Sketches

“The Yanks have colonized our subconscious!” declares Wim Wender’s depressed researcher near the end of Kings of the Road (1976). He and his driving companion are spending the night at an abandoned border patrol station on the East-West boundary, surrounded by American graffiti. Months after watching the film, the line still haunts me; I find myself shuffling around the house like a doddering old man, repeating the phrase like a mantra. The larger scene it’s from has something to do with it, a fifteen-minute whirlwind where the two travelers discuss everything from early childhood linguistics to sex’s relationship with loneliness to Volger’s description of a fight with his girlfriend where all he could recall were the English lyrics of “Mean Woman Blues.” It’s pure Wenders, an encapsulation of his tics. More than that, however, the scene (and line itself) carries in it a micro-history of modern Germany, and indeed all of Europe, a continent of colonial powers that have suddenly found themselves in the same situation they once subjected others to, defined by a system of representation that is not theirs, living an existence formatted by outsiders. Perhaps because they grew up under American occupation, the directors of Young German Cinema (also called New German Cinema) seemed to grasp America’s dominance in a way the French New Wave, particularly Godard, did not. This is not to say the latter did not take from American cinema; Truffaut and Godard and the rest took liberally from Hollywood, and certainly recognized their debt to the industry. But you can’t imagine a Godard character admitting that the Americans have infiltrated their every thought (well, perhaps in his later period, with which I’m less familiar). Instead, Godard holds a Brechtian belief that the American aspect of film—what in his Maoist period he’d call the ‘ideological’ dimension—can be negated, and this negation allows redeployment of what was previous ideological in service of the new. Alphaville may take from Hollywood, but it does so to create a new film language, one freed from American cinema’s narrative limitations.


            The phrase “film language” is a loaded one, of course, and I use it here with both naïveté and purpose.[1] I don’t really want to get bogged down in question of “reading” a film, which in turn forces open questions about film as a symbol and an index. I do enough of that in my academic life. For my purposes here, ‘film language’ is nothing more than the way film communicates information, whether through narrative, mis-en-scene, camera movement, or something else.

            Tout Va Bien, Godard’s 1972 return to ‘big’ filmmaking, tells the story of a husband and wife covering a factory strike. The factory is presented as a compilation of sets, with the camera tracking between them, ghosting through walls. It’s an ingenious move, denaturalizing mis-en-scene, revealing it to be an artificial, manipulated mode of communication. Furthermore, the attention to set calls forth recognition of the relationship between bourgeois drama and class struggle and how capitalism relied on surveillance even in its fordist manifestations. But above all else, it frees Godard to use the very things he negates; mis-en-scene once again gains importance, even as the audience recognizes it as created. And the narrative “stuff” of the film—the story of a dissolving marriage happening at the same time as the dissolving détente between labor and management—would not be out of place in one of Hollywood’s more progressive “psychological dramas.” But now instead of the economic dimension being in the background, supporting the bourgeois personal drama, the opposite is happening, inverting the liberal belief that conflict lies in the personal and not the material. Godard breaks down and falsifies Hollywood film language in order to say something, creating a new, better language. This is the point, of course.


            Though also influenced by Brecht, Young German Cinema was not particularly interested in creating a ‘better’ version of film language, one stripped of American colonialism (The exception here might be early Fassbinder, particularly Katzelmacher). Instead, there was an acceptance that film audiences had already been conditioned, already spoke this language. Now matter how much you alienate it from its origins, the echo of Hollywood will reverberate when you use its techniques. This is what Alexander Kluge meant when he spoke about the difference between the film on the screen and the film in the spectator’s head, at least partially. With the exception of Kluge and Schamoni, the famous directors of New German Cinema were born at the tail end of the war, and so could not imagine a world where America did not loom over them. And so though they struggle with film language, they lack the idealism of Godard. This produces a clear break: instead of using film to offer meta-commentary film language, the Germans turn their focus on other modes of communication, on other languages, particularly German ones. This produces a double mediation between whatever is supposed to be communicated and the viewer. Kluge and Schamoni’s Brutality in Stone (1961) examines the language of Nazi architecture, which is now conveyed through film, a second language lying on top of the first. No matter what the two do with the camera, something is lost—the scale and horror of the rally grounds. Schamoni and Kluge have to then replace what is lost through mechanisms particular to film, the ability to sample from both aural and visual archives.

Herzog’s oeuvre does the same, albeit the starting language is what the German Romanticists called the “Hieroglyphics of Nature,” a primordial language we can no longer understand. The romanticists believed this language was translatable, but only in art—where we create things that evoke but do not describe nature—and science, which does the opposite. They were wrong, or at least now are (perhaps then it was different); these techniques add another mediation to the experience of nature, filtering it through human systems and hence stripping the environment of its inimicality. But we are so estranged now that art cannot positively convey nature’s foreignness; it can only imitate our alienation.[2] To counter this, Herzog employs film language not communicate nature nor imitate it, but to let it speak. Yet translated through the camera, whatever nature is saying is lost, presenting an image of nature that is disinterested in the human, mute and terrifying in how little it cares whether we understand it.[3] The camera language is revealed as unnatural, separated from the world it is encoding. Wenders does something similar with nature, as well as photography.

Schlöndorff’s Baal (1970) is based on a Brecht play and focuses on a poet; we hear the poems, and though beautiful, they do not move as they might, instead once again lacking, having been mediated through the language of film. In response, Schlöndorff oversaturates the interior rooms, the film language revealing what the poet conveys even as the poetry itself loses meaning. The omnibus project Germany in Autumn (1978) knits in documentary sounds and shots with the fictional, the language of visual non-fiction mediated on by a fictional film. In short, Young German Cinema tends to not comment on film language itself, but instead uses film language to comment on other modes of communication, which then dialectically becomes a comment on film form. Instead of Godard’s navel gazing, the Germans look elsewhere and in doing so comment on film. They recognize that they cannot escape Hollywood and its language. Instead of trying to, they comment on the inability to perfectly translate other German languages into film language, thereby exposing what film is more or less suited for. I must admit, this is the form I prefer; it demands the audience do the work even as it pushes the limits of film.

I’m making broad generalizations, working off arbitrary examples. I’m sure any film scholar who has made it this far is tearing their hair out at one claim or another. I’m purposefully playing on slippages between language and medium. Even the inclusion of Herzog as part of Young German Cinema is controversial; the director’s first feature was a direct attack on his contemporaries. What language is Klick playing with in Supermarkt (1974) and Deadlock (1970) if not cinema’s? In this schematic tracing, I’ve somehow given both Godard and the Germans too much and not enough credit. And why did I subtly shift the comparison from French vs. German to Godard vs. the Germans? How is this comparison useful? I’ve been trying to answer a question that picks at me, why I feel such an affinity for New German Cinema, when I have less than no connection to the nation.


Recently, I put together a “Wim Wenders” playlist on spotify, composed of the soundtracks to Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road, and Until the End of the World. Some of the hardest songs to locate were by a German Rock band called Improved Sound Limited; they were also my favorite from the list. As a friend of mine, Riley, accurately described one of the songs as seeming “like they took a German man who couldn’t sing and ludovico techniqued him with like endlessly long videos of trucking in America.” Called “9 Feet over the Tarmac,” the song reminds me of the Oklahoma band The Turnpike Troubadours (who I hope to write about soon, as 2020 is the ten year anniversary of their masterful Diamonds and Gasoline); roots rock interpreted by Germans imitating psychedelic Americana. Indeed, the soundtrack is heavy on Southern music, both Southeast or Southwest. T Bone Burnett, Robert Johnson, Willie Nelson, Chuck Berry, Roger Miller, R.E.M., and J.J. Cale make appearances across these films, not to mention various European bands translating black Southern sounds.


I haven’t read Calvino’s Invisible Cities since my freshman year in college, when I powered through it for a class on “Literature and the Myth of Venice.” Though I’ve forgotten the structures of Calvino’s cities, something else from it stuck with it. Venice doesn’t appear in any of the tales Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan. But, as Polo tells Khan, he is always talking about the city. “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” I wish I could make this the epigraph of everything I write (as is, I tend to include it in every essay). Though I speak of one thing, I am discussing something else.


Now, perhaps, we are getting somewhere. When I speak of Germany, I am speaking also and equally about the South. This makes sense, intuitively. The two share similar contexts: nations (in the cultural sense of the term) so racist that other bigoted nations had no choice but to intervene even as it went against their economic interests. Both the South and Nazi Germany rationalized genocide, made it run smoothly. The horror of Southern Slavery and concentration camps were how dispassionate they were, treating murder and exploitation as numbers on a balance sheet, related to questions of efficiency, not ethics. The danger to the North and the Allies wasn’t the genocidal actions themselves, but how they threatened to reveal what is at the heart of capitalism, what happens when we build a cult of rationalism masquerading as society. Rationalism always carries its opposite within it, ready to be expressed.

Fanon once said that every anti-semite is also anti-black. This is part of what makes people like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers and Louis Farrakhan so awful. They ignore that we have natural solidarity; we have both experienced the horror of the ratio, we know the violence capitalism carries in its essence in ways few others have.[4] This is not to minimize what other minority groups have experienced. But IBM didn’t organize the murder of Irish-Americans, nor were Italian immigrants subjected to the violent proto-fordism the 1619 Project described.

This camaraderie only goes so far, of course. Jews are now firmly white, and in fact are perpetuating on others the atrocities once committed against us. The state of Israel as well as a great many Jews have revealed themselves to be okay with capitalism’s essence, as long as it isn’t directed against us.


Returning to Godard and the Germans, we might say that the difference between the two lies in the philosophical concept of identity, or an object’s status as existing for itself, singular and separate from all else. I want to emphasize here that I am not speaking of the related concept of sociological identity, how it used in contemporary “identity politics,” a topic I prefer to treat like a third rail. Capitalism both produces and negates identity; to exchange two objects, one must be able to differentiate each from everything else to assign it a value. But exchange then casts a spell of sameness over the objects, reducing any difference between them, since they share an exchange value. Godard deconstructs cinema’s identity, revealing it to be an artificial production. But jettisoning the concept is not as simple as pointing it out; its purest expression, the mythical concept of the subject, is central to Western modes of thought, even as modern capitalism destroys the last semblances of true subjectivity. Identity sneaks back into Godard; cinema becomes unique, gaining status as “truth 24 times a second,” with every cut being a lie. But what of the absences between frames, which comprise almost half of the second? Is the televisual—which does not have these gaps—more truthful than film?

The Germans harbor no such illusions; if there are truly two films—one in the spectator’s head, one on the screen—then one of these films must not be truth, and so cinema is not truth 24 times a second. In German film, identity only comes through the relationship between film and other mediums. We cannot speak of film’s “medium specificity”—academia’s ten-cent phrase for what makes it unique—without talking also of literature and poetry, music and painting, photography and television. In doing so, they reveal how identity is dependent on exchange.[5] Cinema’s status as an autonomous object relies on it being placed into the logic of trade.

At the same time, however, their frequent attempts at reconciling various art languages ends up negating themselves, revealing that all art carries the non-identical in its identities. There is something inexpressible that is nonetheless conveyed, the promise of a better world from which we never exiled ourselves, one we were part of rather than separate from. The failed reconciliations reveal that each medium’s identity points elsewhere. The history and identity of the film runs up against the history and identity of its interior arts, producing no synthesis but instead negating both, offering the possibility of existence free of the two, even as the freedom is outside the work, unreachable and guarded by these histories we cannot overcome. Hollywood colonialism and a bigoted German culture run up against one another, falsifying both and holding the promise (but not the realization) of a better world.

Recently, I’ve seen a myriad of social media posts about how the Germans are properly ashamed about what they’ve done, unlike Southerners. This is based off the laws banning Nazi paraphernalia, as well as Willy Brandt’s kneeling apology. It’s bullshit, of course. If the Germans were ashamed, they wouldn’t have voted for former Nazi’s throughout the 50’s and 60’s, they wouldn’t have right-wing tabloids like Das Bild, they wouldn’t have cared when left-wing terrorists executed the Daimler-Benz CEO in 1977 (considering he was an SS member), they wouldn’t have given said executive a state burial reminiscent of Rommel’s—indeed, the Desert Fox’s son was the mayor responsible for this second funeral procession. Fassbinder wouldn’t have been compelled to film his mother smirking as she dreams of a kind dictator; the kinder of Young German Cinema would not have to addressed the way their families squirmed when asked about history, refusing to admit how they had let everything happen.

What the banning of the flag and Brandt’s apology signified was an admission of guilt, not shame. The two are related. But guilt is a legal concept, and acknowledging it is seen as the first step in redemption. One pleads guilty in hope of a lesser sentence, in hope of forgiveness. But no matter how much we confess our shame, it does not free us. A great many Germans feel shame, as do many Southerners. We are the ones who do not talk about our fragility and guilt, because we do not want to be forgiven. We recognize we must live our lives carrying this shame. This is the least we can do, having instilled shame in others, who were told their skin, hair, noses, and culture were something to be hidden away and denounced. The only freedom from shame would come from cultural death. Not only a toppling of racist monuments and statues, but the complete dismantling of the concept of Southern Culture.


As I’ve learned more about Germany and it’s culture, I have come to realize that though not all Jews are German, German culture is Jewish, and this was particularly so before the war.[6] What do I mean by this? The German-Jewish bourgeois had attempted to fully assimilate in the late 19th and early 20th century, and done it too well. The most interesting scholars of Kant and Hegel and the rest were very often Jewish. Fichte was half-Jewish, Mahler was Jewish, Heine was born Jewish, Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler were members of the tribe. You can find World War I essays by Jewish nationalists arguing that they must support Germany, because Jewish identity has finally been expressed in the cosmopolitan German State.[7] Very often, Jews produced the most perfect expressions of German culture. At the same time, a central aspect of German culture was its anti-Semitism, which permeated almost everything. It is no accident that Nietzsche uses the Jews as a critique of the Germans by setting them up in opposition. But an anti-Semitic culture still relies on the Jews—it is defined by what it hates, not by what it is.[8] Hitler’s Aryan fantasy was enticing precisely because an Aryan culture could be free of the Jew in a way the German never could. Hitler famously wanted to bulldoze Berlin and build a new capital, Germania, free from the Jewish influence his own country could not escape.


Southern culture is much the same. Southern cooking, music, art, and literature is mostly appropriated Black culture. And what little that isn’t—namely, the Confederacy and its history—is explicitly anti-black, and so still relies on the thing it despises. In this light, what the “heritage, not hate” freaks are trying to do is erase blackness from Southern history, not erase racism (which they are more than fine with).

However, this does not mean we can simply abandon Southern culture, or declare it to actually be black culture and be done with it, wiping the slate clean to build something new. The Germans tried something similar after the war, producing what the auteurs derisively referred to as Papa’s Kino, or Daddy’s Cinema. These were pastiches of American Hollywood films with empty signifiers of “Germanness” painted on top, often produced by the same men who had worked for the national film industry under the Nazi regime. Cinema is a colonial language, no less exploitive than Southern culture. Instead, those of us who believe in building a better South must follow the route of the Young Germans, using all tools at our disposal to reflect deeply on our history and culture, to convict ourselves and hence reveal that we could be better. I’ve written before about the beginning of Kluge’s Artist Under the Bigtop: Perplexed, where archival footage of the Nazi’s Day of German Art is screened as an Italian rendition of “Yesterday” plays. The Beatles’ nostalgia is cast as regressive, yet this regressiveness links the past and the now—Nazism was not distant, but happening only yesterday. German culture is indicted. But despite that, Kluge does not abandon it. His female protagonist in Germany in Autumn, disappointed with the sanitized history she must teach pupils, goes off digging in the snow for a real German history. She will never find it, but it doesn’t matter. The digging is enough. It may tell you more about the dirt you disturb and the shovel you use than what you’re looking for, but that’s the point.


[1] I might add that discussing Godard and Truffaut as a pair is misleading in itself—Truffaut used Hollywood language much more uncritically than his partner in crime turned enemy. Here I am mostly talking of Godard; Truffaut chooses to negate Hollywood through taking its logics to an extreme, not through abstraction/revealing its construction. I.E, in Truffaut, every single object within the mis-en-scene seems to have meaning and a linkage to his other films. This is the logic of classical Hollywood turned to eleven, its detailed sets and inter-textuality taking on such symbolic value that it overwhelms and becomes meaningless.

[2] Talk of nature and the social is necessarily fraught, marked as it is by a long history of racism with regards to the “other” who is one with nature. This figuration has led to creation of racist ideologies such as the “noble savage” that erases indigenous and black humanity. However, there is a possible way around this: the indigenous and black art that was heralded as “primitive” and “in tune with nature” were in fact prodigious acts of mimesis, extended mediations on internally developed techniques producing a natural realism that equaled or outstripped its European counterparts. In other words, we should not talk of the social and the natural, but the human and non-human, placing all constructed communities from the tribe upwards on the side of the human. There is no human other in the dialectic. Indigenous and tribal communities may try to live in a way that is more intune with nature, but we run unsafe pipelines through their remaining land and practice systematic disinvestment in infrastructure, leaving them no choice but to use cars (possibly the technology that has most perverted our relationship to nature).

[3] To truly explore this idea, I’d have to invoke difficult the concepts of “mimesis” and subjectivity. See the section “Utopia Banned” in my Master’s thesis, as well as my talk at University of Montreal on Herzog and Adorno.

[4] Indigenous groups around the world have also experienced these outbursts of geist, as well the subjects of British India.

[5] As well as the sin of self-preservation, which I will not get into here.

[6] Since the “guest worker” policy of the 1960’s, we might add that German culture is now also Turkish.

[7] Scholem’s Zionism (as well as that of many of his contemporaries) was a rebellion against their parents’ assimilation and belief in the German state.

[8] One could take this even farther, as Sam Kriss sardonically does, and argue that no one hates the Jews as much as the Jew does—we should pity the anti-Semite, because they can only imitate us and our self-loathing.

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