Realism Is Always Neo-, Sur-, Super-, Hyper-
Seeing With Photographic Devices
In the art world, fiction is a somewhat disreputable word. There is the idea that fiction and authenticity are mutually exclusive. As I see it, the word fiction denotes a technique for exposing truth.
– Yvonne Rainer
What follows started in Vienna. And then joined forces with reflections, experiences and questions that arise again and again in our dealings with new and old films and whose unresolved and contradictory nature is the bread and butter of cinephiles. What part of reality does cinema see – and how? What has changed about our representation since a neutral device records and reproduces it and it is no longer reflected by interested eyes? How does an object become a meaningful sign? Why do cinema realisms wear out so quickly? Does mechanical repeatability turn the until-recently-unheard-of unique into a vulgar recipe? Cinema brings it to light: realism is just a system of signs; therefore, its claim to truth is not exhausted in the reflection of an already known outside world.
The subject of the Austrian Film Museum’s last major retrospective was Italian neorealism. The programme included precisely those films that film histories consider to be representative of the movement. No precursors, no dissenters, no latecomers. Not Antonioni’s People of the Po Valley, not Zavattini’s kino pravda Love in the City, not De Seta’s Bandits of Orgosolo.
A programme that promised essence, the neorealist norm. A historico-aesthetic phenomenon as evident as the dictum of cinema’s natural realism that runs through all film theory. (Which, of course, can only ever mean its effect.) It was a fine selection. Had the curiosities also been taken into account, one could have said that neorealism just consisted of its standard works. Now, we got the standard works plus a lively phantom notion. As a film style, neorealism is more than any other style a template and a negation of its intentions. It was initially an attitude when filming, a new way of registering, a system of direct participation that again and again adapts to a particular moment.
As is usually the case with beginnings, those of neorealism, too, were thought of in heroic terms, as cultural resistenza. Against the fascist cinema of the “white telephones” [“telefoni bianchi”1 ], which was less a Cinecittà variant of Hollywood than a transposition of European boulevard theatre. But even then, the frontlines of reality ran criss-cross. The proof: Rossellini made three films with the fascists and Visconti’s commitment in La Terra Trema merged smoothly into decadent bourgeois opera films.
In 1943, the critic Umberto Barbaro was the first to call for neorealism. He did not exactly mean more reality, he merely recommended a different cinema model. One had to look to France, to the films of Carné and the Prévert brothers. They already had their own label. They were called poetic realists.
Visconti’s Obsession marked the break with what already existed. Never before had the Italian landscape filled the cinema space in such a way, the bums and drifters not fitting into the official image at all. Renoir had recommended the American novel The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain to Visconti, who was his assistant. (Renoir, however, never wanted to be the father of neorealism – he believed that his realism was based on direct sound, something Italians would still not be capable of today. Rossellini was of the same opinion.)
America-Europe and Back
It was not just the coincidence of Renoir’s recommendation that drove Visconti towards an American model. Cesare Pavese wrote about the resistance of Italian intellectuals, which formed around the American novel as the counterimage of Fascist art, an image composed of elements from novels by Sherwood Anderson, O. Henry, Dos Passos, and Richard Wright. This written enthusiasm for America cooled soon after the liberation from Fascism. It was almost as short-lived as neorealism – albeit with a slight time lag.
In these novels, Pavese wrote, one sees history in the making, because their language has only one thing in mind: to do justice to the new realities. The objectivity of American literature has other sources and causes than European realism. “Masterly images and sounds that readers must decipher themselves, non-hierarchical structures.” The technical means are expressed in it. Pavese explicitly refers to the chapters “Newsreels” and “The Camera Eye” from Dos Passos’s novel 1919. He writes about the “incredible realism” of American cinema after seeing King Vidor’s The Crowd. The outside world pushing itself forward with full force, stubbornly insisting. Things have their own logic after the invention of the camera. The lens has ousted the describing subject. The means have become the subject. The visual is autonomous. The new language is so concrete because it seeks only to capture the moment, no longer to depict or to represent.
Later references to America in the films of neorealism are thematic. By that time, the Americans have landed. GIs in Paisan, in De Sica’s Shoeshine (the original title Sciuscià is a play on the word “shoeshine”) and in Lattuada, for whom the American film melodrama is clearly the model, The Bandit having all the drive of American gangster movies, despite the contemporary Italian reality.
My reunion with these films was full of surprises. And occasional moments of pleasure for a war child, with those short syncopations of American music. In my memory, they were revolutionary films aimed at aesthetic innovation. “No actors, no story, no mise-en-scène, no cinema.” Today, one notices all the connections to earlier realisms; as always, reality is pushed aside in favour of its ever more perfect illusion.
In these films, especially in De Sica’s, children are a kind of guarantee of spontaneity. And how they are exploited by him! This is how his films got their cute-dog dimension. What was then perceived as unadorned reality in Bicycle Thieves now displays all its fictionality. The father-son relationship speaks volumes. By contrast, what a father figure Chaplin is in The Kid! Shoeshine is a harsh film with kids. The parents are missing. That it ends surreally says a lot.
Something changed in cinema around Stunde Null [the zero hour]. The new realism was not a better realism because, measured against what preceded it, it reduced the distance between reality and art so spectacularly. The action in Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and Germany Year Zero pulls all the familiar strings of narrative cinema. Their contemporary stories lag behind, too. The apparent frankness of Paisan’s ending, the cold senselessness of war swallowing up all individual efforts, becomes a little less senseless when we consider that fascism had been defeated in the meantime, that chaos was almost back on track when Rossellini made the film. The film simulates failure, or more accurately, re-enacts it.
“Paisan’s strength lies in very specific images of danger, of suffering and death, which stay with you as a particulary real experience. These images have an autonomy that makes them stronger and more important than any idea one can associate with them.” That’s from a 1948 review by Robert Warshow in Partisan Review. Reading his description of the film, one would think that physical cinema did not come from Keaton, Hawks or Fuller, but was invented in Europe. The neutrality of the camera and the speed of the action make for a film in which there is no room for reflection or ideas. He praises in this film what Pavese found so impressive in American novels. The readers/spectators have to decide for themselves. The reality they are confronted with has not been thought through or interpreted in the classical sense. It lacks the redemptive conclusion of stories told. Like the real, it remains ambiguous.
Warshow again, literally: The reality of the characters does not depend on characterisation; they enter the screen fully grown and, in a split second, they are more real than you could make them in half an hour. They are visibly real.
Neorealist films did not seem more realistic because of the masses, the common people, the everyday life. The bourgeois-novel individuals and their psychological analysis are redundant because stories no longer need to be made convincingly plausible. But the old relationship is not merely reversed; the documentary does not gain the upper hand at the expense of the narrative. Rossellini neither relies on the fantastic coincidences of surrealist aesthetics, nor does he leave everything to devices, as cinéma vérité later did. His gaze and that of the camera are combined. A new reality only comes into view through a new way of perceiving.
Technique with Presence of Mind
Even in early post-fascist films, narratives are merely frameworks, cobwebs in which shreds of reality become entangled. They are concrete moments of resistance to the imperialist tendency to generate meaning and imbue a new, alien world with old intelligibility. In Rossellini’s films, the situations are such that the spectator sees and knows or senses that he is being seen. The homogenous world of representational cinema is pierced by other gazes. One feels left out at times in these films. Which provokes more compassion than the strongest cinema of identification. We are so used to being fed stories in which everything works that when something unmotivated appears on the screen, for example at the end of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, it is immediately called a miracle.
Warshow, who so precisely described the novelty of Paisan, goes on to condemn the film for its improbable and clumsy narrative structure. The film’s message is said to be implausible. When Warshow names that message, he is essentially not talking about a moral but about a narrativity from the past. Like Renoir, Rossellini always complained about screenwriting, the most unpleasant stage of filmmaking. He would have preferred to make only episodes, situations or short stories, in which the ballast of logical, explanatory passages naturally disappears. And everything stays in the present tense.
The realism in Rossellini’s films is new, the old filmmaker-film-audience triangle has been rearranged. The reality depicted is as important as the spectator’s gaze that falls on it, and the filmmaker too has robbed himself of his power by having the spectator as a co-producer and by the utterly inscrutable reality in front of his camera. The indeterminacy of what is shown moves and destroys the complacent safeness that follows from the supposedly natural film realism. Fiction is merely the experience of pictoriality. Without mimesis.
In We, the Women from 1952, based on an idea by Zavattini, four well-known actresses play autobiographical scenes. A small scope and a strong emphasis on authenticity. Rossellini later said in an interview that everything in Ingrid Bergman’s episode was improvised, not an event taken from reality, but as it would play out in life. Except for the story, everything was real. Here, I can only think of is Hellmuth Costard’s consternation towards the interviewers who wanted to assign a documentary status to The Little Godard. He had thought of it as a feature film and believed that it showed, too.
The fictional is still presented as something separate from reality. A maker, a creator, is someone who dresses things in stories. Surely making people aware of the fantastic in everyday life as a spectacle cannot be art. If something is so mundane, so slightly fictional, so indistinguishable from reality, it hasn’t been processed.
In the 1920s, when the novelty of cinema was not yet completely obscured and painters still knew how it had also changed their gaze, Fernand Léger wrote: “The screenplay is the downfall of cinema. If cinema could rid itself of this burden, it would become a gigantic microscope of things never seen and felt before.” And Walter Benjamin, a little later, with the same emphasis: “The cinema, the only prism that lays out the immediate environment for contemporary humankind.” Up to Rossellini, the antinarrative, anti-illusion tradition is that of minimal structures. He does mock the follies of American underground cinema, but when he speaks of his microscopic cinema, he uses Warhol’s Sleep as an example.
Rossellini says that he works in a scientific way, by which he means experimental art – not art made serious by verifiability: “I observe things that I bring into contact in such a way that they appear and come to the fore naturally.” Art that proceeds experimentally, like research, is about process and does not reflect what has already happened. Its findings depend on and are made identifiable by its means. The device-free aspect of cinema is an invention by people who are still wearing the old glasses of representational art. Rossellini invented a mobile zoom and a whole travelling system for greater mobility, in order to register things that would otherwise never be visible. His direct images depend on technology the way thinking depends on language. Costard says that his devices are also material that he creates. For painted images, this has long been accepted. We know that de Kooning’s paintings became what they are when he decided, against western tradition or with an American understanding of écriture automatique, to stop using his brush off the cuff.
The Man with the Camera in His Head
The first exegete of neorealism was André Bazin. The quote “no cinema is the purest cinema” was his. He was not a theorist; the French much more readily use a vocabulary that comes across as scientific. Yet it is with him that we best experience how the new realism worked at the time. He is a neorealist. He had to describe something new with an old conceptual apparatus. And so he drew the wrong verbal conclusions. His texts are a good opportunity to practice reading against the grain of words. It would be child’s play and foolish to accuse him today of having an idealistic view of cinema, when in reality he inspired change in cinema with his written enthusiasm and interest. Transparency was the catchword around which everything revolved. This was what he called cinema that no longer took detours via stories, dedramatised narrative cinema, the demystified illusion. He usually wrote more about reality than about transparency. It is not at all easy to write about transparency in compact words.
Most people today who want to provide cinema with a theoretical basis prefer to write about Eisenstein or Vertov, and not only because the analysis of the montage has greater intellectual prestige. It has more to do with language and is therefore easier to discuss.
In Germany Year Zero, Berlin is in ruins in 1947, all is bright and airy because the windows and walls are broken, because in the larger houses that have remained standing every room contains a family and there is a liveliness in the corridors that we only know from streets in southern countries. Fear, also by Rossellini, was filmed seven years later in Munich. The whole Adenauer era is concretised in a door handle, in a small wrought-iron grille, a peephole in a wall around a suburban villa. A dark film.
Bazin’s concept of transparency can immediately be turned upside down. The aura of art, Walter Benjamin believed, had been lost forever since its mechanical reproducibility. But instead, he found something hallucinatory, something surreally sinister in the empty Parisian streets in Atget’s photographs. They are filled with the reflection of the naked real. It is the captured moment, the “optically unconscious” shimmering through. No mythical essence of the visible, but pure beginning, merely a fixed uniqueness with which, above all, one cannot identify. Feuillade transformed this experience into his Judex and Fantômas series, the ghosts of the ubiquity of cars, of glisteningly bright cities, of disembodied photographic people. The same experience was painted by Magritte, a big fan of both serial heroes. One sees what cannot be seen, with sharp contours, neutral, correct, in line with the new seeing of photography.
I was going to try once more to try to simply tell something2 . But is it anything at all, then? That was Gertrude Stein’s problem when she started Everybody’s Autobiography in 1934 – Pavese also translated her books. Going against the reflex to turn everything into images when seeing and everything into stories when writing is what anti-representational art does.
The ambivalence of univocality in Magritte’s paintings, whose subject is the nature of technically reproducible images, has inspired the hyperrealists in America today. They explicitly refer to him. Neorealism distils the special bit from everyday life. That sufficed for its fictions; unfolding the general, things become concrete in differentiated details. The photorealists start from a reproducible reality, from stereotypes, formulas, slogans. They occupy a minimal area of individual invention, which can only be established in difference. Their synthetic images are pure gaze. They show rather than illustrate. They rely on evidence rather than interpretation. The captured real is the difference between two kinds of images. A photograph of reality is not the thing itself. The best way to show this is through painting.
In this way, the old but still influential mimetic principle of art is led ad absurdum, as is the corresponding so-called scientific perspective, which since the Renaissance has not only organised painting but also, to this day, seeing and photographing.
One should not look for satirical, critical intentions in the ugly and banal subjects of the new realists. Mimicry is more important. Against his realist-writing contemporaries, Flaubert wrote his copyist novel Bouvard and Pécuchet, the degradation of ideas into prevailing opinions and idiocy. The path that everything new takes, until it is naturalised. In his letters, he suffered and moaned about how badly he himself had become infected by this bêtise, which he knew he could only make visible by writing in that style. His novel had to be so imageless and bodiless because it was about hearsay.
Rosa von Praunheim’s The Bed Sausage is anything but a joke at the expense of his aunt Lucy. The images show where the fiction is. You don’t have to make things up and add other characters. Clichés, the everyday, it’s full of it. And how seductive, how fascinating they are! It’s almost the ancient art of illusion.
The one quite general demand of neorealism that still permeates today’s realisms – and which Warshow felt in Paisan was a lack of morality – is to remain neutral towards what you see. Warhol longed to be a recording machine, less interested in saving than in being able to push the DELETE button.
- 1Telefoni bianchi films were made in Italy in the 1930s in imitation of the American comedies of the time. They were light, romantic films full of intrigue. The name is a reference to the presence of white telephones (a status symbol) in the first films of this kind. The films were socially conservative, glorifying family values, respect for authority and strict class hierarchy, views that corresponded to the ideology of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime.
- 2Grafe is referring to Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography: “And now the last evening that Thornton Wilder was in Paris last winter we wandered about together and I told him that what worried me was narration, no one in our time had really been able to tell anything without anything but just telling that thing and that I was going to try once more to try to simply tell something.”
Originally published as ‘Realismus ist immer Neo-, Sur-, Super-, Hyper-. Sehen mit fotografischen Apparaten’ in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, 1979. © Brinkmann & Bose Publisher Berlin, Germany
Image (1) from Germania anno zero [Germany Year Zero] (Roberto Rossellini, 1948)
Image (2) and (3) from Paisà [Paisan] (Roberto Rossellini, 1946)
Image (4) from Sciuscià [Shoeshine] (Vittorio De Sica, 1946)
Image (5) from Roma città aperta [Rome, Open City] (Roberto Rossellini, 1945)
Image (6) from Sleep (Andy Warhol, 1964)
Image (7) from Roma città aperta [Rome, Open City] (Roberto Rossellini, 1945)