One More Time With Feeling (Andrew Dominik, 2016) “Nick Cave Speaking the Unspeakable”

 

William Faulkner once wrote: Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.

These words, from the novel Light in August, have the quality of a prose poem. Their meaning eludes me, just like the understanding of this documentary eludes me. Its elusion is associated with its nature, the articulation of feelings and thoughts which accompany a loss beyond imagining: Nick Cave’s young son Arthur died by falling from the cliff in Brighton when he was 15 years old. When it is observed on the surface, one can tell that the documentary is about many things. It is about trauma. About the creative process which is hampered, yet endures. It is about change, our desire to stay the same (with modifications to the original model) and the wondrous ever-changing nature of women. It is about communion with fellow men. It is about the danger of words, the articulation of one’s feelings and thoughts, their implications. It is about art as a “metaphysical consolation” and, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “victory over suffering”. It is about transformations: we see the improvised interviews and the process of filmmaking – the transformation of the raw material of physical and mental pain into an expressionistic film.

 The documentary, like Faulkner’s quote, has the quality of a prose poem. Within that prose poem we can hear Cave’s prose poems beautifully expressed: Sometimes I get the elevator to the top of the Burj Al Arab/And shoot my guns across Dubai; My housefly tells me not to die/, because someone’s got to sing the stars/and someone’s got to sing the rain. The documentary and aforementioned Faulkner’s words have one more thing in common. Memory believes, and does not cease to believe its validity. It is solid. As Cave says toward the end of the film, the elastic nature of time brings one back to the memory. It is unavoidable and one is drawn back to it by its magnetic force. It is the nature of trauma. The documentary is eerie, yet beautifully eerie.

The title of the film most likely alludes to the rehearsals when one makes the record, the allusion points to the originally conceived nature of the film – it was supposed to be a documentary about making the record, yet, due to the tragic event, it turned out to be something completely different. Nick Cave was angry with the final cut since he found it exploitative, but later he embraced it as a gift to his wife, his son Arthur and himself. Like in the songs from the album Skeleton Tree Cave exposes himself; he did not cross out the words in the songs he wasn’t completely satisfied with and that contributed to the unparalleled nakedness which characterizes both the documentary and the album. The main difference between exploitation and sincerity in presenting oneself naked to the light of the public is in that very sincerity, which characterizes One More Time With Feeling.

The documentary is not only about Nick Cave, although his monologues, introspections and fragments of thought take the central position; it is about a community, mainly family, which is given the task to endure the unendurable and suffer the insufferable. We can see the ruminations on everyday struggles which accompany the simple act of going to the bakery or buying a pack of cigarettes. In his review of the documentary for the Esquire, Ryan Leas writes that the documentary is “less explictly about Arthur Cave’s death and more about the ripple effects of that sort of catastrophe, the way everyone else finds their way back and keep working”. We can see his wife’s compulsion of moving the furniture around accompanied by “untapped creativity” which finds its expression in fashion design and is thus a victory over suffering.

 

Vigorous line:

You need… the imagination needs room to move. It needs room to invent. Um… and to dream, and when a trauma happens that’s that big… there’s no room, there’s just no imaginative room around it. It’s just the fucking trauma.

Nick Cave

 

James Dawes writes about the paradox of trauma: “it is unspeakable, but must be spoken. What makes a traumatic event traumatic is, in part, the impossibility of making it comprehensible. ‘Whatever pain achieves’, writes Elaine Scarry, ‘it achieves in part through its unsharability through its resistance to language.’” This understanding of trauma which Dawes presents helps us reveal the nature of the documentary and Nick Cave’s (at least speculatively) motivation to make the documentary, apart from desire to avoid the pressure to speak about the event in the press.

Although trauma is unspeakable, Nick Cave, with the face resembling that of a “battered monument” as the director Andrew Dominik said, Cave tries to put the unspeakable into words, as a significant part of what might consist the process of healing. Yet, the paradox seems unresolvable. The answer might lie in Frey’s speculation: “Only fictional accounts can come close (though still inadequately) to creating an understanding of trauma.” This brings us to the fact that Nick Cave is an artist who expressed his trauma in the album Skeleton Tree; the songs are sung in the documentary and can be a key, if not to understanding of trauma, then at least to a way in which trauma can be expressed through music and language.

Although Cave says that life is not a story in the documentary (i.e. it is non-linear, there is no narrative) in a rare interview Cave gave after Arthur’s death he said: “The idea that we live life in a straight line, like a story, seems to me to be increasingly absurd and, more than anything, a kind of intellectual convenience. I feel that the events in our lives are like a series of bells being struck and the vibrations spread outwards, affecting everything, our present, and our futures, of course, but our past as well. Everything is changing and vibrating and in flux.”

It would be an exercise in schematism to understand Cave’s words solely in terms of their connection to the traumatic experience – Cave’s 2013 album Push the Sky Away followed more or less the same premises – yet, the connection with trauma cannot be completely dismissed. Hoffman wrote that “to make a sequential narrative of what happened would have been to make indecently rational, what had been obscenely irrational.” The turn from a sequential narrative may have been aggravated by a trumatic event, but, on the other hand it is a form of creative victory over trauma. William Faulkner wrote in the similar unsequential fashion in his Sound and Fury for example: what is incomprehensible is turned into art.

                  

References:

James Dawes, Evil Men, Harvard University Press, Cambridge/London, 2013

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