Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Die Nibelungen: Siegfrieds Tod

I recently rewatched 'Siegfrieds Tod' ('Siegfried's Death', 1924), the first film in Fritz Lang's two-part "Germanic saga" 'Die Nibelungen' ('The Nibelungen'). I have some difficulty describing what I took from the picture this time. Is Lang's film the barest, broadest archetypal outline of The Tragic Form, or is it incapable of standing alone, as anything but the Act One for its sister film's Two and Three? Do the characters possess any psychology at all, or all the psychology imaginable via the formulation "woman is the future of man"? At what degree of oppression, infection, must a vision of the world stagnate that an eye-socket goes empty and fills up with hair?

One thing is certain: Perceived at its most rudimentary level as an exploration of The Tragic Form's tenets, the film illustrates how Doom moves like a virus — as deception starts to multiply and blood to boil and flow, every surface in the frame becomes progressively more overtaken by zig-zag patterns, swirls, psycho-hypnotic ornamentation. The answer then to "Why doesn't Lang put Wagner to use"? Because in the architecture of Wagner one can find arias; the architecture in Lang is built out of shrieks. Of all the filmmakers on earth, Lang would have been ideal for bringing us the court of Vlad Ţepeş.


Chris Marker's 1985 meditation on Akira Kurosawa and the location shoot for his film 'Ran' ('Chaos', 1985) is about young men preparing for war in a way that Kurosawa's movie is not. No, I don't mean to draw any comparisons between the logistics of "shooting a film" and those of "waging a military campaign" (although similarities between the two undertakings will always be present). I'm thinking of the plenitude of telephoto close-ups on the faces of the countless extras, all male, twentysomething, which betray the same expression of boredom, confusion, and even "resigned anxiety" that we can imagine the real-life feudal soldiers felt just before charging across a field to experience agonizing death. (Notions of Zen control, which Kurosawa himself cites on the soundtrack of Marker's film, be damned. As Kurosawa understood, they're no good in the end; as Kobayashi understood, useless at the beginning too.) If we believed in time-warps — and Chris Marker does — these moments might make us mistake what we're seeing for actual 16mm footage shot in 1560, so complex are the countenances beneath authentic headgear. The souls of the soldiers are not Kurosawa's concern, however; he's making a different film.

He is in fact recreating a holocaust — on the heels of 'Kagemusha' ('The Shadow Warrior', 1980), for the second time in a row. At one point Marker introduces footage from the 1923 earthquake which essentially leveled all Tokyo and the rest of the isle of Honshu. His narrator relates the story of Kurosawa's older brother guiding Akira among the carnage, and suggesting he keep his eyes open to confront the horror, stare it down, assuage fear of what would otherwise be the unknown. Within the montage of broken, bloated bodies yielded up by the quake, Marker cuts to an image of a human being who has been rendered by flames a charred human "form". It is a moment that grimly, but eloquently, recalls (from a vantage in the future looking backward, working future-ward again from 1929) the genocides of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and reminds us that what the Kurosawa brothers saw that day, what Japan saw, what we see in this footage, is not the final statement of death, of chaos, nor the material of a final assimilation. Marker cuts out of the black-and-white film of the quake to a color close-up shot on the set of 'Ran' of two slaughtered soldiers — in mannequin form. On a recording on the soundtrack, Kurosawa notes his own profound fear of violence.

Why then did he make the films he made? Because history is a nightmare from which Kurosawa too was trying to awake.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Der muede Tod

Fritz Lang's 1921 film 'Der müde Tod' ('Weary Death') still fascinates. The picture is a link between the early silents, with their concern for phantasms and the fantastic, and the so-called "Expressionist" cinema that would follow — and of which Lang would be the champion pioneer. The in-camera exposures and tricks-of-scale demonstrate a filmmaker ready to excite his spectators; the architectural angles (gentle by certain standards set later on in Lang's cinema), the trap-doors, and the spear-like candles in Death's chamber (each representative of one human life) evince the emotional aims of this young director: to articulate, through lighting and décor, a morality beyond psychology; to pin-point the location of hope within the fatal.

For it is the -hope- of so many Lang-protagonists simply to -escape-, to find the "way out" of a structure or, more broadly, a system — one might say a -world- — that exists to oppress or, more specifically, to contain. I was struck revisiting 'Der müde Tod' by the layout of the film, predicated by its central premise: The love of Lil Dagover's life, Walter Janssen, has been whisked off by "Death" (Bernhard Goetzke). Overcome with grief, she attempts to poison herself, and as a result enters the netherworld wherein she pleads with Death for the return of her lover to the realm of the living. Death will grant her wish — but only if Dagover can succeed during one of three successive "scenarios of reincarnation" in saving Janssen (similarly reincarnated each time) from a grisly demise.

Three successive attempts: like the levels of a video game, or a shifting hallucination. More exactly, Lang (and his screenwriter/wife Thea von Harbou) express human consciousness as an entity without a singular corporeal seat, whereby cogito is something appended to nested "matrioshka dolls" of differing outward appearance. We might have existed at different times, in different places, any of which may be a dream state or fiction, "contained" (see above) by a more expansive, more complex fiction: Philip K. Dick (never to say the Wachowskis) avant la lettre. Each of the three scenarios into which Dagover is plunged — comprised respectively of a Persian caliphate, the Italian aristocratic milieu circa mid-millennium, and an ancient Chinese court — take place in or around palaces (all early occurrences of Lang's conception of the physical labyrinth as Danger materialized), and involve progressively larger casts of characters and more complex plots. There's no beating Death; three times he wins out.

Ultimately, Dagover is reunited with Janssen. She suicides to get there.