Tuesday, 4 August 2009

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.


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.

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