Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Liliom’s arms

This is the last text of the Ghosts of permanence series on this blog. 30 texts in 50 days. I tried to match Daney's nearly daily rhythm when he was writing in Libération. I hope you enjoyed it.
Lilion's arms 
‘I’m sorry we didn’t have the chance to meet sooner,’ says Goebbels. - ‘Yes’. - ‘Will you have any trouble finding the way out?’ - ‘No’. 
This is how (in the strange Langopolis) a young American scriptwriter imagines the end of the famous dialogue between Goebbels and Fritz Lang. The latter does so well at finding the way out that a few minutes later he’s on a train bound for Paris. This is 1934 and Lang will never be the boss of Nazi cinema. On the 17 h 30 train, en route for Paris Gare du Nord, Lang is already the man who will turn the cinema against itself and denounce punishment with the very weapons of surveillance. The first director to have seen the threat of the audiovisual panopticon, the first moralist of the media yet to come, he leaves nascent television to Leni Riefenstahl and to Triumph of the Will. He will have his whole ‘American period’ to prove that cinema can, through ever more rigour, be useful
This is why there’s nothing more useful today than seeing Fritz Lang’s films again. And seeing them again on French television. Just as TV’s awash with reconstructed trials and mass-video redemptions, before the televised re-enactments of the trials of Petain or Barbie, it’s good to go back to Lang, who filmed a lot of trials and who, frequently, cited cinema as a witness. If the trial in Fury is better known than the one in Liliom, it’s because Liliom (1934) is a little seen film and, on the surface, not typical of Lang. It was adapted from the play by Molnar and filmed in Paris for his friend Pommer before leaving for California. The other thing is that the trial in Liliom takes place not on earth, but in heaven. 
Liliom is a harmless hooligan who proceeds through life like a Parisian ape man who never knows what to do with his arms. These are the arms of Charles Boyer, arms made to hold more than one woman, and which therefore know not what to do with the fragile body and stubborn love of Madeleine Ozeray. Liliom lets himself be persuaded by Alfred (the great Alcover) to get involved in some nasty business, which goes so awry that Liliom’s arm can find nothing else to do but to stick a kitchen knife in Liliom’s heart, and he dies. 
Lang wasn’t the kind who believed that death wipes out wrongs that need to be righted (‘That would be too convenient. What about justice?’). This is why Liliom, his corpse still warm, is arrested for a second time (‘We are God’s police’) by two pre-Wenders angels. Far, far away from Earth, the dead man is escorted to a celestial police station where the personnel (equipped, it’s true, with little wings) is the same as on Earth. Liliom, arms still dangling, guileless and truculent, struts in front of the police chief to no avail. To no avail, since the latter has an unprecedented card up his sleeve, the card of cinema
And so out of the celestial cinematheque there looms the film-as-a-witness of the life of Liliom Zadowski, and one scene in particular. On July 17, at 8:40am, Liliom slapped Julie because she’d let him drink all the coffee she’d made for them, so as (he says) to blame himself by setting herself up as a victim. The audience has seen this scene in Liliom and already found it beautiful, as they have found beauty in all the scenes played by two characters (with Lang’s camera, which sometimes will go straight for a detail before letting go). Now they see it again, in a private screening and in the company of Liliom, who is flabbergasted. But this time they see it as a jury or, let’s say, as film critics. What they’re saying now isn’t that Lang has style and that this style has what it takes, they’re asking themselves what this style is for, what is the use of this camera homing in and this eye seeking out a viewpoint to adopt. 
Lang was proud, but not so proud to compete with the Eye-in-chief of the divine gaze. Anyway this eye is an ear. Man invented the restless body of silent cinema, then the satisfied speech of the talkies. Man did not invent the resonant thoughts of a deaf cinema. In his wisdom (and in his own cinematheque), the Good Lord alone has the truly original version, with Liliom’s thoughts explaining Liliom’s arms; the thoughts that just need to be heard for these arms to become human. Indeed, throughout the whole of the scene-as-a-witness, his inner voice was reproaching him, and it was in self-disgust that he struck the woman whom he loved without being able to tell her so. 
It is the cinema that saves Liliom (and which we’re beginning to miss so dreadfully). 

First published in Libération on 17 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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