Defeating the Celluloid Axis

The invisible language of film permeates Christian Kracht’s “The Dead,” prose that is neutral and shot through with so much darkness, you occasionally can’t find the light.

J.W. McCormack | Longreads | August 2018 | 9 minutes (2,429 words)

Here is what we know for sure: in mid-September of 1932, the actress Peg Entwistle, who had galvanized the young Bette Davis to pursue acting after Davis witnessed Entwistle in a Boston production of The Wild Duck, climbed the Hollywoodland sign (years before the sign would be bought by the Parks Department, the last syllable jettisoned) and jumped to her death from the top of the H. In Hollywood Babylon, arcane filmmaker-turner-tattletale Kenneth Anger gruesomely referred to the her as the “skydiver Peg Entwistle” opposite a photograph of an unknown, topless blonde woman.

It’s understandable. By the time Anger published his chatty, often spurious volume of gossip, few readers would have known the difference. Entwistle had appeared in only one film, RKO’s Thirteen Women, unreleased at the time of her death and in which her starring role as the rapacious and lesbian-coded Hazel Clay Cousins had been mercilessly reduced on-set to a mere cameo (still, it could have been worse; only 11 women survived the final cut). And yet, Peg Entwistle’s outrageously on-the-nose suicide would become a kind of synecdoche for L.A.’s glut of broken dreams, placing her firmly among the very first of the tragic blonde bombshells that Hollywood would chew and spit out over the course of subsequent decades, and confirmation for the tabloid-buying public that the movies were an amoral industry, ruinous to female purity, and fatal to those who chased success on its terms while being blinded by its lacquer, froth, and Satanic illusions.

Where’s the Fassbinder-like disillusionment, the scent of film reels, the morbid glamour of Hollywood, the savvy Chaplin of legend, and who are all these imposters?

Entwistle’s ghost is one of many film legends trickling through Swiss writer Christian Kracht’s The Dead, translated from German by Daniel Bowles, though the novel’s echoes of real-world scandals of the silver screen are expertly disguised and entrenched, designed not to intrude on The Dead’s casual streaming toward historical inevitability, so much so that you wouldn’t know it until the book’s final pages — which perhaps compounds RKO’s original insult to Entwistle by changing her beyond recognition and limiting her role to a walk-on in the story of her own life, or at least her own death. Instead, the story focuses on two key players in the lightly-fictionalized world of European film during the consolidation of the Nazi Party, with its unprecedented interest in the potentiality of the new medium to fortify its authority and extend the theater of war to the textured dreamland of celluloid.

Swiss-German Emil Nägeli is an also-ran director in the company of Bresson, Vigo, Dovzhenko, and Ozu; remembered for his French-revolutionary picture dramatizing the life of Marie Tussaud, his recent attempts to make a film with the obstinate Knut Hamsun are going nowhere. Nobody’s first choice, after Fritz Lang, Friedrich Murnau, and Karl Freund prove unavailable, Nägeli is drafted into a conspiracy hatched by Japanese film minister Masahiko Amakasu. Film buff Amakasu dreams of a collaboration between German and Japanese film that will act as an anecdote to both countries’ escalating flirtation with fascism. Amakasu, sick of the endless production line of romantic seppuku features and dying to bite the hand that feeds him, writes to his superiors:

Germany, the only country whose cultural foundation deserved as much respect as one’s own, hence the wish, hereby stated officially (he bridled at actually putting such nonsense down on paper), to establish a celluloid axis between Tokyo and Berlin.

Nägeli is no more eager than Amakasu to shoot the jingoistic, preformulated film their producers expect: hired by Alfred Hugenberg, Joseph Goebbels’ predecessor as Reich Minister of Propaganda, Nägeli instead hatches a plot with Lotte Eisner and Siegfried Kracauer, two Jewish film critics painfully aware of which way the wind is blowing in Germany; Nägeli will go to Japan to shoot a horror movie, one in which the monster will be the nationalist bugbears on the verge of overrunning both countries, a horror movie without “vampires, nor any depraved, degenerate Asians, and most certainly not any young German women who allow themselves to be corrupted.” Rather, Nägeli thinks, he has to devise “a metaphysics of the present, in all its facets, from the innards of time outward.” This Deleuzian formulation is extremely well-matched to the sensibility of Amakasu, for whom cinemas are “gardens of electric shadows,” and whose ability to describe the present, rather than deform it into a homicidal, idiotic future, is not yet lost. Unfortunately, he has his hands full with an American guest of the Emperor, a guest who turns out to be the book’s third protagonist as well as its villain — none other than Charlie Chaplin.


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Most of the above characters, save Nägeli, are key players in the real world run-up to the Second World War, but they’ve been notably elevated out of historical record and allowed to take up a set of personae that becomes shorthand for their agency as players in Kracht’s drama: Amakasu the storied film-brain at odds with his handlers, Hugenberg the far right blowhard, Eisner the state-persecuted intellectual (though still a bon vivant, even on the verge of the Holocaust) — but with nobody does Kracht have as much fun as with the English-born Chaplin, who appears here as an avatar of all-American vulgarity and thuggishness. Seeing him for the first time, Amakasu recognizes an enemy and thinks of “how closely related camera and machine gun were.” Over a dinner of live squid, the dilettantish Chaplin humiliates himself by attempting to flatter Amakasu in calling for Japanese occupation of China, annexation of both Siberia and Alaska (maybe even the tip of California), and the replacement of Manchuria with a “resource-rich colony of dreams.” This Chaplin has nothing to do with the moralizing parodies of either the affable tramp or his Hitler-esque caricature from The Great Dictator. Actually, it’s as if Chaplin is Adenoid Hynkel, from the latter movie, the Dictator of Tomainia mixed with his fancy-pants wife-killer character from Monsieur Verdoux.

The novel’s sort-of centerpiece comes with the May 15 Incident, in which Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi was assassinated by eleven naval officers in an attempted coup d’état. (Although Kracht doesn’t mention it, the real Inukai’s reported last words, “If I could speak, you would understand,” and his assassins’ reply, that “Dialogue is useless,” are especially poignant in a book tracking the transition from silent film to talkies.) The killers were also gunning for Chaplin, who was supposed to be in the company of the Prime Minister that night; instead he went to a sumo match. The Dead has Chaplin at a Noh play instead, in the company of Amakasu and Ida von Uexküll, a former muse to Ezra Pound and Emil Nägeli’s ravishing fiancée; a false news report of Chaplin’s murder breaks just as they’re leaving the play. What follows is 110 pages of set pieces, few of which do much to encourage any expectation of a plot. A sexually charged love triangle develops between Ida, Amakasu, and Nägeli; as Swastikas accumulate along the roadside, Ida flees to Hollywood in the vain belief that Chaplin will champion her as an actress; Chaplin and Amakasu come to a violent crossroads aboard a steamer bound for America, just after a screening of Howard Hawks’s Scarface; and Nägeli does make his movie, after a fashion, even if it’s not the one he was planning on. In short, The Dead chooses to linger rather than develop, prefers sometime-glacial close-third POV to action, and takes its time making sense of its daring premise.

As cultural monuments in any of the arts prosper, the actual culture that produced them so often plummets — into tyranny, a defiant ignorance, and death.

Given the presence of so many film luminaries, the jargon of film studies that occasionally turn up in Kracht’s diaphanous prose, the walk-ons or compressions of the key players in 1930s German film, even the image of Jean Harlow on the cover of the American edition, readers are set up for a journey into nostalgia for the Golden Age of cinema. What they get instead is the spectacle of Fritz Lang indulging in a drunken philippic:

I am no longer Fritz Lang. I have crossed the border into exile and am Victor Hugo! Give me the Parthenon, the Alhambra, Norte-Dame, the Great Pyramid, the Uffizi Gallery, the porcelain towers of Esfahan; give me the Hagia Sophia, Borobudur, the Kremlin, el Escorial; give me cathedrals, mosques, pagodas; give me Phidias and Basho, Dante and Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Lucretius, the Mahabarata and Job and Thoreau; give me the forests of France, the beaches of Indochina, the vast red plains of Ethiopia, the verdant hills of Connemara; give me a swarm of butterflies, the sea eagles over Alaska, the Sahara with its scorpions, Paris with it people, the Pacific Ocean, a man, a woman, a graybeard, a child, the blue sky, the dark night, the timid minuteness of the hummingbird, the immensity of the constellations; it is all good; I like it all; I have no preference in ideal nor in infinitude. But don’t give me any more of the Heidelberg and Bach!

Or, put more succinctly: anywhere but here, anything but this, anyone but me. Deliver me from flesh and make me an image, let me dwell in shadow, count me out as a witness to crisis, make literature from my bones, and put me in the audience of the after-place, where the dead sit watching.

The roominess of Kracht’s style, free-floating from his subjects, allows him indulgences unthinkable in a more straightforward novel, resulting in a product that seems like it was (in the grand tradition of Reading Rainbow) as fun to write as it is to read. Still, his willingness to slow down the scenes that seem most innocuous and speed up, in the last fifty pages, the story the jacket copy promises us, has led some critics to disappointment and charges that the novel is “uneven.” Where’s the Fassbinder-like disillusionment, the scent of film reels, the morbid glamour of Hollywood, the savvy Chaplin of legend, and who are all these imposters? Does Christian Kracht even like movies? The answer is that, with The Dead, Kracht has set out not to describe the surface of the film industry, nor list the global upsets pertaining to it, but to inhabit it. Here is Ozu’s ground-level view of suggestive domesticity, the wide-eyed patience of Bresson, the enshrouded culpability of Billy Wilder. Here is a novel, organized Noh play-style in three parts, that moves at a leisurely frame rate of 24 fps, far from the modern 72 associated with 25 millimeter cameras. The invisible language of film permeates the novel, an experiment in collapsing the history of film theory into prose, at least in Daniel Bowles wistful translation, that is neutral and shot through with so much darkness, you occasionally can’t find the light. The two mediums touch fingertips through the page, as if through ice, and history becomes frozen in flickering permanence, narrated through the eye of the lens as lived, without any of kitschy who’s-who trappings of your average historical novel.

As a study of the three major film powers of the early 1930s — Japan, Germany, and the Hollywood studios — The Dead finds its ideal delivery system via film techniques like montage, jump cuts, and slow-motion. Most of all, there is the flashback, which establishes the unhappy childhoods of both Amakasu and Nägeli. Nägeli recalls his tyrannical father seizing his beloved pet rabbit by the ears and giving it to a neighbor to be fleeced and skinned. Amakasu, meanwhile, came of age in an orphanage considered “one of the most ruthless whipping rooms of the Empire.” There’s such intimacy in the backstories of our lead characters, that the present sometimes fails to register, perhaps because, Kracht writes, “the past, she was always more interesting than the present.”

This isn’t entirely new territory for Kracht, whose acclaimed and previously-translated novel Imperium, set in German New Guinea, was a pastiche of the Teutonic literary imagination, featuring walk-ons by Hermann Hesse, Kafka, and Thomas Mann in a scenario that ridicules Heart of Darkness, while his second novel, 1979, gave the same treatment to the Iranian Revolution, and his third, Iche werde hier sein im Sonnenschien und im (I will be here, in sunshine and in shadow) toys with the alternate-future genre by imagining a Swiss-Communist state. His novels tend to be spun-off from obscure historical episodes and feature outsiders travelling into an alien culture that either enlightens or destroys them — or both. Only Paul Bowles comes to mind in terms of another author so engaged in depicting the dissipation of westerners wandering strange worlds of transoceanic hell. Kracht’s novels are also marked by characters who flirt with right-wing or theocratic ideologies. If he can be said to have a project that unites his output, it’s finding the line where traumatic childhood warps into damaged adulthood, affinity becomes obsession, and fiction propaganda.

But The Dead’s true subject is right there in the title, notwithstanding its puckish allusion to Joyce. Film is a coffin that lies about mortality by preserving the shining evanescence of youth, jerking a patchwork assembly of moments stranded in time and commuting them to eternity. The true, real, dull life that carries on behind the film, far from the idealization of movie-love, movie-sex, and movie-country, is almost uniformly ugly, incomprehensible, and unfit for the rehabilitated, prophylactic gaze of film. As cultural monuments in any of the arts prosper, the actual culture that produced them so often plummets — into tyranny, a defiant ignorance, and death. Kracht says as much when he writes, “The dead are profoundly lonesome creatures, there is no solidarity among them, they are all born alone, die, and are reborn alone as well.” This is nothing as frivolous as nihilism; rather, it is a concentrated clarity that prunes the two mediums, film and literature, of their predilection for complacence. Given this angle on things, it’s no surprise that The Dead frustrates with its relative disinterest in the dross of character, plot, and continuity. Kracht is one of the pre-eminent German-language authors of the last twenty years (his first novel, the much more outwardly decadent Fraserland was published in 1995) and is much too good to write the glitzy Hollywood scandal sheet that The Dead is in the abstract. Like any stylist, he courts his own readership and creates his own genre. And still, there is joy here for everyone, prose that astonishes, personal tragedies that mar the heart, and set pieces of outstanding oddness. When one is reading Kracht, one is nowhere else. Meanwhile, outside the frame, life goes on.

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J.W. McCormack’s reviews have appeared in The New York Review of Books Daily, The Baffler, Bomb, Vice, and The New York Times.

Editor: Dana Snitzky