Thursday, August 14, 2008
Germany Year 90 Nine Zero
"Which way is the West?" is the key recurring question of Jean-Luc Godard's Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, which portrays Germany in the wake of reunification, its formerly rigid distinctions between east and west now blurred. The year zero in question is 1990, rendered in fractured and repetitive syntax, a doubling of the year in which Germany became one: the first year after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The project is a complicated one for Godard, as much an accounting of his own cinematic past as it is an attempt to come to grips with the history and present status of Germany itself. The film recasts Eddie Constantine in his iconic role as the detective Lemmy Caution, a part the craggy-faced actor played in countless hard-boiled detective yarns but perhaps most notably in Godard's 1965 sci-fi flick Alphaville, itself a deconstruction of the kinds of films Constantine ordinarily appeared in. If in Alphaville Constantine was a parody of a parody of a parody, the number of levels at work in his reprisal of the role here are truly staggering. The actor's entire screen manner is an off-key attempt to mimic the posture and attitude of American genre actors, notably Humphrey Bogart. Constantine's face is chiseled, but not in the way that adjective is normally applied he literally looks like he has been carved, somewhat hastily, out of solid rock. He looks like a statue and speaks like his mouth is full of gravel. His distinctive hesitant, throaty growl is as ponderous and awkward as his entire persona, making him the perfect Godard hero. He is an un-self-conscious pastiche of American gangster movie conventions, a walking, talking monument to an entire cinematic genre.
As such, Constantine's presence here is crucial in that he links the film's inquiry into Germany's history with Godard's own cinematic origins in the American genre picture. The film itself bears so little resemblance to Alphaville that it is tempting to think of the connection as a disingenuous ploy to worm money out of investors, much like the notion that Numéro Deux bears more than a tenuous relationship to Godard's first film Breathless. Here, though, Godard seems to be referencing his past with a purpose. If in Alphaville 1960s Paris stood in, without ornamentation, for a vague dystopian future, in this film Godard constructs a patchwork Germany in which past, present, and hazy future are equally visible. The film's montage structure, obviously derived from Godard's contemporaneous work on the Histoire(s) du cinema, combines images from old films with documentary photos and videos from World War II, along with modern footage that mostly consists of the retired spy Lemmy Caution wandering, lost, across the German landscape. This is a journey film in which the path is obscure and unclear; Godard simply presents one static shot after another, through which Constantine's bulky frame lumbers like a misplaced Frankenstein's monster. His confused inquiry into the state of modern Germany, his continual uncertainty about which direction he's headed in, is for Godard both an obvious metaphor for the country's uncertain future and for the inability to understand history in general.
At one point, the voiceover compares narrative to music. A five-minute piece of music always lasts the same five minutes, but the relationship between narrative and time is not so straightforward: to tell the story of five minutes might take one minute or five hours, depending on the detail, perspective, and sensory experiences involved. It is the same, Godard suggests, with history, and as such his film only attempts to capture some idea of the historical and political forces involved in an understanding of reunification-era Germany. Just as Lemmy Caution wanders aimlessly through one gray landscape after another the film seems to have been shot almost entirely on cloudy, damp winter days the film meanders from the Holocaust to the post-war rise of Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA, the Soviet-sponsored film-production monopoly), through the divided East/West era and right up to the country's new year zero. Godard's film advertises itself, in an intertitle, as the last of the DEFA documentaries, and in this it attempts to poetically summarize the events leading up to this historical moment. This is not a prosaic history, but an elliptical and often opaque one. At one point, the German antifascist movement is memorialized by a moving tribute to the executed Hans and Sophie Scholl, followed by a meditative closeup on a white flower, a reference to the siblings' White Rose resistance movement. Constantine's Lemmy Caution is supposed to be "the last spy," an appellation that one character says sounds like it comes from a pulp novel perhaps one of the pulp novels of the Soviet spy Jan Valtin, who fled Germany for America to write spy novels and memoirs in his exile. Valtin is one of the many ghosts who inform Constantine's metafictional character here, and his presence is announced in the sustained shot of Constantine and another man reading two of his books in a café.
In this way, the film is littered with seemingly offhand references to Germany's history, and World War II especially looms large, as it does of course throughout much of Godard's work. The central idea of the Histoire(s) du cinema, that the Holocaust was a radical break in the continuity of history for both Western society and the cinema, exists here in the way Godard continually worries at the surface of the documentary images he gathers from the past. He returns again and again to images of the Nazis and the death camps, slowing down the grainy footage and advancing it one frame at a time, as though he hoped to understand these images better by viewing them more slowly. The effect is often to isolate the individuals in crowds, as when a German officer stepping across the frame is slowed down, his dark, haunted expression lingering as Godard freezes his image.
Another of Godard's central concerns is the extent to which Communism lost its way in the post-war era, giving way to totalitarianism and increasingly ceding the future to the forces of capitalism. Lemmy Caution's aimless journey in this film turns out to be a hesitant march towards the welcoming embrace of bourgeois capitalism, symbolized at the end by the poetically lit nighttime shots of banks and department stores, the commercialized Christmas celebration through which Caution walks. If, earlier in the film, a cut from a painting of Christ to a closeup of Eddie Constantine marks the actor and his spy incarnation as a spiritual figure, the ending drains him of this spirituality, setting him adrift in a crass culture of junk and silly jingles. The blaring, inane music of the department stores sits uncomfortably against the classical beauty of Godard's soundtrack, a layered montage of compositions from Bach, Mozart, and Liszt, sometimes conflicting with one another but always signifying Europe's rich cultural past. In retrospect, it's obvious that the awkward, sullen Constantine, trudging across Germany in a thick coat with a briefcase in his hand, could only be an agent of the capitalist west he's always seeking. He's most comfortable, in the end, abandoning his trek and settling down in a cushy hotel room, served by obsequious workers who only require his money to do his every bidding. He props up his feet to sleep on a book about World War II, his comfort built on the tragedies of the past half-century. He's willingly served by a maid who reclaims a notorious slogan from the Holocaust: "arbeit macht frei," work brings freedom, which the Nazis placed above the entrances to the death camps but which works equally well as a rallying cry for either capitalism or Communism.
It's this increasing parity between diverse ideologies that perhaps most distresses Godard. Many of his later films are subtly inflected with the disappointment that the radical ambitions he and so many others fostered through the 60s and 70s have dissipated with so little fanfare. The film opens with several characters trampling on a street sign for "Karl Marx Strausse," the actual writings and ideas forgotten in the midst of increasingly pointless struggles between, not ideologies or competing ideas, but map directions. This is, perhaps, the meaning of the film's inquiry: "Which way is the West?" The question points out the absurdity of thinking, as Cold War political leaders mostly did, of ideological differences as if they were simply geographical distinctions. The result blurred East into West, bringing about the unification of Germany, but also blended capitalist and socialist, radical and totalitarian, raising Stalin as a red mirror of Hitler before him and leading the way to a future totally consumed by capitalist excess. With these ideas and many others at its core, this is a typically dense and affecting late masterpiece from Godard. The dystopian, totalitarian future predicted by Alphaville has, perhaps, come and gone with the defrosting of the Cold War in its place, Lemmy Caution wanders through a much hazier, fog-shrouded landscape, a blurry future emerging from an uncertain past.