PIANOS, PRIESTS, AND POPULAR CULTURE
SIRK, LANG, AND THE LEGACY OF AMERICAN POPULISM
Robert Siodmak's triumph in Hollywood dovetailed with the boom of the American film industry during and shortly after World War II. Siodmak's film noirs of the mid-1940s indicated the extent to which the war had brought a host of new talents, a spirit of innovation, and relative progressivism to the classical studio system. As a B genre par excellence, film noir in the 1940s might have relied on the same kind of industry structures and moviegoing habits that had characterized American cinema since the arrival of synchronized sound in the late 1920s. It was designed for viewers who considered motion pictures an integral part of American cultural life and who went to the movies at least once a week on average. But on the other hand the rise of film noir in the early 1940s inaugurated a period in which various political, economic, social, and technological forces would deeply change dominant industry structures and audience expectations. Film noir demonstrated that the war experience had passed a new kind of maturity on to American audiences as much as to the film industry. Siodmak's success around 1945 in no small part relied on his ability to use studio filmmaking at the height of its productivity to communicate a pending sense of crisis and industrial transformation. His films espoused the entire range of modern experience and mass culture, yet at the same time they gratified newly emerging demands for greater product differentiation and cultural diversification.
Although American global power in the immediate postwar era was radically on the rise, the Hollywood film industry experienced a dramatic downturn in 1947. The late 1940s in fact became the most afflicted period of American filmmaking. The industry was plagued not only by drastically declining box office returns but also by labor struggles and runaway production costs, by censorship battles and anticommunist hysteria, by defiant exhibitors and antitrust rulings.1
For many the 1948 Paramount Case—which outlawed the practice of vertical integration that had proven so profitable for the major studios and thus effectively terminated classical studio operations within less than a decade—signified the climax of Hollywood's postwar troubles. But the downfall of American filmmaking starting in the second half of the 1940s did not simply reflect the impact of unprecedented political interventions into studio structures, nor did it result solely from inner-industrial struggles or the escalating uncoupling of star and studio systems. Rather, it had much to do with postwar transformations of American society as a whole: "[P]ostwar changes in the average work week, leisure time, disposable income, and consumer interest disrupted the loyal partnership that had existed for more than twenty years between the motion picture industry and its audience."2
Suburbanization moved audiences away from inner-city theaters. Instead of spending their money for movies, Americans in the immediate postwar period invested in homes, cars, house appliances, or bank accounts. After years of wartime shortages consumers suddenly yearned for new kinds of leisure activities that privileged participatory recreation over mass-produced entertainment. They wanted to engage in golfing or boating, camping or gardening, and found Hollywood particularly ill prepared to satisfy their demands for more diversified pastimes.
In spite of dwindling audience figures and growing political constraints, however, Hollywood features of the immediate postwar era showed some surprising signs of vitality and aesthetic experimentation. Films such as The Best Years of Our Lives
(1946, William Wyler), Crossfire
(1947, Edward Dmytryk), Gentleman
(1947, Elia Kazan), and All the King
(1949, Robert Rossen) infused American cinema with an innovative blend of realism and social awareness. They addressed burning issues of the day (veteran's reintegration, anti-Semitism, political corruption), brandished present hypocrisies from a liberal-left perspective, and upset dominant standards of illusionism and identification. By 1950, however, little was left of this spirit of departure. Troubled by both the HUAC inquiries and the dramatic decline of the market, studios such as MGM, Warner's, Paramount, and RKO eschewed whatever could be read as a trace of left-leaning liberalism. With the notable exception of Twentieth Century-Fox, Hollywood major studios turned openly conservative. They desisted from aesthetic innovation and social realism to appease anticommunist inquisitors as much as to recapture viewers who preferred to spend their leisure time amid the more alluring scenes of the outdoors and of suburban commodity consumption.
James Agee, in a 1948 column for The Nation,
described the troubled position of postwar American cinema as follows:
It is hard to believe that absolutely first-rate works of art can ever again be made in Hollywood, but it would be idiotic to assume that flatly. If they are to be made there, they will most probably develop along the directions worked out during the past year or two; they will be journalistic, semi-documentary, and "social-minded," or will start that way and transcend those levels. . . . It is now an absolute certainty that every most hopeful thing that has been stirring in Hollywood is petrified more grimly than ever before.3
Agee was certainly correct in pointing out that there was a major fault line separating American filmmaking around 1950 from its role during the war and prewar era. But he was wrong in predicting that Hollywood could and would reclaim lost territory by forgoing spectacle and illusionism in the name of some new realist aesthetic. As we will see in further detail in chapter 8, Hollywood's primary response to postwar declines was to invest in technology and spectacle. Although since the arrival of sound Hollywood studios had sensed no real need for new technologies to hold the interest of the moviegoing public, postwar transformations of American society caused the industry to develop a different kind of screen presentation and to rebuild the parameters of cinematic viewership through widescreen processes such as CinemaScope. Contrary to Agee's recommendation, the American film industry before long embarked on what must be understood as a veritable revolution. Deprived of the steady audiences of the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood endorsed widescreen cinema in the 1950s so as to recuperate the erstwhile place of moviegoing in American cultural life. It designed a new kind of cinema of attraction and astonishment, a cinema of startlingly amplified sights and sounds that would refocus the viewer's attention on the extraordinary nature of the apparatus itself.
This chapter and the next will comment in a series of typological readings on the role of German émigré directors in the troubled last years of the classical Hollywood studio system. Although it would surely go too far to assign Hitler refugees a special position in what happened to Hollywood after Hitler, it is interesting to note that for some émigrés the disintegration of studio power resulted in new career opportunities. Fred Zinnemann and Otto Preminger did some of their most important directorial work after 1952; Billy Wilder was able to enhance his recognition as a bold producer-director throughout the 1950s and early 1960s; and Douglas Sirk's Universal melodramas clearly fitted well into the very culture of leisure and consumption that had caused audiences to abandon classical Hollywood features after the war. Furthermore, it is important to understand that in some films that were shot around 1950 at the margins of the tormented studio system, in independent or semi-independent production contexts, German émigré directors either addressed the burgeoning transformations of American mass culture head-on or provided striking allegories for the troubled position of Hollywood after 1946. As we will see in a moment, this self-thematization of modern industrial culture around 1950 was often expressed through a confrontation with the legacy of American populism, an ideological heritage with which Germans—recollecting the disastrous path of populism in Germany from 1914 to 19454
—had and continue to have an ambivalent relationship, to say the least.
Two films are central to my discussion in this chapter, Douglas Sirk's The First Legion
(1951) and Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious
(1952). Sirk's The First Legion
undertakes a high cultural recuperation of the popular carried out to undercut the susceptibility of populism for commercialized mass culture. The film immerses the viewer in a quasi-heroic struggle against the consumption of sights and sounds in the present age; it suggests a Wagnerian overhaul of the popular's own reified Wagnerianism. Speaking from the entrenched position of American cinema circa 1950, The First Legion
aspires to rejuvenate contemporary filmmaking by challenging popular culture over the right to inherit the legacy of the nineteenth century—its utopian dreams, sentimental affinities, and Wagnerian excesses. Lang's Rancho Notorious,
by contrast, takes recourse to the most populist of all Hollywood film genres, the western, in order to engage the audience in a quasi-Brechtian reworking of the populist legacy. Lang's point is of course not to persuade his American audiences in any way to engage in communist political practice. Rather, by taking recourse to Brechtian strategies of distanciation and textual counterpoint, Rancho Notorious
hopes to reinstate the heterogeneity of the popular and mobilize populism against its own petrification. Unlike Sirk, for whom the popular in The First Legion
represents a site of manipulation, materialism, and vacuity, Lang insists on the relative autonomy of popular expressions from commodification and ideology. Whereas The First Legion
denounces mass culture as a realm of spectacular seduction, Lang aims to reinvigorate the popular from within—by probing the viewer's relation to the single most popular genre of the studio era.
Their fundamental differences notwithstanding, both Sirk's Wagnerian recuperation of the popular and Lang's Brechtian overhaul of Hollywood populism must be understood as parts of an integral chapter of Berlin in Hollywood. Both directors approach American realities around 1950 refracted through the prism of particular German cultural perspectives. Through the use of melos and music both films engage the viewer in their critical assessment of modern culture. For both Lang and Sirk sound becomes a valuable means of exploring modern culture as a heterogeneous space of contestation. Contrary to Nazi cinema's view of culture as homogeneous, Lang's and Sirk's films permit us to think of modern culture as multivocal: a vehicle of power and social homogenization as much as a mouthpiece of emancipation, nonidentity, and visions of a better life.
Populism and Its Discontents
Hollywood filmmaking during the studio era was deeply influenced by the legacy of the two major American reform movements around 1900, agrarian populism and urban progressivism.5
Neither populism nor progressivism ever developed a fully coherent system of ideas, but both came to dominate American cultural life in the first half of the twentieth century because both addressed critical issues related to ongoing processes of social, economic, and technological modernization. In a country lacking any established vocabulary of socialism, both populism and progressivism challenged the rule of big government and business with the help of an amorphous array of ideas that revolved around the image of individual self-determination and "the people." At once utopian and activist, they offered unifying symbols to a widespread spectrum of wills and interests.
Populists opposed political and economic concentration, the rise of administrative centers, and the urban culture of intellectuals. They advocated the Edenic image of agrarian life, propagating the unhampered use of "land" as the primary vehicle of individual self-realization and communal integration. Unlike contemporary socialist movements in Europe, American populists mainly aspired to reform the current system by replacing corrupt and conspiratorial elites "with representatives of the truer, agricultural America."6
Like turn-of-the-century populists, progressives believed that the roots of American democracy were originally formed on the farms and in small villages and that urbanization, industrialization, and mass immigration increasingly destroyed the kind of individualism and codes of conduct coupled with agrarian life. But rather than relying on traditional moral values alone, progressives hoped to find in the institutional framework of modern industrial America and in governmental policies the very means to correct the problems of the present. In contrast to populism, progressivism developed a more positive concept of the political. Politics' proper task was to reconstruct the possibility of individual self-expression and moral integrity, of economic self-determination and unrestricted communality. Its paramount, albeit paradoxical, mission was to make itself superfluous.
As a result of the Great Depression and New Deal politics, the 1930s witnessed a dramatic upswing of precisely the kind of phenomena that turn-of-the-century populists and progressives had loathed the most: industrial concentration, big government, and a more prominent role for intellectual elites in American cultural life. Hollywood's dream factories, however, in spite of their own drive toward bureaucratization and market control, continued to draw heavily on the rhetorical tropes of progressivism and populism, "blurring their differences and fusing them into a common ideological strand."7
Classical Hollywood cinema upheld what historical developments seemed to negate. The populist and progressive myths of moral individualism and agency, of agrarian democracy and conspiratorial politics, helped define narrative conventions and character motivations throughout the studio era. These ideological tropes fundamentally influenced what became a cinema of active, goal-oriented protagonists.
Hitler refugees in the United States had an uneasy relationship with American populism, for populist sentiments had, of course, been key to National Socialist politics as well. Similar to American populists, Nazi politics relied on the integrative power of diffuse resentments and cultural prejudices. It disputed the rule of money and instrumental reason in modernity, translated discontent into celebrations of absolute difference, and privileged the local over the global. Unlike American populists, however, the Nazi movement channeled popular xenophobia into a full-fledged eliminationist program. It emphasized ethnic belonging rather than economic individualism as the principal path to national reawakening. Nazi discourse adulated the land as a mythic source of racial identity, not—like turn-of-the-century populists—as a means of economic self-realization. And in their efforts to renovate the body politic, Nazi populists had a much more ambivalent relationship to domestic traditions than did their American counterparts. Nazi ideologues embraced some political traditions, but they rejected many other traditions that were, for instance, coupled with eighteenth-century projects of enlightenment and emancipation.
Recalling the populist elements in Nazi politics, German exiles in Hollywood developed at least three distinct strategies to respond to the continued currency of populism in the United States. In all three strategies populist ideology often emerged as a screen of multiple misrecognitions, of cross-cultural displacements and projective anxieties. One response was to deny any affinity between German and American populism and to espouse the credo of economic individualism in the gesture of a fatherless child who embraces a new paternal authority. In this first model the populist defense of the local and unhampered self-realization was seen as a liberal-democratic bulwark against totalitarianism. The second possible reaction involved a quasi-Oedipal revolt against what was seen as direct correspondences between the affective agendas of American populists and the ultranationalism of Nazi politics. American populism in this view offered an allegory for Nazi realities, and vice versa. Both erased the normative substance and universalist reach of modern politics; both exchanged symmetrical communication and critical reason with prejudice, hysteria, and the glorification of authority. Finally, the third response—driven by a Marxist model of ideology critique—pointed at underlying complicities informing fascism, the rise of American populism, and the emergence of organized consumer capitalism in order to reveal their mutual implication in a self-destructive dialectic of modernization. Both American populism and Fordist capitalism, it was argued, want to speak in the name of the "common man." Both seek to provide something for everyone. But to do so, they obliterate personality, alterity, and nonidentity from above, duplicating the destruction of individuality and solidarity in German fascism.
Fritz Lang's and Douglas Sirk's role in the encounter of German film exiles with American populism is interesting not least of all because the success of both directors prior to Hollywood had rested in significant ways on their ability to cast populist sentiments into compelling cinematic expressions. Lang's Metropolis
(1927) showcased images of cross-class mediation that referred to various populisms of the time,8
and Sierck's German melodramas such as To New Shores
and La Habanera
supplied Nazi mass culture with populist visions of cultural synthesis. Furthermore, the Hollywood work of both directors evinces a recurring preoccupation with the vicissitudes of American populism. Often considered a film allegorizing Lang's experience of National Socialism, Fury
(1936) explored the susceptibility of populism to mass hysteria and vigilantism; Sirk's Universal melodramas of the 1950s, by contrast, professed to be Balzacian panoramas of mainstream America, a cinematic folklore sampling popular values, ideas, and practices. The First Legion
and Rancho Notorious
may expose both directors as occupying opposite positions from their "accepted" ones: Lang as an emphatic populist, Sirk as an elitist critic of the popular. But the exceptional character of this material should not keep us from investigating it further. For, on the one hand, it is in the atypical that struggles over values and meanings often crystallize most intensely; and, on the other hand, it is not the individual biography that matters most for cultural studies but how the voices of individual actors participate in larger discourses of a given time, how the symbolic material at hand may confirm, nuance, or challenge these discourses in paradigmatic ways.9
To Old Shores?
Married to a Jew, Detlef Sierck left Nazi Germany at the peak of his success at UFA in December 1937. He spent two years in Italy, Austria, and the Netherlands before Warner invited him to Hollywood in 1939 to shoot a remake of To New Shores,
a project terminated in 1940. Sierck's first American film assignment was a 1941 documentary on winemaking in a monastery in Napa Valley. The film traveled to Catholic parishes all over the United States. Even though most filmographies fail to list this production, it in all likelihood remains Sierck's greatest popular success. Also in 1941 Detlef Sierck changed his name to Douglas Sirk. He dissociated his name from any German trace in order to accommodate Hollywood producers waging war against Hitler Germany and to appease the many German exiles who considered him a Nazi collaborator. In contrast to Max Ophüls,
whose name experienced a series of dismemberments in exile (Ophuls, Opuls),10
Sirk's cognominal redress signaled his eagerness to meet Hollywood more than halfway—to leave his past behind and excel in American culture on its own grounds.
"I was in love with America, and I often have a great nostalgia for it," Sirk recalled in 1971. "I think I was one of the few German émigrés who came to America with a certain background of reading about the country and a great interest in it—and I was about the only one who got around and about."11
Sirk's move to Hollywood and change of name did not signify a radical rupture in his career. His preoccupation with America, as we have seen in chapter 3, had commenced long before his arrival in Hollywood. Films such as To New Shores
and La Habanera
had been deeply enmeshed in the ambivalent project of Nazi Americanism. Much of his Hollywood work, on the other hand, recalled and further developed the iconographic, thematic, and stylistic registers of his earlier films. It is in particular the use of organized religion as a sign for the popular (which, as I argued before, should not be automatically conflated with the category of industrial mass culture) that links Sirk's German and Hollywood periods. In To New Shores
religious material elicited the viewer's desire for cultural synthesis. It conjured the vision of a new popular in which the divided tracks of modern culture—aesthetic refinement and commodified diversion—could reunify. Similarly, in the melodramas of the 1950s Sirk's references to organized religion are part of a persistent inquiry into the divisions and utopian potentials of modern American culture. They reveal the status of melodrama as a paradoxical source of transcendence in a postsacred world12
but simultaneously express what Sirk considered the popular beliefs, meanings, and goals of American society.
Whereas films such as The First Legion
(1951) or Battle Hymn
(1956) directly address the delicate role of religious institutions in secularized America, other films are often literally framed by religious symbols. Church towers, for example, figure prominently in the opening shots of both All I Desire
(1953) and All That Heaven Allows
(1954). They set the stage on which small-town America regulates desire and molds conformity.13
In Imitation of Life
(1959), on the other hand, religious sights and sounds provide anchors to those lost in the storms of passion and excess. "I see religion as a very important part of bourgeois society," Sirk explained in an interview. "It is a pillar of this society, if a broken pillar. The marble is showing quite a bit of decay. If you want to make pictures about this society, I think it is an ingredient of a bygone charm—charm in the original sense of the word: sorcery."14
Organized religion may have lost its hegemonic role in sanctifying norms and providing metaphysical securities, yet its symbols, according to Sirk, continue to speak to everyone. Sirk's melodramas resort to religious signs to bind images, sounds, and narratives into affective expressions. They reconstruct the sacred in order to recenter experience and smooth over the divisions of modern society. The priest's bygone sorcery thus reemerges as the magic of the film director who understands how to captivate the popular imagination and stir universal emotions. In the absence of a numinous center of things, melodrama reinscribes ethical imperatives that can operate as society's post-traditional glue. It reclaims through Manichean intensification and aesthetic stylization what religious belief systems no longer uniformly authorize.
Released through United Artists in 1951, The First Legion
occupies an odd place within this melodramatic theology. The film surely pictures organized religion as a source of healing, of restoring body and spirit in a time of fragmentation. In contrast to Battle Hymn
or To New Shores,
however, the film eschews any eschatological vision of cultural synthesis and, instead, denounces the popular as the antithesis of authentic meaning and culture. The film reserves healing for those who are able to remove themselves from the pleasures and secular institutions of modern life. It may render religion as a utopian blueprint of spiritual renewal, but it does so by means of a stunningly elitist gesture—by radically separating religious from profane experience, theology from the popular. Like Wagner, for whom the secluded Bayreuth festival was to counteract the commercialization of nineteenth-century art, Sirk challenges in The First Legion
the profanity of modern culture from the vantage point of a sequestered monastery and its necessarily esoteric access to salvation.
Filmed entirely on location at Mission Inn, Riverside, California, The First Legion
was originally shot as an independent production in 1950. The film confronts the viewer with a number of rather unlikely Jesuits—a former criminal attorney, an ex-concert pianist, an India traveler cum film director—who find themselves forced to revise their standards of belief after experiencing first a makeshift and later a "real" miracle. On a formal level The First Legion
stages this concern with the issue of faith, redemption, and the absurd by interrogating different regimes of vision and hearing. Reminiscent of To New Shores,
Sirk is at pains in this later production to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic modes of sense perception. Whereas the fake miracle and its initial mass popularity correspond to forms of sentience skewered by the logic of the market, the true miracle in the end represents the work of an introspective, contemplative form of audiovision that resists the spell of visual and auditory spectacle.
The Jesuit seminary is introduced as a space of expressive authenticity and high cultural distinction. An enthusiast of classical music, Father Fulton responds to the first miracle not with words of prayer but by playing Edvard Grieg's Piano Sonata in A minor. In a curiously disembodied shot Sirk's camera shows us the labor of Fulton's hands on the keyboard as if to underscore the work that is true art. Attracted to the alleged site of salvation, the masses outside the seminary, on the other hand, hope to consume the miracle as distraction and cultural commodity—a thing they can stick in their pockets and take home. Transformed into a media spectacle, the miracle here generates a delusory experience of social harmony and charismatic wholeness. In the crowd's populist desire for individual redemption and community, repression and wish fulfillment, fantasy and symbolic containment join together in one mechanism.
Installed on the roof of the seminary, Father Fulton compares the people outside the gate with the murmur of the crowd before a symphonic concert, the hum of a great orchestra, with the one exception that the boundaries between spectacle and audience have broken down and the crowd has become its own object of delight. Looking at the masses and cameras looking at the seminary, Father Fulton welcomes the Jesuits' sudden media stardom as a sign of rejuvenation. Being looked at reinvigorates Fulton's faith and mission; it overcomes the Jesuits' progressive isolation in a secularized world. Father Arnoux, by way of contrast, otherwise concerned with reconnecting the Jesuits to the timetables of the modern world, makes no secret of his disdain for the crowd outside. Fulton's hum, in Arnoux's perception, sounds more "like music that has swept you off your feet." Arnoux, in his controversial tractates, may argue for a liberalization of church doctrine, but his agenda is to bring the Jesuits to the world, not the world to the Jesuits. Media popularity, for Arnoux, bereaves the Jesuits of what is at the core of their mission. The spectacle disables communication and emotional authenticity. It blocks the resurrection of contemplative spaces in which true recognition and healing might be possible. For Arnoux, Fulton's populism effaces what transcends the given moment and thus diverts from the exertion necessary to achieve salvation.
"All right, I am out of joint like the rest of the world," Doctor Morrell, the forger of the first miracle, confesses in a climactic moment to Father Arnoux. "Nothing adds up to anything anymore." Like To New Shores, The First Legion
offers an image of modern culture torn into hostile halves, halves that long to reconcile themselves within a higher organic totality. Whereas the crowd outside the seminary desires the priests' alleged bliss of charismatic experience, some of the fathers inside hope to reconnect their esoteric practice to the popular dimension. In contrast to the final images of Sirk's earlier film, however, The First Legion
leaves little doubt that such a mutual integration of high and low will result in anything but a false unity, in delusion rather than insight or redemption. The division of modern culture is its truth, and the task of any authentic cultural practice is to work through, not to gloss over, the split that marks the modern condition. It is important to note in this context that the first—the fake—miracle happens precisely when the priests assemble in the seminary's meeting room to watch one of Father Quarterman's films shot during his travels in India. Holy people in India, Quarterman lectures, "capture the soul by capturing the imagination." And so does this film within the film, transforming the sacred into a direct effect of mechanical reproduction. Father Sierra appears suddenly from behind the space of projection, his presence on the staircase—his miraculous recovery of walking—coinciding with the image of an elephant strolling triumphantly across the screen. Captured by the cinematic image, the fathers' imagination eclipses their critical reason. Their desire to see and hear what cannot be perceived thus results in collective hypnosis. What they take as a charismatic intervention in fact constitutes a mere extension of screen reality.
Father Quarterman's cinema aspires to open the enclosed world of the seminary toward the popular. It induces the priests to reshape the real as an imaginary space of wish fulfillment and plentitude. At the same time, however, it replicates within the seminary itself the very separation that structures social relations at large. Transforming spiritual values into flat surfaces, Quarterman's projection literally cuts the meeting room in half.15
It fragments the assembled group of priests and reintegrates them as audiovisual consumers into an imaginary community. Poaching the popular, Quarterman's cinema of attractions refracts traditional modes of integration and reconstructs the esoteric sphere of cultural refinement from the vantage point of public, commodified space. Thus, the spectacle onscreen and on the stairs, to use Guy Debord's phrase, "reunites the separate, but reunites it as separate.
Propelled by instrumental reason, the priests—like the masses outside—sacrifice the bliss of salvation on the altar of commodified perception. Their very desire to behold redemption in the form of an image causes them to lose their vision. What they consider a miracle is a hoax: synthetic aura effected by modern technologies. Sirk's mise-en-scène and editing captures this loss of authentic vision as a loss of reciprocity. The film stages perception as disjointed; it relies on mismatched eyeline shots and diverging perspectives. The characters' gazes frequently wander offscreen as they fail to find a corresponding eye within the frame. Many shots picture awkward three-character constellations. Dispersed onto conflicting visual planes, the human triangles of these shots fail to establish any kind of meaningful, fulfilling exchange. Unlike To New Shores,
which either reveled in well-orchestrated two-shots or froze the image of Zarah Leander into spectacular vignettes, the perceptual field of The First Legion
thus remains incoherent and uncontained, as if to bespeak the logic of separation that resides under the popular's veneer of wholeness and salvation.
It is only in the film's final shots—picturing the real miracle in which Dr. Morrell's patient Terry Gilmartin learns how to use her legs again—that Sirk seems to renounce the film's underlying logic of skewered triangulation. The second miracle's place is neither the privatized public space of the street in front of the compound nor the publicized private sphere of the seminary's meeting room. Rather, it occurs in the enclosed space of the compound's chapel normally barred to any outside visitors. Sirk stages this second miracle as a drama of visuality resulting in the reassertion of authentic, noninstrumental perception. Once Terry has entered the chapel, Sirk intercuts between shots showing Terry looking intently at the altar, the altar itself, and Arnoux and Morrell silently looking at Terry looking, rising out of her wheelchair, and finally falling toward the altar.17
Yet even though Sirk in this final sequence seems to revel in the restoration of true vision and corporeal unity, the film withholds any images that would rejoice in the foundation of a new, unified community. Rather than situating Terry, Arnoux, and Morrell in a congruous triangular constellation, the final montage splinters the group into separated individuals shown in isolating close-ups. Terry's miracle may thus overcome inauthentic images and reified perceptions. It may restore to vision the power of introspection and mimetic experience, the ability to yield to and become other. But in its failure to restore an operative community, this miracle also reminds the viewer of the very condition of separation that makes it possible in the first place. Contrary to the earlier mass spectacle, the representation of Terry's miracle elides any attempt to gloss over the divisions of modern culture. Instead of hypostatizing a world of unlimited universality, the second miracle presents the secluded realm of esoteric experience and refinement—the antipopular—as the only source of authentic salvation.
Commenting on one of his later Universal productions, Sirk remarked to Jon Halliday: "There is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art."18
Unlike the final images of To New Shores,
which collapsed competing cultural practices into the vision of a unified, homogeneous culture, The First Legion
insists on fundamental boundaries between high art and trash, aesthetic cultivation and mass culture. The film's final montage sequence valorizes authentic self-expression over mass-cultural kitsch. Curiously annulling melodrama's own origins in the popular, The First Legion
in the end maps melodrama's aesthetics of polarization onto the topographies of modern culture itself, and it is this gesture of "craziness" that keeps the film from slipping into the domain of trash and kitsch. Unlike the ending of To New Shores, The First Legion
disappoints any populist claim for social reconciliation and cultural synthesis. High and low remain locked in a melodramatic conflict between good and evil, light and dark.
This cultural Manicheanism of The First Legion
shows Douglas Sirk in critical opposition to industrial culture and its strategies of collapsing diverse registers of expression into seamless unity. The film struggles with modern consumer culture over the right to inherit premodern meanings, values, and utopias, but in stark contrast to Sirk's earlier UFA films The First Legion
elides any notion of cultural production that would try to appease the entire spectrum of society with standardized consumer goods. We should not think, however, that Sirk's rejection of popular culture in The First Legion
allies him neatly with Horkheimer and Adorno and their assault on industrial culture in Dialectic of Enlightenment.
Surely, similar to Sirk, Horkheimer and Adorno considered aesthetic autonomy as an enigmatic space of meaning and resistance to the homogenizing logic of cultural commodification. Unlike Sirk, however, Horkheimer and Adorno encouraged us to think of modern culture not in Manichean but in dialectical terms. They understood autonomous art and twentieth-century mass culture as opposite sides of the same coin, as cultural responses to the same process of social transformation. Neither modernism nor mass culture could do without the other. Commodified diversion was therefore not the radical other (as Sirk wants to have it) but the shadow of serious aesthetic practice. Seen in light of Adorno and Horkheimer's argument, Sirk's Manichean critique of modern culture in fact must be understood as being effected by the very kind of modernization and secularization that The First Legion
intends to defy. Sirk's melodramatic segregation of high and low relies on reified forms of reason—a transposition of mediated relationships into categories of absolute difference and alterity—that in themselves are the outcome of a truncated process of Enlightenment.
Not Horkheimer and Adorno, for that reason, but Richard Wagner must be seen as the intellectual godfather of Sirk's melodramatic critique of modern culture in The First Legion.
Read as an allegorical commentary, Sirk's 1951 film submits reforms to the troubled American film industry that recall Wagner's attempts to remake nineteenth-century culture with the help of the extraterrestrial Bayreuth festival. In his 1880 essay "Religion and Art" Wagner had suggested that modern culture should draw on the legacy of religion and myth not only to protect the aesthetic from commodification but also to reclaim semantic resources embedded in religious belief systems: "One might say that where Religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for Art to save the spirit of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us to believe in their literal sense, and revealing their deep and hidden truth through an ideal representation."19
Inaugurated in 1882, the Bayreuth festival put this program into practice. Wagner designed Bayreuth as an autonomous framework in which Wagnerian music drama could revitalize the community-building symbols of the past and thus emancipate cultural expressions from the constraints of a competitive market society. Taking position in the wake of this project, Sirk in his 1951 film wants cinema to transfer older symbols to the present in order to employ them in current showdowns between authentic culture and popular diversion. Hollywood, for Sirk, should become a latter-day Bayreuth: The First Legion
aspires to remove commercial imperatives from the production and distribution of film so as to redesign cinema as a sanctuary of communicative exchange, authentic expressiveness, and spiritual redemption. Sirk's use of diegetic and nondiegetic music underscores this Wagnerian figuration of Hollywood as an esoteric civil religion, and, as I will detail now, the film places pianos and organs at the threshold between the authentic and the popular.
Bayreuth in Hollywood
Grand pianos occupy prominent positions in many émigré films shot around 1950, even though this presence may at first seem counterintuitive. Founded by German immigrants in 1850, Steinway and Sons reported extraordinary losses in sales and profits in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Piano shipments, for instance, dropped from 163,807 in 1948 to 133,401 in 1949; in 1952 and 1953 the company's profits plummeted to the lowest figures since the Depression era.20
In contrast to the years 1946-1948, when sales dramatically outpaced production, shifting American leisure activities, domestic arrangements, and investment preferences resulted in a fundamental restructuring of the piano industry during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Although clearly delivering quite different products, postwar American piano makers thus shared many of their woes with Hollywood filmmakers. Arthur Loesser summarized the situation in 1955: "In the family, the piano competes manfully with the washing machine and the station wagon for the installment dollar, and rather more weakly with gardening, photography, and canasta for hobby time. As a source of passive musical enjoyment, it has been all but snuffed out by the phonograph, the radio, and the television set."21
Throughout the second half of the nineteenth-century immigrant piano makers and pianists from Germany had often been mocked as missionaries colonizing American life with the bliss (and tribulation) of serious German music.22
The most remarkable appearances of pianos in émigré films around 1950 give little reason to believe that German directors in Hollywood were eager to continue the cultural imperialism of nineteenth-century piano practitioners. In many cases, in fact, these appearances manifest the extent to which the piano was a child of nineteenth-century bourgeois society—its aesthetic preferences, its organization of domestic space, its definition of gender roles, and its vocabulary of social status and cultural distinction. Hollywood's grand pianos circa 1950 articulate precarious states of nonsynchronicity. They signify voices of the past that fail to find a place in the present. Rather than inundate contemporary culture with the charm of highbrow refinement, grand pianos express critical disjunctions between then and now, high and low, "Europe" and "America." They bring discord and downfall instead of harmony and elevation. In many instances grand pianos not only help resound foreboding ruptures in modern American society but catalyze climactic fury and conflict. Death and destruction are near whenever grand pianos take center stage in émigré films of the immediate postwar period.
Father Fulton's piano in The First Legion
adds in interesting ways to the figuration of keyboard instruments in postwar émigré films such as Curtis Bernhardt's Possessed
(1947), Max Ophuls's Letter from an Unknown Woman
(1948), Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard
(1950), William Dieterle's September Affair
(1950), and Irving Rapper's Deception
(1946, a film not by an exile but about exile). Reminiscent of Bernhardt's Possessed,
in which Schumann's piano concerto helps pit Joan Crawford's romantic sentimentalism against Van Heflin's disenchanted engineerdom, Fulton's piano at first seems to convey residues of expressive authenticity to a world governed by instrumental reason and impoverished affect. Likewise, on one's first viewing, one is tempted to compare Fulton's Grieg performance with the transom scene in Letter from an Unknown Woman.
Analogous to Ophuls, Sirk seems to resort to diegetic piano music to set a vanished world of awe and introspection—the "happiest hour" of one's life, as Ophuls's Lisa (Joan Fontaine) puts it—against the exigencies of profane existence. Yet the function of keyboard instruments in The First Legion
is much more complicated than merely orchestrating a confrontation between past and present. More is at stake than simply having passionate piano sounds signify a formulaic antagonism between emotion and scientific reason, between culture and civilization.
Let us backtrack for a moment: Father Fulton is introduced as a former pianist whose devotion to concert music diverts him from his teaching obligations at the seminary. In the opening sequence we witness Fulton rushing home by train and car to teach a course on Christian self-discipline. Fulton, we learn, had just attended a performance of Grieg's piano sonata. Yet although he had left the concert after the second movement, he will fail to appear for his lecture on time: passion and pleasure cut through the paths of methodical conduct and punctuality. Clocks, cars, and trains—the pacemakers of modern life—thus mark Fulton's entry into The First Legion.
They show him as a haunted traveler between two worlds, a pilgrim oscillating between the existential possibilities of recluse and genius stardom, spiritual duty and sensual pleasure, ethics and aesthetics. Fulton's torment ends when Father Sierra recovers from his ailment. He hails the alleged miracle by playing parts of that very piano sonata that he had to abandon in the opening sequence. Sierra's convalescence thus seems to resolve the discord of Fulton's existence. The miracle, in Fulton's view, reconciles the diverging demands of music and prayer. It injects the cerebral world of the seminary with the bliss of corporeal experience and unfettered spontaneity.
Does it, though? And do plot and mise-en-scène endorse Fulton's utopian vision? The film's sound and image track indeed suggest something quiet different. Otherwise fairly unnoticeable, Hans Sommer's musical score at the end of the first miracle sequence picks up Fulton's Grieg performance, carries selected motifs over to the nondiegetic level, and crescendos into a sappy carpet of sounds and emotions. The sonic switch from diegetic to nondiegetic coincides with a visual dissolve from Fulton's hands to the frenzied crowds outside the seminary's gate. Sound and editing thus reveal a curious complicity between Fulton's own recuperation and the crowd's sensationalism. Consolidating disparate spaces and temporalities, Sommer's sound bridge identifies Fulton as a populist whose quest for charismatic experience is driven by the very kind of strategic individualism that erodes charisma in the first place. Fulton's salvation is as fake as the first miracle itself. It connects to an other that in truth is a willful projection of the self. Contrary to our first impression, then, Fulton's grand piano is a harbinger not of expressive authenticity but of the popular's manipulation and commodification of desire. Grieg's piano sonata emerges as mass culture in the guise of high art, as popular materialism in the costume of aesthetic refinement, as instrumental reason in the attire of self-abnegating introspection.
Father Fulton literally drops out of the picture briefly after the first miracle sequence. He does not resurface until the film's last sequence, the second and "real" miracle. In contradistinction to his appearance in the opening sequence, however, Fulton now meets his ecclesiastical obligations—he plays the organ and coaches a choir in the seminary's chapel. Recalling Erich von Stroheim's mannered Bach recital in Sunset Boulevard,
Fulton's organ performance is meant to offer a sign of some kind of radical alterity; it sets the stage for a miracle that shuns publicity, commodification, and rational explanation. It is important to note that in this final sequence sound and image track have reversed their earlier configuration: we first hear what could be nondiegetic music and only then learn about its diegetic source. The choice of music in this scene is equally momentous. Whereas earlier Grieg's neoromantic piano sonata underscored the phony nature of the first miracle, true redemption is authenticated by the devout sounds of the Te Deum Laudamus.
Cured from his initial populism, Fulton, in playing Ignaz Franz's Te Deum,
becomes an agent of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion. He launches a form of healing that purports to overcome self-interest and reification by radically turning away from ordinary social relations.
Sirk's eschatology in the end of The First Legion
once again rings Wagnerian indeed. The film's final organ music appeals to preindustrial notions of popular culture and their embeddedness in religious belief systems so as to profess—like Wagner at Bayreuth—the absolute difference between commodified diversion and authentic culture in the present. It espouses an exoticized past and other in order to fortify authentic meaning against the materialism and vacuous populism of the day. Yet similar to Wagner's musical sanctuary at Bayreuth, Sirk's casting of hallowed organ music lays claim to forms of cultural autonomy that, in the final analysis, must remain delusionary. Both Wagner's and Sirk's Manichean quests for authenticity become cult because both stop short of recognizing that aesthetic autonomy owes its historical possibility to the very process that also initiated the emergence of commodified mass culture. At the end of The First Legion
organs may displace pianos to evacuate popular kitsch and industrial mass culture, but, all things considered, Sirk's Wagnerian project of overhauling American culture and cinema cannot but fail when it tries to offer practical remedies to the troubled studio system of 1950, a system that, of course, was as far as ever from denying its commercial bases and that continued to extol the star commodity, not the vision of art as cult, as a modern proxy of sacred meaning.
Fritz Lang's 1952 western Rancho Notorious
also assigns a prominent role to a (baby) grand piano yet not in order to involve the viewer in a narrative about the place of individual expressiveness and salvation but rather to define a space that rules out symmetrical forms of intersubjectivity and unhampered communication. Lang's piano inhabits a space in which desire and vengeance erase the infrastructures of community, a space in which neither law nor morality sets limits to human conduct and in which, for that reason, secrets of the past consummate the present. Lang's fateful grand is located in a hideout for desperadoes operated by the ex-saloon singer Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich). In its initial two appearances the grand provides the Dietrich character with a sonic background to feature her narcissistic desire for control and authority (fig. 27). First singing to piano accompaniment ("Get Away, Young Men"), and then playing the keyboard herself, Altar's musical sounds join attraction and rejection into an unpredictable aesthetics of coldness. Her music arrests her listeners in a masochistic desire for distanciation and deferral. It engrosses them in quasi-institutionalized games of waiting, in surprise gestures of tenderness and cruelty, in performative masquerades that delay consummation.23
In its final appearance, by contrast, the piano remains mute. Its sheer physicality may dominate the space in which the climactic shootout takes place; it may protect Vern (Arthur Kennedy) and Frenchy (Mel Ferrer) from the bullets of their enemies; and it may set the scene for Altar's sacrificial death. But as a musical instrument the piano has nothing left to say. Desire and hate have obliterated all channels of human interaction, including masochist forms of bondage. The rest, it appears, is silence.
One of three westerns Lang shot during his career in Hollywood (The Return of Frank James,
1940; Western Union,
1941), Rancho Notorious
was based on a screen story originally developed by Lang himself.24
The film fitted well into postwar constellations, a period that witnessed not only a remarkable reemergence of the B western (westerns constituted 27 percent of all Hollywood feature films released from 1946 to 1949)25
but also the rise of the so-called adult western, which pushed the genre beyond its classical naivety.26
Narrated with the help of a series of rather unconventional flashbacks, Rancho Notorious
tells the story of Vern, a Wyoming cowboy who sets out to avenge the rape and brutal murder of his fiancée. After many travels and travails Vern finally faces the murderer, Kinch, at Altar Keane's hideout ranch, a sanctuary run with profits accumulated from "Chuck-a-Luck" gambling. Altar is involved with the gunman Frenchy, but before long Vern, too, finds himself drawn to her magnetic persona. Passion displaces better judgment as unforeseen desire tends to override Vern's cold-blooded project of revenge. In the last sequence, however, Vern will unite with none other than Frenchy in order to confront Kinch and conclude his original mission. Altar saves Vern's life during the dramatic shootout by taking a bullet aimed at the avenger. She will die in Vern's and Frenchy's arms after they have killed Kinch and all of his sinister companions. In the film's final shot we see both cowboys riding off into the open landscape—two loners whose quest for punishing the crimes of the past ended up erasing the possibility of any meaningful present and future.
The enduring notoriety of Rancho Notorious,
of course, stems neither from Lang's fatalism and signature focus on self-destructive agency nor from Dietrich's hyperbolic role as a singing cowgirl. Rather than the film's diegetic actions and sounds, it is Lang's intermittent recourse to a nondiegetic theme song that is usually considered the film's most palpable contribution to American film history. Composed by Ken Darby and sung by William Lee, this cowboy ballad owed its existence to an idea of screenwriter and Harvard Law School graduate Daniel Taradash. The song comes in three installments. It prepares the viewer for a "tale of hate, murder and revenge" during the opening credit sequence; it provides narrative cues during Vern's search for Altar's ranch; and it winds up the film with lyrics that strangely contradict what we see onscreen. Accompanied by guitar alone, the singer relies on melodic progressions and rhythmic patterns typical for nineteenth-century American folk music. The song echoes harmonic idioms regularly associated with the Hollywood western genre, yet Lee's expressive tempo changes and didactic crescendos echo a quite different musical legacy, namely that of Kurt Weill and the Gebrauchsmusik
(utility music) that energized Weill's and Brecht's 1928 Three Penny Opera.
Recalling Brecht's own work for Weimar cinema, his contribution to the making of Kuhle Wampe
(1932), the theme song of Rancho Notorious
forces the viewer, as some have argued, to become a quasi-Brechtian participant in the construction of the film's meaning. It shifts our attention away from the image track, presents sound as a stand-alone element, and encourages the viewer to oscillate between different and at times contradictory levels of narrative emplotment, between the diegetic and nondiegetic, between emotional identification and cognitive distanciation.
Brecht in Hollywood? The studio system as an avant-garde laboratory of contrapuntal sound? A Brechtian reading of Rancho Notorious
's theme song, insinuated by none other than Lang himself, clearly calls for further examination. Brecht's position in Hollywood during his vexed years in American exile (1941-1947) was elusive, riddled with remarkable ambiguities and contradictions. Although he denounced Hollywood as an insufferable "showcase of easy going,"27
Brecht hoped to find in Hollywood a conveyor belt for his political and aesthetic visions. Brecht's actual contribution to Hollywood filmmaking as a screenwriter remained limited to only one production—Hangmen Also Die
(1943), by Fritz Lang. This is not the place to recall the controversies that marked Brecht's role in the making of this anti-Nazi film. What is important here, however, is that Hangmen Also Die
indeed evinced traces of a Brechtian aesthetics of counterpoint and distanciation, thanks in particular to Hanns Eisler's score. Similar to Eisler's score for Kuhle Wampe,28Hangmen Also Die
aspired to have nondiegetic music act not as a sensuous amplifier of the image track, of individual heroism and bourgeois subjectivity, but—in Eisler's words—"as the representative of the collectivity: not the collectivity drunk with its own power, but the oppressed invisible one, which does not figure in the scene."29
The film's images of Heydrich's death, by way of contrast, were accompanied by dissonant piano figures and string pizzicatos. Cacophonous sounds here were meant to undercut any forms of sympathy that may result from rendering visible the oppressor's slain body.30
The general principles and possibilities of dialectical film sound were, of course, theorized most influentially by Eisler himself in his 1947 Composing for the Films,
which he coauthored with Adorno during their exile years in Southern California. Polemically arguing against conventional practices of using film music as a subconscious trigger of emotional responses in the viewer, Eisler and Adorno called for a sonic aesthetics of interruption and affective distanciation that would concede to film music greater presence and autonomy, in fact would elevate it at certain points to the primary carrier of cinematic meaning. Echoing Eisenstein's theory of cinematic counterpoint,31
Eisler and Adorno insisted,
on the one hand, that standard cues for interpolating music—as for background effect, or in scenes of suspense or high emotion—should be avoided as far as possible and that music should no longer intervene automatically at certain moments as though obeying a cue. On the other hand, methods that take into account the relation between the two media should be developed, just as methods have been developed that take into account the modifications of photographic exposure and camera installation. Thanks to them, it would be possible to make music perceptible on different levels, more or less distant, as a figure or a background, overdistinct or quite vague."32
Subjected to the principles of dialectical montage, film music for Eisler and Adorno was meant to become an equal player in the composite art of filmmaking. It should complicate the viewer's relation to a particular film by pitting sound against image, encouraging viewers thereby to actively negotiate moments of tension, polyphony, ambiguity, and shock.
Produced only a few years after the initial publication of Composing for the Films,
Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious
seems to put Eisler and Adorno's program into practice. The theme song, taking recourse to popular American folk traditions, promotes nondiegetic film music to an equal carrier of meaning. Certainly, at specific moments, Darby's cowboy ballad helps set the mood for the narrative, transport the viewer across time and space, and comment on narrative action; in this respect the song continues to adhere to the prioritization of image over sound scorned by Eisler and Adorno. At other points, however, Lang clearly allows the theme song to exceed such auxiliary functions so as to either have nondiegetic sounds assume control over the image track or to render film music a contrapuntal and hence quasi-autonomous medium of information and spectatorial attention. Witness an interesting passage halfway through the film when the ballad reports the cowboy's frenzied search for his fiancée's murderer while the image track offers a series of snapshots that present male faces in frontal perspective. The song here clearly pushes the visual beyond the conventional limits of the diegetic. Also witness the use of nondiegetic music in the final sequence, when Darby's lyrics contradict the ending imposed on Rancho Notorious
by RKO producer Howard Welsch. While we watch Vern and Frenchy riding off into the open, the ballad tells the astonished viewer that both cowboys died "that day"—"with empty guns they fought and fell." Following Eisler and Adorno's suggestions, nondiegetic film music here assumes a right of its own, opening a space of ambiguity and spectatorial activity. The final stanza of the ballad offers alternative meanings that—according to each viewer's interpretation—either question, add to, or displace the images we behold at the same time.
It has become a commonplace to hail such instances of audiovisual dialectic and dissonance as a subversive deconstruction of dominant narrative conventions. Does Rancho Notorious,
in espousing Eisler and Adorno's theory of dialectical sound, really live up to these expectations? Does the film offer a subversive model of popular culture in which formal aspects of cinematic representation—counterpoint, ambiguity, shock—empower the viewer to be an active maker of meaning? One possible answer to these questions, I suggest, can be found in the ballad itself as it is intoned during the film's opening credit sequence:
Oh listen, listen well, Listen to the legend of Chuck-a-Luck, Chuck-a-Luck,
Listen to the song of the gambler's wheel,
A souvenir from a bygone year,
Spinning a tale of the old frontier,
And a man of skill and a passion that drew him on and on and on.
It began, they say, one summer day,
When the sun was blazing down.
It was back in the early seventies in a little Wyoming town.
So listen to the legend of Chuck-a-Luck, Chuck-a-Luck,
Listen to the wheel of fate,
As 'round and 'round, with a whispering sound,
It sings the old, old story of
Hate, murder, and revenge.
Oscillating between three different temporal planes, the ballad serves as a medium of narrative authentication. It speaks in the name of collective authorities rooted in the past ("the legend," "they say") in order to address the viewer of the present directly ("Oh listen, listen well"). Storytelling here is understood not simply as an attempt to cast the entropy of life into meaningful symbolic structures but rather to connect premodern and modern lifeworlds, the far and the near, the imaginary and the real. Speaking from a curiously unsettled location in between the narrated event, the original fables, and the present space of reception, the act of narration in fact aspires simultaneously to reveal what is new about the old and old about the new. Narrations only work, this first installment of the theme song suggests, if they succeed in intermeshing different horizons of lived experience and ship knowledge across space and time.
A popular, vertical version of roulette, "Chuck-a-Luck" gambling provides the central, although twofold, trope for this kind of narrative project. On the one hand, the song employs the game as a metonymy for the popular, for the hopes, excesses, and utopias that putatively structure the popular dimension at any given point in time. On the other hand, however, the gambling wheel also serves the ballad as a metaphoric substitution for the act of narration itself: the Chuck-a-Luck wheel spins out stories similar to the way storytellers spin their yarns. Significantly, however, the passage of the theme song quoted above by no means tries to keep these two different interpretations of Chuck-a-Luck gambling distinct. The text repeatedly blurs the lines between metaphoric and metonymic uses. The popular, as a result, becomes identified with practices of narrativity that link past and present; the telling of tales figures as the primary characteristic of popular culture. The signified slips underneath the signifier, stories displace events, and history emerges as a product of the invariable desires circulated in and through popular culture.
It is instructive to compare this slippage between the metaphoric and the metonymic, between narration and popular culture, with the model of cultural critique discussed earlier with regard to Sirk's The First Legion.
Whereas for Sirk the popular constituted a site of vacuity and manipulation, for Lang it represents a crucible of desires and symbols that exceed political power and commercialization. Whereas Sirk conflated high cultural and religious practices intending to end the banality of modern secular society, Lang endorses the popular as a site at which archetypal human longings and depravities reveal themselves most graphically. Sirk's project is to explode the continuum of history; Lang's is to show how the past already contains the seeds of any future present. These differences notwithstanding, both Sirk and Lang of course share a view of history in which transcendental forces (Sirk's salvation, Lang's fate) in the final analysis categorically overwhelm individual self-determination and self-expression. In their respective attempts to remake contemporary culture from either above (Sirk) or below (Lang), both ironically deny autonomous forms of human agency. To put it differently, both the miracle play and the adult western offer antievolutionary and atrophic views of secular history. Both films suggest that modern history leads us away from the possibility of happiness or self-awareness. History extinguishes rather than enriches the cultural resources we may use in order to shape or understand our life as meaningful.
Lang's Rancho Notorious,
then, confronts the viewer with a paradox. Whereas the very presence of the ballad calls for spectatorial activity and Brechtian distanciation, the lyrics of the song lay claim to the futility of shaping new meanings and becoming a Brechtian subject of history. People, according to the text of the theme song, may receive through popular culture semantic resources from the past, but there is little reason to believe that they can invent new symbols and meanings to change the course of history. Facing this paradox, Lang's viewers are left to draw their own conclusions—including the one that history makes them unfit for acts of choosing and concluding. How historical audiences in the early 1950s actually responded to this paradox must remain beyond what film historians are able to reconstruct, but Lang's vacillation between aesthetic innovation and premodern traditionalism, enlightenment and myth, should at least alert us to the fact that we cannot simply celebrate audiovisual counterpoint as subversive or avant-garde per se. Lang's Rancho Notorious
is a telling example of the power of twentieth-century commercial culture simultaneously to incorporate certain avant-garde techniques and to disavow the avant-garde's hope for radical political change. Whereas the historical avant-garde hoped to close the gap between aesthetic modernism and vernacular experiences in order to achieve a profound reorganization of culture, postwar neo-avant-gardes and consumer cultures alike institutionalized the avant-garde as either art or commodity (or both at once) and thus negated genuinely avant-gardist intentions.33
If Rancho Notorious
teaches us a lesson, it is that our decisions about what is really subversive cannot simply be seen as a matter of textual interpretation and formal judgment. As Martin Jay has reminded us recently, the question of whether a text articulates true negativity and avant-gardism cannot be reduced to theory because "history has a way of subverting the logic we impute to it."34
It is in this sense that the use of sound in Rancho Notorious
also urges us to reconsider the one-sided valorization of dialectical audiovision in the modernist work of Adorno, Brecht, Eisenstein, Eisler, and others. Dissonances between images and sounds may indeed, as I argued in chapter 6, complicate the viewer's relation to a particular film by multiplying possible meanings and channels of perception. But they do not necessarily do so. As an aesthetic formula dialectical sound has attained much of its currency because its advocates demonized as merely conventional any practice other than counterpoint. Neither Eisenstein nor Adorno, although authorities in dialectical reason, fully escaped the inclination to essentialize what in truth is an ideological product of historical processes. For even if classical codes sought to paper over their heterogeneous relationship, sound and image are in some fundamental ways always at odds with each other simply because both rely on different logics of expression, recording, and representation. There are, in other words, many more than merely two ways (dissonant vs. affirmative) to add sound and music to a given cinematic image. "Of this vast array of choices," as Michel Chion has warned scholars against overzealous political posturing, "some are wholly conventional. Others, without formally contradicting or 'negating' the image, carry the perception of the image to another level."35
As long as we conceive of audiovisual dissonance as merely the inverse of convention, we remain caught in a binary logic that denies the many shades of gray characteristic for commercial filmmaking—a logic that blinds us to some of the basic principles according to which popular cinemas work.
Home Sweet Home?
For many German intellectuals and artists born during the 1940s and early 1950s, American mass culture offered welcome means by which to challenge the hegemonic valorization of high art over mass culture in postwar West Germany. Writers and filmmakers such as Herbert Achternbusch, Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, Peter Handke, Werner Herzog, Monika Treut, and Wim Wenders, in their often ambivalent appropriation of American popular culture, shared—as Gerd Gemünden has shown—"an anti-intellectual and antitheoretical sensibility that favor[ed] experience over meaning and sensuality over sense."36
Haunted by the memory of war and Nazi genocide, German adult film audiences during the 1950s (that is, the parents of Achternbusch et al.) may have shown a similar hunger for sensual immediacy and nonconceptual delight, but they did not aspire, in spite of the spiraling "coca-colonization" of postwar West-Germany,37
to find their primary sources of cultural renewal in Hollywood import products. Nor did their pleasures entail an antimetaphysical assault on sense and meaning in Gemünden's understanding. West German cinema of the 1950s, in fact, operated as a meaning machine. German homeland films, which by the early 1950s had pushed Hollywood releases almost completely from the annual top-ten list of box office hits,38
endorsed traditional lifestyles and unquestioned normative arrangements. Domestic melodramas presented the patriarchal bourgeois household as a blueprint for the reconstruction of German national identity after Hitler and for preparing West German society for its new role in cold-war Europe.
It therefore should come as no surprise that émigré adult westerns such as Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious
found little resonance among West German audiences during the 1950s. American and homemade western films, as I argued in chapter 4, had been enormously popular in Germany during the entire interwar period. The genre's stress on physical immediacy and phallic reassertion had offered a projection screen for various ideological projects and utopian longings, but with their self-reflexive exploration of unfulfilled desire, repressed violence, and decadent morality, the Hollywood adult westerns of the 1950s raised considerably less enthusiasm in the moviegoing public of the Adenauer period than had their prewar predecessors. Lang's Rancho Notorious,
in fact, was not released until 1960, a time at which dramatic changes in the international film market were underway, changes that would lead to the disintegration of former distribution circuits and the factual decline of West Germany's popular cinema of the 1950s. Lang's third western was distributed in Germany as Die Gejagten
(The chased), a title that shifted the viewer's attention away from Vern's and Altar's predicaments and marketed the film as a conventional pursuit-of-justice tale. Eager to please domestic tastes and pieties, the German distributor also decided to rename the Dietrich character Cora-Kean. In a cultural atmosphere in which Christian church authorities continued to patrol popular entertainment closely, Dietrich's original "Altar Keane" must have rung all too blasphemous.39
In spite of such firewalls and revisions, however, the reviewer of the Berlin Abendzeitung,
for instance, still expressed outrage about Lang's exclusive focus on the "life of some outlaws on a ranch hermetically sealed off from the bourgeois world."40
Lang's film, the reviewer implied, lacks any normative center and heroizes antibourgeois attitudes. Rather than uplifting the viewer with a narrative about the moral self-constitution of bourgeois society, Lang uses the western genre simply as a star vehicle for Dietrich and her "already rancid myth,"41
thus offending in particular those German viewers who considered Dietrich's service for the U.S. Army during World War II an act of high treason.
In her study of postwar German film culture Heide Fehrenbach summarizes the often-ambivalent view of Hollywood feature films throughout the 1950s: "Critics feared that American cinema would facilitate social disintegration by seducing the German public (and particularly German women) with its slick production style, consumer values, and Hollywood brand of hedonism. Persuaded that film influenced social behavior, they suspected Hollywood of encouraging individual fulfillment and pleasure seeking over social responsibility to family and nation."42
Although Rancho Notorious
neither provided spectacular production values nor appealed to hedonistic modes of spectatorial identification, Fehrenbach's description explains both why Rancho Notorious
received mostly negative responses on its German release and why Lang—similar to Robert Siodmak—was destined to disappoint critics and audiences alike when he returned to West Germany in the late 1950s to direct his last three feature films, Der Tiger von Eschnapur
(The tiger of Bengal, 1959), Das indische Grabmal
(The Indian tomb, 1959), and Die tausend Augen des Dr. Mabuse
(The thousand eyes of Dr. Mabuse, 1960). Lang's cinema, Weimar and Hollywood, had always been driven by antibourgeois impulses. It had alternated between an aristocratic and a populist, a Nietzschean and a Rousseauean rejection of modern civil society and bourgeois morality. With its carefully crafted tales of perversion and excess, its self-reflexive concern with the dynamic of the cinematic medium, and its calculated exploitation of the viewers' desire for spectacle and voyeuristic identification, Lang's allegorical cinema was simply not fit for a German film public simultaneously unwilling to work through an unacceptable past and to face an increasingly international and decentered present.43
Fehrenbach's account of film spectatorship and criticism during the 1950s also helps explain why Sirk's The First Legion,
by contrast, was able to draw ample praise on its original release on June 29, 1955, in West Germany. Many in Adenauer's Germany perceived American society as ungodly or sacrilegious, an iconoclastic harbinger of atheism, sectarianism, or misdirected faith. As L. L. Matthias put it in an influential 1953 treatise, "Christianity has lost the cross in America not only in a metaphorical but also in a literal sense."44
Americans, he continued, consume rather than believe. Their Protestant work ethic blinds them to the affective symbolism and integrative power of organized religion, Catholicism in particular. Sirk's The First Legion
was welcomed as a counterpoint to this absence of spirituality. The film, according to critic Martin Ruppert, accomplished nothing less than "to heal a world infected with the virus of progress, and afflicted with delusions, hectic dreams and visions."45
Critics such as Ruppert applauded The First Legion
as a sophisticated art house feature, an "interesting dialogue film"46
in which the community-building power of spiritual values prevailed over the materialist egotism of the time.
The success of The First Legion
in Adenauer Germany is notable for at least three reasons. It tells us, in a symptomatic way, more about the often-contradictory predilections and phobias of West German film spectatorship during the 1950s than about the film itself. First, to create popular interest for Sirk's neo-Wagnerian tale of healing and redemption, the German distributor (Donau-Verleih) decided to release the film under the mismatched title Die Beichte eines Arztes
(The confession of a doctor). The doctor genre was one of the most viable formulas of the 1950s aside from the homeland film genre. It inundated the viewer with repressive fantasies of social harmony and reconciliation, suggesting that any given pathology could be resolved within patriarchal domestic settings.47
In placing Sirk's The First Legion
in the genre of popular medical melodramas such as Rolf Hansen's Sauerbruch: Das war mein Leben
(Sauerbruch: That was my life, 1954), Donau-Verleih wanted to amplify Sirk's emphasis on salvation so as to align the film with the escapist tendencies of 1950s German cinema. Second, most critics, defying these populist marketing strategies, downplayed the film's cinematic aspects in order to commend its theatrical, and hence highbrow, sources. The critics' hero of the moment was neither Sirk nor Dr. Morell but Emmet Lavery, the film's screenwriter and the author of the original 1934 theater play of the same title. Staged in Germany in the immediate postwar period, Lavery's theological dramas The First Legion
it was recalled, had helped "to eradicate the last sulfuric smoke of the anti-Christ's luciferous demonism, and to hold aloft again new banners in a new time in God's wind."48
Thanks to Lavery's spiritual genius, Sirk's film thus served a double task in the eyes of the critics: it substantiated the reconstructive efforts of postwar German culture, and it warned domestic audiences not to seek salvation in an unmitigated embrace of American popular culture and Americanism. Third, and finally, neither the critics nor the distributor made any mention whatsoever of Sirk's professional past at UFA during the Nazi period and of his exile status in Hollywood after 1939. Once celebrated as a maestro of the melodrama, Detlef Sierck/Douglas Sirk for German critics around 1955 was simply "the director Sirk," for Sirk's name and identity, not his work, challenged the silent consensus of postwar German film culture in a double way. Any allusion to the director's past would have either broken the taboo on exile so characteristic for West German society until the 1960s or evoked in an all-too-explicit way the extent to which postwar German film relied on the directors, stars, and technicians of the Nazi period. A minefield of uncontrollable meanings and memories, "Sirk" was therefore veiled by German critics in a protective cloak of anonymity and statelessness.
The later revaluation of Douglas Sirk by filmmakers and psychoanalytic scholars during the 1970s is by now well documented. For Rainer Werner Fassbinder Sirk's Universal melodramas of the 1950s provided a paradigmatic example of how to appropriate "the classical system to the point of rethinking not only what it meant to address audiences in what remained of the public space that was cinema, but what it meant to organize the field of vision that is the cinematic apparatus."49
In films such as Angst essen Seele auf
(Ali: Fear eats the soul, 1974) Fassbinder espoused the legacy of Sirk's American melodramas to unmask the hypocrisies of bourgeois morality and stress the artifice of cinematic representation. Douglas Sirk, by now retired in Lugano (Switzerland) and teaching occasional courses at the Munich Film School, thus became one of the elected fathers of the New German Cinema, even if it meant once again to render Detlef Sierck silent. Sirk's academic critics of the 1970s, on the other hand, celebrated films such as Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind,
and Imitation of Life
as exercises in subversion that articulated artistic authorship within the heart of standardized mass culture. Strangely enough, though, this scholarship, although proposing extremely sophisticated strategies of formal exegesis, often relied on highly conventional notions of cultural and national identity. Rather than understanding Sirk's work as a site of cultural syncretism, it valorized Sirk as a European art director who succeeded in smuggling aesthetic refinement into the camp of the enemy, as a secret agent who crossed borders yet did not unfix given identities. No longer rendering the continuities and ruptures between Sirk's German and his American work taboo, more recent scholarship has rightly questioned this image of Sirk as an undercover artist simply dismantling American culture and identity. In linking Sirk's extravagant mise-en-scène to the demands of 1950s consumer society, scholars such as Barbara Klinger read Sirk's style not in terms of subversion but of unbridled commodification: "[T]he production of films with lush visuals was strongly influenced by publicity considerations in the 1950s which sought to exploit the contemporary decor and fashions showcased in certain films as a means of advancing Hollywood's relation to consumer society. The rich mise-en-scène of family melodramas . . . did not result simply from directorial decision, but from socially influenced industry demands to render style consumable.
Seen against the backdrop of industry dictates and other extratextual protocols, Sirk's melodramas of the 1950s—like To New Shores
—catered directly to the audience's fantasies of consumption. Sirk's allegedly dissident style, according to this newer generation of critics, provided images of plentitude for a bourgeois society deeply submerged in hegemonic ideologies of domesticity and affluence.51
What is important to note in closing is that Sirk's American work after The First Legion
continually replays as pastiche the earlier film's juxtaposition of high and low. Whatever their actual effects on historical spectators, even Sirk's most extravagant pageants made at Universal invoke his 1950 critique of aesthetic instrumentalization and commodification. In often paradoxical and self-contradictory ways Sirk's aesthetic resistance and cultural elitism thus became the stuff of popular entertainment itself. Nowhere does this become more evident than in Sirk's penultimate Hollywood film, A Time to Love and a Time to Die
(1957). In one particular sequence Sirk leads the viewer into the villa of the Nazi official Oscar Binding. We see the villa's walls cluttered with confiscated artworks that are arranged like trophies. While a concentration camp officer plays Beethoven on the piano in the posture of a nineteenth-century genius artist, we view Binding and some prostitutes indulging in animalistic desires (fig. 28). In another important sequence, opposed to this scenario of aesthetic instrumentalization and coordination, we follow the protagonist, Ernst Graeber, as he wanders through the rubble of his hometown. Suddenly, his attention is drawn to the grotesque sound of atonal music, produced by a wire scraping over the strings of a broken piano. Heard against the decadent uses of Beethoven, the piano's dissonant, unauthored chords emerge as an idiom of authentic, noninstrumental articulation. They intone a language of suffering and negativity, a cryptogram of despair whose puzzling modernity lies in its mimetic relation to a world of material desolation. Authentic art not only has become literally homeless, but it also must eliminate the organizing power of the artist, the bourgeois genius so popular in the iconography of twentieth-century mass culture. As a mimesis of destruction, art challenges in this sequence the attempt to unify high and low in spectacles of false reconciliation. No longer defined as a work, it punctures the reshaping of modern culture as religion and cult of standardization. In their very negativity and dissonance, the piano's enigmatic sounds thus encrypt the utopian idea of aesthetic experience as a yielding to and becoming other. They recapture a sense of spontaneity that points beyond the scenes of cultural reification. Forsaking all magic, Sirk in this chilling sequence actualizes magic and plays it out against the sorcery of cultural leveling. He endorses a form of aesthetic experience and autonomy that, in Adorno's words, "renounces happiness for the sake of happiness, thus enabling desire to survive in art."52
Similar to many West German films shot during the Adenauer era, A Time to Love and a Time to Die
presents Nazi warfare as a fiasco of operatic dimensions. It recasts the past as fate and natural disaster and suggests that modern art has no choice but to bear the scars of havoc and disruption. Art's esoteric task is to express the impossibility of expression. Its truth and authenticity lies in articulating that authentic experience has become untenable. For Sirk, as much as for Adorno, the role of modern art is thus that of a camera obscura belaboring the fact that nothing concerning art goes without saying anymore, including its own right to exist. Genuine art reflects the desolate landscapes of modern life, yet it does so only through acts of self-conscious negation, by radically separating itself from being and the logic of industrial culture. It is the remaining paradox, challenge, and scandal of Sirk's American work that it sought to examine these propositions with the means of industrial culture itself, that it aspired to amalgamate populist and antipopulist stances and elevate mass culture to a laboratory of aesthetic reflection. Sirk's later popularity among academics and filmmakers, in turn, resulted in no small measure from the extent to which Sirk himself—unlike Lang or Siodmak an ardent reader of contemporary film scholarship—was able and eager to couch such ambitions in sophisticated theoretical formulas. In many strange ways, indeed, Sirk's frequent self-interpretations not only provided film scholars of later periods with an opportune political aura, but they also distracted from the fact that the deconstructivist theory of textual resistance, in its zealous search for instances of subversion in mass culture, excised any further examination of the popular's historically specific institutions and practices of consumption.