Sunday, May 06, 2007

Das fidele Gefaengnis

All husbands and wives have their origin — where they grew up, went to school, took their first jobs; how they met, fell in love, or came to the conclusion they should marry. This is another beginning for all that comes after: the exchange of nuptials, resignation to gruesome habits (he can't stand the smell of the gum she chews, and she's appalled by the reaction he gives to the woman in the café who notes the amalgam of smudges on his laptop screen and offers a disposable wipe), the solace of routine, time as eternal return, — the adoption of couplehood as assimilation into a lifestyle genre, determinedly — which is also to say freely — classicist in method.

Ernst Lubitsch built a body of work around the analysis of the married couple, and his first period — the stretch of astonishing silent films he made between 1914 in Berlin and 1929 in Hollywood — lays the groundwork for the two periods that would follow in the era of talking pictures. Even one of the aberrative films of this early period (the aberrations alone constituting a period within a period: "historical meditations / fairy-book fantasias"), 'Anna Boleyn' (1920), locates the primary anxiety of the marriage vows in a certain man's-perspective — what happens if, married, I'm thunderstruck by new love? — and fashions its drama, along with its undercurrent of deadly-wry humor, out of a few totally angular hypotheticals: Well, what if I were, like, also a king? (because that would probably make issuing decrees a little easier), and also, I mean, king or not, you know, might not marriage in some cases pronounce a couple "love-figureheads" enacted, really, by one sole lust in an (infinite?) series of passing lusts...? But, and more broadly, "Fidelity, or infidelity?" is the question — no, are the conditions — that obsessed Lubitsch from the beginning to the end; Lubitsch who understood so well the "revolutions" inherent to love, rooted specially at the core of long-lasting love, the departures and returns and resultingly strengthened affirmations of that love; Lubitsch who titled his first great Hollywood silent 'The Marriage Circle' (1924).

— And well before 'The Marriage Circle' — Lubitsch who, in 1917, made 'Das fidele Gefängnis.' It would be easier of course, less pretentious-looking too, to employ the title by which the film is most commonly known in English, literal translation of its German: 'The Merry Jail.' This title, however, glosses over that (more-than-a) suggestion embedded in the German original: note the second word "fidele," neuter-nominative of "fidel" — modifying "Gefängnis," "jail." Freedom and its bounds are depicted by Lubitsch's film — deep-focus backgrounds inside the married couple's house, yes, but all an illusion of distance running far into depth, curtailed by a wall abruptly, suddenly (you sense movement in those vectors of composition, "still" shot or not — in fact all these rooms at once "deep" and "closed off" are paralleled in the film by the vectors at play in the close-up shots taken over the hood of the speeding autos). As such, the spaces inside the home also suggest a theatrical stage; also indicate a prison. (One barely cognates Lubitschian mise-en-scène; apprehension happens faster than you can incant "cathexis-anti-cathexsis!!!") Marriage-as-jailterm would, of course, be a cheap enough joke, except the 'Fidele Gefängnis' couple goes farther in their allowances than most; if the "institution" of marriage is, well, just that, an "institution," Harry Liedtke and Kitty Dewall appear to have considered, then instituted, some serious reforms. A marriage-against-marriage, one might say, in which both participants (or combatants, though their fight is directed outward) seem determined to make "marriage" mean something freer than social tradition has generally led us to expect; use the compact as a "ground" over which new variations of moral procedure, cause-and-effect, ruse-and-reveal might be tested out, as though marriage might be considered as passacaglia, and played through might resemble the kind of daily celestial ordination that churches like to promise, and might exemplify, after all, life in its fullest. In other words, classicism at its most modern and eternal.

Having exhaled a mention of "cause-and-effect" somewhere in the wheeze above, I might clarify that Lubitsch's film upends the underlying daily causalities, the just-so's and expectations, of the connubial two-step by cutting between the two story threads [pertaining to the jailed husband, and the tickled wife] in such a way that rather than connoting a unity between the distant actions, a randomness or chaos seems implied instead. The phrase "delusional cause-and-effect" popped into my head during this most recent viewing, and I think the method feels more conducive to the film's argument for a "more natural" natural order than the usual "convergence" induced by typical cross-cutting/parallel-strand procedure. In this way the structure strikes me as more "modernist" than even, say, Lang's 'Der müde Tod' from 1921 — and I must point out the pentacle that hangs like a ward over the prison door in 'Das fidele Gefängnis,' near the crude caricatures of women, in mystic anticipation of Lang's 'Metropolis.' For that matter, that mysterious mark on the wall also, and more secretly still, predicts the "X"s that recur through Hawks's 'Scarface,' which turn up again — within the same body of work — in the inexplicable, essentially non-diegetic "X" shadows cast upon the wall above the brontosaurus skeleton in the last scene of 'Bringing Up Baby.'

But Kitty Dewall, all Zelda Fitzgeraldian or not, harnesses some powerfully reconstitutive forces distinctly outside and above that death-drive at the heart of Katharine Hepburn's role in Hawks's film. Not her near-Irish name alone has me returning again to Yeats as happens so bittersweetly/unwillingly in '07; I watch her throw back her head, erupt with the carefree raucous abandon that indicates: "And she'd had lucky eyes and a high heart, / And wisdom that caught fire like the dried flax, / At need, and made her beautiful and fierce, / Sudden and laughing."

Still, she's probably more like an Irishwoman out of Joyce. And, anyway, doesn't she look like a "Molly"?

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