Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Implausible Truth

Little Daney gem reposted from Steve Erickson's defunct original website (the new one is here).

Implausible Truth - Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
The world once was divided in two. I speak of the world of cinema lovers, the small world of cinephiles. There were those who giggled at the last films of Fritz Lang and those for whom these films ranked among the most beautiful. (Yes, but how to prove it?). The second lived in fear: fear of understanding the firsts' snicker of a smile before Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) or of poking fun at The Indian Tomb (1959). Because these vulnerable films, obtuse with logic, touched on what one pompously called "the essence" of cinema. They touched on the fact that there are films that sound idiotic when one tells their stories and are shattering when one sees them, on the fact that a film isn't its screenplay, nor cinema literature. 
And then, these films had no reputation: the histories of cinema spoke only of Metropolis, M, of the rigour of Fury, and the critical establishment of the time spat with condescension on the American period of Lang, a period of bad luck, tiny budgets and films more and more B. 
One had to defend these films against the thick common sense of the snickerers, against Lang himself, who had the air of being ashamed of them. (Hadn't he spoken of The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb as his "Indian shits?"). Helplessness. The old master already had the disillusioned smile that one could see in him a few years later in Contempt. The slightly superior smile of one who nevertheless knows (and who better than him, who could have become the #1 man of Nazi cinema?) that one must never feel superior. That feeling superior is the only crime. The rictus grin that Langian heroes have at the worst moments, like Tom Garrett at the end of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, when all is lost for him, and he doesn't know how to do anything other than step towards the office to see closer the pardon in his favour that the governor won't sign. 
The scenario of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is the story of a scenario. Of a frame-up, a simulacrum. An influential journalist (Sidney Blackmer) campaigns against the death penalty. He wants to prove that it's perfectly possible to send an innocent man to the electric chair. Yes, but how to prove it? 
He has this baroque idea (well, he thinks he has it) of proposing to his future son-in-law, Tom Garrett, a writer (Dana Andrews, once again rancid and admirable) to let himself be accused of a murder that was recently committed, fabricating false proofs, leaving himself condemned to death. At this moment, deus ex machina, he will unveil the implausible truth* and the partisans of the death penalty will be ashamed and listen to their conscience. That's their scenario, but in the film, it will go entirely differently.
In this film, there is all of Lang. The subject isn't really the death penalty. It wouldn't be a good film for Dossiers de l’écran**. 
The subject, as always with Fritz Lang, is the idea of responsibility. In his films, there are those who know they're guilty (it's stronger than them, it's pathological: from Mabuse to M passing by the "lipstick killer" of While the City Sleeps) and those who believe themselves innocent. But, from the silent serials to his American films made on command, through the big machines of UFA, Lang always drove in the same nail: there are no innocents. There might have been, but there are no longer. Innocence is provisional, wanting proof of it is already being guilty. Being sure of oneself, succumbing to the cold passion of ideas and ideologies, having the superior and smirky air of those who have expected everything, who have answers to everything, who are "mad of everything" is a dangerous state. Dangerous for others. 
The journalist who fights death penalty and the sadistic prosecutor who wants to apply it at any cost are brothers. One wants to expose an innocent man to be condemned to better prove him innocent, the other is ready to condemn the innocent man. What they haven't expected is that the innocent man is already the guilty one. 
I won't recount the events of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. I have already said too much. Its humour would be less redemptive if we weren't also, as spectators, at the same time innocent and guilty. Innocent because we know nothing, guilty because we believe everything. The Lang-machine is infernal: it needs us as spectators, witness, jury, cop. We play all the roles in this comedy of justice. But in the last shot, we are held up to ridicule and if some laugh, that would be from disappointment (one doesn't like being the dupe of a film, of a little celluloid.) Because we should know that in the films of Lang, there is never absolute proof, no end, no certainty, but a dry linking of causes and effects, words and things, puns and favourite objects, doors and secrets behind doors, insane uphill slopes and unreasonable downhill slopes. To infinity. 
How to watch the film? One must not try to be more clever than it. At the cinema, it's never an interesting attitude. (What does resemble the face of a clever spectator in the dark? Nothing great, it's even quite ridiculous.) And if we enter into the paranoid scenario of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, it's by pleasure, by play - not to have the final word. 
One must see the film twice: once for suspense and once to play its humour "in reverse." The humour of Lang, unique in the cinema, consists of supplying the spectator all the information he needs to understand everything. But of supplying it in disorder, so that he can make nothing of it. The truth is implausible because the characters don't stop telling it unknowingly. They don't stop saying innocently the key-words of the story they debate. Imagine a crossword puzzle where the definition and the word to find are the same. What anger (or what laugh) when you discover the trick. 
It's a word, only one, the name of the women that he has killed, that makes Garrett lose, and when the film is over, nothing prevents you from thinking with a greedy and retrospective terror of all the other words of the dialogue that are perhaps passwords, blunder-words of another story that could cross this one, as deadly as it. Infernal circle, that of your imagination. 
I remember the first time I saw the film. I followed dumbfounded this crazy story where the innocent is the guilty man, the inquirer is the inquiry, and it's the criminal who revolts against the death penalty. I admired this way of telling all these stories in one, as if to establish a theorem (I wanted to write this article on Lang without using the word "rigour": I failed.) I also admired the respect of Lang for the public, his estimate of our capacity for memorising all the elements of the film, never doing the job for us. And then, suddenly, at the moment where the old journalist takes his car out of the garage to go to the appeal tribunal of the "unfortunate" Garrett, I had a premonition. The man leaves the garage, he is in a rush and retreats towards the street filled with light that's at the base of the image. A second later, the camera is in the street, at a perpendicular angle to the preceding shot: a truck has knocked over the car, now in flames: the journalist and the false proofs with it. Horror. Horror and logic: it’s the thing we hadn't expected that must happen. 
Lang is at the same time the director who calculates causes and effects as far as possible and the one who knows how to make you feel in advance, only by direction, the stupid accident that will cut you down. A second before (not two, not three) before it arrives. A very abstract director and a very physical director. A genius. (Yes, but how to prove it etc.?).
First published in Libération on 18 July 1981. Reprinted in Ciné-journal in 1986. Translated by Steve Erickson (with minor amendments).

* "The Implausible truth" is the literal translation of title under which the film was released in France.

** Current affairs TV programme, running from 1967 to 1991, where a debate among intellectuals or expert followed a film on the topic raised.

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