a reference to Lipsky, I will call it the structurally caused street-level moral corruption.

A cinematic reference relevant to The Lives of Others, and more particularly Staasi’s praxis is F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. In Murnau’s film count Orlok spreads plague and sends rats to the city as his agents. The plague which Staasi spread was in the form of total control, imprisonment, surveillance and destruction of interpersonal relationships. I will call it the white plague in direct reference to Kirchner’s painting. It is rather invisible, does not aim primarily at the bodies, but souls of its subjects. Orlok’s rats are equivalent to the Staasi informers.

 

Vigorous line:

What is a director if he can’t direct? He’s a projectionist without a film, a miller without corn. He’s nothing.

Albert Jerska

The scene in which Jerska and Georg discuss his position as a theatre director banned to direct is abruptly cut and the shot which succeeds it shows the surveillance apparatus in darkness. This example of powerful editing intimately connects the Staasi with the role of the artists in GDR. Aforementioned Jerska’s thoughts pose a fundamental question of the relationship between artist and his essence which is connected with his artistic work in the most innate manner. If the writer cannot write or director cannot direct, he is stripped of his self, of his innermost being. The most chilling and uncanny phenomenon in the film is the case of Christa-Maria. She is an actress and an artist who, like Jerska, is confronted with the possibility of ceasing to be an artist.

The decision which she has to make; whether to betray her lover or cease to be an actress is a tragic choice. Either she has to forsake her ethical beliefs and betray her feelings or abandon art. In both cases she loses a significant portion of that which makes her what she is. In her case the Auschwitz of the soul is most vivid. Totalitarian regime’s goal, as Hannah Arendt writes, is to reduce human beings to their basic biological impluses and needs; to be controlled entirely, stripped of their essence as social beings and ther intimate self which constitues them. The horror of destroying one’s soul draws us back to Kirchner’s painting which shows desolate landscape which is intense and horrifying. Life in totalitarian regimes is pure zoe, life stripped to bare life. The Lives of Others‘s Sonata for a Good Man is similar to the comforting vision a child sees in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is a welcome illusion brought to life which tries to ease us with the belief in our fundamental goodness, but, witnessing the horrors of the life eliminated one may ask oneself together with Theodor Adorno, is poetry even possible after Auschwitz.

 

References:

Jens Gieseke, The History of the Staasi, East Germany’s Secret Police, 1945-1990, Berghahn Books, Potsdam, 2014

 

Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alan Resnais, 1959) “…Nevers Mon Amour”

Hiroshima Mon Amour, directed by Alan Resnairs, opens with a close-up of an arm and body amorously entangled. They are in the dark, their bodies are joined and small particles, resembling ashes or sand (as the sands of time), are falling and covering them. They are caressing and soon begin to glow, as they are coated in gold or bronze. Due to scarce lighting, their skins are of dark texture, while the one, that of a man, is darker. Soon, we learn they are a Japanese man and a French woman. The first words spoken (by the Japanese man) are “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” She answers: “I saw everything“. Their experiences of Hiroshima are of substantially different quality, she saw the photographic footages and films, in other words reproductions of the event, while he as the member of the Japanese nation felt it to the core. She says that she saw the hospital in Hiroshima; the Japanese man answers: “You didn’t see the hospital in Hiroshima“. The hospital halls are shown in a tracking shot and are presented in a clear, sterile manner with an almost terrifying depth. The shot is juxtaposed to the couple caressing.

She says that she saw the musuem, which portrayed the horrors of the bombing so vividly that the people weeped. She says that she saw the film, capturing the terror imposed on the victims. The horrid scenes of children and women disfigured and mutilated are juxtaposed to the shots of caressing couple. The main theme of the film is introduced for the first time, the one of remembering and forgetting, of the memory that cannot be relinquished. She says: “Like you I am endowed with memory. I know what it is to forget.” He replies: “No, you are not endowed with memory.” As they are entangled in an embrace she connects herself with him regarding the experience of being permeated with memories. Due to unawareness of her life experiences during the Second World War he replies that their positions are not equivalent; the people of Hiroshima were annihilated and those that survived are left disfigured. As the film progresses both the Japanese man and ourselves become aware of the possibility of identification between the Frenchwoman and the Japanese man. She answers: “Like you, I have struggled with all my might not to forget. Like you, I forgot. Like you, I longed for a memory beyond consolation, a memory of shadows and stone.”

The Japanese man, an arhitect, whose parents were killed during the bombing, starts to inquire about Frenchwoman’s past; she gradually exposes herself and her love toward a German soldier in her hometown Nevers during the War. She claims that she had gone mad then, since the German soldier was shot by the French. She was screaming his name, “like a deaf man”, and was imprisoned in the cellar by her family. They cut her hair, depraving her of her femininity. She scratched the stone walls to the point her hands were bloody. She experienced a severe trauma. During the scene in which the Frenchwoman talks about her experiences in Nevers they are sitting in a cafe and the articifal light illuminates her face, while the rest of the film is set mostly in the dark and the light is scarce. She speaks to the Japanese man as he is the German soldier saying: “The only memory I have left is your name.” The Japanese man says to her: “In a few years, when I have forgotten you and other advantures like this one… I’ll remember you as the symbol of love’s forgetfulness. I’ll think of this story as the horror of forgetting.” In other words, although remembering traumatic events can be horrifying, the equal horror lies in forgetting, the people and experiences we cherish, regardless of their possibly traumatic content.

 

Vigorous lines:

Hi-ro-shi-ma. Hiroshima. Thats’ your name.

The Frenchwoman

And your name is Nevers. Nevers in France.

The Japanese man

In the closing lines of the film, the Frenchwoman calls the Japanese man Hiroshima, and he calls her Nevers. Thus they connect each other with the symbols of trauma and destruction. Earlier the Frenchwoman thinks: “This city was tailor-made for love. You fit my body like a glove. Who are you? You are destroying me. I was hungry. Hungry for infidelity, for adultery, for lies and for death. I always have been.” During this voice-over of  Frenchwoman’s thoughts the decaying trees resembling nuclear blast are shown. They bring each other destruction, but the most horrific and the most destructive element of their relationship is that they are aware they will forget each other’s thoughts, feelings they felt for each other and ultimately the time they spent together in Hiroshima. The annihilation (Hiroshima) is not brought by love, but in the instance of forgetting that very love.

Love

Gustav Klimt, Love, 1895 

The painting was found on https://www.gustav-klimt.com/

Note: In this Gustav Klimt’s painting a couple is shown in an embrace, as  they are actors on te stage. The man’s face is of darker textures than woman’s, as in a shade, like the ones in Hiroshima Mon Amour. Above them are symbols of death, youth and old age. In Klimt’s painting the juxtaposition between love and death is particularly emphasized, as in the film. Youth is contrasted with old age, and that can be connected to the immediate experiences of youth which we want preserve in memory, but in older age are necessarily forgotten. The young Frenchwoman from Nevers is closely tied with death since her lover died (as in the painting) and as she grows older the painful but inconspicuous process of forgetting ensues.

There is another aspect, which is somewhat hidden under the many layers presented in the film and that is cultural trauma. In his book From Caligari to Hitler, A Psychological History of German Film Sigfried Kracauer writes that “the films of a nation reflect its mentality.” He writes that “what films reflect are not so much explicit credos as psychological dispositions  – those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimenson of consciousness.” In other words, films are expressions of collective mentality of a nation at a certain historical moment. Hiroshima Mon Amour was made in 1959, a short time after the French and the Japanese people experienced severe cultural traumas.

For the French it was the defeat by the Nazis and the occupation, but also the collaboration of a part of the French with the Nazis (Vichy France). This can be seen in the film when Casablanca is shown playing in the theater – the film about French resistence – and in the simple fact that the Frenchwoman was in love with a German and her father was forced to close his shop due to her involvement with him. For the Japanese the trauma was defeat in the war and the occupation, as well as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Frenchwoman and the Japanese man have much in common since both their nations suffered a traumatic defeat and occupation; while for the Frenchwoman the trauma is of personal nature, it reflects the broader context of cultural trauma; the same applies to the Japanese man. The film explores personal and cultural trauma but its main message is the opening of a possibility of connection and empathy between nations since practically all of them have suffered severe traumas in history; the same applies for the members of each nation.

 

References: 

Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, A Psychological History of German Film, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2004

 

Death In Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971) “Beauty Amidst Decay”

Luchino Visconti’s Death In Venice is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel; it follows Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a composer who, due to ill health, comes to Venice. The film explores the encounter of true beauty amidst the decay – Venice is struck down by a plague toward the end of the film. The music present throughout the film are Gustav Mahler’s the Third and the Fifth symphonies. The main character is himself a composer, while in the novel he is a writer. This change made by Visconti is important since it highlights the musical nature of the protagonist and connects him to the romantic music we hear throghout the film; it amplifies the intensity of Gustav’s feelings, but also provides a setting which facilitates the contemplation of beauty. Gustav is infatuated with the beauty of a stunningly beautiful youth, a teenage boy.

The Nietzschean concepts of Apollonian and Dyonisian are particularly relevant to the film; the protagonist, as his friend makes a remark in the flashbacks we see in the film, sets high moral standards of perfection and restraint upon himself (the Apollonian element) and suppresses the irrational and passionate Dyonisian element. During the flashbacks, we witness the conversations of philosophical nature regarding the role of the artist and whether the artist creates from the spirit or, as his friend suggests, through the senses. Gustav’s friend despises his self control and the lack of passion for things, his sterile self-composure. The artist “feeds” himself upon the decay and sickness, his friend emphasizes, and good health is a dry thing, as well as the neglect of the passionate, sensual encounter with the world.

Genius is a divine gift. A sinful morbid flash fire of natural gifts.

 

When Gustav comes to Venice, he encounters a grotesque figure wearing make-up and later in the film he himself tries to look youthful and gets a similar make-up resembling a death mask. Upon arriving to Venice, a corrupt gondolier takes him in the direction he doesn’t want to go; this points to the fact that Aschenbach’s encounter with Tadzio is not an act of his will, as he sees him he is momentarily infatuated and cannot escape the admiration of beauty he sees.

The film conveys the appearance of beauty amongst decay, beauty degenerating into the grotesque and implicitly the degeneration of art, being either a pure form for the contemplation of beauty and the aesthetical or a sensual manifestation. Since Gustav is a composer in Visconti’s film, this may imply the decadence of music in contemporary times, a topic interestingly explored by Theodor Adorno. In other words, degeneration and decay and the possibility of encountering beauty in its purity is the main theme of the film.

Gustav says that at his father’s house he had an hourglass and that “the aperture through which the sand runs is so tiny that… that first it seems as if the level in the upper glass never changes. To our eyes, it appears that the sand runs out only… only at the end.” The  perception of timelessness during the contemplation and admiration of beauty is deeply present throghout Death In Venice.

 

Vigorous lines:

You must never smile like that. You must never smile like that at anyone. I love you.

Gustav von Aschenbach

In Plato’s dialogue thematically dedicated to eros and love, Phaedrus, Socrates says that although madness can be illness, it can bring us blessings. This form of “divine madness” is love that comes from gods Aphrodite and Eros. We can see that Gustav, after seeing Tadzio on the beach, starts composing, while we can assume that, due to his illness, he was not artistically productive before that. For Plato, the madness of love arises from seeing beauty and being reminded of true universal beauty. Gustav is vilely distressed when he does not see Tadzio and joyous when he does, he is completely obsessed with the boy; he does not engage in contact with him until the last part of the movie. Tadzio is for Gustav, and for Visconti as a creator of art, an artistic form itself, like an ancient statue that majestically shines in the sun.

Whether Gustav’s affection for Tadzio is sensual is debatable, but the impression the film leaves is that Tadzio is a manifestation of Gustav’s obsession with beauty and perfection and that that relationship is erotic in the Platonic sense of the term. If we borrow Plato’s vocabulary, Gustav is “reminded” of the universal beauty which Tadzio represents in the material form. When he touches his hair and his hand shakes, it can be compared to the child’s desire to touch statues at a museum, but knowing that it is forbidden.

 

For Gustav this is forbidden, not only because of the social conventions, but because by experiencing beauty through the senses the Platonic element of observing the earthly reflections of the idea of beauty is compromised. Tadzio’s smiling to him compromises the aesthetic experience as well, since it brings an element of the emotional and sensual.   In this moment, Gustav’s degeneration commences regarding to experiencing Tadzio as a reflection of Divine Beauty.

No, Gustav, no. Beauty belongs to the senses, only to the senses.

Alfred

In the ending scene, when Gustav is dying on the beach and observing Tadzio as he is illuminated by the Sun in the sea, blood is trickling down his forehead, the artist dies while observing sublime beauty. Symbolically it conveys the moment in which the artist  creates works of the purest aesthetic value and his decline as an artist commences. It also points to an aesthetic experience which is an everlasting benchmark for comparison with other objects of aesthetic appreceation, bordering on adolation.

When an artist reaches the zenith of his abilities, only decadence can follow, since all living things either grow or decay. Old age and decadence are contrasted with youth and purity. Gustav’s friend Alfred says to him that he has never possessed chastity since purity is a privilege of youth: “In all the world, there is no impurity so impure as old age.” The film’s title Death In Venice (Venice is often called serenissima – “the calmest”) carries an explicit allusion to sickness and decadence (the plague) which are juxtaposed to purity and beauty (Tadzio); a synthesis is formed out of oppositions. Thus, art is only possible in the realm of finality and entropy; nevertheless, when the screen freezes, the beauty is preserved.

Three Colors: Blue (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993) “Blue Is the Coldest Color”

Three Colors: Blue came out half a year after the Maastricht Treaty was signed, transforming the European Community into the European Union. The film was supported by the Council of Europe, but mostly financed by the French. It celebrates the idea of the European unity and integration, but also the three principles of the French revolution – equality, brotherhood and freedom.

Kieślowski said in an interview: “The words [liberté, egalité, fraternité] are French because the money [to fund the films] is French. If the money had been of a different nationality, we would have titled the films differently, or they might have had a different cultural connotation. But the films would probably have been the same.” The films are, of course, titled after the colors of the French flag.

Three Colors: Blue opens with a shot of car wheels, ominously turning down the road, anticipating a tragedy. The film follows Julie (Juliette Binoche) as she suffers after she had lost her husband and a child in a car accident. She is struggling with her feelings, repressing her emotions and suffering, trying to appear strong and not vulnerable. Soon after her loved ones’ death she has sex with a man who is in love with her, appearing cold to his emotions toward her. In a memorable scene we see an extreme close-up of infant mice; we can see how the newborn affect Julie’s tortured psyche since she has lost a child. She gets a cat and exterminates them.

 

One of the few truly joyous scenes throghout the film is when a young man who found Julie’s husband’s cross necklace gives it to her; the boy tells her a joke her husband told before his death, which she immediately recognized and laughed. In the scene after the aforementioned one, she is swimming in a pool and the blue color is particularly vivid. This implies that a feeling of connection with her husband gave way to a possibility of expressing sadness. The scene with a golden cross necklace also anticipates the joyous and ethereal ending of the film, in which Christianity has a particular significance.

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote: “Without music, life would be a mistake. Germans even imagine God singing songs.”. Julie’s husband was a world-famous composer, composing a piece in celebration of the creation of the European Union. The composer who wrote the music for the film was Zbigniew Preisner; he worked with Kieślowski on other films, most notably The Double Life of Veronique and his music present in the films is attributed to the fictional composer Van den Budenmayer. Van den Budenmayer allegedly composed in the late 18th century Netherlands, in the period between Baroque and the Romanticism. Baroque’s majestic force of classical harmony and order was celebrating the pain of Christ and his sufferings, while Preisner celebrates love, and brotherhood of the European people. Romantic movement on the other hand, which was strong in Kieślowski’s Poland as well, celebrated the irrational, emotionalism, fantasy and imagination. Preisner seems to draw inspiration from both movements.

 

 

 

 

The song in the finale, Song for the Unification of Europe, is majestic, its verses are from the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians and his famous words about love. It must be higlighted that the Greek word for love is agape, which can be also translated as charity, a selfless love (in the film, Julie and her lover refer to the Greek version of the text). It is seen as the highest form of love. St. Paul says:

 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.

Francisco de Zurbaran, Allegory of Charity, 1655

Francisco de Zurbarán, Allegory of Charity, 1655

The French principle of equality is mentioned in the movie in the brief scene in the court, but is also celebrated at the end of the film. The principle of brotherhood is particularly emphasized in the film as well, of the Europeans, but also all men regardless their choices in life or social stature. This is implied in the figure of a prostitute  which Julie helps in the time of need; the principle of freedom is here stressed out. Three Colors: Blue is a sad and joyous celebration of life and the fundamental liberal democratic values. While The Song for Unification of Europe is playing, we can see the faces of people we encountered in the film, among them a prostitute; they are all equal in their joys and sufferings, Kieślowski implies.

 

Vigorous line:

You emptied out the blue room?

Julie

room-2100820_640

Julie’s asking if the blue room is emptied symbolizes her rejection of the mourning process. Her maid tells her that she is crying because Julie is not. She also says that she vividly remembers Julie’s husband and child. After a trauma one experiences pain, sense and memory loss, among other side-effects. When the doctor tells Julie of her husband and child’s death, we can see an extreme close-up of her eye, which is moving distressfully.

As Derrida says, a “phantom” may be produced if we refuse to mourn. This implies that someone incorporates the lost body and “acts out”. Julie bites her daughter’s candy stressfully and tosses it into a fire and breaks a window in the hospital. Mourning is constitutive for the subject; one may refuse to mourn after experiencing a trauma out of the desire to stay the same as before; Julie wishes to stay strong and self-dependent. This can, of course, be dangerous for a person’s well being. The only reminder of her daughter she decides to keep is the blue chandelier, with blue symbolizing sadness and loss. Earlier in the film, she violently breaks it.

In Three Colors: Red, the red color appears quite often, while on the other hand, the blue color in Three Colors: Blue appears rarely. Only the pool, certain objects and sometimes the screen are blue; this symbolizes the lack of sadness. During the final scenes, we can see her naked body in her lover’s eye and her tears, at last. The ending credits are blue, and that should not be taken lightly. The grieving process has just started and the film was only a preparation, a journey through suffering and the creation of art, and in the end, the beginning sadness, melancholia.

 

References:

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twillight of the Idols: or How To Philosophize With a Hammer, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998

 

Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987) “Celestial Purity and Carnality”

 The original title of the film Wings of Desire is Der Himmel über Berlin (Sky Over Berlin); the English title beautifully captures the main antinomy present in the film – the one between spirituality and celestial purity and the carnal, eroticism and sensuality. In Marion’s character, the sensuality and existentalist wondering about being-in-the-world (Heidegger) are both present, she frequently asks herself questions of profound meaning; her character is authentic. She is beautiful, sensual and radiates eroticism of elegant stature.

Titian Angel

Tiziano Vecellio, Angel, 1520-1522

Note: Titian’s Angel beautifully embodies the aforementioned ideas of celestial purity and carnality; Titian’s nudes can be contrasted to his Annunciation; the erotic and the divine are equally important for his work

On the other side of the coin is Cassiel, an angel who is portrayed as the angel of Temperance is in the Renaissance art; he is one of seven Archangels. At the end of the film, when Nick Cave performs and the meeting between Marion and Damiel is about to happen, Cassiel turns himself against the wall in sadness and a hint of anger arises. The film is abundant with existentialist voice-overs, but the carnal and the erotic aspect enriches it and makes it similar to its photography. Black and white often turn into colour palletes of symbolic meanings; most of the last half an hour of the film is shot in colour – when Damiel becomes a man.

It is interesting that the tale of Genesis and a primordial river that emanated life is rather detached from religious narratives; beautiful shots of trees and water show the essence of life, its origin in the abundance of nature. It is symptomatic that water is the element which is presented as a spring of life, everything came into being from water. The character which is in spiritual communication with Cassiel is the Storyteller, a keeper of man’s memories and a well of creation. He admits that he is old, he longs for days long past, but through his words everything is preserved and new tales come into being.

At the end of the film, Damiel and Marion meet and she has a monologue characteristic of Wenders’ work (Paris, Texas), she opens her soul to him, tells him that with him she can be lonesome, an idea that is associated with true companionship – “to be alone together”. Nick Cave performs in the background, we can hear his song “From Her To Eternity”, a song which contemplates suffering over a woman. One of the verses says:

But, Ah know, that to possess her,

Is therefore not to desire her.

 

Vigorous line:

 When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging. It wanted the stream to be a river, the river a torrent and this puddle to be the sea. When the child was a child, it didn’t know it is a child, everything was full of life, and all life was one.

Damiel

The Croatian novelist Vladan Desnica once wrote: “There was a multitude of religions and philosophies that claimed that a man has a soul, and that very soul is endless and immortal. It often seemed to me peculiar that never and nowhere there was a belief that a child has an endless and immortal soul, and later when it grows up, loses it.”

This Desnica’s belief can be compared to the main ideas of Wings of Desire. When Bruno Ganz’s character, the angel Damiel, listens to the thoughts of people, those thoughts are often banal and without substantial meaning, while the children who see him, smile at him and ask themselves profound questions. A phrase “When the child was a child” is a leitmotif of the film, it is often repeated; child has an endless soul and is entagled in much deeper existential questions than a grown man.

Children In the Sea

Joaquin Sorolla, Children in the Sea

A child is immersed into the world, the trees in the woods breath with life and life is similar to a dreamlike experience. Friedrich Nietzsche in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra tells a parable of transformation from a camel into a lion and then a child. A camel carries the burdens of the world on her back, the lion destroys those burdens, while the child has abundant creativity and carefree freedom for play. Heraclitus wrote: “Eternity is like a child playing at draughts, the kingdom belongs to a child.”

Hrvoje Galić