Q and A with Jennifer Barker, THE AESTHETICS OF ANTIFASCIST FILM
Tell us a little about your book.
The Aesthetics of Antifascist Film: Radical Projection argues for a general theory of an antifascist aesthetics, which originated during the WWII period and was adapted over the course of the long twentieth century in relation to the changing political situations and aesthetic traditions that came into contact with it. Drawing on insights from film and cultural studies, aesthetic and ethical philosophy, and socio-political theory, the book argues that the artistic struggles with political commitment and modernist strategies of representation during the 1930s resulted in a distinctive, radical aesthetic form that represents an alternate strand of post-modernism. Radical Projection defines and theorizes this aesthetic resistance by examining a number of film case studies that represent the ethos of a particular cultural moment and space as well as the development of this antifascist aesthetic over time.
These case studies fall into three historical periods: First, the WWII period of the 1930s and 1940s, which includes Fritz Lang’s Fury, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and Orson Welles’ The Stranger. Second is the Cold War period of the 1950s through the early 1980s, which includes Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour, John Frankenheimer’s The Train, and Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism. The final era is the Post-Wall period of the late 1980s through the present, which includes Ken Loach’s Singing the Blues in Red, Florian von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, Jessica Wu’s Protagonist, and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir.
Antifascism is a central social and political crux of the twentieth century, and antifascist alliances are a necessary, if failed, precursor to the development of contemporary democratic societies. Yet antifascism has remained under-examined as a political, historical and artistic phenomenon, due in part to its nebulous identity as a movement in its own right: antifascism is an oppositional campaign made up of a variety of forces that are working towards the same goals but are not always unified in their ways and means. As an artistic movement, in particular, the question of what constitutes an antifascist aesthetics remains largely unexplored except as an ancillary offshoot of fascist aesthetics. Because of this previous under-theorization, when most first hear the term antifascist film, they are likely to think of films created by filmmakers of Allied countries made during WWII, or later films set in or resonant of this period. While all of the films covered in this study do contain a close engagement with the problem of fascism (political and ideological) as it radiated out from 1930s Germany around the globe, my purpose here is not to document films about the fascism of WWII and resistance to it. Instead, I look at the ways in which some filmmakers of the 1930s and 40s developed a specific aesthetic grammar in order to critique and challenge these repressive political systems, and the afterlife (or, perhaps it should be more properly called the continued life) of this grammar in the following decades.
The antifascist films I focus on tell narratives about the struggles, failures, and partial successes of resistance to fascism and fascistic forces, and they simultaneously embody those struggles in a film aesthetic that enacts a tension between resistance to fascism and resistance to creating a didactic and propagandistic work of art. Although the films’ essential focus transforms over the decades in relation to changing historical moments and national perspectives, which encompass a variety of relationships to the fascism of WWII, they achieve their narrative focus through a constellation of particular aesthetic choices, techniques and tropes that remain fairly constant throughout the century.
Opposed to a fascist aesthetics based on wholeness, homogeneity, and pureness, antifascist films assert a radical beauty of fragmentation, heterogeneity, irregularity, and loss. As is the case with most “political” works, the films contain a strong element of pedagogy, teaching characters and audiences about the systems they are opposing through both content and form. Yet as opposed to propaganda, and the fascist systems that the works stand against, the ways in which these films present their message deconstruct the notion of a singular, supposedly self-evident truth, choosing rather to embrace the messy, the irrational, and often the irresolute.
This imperfect and subjective representation of the real is often centered on a single central character, whose experience of becoming an exile (an outsider and cultural other) set against the monolithic, repressive dominant culture serves as a central point-of-view. Through this perspective, the audience is prompted to form empathetic connections (and affective identification) with the character and appreciate his/her treatment and transformation, with a different sense (visual, bodily, aural) emphasized during each of the three developmental time periods that is representative of their primary symbolic form of engagement with antifascism (identification, eroticism, and technology). This sense of the singular versus the monolithic is also mirrored in a focus on a tension between surveillance and invisibility—being watched or feeling that one is being watched is a consistent theme, as is the notion that secrecy is essential but exposure is necessary.
The multiplicity of content is carried out on a formal level as well, with the development of an antifascist aesthetic that emerged at a critical moment in film history: 1930s and 1940s Hollywood.
The amalgam of national film styles achieved during this period (Russian montage, German Expressionism and Hollywood melodrama) represented the international nature of antifascist alliances in aesthetic form and was facilitated by the presence of German émigrés in Hollywood. This mixture of styles also enacted a dialogue between political commitment and aesthetic richness and complexity that played out in terms of the inclusion of both documentary (and/or social realist) and modernist (or defamiliarizing) techniques, mingling the seemingly “real” with the patently synthetic. Even the difference between the two is often deliberately blurred—for example, the inclusion of documentary evidence is included often as proof within the works, yet it is presented in such a way that its content tends towards surrealism in its context and reception (grounded in the deformation of humanity in the Holocaust). Because these films do not only oppose fascism in a didactic way, their dialogue between disparate elements does not generally reach a resolution, and this can lead to a sense that the films are not really working, are disjointed, and/or do not fit into a canon/genre. Such reactions have led to the marginalization of many of these films, and the lack of recognition for their artistic achievement, something that this study attempts to rectify.
Radical Projection outlines the attempt by filmmakers to change the public’s understanding of what fascism is and what it does in both public and privates spheres. Their films do so by corrupting, satirizing and interrupting the image of a beautiful, healthy community that fascism promotes. There is an ethical urge behind the antifascist attempt to reveal the dangerous and dehumanizing reality behind the seductive and powerful image of wholeness that fascism projects. Thus I focus on the aesthetic and ethical concepts of mythic vs. democratic images, engagement with the other as an intimate and potentially life-changing encounter between fascist and antifascist, and the iconic images of antifascism versus fascism. In this final instance, Walter Benjamin’s elusive figure of the Angel of History provides an ideal icon for antifascism in opposition to the Dictator central to fascist aesthetics and ideology. His figure embodies an aesthetics of failure that is inherent in the antifascist struggle: as an exile, the Angel has little control over the destruction that pursues him, but rather must watch as the wreckage created by utopian progress piles ever higher at his feet. This acknowledgement of failure is inescapably a part of the antifascist aesthetic I identify. Yet there is also a rival element of desire the figure invokes, which brings to mind the rallying cry of antifascist forces: “They shall not pass.” However doomed this desire may be, it still imparts a fleeting hope that antifascism can “piece together what has been smashed.”
What drew you to the topic of fascism in film?
Being pissed off about it! Then wondering if there were more useful ways to think about fascism that didn’t involve just rejecting it or railing against it. I ended up focusing on antifascism because I needed to find something to focus on that didn’t keep me grimly locked inside the ideology and effects of fascism all the time. So I looked at the different kinds of resistance that did and can take place—physical, psychological, ideological, etc.—and tried to focus on a particular aesthetic engagement that is still relevant today. Fascism as a form of oppression and a mindset of blind submission and exclusion of dissent is still very much present in the world, both in a political sphere and as a more wide-ranging cultural expression. I examined resistance in the form of aesthetics and filmmaking because that is what I work on, but I think that there are a lot of interesting ways to think about and enact it.
In many ways identifying fascism is an easier project and fascism is more obvious and often more successful because it is focused and myopic. Theorizing antifascism appealed to me not only because it is more complicated and diffuse, but also because it relies on creating a precarious balance or dialogue between unity and multiplicity, and a refusal to “other” what seems strange. There is a fundamental problem in maintaining this dialectical approach to fascism, but I think it is important to keep trying. Failure is always immanent, and an antifascism that doesn’t take this into consideration becomes another kind of fascism, which is something we’ve seen borne out historically.
What was something unexpected that you learned during the research and writing of this book?
The great thing about doing research is finding out all kinds of things you were not expecting. I’d say the list is fairly long, but one rather substantial argument was my opposition to the persistent assertion by film scholars that The Stranger isn’t really Wellesian; ie., it doesn’t really belong in the oeuvre of Orson Welles. Of course whenever I hear “this doesn’t belong,” I start to think about why it does, and the more research I did into what Welles wrote and said during the time he filmed The Stranger convinced me that the film does very much belong in his oeuvre. That even Welles later disavowed it because it did not fit neatly into an auteurist appraisal of his work does not, for me, detract from the fact that the film perfectly reflects his ideas on the subject of fascism and film style as expressed in numerous speeches and newspaper columns at the time. I began writing that chapter certain that The Stranger had important things to tell us about Welles and about film history and by the time I was finished I was totally convinced. The film is a fascinating mixture of ideas and styles that doesn’t necessarily “work,” but with historical contextualization it becomes compelling. I think it is an underappreciated film and I hope people take a second look.
Also, for me the most enjoyable part of research was finding surprising objects while digging through archival material. These things weren’t really relevant for the book, but in terms of expanding my historical understanding of the work (and people) I was looking at, the random detritus of personal collections offered some cool insights. My two favorite objects were a signed leaflet on dieting from Louis Armstrong (“best wishes from”) to Orson Welles in the Lilly Library and Alain Delon’s phone number from 1976 in the Joseph Losey papers at the British Film Institute. The leaflet was called “Lose Weight—The Satchmo Way” and includes drinking something called “Pluto Water,” and eating lots of stewed tomatoes, lamb chops, steaks and grapefruit. After a bit more research I discovered that Pluto Water was “America’s laxative mineral water” and it had been produced a mere 50 miles from where I was working. Its slogan was “When Nature Won’t—Pluto Will” with a picture of a devil (Pluto, god of the underworld) next to it. Wow. As for Alain Delon’s phone number… if I had a time machine I’d try it out. If you read this, Alain, call me!
You have an MFA in poetry as well as a PhD in literature - did your poetry background help you in any way as you gathered the research and wrote this book?
It definitely affected the way I thought about the subject and the way I wrote the book. Originally I had incorporated poetry and literature into my project, but the scope was so extensive that I had to cut back and just focus on film, especially since I wanted to trace the aesthetic throughout the twentieth century. But poetry is all over the place in the book, as it is in many movies. Movies draw extensively from literature in a self-conscious way, say in an adaptation of a novel, but they also feature people reading poems (think of the Auden poem in Four Weddings and Funeral) or have scripts or text written by poets—one of the films I write about, Night and Fog, has a script written by poet Jean Cayrol. Poetry, literature and lyrics suffuse the movies I write about and my book as well: Marguerite Duras’ script for Hiroshima, mon amour, the poetry of Bertolt Brecht in The Lives of Others, Euripidean drama in Protagonist, a love song in Fury, the lyrical poetry, if you will, of Public Image Limited’s “This Is Not a Love Song” in Waltz with Bashir, and epigraphs from Yeats and George Orwell. In fact, literature is a lynchpin of antifascism in many of the films, and one of the ideas and images that informs the entire book is Walter Benjamin’s metaphor of the Angel of History, which is a version of Paul Klee’s illustration “Angelus Novus” that Benjamin owned. There are other ways that poetry inflects the material as well, as film montage, collage and other forms of modernism grew out of the richly collaborative artistic culture of the early 20th century.
Thus, there is a visual poetry in Chaplin’s movements in The Great Dictator, the montage sequences in WR and other films share much more in common with associative poetry than linear narrative, and the British movement of Mass Observation combined sociology with poetry. It may also be my training in modernism, but I see the connections between various art forms as being a fundamental part of an antifascist outlook: it’s about seeing the connections between forms of expression rather than attempting to exclude influence and maintain purity.
As for my writing, I try to get some poetry in there! I think most academic writing could use a bit more poetry, or at least the kind of attention to detail and meaning that the best poetry has. And I mean poetry as I know it to be: a concrete, compelling and illuminating linguistic force that helps us redefine the world and our understanding of it, and not as something vague, effete or useless. There is often a rift between academics and creative writers and since I have lived happily in both worlds, I try to find a way to merge that in my writing. For better or worse, I like both historical and ideological rigor and finding new ways to articulate the ineffable.
What are you working on now, if you don't mind telling us?
I am writing a few articles on early animation. I just published an article in Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal on an “animated tilt-shift flânerie” that results when digital technology makes real landscapes appear as if they are fake miniatures, encapsulating cities into toy-like visions of themselves, and using time-lapse photography to create the effect of stop-motion animation. These cool little city films are searchable on YouTube. Their sophisticated reimagining of 19th-century postcards utilizes early 20th-century innovations in aerial photography to create a significant shift in scale. I argue that the confluence of micro and macro perception into one animated image challenges the human perception of time and space in a way that mirrors modernization and globalization. I am also indulging my long-standing fascination with the animated films of the 1920s and 1930s! One article traces the process of racialization in the 1939 cartoon “A Haunting We Will Go” from the original script through storyboarding, inking, coloration, direction and voicing, and examines the haunting nature of racial stereotype as it continually resurfaces despite efforts to transform it. Another article considers Felix the Cat as a unique example of phenomenological characterization in early animation. So right now I am spending a lot of time watching cartoons—a nice break from antifascism!