David Richter

Notes on the Period Film


Still from The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1979

We use the word “reconstruction” primarily in two senses: first, to describe specific historical periods—the aftermath of a war, revolution, or regime change—in other words the period following any massive destruction of industry, infrastructure and civic institutions in which the aforementioned are reconstructed. Capital flows in, infrastructure is rebuilt, and new civic institutions are established. Reconstruction is typically construed progressively—the reconstructed state is supposed to be free from the evils of the previous regime through the purging of loyalists, the improvement of corrupt institutions, etc.—but we also know that these projects are either imperfectly carried out, or serve to mask more cynical economic interests—the new regime must depend on the expertise of old-regime bureaucrats of questionable loyalty, and the lack of any strong institutions within a transitional state makes it vulnerable to exploitation by capitalists and rent-seekers alike.

The second sense of reconstruction refers not to history itself but to historiography: the determination of a past sequence of causes and effects based on partial evidence. Broadly construed, reconstruction is practiced not only by historians but by criminal investigators, journalists, and psychoanalysts. The only clues available to them are the traces of the past—fingerprints at a crime scene, the testimony of unreliable witnesses, the parapraxes and symptoms of a neurotic patient—and therefore the past must be reconstructed, the pieces must be put together into a plausible narrative account. The premise of the historian’s work, and the work of the psychoanalyst, detective, and journalist, is that collective memory, hearsay, and popular psychology are not good enough forms of understanding.

These two reconstructive projects are inherently linked. The reconstruction of a country—the purging of its past sins and corruptions—demands a rewriting of history, a new way of thinking about that country's destiny, one that discards the triumphalist myths of the past in favor of a more humble and redemptive narrative. What happens to these discarded myths? Are they simply purged or overwritten, or do they, like the ancien régime technocrats, reinsert themselves into the daily life and political functioning of the newly reconstructed nation?

Assuming that politics is not possible without narrative, we can think of narrative art, and film in particular, as an attempt to determine new ways to conceptualize the politics of reconstruction. Whether the narrative possibilities of film are circumscribed by a priori limitations of medium or genre, or whether these possibilities remain infinitely open, is not a pertinent question because it presupposes a radical break between art and conceptual thought. Film is a valuable object of analysis because it attempts a reconstruction of the world that we live in, or in the case of a period film, of a world that no longer exists. It is thinking through the construction of a model—the verisimilitude of the model standing in for the methodological rigor by which we judge the correctness of an idea. However, what is being tested is not the idea’s scientific validity, its correspondence to a set of empirical data, but rather its narrative and aesthetic viability. This type of test is rather like trying on a suit of clothes. There are a number of standards by which the suit can be judged: comfort, conformity to dominant fashions, radical innovation. But while there is no single criterion, the reference point to which its quality is referred is always the human body on which it is worn. So in the same sense that there is a rigor proper to fashion, there is a rigor proper to cinema, construed loosely as a realistic narrative art form. This verisimilitude means the construction of a second reality—a reality which must take as its touchstone a relation, however dialectical, to the "real world." Period films may of course distort the past—Birth of a Nation or The Passion of the Christ do so most offensively—and what we take to be their success or failure has a lot to do with how accurate a picture they are giving us. We admire Birth of a Nation for its carefully constructed battle scene or The Passion of the Christ for the use of Aramaic (if you’ll forgive the comparison) but cringe at their racist distortions of the historical record, and these reactions have a great deal to do with what we take to be the representational accountability of filmmaking.

In this third sense of the word, reconstruction means the limit point of representation—the point at which representation becomes uncannily indistinguishable from repetition. Thus, for example, in Lars von Trier's first feature, The Element of Crime, the detective attempts a technique developed by his mentor of solving a crime by entering the psychology of a criminal—staying in the same hotel rooms, sleeping with the same women, and ultimately committing the same crime (compare also The Parallax View, La Jetée, Vertigo, etc., all detective narratives in which the act of reconstruction becomes more than simply reconstruction). Or similarly, the Borgesian map that becomes as large as the world it is meant to depict. Or, in an example from real history, the “German” and “Japanese” cities constructed in Utah by the American military during World War II to test the effects of firebombing.

The distance between a narrative text and a narrative film cannot be overemphasized. The reader can choose how to represent each signifier in his mind’s eye. In film, although the viewer may choose where to direct his gaze within the frame, wherever we look, the content has been provided for us. There are choices, to be sure—the deeper the camera’s focus is, for example, the more objects within the frame our eyes can scan and evaluate. The sensory plenum we are given within the movie theater allows for a maximum saturation of experience, and cinema is therefore able to both represent and include not only the film we are watching, but every other facet of the culture industry—music, fashion, architecture, etc. Music, for example, is not merely an element of film—an object of representation within film—but is also a part of film, in the sense that when we listen to music in a film, we are not listening to a simulacrum of music or a representation of music but to music itself, in exactly the same sense that we might listen to it on an iPod or a record player.

Therefore, film as a form seems particularly well suited to addressing the question of the past, since the past, we tend to believe, is primarily the sensual-cultural experience of it—the experience of seeing the fashions, riding in an old automobile or horse-drawn carriage, listening to the music of the period. And it is this very way of experiencing the past that has come most heavily under fire by the contemporary critics of post-modernism. Fredric Jameson, most famously, criticizes the nostalgia film for portraying the past not as our past or as the past but as a glossy spectacle whose realistic details serve the aims of popular consumption rather than a more authentic historical consciousness. Reconstruction here appears as a technological feat, and the past we are given in film is experienced less as a retrieval of our origins than as the crowning achievement of our present.

It would of course be reductive to claim that the possibilities for historical reconstruction are exhausted with the pastiche of the nostalgia film. And in his essay “On Magical Realism in Film,’ Jameson offers an example from the Polish film Fever that illustrates one alternative mode of historical ontology in film: the visual depiction of the bomb that is the film’s centerpiece.

What is really striking…is not its appeal to any tactile sense, nor even the matter of color…but rather the mint newness of this shiny metal object; and not even that, in and of itself, but rather the contradiction between this cleanness of oil on new metal and the old, the very old historical world in which the film is supposed to take place. As though somehow, in that ramshackle world of prerevolutionary Central Europe, you could not have new objects! And certainly not “technology” in some contemporary science-and-industry sense! This confused thought—the attempt to think a perception, really—stages and intensifies the structural paradox of the historical novel in general: to read the past through a present of time, to live through a present marked as the past and the old, the dead and gone. So the film spins an impossible newness back upon us to confront us in bewilderment with the unthinkable conjunction between our own present in time and this ancient history: a point at which unaccountably, large drops of fresh blood fall slowly upon the cylinder, the camera slowly lifting to disclose the inventor licking a cut finger—not the greatest danger of self-destruction, but a lesser one that merely has the ontological priority of being real. The drops of blood conjure a whole beyond of the tactile within the enormous two-dimensional image, transmuting the whorled pudginess of the stained fingers into this new visual realm. What results is not an Image, in the technical sense of derealization, but rather something else, which remains to be described, and which diverts a conventional narrative logic of the unfolding story in some new vertical direction, while working through its elements by way of the mediation of the body itself.

So for Jameson, one mode of authentic reconstruction of the past is through the type of hyper-realism described by Benjamin in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in which the hypnotic flow of everyday life is slowed down to the point where we are able to perceive it with greater acuity and critical attention. While most period films focus on capturing the “rhythms” of a given place or time, the technique described by Jameson goes precisely against that convention, since it is only by breaking with these rhythms that we are able to experience the past not as a closed cultural mode (rhythm, after all, is a synchronic rather than a diachronic phenomenon) but as an open historical moment. In Brecht and Method, Jameson claims that Benjamin’s theories on film are an extension of the Brechtian use of intertitles, whose purpose is to break the dramatic narrative down into its component parts. Rather than a single continuous progression, we are able to see a series of individual and collective decisions—and it is only through these discontinuities are we able to see how history might have taken another turn. This technique is used to great effect in Lars von Trier’s film Dogville, in which there is a strong contrast between the stately Baroque music of the intertitles and the radical and horrific turns of plot wryly foreshadowed by the narrator.

Each of the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s BRD trilogy, made between 1979 and 1981, takes on the problem of representing post-war German reconstruction, though each uses a radically different approach. The Marriage of Maria Braun, the first film of the trilogy, makes use of a more or less Brechtian or picaresque approach to narrative. While there are no intertitles, the plot (like that of the explicitly Brechtian Berlin Alexanderplatz) is strongly episodic, since each phase of Maria Braun’s development is marked by a radical decision or rupture with the past in the course of her gradual maneuvering into the role of a wealthy executive in the newly reconstructed West German Republic. The irony here is that the one thing that remains constant through all these changes is her commitment to her husband, from whom she is separated first by the war and later after he confesses (falsely) to the murder of Maria’s lover—an irony because it is precisely by virtue of this weak but persistent marital link that we are able to see how much change Maria has undergone since the beginning of the film.

In Lola, the last film of the BRD trilogy, Fassbinder attempts a period film about German post-war reconstruction that not only reconstructs the German world of that era but also does so in a filmic language of the post-war work of a German expat Hollywood director, Douglas Sirk. While the film’s plot is inspired by Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, stylistically, as with several of Fassbinder’s other films, the primary reference point is Sirk’s bright, candy-colored, and gynocentric melodrama. Lola, like Sirk’s melodramas, intervenes on both a personal and political level, dramatizing the often explosive tension between sexual desire, romantic love, and repressive social conventions. Here we have a mixture of irony and nostalgia, a nostalgia not for the fifties but for the fifties’ most self-aware representation, a representation that addressed issues such as racial intolerance and class conflict in terms that we would now consider campy and overwrought.

And Lola itself is both campy and overwrought, but also, unlike Sirk’s films, ultimately takes an ironic distance towards the emotional travails of its characters. The male protagonist of the film is Munich’s new planning commissioner, von Bohm. Even before we see him, the mayor and the city’s most powerful real estate developer are already discussing how to incorporate him into their profit-making schemes, a seemingly difficult task since he exhibits both an ingenuous conservative uprightness and a modern efficiency and conscientious attention to detail. In the evenings he plays the violin and studies Chinese art, and in his office he throws away the plants and girly pictures of his predecessor, replacing them with Calderesque mobiles and sleek modern furniture. Lola herself is a cabaret singer and prostitute, more or less the private whore of Schuckert, the developer. She learns about von Bohm from her mother, who is his housekeeper, from Schuckert, and from her friend Esslin, a pacifist intellectual and city hall functionary. They all speak of von Bohm as an extraordinary man, but express the conviction that Lola ought to have no interest in him. Lola, frustrated by the lack of respect implied in this judgment, decides that she will pursue von Bohm. A number of dramatic reversals ensue—von Bohm proposes to Lola; Lola is afraid that von Bohm will not accept the fact she is a prostitute and stands him up on the day when he is to introduce her to the mayor, Schuckert and his housekeeper; von Bohm learns of Lola’s profession and is devastated; von Bohm, with Esslin’s help, tries and fails to prosecute the mayor for corruption; von Bohm returns to Lola—as a customer—but is too devastated to go through with the act, and at this point Lola realizes that he “really loves her.”

Von Bohm is a highly problematic hero. His corny jokes and ingenuous attitude are charming but also invite contempt. And we suspect that his moral behavior stems less from a real sense of right and wrong than from a kind of innate and habitual conservatism. Most interesting of all, his high-minded defense of the working class is limited to his period of wrath against Schuckert, the corrupt real estate developer who owns Lola. Once he marries Lola, he returns to his initial development-friendly attitudes. Lola remains Schuckert’s mistress even after her marriage to von Bohm and thus elevates her own social position by ensuring amity between capital and government. She remains a prostitute, but now she has a much higher value. Significantly, as in many other Fassbinder works, we never see any true working-class characters; the idea of the working class plays a central but merely symbolic role. While the films of Fassbinder's BRD trilogy are about economic reconstruction, the characters they concern are precisely not those participating as laborers in the industrial core of the new West German economy, but rather those working, or rather maneuvering, within the interstices of this economy. The drama is not the material work of reconstruction—after all, work makes lousy drama—but the more "superstructural" reconfigurations of power and social mores that take place during an era in which a great deal is up for grabs.

It is in such a time of social upheaval that these alternate possibilities become open and that boundaries between social strata become most fluid. It is precisely the "working class" that is excluded from this fluidity, in which a prostitute might become a power broker and leftist intellectual might quit his city hall drudgery to gain employment with a real estate developer. Amid all these negotiations of power and ideology, loyalty to the working class is the first ideal to be sacrificed for the sake of harmony among the ruling elite. It is precisely this sort of compromise that is made in Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, in which the dramatic rescue of Macheath from the noose by the mounted messenger of the queen (the stage directions indicate that he is to be played by police chief Brown) is presented ironically as a pact between the criminal bourgeoisie and the powers of the state, a compromise that excludes, as the equally cynical and corrupt Peachum tells us, the "poorest of the poor."

In The Threepenny Opera the drama reads ironically as the history of a pact or compromise, enacting on the surface the generic conventions of comic reconciliation, even as it draws attention subtly to those excluded from this pact. Lola is both a black comedy and black melodrama. In fact there are two endings. The penultimate scene shows us Schuckert and Lola, she still in her wedding dress, arriving at a high charged sexual reconciliation—Lola is elated because finally Schuckert values her according to her true worth. “Naked?” she asks on her way to the bathroom. “Yes, but leave the veil on.” “That's going to cost extra,” Lola laughs, wagging her finger. Then, in the final scene, we see von Bohm walking through a meadow with the leftist intellectual Esslin and Lola's illegitimate daughter Marie, finally arriving at a little barn. Marie jumps up into the hayloft (the same hayloft where, earlier in the film, von Bohm and Lola first made love) and asks von Bohm if he is happy. The camera tracks to the left so that von Bohm's face is framed by the rungs of a ladder, symbolizing sexual imprisonment. Then a close-up. “Yes, Marie,” he says. “I am happy.”

The film ends immediately, without final credits, as if it is these words themselves that magically cause the entire melodramatic world to implode or disappear. In the epilogue of Berlin Alexanderplatz, the narrator says that Franz Biberkopf has died and that now another man assumes his identity, and I think this moment may be interpreted as a similar rupture—a point at which the inner substance of a man is destroyed and all that remains are his habits and mannerisms.

* * *

Lola opens with Esslin reading a Rilke poem to Lola in her dressing room: "He who has no house shall not build one./ He who lives alone shall remain alone." "Why does poetry always have to be sad? Why can't it be funny?" asks Lola. "Because poetry comes from the soul and the soul is sad." "Why is the soul sad?" "Because it knows more than the mind." "For me it's the other way around," says Lola. "For me the mind knows more than the soul." This is a dreadfully confusing way to start the movie; after all, what does it mean for the soul to know something that the mind doesn't? And if such a thing is possible, how can the mind know something that the soul doesn't?

The placement of this scene at the beginning of the film suggests the presence of two basic oppositions at play—between comedy and tragedy and between the soul and the mind. These dichotomies oppose two different generic classifications and two different modes of reception for the film, and the presence of these two sets of alternatives prevents us from impartially choosing either one. This lack of choice is the essence of Fassbinder's ironic style. In Jameson's characterization, Brecht's use of intertitles to divide dramatic action into its component parts is not as radical as the expansion of space and time called for in Benjamin's description of the potential of cinema, and exemplified by the depiction of the bomb in Fever. Fassbinder's Lola also radicalizes Brecht, but in the opposite direction. Instead of modifying the spatio-temporal dimensions of the classic Hollywood style, Fassbinder leaves these conventions more or less completely intact and introduces an element of contingency at the higher level of generic classification, by providing for us this initial choice between comedy and tragedy that remains explicitly unresolved. Because Lola and Esslin are equally unsympathetic characters—Lola for her crassness and Esslin for his idealistic impotence and deep cynicism—we are not permitted to fully enjoy the film either as a tragedy or as comedy, even though both these genres are fully deployed.

This ambivalent dramatic mode portrays historical reconstruction as an unfinished process, not simply because actual reconstruction is ongoing, but also because the interpretative reconstruction of history can never escape the narrative limits of representation. Comedy and tragedy are necessary forms for our understanding of the past, and the virtue of Lola is to recognize the necessity of these genres of historical representation, while refusing to declare either one to be the final word on the matter.

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