Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Nineteen

The Curse of the Cat People - Part Four

One saved memory

The end of the Christmas period is marked by the taking down of the tree. Miss Callahan is here too, as she often is now. Is she another isolated soul, seeking refuge. Or maybe Ollie’s eye has started roving again. It indicates that the seasonal spell in which the family becomes a sacrosanct circle is over. Amy throws pine branches on the fire, re-enacting some long-forgotten pagan ritual. We are reminded of Irena throwing leaves on the garden fire, and once more it is apparent how much Amy is learning from her. Miss Callahan is reminded of Twelfth Nights gone by, of ‘burning pine and mummers plays’, whilst Alice remembers ‘St George and the Dragon, all kinds of crazy sword dances’. Even in this all-American setting, there are echoes of old traditions, which summon up a vestigial sense of connection with the passing of the seasons, the cycles of the year. As these memories prompt a look back through old photographs, one falls out, and Amy picks it up. It is the one of Irena which Ollie kept. Her lullaby theme appears on the soundtrack, this time in a minor key, suggesting that the harmony and happiness which Amy and Irena have bought to each other may be about to end.

The empty garden

Amy impulsively says ‘daddy, you know my friend too’. This immediately triggers a reaction from Ollie. It must have been obvious that Amy was still playing on her own for much of the time, and that a deal of imaginary creation was a necessary part of such solitude. But as soon as the shadow of Irena is re-introduced, reminding him of what has become in his mind her self-destructive retreat into imaginary fears, he feels compelled to act. He speciously declares that he thought that she’d ‘forgotten that dream life of yours’. A glance out of his workshop window would evidently have disabused him of such a belief. Now that her pact of secrecy has been broached, Amy affirms that Irena ‘plays with me in the garden all the time…she’s there whenever I call her’. Ollie marches her out into the garden, which is snowbound and empty, and feels rather desolate.

Amy sees Irena under the tree, but Ollie tells her there’s no-one there. He makes this statement of aggressive certitude without taking the trouble to actually look, or ask Amy where she can see her. He tells her to look again, and that if she still says that she’s there, ‘I’m afraid I shall have to punish you’. This is a very prescriptive way of getting someone to adhere to the truth which you want to establish. There is no attempt at establishing why that truth might be valid. Irena is still there, and puts her finger to her lips with a worried frown. This is why she made a pact of silence with Amy. She was protecting her from Ollie. But Amy takes after her in finding it difficult to lie. We see a reverse shot from behind Irena as Ollie leads Amy inside. This shot seems once more to emphasise her substantiality. As well as suggesting that she is watching as her cherished duty of care over Amy is ceded to Ollie’s coercive and impatient parenting, it shows that she remains watching from her garden bower after they have turned their backs on her to go inside. By adopting her viewpoint, the camera affirms her reality.

Alice is uneasy about Ollie’s punishment and retreats to the kitchen. When Ollie returns, looking broody, Miss Callahan is still there, alone in the room. She is evidently now quite at ease in this household, and she and Ollie seem quite close. She starts quoting poetry at him, even though he’s evidently not the literary type. This is the first time we’ve had any of Lewton’s customary literary quotations in this film, references to Sleepy Hollow notwithstanding. Miss Callahan seems to be trying to use literature to rouse Ollie’s dormant sense of empathy with his daughter, to make him see the world as others perceive it and break through his stubborn intransigence. She cites a couple of couplets from Stevenson’s The Unseen Playmate from A Child’s Garden of Verses: ‘When children are playing alone on the green/In comes the playmate that never was seen/When children are happy and lonely and good/The friend of the children comes out of the wood’. This is a poem which takes a very benevolent view of such imaginary playmates, portraying them as guardian figures who watch over solitary children. The unseen playmate’s association with the green, the wood, the laurels, the grass and the caves also gives him/her the same pantheistic connection with the manifest spirits of nature that we find in Curse of the Cat People.

Miss Callahan, with her professional knowledge and experience of childhood behaviour, defends Amy’s creation of an imaginary friend and the creative mind of which it is a sign. But Ollie rejects her informed point of view and returns to what is, for him, the crux of the matter; his self-justifying revisionist view of Irena’s fate. It is notable that Alice has retreated from the situation, once more taking a non-interventionist approach to her daughter’s upbringing. Perhaps she has become resigned to Ollie’s intransigence and ability to justify his behaviour in any situation by now. He is certainly a lot less confrontational with Miss Callahan, and the confidences they share remind us of the similar intimacies he let Alice in on in Cat People, the prelude to his rejection of Irena. ‘I’ve lived through something like this before’, he states, a comparison of immense hyperbole. Speaking of Irena, he says ‘you don’t know what happened to her because she told lies to herself and believed them’. Once again, he chooses to forget the words he uttered at the scene of her death: ‘she never lied to us’. He proceeds to spin a fiction which, whilst self-critical on the surface, serves to portray himself as the victim. ‘Everything I did was wrong…in the end she went completely mad…she killed herself’. The sought for sympathy is duly proffered, as Miss Callahan says ‘you can’t let this stand between you and your child’.

Upstairs, Irena comes up to see Amy, who has been left crying on her bed. But everything has changed. Irena’s explanations of why she came to Amy now have a valedictory air, the feeling of a final summation. ‘Out of your loneliness you called to me and brought me into being’ she says, ‘so that your childhood could be bright and full of friendliness’. Now she bows to Ollie’s coercive power, which insists upon the imposition of a dogmatically rationalist worldview. She is not here to battle for control of Amy, merely to respond to a need, which only incidentally fulfils her own. Realising that she has no inherent right to be here, she is willing to immediately accept her banishment. Her parting remarks aim to alleviate Amy’s feelings of desolation, and it is a parting for which she has already partially prepared her through drawing her attention to the transience and transformation observed in the passing of the seasons. ‘You’ll remember me for a while, mourn a little, but then you’ll forget, and that is as it should be’. These are words for a future Amy, for they are insights far too bittersweet for a young girl. Amy says that she’ll never forget and that she’ll follow her, but Irena replies that ‘no-one can follow me’. This suggests that she will be returning to an existence of isolation and solitude. It is a place to which Ollie and Alice’s erasure of her from memory has consigned her. Irena walks backward into shadow, just as Amy had first walked backward into the Farren house, another place of forgetting. The camera observes her retreat whilst gliding sideways across the room. It moves behind a chair and when it emerges from this occlusion, Irena is gone. The curtains blow inwards, the snow falls and Amy is alone in her desolation.

Leaving the garden

Downstairs, Ollie is as sensitive as ever in his attempt to maintain the comfort of his certainty. ‘But you’re a teacher, not a parent’, he splutters. She immediately puts him in his place, telling him that he, a designer of ships, has no special qualifications to raise children. ‘I’m a teacher, I’ve studied children’ she says, asserting her authority. When she tells him that ‘unhappy and frustrated children like Amy build companions for themselves as means of escape’ he immediately contrives to interpret this to his advantage, stubbornly asserting ‘you see, you agree with me’. His primary instinct is always to prove that he is right. Whilst they argue about her, for all the world as if they were a couple engaged upon the discussion of private matters from which Alice has politely absented herself, Amy has put on her coat and gone out into the empty garden, calling for Irena. Irena’s theme plays on the soundtrack, with ominous strings now providing uneasy harmony. She goes out of the gate, leaving the protected space of the enchanted garden, and heads out into the wild winter woodland. This is the primal region of chaos and danger, the fairytale realm into which innocents like Hansel and Gretel and Little Riding Hood wander. If the garden is the protected world of childhood, then the land beyond is the world of confused adult emotion and responsibility. It is a world also represented in the film Company of Wolves, adapted from Angela Carter’s Freudian recasting of fairytale matter. Here, the forest surrounds the peasant village beyond which the pubescent heroine, Rosalie, wanders ever more widely as she emerges from childhood. Irena’s parting words to Amy have suggested that she must one day leave the garden of childhood, but it is much too early as yet. She is a lost babe in the woods, blundering blindly through the snow.

Miss Callahan is telling Ollie that he must be Amy’s friend so that she won’t have any need of an imaginary one. Alice finally returns, and the two women, with their differing ways of negotiating their ways around Ollie’s self-righteousness, convince him to go upstairs, something he agrees to only with a gruff conciliatory ‘I’ll go up and see if she’s gotten to bed alright’. Finding her gone, he and Alice pursue her, following her footsteps in the snow, whilst the pragmatic Miss Callahan calls the police. Amy walks with stumbling speed along a path through the woods, a wintry reminder of the sun-dappled path which the children had skipped along at the start of the film. As she comes to a small stone bridge across a brook, she pauses, cowering with fear. Julia’s citation of the Sleepy Hollow legend reverberate in her mind, transforming the bridge into a another transitional space filled with menace and mortal terror. ‘And if you stand on the bridge at the wrong hour, the hour when he rides by, his great cloak sweeps around you’. We hear the sound of beating of hooves swiftly approaching from around the corner, only to have them revealed as the juddering thud of a loose snow-chain on the wheel of a car. This is the traditional Lewton ‘bus’, the moment of bogus shock which provides a mechanical jolt and release of tension. Here, it is used in an interesting fashion, however. Realistically, we are perfectly well aware that this is not the phantom horseman approaching. But, as with the scene in Amy’s bedroom immediately following Julia’s relation of the tale, we are asked to empathise with her terror, to share her fear. Effectively, if her fears become manifest, then we will experience them with her as they appear on the screen. We will share with her the distorted perceptions of madness. After the car has passed, she runs off in a panic, straying from the path. ‘Don’t stray from the path’ is a tenet which is always held up as a dire warning to characters in fairytales, but it is something which they have to do in order to assert themselves as individuals and as adults. Rosalie eventually does so quite deliberately in Company of Wolves, going against the repeated warning of her grandmother.

We cut from Amy’s aimless wanderings through the stormy night to the interior of the Fallon house, the focal point to which she is inevitably being drawn. Barbara says ‘I hate this storm’, in a highly strung voice. ‘I don’t hate the storm,’ Julia half replies, more in rhetorical than conversational mode. ‘It blows beyond me’. This statement could effectively apply to all atmospheric conditions, indeed, to reality in general. With a sense of something obsessively re-iterated, she dreamily intones ‘it was on a night like this that Barbara died’. Once more, Barbara tries to insist upon her own reality, pleading for recognition. Julia blankly declares ‘everything you say is a lie. You are a poor lost woman’. This is the first time that she has displayed anything approaching pity for Barbara. It is a form of recognition which is almost worse than her usual cold repudiation. Calling her a lost woman also draws a parallel between her and Amy once again. Amy is at this very moment a lost girl out in the snow. Perhaps there is a slight nod to the lost boys of another fairy tale of parental neglect, Peter Pan. These are the female equivalent, the lost girls. Julia’s assertion that it was on a night like this that her daughter died also brings a sense circularity, of recurrence to the events currently unfolding, and links the Farren and Reed households. The Farren house is a shadow of what might be. Julia’s denial of her daughter’s existence is almost like a surrender to her worst fears. Maybe at some time in the past, she became so terrified at the idea of something happening to her daughter, and at the idea that she was unable to safely raise her, that her mind recast that fear as reality, just to exorcise it. This scrap of pity which she has been thrown is a bitter offering for Barbara, and she reacts with coldly introverted violence. ‘You’re always worse when that little girl’s been here. If that child comes here again…I’ll kill her’. The casual determination with which she voices this vow makes us believe in its sincerity.

Amy stumbles through the storm, and finally collapses against the bole of a tree, at the end of her endurance. But this is a tree of the wild world outside of the garden, and has none of the properties of the one which has stood guard over her protected realm. Ollie and Alice are now searching with the state troopers and their dogs. Ollie guiltily says that if they find her, he will believe her and trust her. He has waited for the crisis to come to fruition before deciding to act. But will he do as he says, or will old patterns be re-established? Will he once more rewrite events as he had done with Irena? Amy, half-buried in the snow, hears the dogs barking and lights flashing through the trees, and her primal fears are awoken. The wolves are coming! She staggers off towards the house where the wolves’ female equivalent lives. The fear of the wolves drives her towards the cat, which is waiting to pounce, like the stuffed specimen on the branch.

Shutting out the storm

Julia is asleep on the couch when she is awoken by Amy’s feeble knocks at the door. The house and its inhabitants always seems to be asleep or sleepwalking until some visitor from the world outside comes to bring it to life once more. Mrs Farren limps to the door, looking more worn than ever, and greets the shivering figure of Amy with a sympathetic ‘poor little girl’, a direct echo of her ‘poor lost woman’ to Barbara. Snow swirls in through the open door and the glass of the gas lamps tinkles in the wind, the lights flickering. Mrs Farren struggles to shut the door, but it blows back open. The world outside has entered and refuses to be excluded any more. The storm no longer ‘blows through’ Julia, but must now be confronted. The stage is set for a repeat performance of the night Barbara ‘died’. Julia must now accept some level of responsibility for the safety of Amy, a displaced confrontation with the guilt and fear which she has retreated into a lifetime of fantasy to evade. ‘I’ll have to hide you’, she says, as if this were a game. Amy is to become part of the house, perhaps like one of the dusty and lifeless ornaments in the room behind the curtain. Julia’s empty stage.

The unclimbable stair

Julia decides on a hiding place. ‘We can go upstairs. There’s a little room under the eaves’. She is guiding Amy towards becoming a nascent madwoman in the attic, the guise under which she herself had first invisibly made her presence felt. But the curtains blow inwards in a menacing fashion, like the classic shrouded ghost. The house has been a mausoleum, a place of the dead where emotions are suppressed and confrontations stubbornly evaded. Now it is coming to life as the upheaval of the storm outside, which is an externalisation of Amy’s inner turmoil, is transferred inside, bringing things long buried scrabbling their way violently to the surface. The lights flicker and their glass casings rattle as if they are about to burst into savage incandescence. Mrs Farren hauls herself up the stairs, but the exertion, both emotional and physical, is too much for her and her heart gives out. Amy is frozen, not wanting to leave her dead body, and with spectral curtains flapping frantically both above and below to ward her off. We see a shadow rising from below, and then Barbara slowly ascends from her crypt-like quarters. Her face is a fixed mask of hatred, a dead face with no movement of animating emotion. She halts at the foot of the stairs, bracketed by two large candles, as if this is to be the culmination of a pre-planned ritual. Tears stall in her eyes as she sees her dead mother. ‘Even my mother’s last moments you’ve stolen from me’ she says, immediately beginning to revise memory to displace the blame. Amy has taken nothing from her since her mother gave her nothing in the first place. She calls Amy down like a predator mesmerising its prey into meekly submitting to its fate.

Barbara-Irena

Amy, her voice quivering with terror, calls for her daddy, as if new priorities are already beginning to impose themselves, but he is not there to help. So she calls for ‘my friend’, who appears to have abandoned her. As she looks down at Barbara, Irena’s benevolent form becomes superimposed over her. Amy’s fear immediately dissipates and she descends the stairs and calls Barbara ‘my friend’. Barbara’s hands, rigid and clawlike, stretch around her head as if to throttle her, but Amy repeats the words ‘my friends’, as if to create the condition through verbal repetition, and hugs Barbara to her. There is a close up of Barbara’s face, and her hands relax and hold Amy. Her face loses its rigidity and sinks into a sorrowful look of self-awareness. This is a moment and a moment only of human warmth and contact before she retreats once more into the prison of self, but it is a moment which she can hold onto, and which may one day help her. Amy cannot ‘save’ Barbara in the way that she has Irena, but she can give her a small crumb of hope to hold onto, a hint of unconditional love to set against the contemptuous pity which was all her mother left her with. The hounds approach followed by the others, and Barbara slowly backs away, separating from her double, the shadows of past and future possibilities now diverging.

Ollie comes in and sweeps her up in his arms, saying ‘I thought we’d lost you. I thought we’d never find you again’. He is talking of an actual physical loss, although he had already almost as good as lost her in a less tangible fashion. As they approach their home once more, Ollie makes a solemn declaration which echoes the pledge which Amy made with Irena. ‘From now on you and I are going to be friends. I’m going to trust you. I’m going to believe in you. You’ll like that won’t you?’ This is like the obverse of the litany of ways in which she will try to please her father that Amy reeled off as her birthday wish. Rather than requiring her to act and think in ways which he prescribes in order to be a ‘good girl’, he is now promising to indulge her in an equally unquestioning way, which is not necessarily any better. But the gesture is important, and some equilibrium will hopefully be achieved in the future. But now, the snow is melting, the long freeze is coming to an end. Ollie is asking ‘is your friend in the garden? Can you see Irena now?’ He is asking to be allowed into Amy’s world of imagination, rather than attempting to block it off. Irena is indeed there once more, having now been given official permission to return. Ollie’s recognition of the validity of Amy’s creative imagination is also a reconciliation with his memory of Irena. ‘Yes, I can see her’ says Amy, and Ollie concurs; ‘I see her too darling’. He doesn’t really, of course; He’s not even looking in her direction. But she does live inside him again, and he can see her once more in this sense, as memory clears from the fogs of self-justification. Amy smiles at him, and they all go in. It is her reconciliation with her father which is all-important. Alice looks on from the sidelines again. This may reflect the autobiographical element of Lewton’s reflection on his relationship with his own daughter as much as anything. This was the relationship which was important to him.

As they all go in, the camera positions itself so that we see them from the point of view of Irena, watching from over her shoulder so that her presence is solidly registered. The bole of the tree is in the foreground. Once they are inside, she fades away from view, as if merging with the tree. She has selflessly negotiated a position whereby she will be needed less and less. But she waits in the tree, a guardian spirit from the old world waiting to be summoned once more.

Irena watches

Next, the first of the Boris Karloff historical European ‘trilogy’, Isle of the Dead.

Archers' Restraint

Sammy and Susan

The Small Back Room is a lesser known Powell and Pressburger film, perhaps because of its essential quietude, it's lack of the usual fireworks and fantasy. As a small scale black and white film which followed in the footsteps of the dazzling technicolor fantasias of A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, it's perhaps unsurprising that it has been occluded by their gaudy splendour. It's noticeable that commentators almost immediately refer to the hallucinatory scene of exaggerated expressionism which evokes the protagonist's battle with alcoholism and by extension despair, in which ranks of oversized clocks thunder out the passing seconds and a giant whisky bottle threatens to roll over him and crush him into the ground. But this is a scene which goes against the grain of the rest of the film, which relies much more on looks and glances, feelings unspoken but somehow known in order to portray the psychological effect of the war on those working at home. It is a film which won critical respect at the time, but attracted a meagre audience. It is ripe for rediscovery, for although it is very different in tone from their other works, it still ranks amongst Powell and Pressburger’s finest, which is praise indeed.

The film opens with a point of view shot through the windscreen of a car which is speeding through blackout London, until it is brought to a halt by a traffic light which commands it to ‘stop’ through the crossed shades which serve to reduce its luminosity. This serves as an opening metaphor for the way in which lives are interrupted and effectively put into suspension by the disruption of wartime. The titles locate the film as taking place in Spring 1943, when the war had become a long-established reality. The film focuses on the self-tormenting personality of Sammy Rice (played with aching stoicism by David Farrar), an expert in military ordinance, but as usual, Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell give rich life to even the most minor of characters. There is a pre-Carry On Sidney James (yet to the more familiarly matey Sid) as the sympathetic but no nonsense ‘not in my gaff’ publican ‘Knucksie’; Cyril Cusack giving a portrayal of touching hesitancy as Corporal Taylor, who is wracked by the knowledge that his marriage is breaking up during the long hours of his absence; the bluff and almost confrontational indifference of Colonel Strang, with his steely gaze (you can see that those eyes are blue even in black and white) and calculated distance failing to disguise his concern and sense of personal responsibility; and the extraordinarily moustached (in the military fashion) Colonel Holland, with his aptness to call a spade a spade.

We follow Captain Stuart, played by a very youthful Michael Gough, who was the occupant of the car whose viewpoint we shared, as he enters a plush marbled lobby which is filled with the muti-lingual and cultural babel of an international locus. It is a scene which displays Emeric Pressburger’s delight in mixing such disparate voices and accents, so richly demonstrated in A Matter of Life and Death. As we listen to this aural collage, the camera pans down a series of neatly lettered notices which provide a visually analogous set of signposts to the nationalities chattering in the background: Norwegian Merchant Seamens’ Enquiry Office; Czechoslovak Cultur Institut; American Red Cross; Free French Information Bureau; Polish Enlistment Office; International Red Cross London Office; Ministry of Supply S.E. Regional Offices. These all carry an air of importance global co-operation which is borne out by the smartly uniformed people we see engaged in meaningful conversation. At the bottom of this impressively variegated column of signage is taped a piece of scrap cardboard on which is a hastily penned ‘Professor Mair’s Research Section – first left’ with an accompanying arrow to point the way. This seems a rather more provisional and marginalized outfit, an impression not dispelled by Captain’s Stuart’s trek across an unlit courtyard to a building dwarfed by a large and looming block of flats of offices behind. This is the small back room of the title, where the beleaguered research team tries to carry out its work, with much unwanted intervention.

The story is essentially two-fold. Stuart is here to enlist the aid of the team in investigating the nature of a new secret weapon which the Germans may be using, but which is so shrouded in mystery that it might not even exist. This is a fairly straight war story, although it is complicated by Powell and Pressberger’s emphasis (taking their cue from Nigel Balchin’s novel, which drew on his own experiences) on the interdepartmental rivalries which are thrown up by the efforts to develop a new artillery gun. Sammy’s ostensible boss, ‘RB’ Waring, played with unctuous charm by Jack Warner, is more interested in his own self-promotion than in producing an efficient weapon. There is a very modern-sounding emphasis on figures, a word which makes Colonel Holland harrumph with contempt, and the ways in which they can be manipulated to give the required results. RB is there to sell an idea, and the tedious details of its actual applicability are considered unimportant, even though lives may be at stake as a result. There is a lovely scene which visually summarises the world in which Sammy has to operate, in which the camera pans along the rack above a long bench in a pub where lunch is being served. It is filled with the bowler hats of civil servants, broken only by one military cap until we come to the end of the row and Sammy’s trilby. This is the arena of faceless bureaucracy where the real games of power are played out and whose rules must to some extent be learned in order to make any progress.

The centre of the film is the love story between Sammy and Susan, superbly played by Kathleen Byron. In many ways, it is a reversal of the roles they played in Black Narcissus. In that film, Byron’s iconic depiction of the breakdown of Sister Ruth came after her rejection by Farrar’s indifferent Mr Dean. Here, it is Sammy who suffers the breakdown after Susan has apparently left him. But it is Susan upon whom he depends, and who is his strength throughout the film, and she never abandons him. Sammy’s ‘tin foot’, which we assume has been lost in a previous attempt to defuse a bomb, acts as a symbol of his feelings of impotence and powerlessness, and of his resultant bitterness. This is made evident in the nightclub scene, when he is left at the table as Susan goes off to dance with the partner of an old acquaintance of hers. Sammy gives her his blessing to thus enjoy herself, but we can sense that this is one more element to add to the mix of poisonous self-abnegation.

conflagration of the repressed

We never learn precisely the origins of this self-loathing, but it threatens the relationship he has with Susan. It is she who must prop him up without seeming to control him. They have a routine whereby she offers him a drink, and he refuses, the decision therefore appearing to be his. It is his need for her which triggers the expressionist nightmare scene mentioned above (oddly enough, not a dream sequence – rather a representation of inner torment) when she fails to turn up at a pre-arranged time. There is a palpable sense throughout the film of emotions being suppressed, put on hold. But they constantly threaten to flare up, something symbolically represented by the newspaper which Susan holds across the mouth of the fireplace to let it draw bursting into flames. Sid James is reluctant to let Sammy have a drink, too, partly out of personal concern, but also because he knows he is capable of breaking the place up, something he has evidently done before. The details of the relationship in this film, the sense of its strength, is conveyed in looks and glances. It is a film of close-ups, which convey both intimacy and the claustrophobia of lives dictated to by the exigencies of wartime duty which can suddenly call Sammy away to an unknown place like Bala, or insist upon Susan working through a lunch hour which they had intended to spend together. Ultimately, Susan is trying to guide Sammy towards regaining his sense of self-respect, something which also requires him to take responsibility for his work and do something to assert its importance and integrity. She wants him to become the self which she can see, and which she loves, but which is in danger of being destroyed by forces outside and within.

Finally, Sammy gets the chance to confront himself after he has reached the depths of self-destructive despair. He’s driven the sympathetic Knucksie to kick him out of the pub, finds that he has also forced Susan to leave him (she’s taken her picture out of the frame) and proceeds to destroy his own home, having hit the whisky bottle which has served as the symbol of his resistance to his alcoholism. It at this point that he receives the call informing him that one of the new bombs has been discovered. It is a crisis which offers him the chance of salvation.

Ancient sanctuary

The landscape in which the finale of the film takes place is a highly symbolic one. Sammy meets Colonel Strang outside St Catherine’s Chapel, the clifftop remains of Abbotsbury Abbey. This is the last of a line of sanctuaries in which Sammy has found refuge throughout the film. We have seen him observing the testing of a gun from within the stones of Stonehenge, and as he leaves this protected circle the screen has faded to show him walking to the entrance of the research rooms, which are another area of safe retreat. His rooms are another sanctuary, as is Knucksie’s pub. Now he must leave the sanctuary of St Catherine’s chapel and descend to the wide, desolate sweep of Chesil Beach where the bomb has landed. This is a landscape made for existential confrontations. It is empty and gray, the pebble bank divided by the salt lake behind and the flattened strips of sea and sky. The naked sound of wind, with no vegetation to temper it, provides the aural dimension to this desolation. Concrete blocks are scattered at regular intervals, giving the landscape the surrealistic flavour of a Paul Nash painting. From the slope of the beach where the bomb has been isolated in a mini-bunker, Sammy is completely alone. He has a speaker which connects him with the others, but it is one way. There will be no reply. The instability of the shingle surface is an externalisation of Sammy’s personality, and of the disruptions and daily uncertainties which he and Susan, and many others, have experienced and which has taken its gradual toll on their psyches. The defusing of the bomb is more than just his effort towards saving lives. Through purposeful action, the realisation of his own worth, he is defusing the rage which is always threatening to erupt from just beneath the surface of his fragile self-control. As he says, this is personal. The depiction of the romantic English landscape is beautifully done in itself (as it was in the Welsh scenes) as we would expect from Powell and Pressburger, who had ranged from the Hebridean Isles to the North Devon sands in previous films.

The film ends with Sammy having regained some measure of self-respect, taking on the responsibility of working directly for Colonel Holland, which will connect his work more directly with those who will be using it. The final scene finds him returning home, where he finds Susan waiting for him. Dawn is breaking outside (indicated by a slightly awkwardly operated mechanical bird which launches itself from a fence post) but she draws the curtains, shutting the outside world out. She turns on the light, and the chaos which he has wreaked on his own inner sanctum has all been repaired. The photo is back in its frame and even the whisky bottle whose contents he had decimated is back in its place. As Tim Lucas has pointed out in his review of the film, there is something very moving about the quiet restoration of order which this scene depicts. Kathleen Byron looks so joyful at the fact that Sammy has finally come back to her in spirit, that he has at last lived up to what she has known he could become. Her radiant face is the last thing we see in the film, which is an indication of her absolute centrality. It is her finest hour (and that includes her stunning depiction of the breakdown of Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus). In the second volume of his autobiography, Million Dollar Movie, Michael Powell wonders ‘why didn’t I make more picture with Kathleen Byron, if I thought so highly of her?’ I wonder too. Kathleen died in January of this year. Do watch this film as a tribute to her unique presence.

Kathleen's joy

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Eighteen

The Curse of the Cat People - Part Three

A somewhat specious poster

Safely back home, Amy is tucked up in bed. The camera slowly prowls around the dark bedroom, and we hear the echoing sound of horses hooves getting louder as they come closer whilst Julia’s voice once more recounts the approach of the headless horseman. We are inside Amy’s head, which has been infected by the power of Julia’s storytelling performance. Her imaginative landscape has been invaded. There is a blaze of light outside as the sound of hooves reaches a crescendo and a swiftly moving shadow is cast from outside the window and engulfs Amy’s terrified form. She cries out in fear. The wind blows with an expressionistic howl outside, amplifying the resonant frequencies of Amy’s fear. The inappropriateness of Julia’s tale is now all too clear. The scene invites us, the viewers of this film which is nominally placed within the horror genre, to share in her terror. It is a complex form of identification, for we know full well that the horseman is a figment of her imagination, but we are afraid of what that imagination might reveal to her, and by extension us, and of the way in which that will effect her. It is also a scene which argues against the exposure of children’s impressionable minds to material which might disturb them. Miss Callahan has deliberately refrained from telling her class the nature of the legend of Sleepy Hollow to which she alludes at the start of the film, but Julia, for whom Amy is merely a convenient audience, has shown no such consideration and has gone for the full theatrical effect in her performance. Amy’s waking nightmare is the direct result.

Alice and Ollie are playing bridge downstairs, and Alice chooses to remain in this adult world rather than investigate the cry which she thinks she may have heard from upstairs. Once more, she seems disengaged from the needs of her daughter. As a result, Amy turns elsewhere, and uses the device of her ring, another element of her imaginative landscape which has been introduced from an outside source (Edward). As she turns the ring, she implores ‘my friend, I’m frightened, my friend’. The repetition of ‘my friend’ is like an invocation, a statement which will become true through reiteration. A light shines through the window, but it is softer and less threatening than that which accompanied the horseman’s approach. Irena’s appearance is generally preceded by a change in the nature of the light, which suggests that we are entering a fairytale world which is at a slight remove, though not wholly detached from, the everyday.

As this light shines, the curtains gently billow inwards on a gentle breeze, which is at the other end of the scale to the swirling ghost wind from which she has previously cowered. This is reminiscent of the scene in Jean Cocteau’s fairy-tale adaptation La Belle et La Bete when Beauty drifts down a corridor in the Beast’s castle, with the curtains fluttering inwards like wisps of cloud. A similar dreamlike quality is evoked in both cases. With the camera now focussed on the contented figure of Amy, we see the shadow of a human figure cast on the wall behind her as it approaches the foot of the bed. We have yet to see Irena take substantial form, but she is evidently real to Amy. ‘I’m glad you came, my friend’, she says, and ‘sing me that song again, my friend’. We hear Irena’s song, softly sung with French lyrics. We may not have seen her in the flesh, but this is definitely Irena, although she seems to have shed her Serbian identity and reverted to actress Simone Simon’s native tongue. So maybe she’s not quite the same Irena. Downstairs, Ollie has come over all wistful and dreamy, and when his attention is drawn back to the game, he admits ‘I was somewhere else’. The alertness to the re-awakening of a ghost from his past further suggests that this is a real visitation, not a mere projection of Amy’s need. Upstairs, Irena’s shadow stands guard over the peacefully sleeping girl, singing its bewitching lullaby. It is not dispelled once Amy is asleep. Its presence seems independent of her waking consciousness.

In the morning, Amy is bright and cheerful. She finds some photos and picks out one of Irena, asking Alice ‘mummy, who’s this?’ At this point, she doesn’t identify her as her friend. Whether that’s because she has yet to take a particular form, or because Amy has learned to be more circumspect about revealing the details of her private world is left unspoken. If it is the latter, then it is a new form of behaviour which she has learned, a break from her previously scrupulous honesty through omission rather than direct untruth. The power of the photograph as a fragment of concretised memory is manifested here. A person can be effectively excised from the past, their name never mentioned and stories in which they are involved never told (or retold to cast them in a negative light which justifies their erasure). But a photograph can make an immediate connection which belies such rewriting of the past, perhaps even providing a moment of epiphany which can illuminate the fog of self-deception. Amy repeats the name Irena, which her mother reveals to her, to herself, a re-iteration of the previous night’s repetition of the more abstract ‘my friend’. It is as if she is testing the name out, exploring its contours and flavour. Alice clearly didn’t know about these photos, and Amy is once more exiled to the garden so that she can confront Ollie on the matter. She tells him to look through for any more of Irena that may be there. She is editing, or to put it more strongly, censoring their past. There is a direct parallel with Julia Farren, who has edited her past, whether consciously or as the result of mental breakdown, to excise her daughter Barbara from her life.

In the garden, Amy repeats Irena’s name several times. This is an invocation, summoning the powers inherent in a name in fairy tales (think of Rumpelstiltskin or even Peter Pan). The summoning of magical beings is a commonplace in fairy tales, as it is in their dark inversions, tales of horror and the supernatural. The garden darkens and is then suffused with that quality of light which we have already noted as betokening a step sideways into a world of enchantment. The garden becomes luminous, with clearly delineated shadows. Everything takes on air of heightened reality, as if the ideal forms (the platonic forms behind the shadows of the real) of the surroundings have been brought forth. Amy’s face is filled with joy and she throws her ball into the shadows cast by the tree, from which Irena emerges to return it. It is as if she has emerged from the tree herself, like a classical dryad.

Tree spirit

Both cats we have seen in the film thus far (alive and stuffed) have been perched on tree branches, and so Irena’s association with Amy’s magic tree subliminally links her with these, and with the ancestral curse with which she was afflicted in Cat People. She is certainly associated with the garden and with nature and her later manipulations of its appearance suggest that she has become something of a pantheistic spirit, retreating into a deep pagan past to become rooted in natural forms. This would have been the ancient history, shading into myth, which was represented on the lower floors of the museum in Cat People, below the gallery of boats in which Alice and Ollie elected to linger. It is the history which lies in the lower levels of the subconscious, and in the coded symbols of folklore and fairy tales. Irena is in full long-sleeved fairy tale dress, white having replaced the black which she favoured in Cat People. This indicates that she is now a spirit of the daytime and the light, rather than a creature of darkness and night as she had been in Cat People. With the lullaby theme playing in the background, we hear Irena speak for the first time. ‘You called be my name’, she says, acknowledging the power to be found therein. This seems to have been the final step in her conjuration into substantive form. The fact that we only see her thus after Amy has seen the photograph creates an air of ambiguity. Is this just the new shape in which she has cast her imaginary friend. That ambiguity is never wholly dispelled, but Irena is given enough of an identity of her own to make us share Amy’s belief in her reality.

Irena tells Amy that ‘I’ve wanted a friend too…I’ve been lonely’. This sense of two lonely souls coming together out of mutual need furthers the impression that this is an Irena who is more than merely a product of Amy’s imaginary worldbuilding. It is as if she has been waiting for this summons, the calling of her name. When asked, she says ‘I come from great darkness…and deep peace’, a description which sounds like non-being, a state of limbo into which are consigned those souls who lives were left unresolved. When Amy asks her ‘will you be my friend for always’, Irena replies ‘for as long as you want me’. And it is this need which has called her forth, meeting her corollary need to be needed. ‘I shall want you for always’, Amy says with the solemn certainty of childhood, to which Irena replies ‘for always then’. This formal oath is sealed with a kiss upon the forehead. But there is a sub-clause. Irena tells Amy that ‘you must promise never to tell anyone about me. This must be a friendship only we shall have. Amy and her friend.’ This is an oath of secrecy which seems designed to protect Amy from the aggressive rationality of her father. Irena has learned from her own bitter experience that Ollie’s worldview is intransigent and not to be challenged. He creates the need to evade the truth, which he defines too narrowly. Inside, he edits memory, throwing pictures on the fire, but is unable to bring himself to entirely erase her from his past, and keeps one photograph back.

The other mother

The following scenes are interspersed with the watercolour illustrations which we saw at the start of the film, which suggests that Amy has now entered the kind of story which they would have been used to accompany. We see Amy and Irena playing in the garden, and Irena teaching Amy about numbers in terms of fairytale characters. Perhaps this is a way of showing that such stories are not mere escapism, but meaningful escapism, which serves to teach us something about the ways of the world. The fact that Amy has such an active relationship with her ‘imaginary’ friend, learning new things from her, again suggests a substantiality to her presence. Another fade reveals leaves covering the garden, the seasons turning. The film observes the cycles of the seasons, from the summery scenes of the opening to the wintry snow of the conclusion, in a poetic way, which again touches on a pagan sense of the processes of death and rebirth in the natural world. Irena has been through her place of great darkness and peace (the soil?) and has returned for another season. But the falling leaves acknowledge the impermanence of all things and the inevitability of death.

Leading Irena from witchery

Irena and Amy have lit a bonfire in the centre of the garden (could a figment of a child’s imagination have done this? What are Amy’s parents doing letting her create fires?) and Irena stands over it, looking very witchy. She casts in leaves and utters what sounds like a spell which will turn the flames blue. But Amy is not interested in such eldritch mummery and leads her off to her playhouse instead. ‘You be the friend who comes to see me…I’ll show you my children’, she orders. ‘Your children?’ Irena asks, drawn away from her chants. ‘My dolls’, Amy says, making it clear that she knows exactly where the dividing line between the imaginary and the real lies. ‘We can pretend’. Thus Amy, with great self-awareness of the artificiality of play and the way in which it can be directed, leads Irena away from her world of haunted isolation, of the dark superstitions under which she has been occluded.

Doll's dinner

Amy, having entered this fairytale world, has also begun to shed some of the otherworldliness which had led to her becoming so isolated. Her play has now become a lot less dreamy, the certitude with which she recreates the routines of a ‘normal’ family with her dolls indicating the newfound sense of security her relationship with Irena has provided. Irena herself has began to achieve the sense of belonging, of being needed, which she longed for in her previous incarnation (for this does feel like a re-incarnation). ‘Button your sweater, darling, it’s getting cold’, she tells Amy. It is the kind of offhand, casual remark which betokens a mother’s care and affection. Irena is now helping Amy in her education and looking after her wellbeing. Alice’s earlier denial of there being any part of Irena in Amy, and her assertion that she is ‘my child’ now begins to appear a little uncertain. But the negative connotations of Ollie’s suggestion that Irena’s influence might be exerting itself on Amy have been wholly inverted. Her influence is nothing but benevolent.

Recognising winter's beauty

Amy acknowledges the approach of winter with little enthusiasm. But Irena offers her a divergent viewpoint, one which accepts the possibility that beauty may be found in all things. ‘Winter’s fun,’ she says. ‘There’s the wind and the snow. You will like the warm fire upon the hearth and the long, long nights’. She is subtly inculcating the idea of the acceptance of the changing patterns of the seasons, of death and rebirth, of the progress of time; In the end, of her own disappearance. She herself embodies this pantheistic sense of a divine presence in all seasons, her dress sparkling like morning frost. Amy introduces her dolls. Irena looks on. She is happy. Irena and Amy fade away, leaving only the shadowed garden, another indication of impermanence. The falling leaves turn into falling snow and finally the twisted tree trunk, bare now of foliage, is darkly outlined against the wintry white background, a steady and permanent presence.

Mystery present

From the tree outside, we fade to the putting up of the tree inside, a domesticated paganism (just as the tree in the garden is a tamed memory of the wild wood). Amy is very serious about the importance of ritual, as if aware of a forgotten meaning underlying the rote tradition. She says of the presents ‘you can’t open them yet. You have to put all of them under the tree until morning’. Ollie displays his essential childishness once more, shaking his in his eagerness to discover what might be inside. Amy keeps one present aside and won’t tell them who it’s for, keeping to her oath. The arrival of a group of carol singers spares her further evasion. They all go to the half-open door to listen. They are posed as if in a smiling portrait, a picture of the perfect family Christmas. It is, as we know, an ironic portrait, a representation of the false unity insisted upon by a sentimentalised view of the spirit of Christmas, which is endured in the knowledge that it will soon be over.

Playing happy families

The carol singers are invited in and the local gossip, given the Dickensian name Miss Plummett, proceeds to spread her insinuations. These are the petty dynamics which underly the surface piety. Amy shrugs off the comments of one snooty girl who suggests that they are not doing things like a ‘proper family’ by retorting with genuine indifference ‘I guess we’re not a proper family’. Starting up another carol around the piano, the choir choose ‘Shepherd, shake off your drowsy sleep’, a call to wake up which could be addressed to the whole room. Amy, in the corridor, hears Irena’s voice from the garden singing a carol in French. There is a sort of duel of carols, both being heard in counterpoint to each other. Irena stands beneath the tree in the garden in a long white cape. With her lyrics sung in French in this American small town Christmas scene serving to emphasise her defiant difference, she resembles the angel who has come to tell the shepherds to wake up, and her carol thus becomes a response to the choir’s.

Irena's carol

Amy goes out into the garden, showing where her loyalties lie. The pagan over the status-conscious Christian. There is now a long icicle hanging from the bough of the tree, a decoration of natural beauty to which those on the tree inside can only attempt a pale emulation. Amy gives Irena her present, a brooch of shooting stars. This is a symbol of glorious impermanence which perhaps indicates that she has absorbed the lessons which Irena has been indirectly teaching her. As they sparkle as if with their own light, Amy reverts to her strangely formal, poetic mode of speech, declaiming ‘O, that is more beautiful than I ever imagined’. Irena now asks Amy ‘shall I show you my Christmas gift to you?’ and when she receives her assent, produces a magic show of winter illumination. A shadow passes across the garden and a different luminosity is revealed, in which everything in the garden seems to unveil its own core of light. Irena once more appears as the presiding spirit of the garden, able to show Amy the essential nature of all the forms within it. There is a look of wonder, almost of ecstasy, on Amy’s face. Then she is called in by Alice, and the light shifts back into its normal shade. As Amy goes in, the camera focuses on Irena’s radiant face, glowing with happiness and contentment.

The rejected present

In the Farren house, the focus is on an unopened present, lying by the stuffed cat. The juxtaposition of the neglected present with those which have just been exchanged with such joy provides an obvious symbolic counterpoint, redolent with suppressed feelings and emotions. The offering which remains wrapped up, rejected. Julia is biting on a biscuit, which she casts aside with a sour look, as if she is casting aside the whole idea of Christmas as a time of familial unity. Barbara, in her usual position behind the curtain, waiting silently in the wings, moves aside to let Amy and Edward into Julia’s domain. Amy gives her a present, but points out the unopened one. ‘Oh, that’s from her; that woman’, she snarls, once more denying Barbara, who watches from behind the curtain, a name. She accepts Amy’s gift of a ring with great theatricality, once more delighting in her audience, which gives her full reign to indulge her world of dreams. Perhaps her rejection of Barbara is partly motivated by fear of being called away from the self-indulgent world of fantasy into which she has retreated so comfortably. She represents a threatening connection to the real world of emotional attachments and responsibilities. Barbara, in that sense, is the opposite of Irena, her dark twin. Whereas Amy draws Irena out of the shadows, makes her more real, Julia forces Barbara in the opposite direction. Amy recognises Irena as a real person and calls her by her name. She invites her into her imaginative world, away from the haunted one which she has been inhabiting. Julia repels Barbara with cruel words and a refusal to even grant her a name. She is driven down into the shadow world below (the basement, in this case) from which Irena has been lifted, unable to release herself from the bonds of obligation she still feels to her mother. This parallel between Irena and Barbara is made manifest at the end of the film, as we shall see.

The accepted present

Amy, however, is an occasional guest, and easily impressed with gaudy flummery, although, as we have seen, she is able to draw the distinction between the real and the imaginary, perhaps more clearly than Julia. The ring given to her by the ‘King of Spain’ is tossed aside in favour of Amy’s cheap offering, ‘a ring given me out of friendship and love’. This is a friendship and love which is more perceived than real. There is none of the care and consideration displayed by Irena here. Amy is someone who Julia uses for her own self-gratification, an impressionable audience. She has no compunction in creating that impression by scaring the little girl out of her wits. There is no sense, as there is with Irena, that Julia would ever become involved in Amy’s world of imaginative play. She is far too firmly entrenched in her own unassailable fantasies to bother with anyone else’s concerns. As Edward ushers Amy out, Julia says ‘you’ve made my Christmas a very happy one’, enabling her to come to life through performance. Barbara points out that ‘you didn’t even open my present, and I’m your daughter’. ‘My daughter died, long ago’, Julia re-iterates, dull and lifeless once more now her audience has gone. The house has become a mausoleum again. Barbara slowly descends the stairs to the darkness of the basement, and the screen fades to black.

Watching from the wings

The Focus Group Broadcast


Faint stirrings from the Broadcast camp as an American tour and a forthcoming EP are announced as follows (on the Warp records website):

Broadcast are set to return to American shores this fall - with a series of shows teaming up with Atlas Sound (Kranky/4AD). Both groups have new material surfacing this year - an EP from Broadcast, to be released around the tour, and a new Atlas Sound album 'Logos' in October.
"Okay people...Broadcast and The Focus Group have joined hands to create a new ep of seancing songs and witch cult rumbles" (says singer Trish Keenan).

I saw them performing with Atlas Sound at the Explosions in the Sky All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Minehead a couple of years ago, although perhaps ‘saw’ is an inapt description. Coming in some minutes into Atlas Sound’s performance performance, the lofty figure of Bradford Cox could easily be seen above the heads of the audience. But what were these other intriguing analogue whooshes and oscillations which surrounded his effects haloed guitar sound. Fancy pedals of some stripe, I figured, and was surprised when he also seemed to be playing against a manipulated sample of Trish Keenan singing Black Cat. Then, at the end of a thoroughly enjoyable set, he announced ‘ladies and gentlemen, Broadcast, and Trish and James stood up from where they had been toying with their arcane circuitry, entirely hidden from the view of all but the first row. I like to think that this electronic bric-a-brac is usually housed in some customised garden shed to which they retire when inspiration strikes, and that neighbours hear strange sounds drifting over the fence and mutter ‘they’re at it again’. But I suspect this is just idle fancy. Evidently a friendship was formed, anyway, an Atlas axis established. You can probably still find an audio-visual record of ‘tea with Broadcast’ on the Deerhunter/Atlas Sound website and blog.

The collaboration with the Focus Group is very exciting, a meeting with the world of Ghost Box which has long been anticipated given their shared enthusiasms and tastes (and the fact that they know each other, of course). A hint of what happens when these worlds collide can be found by listening and watching to the improvised soundtrack to the Focus Group’s Julian House’s eerie film which was screened at the Belbury Poly Youthclub night at the Shunt Vaults in London a few months back (see previous post). Sounds to evoke the chill atmospheres of Arthur Machen or Blackwood’s supernatural tales, and a fine way to welcome the oncoming of darker Autumn evenings.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Seventeen

Curse of the Cat People - Part Two

The Witch's House

We follow Amy out through the gate in the white picket fence as she makes her first attempt to carry out her pledges in the world. She greets Jack, a pint-sized Cagney in baseball get-up, whose response to her greeting is a Brooklynese ‘nyaah’ brush-off. They are from different linguistic universes. The three girls who she approaches immediately huddle into a conspiratorial, whispering huddle. They’re mad that Amy said she’d invite them to her party and are dismissive of her magical explanations of why they never received those invitations. They have the unshaded moral absolutism of children, and their suddenly decisive cry of ‘ditch her’ indicates that they possess childhood’s casually instinctive cruelty as well. As they run past an old house, they give us an introduction to its place in the fairytale schema; ‘the old house – it’s haunted – there’s a witch in it’.

Amy follows and finds herself at the gate of this witch’s house. It is a classic turreted edifice of louring US gothic, with a fence of rusting iron entwined with spiralling creepers. Amy sees a curtain twitch in an upper window and a soft, aged voice entices her in with a timeless invitation: ‘Little girl. Come into the garden. It’s pleasant and cool here’. It’s a voice coming from an old house in a small town in rural New York State, but it could be from a cottage at the heart of the European darkwood. Amy demonstrates her fearless curiosity by wandering into the garden. Once she has passed through those iron gates, we sense that she has entered a different realm, a territory where the old stories still unfold. Glowering stone gargoyles peer from between the weeds. A white handkerchief flutters down like a dove from the upper window and when Amy goes to pick it up, she discovers that a ring is attached. A hand approaches from behind and snatches the kerchief, but not the ring, from Amy’s hand and a sullen faced woman walks back with it towards the house, passing between two stone satyrs to ascend the stairs to the front door. This is the striking figure of the actress Elizabeth Russell, who we’ve already encountered as Irena’s ‘sister’ in Cat People and as the consumptive making an assignation with Death in The Seventh Victim. The voice from upstairs whispers with some urgency ‘go away little girl, go away’. So, a sense of mystery and anticipation has been established. The provenance of the disembodied voice remains unknown. Is she another manifestation of the Jane Eyre madwoman in the attic, who we’ve already encountered in I Walked With A Zombie and The Seventh Victim? Or is she a prisoner of the woman in the garden? Which is the witch? For an imaginative child, this is a rich stage upon which to let her fancies create a myriad possibilities.

In the gothic garden

Back at the house, Amy shows Edward the ring and he gives further prompts to her imagination. ‘Most surely that was a nice lady to give a ring to a little girl’ he says in his beautifully balanced phrasing, before suggesting that it may be ‘a true wishing ring…a real morning ring like they have in Jamaica. You just have to turn it.’ This is a piece of mythology which Amy immediately adopts into her imaginative world. She tells Edward that she didn’t play with the other children as they wouldn’t play with her. Edward acts as her confessor here (sorry) and it is with him that she seems to feel most at ease throughout the film, an indication of her parents’ culpability in driving her towards retreating into the isolation of a private world. Having tested out her admission of failure in carrying out the pledges arising out of her birthday wish, she goes off to repeat it to Ollie.

Ollie is in his workshop abutting the garden. These two worlds, of the practical and the magical, the rational and the imaginative, are co-existent but separate, twin polarities which orbit it each other warily. Ollie is working on a model boat, fashioning solid, tangible representations of reality in wood. These remind us of the models of historical boats which he and Alice were absorbed in inspecting in the museum in Cat People, breezily dismissing the less enthralled Irena to the lower depths, where the more mysterious artefacts of antiquity were to be found. The workshop here is very much Ollie’s world, a corner of practicality and rationality. When Amy enters, he tells her ‘your daddy’s so pleased with you that he’s built you a model ship for your very own’. That this is his idea of what a young girl would want as a present suggests his lack of real engagement with his daughter’s life. He is attempting to impose his own worldview onto her’s, whilst remaining resolutely closed off from any reciprocal interest in her world. Amy is open and honest with him, in the same way that Irena tried to be, but as soon as she starts to talk of an ‘old dark house’ with a voice, he snaps into a rage. This acts as another and rather more confessional piece of autobiographical detail on Lewton’s part, since he apparently had a fairly stormy relationship with his own daughter. ‘Your mother may excuse it as lying’, Ollie says ‘but I call it plain lying’. Again, a suggestion of a rift with Alice over approaches to the rearing of their child is made quite plain. Alice enters at this point as Amy, on the verge of tears, denies that she was lying. Alice defends her and she and Ollie start to shout at each other, Ollie denying all, with a statement of ‘I’m never unfair’ asserting his unshakeable sense of belief in the rightness of his singular and narrowly defined view of the world. Amy voices the feelings of many a child upon whom the parental disputes of the adult world are displaced when she says ‘you’re upset about me. I made you fight’. She is told to run off and play; in other words, to retreat once more to her private fantasy world, which has been the cause of this dispute in the first place.

A very rational gift

Amy is on her own again in the garden, framed by the magic tree. She sits by the edge of the pond, her paper bird on the edge of a stick dangling lifelessly. The pool is another fairy tale location, a place of transformations. Amy puts her hand in the water and notices how it is changed by the play of light on the water, which also shines on the ring which she now wears. The fish, another of her ‘friends’ presumably, swims past her submerged hand. It is removed from her, moving through its own world. Amy withdraws her hand and slowly turns the ring, saying in a dreamy voice ‘I wish…for a friend’. The garden is engulfed in a sweeping front of shadow, leaves blown from the tree in a sudden breeze as if in response to this request. The tree is once more the locus of the magical occurrences in the garden. A new and altered quality of light emerges as the darkness passes, and the outline of the magic tree is clearly etched upon the grass. Amy plays happily in this magic light amidst a gentle shower of leaves, wholly in tune with nature and the first hints at the turning of the season. From inside the workshop, Edward and Ollie pause from their intent activities to glance at Amy running about from end to end of the garden, her bird now alive and trailing her in the air. They are closed off from and barely aware of the world in which she is so much at home. Intensely aware of the water, the wind and the light, she is at play with the elements. Later, after evening has fallen, Amy sits in the kitchen with Edward (who is coming to seem like her most constant companion in the ‘real’ world). Ollie comes in and comments that she was laughing and singing to herself’, to which she replies ‘I wasn’t singing to myself’. Edward mockingly supposes ‘it was to the wind you sang. Or maybe to the clouds or the sun… perhaps it was to the flowers in the garden’. He’s gently teasing her, but has in fact articulated the pantheism at the heart of Amy’s play. The exercise of her imagination in this manner, through a depersonalised form of nature mysticism, doesn’t seem to bother Ollie in the slightest.

As she is taken upstairs to bed by Alice, Amy subconsciously hums a faltering version of what we tentatively recognise as Irena’s song from Cat People. Alice is typically sardonic in her response, an adult form of address which she doesn’t seem to modulate when talking to her child. ‘I suppose any note, no matter how sour, sounds like a song if you hold on to it long enough’, she carps critically, clearly more for her own benefit than for Amy’s. Amy simply says that it was ‘the song my friend taught me’. As she gets ready for bed, Alice notices the ring which Amy wears and when she finds where it has come from admonishes her for taking gifts from strangers. Amy tells her of the old house with the voice, as if it were the house itself which was talking. Alice takes a different approach to Ollie’s reflexive dismissal of Amy’s stories, continuing to quiz her and therefore determining that the place she is speaking of is ‘The Farren House’, where a mother and daughter live. Alice realises that there is a core of truth within Amy’s fancies, and by extension that stories can themselves bear an essential truth, even if it is not literal. But she seems simply too distanced (as her ironical way of addressing her daughter has suggested) to become to intimately involved, and therefore assigns Edward to accompany Amy in returning the ring. Amy is pragmatic in accepting the need to return the ring. ‘I got my wish anyway’, she says, ‘it’s already come true’. ‘Then you must keep it true’, Alice tells her, once more adding to the crosscurrents of conflicting messages about the validity of imagined worlds.

The next day, Edward is cleaning one of Ollie’s ships with a noisy nozzle of compressed air, which acts like a wind in its sails, whilst he sings a shanty to himself. Adults can get lost in worlds of the imagination too. Amy interrupts his reveries to point out that he is supposed to accompany her in returning the ring. But he is busy with his own games now, and tells her that she can go alone. It seems that he has absorbed some of the neglectful attitudes of his employers. Amy meets Miss Callahan on the way out, as she passes once more beneath the rose-covered arch which marks the boundaries between her imaginative kingdom and the ‘real’ world outside. A real wind now blows as Amy turns the corner and examines the ring with a troubled look. But she sets her mind to the task at hand and heads off with a determined stride.

Miss Callahan, having bumped into Amy, has decided to drop in on Alice, taking her up on her earlier invitation. As she is shown around the house, she comments on how it is ‘a home connected with people’s thoughts and work, things they love’. But there is no trace of Amy here. There seems no indication that a child might live here. The garden seems to seem more and more like a place of exile. The idea of a house filled with objects imbued with personal meaning being the outward reflection of an inner world reminds us of Irena’s apartment in Cat People. Her Goya picture hangs on the wall here, out of place amongst the modern appurtenances of the Reed house. Her presence is more like a haunting now, the painting an awkward reminder of a past which cannot be exorcised. Alice mentions that Irena was an artist and that the events of the past were ‘a tragic, terrible experience’, as if there is some link. She claims that Ollie has never really got over it. Having already heard his complete disavowal of any sense of personal responsibility, we begin to wonder how well she really knows him.

Amy as Alice


Amy is at the door of the old house, which slowly opens and then closes behind her with no visible human agency. We once more feel as if Amy has now entered a magical realm, beyond the quotidian workings of the everyday world. Cutting to the interior of the house, we see Amy reflected in a large Victorian mirror, looking very much like Alice in her pinafore dress. This allusion creates the feeling that she is now entering a looking-glass world in which a strange and crooked form of order will prevail. This sense is enhanced by the fact that she is walking backwards, stepping away from the lady who had crept up behind her in the garden (Elizabeth Russell) who we will learn is called Barbara. She approaches Amy, staring down at her as she walks with slow, somnambulant steps. For a moment, they are both reflected in the mirror, a symbolic linkage which places them both at a remove from the real world. As the story progresses, we get a strong sense that Barbara is the adult into which Amy could develop if she is allowed to drift further into isolation and withdrawal from the world. But now she stands her ground and refuses to give Barbara the ring, telling her ‘you’re not the lady’. Elizabeth Russell’s face remains impassively downcast, a haunted visage which threatens to suddenly reform into lines of bitter hatred. She passes the sphinxes on the end of the banisters at the foot of the imposing staircase (more details which place the house in the realms of the witch’s hut or fairytale castle) before descending to the basement, her face illuminated against the shadows. Evidently this is an inversion of the madwoman in the attic archetype. She has relocated to the basement, a more symbolically subconscious locale for a post-Freudian era. Hitchcock would subsequently have Norman Bates move his ‘mother’ from an upstairs room into the basement in Psycho. It is also the area where the servants are housed, and as we learn of the strange relationship which exists within the house, we come to realise the extent to which Barbara has become defined by the role which has been imposed upon her.

The empty hallway in which Amy now finds herself is full of imposing objects of antiquity. She is surrounded by heavy oak furniture and looks nervously around to determine where she might venture next. There is the locked door and the entrance to a room veiled with a heavy curtain. A shot of Amy from the top of the stairs makes her look very small and lost amongst this oversized clutter. She is like a Gretel without the comforting companionship of a Hansel. Slipping cautiously behind the curtain, she comes into another room filled with the assorted bell jars and morbid bric-a-brac of moldy Victoriana. A stuffed cat perches on a branch with a bird in its mouth, an image which suggests that wild and violent impulses may lurk beneath apparently calm domestic surfaces. It also reminds us of the boys scattering the cat from the branch with their imaginary machine-guns at the start of the film. Here, we feel, it might very well be the boys who are doing the running. This is an implicitly female environment, but one of deep mystery rather than bright, domestic order. The cat gives the sense that there may be a lurking threat within this house. Is it Barbara? Might her languorous movements be suddenly transformed into violent action?

There is laughter from the darkness and then a blind is drawn up and daylight floods the room. Amy throws her arms up to shade her eyes and the dusty and worn props of this shadowed world are revealed in all their shabby desuetude. The laughing old lady who has been revealed at the window lowers the blinds again. ‘I quite agree with you’, she says. ‘The sun is not kind’. She immediately retreats once more into her imaginary world of twilit shadow, turning aside from the daylit world of the real. ‘God should use a rose-amber spot’, she says. For her, life is clearly a theatre, and she delights in manipulating the power of atmospherically suggestive shadow through low lighting to enhance her performance. There is an element of self-reflexivity here, since Lewton’s films had by now established their signature style of noir lighting and deep pools of darkness. The old lady will use these effects to the full in her horror performance. As Amy reveals the reason for her visit, the old lady bristles at being called a stranger and launches into a strange potted bio of an introduction, in which she talks as if she is an MC introducing herself on stage. ‘Julia Farren a stranger? Why I’ve played every theatre from Boston to San Francisco’. She becomes lost in her own fantasy of international stardom, referring wistfully to ‘those beautiful, shining, golden days’ in which she has evidently become stranded. Amy defuses her grandstanding by reminding her ‘I only came to give back the ring’. Julia becomes ordinarily friendly for a while, and they settle down to have tea, ‘strong and red, the way I like it’. But her gaiety of manner is immediately dropped as soon as she senses Barbara’s presence. She peers through the curtains like an onlooker in the wings, denied access to the onstage action. This is a position she is seen in several times throughout the film. Julia has written her out of the play which is her life. She is dismissed with a look which expresses complete contempt. There is genuine hatred in Julia’s voice as she hisses ‘that woman is an imposter. She’s a liar and cheat’. This is a strange inversion of the relationship between father and daughter in the Reed household. Here it is the parent caught in a world of fantasy who accuses the daughter (a relationship yet to be revealed) of lies and deceit and of perpetuating a false view of reality. Both Julia and Ollie are inflexible in their insistence that their version of the truth is absolute and singular, however. Julia’s mood turns with instantaneous abruptness, in a more extreme example of the mood swing we’ve seen Ollie undergo in his workshop. She’s suddenly full of polite niceties again as she asks ‘how do you like your tea?’ She’s more than a little mad. This is what happens when you become completely unmoored from the real world and immerse yourself completely in a solipsistic dream world of your own making.

Miss Callahan-the family confidante

Back at the Reed house, Alice is musing aloud to Miss Callahan. Having confided in her about Irena, she now says ‘it’s almost as if there were a curse on us’ and that ‘it seems to be directed against Amy’. This is partly a bit of dialogue aimed at justifying the title of the film, an offhand gesture to the studio head; there’s your curse. But it is also a blatant evasion of responsibility on Alice’s part, a descent into self-justifying superstition. It elides any admission of her and Ollie’s personal role in Amy’s troubles and dumps it all back on poor Irena. ‘I sometimes think Irena haunts this house’ she adds, as if to back up her point. This is said as the sound of a bird in the garden becomes audible. It is not the house which is haunted, and Irena’s implied presence in the garden is an anti-haunting. It is a bringing of life, a blessing rather than a curse (The Blessing of the Cat People wouldn’t have worked as a title, it’s true). Edward comes in at this point and it is revealed that Amy has gone alone to the Farren house, which only goes to underline how disengaged Alice is from her daughter’s life. We can’t help but think of the more extreme example of Julia and Barbara Farren. Edward is dispatched to fetch Amy.

Julia, meanwhile, is imperiously enquiring of Amy, ‘child, have you ever seen a play?’ Like Ollie, she is keen to impose her own interests on the polite youngster. When she admits that she likes stories Julia says ‘then I’ll tell you a story’. Rapunzel is suggested, but rejected as Amy has already read it. It is another story of a woman in a tower, a fairy story about isolation and imprisonment, although Rapunzel has yet to succumb to madness (unless refusal to cut your hair constitutes some form of OCD). As such, Amy’s familiarity with the story is unsurprising, as she is, in a sense, living it. Julia decides on another story and is led limpingly to another curtain (it is a house of concealing curtains). Amy is positioned as the audience and Julia says ‘we’ll pretend this is the stage’. Here, then, is more adult play and make-believe with which Amy is confronted. The world as she encounters it is full of adults who encourage fantasy and self-serving fictions (and themselves employ them) in certain situations and decry them in others. It is a world of confusingly conflicting messages, with no sense of consistency. The only solution seems to be to create a self-contained and self-consistent world which you control yourself.

The headless horseman approaches

Edward appears at the door, which is opened by Barbara, and asks if there is ‘a little girl with hair about the colour of yours, ma’am?’ Again the Amy and Barbara are linked, the child glimpsed in the adult and the adult in the child. Edward is ushered in just in time for the performance. Barbara retires once more to her place of concealment by the curtain, watching from the ‘wings’. Edward wants to lead Amy out, but she pleads and Mrs Farren positively commands ‘let the child stay!’ She then launches into the Story of the Headless Horseman, becoming as one possessed, hands clenched and face set in a look of fixed, wild-eyed intensity. It is as if she is living the story. We hear accompanying sound effects, wild wind and hooves, as if we are hearing the story as it unfolds in Amy’s inner world as she sits listening, still and entranced. Indeed, the camera slowly moves in on her face as if to register the effect of the story on her, as she begins to show signs of fear. Julia’s face moves nearer as she describes the approach of the horseman, her eyes bulging and clutching hands reaching out, completely lost in her role as the tale comes to its climax. Amy is evidently frightened now. The camera pulls back and we see that Julia’s face has come to rest within inches of Amy’s.

Edward-the concerned guardian

Edward takes Amy’s hand to lead her away, his silence betokening his worry at the effect this mad old woman may have had on her. Julia smiles at the evident effect her performance has had, but then suddenly seems very tired. The fact that she has frightened and possibly disturbed this young child clearly doesn’t register with her. Edward is probably right to be worried on Amy’s behalf. Amy’s polite ‘I’ve had a nice time but I have to go home now’ receives no response. Julia sinks onto the sofa, bent over with weariness. In the hallway, Edward is unable to open the door, and rattles the knob with a slight sense of panic. This is evidently a house which it is easier to enter than leave, a fact to which Barbara, who now appears to open it for them, can no doubt attest. She is shot from below, as if from Amy’s perspective, and is sinisterly uplit, her features looking weighted with unbearable sadness. Amy says a polite thank you to her, too, and she moves off with a heavy slowness, as if the house exerts its own dense gravity (the gravity of madness). Outside, a concerned Edward tells Amy not to come here alone again. With the naïve childhood ability to accept difference and strangeness, she says ‘but she’s such a nice lady’. Edward casts a worried glance up at the house and hurries them away. For him, this is a house haunted by the living.

Barbara-the mask of tragedy

Inside, Barbara is trying to gain Julia’s attention, and we learn of their relationship for the first time. ‘Look at me, I’m your daughter’ she implores. And, with resentment and bitterness, ‘you’re sweet and kind to the little girl. A stranger.’ Julia replies as if from a great distance. ‘My daughter Barbara died when she was six. You’re only the woman who takes care of me. You are an imposter’. Barbara walks off in despair. We feel that this is one of an endless series of attempts to get through to her mother (for we are left in little doubt that it is Barbara who is speaking the truth here). But Julia is framed by the large sofa in whose centre she slumps, seeming somehow shrunken, blank and worn, sunk in madness which has caught her daughter up in its coils. This is the first time we have learned Barbara’s name, but Julia has denied it, referring to her in the presence of others with a dismissively snarled ‘that woman’. The lovably eccentric old woman reduces her daughter to a state of complete abjection, consigning her to the servants’ quarters below stairs. Even her name is taken away from her.

Passion Plays and Inverted Infernos

Fictions of Fascism - Berlin Alexanderplatz and Salo,or the 120 Days of Sodom


It was pure coincidence that found me watching these two films in close proximity recently, but they seem to dovetail with each other on many levels. Both are culminating works of directors who worked as iconoclasts within their respective countries, Germany and Italy. Fassbinder had always intended to film Alfred Doblin’s 1929 novel, having strongly identified with all of the central triangle of characters, Franz Biberkopf, Reinhold and Mieze. He had frequently included characters called Franz in his films, and had himself played a character called Franz Biberkopf in his 1974 film Fox and His Friends. Whilst he made five further films in the two years left to him, there is a sense that this was the film he had been building up to over his whole prolific career, the one that meant most to him. Salo, on the other hand, is one of those films which trails its own mythology of notoriety. Using de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom as a basis (the full title is Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom) Pasolini unleashes a nihilistic barrage of disgust at the structures of power which he sees operating in the world. It was a film which I approached with some caution, having loved Pasolini’s 60s work but come unstuck with the 70s ‘Trilogy of Life’, which seemed to have been made with sloppy haste, particularly Canterbury Tales, which saw disconcertingly familiar faces (Tom Baker and Robin Askwith!) dubbed in a hopelessly unconvincing fashion. Salo uses dubbing for a few of the characters (Italian cinema seemed to do a lot of this) but is generally filmed with a great deal more control and care. Indeed, there is a cool formality about its photography and structure which serves to provide an aesthetic counterpoint to the acts of depravity and cruelty which the film portrays in relentless detail. It is a film which sets out to disgust in a directly physical sense whilst providing an intellectual framework which gives some analytical basis(excuse?) for that revulsion. In some ways, it is a shame that this is the final film that Pasolini made before his brutal murder, as it has the feel of a transitional work, a ruthless clearing away of old concerns before formulating a new direction. Ingmar Bergman's film From the Life of Marionettes strikes me as being similar in this respect. It is a film of unremitting nihilism and despair which offers no hint of hope. If this had been Bergman's final film, it would have been a bleak testimony and might have been taken as a sign of a mind at the end of its tether. But instead it was a culmination of a particular strand in his work (the intensely interior psychodrama) which he took to its utmost extreme, to the point almost of self-parody in fact, in order to exorcise it and move on. His next film was the far lighter and more humane (and extremely successful)Fanny and Alexander, which many critics consider the summary work of his career. What would Pasolini have moved onto next, I wonder?

Both films in part seek to provide an insight into the psychological underpinnings of fascism. They are rooted in a particular time and place. Salo takes its name from the capital of the puppet state set up by the Nazis in Northern Italy in 1944, forcibly established after the surrender of the Italian government and intended to act as a buffer against the progress of the Allies. It therefore marks a terminal or decadent phase of fascism, in which any pretence at the rule of law begins to break down. Pasolini deliberately focuses on the town sign of Marzabotto as the prisoners who will be the subjects of the four ‘rulers’’ closed republic within a republic are driven towards their fate, and one is gunned down as he tries to escape. This was a town whose inhabitants were massacred by the Nazis. Berlin Alexanderplatz is set in the late 20s, when social and political order were beginning to break down and extremist parties were starting to attract increasing support. Franz encounters Nazis, Communists and Anarchists in the course of the film, but remains essentially indifferent to politics, adhering to a stubbornly individualistic point of view. So it is situated at the birth of fascism. Obviously Fassbinder is able to view Doblin’s material with the benefit of hindsight, and the rise of the Nazis is clearly foreshadowed, particularly in the last episode, in which we see a scene in the theatre of madness playing out in Franz’s fevered mind in which a mob of brownshirts wades into a group of communists in the unterbahn and batters them to the ground. The song ‘The Watch on the Rhine’ which Franz sings throughout the film, particularly in moments when his tenuous grasp on sanity begins to slip, also seems to be anticipating the rise of a new nationalism. It was the song the Nazi characters used in the patriotic song dual with the French (the Marselleise, of course) in Casablanca. Finally, the Horst Wessel Song emerges in the final credits to trumpet the imminent rise to power of the Nazis. This was the official party anthem from 1930 onward.

Neither Fassbinder nor Pasolini were interested in the mere reproduction of a historical moment, however. That would have isolated the issues being addressed within a safely sealed-off past, and both were concerned to confront the perpetuation in the modern day of abusive power relations which fascism serves to represent. This is made evident by the use of extra-historical references which were non-existent in the period depicted. This is most strikingly apparent in the last episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz, which takes place largely in Franz’s inner landscape after his breakdown into madness and catatonia. The overlapping collage of music which accompanies his hallucinatory visions includes The Velvet Underground’s Candy Says, Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity (also used in Chris Petit’s Radio-On, funded by Wim Wenders’ Road Movies production company), Janis Joplin’s version of Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee (presumably for the line ‘freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’), Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel No.2 as well as Glenn Miller’s In the Mood, and versions of Silent Night and Santa Lucia sung by Dean Martin and Elvis Presley respectively. Salo also makes reference to French philosophers such as Pierre Klossowski and Roland Barthes, neither of whom were published until some time after the war.

Shutting out the world

Both films focus on closed-off environments. The action of Berlin Alexanderplatz takes place on a limited series of sets built in Munich (one of them using the remnants of the Berlin set which Ingmar Bergman used for his dream-vision of the birth of fascism, The Serpent’s Egg). Franz takes to the streets in his attempts to play an active part in the economy by selling newspapers or shoelaces, but mostly Berlin is represented by a series of claustrophobic interiors to which he retreats, most notably his bare, sparsely furnished apartment, pulsing with pink light from an obscure external source. This light gives a hint at the expressionist nature of Fassbinder’s film. The fleshy illumination suggests that we are really viewing Franz’s inner world, the walls of the room in which he spends so much of his time being the bony boundaries of his skull. Throughout, the rigidly defined self is seen as a prison, most obviously symbolised by the caged bird which Mieze gives to Franz, and which hangs in the exact centre of his room, a miniaturized and geometrically aligned analogue of the room and of Franz’s mind. The spaces of the city set, the courtyards of the buildings shot on location and even the forest to which Franz, Mieze and then Reinhardt make a rare escape, are all confined and bounded. They are like urban laboratory mazes through which rats are run, constraining, channelling and controlling the characters and shaping their personalities and destinies. The barbed wire in the forest also is a chilling symbolic glimpse of the future, of the woodland massacres of the early stages of the holocaust. Simon Schama, in his book Landscape and Memory, talks about the close identification of ideas of German nationalism with forests. In the chapter Blood in the Forest, he writes about the dark association of the forest with death, dating from Tacitus’s accounts of the brutal aftermath of the massacre of an entire Roman army in the wilds of the Teutoburger Wald. The Nazi motto blut und boden (blood and soil) sums up the vicious quality of this founding myth, and it is in this myth soaked arboreal arena that Mieze is sacrificed, allowing for the rebirth of both her murderer Reinholdt and also of Franz, who had previously played childish games with her in the same setting, before receiving a premonitory wound on the head. In Pasolini’s Salo, once the subjects have been rounded up, the society which Salo’s libertines have gathered retreats behind the walls of an old aristocratic Pallazzo, a building redolent of old wealth, old power. Here, this interior world is zoned in the utilitarian manner of a classic utopia designed around carefully planned goals of social engineering. There are carefully segregated quarters for masters, guards, servants and slaves and rooms for storytelling and for the immediate enactment of desires which these are intended to arouse.

Reinholdt and Mieze-Dance of Death

Franz Biberkopf, the central viewpoint character whose progress we follow through the harsh world of the Berlin underclass in the late 20s, is an immediately unsympathetic character. I had to put a certain amount of faith in Fassbinder in order to commit myself to spending 16 or so hours in his company. He moans and wails upon his release from prison at the start of the film and is dismissive of the orthodox Jewish scholar who takes pity on him and nurses him in his booklined apartment. He is like an overgrown child, which is essentially what he remains throughout the film. He has been imprisoned for beating his prostitute lover Ida to death and one of the first things he does upon his release is to visit her sister and rape her, an act which brings him back to life. The image of Ida being beaten to death is one which recurs over and over during the film, as if it is being constantly replayed in Franz’s head. He goes back to visit Ida’s sister the day after his assault to bring her towels, and to promise never to return. It is a pitifully inadequate gesture, shortly followed by his personal declaration of his determination to live an honest life, formally severing himself from his former existence and being reborn. The rest of the film sees him battling against himself, and his self-declared nobility manifests itself in a masochistic passivity which offers no resistance to the depredations of his exploiters. The reiteration of his murderous assault on Ida in his mind suggests that he may even be seeking the calvalry which is finally and explosively depicted in the final scene in the hallucinatory progress of his insanity (he is depicted crucified against the backdrop of a nuclear mushroom cloud, the total disruption of his personality). Franz’s expectations of living an honourable life assume that the world will conform in gratified response. It is a childishly egocentric view which places the self at the centre of all things. He is dismissive of any idea of political union to further his idea of a better world, mocking the anarchists whose meeting he has been taken along to (and nearly fallen asleep during) whilst playing on a makeshift playground swing. He sells a Nazi paper without having any real belief in its contents (although even he seems reluctant to don the swastika armband which goes with what for him is just a job) and refuses to argue with a group of old Communist companions, whose ‘dialectic’ response is to threaten to beat him up rather than convert him through argument. Franz is broken several times during his progress before his final disintegration, both figuratively in his descent into alcoholic oblivion after his ‘betrayal’ by Luders, and literally when he loses an arm having been pushed out of a getaway car by Reinholdt. These experiences cause him to develop a more fatalistic and wary relationship with the world. He grows up, in other words.

The central triangular relationship in the film is that between Franz and Mieze and Franz and Reinholdt (and finally – and fatally – between Reinholdt and Mieze). Human relationships in Berlin Alexanderplatz (and in Fassbinder’s work in general) are seen in terms of the exertion of power, of dominance and submission, both in terms of desire and economics (the two seen as inextricable). They are part of an exchange which is often exercised remotely. So Reinholdt inveigles Franz into taking on his discarded lovers when he grows tired of them, and Eva offers Mieze to Franz and is later persuaded by her to bear Franz’s child on her behalf. The sense of ownership which goes with this exchange is made clear by the fact that Mieze is a name bestowed by Franz (her real name is only heard again in newspaper articles and in court after her death), and she herself repeatedly refers to herself as belonging to him. When he finds out about her death, Franz seems relieved, as this means that ‘meine Mieze’ didn’t leave him (as Ida had presumably attempted to do, thus precipitating his murderous rage). She remained his until the end.

Eva-intervening angel

His Both Eva and Mieze are prostitutes who are set up with wealthy clients. This is how Eva is able to rise to a higher level of social standing than Franz, from which she is able to exert a degree of remote control over him (it is she who directs Mieze to discourage his dalliance with anarchism). She has managed to sell herself to a wealthier client, a heightened degree of opulence which is evident from the fact that the apartment to which she is able to invite people during his absence has a larger cage than Franz’s at its centre which contains a chattering monkey. The first encounters with Reinholdt and Mieze are both heralded by Peer Raben’s score rising to a heavenly nebulousness which musically expresses the moment of epiphany which Franz experiences. After meeting Reinholdt, the two are soon meeting in the toilet to discuss the transferral of Reinholdt’s unwanted girlfriends to Franz with evidently transferred desire. With Mieze, Franz’s face softens and he tells her ‘it’s like the sun rising’. If ever he feels genuine love, then this is it. Mieze, with her girlish manner and pink ribbon in her hair, offers Franz the possibility of a childlike paradise of love, a protected garden of eden in which Reinholdt is the lurking serpent awaiting the egress which Franz so willingly gives him. It is a paradise funded initially by the clients of Mieze’s prostitution and, subsequent to his re-acquaintance with Reinholdt, by the proceeds gained from his work with the criminal syndicate headed by gangleader Pums. It becomes his new ideal, in other words, for which he is prepared to discard his former noble asseverations. An ideal outside of himself for which he is prepared to make sacrifices.

The relationship between Reinholdt and Franz is one which Fassbinder has drawn out from underlying implications in Doblin’s novel, and was evidently important to him as a teenager becoming aware of his bisexuality. Gottfried John’s portrayal of Reinholdt is quite mesmerising, taking a character who is in essence a callous and brutal psychopath and suggesting a broken and vulnerable core beneath the hardened carapace. This is done partly through his constant stutter (apparently recalled from John’s childhood) which lends an uncertain hesitancy to his every statement, no matter how vehemently intended. His defensively hunched frame and wary sideways glances reveal a psyche coiled tightly in on itself. Franz’s dream of Reinholdt as a serpent is apposite on more than a merely symbolic level. When Franz is released from the comforting confinement of prison into a world which clearly terrifies him, he rediscovers his ‘self’ by forcing himself sexually on the woman whose sister he murdered, thus defusing his feeling of helplessness by re-establishing his sense of power. At the other end of the film, Reinhardt also discovers himself in prison, but in a scene which reveals a previously unimagined tenderness. He embraces, kisses and declares his love for his Polish cellmate, his stutter noticeably diminished, as if some blockage has finally been cleared away. Reinholdt reveals the tattoo which he has on his chest to Mieze when they are circling each other in their dance of love and death in the heart of the forest. It is the symbol of his self-perception, of his hard destructive power. Franz gets under his skin so much (enough for him to throw him out of the car) because he’s just too soft and pliable to be smashed against this anvil. He just keeps coming back for more.

The Passion of Franz Biberkopf - Personal Apocalypse

In the end, Franz goes through the stations of his own personal Passion, which unspools in his head as he lies catatonic in an asylum, spoon fed like a baby. He has to go through another rebirth, another destruction and reformation of his character. Fassbinder designates the final episode as an epilogue, suggesting that the meaningful phase of Franz’s life as an individual rather than a merely functional component of society ended with the death of Mieze. The title he gives it is ‘Rainer Werner Fassbinder. My Dream of the Dream of Franz Biberkopf’. This serves as fair warning of the personal nature of this conclusion, but its fevered hallucinatory nature was considered incompatible with the rest of the film by many critics. However, throughout the film, the grain of the 16mm film and the haze of softened and blurred lighting have been far from naturalistic and have expressed a subjectivity which is merely heightened in this climax by the turn to full blown madness. Franz essentially witnesses a parade of the characters from his life, transformed into symbolic figures, which is possibly how the audience has read them all along. Franz is exposed to the fictive nature of his life. In many ways, this resembles the conclusion of another epic German film series which was shown on television, Edgar Reitz’s Die Zweite Heimat. Here, the central character, Herrmann, goes through a series of carnivalesque encounters with the cast of characters he is now seeking to leave. Again, the essentially realistic nature of the previous dramas is abandoned for this dreamlike summation. Franz endures various torments during his journey through the underworld conjured by his madness, these often presided over by Reinholdt in a human slaughterhouse or sordid bordello (memorably overrun by rats in one sequence) before finally re-emerging as a man much reduced. Whereas Reinholdt has discovered a degree of emotional articulacy, Franz’s former loquaciousness and stream of consciousness babble has been silenced. He takes a job as a night watchman, still singing his ‘Watch on the Rhine’ song. He won’t have to wait much longer until the world for which he is now prepared is born.

Salo takes place during the dying days of fascism in Italy, and the retreat to the Pallazzo thus is in part an act of desperation, a regression to complete indulgence of authority while it remains. In the face of death, all limits are abandoned, the masks of civilisation discarded. Power is revealed in all its naked essence. This enclosed world over which they still have complete control also becomes a testing ground for the four representatives of Authority: the duke, the bishop, the magistrate and the president. The current model of power has exhausted itself and so they create a laboratory in which a new one can be tested, new ways found to perpetuate their dominance.

Imperfection!

The film’s formal structure follows the model not only of de Sade’s novel, but of Dante’s Inferno, with its descending concentric circles of the bureaucratically designated damned. Pasolini had already unveiled a scabrous glimpse of his vision of Hell in the climax to Canterbury Tales, but here it is the sole focus of the film and echoes Dante’s poem in its pointed relation of its sins to the contemporary world. But Salo is an inverted Inferno in that those who would have been condemned to their own apposite torments in Dante’s universe are here in charge and dispensing the judgements themselves. The Ante-Inferno is the first act, in which the subjects of the experiment are rounded up and inspected by the four authoritarian libertines. Their insistence on the selection perfect specimens (one girl is rejected because she has a rear molar missing) is a reflection of the promulgation of the idea of an Olympian master race of physical and racial purity by leaders who bear more resemblance to relatives of the Addams family. Once in the house, and the rules having been explained, the experiment goes through three stages, or circles, each prefaced by an intertitle. There are the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit, and the Circle of Blood. This circularity indicates the creation of a self-perpetuating system, which doesn’t progress anywhere but spirals endlessly in its fixed orbit, thus ensuring the perpetuation of power. The prostitutes (or Madams) who preside over the room of stories, use their pornographic fantasies to stimulate desires which are then acted upon by the libertines. They are like a strange form of advertising agency, creating a need which can then be fulfilled by their clients. The strict instruction that no-one will engage in any form of intercourse with a member of the opposite sex is a form of coercion which exerts control over the body, forcing it into adopting new appetites. The prevailing mode of disgust is not necessarily Pasolini’s expression of self-hatred in relation to his own homosexuality. It is a repulsion at people being forced into acts which are contrary to their nature. The extremely anal nature of the libertines’ re-alignment of their victims’ sexuality also symbolically stands for the sterility of their putative new world. The delight with which they relate the murder of a mother who had tried to protect her child from them indicates that this is a regime which has no interest in nurturing a new generation. It wants to attain an immortality of replicated power through the imposition of its own patterns of circular desire. These are fully manifested in the next level of this modern inferno: the circle of shit.

The obsessive subject of this second circle, the production and consumption of shit, narrows Pasolini’s focus onto the appetites of the ever-expanding consumer society. He made it clear that he saw this as a metaphor for fast food, and while it maybe rather blunt in that specific context, it also stands for the endless spiral of production and consumption of useless rubbish into whose unnatural coils a hypnotised populace are guided by a mixture of fear and seduction. The new world which the libertines seek to create can thus be seen as a foretaste of our consumer society, of consumption for its own sake. Current panics over widespread obesity and ‘binge’ drinking would tend to suggest that the source of Pasolini’s fears have not diminished over time. The culmination of this forced introduction to new appetites comes with the faecal wedding feast, which binds the subjects into the predatory compact which its consumption represents. There is a clear Freudian element to all this, suggesting a reversion to a pre-childhood ‘anal’ phase. It suggests a reversion to a state in which the id is dominant, and the fulfilment of the needs of the ‘pleasure principle’ take precedence over all other considerations. This is the level of consciousness at which consumer society and its mediated propaganda (or advertising) is pitched (‘because you’re worth it’) and it is the state that the provocative tales of the ‘madams’ has succeeded in invoking. To achieve this, it is necessary to remove the spiritual element, which provides a distracting level of wider meaning to the world. Thus, religion is banned from the world of the Pallazzo (one of the girls is gloatingly uncovered on a hidden altar, having cut her own throat). Any sense of community must also be dismantled, contact only being permissible within the controlled arena of the libertines’ fantasies. This atomisation makes the subjects more susceptible to subconscious suggestion, to the displacement of the need for human contact with manufactured comforts. Thus, when two of the girls are discovered lying together, they are immediately noted down in the ‘black book’, effectively sealing their fate.
Empathy and compassion are forbidden emotions.

The rest room to which the libertines retire after their exertions is decorated in an exquisitely modernist style. Bauhaus chairs and Fernand Leger murals. The modernist aims of disrupting tradition and suggesting new modes of artistic (and sometimes by extension political) expression have been easily absorbed into this new model. There is no longer any need for exhibitions of ‘degenerate art’. Everything can be turned into a product and sold, drained of any meaning, rendered tasteless. This looks forward to the ‘shocking’ art of the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, as peddled by super-advertising agent Charles Saatchi (who also persuaded people of the virtues of Silk Cut cigarettes and the Conservative Party) and to the rise of ‘extreme’ cinema (currently manifest in Lars von Trier’s Anti-Christ) which is largely decontextualised from any wider meaning. In this sense, Pasolini is almost deliberately setting out to produce something which cannot be so readily absorbed, both due to its relentlessly exaggerated taboo physicality, and to the anchoring of the disgust which that (presumably) arouses in a resolutely anti-establishment stance.

The signs that the libertines have succeeded in their programme come when the subjects begin to denounce each other in order to either evade punishment for their own transgressions of the law or simply to find favour with those in authority. There are small acts of rebellion, but they make little real impact. The guard who sleeps with the black servant raises a defiant fist (a gesture of socialist affiliation or a presage of the black power salute?) before he is gunned down. The pianist who has accompanied the madams’ fantasies finally stops playing, calmly ascends the stairs and walks to a window from which she throws herself to her death on the pavement below. This is the ultimate refusal of the artist to participate in the promotion of political coercion, to collaborate on propagandistic projects (earlier we have heard some of the music of Carl Orff, who has been accused of being precisely such an artist). These are passive and indirect acts of rebellion, however, enacted on a personal level which does little to affect the system which has been imposed. Ultimately, those who have been noted in the magistrate’s black book for their transgressions of the ‘laws’ are tortured to death in the final circle, the circle of blood. Each of the four figures of authority take their turn to watch this ritualised slaughter from the distanced comfort of an extravagantly crowned throne, the seat of their new power. The grotesque events in the courtyard arena are viewed by them and by us through the lenses of a pair of binoculars, which, it is demonstrated, can be reversed to render the tormented figures tiny and insignificant.The control over the media can easily be used to obscure or distort the terrible violence unleashed by the exertion of absolute power. The triumph of this power is celebrated by a campy chorus line dance of the dressing-gowned libertines, high kicking over the violated corpses. Inside, two young guards dance to the refined strains of a civilised waltz playing on the radio. One refers disinterestedly to his girlfriend in response to the other’s question. But that was in a world which now seems wholly disconnected, a dimming memory. The circle has been conjoined. The rituals have been enacted. Blood and soil have mixed. Another New Order is ready to be born.