Monday, July 14, 2014

Cinema Ritrovato 2014: Der letzte Akt, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1955

I loved many, and liked almost all films I saw at this year's festival. Of the few I didn't like, only one proved somewhat resistant to my disliking it: Pabst's film about Hitler's last days in the bunker, Der letzte Akt. A strange, deeply conflicted film that now, more than a week after seeing it, reminds me of a piece by Frederic Jameson on Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon, in which he suggests that, (from his still rather orthodox Marxist pov) "what is good about the film is what is bad about it".

For Jameson, the main problem with Dog Day Afternoon has to do with Al Pacino's celebrated method acting and the somehow connected regressive fantasy / cliche of the anti-hero, which points towards a mode of representation no longer sufficent when trying to speak about present day (meaning: late 70s) capitalism. My problem with Der letzte Akt also starts with what might be seen as, on a first viewing, what's best about it: those starkly lit, deeply affecting scenes towards the end, which clearly hark back to Pabst's much more famous silent work in particular, and to German expressionist cinema in general.

These scenes are truly impressive. Some shots, like one of a woman starting to dance wildly und uninhibited when the light go out (at the beginning of the last soviet attack), while smoking a last cigarette, some Nazi comrades walking towards the camera zombie style while singing a now even more hollow sounding Kameradschaftslied, probably will stay with me a while. And still... For me, these images embody, much more than the rest of the film, its truly terrible aspects, the way Der letzte Akt frames, like so many German films and novels following it, Germany itself as the first - and only significant - victim of its own aggression. The expressionistic style suddenly emerges - late in the film, like a release of some sort - as some kind of trademark of Germanness, as if to declare once and for all: this is our style, our war, our memory. We can do with it as we please. (There's only one German post war film I can think of, which returns to German expressionism in an interesting, truly productive, provocative way: Peter Lorre's Der Verlorene, where Dr. Karl Rothe's excesses somehow sidestep the mainstream narrative about the few bad men and the seduced masses, thereby opening up, retroactively, frictions inside the usually, and not only in th 50s, glossed over visions of everyday life in Nazi Germany.)

So... Why does the film prove resistant to my (almost) hatred of it after all? Maybe, to stick with Jameson, because, "what is bad about it is, on the contrary, rather good". Weirdly, what (almost) makes me wanting to defend Der letzte Akt, is the very thing Jamesons dislikes about Dog Day Afternoon: method acting, or rather, its foreboding in the sensual acting style of Oskar Werner. Even more weirdly, this somehow calculated, almost opportunistic bravura performance initially did put me off much more than than the expressionistic ending, as it seems to affirm, quite openly, a dubious "vitalism against all odds" (which also made me distrust, rather recently, Oliver Storz's otherwise quite interesting novel "Die Freibadclique").

So, what about Werner's take on the angry young man makes me returning to Der letzte Akt? Maybe just the very artificiality of it. His Hauptmann Wüst is so clearly ficticious, so clearly an invention, so clearly added "after the fact", so clearly made up as both representation and soothing of (an itself completely vague) bad conscience, that he manages to disturb this otherwise decidedly procedural take on The End of Nazism. So yes, his character is pure wish-fulfillment. But as such, his acting at least comes close to embodying a truly emotional response to the events the film otherwise only pretends to talk about.

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