In Search of the White Castle
The inhabitants of the old island didn’t need anybody. They had to rely completely on the land and the sea in order to live. The migrant workers, taken from their homes by a new industry, tourism, build hotels for the guests taken from their homes by that same industry. Migrant workers, guests and inhabitants live apart from each other both physically and economically.
The poorest people in the richest country on earth are brought together in a ghetto by the same arbitrariness of supply and demand that brings together the migrant workers and the tourists. Because of that same arbitrariness the migrant workers have a job while the ghetto inhabitants don’t.
The factory workers are guest workers within the system of arbitrariness; imprisoned as long as they can be used and if not, shown the door.
Teenagers from the ghetto, gathered together in a summer camp, show how the system can be broken. And through all of this the procession against the white castle gathers momentum.1
In his documentary The White Castle, Johan van der Keuken interweaves three worlds: a community centre in Columbus (Ohio), two factories in the Netherlands and Formentera, the island off the Spanish coast inundated with tourists. As the second part of his North-South triptych (Dagboek [Diary] (1972), Het witte kasteel [The White Castle] (1973) and De nieuwe ijstijd [The New Ice Age] (1974), the film shows the impact of the Western, capitalistic free-market thinking on the daily life of the social underclass, a social strangling grip which alienates and isolates people. “A conveyor belt which runs the world,” according to van der Keuken.2
Van der Keuken attempts to break through this system of arbitrariness in The White Castle. He ‘liberates’ the labourers and teenagers, even though it’s short-lived, in a film. His social commitment in this film is contained within an attack on the language as a conventional system; he wants to “decommission the predetermined language”.3 It follows that, formally, The White Castle is one of van der Keuken’s most radical films. He leaves a spatiotemporal, anecdotal anchoring in the here and now behind in order to make a film which circles continually, which moves like a windmill and refuses to anchor itself. Every turn seems to be the possibility of another film. Every image is a prelude, without a fixed form. This dynamic surfaces in his entire oeuvre. Out of an image or a sound a whole film can arise. Forms swirl around him and one of them blossoms into a film. This multiplicity makes it difficult to grab onto, demarcate or define a film like The White Castle. All images start to interlink. Everything seems to belong together.
I think it’s fascinating to build within a free form, but a classical form needs to underlie it. The paradox is that if you want to make a free composition, you have to proceed in a stricter way than you would in a conventional film. You namely have to make it plausible to implicate certain things which don’t seem to have anything to do with each other at a first glance. It is my task to prove that, for the duration of the film, they do have something to do with one another. I propose that everything goes with everything, but everything doesn’t go with everything beforehand, but only after modification. Everything only goes with everything if you think about it carefully.4
The White Castle moves forward like a merry-go-round; similar images return, but always in different relations because of a different framing, a different camera movement or a different rhythm. Occasionally even the same images resurface in a different correlation. Images are recycled in one and the same film. Everything is a potential leitmotiv. Van der Keuken maintains a freedom in watching and doesn’t presumptuously portend to know the power of an image. In fact, he even re-uses images and sounds in various films, thus ensuring that his oeuvre becomes an auto-referential fabric. Hence Vakantie van de filmer [Filmmaker’s Holiday] (1974) – a reflection on life and death, on photography and the moving image – is one big exercise in repetition. His images don’t seem to cling to or limit themselves to one film. They don’t want anything and yet at the same time want so much. In a certain sense, they’re autonomous, they don’t belong with anything. They seem surrounded by accolades and it’s van der Keuken who brings them to life and connects them in the process of editing. In Johan van der Keuken’s work, the edit is more than ever “the movement of thought itself, the thinking that moves the matter”.5 His love for jazz and improvisation can here be felt, another way to generate or (re)organise material.
In the work of Johan van der Keuken film and life are intertwined. His last film De grote vakantie [The Summer Holidays] (2002) – a film in which the terminally – ill Van der Keuken looks back on his oeuvre and on his life – is the natural consequence of this symbiosis: “if I can’t make an image, I’m dead”.6 He reworks and reformulates his own aesthetic principles and shows how they hook into his own personal environment. A web in which everything merges, returns and in which all ‘dreamt’ or ‘envisaged’ films are present too. A film like the tip of an iceberg. The big mass beneath the water, the unfilmed or unshown material, isn’t visible but is nonetheless tangible and present to the spectator. Van der Keuken burrows, associates and sometimes a film arises from that, but not necessarily.
Rather than talking about film as a language, van der Keuken understands it as a condition, an état or a state of being, as something which defies easy definition and which can rather be approached in terms of becoming and movement. It’s a space of experience, a way of standing within the world. Maybe that also explains the appeal of his films. His films are all spaces in which you can wander, which envelop you, which stick with you and are hard to shake off.
Johan van der Keuken is a documentary maker. He goes to work with reality. The White Castle isn’t an abstract contemplation of the capitalistic system. Van der Keuken is in search of people and places who endure its consequences in concrete terms. But on the other hand his films also have something speculative about them and there is room for association. Notice here the importance of the notion of approaching, of never being able to show things in their complete clarity, but of moving around them. This is what’s so exceptional about van der Keuken’s oeuvre. His work has certain similarities to that of the direct cinema movement, but he forces the viewer to orientate him/herself, to be in search of a larger, political relation. Van der Keuken’s form is a dialectics in action, an immediateness which obstinately anchors itself in an indirectness, in a fragmentary representation, a collage, but always with attention to a strong structure. A cinéma vérité which invalidates itself. The spaces are represented fragmentarily from the very beginning of the films through details. Everything is immediately in medias res. The notion of decentralisation is carried through in the form.
I feel that the possibilities of the montage have been enriched by pursuing this course. Initially the montage distanced itself from meaning and concept and became a collage. (…) It then returned to the forming of conceptions. But in doing so it became a montage which encapsulates the collage and makes visible a continuous interaction between freedom and collective necessity. A dialectics which is left-wing in its consequences, but one which ‘retains the surprise’.7
This dialectical collage of van der Keuken brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s entreaty for a different historiography. Benjamin believed in a method of montage which juxtaposes stereoscopic images. Out of this confrontation a world can be exposed which breaks through the common construct of the conventional historiography – a story of progress which doesn’t take into account negative developments and so reinforces the position of the powerful.8 With a similar montage strategy Johan van der Keuken shows that the images which aren’t taken up and therefore aren’t distorted by this dominating fiction can also break through it and reveal another reality. This emancipatory revelation, however, is not free from a utopian desire. The juxtaposition of images shows a spiritual coherence to which we as viewers must work towards. In De poes [The Cat] (1968) van der Keuken articulates it thus:
The film could be a means for change. To this end it must affect the fixed patterns of expectation. To this end it must create a dynamic balance of the forms in which our reality can be described. Art could be a means by which to set man free. A school for seeing the self and the other more clearly.
Or, in the words of Jean-Marie Straub:
A political film must remind people that we don’t live in the best possible world, far from it, and that the present, denied us in the name of progress, simply continues and is irreplaceable… That human feelings are being plundered in the same way that the earth is being plundered… That the price that people must pay, whether it be for progress or welfare, is much too high and is unjustifiable.9
The baby drinks from the breast of the eating mother. Side bacon hangs from the roof beams. Wedding portrait above the door, shotgun next to it. Baby cries for a while, father hugs baby, a little timid in front of the camera. Mule comes out of the small barn. Sweat stains under armpits in the shirt of father. Little cart rolling under olive trees. Stowing grain onto cart with neighbours, straw hats, white greyhound frolics for a moment, grain almost saffron-coloured. A painting by Millet. Satie piano tune slowed down.10
The White Castle turns around in circles, in a centrifugal movement, around a nucleus. Literally: a donkey walks in circles, a windmill, a waterwheel, the spinning of wool, a conveyor belt in a factory, queuing in a refectory, the traffic, a tractor, a bus which drives through the film and the rotating camera movement from the car around the burger joint White Castle. These are actions which recommence, which repeat themselves, routine acts which take on a ritual character. Simultaneously a bigger composition takes form, an unremitting flux which connects the different spaces. The different worlds, geographically cut off from each other, all undergoing the consequences of social inequality and exploitation, are inscribed and so connected in a global stream in which one is only able to survive. It’s an economic flux like an unceasing waking state on which you can’t get a grasp. A dominant condition with a logic which seems headstrong and inevitable. A process which paralyses and doesn’t seem to have an end. There is no longer any solid ground. Everything revolves.
Images of curtains, windows and doors. Do the labourer and young people in The White Castle understand what is happening outside their own life? At the end of the film we see images of young mothers. Does the circle start over? The nearly symbolic character of the association of certain images encourages a more intense way of looking. Is it possible to read this literally? Definitely. But the film runs on and the images come together again in a different sequence, making it seem like that’s not the case after all! Van der Keuken throws a certain restraint overboard in order to sometimes use seemingly banal contrasts, like, for example, the opposition of craftsmanship to industrialization: an image of an elderly woman baking bread is followed by an image of a conveyor belt. The shifting in food production and consumption is a thread which keeps the whole film together. The Spanish workers cook and eat together, artisanal bread is baked and black teenagers queue in the refectory. Furthermore, the title and core of the film – ‘the white castle’ – refers to the fast-food burger chain White Castle. The white castle as an unshakeable fortress.
Images of people queuing for food and people who work on a conveyor belt keep returning. For Walter Benjamin a crucial notion is the difference in experience between craftsmanship and industrial labour. In the continual interaction with objects an unconsciously formed web of experience namely arises in the act of craftsmanship. The conveyor belt, on the other hand, becomes a repetition which does not build on anything and doesn’t penetrate to the unconscious level of experience. The new technical machines don’t just help the human being in his/her act of labour, but condition his/her behaviour. Once the most cost-efficient action has been found, this is mechanically repeated, like an automaton. It’s the perpetual repetition of the new. All movements stand apart from each other. Industrialised labour excludes every form of true experience. It is replaced by a logic which no longer processes, but reduces price, which no longer registers but is merely vigilant.11 12 Benjamin assigned film a recuperating capacity to construct new synthetic realities in which the fragmented images are combined according to a new law. Not only as defence against the trauma of the industrialization but as a means to restore the capacity to experience, crushed by the production process.13
Van der Keuken also crumbles the audio tape. He interweaves radio adverts, political speeches, factory noise, department stores and traffic noise. The sound is often piercing and works disorientating. A constant emission of auditory fragments at top speed. An excess of stimuli, the industrial sounds act as if part of an offensive, oppressing and disordering people. While throughout the film different spaces are combined with each other, from the very beginning the sound is disconnected from the image, thus causing the viewer to immediately feel spatially detached. Examples of this can be found in the combination of images of black teenagers with soundscapes from the Netherlands. In the middle of the film, yet, a new space is opened up by the soundtrack; Van der Keuken makes a contrapuntal countermovement by placing song central. The American teenagers sing Donna Donna, originally a Yiddish song, about a calf that is led to be slaughtered. The voice, always embodied, becomes an instrument to cultivate collectivism. Together the young people sing their fate. Finally we hear one of the Spanish labourers sing in front of his friends and we hear soft humming from a little girl. Singing seems to represent a last stronghold which has not been incorporated by the system. A hopeful feeling however, tainted by a melancholic powerlessness.
Van der Keuken also lets a couple of teenagers voice their thoughts. Here too sometimes seemingly evident statements are put forward. The teenagers try to put into words how they relate to the economic system. Is anything else possible? In their sincere indignation a lasting realisation of impotence slumbers.
I’m trying to raise the question rather or not we really believe it’s possible that people can share equally what we have.
Life is pain and darkness to most people I believe. [...] Just in terms of living. I mean everyday living, I cannot even do that, hardly... Right now, mostly thinking about survival.
I like being black. It’s the poor that kills me, you know. Because I believe it’s more of a economic question. […] It really makes you feel ashamed to be from America today. I mean... we make economic slaves of other countries and we go in to countries and literally rape them, like they raped the black community and are still raping the black community.
When you’re talking about changing American policy and American institutions, you’re talking about changing a way of life.
Throughout the monotonous sound of industry, moments of rebellion and hope nevertheless surface as well. Through their talking and singing (words and songs) the teenagers try to break free from the system. An attempt to search for a way out through words. Always a feeling of hope – or is it naïveté? – combined with a realisation of impotence. This search for one’s own position (within the larger picture) is also what The White Castle as a film continually does: searching for a form, but always with the realisation of its own search, its own form. The form folds back in on itself and looks itself straight in the eyes. Of course every film fights against its own form, but the fight is often hidden by a seemingly absent ideology. The film then has the pretention to step outside the window of its own form. Arrogantly the film comes to the fore, thereby causing the space, and with the space also the freedom of the viewer to orientate him/herself, to disappear. The space is no longer negotiated but is dictatorial and intrusive. That’s what’s so beautiful about The White Castle; it’s not merely the choosing of the subject which makes the work political. “The independence of the viewer begins at the point where identification ceases, at that point it turns from amusement into work.”14 This other viewpoint is also political for van der Keuken.
By treating these economic and social problems in a composition, van der Keuken seems to solve them. The possibility to intervene, to interfere arises. But The White Castle is aware of its own form. In that respect the film is at odds with our time. Our time is one and all malapropism but doesn’t seem to be aware of this. The White Castle on the other hand is also one and all fragmentation but is aware of its fragmentation. The White Castle doesn’t have a fixed form, but is allowed the freedom to still form itself within the film. While everything stands on unsteady ground, it is at the same time intelligently constructed. The form is not unambiguous, but flows. The film is formed in the process of watching, in the movement made throughout it. In that way it transcends its own fragmentarization. When watching these kinds of films a second time around, they yield even more of their beauty and power, they open themselves up even more. These are films which link and unlink and which allow you to watch. Every image is necessary – though never intrusive, nor self-evident. A film searching for itself.
- 1Het witte kasteel [The White Castle] (Johan van der Keuken, 1973)
- 2Johan van der Keuken - Zien, Kijken, Filmen. Foto's, teksten en interviews (1980)
- 3Johan van der Keuken - Zien, Kijken, Filmen. Foto's, teksten en interviews (1980)
- 4Johan van der Keuken - Zien, Kijken, Filmen. Foto's, teksten en interviews (1980)
- 5Johan van der Keuken - Zien, Kijken, Filmen. Foto's, teksten en interviews (1980)
- 6De grote vakantie [The Summer Holidays] (Johan van der Keuken, 2000)
- 7Johan van der Keuken - Bewogen Beelden. Films (2001)
- 8Walter Benjamin - Over het begrip van de geschiedenis - vertaling: Marcel Martens (1990)
- 9Sickle and Hammer, Cannons, Cannons, Dynamite! - Diagonal Thoughts
- 10Johan van der Keuken - Zien, Kijken, Filmen. Foto's, teksten en interviews (1980)
- 11Walter Benjamin - Baudelaire: een dichter in het tijdperk van het hoog-kapitalisme (1979)
- 12Lieven De Cauter - Genealogie van een belevingsmachine: De sleutelwoorden van de moderne ervaring - Archeologie van de kick. Over moderne ervaringshonger (2009)
- 13Susan Buck Morss - Droomwereld van de massacultuur - in Benjamin Journaal 2 (1994)
- 14Johan van der Keuken - Zien, Kijken, Filmen. Foto's, teksten en interviews (1980)
All images from Het witte kasteel [The White Castle] (Johan van der Keuken, 1973)