Sunday, September 11, 2016

Not Reconciled (Nicht Versoehnt)

When I was a boy, every middle class family had a piano that no one played.  Piano seats were equipped with hinges so that sheet music could be stored in them.  In the piano seat, there was also a didactic work by Carl Czerny, an opus named The School of Velocity.  If there was ever a film that deserved to be called representative of the cinematic school of velocity, it is Nicht Versoehnt (Not Reconciled) the first feature film directed by the formidable couple Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet.  Although it is less than 45 minutes long, the movie spans three-generations in German history and has all the ambition of a dynastic family epic like Buddenbrooks.  But everything moves with lightning speed -- people talk as rapidly as possible and the subtitles scoot by so swiftly they are almost impossible to read. Important scenes are accomplished in one or two short shots -- the camera cuts away from action.  Once an action is implied, Straub and Huillet seem to think that there is no need to show it.  Curiously, the movie is also rife with conspicuous still life shots -- in many instances, we see a place for a couple seconds before the actors occupy it.  Most conspicuously, the directors don't shut off the camera when a protagonist leaves the set -- we are left gazing into rooms that feel empty and strangely desolate.  If a phone is going to ring, the camera first fixes the phone with its impassive eye.  The film is shot in workmanlike but fantastically precise, even dogmatically arranged, compositions -- there is nothing showy about individual shots, but they are all diagrammatically designed to show us exactly what is most important so that the narration can move at a lightning speed.  The film's time sequence is scrambled -- the movie is cut associatively:  we see someone eating and, then, a cut to another scene of someone buying a beer or also eating -- this happens even though the two sequences are divided by thirty years and there is no visual reference to tell us this.  With only a few exceptions, the film takes place in a perpetual now -- there are no landscape or costume cues to tell us that we are in the past.  In particular, Huillet and Straub insist that the Nazi era looks exactly like present-day Germany -- the film's present tense is the early sixties.  This is intended polemically -- Huillet and Straub insist that 1965 Germany is an exact continuation of Hitler's regime.  They are "not reconciled" to modern Germany and, indeed, go so far as to insist that acts of terrorism against the Nazis are morally equivalent to similar violence inflicted on the bourgeois German state in 1965.  If it was beneficial to kill Nazi officials in 1942, it is equally appropriate to attack and murder the authorities of the Christian Democratic state in 1965.  The movie is so elegantly made and so fantastically accelerated in its execution that the audience is unlikely to fully grasp the radical, even, fanatical tenor of the film's politics.  Recall that Straub or Huillet commented on the terrorist attacks on the United States on 9 - 11 with the words to the effect that "so long as the United States exists, there can never be too many terrorists in the world."  The Brechtian secondary title of Nicht Versoehnt is "Es hilf nur Gewalt wo Gewalt herrscht" -- that is, "only violence helps where violence rules."

Nicht Versoehnt is not available on DVD in the United States.  Straub and Huillet's hatred for the US is such that they have never authorized general distribution of their films in this country.  (Their movies are generally so rebarbative that they flatter themselves that anyone beyond a tiny percentage of dedicated cinephiles would pay any attention in the first place.)  However, someone has posted all of Nicht Versoehnt on You Tube.  (Watch the version that tells you that it is 44 minutes long -- another version advertised as 1 hour and 22 minutes is just bait to divert you to a screen that tells you that the movie is not available but that you can watch something similar through their site -- like a Jason Bourne movie.)  It's best to first watch a nine minute video introduction to the film made by Richard Brody, also on You Tube and posted near the actual film.  Brody's commentary explains the plot, something that is necessary for most viewers.  (Nicht Versoehnt is based on a well-known Heinrich Boll novel, Billiards at Half-Past Nine, that would have been very familiar to German audiences of the kind likely to see this picture.  Boll's novel was one that college students studying German in the seventies read as well -- I recall reading the book but, of course, didn't remember anything about it other than it was set in Cologne and involved well-heeled Catholics.)  The version of the movie posted on You-Tube is reasonably clear and has good subtitles although you have to be nimble to read them. 

In the film, the Faehmel's are a distinguished family of architects.  The occasion of the picture, only obliquely established, is a birthday of the family's patriarch, an old man named Heinrich Faehmel.  Heinrich has a surviving son and daughter, Robert and Johanna -- two other sons have died, one as a baby, and the other fallen in WWII at Kiev.  Robert is married to Edith, the sister of a religious dissident called Schrella tortured and, then, driven out of Germany in the thirties.  Robert has been a terrorist.  When his friend Schrella was tortured, he attempted to kill a Nazi official, someone named Vacont.  After his bombing failed, Robert has to flee the country, rolled up like Cleopatra in a rug, but through the intervention of his famous father he is allowed to return.  He is forced to join the Wehrmacht and works with a general blowing things up to provide "fields of fire."  One of the things that he blew up was a beautiful Romanesque abbey built by his father.  Robert is now "stateless" and has returned to Cologne from abroad to celebrate his father's birthday.  Robert, in turn, has a son named Josef.  Josef is studying architecture but seems to have lost his interest in the subject.  (These parts are played by actors unfamiliar to me -- the acting is Brechtian, no one does much more than simply recite their lines, stiffly and as quickly as possible.  There is no emotion shown and no acting as such.)

Robert visits his mother.  She opposed the Kaiser in World War One and, so, was declared insane.  She lives in a rather nice, well-appointed asylum and, in the film's present day, seems to be about 75.  (We see her how she met her husband, Heinrich -- there is a tilted shot down into a airshaft between apartments and we see a striking woman standing at the window.  She looks up at the camera.  Next, we see Heinrich calling at a bourgeois house and asking for the hand of the daughter of the self-satisfied, bespectacled pater-familius.  Then, there is a velvety shot of Heinrich as a young man with his head resting on the woman's lap -- she is played by Danielle Huillet, a lioness both beautiful and terrifying.  This is an example of how the film's narrative is constructed.)  In the asylum, the old woman lives in a perpetual state of oppression -- she acts as if it is always 1942 and, at the climax of the film, uses a gun to fire a shot at a politician standing on a balcony next to where she is located with Heinrich watching a parade of smug, middle-aged war veterans.  (The parade pointedly includes those people who tortured Schrella and Josef, complacently fat and happy in post-War Germany.)  Heinrich doesn't try to stop his wife from executing the politician -- indeed, when she first aims the gun at one of the war veterans, he says:  "Shoot the one over there who will execute your grandson", referring to the fact that vicious political repression seems to be a constant in Germany.  The old woman knows that she will not be prosecuted because she is crazy and takes the shot.  At that moment, her grandson is touring the ruins buried beneath the Cologne cathedral -- in the war rubble, he speaks in praise of dynamite.  In a final shot, we see the whole family gathered together and Heinrich says that his wife didn't kill the politician -- she just wounded him. 

All of this, and much else that I've omitted, is crammed into 44 minutes and, once you know the story, it's marvelous, a primer in the School of Velocity to see how this is all competently, even, effectively shown in the picture.  The flat planes of the present are infiltrated by strange dimensions -- when she goes to get the gun, the old woman opens a door in a façade that seems completely two-dimensional.  But, suddenly, we are peering into a kind of abyss, a deep corridor that penetrates the picture plane.  The parade of German war veterans, never shown on screen, march past a vast, ominous Gothic cathedral that has buried beneath it catacombs full of the debris of past wars.  The present is a tissue that scarcely conceals the violent past.  Of course, Straub and Huillet's politics are insane -- 1965 Germany was not in any way like Hitler's regime -- but the savage conviction shown by the film, together with its astounding narrative technique is remarkable. 

No comments:

Post a Comment