Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Berlin 1961

Berlin Flash Frames derives from original camera rolls of 16mm film in the National Archives of the United States. The US Information Agency commissioned two cameramen to shoot this material around the time of the construction of the Berlin Wall. The USIA’s official mission (in the words of its website) is “to explain and advocate US policies in terms that are credible and meaningful in foreign cultures,” i. e., to make propaganda. If this footage from Berlin became a specific propaganda film, I have not found it yet, but I am sure I have seen some of the shots in various newsreels and other USIA productions.

One of the cameramen responsible for this footage, Riecke (no first name given), photographed dramatic scenes featuring a handsome, dark-haired actor in a studio. This actor appears briefly with a hand-held slate in front of his face, something unlikely to happen in candid documentary footage. The slate identifying the take is not a clapperboard. No synchronous sound was recorded during production. The only sound accompanying this footage could have been voice-over narration and music. Spectators were never meant to hear the voice of the actor, who may not have been German. Behind the actor, there is a map of Eastern Europe; on it the outline of Czechoslovakia is visible. In a reverse shot, a map of the German Democratic Republic appears above and behind a pair of men costumed to look like bureaucrats. The conversation staged on this set is meant to be understood as taking place in a government office in East Berlin, somewhere an agency of the US government would not have been allowed to shoot. In the context of a newsreel, spectators might have believed this scene as a faithful representation of a man applying for relocation from the Soviet Zone of Occupation to one of the western zones. In its unedited state, the scene reads as false.

The process of falsification becomes most obvious around the flash frames. A flash frame is produced when the mechanism of a film camera slows down just before coming to a complete stop, thereby overexposing a bit of film stock – often no more than an eighth of a second – in between takes. As a camera is turned off, actors often relax, or extraneous figures enter the frame. These unguarded moments revealing the workings of dramatic filmmaking are not intended for a spectator’s gaze. Seeing them casts the whole endeavor in doubt. For this reason, a professional editor would have immediately cut out and set aside the flash frames in this material. By the prevailing aesthetic standards of 1961, they were of no use whatsoever.

The handsome actor also appears in exterior footage of crowds waiting to submit paperwork to officials in West Berlin. They may have been applying for housing assistance or for relocation to the Western part of Germany. The actor approaches people in line to ask for directions and advice as a way of making conversation. The bystanders in these scenes were not performers and were not supposed to have been aware that they were in a film, though some noticed the camera and looked directly into it. A few of these patient souls “bought” the performance of the actor who approached them. Others probably took him for a spy.

Thrusting actors into real life situations has been a consistent strategy throughout cinema history, mainly in comedies, but it is perhaps most appropriate to compare these scenes from Berlin in 1961 with other scenes shot in Germany a few years later by Edgar Reitz for Alexander Kluge’s Abschied von gestern (Anita G.), a. k. a. Yesterday Girl (1966). Anita G. (played by Kluge’s sister Alexandra) interacts with people in the world who may or may not be aware that she is a fictional character. In Kluge’s hands, the strategy has an effect of estrangement, producing a shock reminding us not only that we have been watching a movie, but also that movies are a part of the real world, and that the people who make them must take a stance toward it, whether they acknowledge this or not. Significantly, Yesterday Girl was shot with direct sound. Unlike the cameramen of the USIA, Kluge allowed his actor to have a voice.

Politicians spend their careers among groups of people who may or may not be aware of how much they have in common with handsome actors. Representations of politicians combine elements of the fictional and the non-fictional; their public appearances are all potential photo opportunities. One such photo opportunity appears in the USIA footage. Willy Brandt, then mayor of West Berlin, later Chancellor of the Federal Republic, takes a group of people to see Checkpoint Charlie. They ask Brandt questions, and he responds with emphatic earnestness. Once again, there is no sound. A politician’s main asset, the voice, was not recorded. (Did Brandt realize that there were no microphones present?) Only this group and the cameraman Riecke heard what Brandt had to say. It is highly unlikely that any finished film made from the footage would have communicated the substance of the interaction or would have acknowledged it as anything but “for show.”

In the work of a second cameraman, Jürgens, the film of Berlin in 1961 becomes something closer to a documentary. Jürgens shot exterior scenes, and due to sunlight leaking through the eyepiece of the camera, his flash frames are generally brighter and of longer duration than Riecke’s. Jürgens’ are also more complex, due to his habit of dropping the camera slightly as he released the button that engaged the motor. Over and over, as a flash frame begins, there is a brief downward tilt, creating a few frames (about a quarter of a second) of motion blur. The distortion has a dreamy quality. It looks as though the scene is being wiped away, only to be restored almost instantaneously in the next take. This unintentional formal effect, no more than an annoyance to the film’s editor, was what originally attracted me to the footage.

The frames on either side of these peculiar flash frames are just as compelling, if more prosaic. Among the subjects of these shots are soldiers of the occupying forces, including American GIs grinning in close ups; Berliners going about their business at the boundaries between occupation zones; and most important for the filmmakers to capture, workers building the Berlin Wall. This last sequence has the quality of surveillance footage. The film shows that at one time, it was possible to reach out and touch people on the other side of the wall, as American and Soviet soldiers could have done, if they hadn’t been armed and on alert. The East Berliners building the wall remained aloof while doing their work. As soon as they realized that they were being filmed, they quickly turned away. The workers knew that they were going to be in a Cold War movie, and they were reluctant to cooperate with its production, because they also knew that this particular movie would present them in an unflattering light. They may even have sensed that things would end badly for their building project. If this was the case, they knew more than their bosses, as workers often do.

The Berlin Wall separated not only two different economic and political zones, but two different historical times. The city of West Berlin became the shining example of The Free World, a capitalist showplace entirely surrounded by the territory of the German Democratic Republic. But the city was always on life support, even after the celebrated Berlin Airlift. It needed help from the generous Western Allies and the Federal Republic in order remain open for business, but its value during the Cold War was never economic. West Berlin was a symbol, a propaganda tool, and an immensely successful one. How could the administration of the GDR not have known that the Berlin Wall, though effectively stopping the “brain drain” of the professional classes to the West, would ultimately be a publicity debacle of tremendous proportions? They saw things in terms of another historical narrative, and the image they presented to the capitalist world was of little concern to them. They had no way of knowing that by the end of the 20th Century, it would be the only world that anyone but the most besotted idealists could imagine.

The silent document I have described, labeled “Berlin 1961” in the collection of the National Archives, has little accompanying description, thus it gives rise to speculation. In an attempt to understand it, I have watched the film many times. The footage reveals more with each viewing, though what it reveals is not what the sponsors of the film intended. A wall is constructed, but so is an image, an image with a political use: propaganda.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Nowhere to Hide

The first time I saw Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles, I parked beneath it without realizing what it was. At that time (1992) the place was a construction zone, since work on Ricardo Legorreta and Laurie Olin’s renovation of the ground level features of the square had just begun. This project was the last in a series of radical transformations of what had once been the intersection of the Camino Real and a small stream. Dedicated as public space in 1866, the square was called St. Vincent’s Park (after a college across the street), then Los Angeles Park, then Central Park, and then Pershing Square, in honor of the World War I general. After this final renaming, the park was planted with a great variety of exotic flora, adding shade and visual interest to the plan of John Parkinson, who later designed City Hall and Union Station. This was the fashionable Pershing Square, one that gradually fell into desuetude as businesses, cultural institutions and the wealthy residents who patronized them left for less densely developed parts of town. After World War II, there were repeated calls to do something about Pershing Square, which had become a gathering place for vermin, drunks and homosexuals, who made use of the trees as cover for cruising and sex. My father lived in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, and he used to say about the city, “It was famous for its fruits and nuts. There was a nut on every street corner and a fruit behind every bush.” I imagine he was referring specifically to Pershing Square.

In the words of the historical signs currently in place, Pershing Square was “brutally excavated” in 1952 for an underground parking garage. Though the new plan was rather barren compared to what had existed before, there were still signs of life in the decades after it was completed. Pershing Square was the site of informal public gatherings, protests and festivals, though the centers of gay cruising had migrated west. The area experienced hard times once again, and an expensive attempt to make it attractive for the 1984 Olympics had no lasting impact.

After two separate design competitions and two years of construction at a cost of $14.5 million, Legorreta and Olin’s Pershing Square project was finally ready for public use in 1994. At that time the result, with its masses of multicolored concrete, a path shaped like a fault line, and a gigantic water feature, must have appealed to someone. Today it’s much clearer that the forced whimsy of the visual gimmicks and the strict sequestering of foliage and public sculpture behind barriers give the effect of a postmodern concentration camp. There is plenty of seating arranged theatrically in semi-circles and straight lines, but there is no spectacle to see, aside from pedestrians walking across paved expanses between signs that read “Keep off the grass” and “This space is reserved for private use.” The square offers little shelter from the elements – mainly relentless sunshine during mid-day – and nowhere to hide from surveillance. It makes life a little more uncomfortable for the homeless and mentally ill people who are the main population using the park after business hours. As in a science fiction scenario, those visiting the subterranean regions need have no interaction with the other elements of society occupying the surface of this hellish planet. I don’t drive anymore, so the parking garage is of no use to me. When I get out of the subway at Pershing Square station, I generally avoid the aboveground features of the park, which have an unpleasant, fortress-like aspect from that angle. I can also think of a half dozen other places I would rather go within three blocks of the park. As most other recently redeveloped urban spaces do, Pershing Square segregates the social classes, and the means by which it achieves this goal brutalize everyone.