Monday, September 07, 2009

Fourth Walls and Theaters of Operation




The Immelmann III, Hitler's Ju-52/3m (Registration D-2600)

If the war were literally a mere theater
of war and its sea of corpses only
simulacra, behind the screen of which
various technologies fought for their or
our future, then indeed everything
works out as it does in media, which,
from drama to computers, only
transport information

Friedrich Kittler, "Media and Drugs in Pynchon's Second World War", in John Johnson, ed.
Literature, Media, Information Systems: Essays (Amsterdam: G+B Arts, 1997), p. 103.

A wide expanse of clouded sky unfurls in front of the camera eye. The opening titles, a series of highly-stylized fraktur, have just faded away. The image on the screen now recalibrates itself, revealing the accoutrements of an airplane cockpit: a piece of airframe bisecting the Perspex windscreen, a navigational compass, a wireless transmitter, the handle of a control column, the lapel of the pilot’s flightsuit. And beyond, a glimpse of a stressed metal cowling encircles the cylinders of a BMW 132 radial engine, the torque of the propeller barely registering as a faint flickering. As the camera pans to port, the aircraft’s side cockpit panes and corrugated metal skin is visible. Off screen, the triumphal horns and strings issue the opening strains of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The camera moves effortlessly through the clouds and suggests conflating points of view. Indeed, this is a camera eye, but it is a view that only a pilot sitting at the front of the aircraft could possibly enjoy. Yet the view becomes unmistakably omnipotent – the banks of clouds, the rousing Wagnerian fanfare, everything seems expertly placed. Jump cuts alternate between an image of an aircraft (a Junkers Ju-52/3m, registration D-2600) gliding among fleets of cumulus formations, and the formations themselves. Die Meistersinger’s strains continue, along with more images of the Junkers transport flying through cloud formations. These images momentarily ensconce the idea that it is the pilot indeed that enjoys this privileged view from the skies.

In an instant, the clouds literally dissolve, revealing the medieval cityscapes of Nürnberg, the banks of Schütt Island, the verdant carpeting of the Nonner Garten, the glossy, greying waters of Dutzendteich Lake and other well-known features. The D-2600, also known as the Immelmann III, now glides over the city, casting an eagle’s shadow over banks and agglomerations of heimat structures. But through a telephoto lens, the images are distorted. Here, it is not the points of view, but the depths of field that are conflated. The aircraft’s camera eye tacks and jibes amongst the old spires in city’s center, revealing a two-dimensional view, a vantage point collapsed unto itself that reveals nothing about the surrounding urban context – again, only a supreme flatness.

On the streets, the Junkers’ shadow is visible sometimes traveling along, or even against the marching phalanxes of SASS and Reichsarbeitdienst troops. Streetlights, building facades are all covered in the Swastika standard, ceremonial banners and staffs are embossed with cryptic N.S.D.A.P. acronyms, and below, on the sides of the streets, the tops of peoples’ heads are visible as they cheer and wave at the neat, orthogonal formations of Nazi Party members lumbering in time to Wagner’s stirring adagios.

A few moments later, and the D-2600 is on its final approach to the Nürnberg airport. Medium and close-up shots reveal groups of locals, screaming, waving tiny Nazi flags, cadres of Hitler Youth obediently saluting the incoming transport. The Ju-52/3m taxis to a stop on proscenium-like tarmac. 50 yards away, towards the bottom left of the screen, the throngs of devotees eagerly await for groundcrew to open the corrugated metal door on the port fuselage. When the crews manage to open the doors, for a moment, nothing happens, until Adolf Hitler himself exits. He facial expressions are hard to read, because for a second it is difficult to ascertain whether his semi-taciturn visage is an indication of surprise, of smugness, or perhaps even of modesty. The newly-appointed Reichschancellor surveys the scene for a moment, and he is promptly followed by a virtual who’s-who of Nazi Party elite. Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Rudolf HessFritz Todt, and others exit the Junkers, followed by a subtle switch of thematic music as the closing bars of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg dissolve and transform into the opening fanfare of the Horst-Wessel-Lied.

Hitler's motorcade through Nürnberg, from Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will (1935)
The film continues, depicting Hitler’s route to the 1934 Nazi Party Congress. He is standing in the rear passenger compartment of a black Mercedes convertible, saluting crowds of men, women, and children with a crooked Deutscher Gruß. En route to the Hotel Deutscher Hof, the Reichschancellor is seen from the front (and behind), and the film’s mise-en-scene now corresponds to the new, normative universe of power relations after Paul von Hindenburg’s death: Hitler surrounded by fleets of Mercedes sedans bearing Partei and SS dignitaries, traveling down Nürnberg streets cleared for the triumphal procession. It is as if the entire population of the city, a location firmly ensconced in Nordic mythology, a city known as the unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire, is the true fountainhead of power for the Third Reich. But the impeccably straight formations of black-garbed Liebstandarte-S.S. Adolf Hitler shock troops tell a different story. Two days before Albert Speer ignited his famous “Cathedrals of Light” at the Ehemaliges Reichsparteitagsgelände, the starkly anthracite landscape of the Nazi rally grounds, a space crafted to receive fleets of silvery, globe-girdling Zeppelins and conceived as a public space for all Germans to congregate … here is Hitler, escorted by a swarm of obsidian uniforms to his room inside the Deutscher Hof. And amidst a chorus of adulation and a sea of torches that ignite the late summer night air, Hitler steps onto his balcony and waves. The city of Nürnberg has now become the prism through which all Germany recalibrates itself to receive its newest ruler.

The opening set pieces of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) are among the most well-known. In a sequence lasting only a few minutes, the director assembled a series of iconic images that serve as an index to the burgeoning Third Reich: the relentless war machine (the Junkers Ju-52), the vestiges of a Heimat past (the dense urban fabric of Nürnberg), the tell-tale aestheticization of politics (the motorcade procession to the Hotel Deutscher Hof, and later, to the Nazi Party Congress), and even the brash, bellicose Adolf Hitler addressing legions of soldiers. The massive effort undertaken to produce the film is equally wellknown and documented. With Hitler himself as a producer, Riefenstahl marshaled a lavish production that featured staged sets, aerial shots from aircraft and blimps, and even a rousing musical score. The film is an indisputable, yet troubling achievement, as the director’s innovative use of cinematography, sound and picture editing, as well as advanced motion picture camera equipment blazed new directions in propaganda filmmaking. Triumph of the Will is also an undeniable prelude to the Second World War. The film’s opening title sequence even alludes to a Germany just able to overcome the double humiliation of defeat at the hands of Allied armies as well as insufferable proscriptions under the Treaty of Versailles.

Signaling a common trend among the recent touchstones of post-World War II criticism, a host of writers and cultural thinkers specifically consider the idea of a media war. And at some point, whether they write about the use of telegraph in the First World War, or radar and computer technologies in the Second, filmic analyses inevitably ensue. It is always the motion picture, the flickering of the celluloid image, which captivate these critics’ imaginations. Hence Paul Virilio refers to the combined aerial offensives and computer operations of the Second World War as a conflict conditioned by the “logistics of perception.” The landscape of war is essentially cinematic, and quite unsurprisingly, Virilio invokes Riefenstahl’s, Hitler’s and Albert Speer’s role in creating the normative universe for Triumph of the Will, the “production of the first and most important example ever of an ‘authentic documentary’ of a pseudo-event.”

The quote that introduces this post, taken from Friedrich Kittler's media-deterministic reading of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973), also invokes the idea of the Second World War as mediated spectacle. For Kittler, the mysterious V2 Rocket (the Schwarzgerät or Rocket 00000) driving Pynchon's narratives is much more than the novel's generative principle. The launch of a ballistic missile is cinema, Pynchon tells us:
The countdown as we know it, 10-9-8-u.s.w., was invented by Fritz Lang in 1929 for the Ufa film Die Frau im Mond. He put it into the launch scene to heighten the suspense. ‘It is another of my damned “touches,”’ Fritz Lang said.
The Second World War is thus quite literally a film in Gravity’s Rainbow. Tyrone Slothrop, the novel’s erstwhile antihero, even confesses to a German captor, "On D-Day ... when I heard General Eisenhower on the radio announcing the invasion of Normandy, I thought it was Clark Gable, have you ever noticed? the voices are identical ..." As a literary critic who was quite literally born under the sign of the V2 rocket, Kittler not only contemplates wars as episodes in a still-unwritten history of media, but also asserts that the media technologies of the late 19th and 20th centuries were themselves products of armed conflict. For instance, in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1999), Kittler not only observes that the “world-war audiotape” inaugurated “the musical-acoustic present”, but that it also created “empires of simulation.” Kittler, the consummate media materialist, spends much time iterating the actual, physical processes associated with media technologies, the recording styluses, photographic emulsion, and typewriter keys that literally and figuratively inscribe information. Hence, an overwhelming sense of flatness prevails. A bakelite record, celluloid frame, or sheet of typing paper therefore have significance in that they provide surfaces that receive, record, and store information. Kittler continues in Gramophone:
Media and media only fulfill the “high standards” that […] we expect from “reproductions” since the invention of photography: “They are not only supposed to resemble the object, but rather guarantee this resemblance by being, as it were, a product of the object in question, that is, by being mechanically produced by it – just as the illuminated objects of reality imprint their image on the photographic layer,” or the frequency curves of noises inscribe their wavelike shapes onto the phonographic plate.
How, then, to discuss issues of media, surface and simulation in terms of architectural objects? Such questions invoke Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009), a pulp war tale redolent of Enzo Castellari's films as well as of war comics such as G.I. Combat, G. I. Robot, and Weird War Tales. As a highly-stylized and fictional account of war and media, Inglourious Basterds is a movie rife with filmic references. An English officer (Michael Fassbender) is a former film critic who is recruited for special operations based on his knowledge of Ufa films. German infantryman Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) plays himself in a biopic depicting his standoff against American troops. The operation which is supposed to end the war is even called Operation Kino. All will take place in a small theater in occupied Paris in 1944.

Let us, then, consider this small theater. As in Gravity's Rainbow, Operation Kino weaves several layers of facts and fictions within the space of a theater. Zoller's biopic, entitled Stolz der Nation (Nation's Pride) is set to premiere there. Shots of the theater's ornate lobby even recall Triumph of the Will -- titles on the screen point to Nazi brass that would have assembled earlier in Riefenstahl's film: Hermann Göring, Goebbels, Martin Bormann, and yes, Hitler himself. Tarantino presents them as part of a high-profile movie audience that even includes (perhaps in one of Inglourious Basterds' subtler film references) the German comic actor Emil Jannings (the first-ever Oscar winner who would eventually star in pro-Nazi films). The opening shot of the theater's marquee even shows the theater manager (Mélanie Laurent) attending to the titles of G.W. Pabst's Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü (The White Hell of Pitz Palu) (1929), a film that stars Riefenstahl and WWI flying ace Ernst Udet.

Film is a weapon in Inglourious Basterds. It is, quite literally, the equivalent of an incendiary bomb. Tarantino even explains, in a Samuel Jackson-narrated aside, how nitrate film is three times more flammable than paper -- this becomes an important plot point. When the audience watches Frederick Zoller's larger-than-life visage hovering on a screen in front of them on the opposite wall, they are participating in the all-important media spectacle that fuels the Nazi war effort. Here, it is a filmic space -- or rather, a space devoted to film -- that elides differences of war and cinema. Or rather, a space devoted to moving images and sound to show how war is cinema and how cinema is war. Recall that both Gravity's Rainbow and Inglourious Basterds share a common trajectory. In both works, the Second World War's literal and figurative narratives end on a movie theater's screen.

A movie theater, when reduced to its most basic architectural components, consists of floor and ceiling plates supported by four walls. But when these architectural components are, for lack of a better word, cinematized, the theatre is now reduced to a three-wall structure. The fourth wall is, of course, the movie screen. Yet the projected image turns that most stolid of architectural conventions - the wall - into a shifting field of light and shadow. Film renders architecture as a fleeting, phantom-like presence.


Plan of Dan Kiley's renovations for Courtroom 600 (Source
Or does it? Consider another important architectural space from the Second World War devoted to film. In 1945, the planners for the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nürnberg appointed American landscape architect Dan Kiley to design the courtroom where all testimonies, cross-examination, and presentation of evidence would occur. The room is in essence a retrofitting of Courtroom 600 in the Nürnberg Palace of Justice. In plan, Kiley's approach is not unlike a theater. The side walls are reserved for lawyers and press, whereas the center featured space for defense attorneys and prosecutors. Defendants are seated in an amphitheater-like arrangement along the back wall. In this position, the accused became an audience for the various films, photographs, and information graphics that would be projected on the opposite wall. IMT prosecutors deployed moving and still images as evidence, and yet the images projected on the fourth wall of Courtroom 600 were far more than fleeting -- they were introduced as highly probative evidence.

Kiley's projection screen in Courtroom 600 (Source: Life Magazine Archive/Google Images)
The trajectory of the Second World War, like the parabolic ascent and descent of Pynchon's V2 rocket, therefore begins and ends in Nürnberg. Actors, characters, architectures, from the aerial views of cities inTriumph of the Will, to the bombed-out geographies of Gravity's Rainbow, and culminating in the filmic in-jokes of Tarantino's Second World War pulp, show how cinema, whether through the metaphoric sequencing of images, or via the literal projection of film on a fourth wall, becomes that most unusual of architectural devices: a theater of operations.

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