Silence Explains Nothing

By Stefan Grissemann

Film Ist., 1996-2002

It is not easy to explain what cinema is, what it might be, and what it can show – and that is even more difficult to do in words. There is more likelihood of success when the argument is presented 'practically': in sequences of sound and image. One thing is certain, there is something in film, in moving images, which is different to the related arts, something quite unique to film. Cinema, that great machine of illusions, has been telling lies from the beginning of the first fade-in. At the same time, because it denies the restrictions of being 'realistic', it exhibits more veracity that any one-dimensional positivist 'truth' could ever do. It is precisely because of its love of the physical that film is radically metaphysical – recording what is and organizing that into the way it could be. The essence of cinema is especially complicated by appearing to be so simple.

In 1950 Jacques Rivette wrote that it was "astonishing to look at certain films by Stiller, Murnau or Griffith again. You notice how extraordinarily important human gestures were in them. Everything from the universe of feeling which takes place (whether it is the simple act of drinking, walking or dying) acquires a density, a depth of meaning and the confused conviction of a symbol transcending all interpretation and restriction at all times. To search for them in film would thus be pointless. Apart from Vigo and Renoir there is almost no-one capable of suggesting the unremitting improvisational nature of the universe; a stable, quiet and secure creation of the world. Silence explains nothing."

As a filmmaker, Gustav Deutsch has been working for years on a growing compendium of the surface qualities and effects of cinema. Film is, as far as Deutsch is concerned, an immense expanse, a catalogue of what cinema can be – and it is thus always arbitrary, open. Although a catalogue of this nature can never be finished, it can be started. Film is, for example, funny. Chapter seven of Deutsch's outline of cinematographic singularity (at the same time the first big chapter of the second full-length programme of the Film ist. cycle) demonstrates the gripping strangeness, anarchy and depths of a medium approaching its maturity with notable lightness of step.

For Film ist. (7-12), Deutsch has collected together moving images from over thirty years, the first three decades of the (still silent) medium. The material is almost unknown, the images often outrageous, almost forgotten, repressed, consigned to the shelves of film archives. What the filmmaker has found and made use of not only exceeds the canons of classical silent cinema by far, but in fact actually opens up a real possibility of seeing cinema in a different light – documentary as well as fiction film, the avant-garde as well as conservative cinema. And that means seeing film itself in a different way.

Gustav Deutsch apparently – and fortunately – considers the term komisch to be roughly the same as the English word funny, so he binds the amusing and the strange with and to each other. The first image in his film is a picture of fear. A woman steps out of the dark which is, simultaneously, the darkness of the cinema auditorium. She goes through a door and looks fearfully, tinted midnight blue, into an uncertain outside, into the light. After that there's a rapid sequence of events linked by association. There is slapstick (fat men, fall guys) and titillation (ladies in changing rooms), melodramatics and moving scenes, foolishness and destruction (bourgeois rooms burned to the ground). In the montage by which Deutsch forms his selected pieces of film the rooms become surreal, fantastic locked-together spaces as if the world was one huge film studio in a state of continuous reconstruction.

Film Ist., 1996-2002

The actors, artists each and everyone, risk one cliff-hanger after another, hanging from the outside of skyscrapers and climbing ladders up to heaven. You get the impression that early cinema tried out all of the many thousands of possibilities of stumbling in a photogenic manner. By 1925 at the latest all the tricks and ways of slipping and falling in front of a camera innovatively have been used up. Since then cinema has calmed down again and keeps on varying the established ways of walking and falling – moving away from the physics and back to the psyche. The enjoyment of spectacular accidents was never greater than in the first thirty years of film. Starting with Louis Lumière's Arroseur et arrosé – in other words, right from the very beginning – the much loved garden hose, with its turbulences of water supply served to fire the imagination. The un-dead, the resurrected are busy in all the images which Deutsch has found. Again and again the infant cinema soundlessly reproduces whatever chanced over its way at the time. What once appeared as real in front of it, it reproduced as faded reflections of light.

Deutsch's compilation manifests an unrestrained love of the material from which cinema is made – the part that can be touched, the worn matter itself. Its images are lovingly tinted, scratched, fogged – crystal-clear as if fresh from the processing laboratory or with a bizarre patina. The attraction of the unstable raw material of cinema is just as diverse (and in the end just as inexplicable) as the pleasure gained viewing films themselves.

One passage of Film ist. is dedicated to a popular narrative structure of early cinema – the use of a circular mask as the code for the voyeur, the greedy-eyed cinema-goer. One gazes through binoculars and key holes behind which the whole world is to be found, the longed for and the alarming, all that the eye desires. Anything goes. A fast cut is enough to bind closely together two far-distant and totally disparate places. Deutsch's re-montage suggests the 'impossible' – and because of this – 'cinematographic' chains of linked gazes. A series of secretive glances. From a rock a man peers out to sea. In the distance he sees a ship on which it appears that a group of seamen – and now in close-up – look at an exotic dancer far away, with the aid of field glasses. Lightly clad she is forced to present herself on a studio stage.

The music, over-laid from a historical distance, quietly preserves the secret that surrounds each of these images. The musicians (Werner Dafeldecker, Christian Fennesz, Martin Siewert und Burkhard Stangl) avoid the dangers of illustration as far as possible. Their electronic, acoustically shimmering work offers rather an opportunity to meditate on the images and appears to bring them into sharper focus. An elegiac ground work saturates this determinedly modern soundtrack so that you begin to hear a dramatization of small dislocations of meaning in a dense, humming soundscape.

From the very beginning of cinema the laws of gravity are suspended. On the editing table reality proves to be a suitable candidate for improvement. How chases on foot or by car are staged over collapsing bridges, barely missing on-coming trains (or running straight into them) is one of the basic problems of entertainment films and similar to the staging of scenes where people slide and stumble. Along with the appetite for destruction which always accompanied questions of this nature there are some images which can certainly be regarded as prophetic. You learn here that someone discovered what a powerful image Hitchcock's aeroplane attack on a single person in the middle of nowhere (in North by Northwest) could be, decades before Sir Alfred actually shot it.

Film Ist., 1996-2002

Everything is staged, even the 'documentary' material, shots of filming anthropologists, which are still bound to aesthetic principles of nineteenth century photography. Obscenity is part of the art of cinema as if it was always part of its heritage. The infringement of socially acceptable conduct in the fun-fair enjoyment of moving photography is the beginning of cinematography. It has not been able to free itself from those beginnings up to the present day.

However, the potential for magic has not been diminished because of that. On the contrary. The early special effects cinema, beginning with Georges Méliès' feéries, revel in the obscenity and violence, in the magical horror of its images. A girl is transformed into a spider, another is beheaded, time runs backwards and so everything gets worse, gets even nastier, ghastlier. It’s lucky it's only a film. In the film studios' laboratories laboratory stories were produced playing with the dark and romantic ideas of alchemy in hand-made, brightly coloured films. The transformation, the uncanny change from one person to a quite different one became the central figure of early cinema. Early versions of morphing are recognisable here and they provided the technical pre-conditions for the popular stories of ghostly apparitions and resurrections. But the magic can come unbidden from 'outside' as well, and can be found in and on the pictures in the form of damage, of melting, which, when illuminated, intensifies into dreamlike effects. Out of a system error a magic picture grows.

The primary cinematographic fetish, movement, is joined to the sensual (and machine-driven) experience of travelling. You conquer the territory through which you travel/film with the gaze. In the train, the traveller moves across the land and through tunnels, through light and dark. Flying objects ascend into the skies and with the zeppelins and aeroplanes war approaches unavoidably. An old man demonstrates a weapon of war. When he is finished he turns politely to the camera, reaches into off space for his hat and bows to his imaginary viewers: a friend of violence with old school manners. War was also and especially fought in the movies. A war of prejudice, complicity and inhumane dramaturgy – civilised society vs. the 'wilderness', the society man vs. the Bushman.

Writing – like spoken language – has always been part of the cinema (even the silent cinema). Inserts evoke images and continuously reference the gaze and the impossibility of not looking ("Please do not look"). Typographical differences elevate the whole spectrum of content to high drama and make it visible. "JAMAIS!" – screen-filling and larger than life – 'screams' at us between two scenes. Film is, and always was, inscribed – between, over or in the pictures, in inserted letters and body language and that includes, without doubt, the warning finger of the pedagogical filmmaker. Deutsch, himself an (ironic) pedagogue, brings all this and more together, arranges related and identical things together in parallel montage and parallel narratives just like the picture makers whose work he re-works.

Nothings seems to characterize silent cinema more than its feeling for passion and emotion – the made-up, painted faces of the actors speak, shout, eye-rolling, towards transfiguration. The arsenal of the cinema of emotions is spread before us, all the melodramatic shorthand which formulates and sets its seal on tragedy – light reflections dance, blades flash, veils waft in the breeze. Lust, vengeance and suicide are played so that they fill the entire stage, put on show for, and for the eyes of, the cinema audience. The poseurs of the last moments do their duty by stepping into the limelight, weeping, choking and dying.

The wheels of the cinema machine are set in motion everywhere including in the so-called real world – and simply by its presence it re-works and alienates things. It invades all areas of life including the bedroom. It sets the world to rights, just like those who wound the handles wanted to see – ordering things into parades strictly sorted into "civilised" and "wild" (which means: into us and them). Not everything which looks like a document is one and Film ist. (7-12) shows that. Propaganda begins with the first frame.

Translation: Tim Sharp

Republished with kind permission from Sixpackfilm