The Deleuzian Century II: Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Let's start with a few more words about parallel montage and Eisenstein's reservations towards it, taken from the master director's book Film Form. First, an interesting deconstruction of Griffith's all-American idea of montage, seen from an ideological standpoint: "But montage thinking is inseparable from the general content of thinking as a whole. The structure that is reflected in the concept of Griffith montage is the structure of bourgeois society. And he actually resembles Dickens's 'side of streaky, well-cured bacon'; in actuality (…), he is woven of irreconcilably alternating layers of 'white' and 'red' - rich and poor. (…) and this society, perceived only as a contrast between the haves and the have-nots, is reflected in the consciousness of Griffith no deeper than the image of an intricate race between parallel lines." (Film Form, 234)

Eisenstein's viewpoint however: "For us, the microcosm of montage had to be understood as a unity, which in the inner stress of contradictions is halved, in order to be re-assembled in a new unity on a new plane, qualitatively higher, its imagery newly perceived." (236)  What Deleuze calls une grande spirale (L'image-mouvement, 51) that expresses a genesis, a scientific progression "finds its internal logic in the section d'or (literally "golden section") which splits the lot into two unequal but opposable entities." (51) With section d'or, Deleuze means the mathematic Golden ratio. Incidentally, Section d'Or was also a group of French cubist painters active at the beginning of the 1910's, centered around the Duchamp brothers.

In Eisenstein's agreed upon masterpiece Battleship Potemkin the section d'or, of course, corresponds to the moment after the uprising on the ship when we leave the water for the land. At that point, writes Deleuze, the movement reverses, meaning that the prosecutors become the prosecuted, so to speak. If until then Battleship Potemkin told the story of the little people rising up against the powers that be, the Odessa Steps sequence inverts this movement and we get a full-blown representation of cruelty from the rulers against the oppressed.

Contemporary screenplay theoreticians would object that this section d'or is nothing more than what's commonly known in Hollywood as the "mid-point" of a screenplay. The moment when the story kicks into high-gear and gathers steam because a new information is revealed that changes the parameters of the plot. Hell, the entire Battleship story loosely follows the typical Hollywood three act structure: the workers' indignation over the rotten meat is the "inciting incident", the revolt aboard the Potemkin the "Act 2 break", Vakulinchuk's death the "mid-point", and the ship's getaway the "act 3 break".

The difference is that for most anglo-saxon cinema, forward-motion of a story is necessary because the hero is always on some sort of quest. Take James Bond for example. Strictly speaking, none of these movies make much sense from a plot point of view. Things happen because Bond acts on them, but logic or organic growth are two variables that almost never come into play. There is a lot of complacence, a lot of formula. Every James Bond movie has to have its under-water chase, it's thrilling skiing chase and its gadget-filled luxury cars. But there is no real need for that in terms of story.

Eisenstein, however, builds stories organically, lets the laws of cause and effect play out. If the recruits of the Potemkin revolt, it's because they are not treated with enough consideration by their superiors. If Valuchenko is killed, it is because of that revolt. If the people of Odessa rebel, it is because of Valuchenko's death. If the ruling power employs deathly force against the people of Odessa, it is because of their rebellion. If the Potemkin tries to flee, it is because of said deathly force. The difference is that we have no individual quest here, no specific goal, no pre-conceived journey. As described in last week's post, Eisenstein is interested in process, not ego.

But Deleuze doesn't stop at the big cesura that is the Potemkin's landing. Built into these two opposing sequences are a multitude of smaller sections d'or that constitute individual cells, symptoms of the greater condition of Eisenstein's montage. We are talking about one man standing up in front of the many (on a story level: the ship's captain raving against the recruits; on an editing level: the innumerable white caps of the recruits filmed from a bird's eyes view intercut with the plain uniform of the ship's captain), the dichotomy between light and shadow, forward against backward motion, rhythmic cutting against tranquil assemblage. Deleuze describes it in mathematical terms: if one starts from an origine O, element A is to B what element B is to C (52). Or in Eisenstein's own words, describing the Odessa steps sequence: "The final pull of tension is supplied by the transfer from the rhythm of the descending feet to another rhythm - a new kind of downward movement - the next intensity level of the same activity - the baby carriage rolling down the steps. The carriage functions as a directly progressing accelerator of the advancing feet. The stepping descent passes into a rolling descent." (74) More concisely, we're talking about "movement as change." (76) And that is, very ruffly, in accord with Deleuze's concept of the movement-image.

The Deleuzian Century I: Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible Part I and Part II

I am going through another Deleuze phase. And this time, I am trying to decipher his writings on film. The french philosopher, certainly one of the most important Western thinkers of the last century, has left us with two incredibly dense tomes: Cinema 1: Movement-Image (which I am currently reading) and Cinema 2: Time-Image. In the quite useful handbook Gilles Deleuze: Key Concepts, one can find this summary of his thinking on film: "For Deleuze, the cinematic apparatus functions as a translator of the movements of images and consciousness of perception within temporal modalities of worlds (real, imagined, past, present and future)." (144)

He describes movement as a "translation in space" (18, French edition) and defines cinema as a "system that reproduces movement appending it to arbitrary moments" (15). The most interesting passages in Cinema 1 are the ones where he directly applies his philosophical concepts to specific films. In the book's third chapter Montage, Deleuze identifies four different stylistic approaches to montage: the "organic approach" of the école américaine, the "dialectic approach" of the école soviétique, the "quantitative approach" of the école française d'avant guerre, and the "intensive approach" of the école expressioniste allemande (47).

So let's follow his train of thought and reconsider some classics of world cinema through the deleuzian lens using some of his concepts, starting with Sergei Eisenstein's two-parter Ivan The Terrible.

With Eisenstein, "the oppositional montage replaces the parallel montage under the dialectical law of one unity that splits to form a new elevated unity", writes Deleuze (52). In other words, Eisenstein, contrary to D.W. Griffith, recognizes that the different elements of a story are not given axioms but result from opposition. "Griffith ignores that the rich and the poor are not intrinsic individual phenomena but result from one common cause: social exploitation" (50). The forward momentum of Eisenstein's stories, according to Deleuze, depends on two opposing elements that add up to a new plot point. "Opposition defines the progression of the dialectical unity from its initial situation to its final situation" (52).

Story is spiraling from a beginning to an end, always propelled by opposition. That in itself is nothing new to people who study screenwriting theory, but Deleuze finds an interesting angle: this story spiral, undulating thanks to opposition, expresses "genesis, growth and development" (51) on a social level, not a personal one. Story jumps from one level to the next thanks to a social dialectic that combines two situations to express and explain a new setting. Such an approach is a pretty good way to represent history in cinematic terms, and it's certainly not a coincidence that Eisenstein's most successful films deal with historical movements that slowly transformed society over time.

In Ivan The Terrible Part I, a terrific film, maybe my favorite Eisenstein, one doesn't have to look any further than the very first scene to find a practical example of all this theoretical babble. Ivan crowns himself under the watchful eyes of his cousin who opposes the crowning because she wants to see her own son on the throne, and the parents of his fiance who favor his political ascension. Different dignitaries comment the proceedings: his ambition to unify Russia will never be accepted by the other European emperors. On the other hand, if he is strong enough, he can impose his will on all the doubters.

The dialectical spiral begins to spin when the boyars who feel bereft of the throne openly defy him, Karzan declares war on Moscow, and his closest ally betrays him when Ivan seemingly succumbs to a fatal illness. The main through-line here is Ivan's quest to unify Russia. The film is then divided in several elongated sequences that all result from what came before. Every sequence channels opposition so as to shape a new setting from which Eisenstein spins yet new conflict, etc. The plot advancement that traces Ivan's development from an overly confident and ambitious political leader to a man forced to exile and tormented by doubt, all of which is defined by his opposition to the boyars, never relies on personal conflict between the characters. It is social conflict that is at stake here, and Ivan goes from attempts at political compromise with his enemies in Part I to "their social and physical extermination" (53) in Part II.

Indeed, Ivan Part I and Part II can themselves be seen as dialectic entities that push forth the character Ivan's narrative. At the end of Part II, Ivan sits on the throne and proclaims that his "hands are free", meaning that the boyars have been defeated and with them any movement against his plan to unify Russia. Part I shows us how Ivan goes about it on a geopolitical and imperialist level. Part II focuses on spiritual and social issues. But to achieve his goal, Ivan must get all his ducks in a row - politically, as well as spiritually. In that, Part I and Part II are opposing forces that help the spiral turn further.

Even Sergei Prokofiev's edifying score plays along. Dramatic scenes are frequently accompanied by upbeat music, whereas lighter moments are burdened with solemn orchestration. Rather than go for the obvious, the underlying meaning of a scene emanates from the opposition of action as seen on screen and the accompanying score. Where both don't match in a traditional sense, there is tension. And tension means dramatic momentum.

Of course, Eisenstein's film is a lot more complex than this write-up makes it seem. It is interesting enough though that Deleuze finds philosophical terms to express what are essentially screenwriting techniques that use protagonist/antagonist tropes to stage conflict that must be overcome by the hero. Hollywood has, of course, vulgarized this storytelling device, and, for the most part, usurped any wider social and/or political considerations. The difference is mainly that Hollywood is obsessed with the potent hero who alone steers the fate of the narrative, while Eisenstein is less interested in individuals than in social movements that are anonymous and can't be grasped through individual destinies. Ivan The Terrible stands as an oddity in Eisenstein's filmography in that regard. Wholly focused on one man's deeds, the director abandoned the detached narration of October or Strike!.  But more than characters, the individuals in Ivan are stand-ins for social movements, caricatures, tropes that express an idea, not a psychology.

Kinski Watch XV: The Black Abbot (Franz Josef Gottlieb, 1963)

By the time this fifteenth installment of the Edgar Wallace series rolled along, a significant change of priorities had taken place. The earlier films were straight-forward murder mysteries with a narrative driven by a strong central character, the lead detective (usually played by Joachim Fuchsberger) who was following a clear objective and had to face a few clearly identified antagonists (usually involving menacing stares from Klaus Kinski).

Over time, however, the Edgar Wallace films became increasingly preoccupied with quirky secondary characters that were supposed to aggregate the plots, but mostly revealed themselves to be pointless to the story or the denouement of the murder mysteries. All smoke and mirrors, the krimis lost the core of a driving main character, as the respective detectives in charge were relegated to the peanut seats.

The Black Abbot, finally might one say, discards any aspirations of being a straight murder mystery and concentrates on the connivery between the main characters. There is a murder, there is a crime plot, but the intrigues and double crossings between the characters take the forefront and the killings serve more as an atmospheric backdrop. Consequently, the Scotland Yard detectives present in the film play a marginal role at best.

The film opens with a murder committed in an abbey. The detectives in charge of the case inexplicably take quarters in a nearby manor of Lord Chelford who is convinced that a mysterious black abbot is responsible for the killing. The police, however, suspect that a treasure that is supposed to be hidden in the abbey might be the motive of the murder. And they might be right. The Lord's attorney Arthur, crushed by debts, arranges the marriage of his sister Leslie to the elderly Lord Chelford. But Leslie fancies Lord Chelford's cousin Richard. Arthur's associate Fabian also takes interest in Leslie and teams up with Lord Chelford's former secretary in order to find the legendary treasure that is supposedly guarded by the black abbot.

Klaus Kinski plays Lord Chelford's butler who, spoiler alert!, turns out to be the titular black abbot when, another spoiler alert!, he is killed later in the film. His creepy performance here is enhanced by the nasal voice pitch with which he delivers his lines. In the documentary My Best Fiend director Werner Herzog recounts how fanatically Kinski would rehearse speech patterns, sometimes 10 consecutive hours a day. And Kinski's astounding vocal versatility becomes evident listening to his poetry albums on which he performs virtually every piece in another vocal style. Although he despised the work on film sets, Kinski had enough professionalism and pride in his craft to never undercut a certain quality level. And sometimes a detail like the sound of his voice makes that evident.

Stylistically, The Black Abbot, directed by Franz Josef Gottlieb, is less frantic than the films helmed by Alfred Vohrer and more concerned with composition and evocative camera movement. Where Vohrer's first impulse is to go for the most shocking visual gag, Gottlieb relies more on camera blocking and deep focus, and lets the scenes play out in elongated yet cadenced takes. The editing is simple yet effective and the film overall abandons the pulpy B-Movie esthetic that the series had cultivated until then.

The German critics at the time, however, deplored exactly that. One main objection to the film at the point of its release was that it wasn't exciting and engaging enough. On the one hand, I can understand the critique, as The Black Abbot feels less like a visceral thriller, and more like a cerebral and detached anatomy of a murder, which is a sometimes jarring change in pace for the series. But I appreciate Gottlieb's craft and applaud his willingness to break free of the usual Edgar Wallace formula. In the end, I think, The Black Abbot has a certain undeniable charm that qualifies it as a superior guilty pleasure.

Kinski Watch XIV: The Indian Scarf (Alfred Vohrer, 1963)

The Indian Scarf does something every crime series likes to do after a while: locking a number of people in a remote location with no way out and killing them off one by one. Who is the murderer among them? Animosities build up, the tension rises until the identity of the killer is unveiled, and it’s all a little silly. Edgar Wallace being who he is, and Alfred Vohrer being who he is, the silliness level was cranked up to the max in this film, although screenwriter Harald G. Petersson, at first, manages to draw clear and compelling relationships between the characters that should have hold our interest. But as the body count keeps rising, the suspense dwindles. Never a good sign.

The wealthy Lord Lebanon is murdered and his nine heirs all travel to his estate where his attorney is to unveil the Lord’s last will. The nine people present are an eclectic mix of blue bloods, relatives by marriage and other in-laws, and the disputes erupt immediately. Lord Lebanon’s testament stipulates that all our nine protagonists are to spend six days and six nights in peace with each other on the estate before they can collect their part of the presumably substantive inheritance. A conveniently ferocious storm makes sure that there is no way out of the estate, as well as no working phone lines. Our nine heirs are truly and utterly secluded. So let the bloodletting begin.

It is a shame that script and direction don’t manage to make this whodunit any fun. Eddy Arendt as the silly butler is amusing at times but The Indian Scarf lacks the liveliness or atmosphere of the previous Edgar Wallace krimis. As always, the explanation delivered for the murders is of no  interest at all and one is left wanting for a little more substance. In the end, only two people are present for the reading of the will, and Lord Lebanon had somehow anticipated that most of his family would have been killed off after the six days and night. So the majority of his riches go to…tadah!: Edgar Wallace. Heinz Drache as the slick attorney smirks at the camera as he reads this, and it’s really not cute or clever, it’s a full-blown eye roller.

Kinski is not the bad guy for once, just a deranged artist who married into the family and is despised by all. His death is one of the silliest in the film: he is found inside one of his sculptures, which would require that he had left them hollow from the beginning should he (or his killer) ever need access to the sculpture's bowels - but let's not lose ourselves in questions of plot plausibility here.

All in all a rather forgettable offering. As much as I complain about the general quality of the German Edgar Wallace krimis, I mostly have a good time watching them. They have a nonchalantness and irreverence that make them enjoyable and somewhat addictive. But The Indian Scarf is just dull.

Kinski Watch XIII: The Squeaker (Alfred Vohrer, 1963)

The Squeaker is the fourteenth Edgar Wallace krimi produced in Germany and the series found its footing by then. The formula consisted of blending B-Movie shock values with fabricated suspense and knee-jerk humor, and rotating the same stock of actors embodying the exact same roles from film to film, thus creating a certain cushiness to the series, comparable to contemporary procedural crime shows on TV like CSI or NCIS. Every episode is more or less the same, and coming in, the viewer knows exactly what to expect.

What The Squeaker does differently is pushing the envelope in the cheap shock department, as the plot mercilessly exploits every red herring imaginable, coming up with twists and reversals that make no sense whatsoever but spellbind the viewer into believing that the story has purpose and moves towards a meaningful reveal.

It is telling, then, that Inspector Elfords (Heinz Drache) who traditionally should be the driving force of the film, as the main question remains “who is the squeaker”?, is completely side tracked and intervenes only sporadically, leaving ample screen time for the supporting cast and their soap-like ever changing alliances and betrayals.  

The story concerns an Omar from The Wire-like outlaw who robs criminals about to engage in an exchange of illegal goods. One of those criminals, however, has unveiled the “Squeaker”’s real identity and is about to make it public but is murdered just in time with the poison of a black mamba that was stolen from the store of Frank Sutton who trades in animals, and the typical Edgar Wallace smoke-and-mirrors-fare ensues.

Kinski, again, plays more or less the proxy bad guy and his role is only of interest because he hasn’t got a single line of dialogue during the entire movie. His face, nay, his eyes, do all the work and nothing is lost in the (relative) intensity of his performance. And the way he crawls out of the shadows in one scene and shimmies over two turtles brooding on the floor is equal parts creepy and astounding.

Kinski does a lot of crawling out of hideouts, tiptoeing pressed against walls and observing from the shadows, but his dirty work is never kept a secret, which is about the only straight forward information we get from the script. When the identity of the "Sqeaker" is unveiled at the end, it is equal parts absurd and oddly satisfying, as one early shot that one mistook for simple misleading reveals to be, well, revealing. Ultimately however, the hide-and-seek of The Squeaker was pushed too far to still take it seriously. But, at this point, complaining about it would be like complaining about Horatio Cane's suave donning of his shades right before the main credits of CSI: Miami kick in.

Kinski Watch XII: Scotland Yard Vs. Dr. Mabuse (Paul May, 1963)

As Jeffrey Sconce brilliantly describes in his book Haunted Media, new technologies have always been a source of great wonder and terrible fears. With each technological advancement, popular media in general and Hollywood (America’s “subconscious” as embattled film critic Armond White puts it) in particular represented the new gadgets as containing a disembodied Unknown capable of invading the safe haven of our homes and/or bringing terror and fear to our lives. Radios could establish contact with the world of the dead, televisions could suck humans into an otherworldly void, and the internet was capable of infiltrating our minds and perverting the country’s youth.

Every decade has had its own technological obsessions, and with that the Hollywood pendant of “conscious” or “awakened” technologies out to get you (just watch how much home improvement technologies, greatly en vogue in the 1990’s, were utilized in the X-Files as a source of terror and death), but the 60’s put a man on the moon and saw the advent of the first video game – both starting points for the increasing “technologization” of our lives.

With spacecrafts, barcodes and videogames altering the perception of what man made technology could accomplish, surely, inventing a machine that could control a human being’s mind was not too outlandish a concept. Scotland Yard vs. Dr. Mabuse, the fifth installment of a Dr. Mabuse series for German television, tapped into this fascination of technologies gone wrong, as the spirit of the megalomaniac Mabuse takes over the body of Professor Pohland who gets a mind-controlling machine in his possession. Now able to turn hordes of policemen into docile servants of his cause (namely destruction and mayhem), seemingly nothing can stop him.

And if that over-the-top premise didn’t already tip you off to the film’s rather conservative politics, wait until you hear the solution to the problem of the mind control. As it turns out, wearing a hearing aid makes one immune against the brain seizing waves of Mabuse’s evil apparatus. So the leading detective’s mother, a wacky old lady reading too many crime novels but always a step ahead of the real police, zips by and brings Scotland Yard a suitcase filled with hearing aids which they dutifully wear to defeat Mabuse.

But one can say this in the movie’s favor: within its ludicrous conceit, Scotland Yard Vs. Mabuse manages to build a more or less coherent narrative with clear goals for the characters, some juicy plot twists, and a reasonable amount of tension towards the end. However, Paul May’s uninspired directorial work can’t do the movie any good, and a lot of the performances are too hammy to be taken seriously. 
Kinski, in a welcomed reversal of his usual 60’s villain film work, plays a cop who falls under Mabuse’s spell, but is rescued just in time and helps to defeat the villain. It’s rather light fare that lacks the charm of his Edgar Wallace performances because he can’t infuse the role with the detached irony he exhibits in the other films.

Kinski always said that the only criteria for accepting a film role was how much money it paid. And after watching a good dozen of these krimis, and comparing them to his recitals of Francois Villon poems, or his reading of Romeo and Juliet of the time, one can begin to understand why he despised film so much. He was a force of nature when he performed material that suited him. Unfortunately, all these German krimis didn’t suit him at all.