250: Volker Schlöndorff’s Baal 

Archival Spaces 250

Volker Schlöndorff’s Baal  (1970)

Uploaded 28 August 2020

Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Baal (1970)

When I was a teenager, I was fascinated with Bertolt Brecht. I saw my first Brecht play, “The Rise and Fall of Arturo Ui” at the Ruhr Festspiele in 1965, which featured 20 foot high puppets. For my senior thesis in Betty Nichols’ English honors class at Frankfurt American High School, I wrote about Brecht’s “Epic Theater.” I did the research at the Goethe University Library in German and English sources. During my sophomore year at the University of Delaware, I finished a paper on “the young Brecht” of “Baal” and “Man is Man” for a graduate level German course. That same year 1970, Volker Schöndorff’s television film, Baal, starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder, was broadcast on German television exactly once, then immediately disappeared when Helene Weigel, Brecht’s widow, filed an injunction against the film. It was not released again until 2014, when Brecht’s granddaughter finally granted permission for public exhibition, leading to a restoration by the Criterion Collection; it is now also available on Kanopy.

Bertolt Brecht, Berlin, 1920s

That fate somewhat mirrors the original German production of “Baal” in Weimar Germany. Brecht’s first play was written in 1918, in just four days, according to Martin Esslin, when Brecht was a student in Munich. A first version was performed in Leipzig in 1923 after Brecht had received the prestigious Kleist Prize for his first three plays. But Brecht was unhappy with it, and completed a revised version, which was performed exactly once in 1926 in Max Reinhardt’s Junge Bühne, when it ignited a near riot in the theater. Influenced by Brecht’s evolving conception of epic theater, “Baal” featured a Rimbaud-like poet who speaks in free verse, ravages both men and women, whom he discards like toilet paper, and ultimately drinks himself to death. No one could have realized in 1970 that Rainer Werner Fassbinder was playing what would become his own biography down to the t, but today it is not possible to see the film except through that lens.

Financed by German television, Baal is a quintessential 60s-70s German art film from the Munich film scene, populated with then mostly unknown actors who would define Fassbinder’s and New German Cinema. Shot in 16mm color in contemporary dress with a roving camera by Dietrich Lohmann, who filmed almost all of Fassbinder’s 1970s films, Baal opens with the poet hero walking through a wheat field, reciting verse, before getting thoroughly drunk at a reception in his honor. Lohmann often smears Vaseline around the edges of his lens, leaving only Baal in focus in center frame, thus mirroring the poet’s blindness to his surroundings. The remainder of the film follows Baal drinking, insulting patrons, mistreating women (including raping one), reciting poetry, and ultimately crawling into the bushes to die. In keeping with the alienation techniques of epic theater, Schlöndorff retains Brecht’s poetic verse, the actors reciting expressionlessly, often directly to the camera. Non-synchronous musical interludes feature Fassbinder reciting poetry (off-camera) over Klaus Doldinger’s iconic jazz-rock score.

Miriam Spoerri, Guenther Kauffmann, Fassbinder, Hanna Schuygulla in Baal

Many of the actors in the film were or would become familiar to audiences through Fassbinder’s 1970s work. There is Hanna Schygulla, playing a pretty waitress and lover of Baal, who would star in no less than nineteen Fassbinder films, including Effie Briest (1974), The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), and Lili Marleen (1981). We see tall and thin as a rail in a walk-on as a land-lady, the late Irm Hermann, her inevitably dour presence graced eighteen Fassbinder films, almost always as an impression-making secondary character, but starring memorably as the embittered house wife in RWF’s masterpiece, The Merchant of Four Seasons  (1972).  It was the first film for Günther Kaufmann, a black German actor who was to become one of the director’s discarded lovers, appeared in fourteen Fassbinder films, and starred in Whitey (1971) and had a major supporting role in Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). Another supporting actor, Walter Sedlmayr, already had a long career in Bavarian roles, before playing in eight Fassbinder films, as well as several Schlöndorff films. Finally, Margarete von Trotta plays one of Baal’s abused lovers, but not a victim, rather she chooses out of strength to sacrifice herself, an interesting interpretation in the light of her subsequent work. Starring in several Schlöndorff films, as well as being his wife, von Trotta would go on to become one of Germany’s most important explicitly feminist directors with films, like The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum (1975), Marianne & Juliane (1981), and Hannah Arendt (2012).

Margarete von Trotta and R.W. Fassbinder in Baal (1970)

However, Rainer Werner Fassbinder dominates every scene, just as he would in star turns in his own Fox and His Friends (1975) and his last role in Wolf Gremm’s Kamikazi 89 (1982, which co-starred Günther Kaufmann). Throughout Baal, Fassbinder wears his trademark leather jacket, an updated version of Brecht’s leather gear from the 1920s; I saw RWF in the same jacket at a press conference at the Berlinale Film Festival in 1974 after the premiere of Effie Briest, feigning indifference when he was criticized by some of the pressAt the time, I thought it was his Brecht act, echt anti-Kapitalistisch, but maybe he really was the same on screen or in person. In Baal Fassbinder is sullen, aggressive, violent, insolent, driven, pathetic, self-centered, drunk, and drunk again, totally focused on his own desires without a second thought for those around him, but also a brilliant, funny, caustic, serious lyricist. He is the romantic 1960s version of the expressionist artist who wallows for his art. In retrospect, we see Fassbinder is Baal, just as Baal was a version of Brecht, and like Rimbaud and Baal, Fassbinder died at the age of 37 after too much drink, too many drugs, too much anguish, but leaving behind an immortal body of work.            

249: Louise Brooks

Archival Spaces 249

The Last Days of Louise Brooks

Uploaded 15 August 2020

Louise Brooks died 35 years ago this week on 8 August 1985. I met Louise Brooks for the first time in 1975, long after her Hollywood career had ended, when she was living on N. Goodman Street in Rochester, N.Y., around the block from my apartment. At the time, I was a paid post-graduate intern at George Eastman House and confess that when I met her in Curator George Pratt’s office, she was to me just another silent film actress. She had come to Rochester in 1956 at the invitation of James Card, the founder of the George Eastman Museum Film Collection and my boss. Rumor had it that she had been living in poverty in New York City, working as a part-time salesgirl at Macy’s, occasionally selling herself, and drinking full-time. In 1957, James took her to Paris, where Henri Langlois celebrated her as a goddess and resurrected myth, while Jim took her as his lover. However, she still drank, and soon the legendary screaming matches between Brooks and Card became the talk of the local bar scene. When the relationship finally ended sometime in 1963, Louise began a friendship with George Pratt that only ended with her death.

James Card and Louise Brooks, Rochester, ca. late 1950s

George was gay. He loved Louise for her strength, but was also well aware of her weaknesses. It was George who encouraged her to write her memoirs, but she balked. Instead, he helped her research and write a series of articles, which were eventually collected together in Lulu in Hollywood (1982), a book that has remained in continuous print since then and established her as one of the most well-known actresses from the silent era. George told me he thought Louise’s career had ended because she was personally and professionally completely undisciplined. George had been hired by Card as an Assistant in 1953. By the time I got there, Card and Pratt had not talked for more than ten years, except through the departmental secretary, Kay McRae, possibly because of Louise’s switched allegiances.    

Louise by that time had long silver-gray hair, her face was extremely thin, almost anorexic, but with shiny eyes and still beautiful fingers. She wore a simple house dress with flats and no make-up. Her movements and speech were measured and deliberate. Had she really been a star? I saw her again a few weeks later, wearing a gray raincoat that looked like it was cut for a man, as she walked past my apartment around lunchtime; my kitchen faced the street. From then on, I saw her regularly on my lunch break, walking towards East Ave., then returning a short time later with a brown bag under her arm. George told me her diet consisted mostly of Vodka, at least until she stopped drinking a couple years later.

It was not until weeks after my first meeting that I saw my first Louise Brooks film, The Beggars of Life (1928). I now began to understand why Card had endeavored to collect every Louise Brooks film he could find. Could this wonderful young woman with black hair and a square face really be the same person I had met? After viewing all her other films at Eastman, I knew that she wasn’t. Louise Brooks in black and white existed only as a star image on the screen, in photos, and in the desire of thousands of later-born. Louise, herself, maintained a healthy skepticism about her and understood that she was not identical with the image on screen.

In September 1984, eight years after having left Rochester, I returned as George Pratt’s successor. Soon after, George suggested we visit Louise, driving to her apartment with Kay McRae. Louise opened the door, then turned around and went straight back to bed. I was flabbergasted to see that the living room décor consisted of a Formica kitchen table and two chairs, which we brought o her bedroom to sit with her. Except for her bed and a wooden nightstand, there was no other furniture, no pictures on the wall, no books. George introduced me again, but there was no conversation, because Louise wanted to write everything down. She had a little black notebook and a pencil, but her arthritic fingers were bent and shook, due to emphysema. It took her minutes just to write down my name. I asked her a question, which she had to write down, “for her next book,” before she could answer. After twenty minutes, we were all exhausted, so we decided to postpone the meeting for another day. It never came.

Louise was not as isolated as the above implies. She did have a small circle of friends who called and visited her regularly, many of them younger gay men.

Louise’s Apartment Building on N. Goodman St., Rochester, N.Y.

Her funeral service took place in a local Catholic Church with not more than thirty people: a few relatives from Kansas, local film critics and friends, and the Eastman Museum crew. Much to the surprise of her friends, Louise had converted to Catholicism at the end of her life. Jack Garner, the national Gannett Newspaper film critic and himself a devout Catholic – who passed away earlier this year – gave the funeral speech and served as an altar boy. Having had a Catholic education, I’ll never forget that image of Jack in red and white alter cassocks, almost seven feet tall and as wide as an armoire, towering over the presiding priest. Louise’s estate was donated to the Museum a few weeks later in a ceremony at Eastman. It consisted of two cardboard boxes with a few letters, some books she had been sent and her little black notebooks. The latter were completely illegible.

The late John Kuiper, Director Film Dept. and Eastman House Board member with Associate Curator at presentation of Louise Brooks estate to the Museum.

248: Kevon Brownlow’s It Happened Here

Archival Spaces 248

Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here (1964)

Downloaded  31 July 2020

I can’t believe it has taken me nearly fifty years to catch up with Kevin Brownlow’s first feature film, It Happened Here, which had its UK premiere at the London Film Festival on 1 November 1964. I first became aware of the film sometime in late 1971 – long before I met Kevin – having taken my first film course in Spring of that year, –  when I purchased Brownlow’s BFI monograph, How It Happened Here (1968, Doubleday & Co.).  Perused, I added it to my embryonic film book collection, but never had an opportunity to see the film, initially because it wasn’t available in America until Milestone released it theatrically and on DVD in 2000; don’t know why it took another twenty years, given that my dissertation analyzed anti-Nazi films made in Hollywood during WWII. Thanks to Amy Doros and Milestone, I finally screened the film and was frankly flabbergasted at its quality and modernity  I knew it was an amateur production that Brownlow and Andrew Mollo directed when Brownlow was a teenager; it took eight years to complete the film. Mashing up documentary, newsreel recreations, and fictional scenes in a then completely unconventional style, It Happened Here presages the alternative universes of The Man in the High Castle, down to its use of newsreels.   

Kevin Brownlow ca. 1963

The film visualizes the fictional occupation of Great Britain in 1944 after the German Wehrmacht had successfully invaded the island in 1940 and eliminated any resistance.  When the film opens, armed resistance has flared up again in the Western half of the British Isles, now supported by the Americans.  Brownlow opens with a fake German newsreel that relates the above, and not only totally convincingly mimics the Deutsche Wochenschau of World War II, but also uses a German narrator whose inflection and accent imitates exactly the Nazi original. The film then slowly focuses on Pauline, an apolitical nurse who survives a massacre when she is supposed to be evacuated to London, then slowly slips into the role of a Nazi collaborator, who may or may not have betrayed her friends to the Nazis.

It Happened Here (1964)

Throughout the film, Brownlow returns to German and British “newsreels” that are strikingly accurate in capturing the ambience of 1940s Britain under Nazi occupation. Some newsreel footage restages known historical events, e.g. the execution of refugees by  “Sonderkommandos” (recalling some of the only surviving atrocity footage in Poland), the 1914 Christmas truce along the Western Front; the snowball fight quotes Abel Gance’s Napoleon (and was at that time only to be found in Brownlow’s 9.5mm print of the film). Equally amazing is the footage of Pauline walking through the ruins of London, shot in the late 1950s, when signs of the Blitzkrieg were still visible, as well as the footage of German soldiers on leave, taking in the sights of London. Brownlow scrupulously populates his images with perfect little details, like the sidewalk sale of “Das Signal” (an important Wehrmacht bi-monthly illustrated magazine), the Picture Post advert on a London bus, sidewalk sales of household goods by ghetto inhabitants, or the German/English signage at the edge of the Jewish Ghetto.

It Happened Here (1964)

In keeping with the realism of such imagery, Brownlow stages British Nazi Party rallies, ceremonies, and lectures that reproduce both the original words of British Fascists from the 1930s and the ideology of German National Socialism. Indeed, some of this footage is actual documentary footage of British Fascists. The UK Nazis argue that the English are enjoying a high standard of living, because the “International Jewish Capitalist and Bolshevik” conspiracy has been defeated, while also blaming the Jews for the bombing of London because British politicians rejected Germany’s peace feelers. In another jaw-dropping scene, a British Fascist argues perfectly “rationally” that euthanasia is necessary because the State cannot be expected to support those individuals who cannot help support the State.    

It Happened Here (1964)

Such vile, racist content is articulated without contradiction within a filmic text that demands realism, leading critics in the 1960’s to condemn the film as fascist and anti-Semitic. One can counter that there are no anti-Semitic stereotypes visible in the film, while the arguments of the Fascists are themselves clichéd and stereotypical. When a young woman asks how Jews could be blamed for Communism and Capitalism, the instructor responds nonsensically, there are no conflicts between the Jews of the Kremlin and those in London.

Other critics thought the film unrealistic, because British people would never have accepted Hitlerian rule, without a whimper. Obviously, not even twenty years after the war, the wounds were still too fresh for such an uncomfortable truth. But as Marcel Ophuls’ film about France under the Occupation, Sorrow and the Pity (1969) and Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1997) demonstrate, mild-mannered, middle-class citizens can indeed become fascist collaborators; a lesson we have learned yet again in Texas detention camps and on the streets of Portland.

The film’s penultimate scene proves the point most shockingly. German SS troops who have surrendered under a white flag are led into a field by the resistance  and massacred, as an American Army jeep drives by without intervening. Meanwhile, Pauline, who has been captured by the Allies and identified as a Nazi fellow traveler, begins working as a nurse for the American military; like millions of collaborators (and war criminals) after 1945, she slips back into an invisible, conventional life.    

UK Premiere in Leicester Square, London, November 1964

247: Cinemateca Brasileira in Crisis

Archival Spaces 247

Cinemateca Brasileira in Crisis

Downloaded  17 July 2020

Earlier this year in an article in The Journal of Film Preservation (No. 102, 2020), I noted the following: “While archives and libraries are perceived by the general population to be bastions of stability, their existence and mandate to conserve and preserve consciously welded together, the real-world fact is that the operation of an archive is indeed no guarantee that its contents will ultimately be preserved… While factors external to the archive often lead to its demise, internal issues can also come into play.”   Sadly, another example of this truism recently made headlines, when the Cinemateca Brasileira in São Paulo was restructured and defunded by the right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro and may now disappear altogether; A tragedy, given this is the largest and one of the oldest film archives in Latin America.

Cinemateca Barsileira, Sao Paolo

In January 2019, the President of Brazil eliminated the Ministry of Culture, under whose aegis the Cinemateca operated, and turned it into a special secretariat. Throughout the year, the government removed qualified employees from the Archive, in order to place political patrons in those jobs. In December 2019, the government revoked the contract of the privately-owned non-profit, the Associação de Comunicação Roquette Pinto (ACERP), which had been managing the Archive since March 2018, thus eliminating all funding for the Cinemateca. Since then the Archive has been operating without funding from the government. Disaster struck again in February 2020  when a huge flood damaged the Cinemateca’s screening facility in downtown Sao Paolo, causing the destruction of 100,000 DVDs.  A meeting between ACERP and the Brazilian government in late May failed to reach an agreement, when ACERP asked to be refunded $2 million for expenses in 2019. According to press reports, ACERP has spent another $ 750,000 on the Cinemateca so far in 2020, without reimbursement. Other newspaper reports indicate that the government plans to close the Cinemateca Brasileira, which would orphan all its valuable collections.

Limite (1929, Mario Peixote)

Like many moving image archives in Third World countries, but especially in Latin America, the Cinemateca Brasileira has had a troubled history, moving from feast to famine and back. Founded in 1949 as the Filmoteca do Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (The São Paulo Modern Art Museum Film Archive), its Board of Directors created a non-profit organization in 1956, the Sociedade Civil Cinemateca Brasileira (renamed Fundação Cinemateca Brasileira in 1961) to fund the organization. Its greatest public champion in the early years was the internationally known film historian and critic, Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes, who was a friend of Henri Langlois and published an important book on Jean Vigo.

In 1984, the Cinemateca was taken over by the federal government, becoming a public corporation under the Fundação Nacional Pró-Memória (Pro-Memory National Foundation), transferring to the Ministry of Culture’s Audiovisual Secrretariat in 2003.  In subsequent years, the Ministry of Culture under the leftist government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva funneled generous subsidies to the Archive through the Sociedade Amigos da Cinemateca (SAC – Friends of the Cinemateca Association), allowing the Cinemateca to expand its physical plant, especially its screening spaces, and personnel budgets. In 2006, the Cinemateca Brasileira hosted the FIAF Congress (International Association of Film Archives). Unfortunately, its visible success also brought criticism from filmmakers, producers, and researchers who accused the directors of a lack of transparency in access policies and expenditures. These issues lead to an audit by the Federal Budget Control Office in 2013, and incoming President Dilma Rousseff’s Ministry of Culture replacing archive leadership and instituting and staff cuts, but failing to deal with the Archive’s systemic problems.

Nitrate Vault Fire, Cineteca Brasileira

A fire in the Archive’s nitrate vaults in February 2016, caused, according to some by the Ministry’s negligence, precipitated the transfer of the Cinemateca’s preservation activities to ACERP, in essence offloading the government’s responsibility to a private entity. Thus, the Cinemateca’s problems began long before the present government, as noted by Rafael de Luna in a blog on 2 June 2020 (http://preservacaoaudiovisual.blogspot.com/). For example, the Archive had in the well-funded years before 2013 failed to establish a nitrate film preservation program, unlike most other international archives, so that when the fire occurred, 40% of the lost films were unique and irreplaceable. Furthermore, the Cinemateca’s laboratory, which featured analog and digital reproduction capabilities, never worked at full capacity, thus often wasting valuable public funding.

In any case, we can only hope that the Cinemateca Barsileira survives any attempts by the present fascist government to kill it. Brazil has a rich history of moving image production from the early avant-garde masterpiece, Mário Peixoto’s Limite (1930) to the Cinema nuovo movement of the 1960s, including Glauber Rocha, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Ruy Guerra, and Carlos Diegues, to the telenovelas brasileñas of the 1990s. That history is now in danger of being lost. You can support the Cinemateca Brasileira by signing a petition at this link. https://secure.avaaz.org/po/community_petitions/governo_federal_secretaria_especial_de_cultura_sec_cinemateca_brasileira_pede_socorro/?rc=fb&utm_source=sharetools&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=petition-1021104-cinemateca_brasileira_pede_socorro&utm_term=omAFqb%2Bpo&fbclid=IwAR2k50GZwE4YHe-hFwRiYtf5Nfkg6mly0Nj2gFFR62pEWSxGbcp0j91g8LM

Nelson Pereira dos Santos in Los Angeles with author, 2012