Superhero movies

‘Who are you?’
‘Someone like you.’
(Batman Begins)

‘Not all heroes wear masks’ (George Clooney as Batman in Batman and Robin)

Obviously, hundreds of millions of people have seen the superhero movies of the last two decades, bought the related dvds, games, books and merchandise, and many millions of these consumers are also experts and aficionados about every aspect of the films, as well as of the original source superhero comics.

I’ve taken my son to occasional blockbusters at the cinema, but to humour him (and understand half his conversation) I recently watched as many of these superhero films as I could easily get hold of. Originally watching just for pleasure, eventually I found myself making notes and asking questions about the tropes and ideas which recurring in so many of them.

New York

  • All six modern Spiderman movies are set in New York because that’s where the hero, Peter Parker, lives.
  • Matt Murdock /Daredevil is born and bred in New York, the emblematic Chrysler building featuring in many of the film’s set-up shots
  • The Fantastic Four’s headquarters, the Baxter Building, is very obviously in New York
  • Batman’s ‘Gotham City’ is a noir version of New York and is the setting of all 11 Batman movies, including Batman Forever, in which the face of the Statue of Liberty is blown up by Two Face’s helicopter
  • Superman’s ‘Metropolis’ is transparently New York, featuring as backdrop to all eight Superman movies, and getting seriously destroyed in 2013’s Man of Steel
  • The X-Men movies travel adventurously all round the world but almost all of them gravitate back to Professor Xavier’s school for the gifted in Westchester, New York State – indeed the climax of the first X-Men movie is set right at the top of the iconic Statue of Liberty
  • Days of Future Past conveys its vision of the earth in a world desolated by war by opening in… which American city, do you think?
  • Iron Man 2 opens with a grand Stark Expo in Flushing, New York, which then becomes the site for a superbattle between Iron Man and a new breed of flying robot warriors
  • Captain Marvel starts in New York because that’s where the captain – real name Steve Rogers – grew up and, coincidentally, it’s the city the evil baddie, Red Skull, is planning to blow up at the film’s climax
  • Avengers Assemble builds to a spectacular climax in the streets and skies of New York as an army of aliens does battle with the six Avenger superheroes

If you watch any number of the films it’s impossible not to end up asking, Why are so many superhero movies obsessively set in New York City?

1. Because Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Julius Schwartz and many of the early and most influential comic-book editors, writers and artists were born and bred in New York City, loved New York and knew it very well. And since their ethos was to create superhero characters who lived in realistic places and had realistic problems, these writers set them in the place they knew best.

2. Both Marvel and DC, publishers of the leading hero comics, were originally based in New York.

3. In terms of population, New York is head and shoulders above all other American cities, with a population of 8+ million more than double its nearest rival, Los Angeles with 3.9m, and then Chicago 2.7m, Houston 2.2m, Philadelphia 1.5m, Phoenix 1.5m, San Antonio 1.4m, San Diego 1.39m, Dallas 1.3m, San Jose 1m. So a threat to New York City is a threat to the biggest population centre in America. New York means big, it means lots.

4. Also, New York is packed with iconic sights and cinematic opportunities:

  • the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Tower, the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Station, Fifth Avenue, Central Park – New York has lots of iconic locations and sights which we’re all familiar with from countless other movies and TV shows
  • it has a huge bay and rivers running either side of Manhattan, which allows for the creation of spectacular water effects, things to crash into causing tsunami waves, or for monsters to emerge from
  • there’s a number of tunnels for car chases to happen in, or for monsters to run along the ceilings of
  • massive bridges whose cables can be snapped or cars be pushed off
  • and, of course, New York is home to a lot of very tall buildings, good for Spider-man to sweep through or planes or missiles or monsters to fly between, or General Zod to turn into enormous toppling packs of cards

Think of the massive wave sweeping through the jammed streets of New York in The Day After Tomorrow. Film makers love destroying New York. Other American cities simply don’t have the population density, let alone the iconic buildings or the variety of natural features. They’re just not nearly as much fun to blow up.

San Francisco

San Francisco with a population of only 880,000 isn’t even in the top ten American cities population-wise, but it is a popular second choice because of the visual recognition and the mayhem potential afforded by the San Francisco bridge.

The apes rampage across the bridge in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It is lifted and bodily transported by Magneto in X-Men: The Last Stand. All those cables to run up and down, to snap and whiplash down onto the roadway, slicing cars and trucks in half!

And a bridge also means things can hang or dangle at their peril over the edge of it. Often these are buses. If you think about it, you need something long to dangle over an edge, like the coach at the end of The Italian Job.

A good choice is a fire engine, which is both long in itself and also has extendable ladders which can unravel right to their limit, with someone hanging off the end, yelling for help, as happens twenty minutes into Fantastic Four (2005).

Maximum points if you use a school bus full of screaming children, as at the climax of Superman: The Movie (1978).

(Screaming schoolkids never go out of fashion. Captain America and the other Avengers have to save a bus full of them at the climax of Avengers Assemble, 2012, and young Clark Kent saves a school bus which goes off the edge of a bridge and is sinking in a river, in 2013’s Man of Steel. Listen to those kids in jeopardy scream!)

Skyscrapers smashed up

In these movies an incredible number of high rise buildings get damaged. They’re blown up, smashed up, hit by spaceships, meteors, flown into by jet planes, punctured by superheroes throwing each other through them, devastated by General Zod’s terraforming machine, and so on.

But there is one particularly stylised way of damaging buildings which recurs again and again. This is where the building is raked along one floor, ripped open along the same storey, as if with a tin opener – by flying debris, girders, missiles, superheroes, silver surfers, giant monsters and so on.

This ‘horizontal rip’ allows the viewer to see into the building and gives a more terrifying sense of the vulnerability and terror of the people one minute working in a humdrum office, the next minute clinging to the walls as shattered glass, office furniture and other people come tumbling out and plunge to the ground hundreds of feet below.

Every time I see these sequences I think of 9/11 – tall buildings hit along one floor, debris and people falling into the streets of New York.

The reference is obvious but still repressed when the two jumbo jets which come close to crashing into each other, but ultimately miss, at the climax of Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014). It is out in the open at the end of 2014’s Man of Steel, and even more so at the start of its sequel, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where we are actually with someone inside a skyscraper which is blown up and collapses, spewing that terrible grey cloud of debris over Bruce Wayne running helplessly towards it. It is 9/11 by any other name.

Freud developed the idea of Repetition Compulsion. This is a psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again, re-enacting the event or putting themselves in situations where the event is likely to happen again, repeating it over and over in an effort to assimilate it.

The obsessiveness with which these superhero movies (as well as the gamut of modern science fiction films) destroy tall buildings, over and over again, and so frequently in New York, seems to me like a compulsive attempt on the part of an entire culture’s collective unconscious to heal the trauma, to repair the wound, of 9/11.

I thought of this all the way through the last half hour of Man of Steel in which the systematic destruction of New York by a Kryptonite ‘world-maker’, and the extraordinarily prolonged fight between Superman and General Zod which destroys countless buildings, vehicles and New York landmarks, has to be seen to be believed.

So many shiny New York skyscrapers, slowly toppling to the ground, so much concrete wreckage and grey ash, so many 9/11s – again and again and again.

Car crashes

In American action movies the narrative expresses its seriousness via car crashes and traffic pile-ups. After the climax of the Blues Brothers back in 1980, with deliberately absurd excess, piled up 100 police cars in the central plaza in Chicago, you’d have thought that car pile-ups would have gotten pretty tired and old, a raddled empty cliché, but no – even though it is a really hoary cliche of these superhero/sci fi movies, they just keep on coming:

  • Superman II (1980) features an extended destruction of cars and buses by the three criminals from Krypton
  • the Penguin-guided Batmobile trashes a load of police cars in the awful Batman Returns (1992)
  • the multi-police car chase in Batman Begins (2005)
  • the Times Square power outage in The Amazing Spiderman 2 (2012) in which scores of police cars, buses and so on crash into each other
  • the multi-car pile-up caused by The Thing in the first Fantastic Four movie
  • the host of police cars which congregate on the White House in X-Men: Days of Future Past only to be shredded and blown up by the superguns of the flying robot Sentinels
  • the impressive slow-mo action car chase at the start of Deadpool with plenty of big black vans (a very popular type of vehicle in blockbuster chases and crashes) cartwheeling and shattering along the freeway
  • the high speed chase after an armoured truck carrying Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight
  • the climax of The Incredible Hulk (2008) in which the Hulk and the Abomination fight it out mainly by throwing cars and buses at each other in the streets of Harlem
  • the spectacular blowing up of a car park full of vehicles by flying assassin robots in Iron Man 2
  • there’s a car pile-up in a tunnel in the first half of Avengers Assemble but that’s nothing compared to the amount of cars, buses and police cars blown up in the climactic battle in New York

And so on.

It’s as if American film-makers just can’t conceive of damage, can’t really take the idea of damage seriously, unless it’s expressed through a multi-vehicle pile-up. It’s as if the movies, lacking scale and power from the actors alone, have to call in energy from other sources – from destroying things – and from destroying the thing which is closest to most Americans’ hearts and imaginations – their cars.

Apparently, there are some 270 million vehicles licensed in the USA (trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes), making it top of the world league table for motor vehicles per capita, with 910 vehicles per 1,000 people.

America is the most carred nation in the world.

Put it this way: although there are plenty of scenes of pedestrians fleeing from carnage and explosions, nothing really says TROUBLE like a whole load of New York cars, taxis and buses all piling into each other, whether because of Godzilla, the Sandman, the Silver Surfer, Electro or General Zod.

The impotence of the police and army

The smashing-up of police cars is closely related to another familiar trope – the notion that the police and/or army are completely ineffective.

How many times have we seen the cops turn up in scores of cop cars, lights flashing, sirens blaring, and some dope with a loudhailer thinks they can stop whichever radioactive mutant superbeing is the star of this particular flic, by a) asking him to and then b) firing off their puny handguns.

Sure enough, they then fire hundreds of bullets from pistols and machine guns against the baddie(s) with no effect at all. For example, when scores of cops armed to the teeth are easily beaten by the teenage X-Men in X-Men First Class, or when a small army of New York cops unleash a storm of bullets at Electro, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, with zero effect. Or:

  • the 14 police cars and trucks and scores of armed cops which are no use at all against Magneto in the first X-Men film
  • the street full of cop cars and the swarm of SWAT men who rampage into the church in Daredevil and – completely fail to capture Daredevil
  • the swarm of SWAT men who rampage into the building housing the drug dealers in Batman Begins and completely fail to capture anyone
  • neither the American SWAT team in Chicago nor the Chinese SWAT team in Hong Kong can prevent Batman doing just what he wants in The Dark Knight
  • in The Dark Knight Rises the entire police force and all the SWAT teams of Gotham City are tricked underground and trapped there… for three months!
  • in all three big action sequences in The Incredible Hulk the army – starting with machine guns, then mounted guns, then helicopter gunships, then a secret sonic weapon – completely fail to quell the green beast
  • as soon as you see fighter jets, helicopters and marines going in against the rogue Kryptonians in Man of Steel, you know they are going to be annihilated

SWAT stands for Special Weapons And Tactics team.

In the United States, SWAT teams are equipped with specialized firearms including submachine guns, assault rifles, breaching shotguns, sniper rifles, riot control agents, and stun grenades, plus specialized equipment including heavy body armor, ballistic shields, entry tools, armored vehicles, night vision devices, and motion detectors.

It’s a long way from Dixon of Dock Green, isn’t it? For decades, now, U.S. TV and film makers have been depicting urban America as a war zone.

And yet, in all these superhero movies, whenever you see a whole host of SWAT men in their black uniforms, wearing bullet proof helmets with glaring head-lamps, holding their automatic rifles to their faces, crashing into some building – it is absolutely guaranteed that they are going to be massacred or humiliated by the superhero or supervillain.

In film after film the conventional police, SWAT teams and even the army are shown to be impotent and dumb. They never get their man.

Cumulatively, this begins to have quite an undermining effect on the viewer, and begins to bleed into your perception of the highly armed American police, special forces and SWAT teams you see so often on the news. Are they really this gormless? Really this useless? Nothing we learned about the American presence in Iraq contradicts this impression.

American violence

Which brings us to the whole issue of violence, the central theme of all superhero movies. Fighting.

To the grown-up viewer is liable to notice about these scenes is the extraordinary level of everyday violence in the contemporary American imaginative universe, and how it feeds off the actual violence of everyday American life.

25 years ago I remember then-president Bill Clinton pointing out that America is a far more violent country than most Americans themselves realise. These films depict the way that that everyday violence seems to have fed down into the most basic relationships in society.

Even within the close-knit groups of ‘friends’ or comrades, even within the Fantastic Four or among the X-Men or between Peter Parker and his best friend Harry, there seems to be an endless tendency to argue, arguments which swiftly escalate to bristling standoffs, then fisticuffs, and then the guns.

American rudeness and incivility

Americans, as depicted in these movies, just can’t be civil, polite or restrained to each other.

All the little acts of politeness, the ps and qs, the common courtesies of life, have, in these films, disappeared from American life. Instead, young Americans, in thrall to a debased idea of slangy, ‘cool’, ‘street’ style, seem to operate in a mood of permanent anger, becoming furious at the smallest slight, and then resorting to extreme violence within seconds of being triggered.

Watching the inarticulate violence of many of the young people in these movies, the quickness with which they resort to bullying confrontations – at Peter Parker’s high school, or between the quick-tempered younger generation of mutants in the X-Men films – watching the way the ability to be calm and polite and well-mannered and to turn the other cheek has utterly disappeared from this culture; the way noone is capable of irony and nonchalance but immediately, upon the slightest disagreement, resorts to red-hot anger, to fists or, if they’re available, knives or guns – is terrifying.

Vide the first scene of X-Men: Apocalypse where some high school jock decides to flatten Scott/Cyclops for allegedly winking at his girl. I wonder if American high schools really are this unpleasantly confrontational and violent.

Nobody seems able to say ‘come off it guys, let’s go and play football’, or to make a joke to defuse the confrontation. Instead, square-jawed, buff, young Yanks seem to be constantly squaring up to each other while some skinny model is pulling the bully’s arm, wailing ‘Don’t do it, Brad.’

And rudeness is portrayed as prevalent at every level of American life. When Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises rudely tells the hundreds of upper-crust guests he’s invited to a glamorous ball to shove off, it is, admittedly, for a purpose (to save their lives, since bad guys have infiltrated the party and are threatening to blow it up) – but is done with the core incivility and lack of style which characterises every character in all these movies.

Almost the only person who is genuinely polite or considerate is Clark Kent and he is universally regarded as a harmless bumbling buffoon, whether played by Christoper Reeve in 1978 or  Henry Cavill in 2013.

#everydayrudeness

Screen violence

The scale of the fighting is quite staggering. I started watching these movies with my wife but she gave up along the way because she just couldn’t stomach the non-stop, stomach-churning super-violence.

If you desensitise yourself to the endless physical assaults, then it’s possible to be impressed at the skill and imagination of the fight choreographers for coming up with so any variations on what are, essentially, a small number of tropes.

My favourite is where one character seizes another by the neck and lifts them clean off the ground, generally as an interrogation technique. For example, when one of the Kryptonite baddies lifts Clark Kent’s mom simply with one hand round her throat, in Man of Steel. The camera always pans down the victim’s body to show their feet lifted clear off the ground. Wow! Ain’t he strong!

In the more advanced form, the seizer then throws the seizee right across the room, with the roughneck violence characteristic of all these films. If they’re a superbaddy, they throw the victim clear through the nearest wall.

In Man of Steel, Clark Kent’s hometown of Smallville is more or less obliterated in his epic fight with the bad Kryptonites, and I lost count of the number of walls Superman throws them through or they throw him through, at supersonic speed.

Violence as sick humour

As the past two decades have progressed, the violence of these films has become more cruel and cynical.

When I saw the opening of The Dark Knight in the cinema I was disgusted by the nihilistic cynicism of the opening ‘joke’, namely that the gang of a dozen crooks who break into a bank have instructions to shoot dead each of their colleagues once he’s done his job. Bang bang bang, people are just shot dead at point blank range. In the olden days they’d have been tied up or knocked out. Now American crims just shoot anyone who gets in their way. And the script makes wisecracks about it. Ha ha ha.

Later, the Joker does a magic trick when he’s intimidating a roomful of crime lords. He blu-tacks a pencil to make it sticking upright on a table, and says his magic trick will be to make the pencil disappear. A thuggish goon comes up to threaten him, and the Joker in one swift movement, grabs the man’s head and baps it down into the table, the pencil entering the baddy’s eyeball and into his brain – so that when the Joker lifts the dead goon’s head and pushes his body away to collapse onto the floor, the pencil goes with it. He has made it disapear. Ta-dah! Funny, eh?

The first two Christopher Nolan Batman movies contain, I think, the most sickening violence of all the movies listed below. They don’t just ‘glamorise’ violence, they glamorise a particular type of sick, twisted, black humorous attitude towards violence.

Aware of the climate of sick, amoral, super-violence which these movies promote and revel in, it comes as no surprise to outsiders like us to read about incidents like this:

On July 20, 2012, during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises at the Century 16 cinema in Aurora, Colorado, a gunman wearing a gas mask opened fire inside the theater, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. Police responding to the shooting apprehended a suspect later identified as 24-year-old James Eagan Holmes shortly after arriving on the scene. Initial reports stated that Holmes identified himself as ‘the Joker’ at the time of his arrest. (Wikipedia)

Does the continual, full-spectrum broadcasting of sick super-violence influence the epidemic of mass shootings in America which just seems to be getting worse and worse – or does it just accurately reflect a culture awash with guns which has completely lost all moral bearings?

A  few seconds’ searching on the internet quickly tells you that:

  • a 2015 report by The Economist magazine found that gun violence in PG-13 movies had tripled since 1985
  • there’s a Hollywood room at the National Rifle Association museum where guns used by stars like Clint Eastwood and Sly Stallone are on display
  • if you’re in the gun-selling business, the best way to make a gun a best-seller is to pay to have it showcased in a big Hollywood movie

Gun crime, gun murder, gun massacres, are a big and pressing problem (for America) but whether there’s any causality between hyper-violent, super-cynical, mass murder in movies and in ‘real life’, or it’s just a coincidental correlation, as defenders of the films claim – either way, it’s not a healthy culture, is it?

Kill all opposition

Admittedly, a small handful of characters preach what you could call ‘humanistic’ or even Christian values – like listening to each other, talking over problems, jaw-jaw is better than war-war or even, in wild moments, the notion of forgiving each other and moving on.

But these are momentary blips in a great ocean of violence. Instant anger between anyone who disagrees about anything quickly escalates to standoffs, insults, then punches, then knives, guns and – these days – Uzi machine guns. The extended ten-minute Uzi shootout with Yakuza mobsters in The Wolverine can stand as emblematic of a world of super-armed hyper-violence.

But the extraordinary level of armed violence is just a symptom, or surface symbol, of the deep structure of all these films, namely:

There is a good guy. There are one or more bad guys. The good guy can try to talk to the bad guy for a while, or have sarcastic wisecracking dialogue with him. There will be encounters of growing menace and threat. But sooner or later all this chat and phoney politeness can lead to only one thing – an intense fight, which itself can only end with the death and eradication of the antagonist.

Ultimately, you cannot talk to the enemy – all talk proves to be pointless – ultimately, all you can do is exterminate the enemy.

‘There’s only one way this ends, Cal – either you die or I do.’ (General Zod in Man of Steel)

From school corridors to outer space, these multi-million dollar blockbuster movies promote the same lesson again and again and again – that talking is a waste of time, reasoned argument is waste of breath, that the only solution to even a mild conflict of opinion, is obliterating your enemy. Shoot them. Kill them all.

American high school

In these movies American high schools all look the same and appear to be populated by either stunning models or tough-guy bullies.

The rudeness, roughness, the bullying and intimidation, the lateness and sloppiness and disrespect for the teachers which is universal in these films paint a dismal picture of America’s education system.

The bullying of nerdy outsider Peter Parker goes a long way to conveying to the detached viewer a culture of bullying and outsiderness which appears to be the seedbed for all the high school shootings that have become such a regular feature of American schools.

The movies depict a teen culture which is completely homogenous, in which everyone is a jock or a babe, drives cars, hangs out, strives to be ‘cool’ – and strongly convey that not to be part of this stiflingly conformist culture is to be lost.

The films convey such a stiflingly conformist ‘cool’ culture of jocks and babes, it comes as no surprise to learn that the real-life high school shootings are almost always carried out by the loners, the outsiders, the stiffs who are rejected and mocked by the bullying, laughing world of ‘insiders’, the good looking handsome jocks and babes.

They may also just be deranged, with a history of mental problems, like Nikolas Cruz:

But whatever the causation, you’d have thought a culture which produces billion-dollar entertainments glamorising epic violence and psychotic mass killers might pause and reflect on the fact that its products are produced and consumed in a culture characterised – like no other culture in the world – by mass killings by psychotic killers.

Schools

In fact schools feature heavily in many of these films. The X-Men plots rotate around Charles Xavier’s school for the gifted (i.e. mutants). All six Spider-Man movies rotate around the tiresome high school which Peter Parker attends.

As settings, schools have the advantage that:

  1. They relate directly to the films’ target audience – teens or those mentally in their teens
  2. They’re an excuse for lots of characters to live, work and face jeopardy in the same space
  3. There’s no need for the workaday world of jobs, work, parenting or any of the responsibilities that tie down real people and would get in the way of a lot of plot- all accommodation and food is taken care of, there’s no commuting, no babies crying etc, just teenagers running round screaming ‘We have to save him’ or ‘We have to find them’

Scenes of supernatural fighting in these schools inevitably bring to mind the eight Harry Potter movies (2001 to 2011) which take advantage of many of the same features:

  • a teen audience
  • a confined space with lots of dramatic potential
  • no adult responsibilities

Adults pretending to be young and models pretending to be ordinary people

On the subject of depicting school children –

I found the two Amazing Spiderman movies insufferable because of Andrew Garfield’s stuttering, inarticulate portrayal of the central character. When he has dinner at his girlfriend’s house, he picks a fight with the parents; when he argues with his aunt in Amazing Spider-Man 2 I think it’s intended to be funny but his character comes over as inarticulate, rude and ill-mannered. He comes over as a graceless dick.

But I found a more profound problem with the films was the glaring discrepancy between the ages of the actors and the ages of the characters they’re meant to be playing.

In both Amazing Spiderman movies Parker has the same love interest, Gwen Stacy, played by actress Emma Stone. In AS1 both Parker and Stacy are meant to be 17 years old. In fact, the actress who played her, Emma Stone, was 23 and Garfield was 28. In AS2 they are both meant to be graduating from high school aged just 18, but were in fact 25 and 30, respectively.

It’s not just implausible but… a touch creepy, watching grown adults play children.

The same problem afflicts Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). In this version Peter Parker is meant to be even younger (15) but the actor playing him was 20. Worse, Parker’s love interest, Liz, is played by Laura Harrier, who was 27.

27 playing 15?

Not only that, but Harrier is a model who has done a fair share of ‘glamour’ modeling i.e. wearing only her underwear or less. She has the lean, muscular body of a young woman, not a girl of 15. Maybe I’m being way too serious, too much the middle-aged dad of a teenage daughter myself, but I find it creepy that a woman who’s nearly 30 years old and has modeled half-nude, is cast as a 15-year-old in a wildly popular teen movie.

Do 15 year-old girls need to feel under any more pressure than they already do to conform to soft-porn, adult fantasies of what women should look like – impossibly skinny, half-dressed, thrusting boobs, pouting towards the male viewer? Is this helping or making things worse?

You have to trust me

In almost every movie there comes a moment where one character asks another to trust them. In the audience we’re all screaming ‘Just tell him what goddamm happened,’ but that’s not the point. They never explain. They’re always in too much of a hurry, the cops are coming, the bad guys are only seconds away. ‘You have to trust me.’

As a trope it maximises tension. Instead of non-stop chasing, it creates a kind of crux or tipping point, it creates a mini-climax. And in terms of character ‘development’, often it’s two characters who haven’t got on very well, now being forced to bond.

If movies are designed to serve up thrills and spills, this is a classic moment of tension and suspense. That said, I can’t think of a single occasion when the character didn’t trust the one asking.

  • The Gambler to Wolverine: ‘You need to trust me. We have to go.’ (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 1:34:20)
  • Quicksilver to Wolverine: ‘How do I know I can trust you?’ (X-Men: The Days of Future Past, 0:38:40)
  • Magneto to his wife: ‘I trusted you then. I need you to trust me now.’ (X-Men: Apocalypse 0:29:50)
  • Tony Stark to James Rhodes: ‘You got to trust me. Contrary to popular belief, I know exactly what I’m doing.’ (Iron Man 2 0:44:00)

‘Trust’ or lack of, is the central issue coming between George Clooney’s Batman and his new sidekick Robin, in 1997’s Batman and Robin, repeated in almost all the dialogue between them.

Rogue government agencies

In how many of these kinds of movies does it turn out that there’s a secret government agency carrying out illegal experiments or a top secret scientific programme, generally to build the ultimate weapon?

The X-Files TV series was based on the idea that the government was concealing its knowledge of alien activity and – and this is the point – was prepared to go to any lengths – which meant murdering anyone – to keep it secret.

The premise of the Jason Bourne movies was that Bourne had volunteered to be turned into the supreme killing machine, a perfect assassination machine, by a top secret government programme, but had then been badly wounded and lost his memory. The entire suite of movies is dominated by the homicidal determination of the agency doing this research (Operation Treadstone) to murder anyone who stands in its way.

The backstory of the X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a classic example of the trope: Wolverine (original name Logan) was experimented on to create a super-human killing machine. In that movie this program progressed to develop an even more violent super-killer, X11, which becomes known as Deadpool.

Rogue corporations

‘Sir, we have a situation.’
(Line used by a flunky to the evil CEO in both Daredevil and Batman Begins)

And if it’s not a rogue government department, it’s a rogue corporation. How many of these are there?

  • Cyberdyne Systems is the private corporation which devises the technology for the Terminator robots
  • Oscorp Industries is the multibillion-dollar multinational corporation which develops the technology responsible for Spider-Man and his enemy the Green Goblin
  • It’s Von Doom Industries headed by the bullish Victor von Doom which transports four scientists to its space station to observe a mysterious power source passing close to earth and which instead gives the Fantastic Four their superpowers, while also mutating von Doom into the imaginatively named Dr Doom.
  • William Stryker appears in several of the X-Men movies running rogue programmes – In X-Men Origins: Wolverine he runs the ‘Weapon X’ project which embeds Wolverine’s body with the indestructible metal, adamantine, before going on to create an even more lethal human weapon, Weapon XI, who will go on to become known as Deadpool.
  • In Deadpool the movie, the plot is changed to that the ‘hero’ acquires his superpowers after being subjected to horrific treatments at a private facility run by ‘Ajax’.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past is centred on a rogue programme being run by scientist Bolivar Trask at his Trask Corporation to create anti-mutant robots, or ‘sentinels’.
  • In Logan the Transigen Corporation has bred a cohort of test tube children made from captured mutant DNA with a view to breeding them as weaponised soldiers, supervised by creepy ‘doctor’ Zander Rice.

Corporate-level science is depicted throughout these movies as hi-tech, evil and sadistic.

This trope is taken to a new level when the rogue corporation in question happens to be owned by the very hero of the story.

  • In Iron Man Stark Industries is taken over behind Tony Stark’s back by evil Jeff Bridges who creates a super-evil robot man.
  • In Batman Begins Bruce Wayne’s own corporation (the imaginatively titled Wayne Enterprises) is not only taken away from him by the scheming CEO but used to fund his enemies

Broadly speaking, anybody functioning above a high-school romance level of existence – whether they be lawyers, doctors, scientists or businessmen – is portrayed as wicked and corrupt. This makes sense when you reflect that the comics were always targeted at nerdy teenagers.

Heterosexual

These movies are crashingly heterosexual, in a number of ways.

1. Romances They involve lots of romances, good, clean, heterosexual romances. Half the narrative of the Spider-Man movies is made up of Peter Parker’s endlessly on-again off-again romance with Mary Jane Watson (in the Toby Maguire trilogy) or Gwen Stacy (in the couple of Amazing Spider-Man films) or Liz (in the MCU reboot). The Wolverine character falls in love with a Canadian teacher in X-Men: Origins but this can’t eclipse the strength of his love for Jean Grey, played by the unreally beautiful Famke Janssen. It is disappointing that Gwyneth Paltrow, playing Tony Stark’s secretary in the Iron Man trilogy, inevitably falls in love with him.

These movies teach that all people are heterosexual and randy, so that any man and woman working closely together will end up ‘falling in love’, or be compelled to notice each other as potential partners / sex objects. Not a good attitude, is it?

2. Marriage The Fantastic Four movies (2004, 2007) are among my favourites because they grasp from the get-go that these films have to be funny to survive (a comedic tone successfully copied in the Iron Man series). Thus the Silver Surfer movie is punctuated by the comedic attempts of the stunningly good-looking Jessica Alba and Ioan Gruffudd to get married, the ceremony continually being interrupted by threats of the end of the world which only they can avert – and we all know how distracting that can be.

3. Models A dismaying number of modern American ‘actors’ – male and female – started their careers as models. I.e. despite all the feminism and political correctness to the contrary, looks looks looks are what count in Hollywood. ‘Acting ability’, second. As a selection from the movies I’ve watched recently.

  • Jennifer Connelly – model then actress (Hulk)
  • Nick Nolte – model then actor (Hulk)
  • Chris O’Donnell – model then actor (Batman Forever)
  • James Marsden – Versace model then actor (The X-Men)
  • Kirsten Dunst – model then actress (Spider-Man)
  • Tom Welling – model then actor (Smallville)

4. Buff The men in these movies are impossibly buff and toned. As the X-Men films progress, Logan – played by Hugh Jackman – goes from being fit and hunky to superhumanly muscular and ripped. Any other male character who gets his top off similarly displays an awesomely defined set of musculature (e.g. Christ Evans who spends half the Fantastic Four films topless in order to showcase his awesome six pack). Even supposedly 15-year-old Peter Parker in Spider-Man: The Homecoming pulls his shirt off to reveal an impressively ripped, toned, hyper-muscled, super-athlete body. Henry Cavill gets to be topless early in Man of Steel, revealing a quite awesomely ripped torso.

And then there’s Chris Hemsworth’s Thor:

Bloody hell.

5. Hot The women in these movies are impossibly ‘glamorous’, meaning – young, thin and buxom. A dismaying number of them started their careers as models and many still do modeling gigs i.e. looks looks looks is what counts – the ability to be able to walk and speak at the same time, a lot less important.

Thin, slender women with model good looks and ample busts

Cat-eyed models

There’s a noticeable sub-type of ‘buff’ or ‘hot’, a distinctive ‘look’ which is unusually common in these films. The actors are slightly cat-looking, with eyes far apart and cat-like.

Possibly, it’s more noticeable in the men:

It’s a look pioneered by David Keith, who came to fame in 1982’s An Officer and A Gentleman – a square face with a strong jawline and wide apart, narrow, slit-like eyes.

Of course, not all the actors in all the movies look like this – but enough of them do for it to be a noticeable trend.

And it’s even more obvious in the TV spin-offs. In the same shops where I bought second-hand superhero movies I kept seeing covers of the TV vampire series Angel (1999-2004) which starred the hunky, square-faced, lynx-eyed David Boreanaz.

Or box sets of the popular show Smallville which features model-turned-actor, moody and magnificent Tom Welling.

You don’t have to have model good looks to be a Hollywood star – but it certainly helps.

Feminism and superheroes

In this respect it’s amazing that feminists appear to support and encourage this preposterously unreal world of skinny, busty, youthful models posing as actors. I genuinely don’t understand why this image on the London Underground sparked such a storm of protest:

for being a degrading, objectifying, sexist and sexualised way of portraying women, which adds to the oppressive culture of body perfection and body shaming which afflicts so many young women (my daughter included)… and yet pretty much the same impossibly thin and airbrushed-to-perfection, sexy body shape as demonstrated by model-turned-actress, former Miss Israel 2004, Gal Gadot playing Wonder Woman in 2017 –

was praised by feminists as ’empowering’.

Slender model in figure-hugging skimpy clothes is a) degrading b) empowering. Which?

And it’s a little mind-boggling that, in 2018, the Wikipedia articles for all of these superhero movies consistently describe the lead women in them as the ‘love interest’ of the men.

In the deep conception of these films, in their stories and characters, the men are always the focus of the narratives, the centres of strength, integrity and endurance, the only ones with characters worth undergoing crises and development.

The ‘love interests’ only exist as bolt-on extras.

It’s almost surprising that the ‘love interests’ even bother to have names, since their role is mostly to pout and be skinny enough to attract the hero – after a bit of resistance, to give in and kiss him – then to get captured and placed in jeopardy by the super-baddie – and then to be rescued by the hero leading up to the cheesy Happy Ending.

I’ve just watched Thor in which the creators probably thought they were ’empowering’ Natalie Portman’s character by making her a clever scientist who understands long words – but her actual behaviour is a rehash of any 1950s brainless dolly bird.

First, she’s portrayed as a comically useless woman driver who keeps running the hapless Thor over in her camper van. She thinks he’s weird until she catches sight of him topless, flexing his awesome musculature, at which point she is abruptly smitten like a hormonal schoolgirl.

Then, when Thor kisses her hand like a perfect gent, she realises she is in lurv with him, like a bimbo out of Clueless.

And then, when this enormous, tall, ripped gentleman turns out to be a superhero capable of battling a giant fire-shooting metal monster – she succumbs to full-on, helpless hero worship.

Thor was released in 2008. Surely, from a feminist point of view, in its characterisation of the breathless man-worship of the central female character, it might as well have been 1958?

The changing American accent

The American accent seems to have changed during my lifetime i.e. the past 50 years, in terms of sound and speed.

1. More gutteral The sound has become more gutteral and strangulated, making it often difficult to understand what characters are saying. Compare and contrast the full articulation of a British actor like James McAvoy, with the strangulated articulation of someone like Jennifer Lawrence, in the second trilogy of X-Men films. Younger Americans seem to create consonant sounds right at the back of the throat as if they’re swallowing them rather than projecting them outwards. It’s related to a speaking style which was identified as ‘Valley Speak’ back in the 1990s and seems to have spread, at least throughout films.

In this clip listen to the way actress Anne Hathaway moves between fully articulated voice and strangled voice at points like 2:20 (‘Don’t condescend Mr Wayne, you don’t know [and here she begins to strangle the words] a thing about me’) and 2:46 (‘Once you’ve done what you had to [switching to strangled] they’ll never let you do what you want to’).

Is it just the way movie actors and young Americans speak now? To my ear it denotes an attitude of cynicism or nihilism. She strangles her words in order to convey a don’t-give-a-damn attitude. Along with a strong, exaggerated emphasis on the ‘r’ sound, this strangulated style of speaking conveys a ‘who gives a shit’ mindset, perfectly in tune with the prevailing violence and wanton destruction of the films.

2. Fast The other element of American English’s ongoing evolution, is the speed with which young Americans speak. I found it difficult to understand much of what Jennifer Lawrence (27) was saying in the X-Men films, but almost impossible to understand what Jacob Batalon (20) was saying in Spiderman The Homecoming, because he just speaks so fast.

Here are three ‘young’ actors from Spider-Man: The Homecoming trying to express themselves. My point is not about them and the interviewer coming over as idiots – which they do – and more about their manner of speaking: the speed and strangulated articulation seem to be turning American English into a new language in front of our ears.

Surely there are academic studies about the ways young American English is mutating away from its British source.

Money

Movies make a lot of money. In 2017 Hollywood’s domestic turnover was $11.1 billion, with global revenues of $39.9 billion – giving a neat total of $51 billion.

Below is a list of the most high profile superhero movies of the past twenty years, along with budget each one cost to make, and each one’s gross revenue.

Maybe fashion, in its widest sense, taking in every element of popular style, as well as hair styles and cosmetics, is the most far-reaching cultural influence on the world.

But arguably nothing has the same high-profile impact on global culture as American films. And, among films in general, these high-profile ‘blockbuster’ movies surely have the biggest reach of any films, in terms of marketing, hype, merchandising and viewers.

And they teach two fundamental lessons:

  • worship of an unattainable Body Perfection, for both men and women
  • worship of the most confrontational hyper-masculinity imaginable, again and again promoting the idea that the only kind of dialogue which men with even slightly differing views can have must consist of hard-ass confrontations swiftly leading to super-violence

Superhero movies mentioned in this review

1978 Superman: The Movie ($300 million gross on a $55 million budget)

1980 Superman II ($190 million gross on a $54 million budget)
1983 Superman III ($80 million gross on a $39 million budget)
1987 Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ($37 million gross / $17 million budget)

1989 Batman ($411 million gross / $35 million budget)
1992 Batman Returns ($267 million / $80 million)

1995 Batman Forever ($336 million / $100 million)
1997 Batman & Robin ($238 / $125 million)
1998 Blade ($131 million / $45 million budget)
1999 The Matrix ($464 million / $63 million)

2000 X-Men ($296 million / $75 million)
2002 Blade II ($155 million / $54 million)
2002 Spider-Man ($821 million / $139 million)
2003 Daredevil ($179 million / $78 million)
2003 X-Men 2 ($407 million / $125 million)
2003 Hulk ($245 million / $147 million)

2003 The Matrix Reloaded ($742 million / $150 million)
2003 The Matrix Revolutions ($427 million / $110 million)

2004 Blade Trinity  ($129 million / $65 million)
2004 Fantastic Four ($330 million / $100 million)
2004 Spider-Man 2 ($783 million / $200 million)
2004 Hellboy ($99 million / $66 million)

2005 Batman Begins ($374 million / $150 million)
2006 Superman Returns ($223 million / $223 million)
2006 X-Men: The Last Stand ($459 million / $210 million)
2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer ($290 million / $130 million)
2007 Spider-Man 3 ($890 million / $258 million)
2008 Batman: The Dark Knight ($1 BILLION / $185 million)
2008 Iron Man 1 ($585 million / $140 million)
2008 The Incredible Hulk ($263 million / $150 million)
2009 Watchmen ($185 million / $138 million)
2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine ($373 million / $150 million)
2010 Iron Man 2 ($624 million / $200 million)

2011 Thor ($449 million / $150 million)
2011 X-Men: First Class ($353 million / $160 million)
2011 Captain America: The First Avenger ($370 million / $140 million)
2011 Green Lantern ($219 million / $200 million)

2012 The Amazing Spider-Man ($757 million / $230 million)
2012 Batman: The Dark Knight Rises ($1.08 BILLION / $300 million)
2012 Marvel’s The Avengers Assemble ($1.5 BILLION / $220 million)
2013 Iron Man 3 ($1.2 BILLION / $200 million)
2013 Man of Steel ($668 million / $225 million)
2013 Thor: The Dark World ($645 million / $170 million)
2013 The Wolverine ($414 million / $120 million)
2014 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($709 million / $293 million)
2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714 million / $177 million)
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy ($773 million / $232 million)
2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past ($747 million / £205 million)
2015 Ant-Man ($519 million / $142 million)
2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.4 BILLION / $444 million)
2015 Fantastic Four ($168 million / $155 million)
2016 Captain America: Civil War ($1.15 BILLION / $250 million)

2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($874 million / $300 million)
2016 Deadpool ($783 million / $58 million)
2016 Doctor Strange ($678 milllion / $165 million)
2016 X-Men: Apocalypse ($544 million / $178 million)
2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($864 million / $200 million)
2017 Superman: Justice League ($658 million / $300 million)
2017 Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880 million / $175 million)
2017 Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million / $180 million)
2017 Logan ($619 million / $127 million)
2018 Black Panther ($1.334 BILLION / $210 million)
2018 Avengers: Infinity War

The Weimar Years: A Culture Cut Short by John Willett (1984)

This is a large format Thames and Hudson paperback (27 cm by 23 cm) which is designed to foreground large black and white historic photos and images rather than text.

After a short 10-page introduction, almost the whole book consists of assemblies of original images from the avant-garde of the Weimar culture, with only a small amount of accompanying commentary. It is a visual history. Just to recap the main events, the period falls roughly into three parts:

  1. 1918-1923 Post-war economic and social chaos
  2. 1924-1929 Peace and stability
  3. 1929-1933 Wall Street crash prompts more economic and social chaos, leading to the appointment of Hitler chancellor in January 1933, at which point the republic ends

The three periods of the Weimar Republic

1. The First World War ended in November 1918. The Kaiser abdicated to be replaced by a civilian government. The two commanding generals Ludendorff and Hindenberg made sure that this civilian government signed the peace, thus allowing them forever afterwards to blame civilians for stabbing the army in the back. In the same month there were coups in Berlin, Munich and elsewhere to try and set up revolutionary councils and soldiers and workers, which is how the Bolshevik revolution started.

For the next three or four years the Communist International in Moscow held out high hopes that Germany would fall to communism and trigger a Europe-wide revolution. In the event all these insurrections were put down by Freikorps or locally organised militia. Right from the start the left-liberal government had to rely on the army to keep it in power, and this was to prove a fatal weakness.

In March 1920 some of the Freikorps tried to overthrow the Berlin government and the army did nothing; it was only a general strike and popular armed resistance which restored the government. In 1922 Freikorps elements murdered Walter Rathenau, the Republic’s Foreign Secretary who had negotiated a trade treaty with the USSR and was Jewish. This led to outbreaks of anti-republican and communist agitation in the streets.

The terms of the Treaty of Versailles, announced in summer 1919, caused great resentment. It blamed Germany entirely for the war, seized over 10% of Germany’s territory in the east (given to Poland) and west (Alsace-Lorraine returned to France), took away all Germany’s colonies and imposed a punishing reparations bill. In 1922 failure to keep up repayments led the French to send in troops to reoccupy the Ruhr industrial area.

The government replied by ordering a go-slow by German workers. This undermined an already weak economy and exacerbated inflation. Mid- and late-1923 saw the famous hyperinflation where a loaf of bread ended up costing a billion marks, where people carried bank notes around in wheelbarrows and eventually stopped using money at all. In November Hitler and his infant Nazi Party tried to mount a coup against the Bavarian government, in Munich, which was quickly quelled by the authorities.

2. The Americans drew up a plan devised by Charles G. Dawes to give Germany huge loans which it could use to invest in industry. Higher taxes from increased industrial productivity could be used to pay off the French (and the French could then pay off the huge war debts they’d run up with the Americans). The deal was finalised in the autumn of 1924.

The point is that as a result of the stabilisation of the currency and the confidence given to business by the certainty of American investment, the entire country underwent a great feeling of relief. Street fighting disappeared, strikes and industrial unrest diminished, the government could proceed with coherent economic policies. Leaders of the Soviet Union reluctantly abandoned the dream they’d been nurturing since 1919 that Germany would fall to communism. There were political ups and downs over the next five years but economic stability and increasing employment meant that extremist parties on both sides (Nazis, communists) lost support.

3. In October 1929 there was the Wall Street Crash. American banks withdrew all their loans in order to stay solvent and that included the loans to Germany. The German economy crashed, companies large and small went bust, and there was a phenomenal growth in unemployment. The effect was to revive the social unrest of the post-war period, to polarise political opinion and to encourage extremist parties to opt for street violence.

In the September 1930 Reichstag elections, the Nazis won 18% of the votes and became the second-largest party in the Reichstag after the Social Democrats. Hitler ran for President against the incumbent Hindenburg in March 1932, polling 30% in the first round and 37% in the second against Hindenburg’s 49% and 53%. By now the Nazi paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung, had 400,000 members and its running street battles with the SPD and Communist paramilitaries (who also fought each other) reduced some German cities to combat zones.

At the July 1932 Reichstag election the Nazis polled 37%, becoming the largest party in parliament by a wide margin. The Nazis and Communists between them had won 52% of the vote and a majority of seats. Since both parties opposed the established political system and neither would join or support any ministry, forming a majority government became impossible. The result was weak ministries forced to rule by decree.

During the second half of 1932 there was much behind the scenes manoeuvring. Chancellor von Papen, his successor Kurt von Schleicher and the nationalist press magnate Alfred Hugenberg, spent December and January in political intrigues that eventually persuaded President Hindenburg that it was safe to appoint Hitler as Reich Chancellor, at the head of a cabinet including only a minority of Nazi ministers – which he did on 30 January 1933. Hitler was Chancellor of Germany but still restricted by democratic forms.

The Reichstag fire on 27 February 1933 gave Hitler a pretext for suppressing his political opponents. The following day he persuaded the Reich’s President Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended most civil liberties. On 23 March, the parliament passed the Enabling Act of 1933, which gave the cabinet the right to enact laws without the consent of parliament, in effect giving Hitler dictatorial powers.

Now possessing virtually absolute power, the Nazis established totalitarian control – they abolished labour unions, all other political parties and imprisoned their political opponents at the first, largely improvised concentration camps. The Nazi regime had begun.

The three periods of Weimar arts

1. The Expressionist years 1918-23

Before the war German art was dominated by Expressionism. This had two key elements: it was an art of personal expression; and this personal expression was influenced by current ideas about the spirit, about a great spiritual awakening, about a new world of art and culture about to be born etc, as a glance at the writings of Kandinsky or Franz Marc make clear. Paradoxically this highly personal view of the world could easily tip over into grand paranoia, fear, a sense of brooding catastrophe, anxiety, terror etc.

Unsurprisingly, it is these elements of the grotesque and nightmarish which artists felt and expressed during and immediately after the Great War. Thus the works made by artists like George Grosz or Bertolt Brecht in 1919 to 1923 can loosely be called Expressionist. Similarly the immediate post-war years in film were the high point of Expressionism, with horror films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Nosferatu (1922) famous for their jagged Expressionist sets.

Scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Extreme emotion was exacerbated by disillusionment with the failure of the 1918 revolution by many of the artists involved in it such as Piscator, Brecht, Carl Zuckmayer, George Grosz. For the next few years their Expressionism was given extra bite by savagely satirical disillusionment, by the realisation that the SPD’s socialism was only skin deep and that the army would always step in to crush any revolt, any rebellion, any revolutionary forces. Hence the talismanic meaning, for years to come, of the murder in the streets by thuggish Freikorps of the two heroes of the Spartacist or communist party, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg on 15 January 1919.

Blood is the Best Sauce from the portfolio God with Us by George Grosz (1919)

Blood is the Best Sauce from the portfolio God with Us by George Grosz (1919)

The Bauhaus, a kind of bellwether for all these developments, was in its Expressionist phase. Although the director was Walter Gropius, the introductory course and much of the tone was set by the eccentric Johannes Itten, a believer in mystical Eastern religions, who imposed vegetarianism and breathing exercises on his students.

2. The high point – New Objectivity 1924-29

Around 1924, as the economy and political situation stabilised, the Expressionist wave in the arts was exhausted. Instead this is the golden era of the so-called Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity. The term was coined by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub as the title of an art exhibition staged in 1925 in Mannheim to showcase artists working in the new spirit, namely Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz. At the Bauhaus, the spiritualist Ittens was sacked and replaced by the tough-minded Hungarian émigré and polymath László Moholy-Nagy. Willett hesitates over the translation of Sachlichkeit – his 1978 book on the period prefers to translate it as ‘objectivity’. Here he suggests it means ‘matter-of-factness’ (p.81). It represented a completely new mood and approach. Hard edges and technology. Design for the machine age.

  • Instead of self-involvement – objectivity, interest in the social world, the masses.
  • Instead of art promoting the artist – artists sought collaboration, both among themselves (thus Grosz’s collaborations with John Heartfield on photomontages) and with the public (in the new forms of agit-prop or street theatre, often performed in factories and workplaces and calling for audience participation). From among hundreds of examples, Piscator’s 1929 production of A Merchant of Berlin had a set designed by Moholy-Nagy and music by Eisler.
The photojournalist Egon Erwin Kisch as depicted by photomontagist Otto Umbehr aka Umbo (1926)

The photojournalist Egon Erwin Kisch as depicted by photomontagist Otto Umbehr aka Umbo (1926)

  • Instead of vague romantic idealism – hard-headed practical engagement with the problems of the age. Hence a slew of movements with ‘time’ in the name Zeitoper, Zeitstück.
  • Instead of the ‘demented’ Expressionism of Caligari – the purposeful social criticism of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

Or, as the pioneering stage director Erwin Piscator said, in 1929:

In lieu of private themes we had generalisation, in lieu of what was special the typical, in lieu of accident causality. Decorativeness gave way to constructedness, Reason was put on a par with Emotion, while sensuality was replaced by didacticism and fantasy by documentary reality.

Scene from Hoppla wir Leben, directed by Erwin Piscator, Berlin, 1927

Scene from Hoppla wir Leben, directed by Erwin Piscator, Berlin, 1927

This is the period Willett loves. This is the heart of his enthusiasm. This is the moment Willett claims that artists, designers, architects, theatre and film directors in the Soviet Union and in Weimar Germany converged in a period of hyper-experimentalism, making massive breakthroughs in adapting their respective media to the demands and possibilities of the machine age. New media called for new ideas and the creation of photojournalism, documentary cinema, broadcasting, radio, and gramophone records. El Lissitsky and Rodchenko devised new styles of graphic design, magazine and poster layout. Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925) rejected the crazy fairy tale sets of Expressionism, and instead used thrilling new technical techniques like montage, shock close-ups, setting the camera at high angles to the action and so on to tell an entirely realistic, in fact brutally graphic tale of revolutionary insurrection.

Brutal close-up from the massacre of civilians scene of Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Brutal close-up from the massacre of civilians scene of The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Crucial to Willett’s view is that there was a tremendous amount of cross-fertilisation between the avant-garde in Russia and in Germany, though that idea is explored much more in The New Sobriety – this book focuses exclusively on the German side of the equation.

In 1925 the Weimar government withdrew funding from the first Bauhaus, which accordingly moved to Dessau, into purpose-built modernist buildings designed by Gropius. The buildings remain classics of modernism to this day, and the new, industrially-focused school dispensed with the arty farty flummery of the Itten years and began designing all kinds of practical fixtures and fittings which would suit the modern, stripped-back architectural style. From this period date the famous tubular steel and leather chairs, along with sets of tables, chairs for factory canteens and so on. Practical, sober, industrial.

Bauhaus Building, Dessau on opening day, 4 December 1926

Bauhaus Building, Dessau on opening day, 4 December 1926

It is during these years that Willett feels the collective effort of creative people in all media took modernism to ‘a new level’ (a phrase he uses several times) and stood on the brink of creating an entirely new civilisation. Willett’s passion convinces you with an almost science fiction feeling that a completely new society was trembling on the brink of appearing.

This explains his contempt for the workaday, wishy-washy, luxury goods associated with Art Deco in France. For Willett French culture sold out, compromised and abandoned the quest for a truly new world. This was because the economic and social structure of French society (as of British society) had remained unchanged by the war so that aristocrats kept on buying Lalique jewellery and holidaying on the cote d’azur decorated by tame artists like Dufy or Derain. French culture was both a) more centralised in Paris only and b) still reliant on the patronage of the rich.

By contrast German society was turned upside down by the war and the intense political upheavals of the post-war. An important factor was the way the last aristocratic principalities became fully part of the German nation, often turning over art galleries, schools, theatres and opera houses to the new state. The (generally socialist) regional governments took over funding for the arts from aristocrats and often lent a sympathetic ear to avant-garde experiments.

Poster for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition by Joost Schmidt

Poster for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition by Joost Schmidt

While French designers created Art Deco ink stands adorned with scantily clad nymphs, Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus designed a completely new typography for the German language, rejecting all capital letters and serif styles, as well as designing the famous leather chair. Gropius and colleagues designed entirely new style of council estates for workers at Stuttgart. Moholy-Nagy oversaw his students’ new designs for lamps and chairs and tables, while the Bauhaus wallpaper department devised coolly objective, undecorative wallpaper designs which still sell to this day.

The pioneering Bauhaus chair of tubular steel and leather

The pioneering Bauhaus chair of tubular steel and leather

While Paris was staging the arch neo-classical works of Stravinsky and Les Six, politically committed German composers like Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler were working with communist playwright Bertolt Brecht to write songs for a new kind of play designed to convey powerful communist propaganda messages, and these were staged in an entirely new style by the revolutionary director Erwin Piscator, using bare, undressed sets, with the lights exposed and projecting onto bare walls relevant bits of movie footage or headlines or facts and figures and graphs showing the economic situation. The composer Paul Hindemith became associated with the notion of Gebrauchmusik i.e. music that was socially useful and Eisler took this to mean propaganda music, marching songs and the like, which could be widely disseminated among Germany’s many community music groups.

Not all these innovations worked or were very popular, but it was an explosion of talent experimenting in all directions. As Willett emphasises, many of their innovations are still used today – stark, exposed, non-naturalistic sets in the theatre – street theatre – abrupt cuts and high angles in experimental film – and a lot of the language of architecture and design developed by the Bauhaus architects went onto become a truly International Style which dominated the 20th century.

In 1925:

  • the Bauhaus moved to Dessau
  • Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (and Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush)
  • Ernst May is given the opportunity to deploy socialist architecture in a grand rehousing scheme begun by Frankfurt council
  • in Mannheim the artistic exhibition Neue Sachlichkeit
  • Bertolt Brecht moves to Berlin
  • December, Alban Berg’s opera Wozzek has its premiere
  • elementare typographie, was an influential supplement of Typographic Notes, the journal of the Educational Association of German Book Printers in Leipzig. The supplement was laid out by Jan Tschichold using innovative principles he’d picked up on a visit to the Bauhaus and included contributions from Bauhaus staff such as Bayer, Lissitsky, Moholy-Nagy and so on
elementare typographie designed by Jan Tschichold (1925)

elementare typographie designed by Jan Tschichold (1925)

3. The final crisis 1929-33

All of which was cut short by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Throughout 1930 the Germany economy went into a tailspin and unemployment climbed out of control. During these three years of mounting crisis, 1930, 31 and 32, many of the artists he’s discussed reached new heights of commitment, especially Brecht who produced a series of his most stingingly anti-capitalist works.

But Willett shows how a reaction had already set in in Russia where, from about 1928, the chilly winds of Stalin’s influence began to blow through the arts. The suicide of the famous communist poet Mayakovsky in 1930 is often heralded as a tipping point. In 1932 the official doctrine of Socialist Realism was proclaimed and experimentation in the arts came to a grinding halt, to be replaced by kitsch paintings of happy smiling workers and the beaming features of the Great Leader, Stalin.

For completely different reasons a similar chilling came over the avant-garde in Germany. In 1930 nationalists took control of the state government in Thuringia and secured the resignation of the Bauhaus’s overtly communist director Hannes Meyer (who had replaced Gropius in 1928). Meyer quit and went to Russia, taking with him a dozen or so of the most politically committed students. He was replaced by the noted architect Mies van der Rohe, who was given the job of depoliticising the Bauhaus, especially the radical students. He did his best but the Bauhaus was on the list of institutions the Nazis considered enemy, and in 1933 they secured its final closure.

Summary

This is a visually powerful portfolio to support Willett’s thesis that a new fully modernist civilisation trembled on the brink of realisation in the uniquely innovative and experimental artistic culture of the Weimar Republic. This is more accessible and makes its points more viscerally than the often very clotted New Objectivity book, but probably both should be read together, not least to make sense of the Soviet connection which is omitted here but explored in numbing detail in the other book.

In passing I noticed that there’s no humour whatsoever in this book. Nothing for children, no book illustrations or cartoons. A handful of political cartoons radiating bitter cynicism but, basically, not a laugh in sight.

The other absence is sex. In the popular view Weimar is associated with the ‘decadence’ of the Berlin cabaret, with openly lesbian and gay bars and vaudevilles. Willett is having none of it. His Weimar is a puritan republic of high-minded artists, designers and architects devoted to bringing into being a better world, a fairer world, a workers’ world. There is a one-page spread about a volume of short stories whose cover showed a man groping a fully dressed woman but this is included solely to tell the story of how it was censored by the Weimar authorities. Sex is a bourgeois indulgence which undermines the dedication of the committed worker and intellectual.

Once you start pondering this absence, you realise there is little or nothing in either of Willett’s books about fashion, haircuts, dresses, about style and accessories, about new types of car and motoring accessories (gloves, goggles, helmets), about cartoons, popular novels, detective stories (this was the decade of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers). He mentions jazz, of course, but only as it inspired painters and German composers to include it as a theme in their serious works about social justice – not as a thing to relax and enjoy

Only by looking at other books about the same period and reading about the explosion of pastimes and leisure activities, of ways to have fun, does it dawn on you how very intense, very urban, very cerebral and very narrow Willett’s view is. His dream of a ‘new civilisation’ is just that, a dream.

Which also makes you realise how thin and brittle this layer of hyper-inventiveness in the arts turned out to be, how little it had spread, how little it had influenced or changed the minds or lives of the vast majority of the German population. When the crunch came, they followed Hitler, and acquiesced in the burning of the books, the banning of the plays, and the ridiculing of ‘degenerate art’.


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The New Sobriety: Art and Politics in the Weimar Period 1917-33 by John Willett (1978)

Willett was born in 1917. He attended Winchester public school and then Christ Church, Oxford (the grandest and poshest of all the Oxford colleges). He was just beginning a career in set design when the Second World War came along. He served in British Intelligence. After the war he worked at the Manchester Guardian, before becoming assistant to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, writing scores of reviews and articles, until he went freelance in 1967.

He had travelled to Germany just before the war and become fascinated by its culture. He met and befriended Bertolt Brecht whose plays he later translated into English. As a freelance writer Willett authored two books about the Weimar period. This is the first of the pair, published by the well-known art publisher Thames and Hudson. Like most T&H art books it has the advantage of lots of illustrations (216 in this case) and the disadvantage that most of them (in this case, all of them) are in black and white.

The New Sobriety is divided into 22 shortish chapters, followed by a 30-page-long, highly detailed Chronological Table, and a shorter bibliography. There’s also a couple of stylish one-page diagrams showing the interconnection of all the arts across Europe during the period.

Several points:

  • Though it has ‘Weimar’ in the title, the text is only partly about the Weimar Republic. It also contains lots about art in revolutionary Russia, as well as Switzerland and France. At this point you realise that the title says the Weimar Period.
  • The period covered is given as starting in 1917, but that’s not strictly true: the early chapters start with Expressionism and Fauvism and Futurism which were all established before 1910, followed by a section dealing with the original Swiss Dada, which started around 1915.

Cool and left wing

The real point to make about this book is that it reflects Willett’s own interest in the avant-garde movements all across Europe of the period, and especially in the politically committed ones. At several points he claims that all the different trends come together into a kind of Gestalt, to form the promise of a new ‘civilisation’.

It was during the second half of the 1920s that the threads which we have followed were drawn together to form something very like a new civilisation… (p.95)

The core of the book is a fantastically detailed account of the cross-fertilisation of trends in fine art, theatre, photography, graphic design, film and architecture between the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany.

In the introduction Willett confesses that he would love to see a really thorough study which related the arts to the main political and philosophical and cultural ideas of the era, but that he personally is not capable of it (p.11). Instead, his book will be:

a largely personal attempt to make sense of those mid-European works of art, in many fields and media, which came into being between the end of the First War and the start of Hitler’s dictatorship in 1933. It is neither an art-historical study of movements and artistic innovations, nor a general cultural history of the Weimar Republic, but a more selective account which picks up on those aspects of the period which the writer feels to be at once the most original and the most clearly interrelated, and tries to see how and why they came about. (p.10)

‘Selective’ and ‘interrelated’ – they’re the key ideas.

When I was a student I loved this book because it opened my eyes to the extraordinary range of new avant-garde movements of the period: Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus, De Stijl, and then the burst of new ideas in theatre, graphic design, magazines, poetry and architecture which are still influential to this day.

Although Willett doesn’t come across as particularly left wing himself, the focus on the ‘radical’ innovations of Brecht and Piscator in Germany, or of Proletkult and Agitprop in Soviet Russia, give the whole book a fashionable, cool, left-wing vibe. And if you don’t know much about the period it is an eye-opening experience.

But now, as a middle-aged man, I have all kinds of reservations.

1. Willett’s account is biased and partial

As long as you remember that it is a ‘personal’ view, deliberately bringing together the most avant-garde artists of the time and showing the extraordinary interconnectedness (directors, playwrights, film-makers travelling back and forth between Germany and Russia, bringing with them new books, new magazines, new ideas) it is fine. But it isn’t the whole story. I’m glad I read Walter Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture just before this, because Laqueur’s account is much more complete and more balanced.

For example, Laqueur’s book included a lot about the right-wing thought of the period. It’s not that I’m sympathetic to those beliefs, but that otherwise the rise of Hitler seems inexplicable, like a tsunami coming out of nowhere. Laqueur’s book makes it very clear that all kinds of cultural and intellectual strongholds never ceased to be nationalistic, militaristic, anti-democratic and anti-the Weimar Republic.

Laqueur’s book also plays to my middle-aged and realistic (or tired and jaundiced) opinion that all these fancy left-wing experiments in theatre (in particular), the arty provocations by Dada, the experimental films and so on, were in fact only ever seen by a vanishingly small percentage of the population, and most of them were (ironically) wealthy and bourgeois enough to afford theatre tickets or know about avant-garde art exhibitions.

Laqueur makes the common-sense point that a lot of the books, plays and films which really characterise the period were the popular, accessible works which sold well at the time but have mostly sunk into oblivion. It’s only in retrospect and fired up by the political radicalism of the 1960s, that latterday academics and historians select from the wide range of intellectual and artistic activity of the period those strands which appeal to them in a more modern context.

2. Willett’s modernism versus Art Deco and Surrealism

You realise how selective and partial his point of view is on the rare occasions when the wider world intrudes. Because of Willett’s compelling enthusiasm for ‘the impersonal utilitarian design’ of the Bauhaus or Russian collectivism, because of his praise of Gropius or Le Corbusier, it is easy to forget that all these ideas were in a notable minority during the period.

Thus it came as a genuine shock to me when Willett devotes half a chapter to slagging off Art Deco and Surrealism, because I’d almost forgotten they existed during this period, so narrow is his focus.

It is amusing, and significant, how much he despises both of them. The chapter (18) is called ‘Retrograde symptoms: modishness in France’ and goes on to describe the ‘capitulation and compromise’ of the French avant-garde in the mid-1920s. 1925 in particular was ‘a year of retreat all down the line’, epitomised by the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes exhibition which gave its name to the style of applied arts of the period, Art Deco.

Willett is disgusted that dressmakers sat on the selecting committees ‘alongside obscure establishment architects and rubbishy artists like Jean-Gabriel Domergue’. Not a single German artist or designer was featured (it was a patriotic French affair after all) and Theo van Doesberg’s avant-garde movement, de Stijl, was not even represented in the Dutch stand.

Willet hates all this soft luxury Frenchy stuff, this ‘wishy-washy extremely mondain setting’ which was the milieu of gifted amateurs and dilettantes. It was a hateful commercialisation of cubism and fauvism, it was skin-deep modernism.

What took place here was a diffusing of the modern movement for the benefit not of the less well-off but of the luxury consumer. (p.170)

It’s only because I happen to have recently read Andrew Duncan’s encyclopedic book about Art Deco that I know that there was a vast, a truly huge world of visual arts completely separate from the avant-garde Willett is championing – a world of architects, designers and craftsmen who built buildings, designed the interiors of shops and homes, created fixtures and fittings, lamps and tables and chairs and beds and curtains and wallpapers, all in the luxury, colourful style we now refer to as Art Deco.

Thousands of people bought the stylish originals and millions of people bought the affordable copies of all kinds of objects in this style.

So who is right?

When I was a student I also was on the side of the radical left, excited by Willett’s portrait of a world of hard-headed, functional design in homes and household goods, of agit-prop theatre and experimental film, all designed to mobilise the workers to overthrow the ruling classes and create a perfect world. Indeed the same chapter which dismisses French culture and opens with photos of elegantly-titled French aristocratic connoisseurs and patrons, ends with a photo of a parade by the Communist Roterfront in 1926. That’s the real people, you see, that’s real commitment for you!

But therein lies the rub. The radical, anti-traditionalist, anti-bourgeois, up-the-workers movement in architecture, design, film and theatre which Willett loves did not usher in a new workers’ paradise, a new age of peace and equality – the exact opposite.

The sustained left-wing attacks on the status quo in Germany had the net effect of helping to undermine the Weimar Republic and making the advent of Hitler easier. All the funky film innovations of Eisenstein and the theatrical novelties of Meyerhold failed to create an educated, informed and critical working class in Russia, failed to establish new standards of political and social discourse – instead the extreme cliquishness of its exponents made it all the easier to round them up and control (or just execute) them, as Stalin slowly accumulated power from 1928 onwards.

Older and a bit less naive than I used to be, I am also more relaxed about political ‘commitment’. I have learned what I consider to be the big lesson in life which is that – There are a lot of people in the world. Which means a lot of people who disagree – profoundly and completely disagree – with your own beliefs, ideas and convictions. Disagree with everything you and all your friends and your favourite magazines and newspapers and TV shows and movies think. And that they have as much right to live and think and talk and meet and discuss their stuff, as you do. And so democracy is the permanently messy, impure task of creating a public, political, cultural and artistic space in which all kinds of beliefs and ideas can rub along.

Willett exemplifies what I take to be the central idea of Modernism: that there is only one narrative, one avant-garde, one movement: you have to be on the bus. He identifies his Weimar Germany-Soviet Russia axis as the movement. The French weren’t signed up to it. So he despises the French.

But we now, in 2018, live in a thoroughly post-Modernist world and the best explanation I’ve heard of the difference between modernism and post-modernism is that, in the latter, we no longer believe there is only one narrative, One Movement which you simply must, must, must belong to. There are thousands of movements. There are all types of music, looks, fashions and lifestyles.

Willett’s division of the cultural world of the 1920s into Modernist (his Bauhaus-Constructivist heroes) versus the Rest (wishy-washy, degenerate French fashion) itself seems part of the problem. It’s the same insistence on binary extremes which underlay the mentality of a Hitler or a Stalin (either you are for the Great Leader or against him). And it was the same need to push political opinions and movements to extremes which undermined the centre and led to dictatorship.

By contrast the fashionably arty French world (let alone the philistine, public school world of English culture) was simply more relaxed, less extreme. They had more shopping in them. The Art Deco world which Willett despises was the world of visual and applied art which most people, most shoppers, and most of the rich and the aspiring middle classes would have known about. (And I learned from Duncan’s book that Art Deco really was about shops, about Tiffany’s and Liberty’s and Lalique’s and the design and the shop windows of these top boutiques.)

On the evidence of Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture and Duncan’s account of the Art Deco world, I now see Willett’s world of Bauhaus and Constructivism – which I once considered the be-all and end-all of 1920s art – as only one strand, just one part of a much bigger artistic and decorative universe.

Same goes for Willett’s couple of pages about Surrealism. Boy, he despises those guys. Again it was a bit of a shock to snap out of Willett’s wonderworld of Bauhaus-Constructivism to remember that there was this whole separate and different art movement afoot. Reading Ruth Brandon’s book, Surreal Lives would lead you to believe that it, Surrealism, was the big anti-bourgeois artistic movement of the day. Yet, from Willett’s point of view, focused on the Germany-Russia axis, Surrealism comes over as pitifully superficial froggy play acting.

He says it was unclear throughout the 1920s whether Surrealism even existed outside a handful of books made with ‘automatic writing’. When Hans Arp or Max Ernst went over to the Surrealist camp their work had nothing to tell the German avant-garde. They were German, so it was more a case of the German avant-garde coming to the rescue of a pitifully under-resourced French movement.

There was in fact something slightly factitious about the very idea of Surrealist painting right up to the point when Dali arrived with his distinctively creepy academicism. (p.172)

Surrealism’s moving force, the dominating poet André Breton, is contrasted with Willett’s heroes.

Breton’s romantic irrationalism, his belief in mysterious forces and the quasi-mediumistic use of the imagination could scarcely have been more opposed to the open-eyed utilitarianism of the younger Germans, with their respect for objective facts. (p.172)

I was pleased to read that Willett, like me, finds the Surrealists ‘anti-bourgeois’ antics simply stupid schoolboy posturing.

As for his group’s aggressive public gestures, like Georges Sadoul’s insulting postcard to a Saint-Cyr colonel or the wanton breaking-up of a nightclub that dared to call itself after Les Chants de Maldoror, one of their cult books, these were bound to seem trivial to anyone who had experienced serious political violence. (p.172)

Although the Surrealists bandied around the term ‘revolution’ they didn’t know what it meant, they had no idea what it was like to live through the revolutionary turmoil of Soviet Russia or the troubled years 1918 to 1923 in post-war Germany which saw repeated attempts at communist coups in Munich and Berlin, accompanied by savage street fighting between left and right.

Although the Surrealists pretentiously incorporated the world ‘revolution’ into the title of their magazine, La Révolution surréaliste, none of them knew what a revolution really entailed, and

Breton, Aragon and Eluard remained none the less bourgeois in their life styles and their concern with bella figura. (p.172)

There were no massacres in the streets of comfortable Paris, and certainly nothing to disturb the salon of the Princess Edmond de Polignac, who subsidised the first performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex or to upset the Comtesse de Noailles, who commissioned Léger to decorate her villa at Hyères and later underwrote the ‘daring’ Surrealist film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, L’Age d’Or (1930).

In this, as in so many other things, French intellectuals come across as stylish poseurs performing for impeccably aristocratic patrons.

3. Willett’s account is clotted and cluttered

The text is clotted with names, absolutely stuffed. To give two symptoms, each chapter begins with a paragraph-long summary of its content, which is itself often quite exhausting to read; and then the text itself suffers from being rammed full of as many names as Willett can squeeze in.

Almost every sentence has at least one if not more subordinate clauses which add in details about the subject’s other activities, or another organisation they were part of, or a list of other people they were connected to, or examples of other artists doing the same kind of thing.

Here’s a typical chapter summary, of ‘Chapter 16 Theatre for the machine age: Piscator, Brecht, the Bauhaus, agitprop‘:

Middlebrow entertainment and the revaluation of the classics. The challenge of cinema. Piscator’s first political productions and his development of documentary theatre; splitting of the Volksbühne and formation of his own company; his historic productions of 1927-8 with their use of machinery and film. The new dramaturgy and the problem of suitable plays. Brecht’s reflection of technology, notably in Mann ist Mann; his collaboration with Kurt Weill and the success of the Threepenny Opera; epic theatre and the collective approach. Boom of ‘the theatre of the times’ in 1928-9. Experiments at the Bauhaus: Schlemmer, Moholy, Nagy, Gropius’s ‘Totaltheater’ etc;. The Communist agitprop movement. Parallel developments in Russia: Meyerhold, TRAM, Tretiakoff.

Quite tiring to read, isn’t it? And that’s before you get to the actual text itself.

So Eisenstein could legitimately adopt circus techniques, just as Grosz and Mehring could appear in cabaret and Brecht before leaving Munich worked on the stage and film sketches of that great comic Karl Valentin. In 1925 a certain Walter von Hollander proposed what he called ‘education by revue’, the recruiting of writers like Mehring, Tucholsky and Weinert to ‘fill the marvellous revue form with the wit and vigour of our time’. This form was itself a kind of montage, and Reinhardt seems to have planned a ‘Revue for the Ruhr’ to which Brecht would contribute – ‘A workers’ revue’ was the critic Herbert Ihering’s description – while Piscator too hoped to open his first season with his own company in 1927 by a revue drawing on the mixed talents of his new ‘dramaturgical collective’. This scheme came to nothing, though Piscator’s earlier ‘red Revue’ – the Revue roter Rummel of 1924 – became important for the travelling agit-prop groups which various communist bodies now began forming on the model of the Soviet ‘Blue Blouses’. (p.110)

Breathless long sentences packed with names and works ranging across places and people and theatres and countries, all about everything. This is because Willett is at pains to convey his one big idea – the astonishing interconnectedness of the world of the 1920s European avant-garde – at every possible opportunity, and so embodies it in the chapter summaries, in his diagrams of interconnectedness, extending it even down to the level of individual sentences.

The tendency to prose overstuffed with facts is not helped by another key aspect of the subject matter which was the proliferation of acronyms and initialisms. For example the tendency of left-wing organisations to endlessly fragment and reorganise, especially in Russia where, as revolutionary excitement slowly morphed into totalitarian bureaucracy, there was no stopping the endless setting up of organisations and departments.

Becher, Anor Gabór and the Young Communist functionary Alfred Kurella, who that autumn [of 1927] were part of a delegation to the tenth anniversary celebrations [of the October Revolution] in Moscow, also attended the IBRL’s foundation meeting and undertook to form a German section of the body. Simultaneously some of the surviving adherents of the earlier Red Group decided to set up a sister organisation which would correspond to the Association of Artists of the Russian Revolution, an essentially academic body now posing as Proletarian. Both plans materialised in the following year, when the new German Revolutionary Artists Association (or ARBKD) was founded in March and the Proletarian-Revolutionary Writers’ League (BPRS) in October. (p.173)

Every paragraph is like that.

4. Very historical

Willett’s approach is very historical. As a student I found it thrilling the way he relates the evolving ideas of his galaxy of avant-garde writers, artists and architects – Grosz and Dix, Gropius and Le Corbusier, Moholy-Nagy and Meyerhold, Rodchenko and Eistenstein, Piscator and Brecht – to the fast-changing political situations in Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia, which, being equally ignorant of, I also found a revelation.

Now, more familiar with this sorry history, I found the book a little obviously chronological. Thus:

  • Chapter six – Revolution and the arts: Germany 1918-20, from Arbeitsrat to Dada
  • Chapter seven – Paris postwar: Dada, Les Six, the Swedish ballet, Le Corbusier
  • Chapter eight – The crucial period 1921-3; international relations and development of the media; Lenin and the New Economic Policy; Stresemann and German stabilisation

It proceeds with very much the straightforward chronology of a school textbook.

5. Not very analytical

The helter-skelter of fraught political developments in both countries – the long lists of names, their interconnections emphasised at every opportunity – these give a tremendous sense of excitement to his account, a sense that scores of exciting artists were involved in all these fast-moving and radically experimental movements.

But, at the end of the day, I didn’t come away with any new ideas or sense of enlightenment. All the avant-garde artists he describes were responding to two basic impulses:

  1. The advent of the Machine Age (meaning gramophone, cars, airplanes, cruise ships, portable cameras, film) which prompted experiments in all the new media and the sense that all previous art was redundant.
  2. The Bolshevik Revolution – which inspired far-left opinions among the artists he deals with and inspired, most obviously, the agitprop experiments in Russia and Piscator and Brecht’s experiments in Germany – theatre in the round, with few if any props, the projection onto the walls of moving pictures or graphs or newspaper headlines – all designed to make the audience think (i.e. agree with the playwright and the director’s communist views).

But we sort of know about these already. From Peter Gay’s book, and then even more so Walter Laqueur’s book, I came away with a strong sense of the achievement and importance of particular individuals, and their distinctive ideas. Thomas Mann emerges as the representative novelist of the period and Laqueur’s book gives you a sense of the development of his political or social thought (the way he slowly came round to support the Republic) and of his works, especially the complex of currents found in his masterpiece, The Magic Mountain.

Willett just doesn’t give himself the space or time to do that. In the relentless blizzard of lists and connections only relatively superficial aspects of the countless works referenced are ever mentioned. Thus Piscator’s main theatrical innovation was to project moving pictures, graphs and statistics onto the backdrops of the stage, accompanying or counter-pointing the action. That’s it. We nowhere get a sense of the specific images or facts used in any one production, rather a quick list of the productions, of the involvement of Brecht or whoever in the writing, of Weill or Eisler in the music, before Willett is off comparing it with similar productions by Meyerhold in Moscow. Always he is hurrying off to make comparisons and links.

Thus there is:

6. Very little analysis of specific works

I think the book would have benefited from slowing down and studying half a dozen key works in a little more detail. Given the funky design of the book into pages with double columns of text, with each chapter introduced by a functionalist summary in bold black type, it wouldn’t have been going much further to insert page-long special features on, say, The Threepenny Opera (1928) or Le Corbusier’s Weissenhof Estate housing in Stuttgart (1927).

Just some concrete examples of what the style was about, how it worked, and what kind of legacy it left would have significantly lifted the book and left the reader with concrete, specific instances. As it is the blizzard of names, acronyms and historical events is overwhelming and, ultimately, numbing.

The Wall Street Crash leads to the end of the Weimar experiment

In the last chapters Willett, as per his basic chronological structure, deals with the end of the Weimar Republic.

America started it, by having the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. American banks were plunged into crisis and clawed back all their outstanding loans in order to stay solvent. Businesses all across America went bankrupt, but America had also been the main lender to the German government during the reconstruction years after the War.

It had been an American, Charles G. Dawes, who chaired the committee which came up with the Dawes Plan of 1924. This arranged for loans to be made to the German government, which it would invest to boost industry, which would increase the tax revenue, which it would then use to pay off the punishing reparations which France demanded at the end of the war. And these reparations France would use to pay off the large debts to America which France had incurred during the war.

It was the guarantee of American money which stabilised the German currency after the hyper-inflation crisis of 1923, and enabled the five years of economic and social stability which followed, 1924-29, the high point for Willett of the Republic’s artistic and cultural output. All funded, let it be remembered, by capitalist America’s money.

The Wall Street Crash ended that. American banks demanded their loans back. German industry collapsed. Unemployment shot up from a few hundred thousand to six million at the point where Hitler took power. Six million! People voted, logically enough, for the man who promised economic and national salvation.

In this respect, the failure of American capitalism, which the crash represented, directly led to the rise of Hitler, to the Second World War, to the invasion of Russia, the partition of Europe and the Cold War. No Wall Street Crash, none of that would have happened.

A closed worldview leads to failure

Anyway, given that all this is relatively well known (it was all taught to my kids for their history GCSEs) what Willett’s account brings out is the short-sighted stupidity of the Communist Party of Germany and their Soviet masters.

Right up till the end of the Weimar Republic, the Communists (the KPD) refused to co-operate with the more centrist socialists (the SPD) in forming a government, and often campaigned against them. Willett quotes a contemporary communist paper saying an SPD government and a disunited working class would be a vastly worse evil than a fascist government and a unified working class. Well, they got the fascist government they hoped for.

In fact, the communists wanted a Big Crisis to come because they were convinced that it would bring about the German Revolution (which would itself trigger revolution across Europe and the triumph of communism).

How could they have been so stupid?

Because they lived in a bubble of self-reaffirming views. I thought this passage was eerily relevant to discussions today about people’s use of the internet, about modern digital citizens tending to select the news media, journalism and art and movies and so on, which reinforce their views and convince them that everyone thinks like them.

To some extent the extreme unreality of this attitude, with its deceptive aura of do-or-die militancy, sprang from the old left-wing tendency to underrate the non-urban population, which is where the Nazis had so much of their strength. At the same time it reflects a certain social and cultural isolation which sprang from the KPD’s own successes. For the German Communists lived in a world of their own, where the party catered for every interest. Once committed to the movement you not only read AIZ and the party political press: your literary tastes were catered for by the Büchergilde Gutenberg and the Malik-Verlag and corrected by Die Linkskurve; your entertainment was provided by Piscator’s and other collectives, by the agitprop groups, the Soviet cinema, the Lehrstück and the music of Eisler and Weill; your ideology was formed by Radványi’s MASch or Marxist Workers’ School; your visual standards by Grosz and Kollwitz and the CIAM; your view of Russia by the IAH. If you were a photographer, you joined a Workers-Photographers’ group; if a sportsman, some kind of Workers’ Sports Association; whatever your special interests Münzenberg [the German communist publisher and propagandist] had a journal for you. You followed the same issues, you lobbied for the same causes. (p.204)

And you failed. Your cause failed and everyone you knew was arrested, murdered or fled abroad.

A worldview which is based on a self-confirming bubble of like-minded information is proto-totalitarian, inevitably seeks to ban or suppress any opposing points of view, and is doomed to fail in an ever-changing world where people with views unlike yours outnumber you.

A democratic culture is one where people acknowledge the utter difference of other people’s views, no matter how vile and distasteful, and commit to argument, debate and so on, but also to conceding the point where the opponents are, quite simply, in the majority. You can’t always win, no matter how God-given you think your views of the world. But you can’t even hope to win unless you concede that your opponents are people, too, with deeply held views. Just calling them ‘social-fascists’ (as the KPD called the SPD) or ‘racists’ or ‘sexists’ (as bienpensant liberals call anyone who opposes them today) won’t change anything. You don’t stand a chance of prevailing unless you listen to, learn from, and sympathise with, the beliefs of people you profoundly oppose.

A third of the German population voted for Hitler in 1932 and the majority switched to Führer worship once he came to power. The avant-garde artists Willett catalogues in such mind-numbing profusion pioneered techniques of design and architecture, theatre production and photography, which still seem astonishingly modern to us today. But theirs was an entirely urban movement created among a hard core of like-minded bohemians. They didn’t even reach out to university students (as Laqueur’s chapter on universities makes abundantly clear), let alone the majority of Germany’s population, which didn’t live in fashionable cities.

Over the three days it took to read this book, I’ve also read newspapers packed with stories about Donald Trump and listened to radio features about Trump’s first year in office, so it’s been difficult not to draw the obvious comparisons between Willett’s right-thinking urban artists who failed to stop Hitler and the American urban liberals who failed to stop Trump.

American liberals – middle class, mainly confined to the big cities, convinced of the rightness of their virtuous views on sexism and racism – snobbishly dismissing Trump as a flashy businessman with a weird haircut who never got a degree, throwing up their hands in horror at his racist, sexist remarks. And utterly failing to realise that these were all precisely the tokens which made him appeal to non-urban, non-university-educated, non-middle class, and economically suffering, small-town populations.

Also, as in Weimar, the left devoted so much energy to tearing itself apart – Hillary versus Sanders – that it only woke up to the threat from the right-wing contender too late.

Ditto Brexit in Britain. The liberal elite (Guardian, BBC) based in London just couldn’t believe it could happen, led as it was by obvious buffoons like Farage and Johnson, people who make ‘racist’, ‘sexist’ comments and so, therefore, obviously didn’t count and shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Because only people who talk like us, think like us, are politically correct like us, can possibly count or matter.

Well, they were proved wrong. In a democracy everyone’s vote counts as precisely ‘1’, no matter whether they’re a professor of gender studies at Cambridge (which had the highest Remain vote) or a drug dealer in Middlesborough (which had the highest Leave vote).

Dismissing Farage and Johnson as idiots, and anyone who voted Leave as a racist, was simply a way of avoiding looking into and trying to address the profound social and economic issues which drove the vote.

Well, the extremely clever sophisticates of Berlin also thought Hitler was a provincial bumpkin, a ludicrous loudmouth spouting absurd opinions about Jews which no sensible person could believe, who didn’t stand a chance of gaining power. And by focusing on the (ridiculous little) man they consistently failed to address the vast economic and social crisis which underpinned his support and brought him to power. Ditto Trump. Ditto Brexit.

Some optimists believe the reason for studying history is so we can learn from it. But my impression is that the key lesson of history is that – people never learn from history.


Related links

Related reviews

Red Star over Russia @ Tate Modern

David King

In the 1970s British designer David King was sent to Soviet Russia by the Sunday Times to find old photos of Leon Trotsky to accompany a feature. The feature never materialised but, rummaging about in the archives, King began to uncover the vast scale of the stacks of photos, magazine and newspaper articles, posters and propaganda sheets chronicling the early years of the Russian Revolution, which had been lost or forgotten.

He bought and borrowed what he could to bring back to Blighty, and then made further visits looking for more. It turned into a lifelong project. By his death in 2016 King had accumulated a collection of over 250,000 Russian Revolution-related objects which were bequeathed to Tate.

What better way to display the highlights of this vast collection than during the centenary year of the Bolshevik revolution, and so this exhibition opened on 8 November 2017, commemorating the outbreak of the revolution, to the precise month and day.

Entrance to Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Entrance to Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Red Star Over Russia

The exhibition displays some 150 photos and posters chronicling the years 1917 to the death of Stalin in 1953, showing the changing visual and design styles of the Soviet Union, from the radical experimental days of the early 1920s through to the dead hand of Socialist Realism imposed in the early 1930s. It continues on through the nationalist propaganda of the Great Patriotic War and into the era of ‘high Stalinism’ between 1945 and 1953, which saw the start of the Cold War as the Soviet Union consolidated its grip on occupied Eastern Europe and aided the Chinese Communist Party to its successful seizure of power in 1949.

In obvious ways this exhibition echoes and complements the huge show about the Russian Revolution which the Royal Academy staged earlier this year (although that show included many contemporary paintings and works of art; this show is almost entirely about photos and posters, magazines and prints).

Photos

The old black-and-white photos are doorways into a lost world. Here are Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin looking bulky in their greatcoats, their penetrating stares, their unremitting antagonism.

One sequence chronicles the famous series of photos of Stalin surrounded by Party functionaries who, one by one, were arrested and imprisoned during the 1930s and, one by one, were airbrushed out of the official photo, until only Stalin is pictured. This famous photo is the subject of King’s book The Commissar Vanishes.

Related photos show Lenin shouting from a podium with Trotsky leaning against it. After Trotsky was exiled in 1928, he also would be airbrushed out of this photo. In an adjoining room are ancient silent movies of Trotsky haranguing the crowd and the early Bolshevik leaders milling about the stand in Red Square.

Lenin harangues the crowd while Trotsky watches

Lenin harangues the crowd while Trotsky watches

The Terror began within a year of the Bolsheviks taking power. It came to dominate the entire society, as shown by newspaper photos which have been retouched to remove politicians as they are arrested and liquidated. There are even private photos whose owners have cut out the heads of ‘former people’ in terror lest they be found and the owners themselves arrested.

There are evocative photos of the revolutionary poet Mayakovsky, looking particularly stunning when he shaved his head and became a revolutionary firebrand, demanding that opera houses and all previous art be burned to the ground. The Russian Taliban.

The communist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky

The communist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky

I’m familiar with these photos but I’d never before seen the official photo of his body after he killed himself in 1930, disillusioned by the way the revolution was going. The exhibition includes a photo of him lying on a divan with a big red stain round his heart, where the bullet entered.

Similarly, there’s a powerful little set of photos showing Marshall Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the man responsible for radically reforming the Red Army, before himself falling foul of Stalin’s paranoia. Here he is looking proud in his military uniform. Here he is with his wife and little daughter. And then he was gone – arrested, tried and executed by a shot to the back of the head on 12 June 1937. The confession to treason wrung from him by torture still survives. It is spattered with his dried blood. Thus the Workers’ Paradise.

Tukhachevsky was not the only one. I was stunned to learn from a wall label that no fewer than 25,000 officers in the Red Army were arrested, executed and sent to labour camps between 1937 and 1941! What a paranoid idiot Stalin was.

When Nazi Germany invaded Russia on 22 June 1941 a headless, leaderless Red Army found itself forced right back to the walls of Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad. If they’d only launched the invasion six weeks earlier – as initially planned – the Nazis might have captured all three cities and the history of the world would have been very different. But ‘General Winter’ came to the aid of the Communist leadership, just as it had against Napoleon.

The exhibition shows how, when war broke out, official Soviet propaganda quietly dropped a lot of Bolshevik motifs and refocused attention on patriotic feelings for the Motherland. Now Stalin was rebranded ‘Leader of the Great Russian People’ and the war was christened ‘The Great Patriotic War’.

One of the six rooms in the exhibition deals solely with wartime propaganda, including posters warning people to be discreet and not give away secrets. It’s immediately noticeable how earnest and serious these were, compared with our own stylish and often humorous wartime posters on the same subject.

Don't Chatter! Gossiping Borders on Treason by Nina Vatolina (1941) The David King Collection at Tate

Don’t Chatter! Gossiping Borders on Treason by Nina Vatolina (1941) (The David King Collection at Tate)

Not unwise or foolish – Treason. And every Soviet citizen knew what would happen to them if they were suspected of Treason. The midnight arrest, the five-minute trial and then transport to some labour camp in Siberia. Russian authorities had to terrify their population to get anything done. By contrast, British authorities had to coax and laugh the population into better behaviour.

 

Posters

All this about the war is looking ahead. In fact the exhibition opens with a couple of rooms showcasing the fantastic explosion of creative talent which accompanied the early years of the revolution.

Progressive artists, writers, designers, journalists and so on threw themselves into the task of building a new, perfect, workers’ society. The very first room houses a big wall, painted communist red, and covered with vivid and inspiring revolutionary posters. Down with the bourgeoisie, Up the workers, Freedom for emancipated women, Strangle international capitalism, and so on.

Installation view of Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Installation view of Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Early photos show the workshops of idealistic artists creating poster art for a population which was, of course, largely illiterate and so benefited from big, bold images.

The sheer size of this illiterate working population also explains the development of ‘agitprop’ propaganda, conveyed through really simple-minded posters, books and comics, plays, pamphlets, the radically new medium of film and even – as photos here show – via steam trains festooned with Red propaganda pictures and bedecked with red flags.

These revolutionary trains were equipped with cinemas, exhibition carriages, mobile theatres and classrooms, and spread the message of Revolution and Freedom to remote regions all around the vast Russian landmass.

Above all, these young artists, fired by revolutionary idealism, found a new way to create extremely dynamic images, using exciting new approaches to photography and graphic design.

Photo-montage

The Cubists had experimented with collage as early as 1910, and members of the Dada movement (notably Max Ernst in Zurich and John Heartfield in Berlin) had also cut up and pasted together incongruous images from newspapers and magazines. But these had been semi-private experiments in the name of avant-garde fine art.

By contrast the immediate post-revolutionary years in Russia saw an explosive exploration of the potential ways photos can be composed, cut up and montaged together with new styles of design, layout, fonts and wording, to create dynamic and exciting images designed for a mass public.

A set of photos by the genius Alexander Rodchenko shows how vibrant and exciting black and white photos can be when they follow a handful of simple rules. They must be:

  • of extreme clarity
  • taken from above or below the subject
  • of subjects themselves dynamically geometrical in nature
  • use diagonals to cut right across the picture plane.
Tashkent 1933 (The David King Collection at Tate)

Tashkent 1933 (The David King Collection at Tate)

But how much more powerful these already dynamic images become if you cut and paste them into a montage, designed to be read from left to right and convey a raft of patriotic, revolutionary and inspiring subjects.

Photomontage from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Catalogue of the Soviet Pavilion at the International Press Exhibition, Cologne 1928 by El Lissitzky and Sergei Senkin (The David King Collection at Tate)

Photomontage from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Catalogue of the Soviet Pavilion at the International Press Exhibition, Cologne 1928 by El Lissitzky and Sergei Senkin (The David King Collection at Tate)

In fact a montage of just the ‘Great Leaders’ alone turns out to be tremendously powerful, helping to change their images into timeless icons (in a country with a 1,000 year-long history of revering timeless icons). But important to the composition is the presence of the masses, smiling, marching, teeming, liberated, which are cut and pasted into the spare spaces of the composition.

Raise Higher the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin! (1933) by Gustav Klutsis. The David King Collection at Tate

Raise Higher the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin! (1933) by Gustav Klutsis (The David King Collection at Tate)

(By the way, Klutsis, who made this banner and many other inspiring works like it, was executed in 1938.)

The exhibition includes a wonderful set of prints of purely abstract designs by the great Constructivist artist El Lissitzky – if I could, these would be the one item I’d want to take home from the exhibition. I love the energy of lines and angles and abstraction, and I’m a sucker for the use of text in pictures – so I love El Lissitzky.

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920) by El Lissitzy. The David King Collection at Tate

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920) by El Lissitzy (The David King Collection at Tate)

When you combine all these elements – striking photos and text montaged onto apparently abstract backgrounds made up of vivid colours broken by lines radiating energy – you come up with one of the really great design and visual breakthroughs of this period – the balanced and creative use of abstract design and photomontage to create images which are still inspirational today.

Take Alexander Rodchenko’s most famous work:

'Books (Please)! In All Branches of Knowledge' (1924) by Rodchenko

Books (Please)! In All Branches of Knowledge (1924) by Alexander Rodchenko

Or this 1928 poster by Gustav Klutsis: photos montaged onto an abstract pattern of dynamic diagonal lines.

Moscow All-Union Olympiad (Spartakiada) (1928) by Gustav Klutsis. The David King Collection at Tate

Moscow All-Union Olympiad (Spartakiada) (1928) by Gustav Klutsis (The David King Collection at Tate)

This is why the decade or so of artistic production in Russia after 1917 is the subject of so many exhibitions and books, and returned to again and again – because it saw such an explosion of experimentation in the visual arts, in theatre and cinema and literature, as extremely creative minds in all these spheres completely rejected the aristocratic and bourgeois, self-centred art of the past and tried to devise new forms and styles and genres to convey their exciting news that a New World was at hand.

Although their particular revolution deteriorated into repression and Terror, nonetheless their experiments captured general truths about the twentieth century as a whole, inventing completely new ways to harness the mass media of cinema and photography, popular magazines and consumer products, which could be equally well applied to the mass societies of the capitalist world.

Which is why, although they were created in a communist climate, Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Klutsis and scores of others invented visual styles and techniques which film-makers, playwrights and directors, fine artists and graphic designers in the decadent West and right around the world have mined and plundered for ideas and innovations ever since.

Deinekin and the 1937 Paris Exposition

Of course it didn’t last, as we all know. By 1928, the Soviet government felt strong enough to put a decisive end to all private enterprise (which had been grudgingly reintroduced under Lenin’s New Economic Plan in 1922). This ended the possibility of any kind of independent funding for the arts, which now came under the iron grip of the state. Although the term Socialist Realism wasn’t officially used until 1932, its ideas were beginning to triumph.

Any experimentalism in the arts was increasingly criticised by the party for being ‘formalist’, which meant too avant-garde and experimental to be understood by the masses. By 1934 it was decided that ALL art must be Socialist Realist in nature, meaning:

  1. Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
  2. Typical: scenes of the everyday life of the people.
  3. Realistic: in the representational sense.
  4. Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.

One room of the exhibition is devoted to the triumph of Socialist Realist art in the form of the USSR’s pavilion at the 1937 ‘International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life’ held in Paris.

The pavilion was designed by Boris Iofan and dominated by a vast stainless steel sculpture by Vera Mukhina titled Worker and Collective Farm Woman

(There is a model of this building and the statue at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s current exhibition about opera; it appears in the section about Shostakovitch and music in Soviet Russia.)

These were to be the kind of heroic, larger-than-life, super-realistic, happy proletarian figures striding forward which were to become commonplace all over the Communist world, not only in Russia but in the conquered nations of Eastern Europe and in Communist China after 1949.

Inside, the pavilion was decorated with a vast mural by the painter Aleksandr Deineka, Stakhanovites, a tribute to Soviet workers (from all the Soviet republics) who had exceeded their work quotas and thus were Heroes of the Soviet Union.

Stakhanovites: A Study for the Esteemed People of the Soviets' Mural for the USSR Pavilion, 1937 International Exposition Paris by Aleksandr Deineka (1937) Perm State Art Gallery, Russia

Stakhanovites: A Study for the Esteemed People of the Soviets’ Mural for the USSR Pavilion, 1937 International Exposition Paris by Aleksandr Deineka (1937) Perm State Art Gallery, Russia

Eerily bad, isn’t it?

Comparing this with the thrillingly avant-garde photo-montages of a decade earlier, I realised how the earlier work really does use diagonal lines to create a sense of striving, reaching, stretching movement and dynamism – Lenin is always leaning out from the podium, in Klutsis’ poster the red flags behind Marx et al are always slanting, anything by El Lissitzky or Rodchenko is at an angle.

Compare and contrast with the Socialist Realist painting above, which is totally square, flat, straight-on and consists of vertical lines at 90 degrees to the horizontal. I think this goes some way to explaining why – although it is intended to be a dynamic image of ideal, smiling communist people striding towards us – it in fact feels remote and unreal, more like a spooky dream than an inspiration.

When the Great Patriotic War broke out, with Nazi Germany’s invasion of 1941, there was something of a return to earlier, rousing propaganda, reviving dynamic diagonals to convey strife, effort, heroism.

Fascism - The Most Evil Enemy of Women. Everyone to the Struggle Against Fascism (1941) by Nina Vatolina. The David King Collection at Tate

Fascism – The Most Evil Enemy of Women. Everyone to the Struggle Against Fascism (1941) by Nina Vatolina (The David King Collection at Tate)

The Great Patriotic War

The last room contains a number of works dating from the Great Patriotic War, including the ‘Treason’ poster (above). The wall label explains how the communist state deliberately changed the focus from Revolution to Patriotism. And, after all, we have evidence from the time that plenty of people fought bravely for the Motherland who wouldn’t have lifted a finger for Stalin or the Communist Party.

The best work in this last room is the immensely historic photo of Red Army soldiers raising their flag over Hitler’s ruined Reichstag in conquered Berlin.

It is interesting to learn that this photo – beamed around the world – was carefully staged by the Soviet photographer Yevgeny Khaldei. Makes sense when you really look at it.

Also (since this is one of the main things I’ve taken from the exhibition, visually) that part of the secret of its appeal is that it is yet another dynamic diagonal.

Soviet soldiers raising the red flag over the Reichstag, May 1945 (Printed 1955) by Yevgeny Khaldei. The David King Collection at Tate

Soviet soldiers raising the red flag over the Reichstag, May 1945 (Printed 1955) by Yevgeny Khaldei (The David King Collection at Tate)

As interesting as the knowledge that the famous photo of U.S. Marines raising the flag on the summit of Iwo Jima was a more complicated affair than it at first appears – as brought out in the Clint Eastwood movie, Flags of Our Fathers.

I wonder if any Russians have made a film about this ‘historic’ moment?


The promotional video

Russian revolution-related merchandise

Tate offers some 55 items of Russian Revolution merchandise to satisfy all your needs for decorative Bolshevikiana. I particularly liked the Death to World Imperialism posters and prints, a snip at £25.

The Red Star over Russia 2018 calendar was tempting, inciting you to smash international capitalism and strangle the worldwide bourgeoisie while you sip a frappuccino and work on your next powerpoint presentation.

Death to World Imperialism (1920) by Dmitrii Moor (1883 1946) The David King Collection at Tate

Death to World Imperialism (1920) by Dmitrii Moor (1883 1946) (The David King Collection at Tate)

And I was particularly delighted to see that Tate has arranged a Red Star over Russia wine-tasting evening so that you can:

‘Discover how the Russian Revolution in 1917 changed the wine world, and how the influential figures of this time redefined the styles and quality of wines in other regions of the world.’

Merchandising like this really rams home the message that ‘the revolution’ is as dead as the Dodo. It has been bottled and sold to the super-rich as a fashionable perfume.


Related links

David King’s books on Amazon

Russia-related reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Purple by John Akomfrah @ The Curve, The Barbican

The Curve is the long, narrow, curving, dark, subterranean exhibition space at the Barbican. It is currently hosting several works by British artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah.

The first thing you see on walking down the steps, is a massive pile of car tyres reaching to the ceiling. This gave me a warm feeling as I grew up in a petrol station which did tyre repairs and had a huge shed with stacks of every kind of car tyre then on the market. Us kids used to play hide and seek in it.

Preliminal Rites

The first pictorial display is Preliminal Rites, two enormous triptychs i.e. sets of three very big stunningly detailed photos taken in a beautifully unspoilt hilly landscape (the Peaks, the Lake District?) in which a handful of humans stand in model-like poses, wearing old-fashioned dress, and dotted around at their feet are incongruous objects, most strikingly a big old-fashioned clock face. Time. Tempus fugitSic transit gloria mundi. An old idea, but conveyed in a striking composition in stunning digital clarity.

Preliminal Rites by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Preliminal Rites by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

A world of plastic

As you continue walking along the dark, rather intimidating space, you come to a section entirely made up of scores of old, heavy-duty, white plastic canisters hanging upside down from the ceiling, with white lights above them. The effect is of a heaven of plastic shining down, pushing down, illuminatingly or threateningly, down on all of us. I stood beneath this junk firmament and reached up my arms to pray to the universe of synthetic polymers.

Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Installation view of Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Purple

After plastic heaven you walk through a sort of doorway into the final section where a row of comfortable benches is lined up facing an array of six enormous screens on which is playing the one-hour long video, which gives the show its overall title – Purple.

Akomfrah has ransacked hundreds of hours of archive footage from numerous sources to edit together this vast portrait of man’s impact on the natural world. The images on each screen are all different, cut from scene to scene at different moments, and sequences on one screen jump to other screens then back again, and so forth – so on one level it is quite disorientating. But on another, quite hypnotic.

Installation view of Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Installation view of Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Broadly speaking there are two types of image or sequence: the archive footage, mostly in black and white, showing society from 50, 60, 70 years ago, faces, streets, cars, factories, power stations, coal mines, and so on — and a series of brand spanking new, up-to-date sequences which Akomfrah shot himself in a dozen or so locations around the world.

The aim of the whole thing is to convey the depth and reach of man’s impact on the natural world. I’ve written about this in other blog posts, the idea is simple: humanity is destroying the natural environment and wiping out our fellow species at a phenomenal speed, at a rate only matched by the previous big five extinction events in the history of life on earth.

The sixth extinction

As such we are responsible for what geologists are now widely referring to as the Anthropocene Age and biologists refer to as the Sixth Extinction.

The archive footage Akomfrah has selected is fascinating. I sat enraptured watching old black-and-white footage of coal miners working underground, of old geezers in muffled up coats walking the grim streets of some Northern town, then old men in doctors’ clinics having lung capacity tests, cut-away views of a human lung under a microscope – presumably damaged by coal dust inhalation and general pollution – a scientist kneeling down to scoop up some of the black filth lying in a gutter with a spoon to put in a sample bag. You get the idea. No commentary. No sub-titles. No explanation. Just the footage. You draw your own conclusions and make your own connections.

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Beautiful world

But what lifts the film onto a completely different visual level is the astonishing, haunting beauty of the footage Akomfrah himself has shot, positioning solitary human figures in remote and stunning landscapes around the world.

These range from the vast open landscapes of Alaska and Arctic Greenland to the volcanic Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. Apparently, they were all chosen as sites demonstrating climate change or acute pollution or environmental degradation – but they are shot with breath-taking, super-digital clarity which slightly overawes the ostensible purpose.

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

The benches facing the screens were packed. Nobody moved. Everyone was transfixed by the haunting beauty of these truly dazzling sequences.

Ambient soundtrack

The impact is increased by the soundtrack. The music was composed by Tandis Jenhudson and David Julyan. Waves of very slow, ambient sound, sometimes rising to distinct piano melodies then fading back into washes of electronic sounds, designed to be assimilable, haunting, moody, sad and reminiscent (to me) of the slow sad music of Twin Peaks.

You can see the images, hear the sounds and listen to the man himself explaining it all in this Barbican video.

And…?

Are we meant to be happy or sad? I, personally, realised we are destroying the current environment when I read Silent Spring back in the 1970s – obviously new patterns and balances will eventually arise, new equilibriums be established, with or without humanity – but in our little lifetimes it is hugely distressing to realise how many beautiful, intricate species and life forms we are devastating and driving extinct, now, as you read this.

But what can you do? Everyone wants a mobile phone, a car, a colour TV, a home with running water and fresh food shipped in from around the world. More people want more stuff, and there’s more and more of these people – 3 billion when I was born, 7.6 billion now, 9 billion by the time my son will be my age.

I try to live modestly, avoid driving, flying, recycle my trash, cycle everywhere, but… well… I know it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. My life is an insignificant drop, a minuscule fraction of the vast pullulating population of locusts which is stripping the planet. We really are a plague on the earth.

Maybe you disagree. Either way, Purple is a really beautiful, haunting show about a vastly important topic, and it’s completely FREE!

So if you’re passing anywhere near the Barbican, set aside half an hour to drop in and be enraptured, inspired, maybe depressed, certainly affected.

Still frame from Purple by John Akomfrah (2017) © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah (2017) © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions at the Barbican

Close-Up by Len Deighton (1972)

‘Two goats in the Mojave Desert. Have you heard it, Viney?’ Weinberger shook his head.

‘They find a tin of film. One of them nuzzles it until the lid falls off. The film leader loosens around the spool and the goat eats a few frames. The second goat eats some too, and they all pull the film off the reel until they have eaten the whole of it. There is nothing left except the can and the spool. The first goat says,”Wasn’t that great?” and the second goat says,”The book was better.”‘

Stone laughed heartily and Weinberger joined in although he’d heard it before (p.191)

Filmworld

After spies, comedy and war, this is another deliberate new departure, or experiment by Len Deighton – this time into the glitzy glamorous world of movie-making and Hollywood film stars.

Deighton had quite a bit of experience of the movie world and no doubt that’s what gave him the inspiration and much of the material for this book. His hugely successful début, The Ipcress File, was turned into a movie in 1965 and there are plenty of photos of Deighton showing its star, Michael Caine, how to cook. Deighton formed a production company with photographer Brian Duffy to produce the film adaptation of his own comic novel, Only When I Larf (1968), and the same company helped produce the screen version of the hit stage play Oh What A Lovely War, for which Deighton also wrote the screenplay (1969), one of the classic British movies of the 1960s.

Thus Deighton knew what he was writing about when he turned to creating a novel about an English actor caught up in the Hollywood machine. However, there isn’t exactly a shortage of novels about Hollywood, quite a few of which reveal that it’s a cut-throat business full of cynical studio bosses, jaded directors, egotistical stars, gagging starlets, alcoholic writers and so on and so on.

What Deighton did for the spy novel (bring a completely new, wonderfully fresh and irreverent style to it) he doesn’t do for the movie-world novel. Close-Up is well-imagined and well-written but it doesn’t break any moulds. In fact, considering the extravagance, cynicism and obscenity of some of the competition, Close-Up is quite cosy and conservative. It fits very snugly into ‘the mould’.

Characters

Marshall Stone is the main character. He’s in his late 40s, risen from suburban dullness (real name Edward Brummidge) to work his way up the ranks of provincial stage actors, before being spotted and given the lead in the wildly successful Western Last Vaquero (1949) (no, it doesn’t exist and doesn’t sound as if it could have been a classic Western). He manages to keep a foot on the English stage with a decade-defining Hamlet i the 1950s, before making more movies through the 60s and now, in the early 1970s, reaching his 50th birthday, he faces difficult personal and professional choices, which the novel describes and dramatises.

Leo Koolman is the unsmiling head of a Hollywood studio who is over in London partly to fête Stone, to make sure he turns up for the filming of his current project, Stool Pigeon, but mainly to coerce him into signing up for a series of TV dramas, a move Stone is understandably reluctant to agree to.

Jake Weinberger (Viny), former publicity manager who is now Stone’s long-suffering agent and confident, and who is being squeezed by Koolman to bring pressure on Stone to sign the contentious TV deal.

Kagan Bookbinder, the stocky producer of Stone’s breakthrough movie, who appears in numerous subsequent scenes as his career intersects with Stone’s, espcially in the climactic scenes where Stone gets talked into starring in an ill-fated independent movie of Bookbinder’s which goes seriously wrong.

Edgar Nicholson, another English actor who appears in the famous breakthrough movie, but whose part is savagely cut to foreground Stone, and whose career never recovers, who appears in verious subsequent scenes as a permanent reminder of the price others paid for Stone’s success.

Suzy Delft is Stone’s illegitimate daughter, now in her early 20s and herself trying to break into the movies. Something odd is going on because since puberty she has had to fend off Stone’s rather more-than-fatherly embraces and outright groping. Is he an incestuous pedophile? Or is Suzy, in fact, not his daughter at all?

Peter Anson was a one-time movie hopeful whose career was shafted and so became a writer. Now he’s been commissioned to write Stone’s biography, so gets to meet him and his family and poke around in his past. Given added piquancy because he is married to Stone’s former wife, Mary.

Slow plot

There are lots of leisurely long scenes between these and a few other characters which allow Deighton to display his knowledge of the finances, deals, technology and psychology of movie-making. The novel is long on leisurely conversations (it’s 345 pages in length) and fairly short on plot.

There’s some technical interest in the way chapters alternate between an omniscient third person narrator and the first-person narrative of Peter Anson as he compiles his biography.

And in the way the time frame leaps around, rooted in a present where Stone is feeling his age, insecure, unhappy filming his latest movie and stressed about the TV deal, but abruptly switching to Stone’s youth in the 1940s, to scenes surrounding the making of his breakthrough Last Vaquero, Anson gets hold of Stone’s first wife’s diary of the late 1940s and 1950s and these are reprinted verbatim.

All this is cleverly handled but there is no tension or forward pull to the narrative. It could have gone on like this for a few hundred more likeable pages. Deighton is always engaging, if never quite believable, company.

I thought the business with a lover of Stone’s in his early days, who Koolman says is blocking his career and needs to be got rid of – I thought it might emerge that she was murdered or something. There’s also a permanent shimmer of uncertainty around whether Suzy Delft is or isn’t the illegitimate daughter Stone claims her to be… And there are unlikely suggestions that Stone’s ex-wife had an affair with Koolman…

But none of these build up to anything: there is no big plot revelation at the end. Instead, in the final pages the book becomes unexpectedly post-modern as the biographer, Anson, confronts a Koolman gloating about finally persuading Stone to do the TV deal – and then, in a slightly surreal way, Anson announces he’s not going to write a factual biography of Stone anyway, he’s going to turn the actor’s story into a fiction – ‘A book of fiction can get closer to the truth than a biography.’ (p.344) whereupon the studio owner enthusiastically joins in, suggesting ideas: how about they call the star actor ‘Marshall Stone’; and how about the scheming mogul is called ‘Koolman’ – ‘Say, that’s not a bad name for me – Koolman: cool man, yes, I like it.’ Thus the fiction closes with the fictional characters creating it and the entire book ends with Anson saying he’s just composed the opening to his novel – and quoting the opening paragraph of this book 🙂

Clever though this kind of ending is, it doesn’t add to or undermine the preceding fiction, which we have engaged with too much (or to little) to be swayed by a final throwaway device. I already knew Koolman and Stone were fictions. They’re in a novel. Having the novel say they are fictions doesn’t alter my experience of the text in the slightest.

The risks of writing a Hollywood novel

Writing a Hollywood novel is a high-risk undertaking from the start for at least three reasons: 1) fictitious movie star names and movie titles always seem silly 2) it quickly dates 3) you can’t out-gross the gross things we already know.

1. There is a very big, costly publicity machine working all the time to make sure everyone in the world knows what the new movies are, who the top actors are, who’s making what with whom, and all the gossip and scandals of their private lives. The advent of the internet hasn’t exactly damped down celebrity culture. The reverse, it’s become an all-consuming, hyperactive machine and goes at an incredible pace. Everything in it dates so fast, product moves to dvd and then box set in months and we have moved onto the next thing, it’s impossible to avoid the daily diet of ads or news snippets, reviews on TV, radio, in newspapers and magazines, espcially the annual brou-haha about the Oscars. Hundreds of millions of consumers pride themselves with being bang up to date about the movies.

Thus we are all sensitised to the names of the actors and actresses and hit movies of our time – George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson – without trying, I feel I know all about them. They are, in fact, very ordinary names (George) but attached to people of extraordinary skill and amazing charisma who, through their talents (and good looks) and the efforts of a multi-billion dollar multinational industry, have become household words or brands. Name recognition is immediate and total, the mind is flooded with images and emotions evoked by their roles like the palate is by the taste of chocolate.

No work of fiction can compete with that depth of aura. Marshall Stone, Valentine Somerset, Suzie Delft – heard of them? They are the made-up names of the ‘hugely famous’ movie stars in this novel. Except they are not remotely famous. And so their names fall flat. When le Carre invents the spy George Smiley or Forsyth invents Inspector Lefebre, their names barely matter, they are ‘ordinary’ people we would never have heard of. Their character emerges from their actions in the narrative. But the movie novel must persuade us that the whole world knows Marshall Stone, he is mobbed wherever he goes, everyone’s seen his movies, as the premise of the story, for it to make sense. But we haven’t heard of him and we don’t really care what happens to him.

Creating names for fictional movie stars is uniquely difficult because we know to within a millimetre all the names of current and previous generations of stars, as well as having warm feelings for eg Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Steve McQueen. To insert ‘Marshall Stone’ in among such names in the narrative is like a bad special effect, is like the appearance of Zelig with famous people in the Woody Allen movie of the same name, or the scenes where Forrest Gump meets famous people – instead of weaving his characters into a seamless fiction, namedropping real movie stars only highlights the empty, connotation-free, arbitrary quality of the fiction.

2. And nothing dates quicker than this topical knowledge. The text references recent industry-changing hits like The Sound of Music (1965), Easy Rider (1969) and Love Story (1970), suggests that Tom Jones or Andy Williams sing the title song of the new movie, Laurence Olivier is namechecked as the actor Stone most resembles and Stone’s 20-something daughter is mistaken for Nancy Sinatra, or is it Jane Fonda? It all seems such a long, long time ago.

3. Out-grossing the gross. Part of the appeal of the Hollywood movie is its ‘thrilling revelations’ about the scandalous behaviour of the stars and bureaucrats – look they take drugs, wow they screw starlets, God the studio boss is a cynical Machiavelli! But this is hardly news. The 1959 classic Hotel Babylon set a new low in its scurrilous stories of movieland’s cynicism, corruption and criminality. Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 bestseller Valley of the Dolls didn’t pull its punches about the sex and drugs world of 1940s and 50s Hollywood.

By contrast, the way Deighton’s studio head is a calculating manipulater who sometimes loses his temper, or the main character a 50-something male actor who’s a bit selfish and egotistical, seem very pale revelations indeed. It seems that the girl he was having an affair with in the early days died having a backstreet abortion and Stone paid for a fake story about her dying in a car crash to appear in the newspapers. That seems to be the most scandalous event in the book.

Deighton is too nice, too decent to give real bite to his satire, let alone convey real fear at Stone’s plight. And although Stone appears to have been cunningly stitched up by Koolman in the end, what does that amount to? He has to make a Dirty Harry-style movie and then ten episodes of the TV spin-off for a vast fee. Oh what a terrible fate.

This is an amiable 350-page read, with lots of the usual pleasures of a Deighton novel eg the crisp sentences, the understated humour and the interesting factual stretches packed with knowledge about cameras and lighting and directing and editing, and with topical conversations which are now quite interesting social history, where characters worry about TV killing off cinemas or the impact of the newfangled technology of tape cassettes on the movie business … but it isn’t the Deighton novel you’d recommend to newbies.

Related links

Paperback edition of Close-Up

Paperback edition of Close-Up

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carré (1963)

Who do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs? I’d have killed Mundt if I could, I hate his guts; but not now. It so happens they need him. They need him so that the great moronic mass that you admire can sleep soundly in their beds at night. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me.’ (p.231)

This is a really brilliant novel: wonderfully conceived, powerfully imagined, expertly executed, clearly written. It was le Carre’s breakthrough novel, only his third, which established him as a major player and created an entirely new downbeat, realistic feel for spy thrillers.

Plot

Alec Leamas works for British intelligence as station officer in Berlin. When his network is ‘rolled up’ ie arrested by East German security, he returns to England, like all le Carré’s protagonists aware of his advancing age and wondering if he is over the hill. He is given menial duties working in the banking section of the ‘Circus’ (so-called because it is located in London’s Cambridge Circus) and called in for a special meeting with ‘Control’, who has a plan.

Leamas will undertake a daring mission. He will be dismissed from the Circus under a cloud to the accompaniment of orchestrated gossip that he’s been badly treated and tricked out of a pension. He will drink heavily, get himself thrown into prison, in every way appear to be disillusioned, and so make himself available to be approached by ‘the other side’. He will, in short, set himself up to be a defector.

And this is just what happens. He drinks heavily to cultivate the image. Bad mouths the Service which has given him a menial job in banking. Eventually the Service ‘lets him go’. He is unemployed. He drinks heavily. He gets a job at a library and falls in love with a Jewish communist librarian, Liz Gold. He drunkenly assaults a greengrocer, knocking him out, getting arrested and sent to prison.

Sure enough, as soon as he gets out he is approached by one Ashe, who offers to look after him. After some chat he is passed on to a tougher man named Kievers. This man ascertains that Leamas worked for the Service and is prepared to talk about it, and explains he will be taken abroad for a short while to earn money telling what he knows. He flies under a false passport to Holland where he is handed over to a more senior figure, Peters. This Peters offers Leamas £15,000 to tell everything he knows about the Circus. Leamas agrees and answers all questions over several days interviewing.

They are in the middle of the process when news comes that the authorities in Britain have put out an alert for him. At this point Leamas becomes genuinely afraid – this wasn’t in Control’s plan. Peters and his German minders say he must now be moved East for his own safety. They fly to Berlin and drive across the checkpoint into East Berlin. From there Leamas is taken to an isolated safe house amid pine forests and meets Fiedler, number two in the Abteilung, the East German secret police.

In long interrogations – really conversations – with Fiedler, Leamas reveals everything he knows about the Circus’s operations in East Germany: about his network, how it was run, who was paid what etc. In among all the true stuff, though, is the thread of disinformation – a set of misleading facts about secret payments he had to make via Scandinavian banks.

The point of the mission

It is this which is the core of Leamas’s mission: because the dates of the payments have been timed to match the dates of trips to Scandinavian countries by Mundt, the head of the Abteilung. In other words, the entire deception is designed to frame Mundt and give his number two, Fiedler, the evidence he needs to arrest and eliminate Mundt. Cunning.

At every stage Leamas plays it perfectly by being reluctant: pretending not to know that the dates tie up, then refusing to believe Mundt could be a spy since he, Leamas, ran the German network and would have known about him. Leamas’s ignorance and reluctance to go along with the notion of Mundt’s guilt are designed to encourage Fiedler’s belief in it.

Mundt in A Call For The Dead

NB It is useful to have read A Call For The Dead before this novel, as this is the same Mundt who appears as in that novel as the head of the East German Steel Mission to Britain. When the network is ‘blown’ he oversees the assassination of agents who risk further exposure.

a) Although these events are referred to in Spy, it is more powerful to have read and experienced them in the earlier book; it gives a stronger sense of Mundt’s brutality. b) It is part of Fiedler’s case against Mundt that Mundt was able to leave England so easily after his network was exposed because Mundt did a deal with British Intelligence, and ever since then has been a double agent, rising up in the Abteilung, sending information to London.

Reversals

The novel is perfectly paced. All the events unfold with a deep and pleasing inevitability, yet nothing is forced or hurried. There is a sudden reversal – Fiedler is still interrogating Leamas when their house is taken over by security guards working for Mundt, who has intervened to arrest Fielder and Leamas. The latter is badly beaten then begins to be interrogated by Mundt (who we finally meet, cold and calculating). But almost immediately there is a further switch, because Fielder had just sent a dossier of his case against Mundt to the Praesidium, who now release Fiedler and imprison Mundt.

The impasse must be resolved and so the Praesidium organises an investigation to be set in a court room, each side making its case. Fiedler argues compellingly against Mundt, listing the evidence which has led him to believe Mundt is a British double agent. However, Mundt’s lawyer then demolishes it: He all-too-accurately describes the Circus’s plot, the way Leamas was laid off, ran out of money poor, drank too much, assaulted the grocer – Mundt’s lawyer accurately describes this all as a scam, designed to lead to his recruitment by the Abteilung.

Up to this point he is describing events which could be interpreted either way. But then, in a dramatic coup, he introduces Liz, Leamas’s lover, the librarian, into the court. (In a parallel strand of the novel we had seen her be contacted by the British communist party and invited on a ‘goodwill visit’ to East Germany. It was all a ploy to enable her to be produced at the trial.) Here Mundt’s counsel extracts, from an obviously honest and reluctant witness, the fact that Liz knew about the assault before it happened, that Leamas said he had something he had to do, that he made their last night a formal goodbye (the day before he assaulted the grocer and went to prison) that, in other words, the whole thing was planned.

In further, damning, evidence, she reluctantly admits that she was visited by Smiley, who left a card and told her to get in touch if she had any problems or if she heard from Leamas; and that her lease was bought and sent to her, as if in payment for her aid.

Leamas listens in amazement. How incompetent of London! It is almost as if they were trying to undermine his mission, it is almost as if they wanted the mission to indict Mundt to fail, it is almost as if the whole mission was actually designed to incriminate Fiedler… at which point, Leamas realises with a shock… that Fiedler is right. That Mundt is London’s man. That Control and Smiley lied to him, and have used him and Liz as pawns in a deeper plot to discredit Fiedler – a genuine communist – because he was getting too close to Mundt – London’s double-agent.

Liz Gold

The narrative then follows Liz as she is taken from the court through miles of corridors of the vast prison for dissidents and intellectuals, has a dispiriting conversation with the zealous woman guard, and sinks in despair onto her bed… when the door of her cell is opened and it is Mundt, hurrying her along corridors, out of a door onto a gravel drive to the main gate, through it and up to a car and to Leamas. He leaves them.

This is a particularly effective passage because a) it skips quickly over events in the court room, which probably got a bit tedious b) it powerfully conveys Liz’s fear and bewilderment – for once we are not following the actions of a seasoned player of ‘the game’, we are feeling the devastating impact of this terrifying world on someone like us, the disorientation, the terror.

The Wall

Mundt has triumphed. Leamas and Liz are free. They get in the car and, as Leamas drives at speed back towards Berlin, he reveals the moral of the story. Because Liz is such a complete innocent, Leamas is able to explain the rationale of espionage from the ground up, how it is the logical extension of two conflicting ideologies, how it is infinitely superior to actual war, but how it has its own casualties, compromises, amorality. What did she expect? (See the quote at the head of this review.)

They pick up an agent at a pre-arranged place who guides them to the Wall and gives them precise instructions about how to climb over at a place where the wire has been cut. And so they walk to it and climb up and over as instructed except that, as Leamas pulls the girl up after him all the searchlights go on and there are shots. Liz’s body goes limp then falls. She and Leamas had discussed in the car how odd it was that Mundt was letting her go, an idealistic fool who now knows he is a top-ranking double agent ie she holds his life in her hands. Leamas realises Mundt planned to have her killed all along. And, in deeper disillusionment, realises his own side must have known it as well. And we don’t need to be reminded that Mundt is viciously anti-semitic and Liz was a Jew. The full horror of these people, of this world, of total expediency, hits us.

Leamas hears voices from the West telling him to climb over and down to safety. He hears Smiley’s voice ‘from quite close’. And, like the ageing, tired, and completely disillusioned man he is, Leamas deliberately climbs back down into the Eastern side, knowing what will happen, no longer wanting to live. And is shot dead.

The sense of psychological defeat, betrayal, moral squalor, is complete, and leaves an enduring taste in the mouth. The le Carré flavour.

Jewishness

Throughout the text characters show a sensitiveness to Jewishness which is strange to me. Maybe it’s Germany, with its special history, that makes it so prominent. But it is also important to the plot that Liz the librarian is Jewish, and that Fiedler, the number two, is Jewish. In the brief spell when Mundt’s men take over, before the Praesidium intervenes, Mundt is described as torturing Fiedler, and whispering ‘dirty Jew’, ‘filthy Jew’, in his ear. The woman gaoler in charge of Liz is similarly automatically, thoughtlessly anti-semitic. Leamas is not anti-semitic but immediately recognises someone as Jewish.

Maybe this ‘Jew awareness’ is one of the differences between 1963 and 2014 (when I’m writing), 50 years which have seen enormous immigration to all West European nations and the creation of truly multicultural societies. Maybe Jews were more noticeable in 1963, in a society almost 100% white and caucasian – whereas in 2014 any slight physical difference they (may) exhibit has been lost in the vast sea of racial/ethnic differences which now surrounds us.

Memories of the Cold War

This sensitivity to Jewishness is one aspect of the way this novel is now part of a vanished history. When I first read 1984 and Darkness At Noon in the 1970s, they scared me more than any horror story, they described an abyss into which all society, all humanity, could quite possibly fall, they described outcomes which might result from the political struggles of the time, from the power of communist and socialist parties across Europe even, potentially, from the power of the radical wing of the Labour Party.

It is not just that the Cold War ended and the West won. It is the way even the notion that one single ideology could conquer the world has evaporated. When this novel was published the world population was 3 billion. China, the USSR, all East Europe, Korea then Vietnam, Cuba and parts of Latin America, and a lot of Africa could be described as communist or at risk of becoming communist. Now the world population is over 7 billion and it’s not clear that any state is now genuinely communist. Although Islamic fundamentalism gives the West’s security services something to do, that sense that ‘one side’ will triumph has disappeared. There are now lots of anxieties, but they are to do with the economy, the environment, global warming, random acts of terrorism.

That one, bottomless, existential fear about the death of human freedom and the triumph of totalitarian communism which I remember from the 1970s and which was captured in novels like this, has disappeared like morning dew. It is impossible to explain it to my children. They have no idea what I’m talking about.

Dramatis personae

  • Alec Leamas – fifty-year-old spy, pretends to be a defector
  • Control – head of the ‘Circus’ ie British intelligence
  • George Smiley – peripheral to the plot, but appears at various moments, specifically when he visits Leamas’s girlfriend Liz Gold, to find out what if anything he’s told her communist party leaders about Leamas (he also witnesses Leamas beating up the grocer, and pays off Leamas’s landlord)
  • Liz Gold – naive, idealistic librarian and member of the Bayswater communist party
  • Ashe – effeminate, nervous German agent, who makes first contact with Leamas, hands him on to…
  • Kievens – who establishes that Leamas is prepared to defect
  • Peters – in Holland, debriefs Leamas at length
  • Jens Fiedler – number two in Eat German Abteilung, interrogates Leamas in a friendly collaborative way because he suspects his boss, Mundt, is an English double-agent
  • Mundt – head of East German security; cold, cunning, sadistic, he is in fact a British double-agent, and the whole point of Leamas’s mission turns out to be to protect him by discrediting Fiedler

Credit

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré, published 1963 by Victor Gollancz. All quotes from the 1981 Pan paperback edition.

The movie

The novel was made into a fantastically atmospheric black-and-white film, released in 1965, starring Richard Burton and featuring Michael Horden, Sam Wanamaker, Oskar Werner and Robert Hardy. It is as much a classic of the film world as the book is of literature. All the actors are immaculate. The direction, by Martin Ritt, is wonderful. The framing of almost every shot is perfect, many of the frames can be frozen and make classy still photos. Ritt has a fantastically good eye and a choice way of locating the camera, conceiving action, framing the shot. And at the heart of it is a towering performance by Burton, acting much older than his 40 years, looking and sounding a thousand years old.

Interviews

Le Carre has given innumerable interviews to the press and TV over the years.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

Call For The Dead by John le Carré (1961)

[Smiley] hated the Press as he hated advertising and television, he hated mass-media, the relentless persuasion of the twentieth century. Everything he admired or loved has been the product of intense individualism. (p.138)

This, John le Carré’s first novel, introduces British intelligence officer George Smiley, who will go on to appear in seven subsequent le Carré books. The first chapter gives his biography – public school, Oxford, scholarly interest in 17th century German poetry, recruitment into the intelligence service, running agents in 1930s Europe – and contrasts his unromantic, intensely intelligent and scholarly character with that of his flamboyant wife, Lady Ann Sercombe, who he surprises everyone he knows by marrying – and then who surprises no-one at all by leaving him for a glamorous Cuban racing-car driver before the novel begins.

The plot

The British Intelligence Service receives an anonymous letter pointing out that Foreign Office staffer, Samuel Fennan, was a communist party member in the 1930s. Intelligence officer George Smiley is tasked with interviewing him and gives a standard and sympathetic interrogation while they stroll round St James’s Park, and concludes by telling him he has nothing to worry about. The next day Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. Why?

With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind Fennan’s death, namely that he was murdered by an East German spy ring. Unknown to Fennan, his wife was a spy and had been copying the classified documents he brought home, then meeting with her controller to give him copies. Fennan wrote the anonymous letter accusing himself because he knew it would activate an enquiry, and call in Intelligence, at which point he would be able to air his suspicions of his wife. Following his interview with Smiley, Fennan had sent the latter a note inviting him to meet again for lunch. Presumably at this lunch he would have stated his suspicions – but someone saw him in St James’s Park with Smiley, thought (correctly) that he was about to reveal his suspicions – and murdered him.

The same person, later identified as a tall, blonde assassin, Mundt, is intruding in Smiley’s flat in Bywater Street, when Smiley arrives home after meeting Fennan’s wife. Smiley hears noises, rings the bell as if a visitor, notes the man who answers the door, makes his excuses and walks away – noting the numbers of all the cars in the street.

The CID man on loan to Smiley helps track one of these cars to a dodgy south London car salesman who, after a bit of pressure, admits to loaning out the car at regular intervals to a foreign gentleman. Smiley is inspecting the car in question in the dealer’s yard when someone attacks him savagely, beating him about the head. He comes round in hospital. A few weeks later the car salesman’s body is found in the Thames.

Throughout this time Fennan’s widow, Elsa, had claimed to Smiley that Fennan was the spy, and had been murdered by his controllers. She span an elaborate story about how Fennan was recruited on the Continent, and about his controllers, with lots of detail describing how messages were sent between them. But on closer investigation various details just don’t ring true, especially the letter from Fennan inviting Smiley to diner: why send it then kill himself? Smiley begins to suspect the wife. And when his people discover that the East German Steel Delegation was being run by a man named Dieter Frey, the pieces slot into place.

Because Smiley had himself run Frey as an agent against the Nazis during the War. Clearly he had survived the War and gone on to become an important figure in East German intelligence.

At the climax of this short novel Smiley uses his knowledge of Frey’s old procedures to send a (fake) emergency request meeting to Elsa Fenner. When she rendezvous with Frey in a crowded theatre, the latter realises it’s a set-up, that British Intelligence are on to him. He silently and shockingly strangles Elsa in the theatre, then makes his getaway through the exiting crowds and the foggy streets. But the persistent CID man tails him to a houseboat near the Lots Road power station, and it is here that Smiley meets him and, as Frey attacks and beats Mendel, charges into the fight, battering Frey and accidentally pushing him over the embankment wall into the oily, black Thames where he drowns.

Comments

All the components of le Carré’s fiction are here in this first, highly-finished novel. It is deeply imagined and eminently plausible, detailed in description of people and procedure, and agreeably jaded and world-weary in its analysis of human nature. What I didn’t like is the snobbery and the Lady Ann plotline.

Lady Ann Smiley appears in no fewer than eight le Carré novels, and the ongoing saga of his unfaithful wife follows him like a tiresome puppy. This runaway wife schtick always seemed to me too pat, too improbable – as portrayed she genuinely is too glamorous and exciting to have ever married a quiet, thoughtful nobody like Smiley – and it is a sullying of Smiley’s integrity. As if Conan Doyle tried to persuade us that Holmes had a hot little mistress on the side. It is inappropriate and not necessary. Smiley’s character, and the storylines, are better without her.

Snobbery In the early pages of the novel, as he skims through his biography, le Carré emphasises that Smiley went to an ‘unimpressive’ public school and an ‘unimpressive’ Oxford college – but the snobbery and elitism of this tiny world are present in the very need to demarcate him so much from the priviliged few who went to impressive public schools and impressive Oxford colleges. It is all part of their closed code. These people represent less that 1% of the population, and yet, to hear them talk, they are the only people who matter, they are Britain and the Empire etc. Some of the ‘best’ of them, of course, turn out very gratifyingly to have been vile traitors. (And Kim Philby’s treachery is the basis of le Carré best-known novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.) Le Carré may be satirising and condemning aspects of this tiny world – but he still speaks from inside it.

On a more superficial level, Smiley is just as comme il faut as James Bond: fastidious about eating at the ‘correct’ restaurants, and drinking the ‘correct’ wine with the ‘correct’ dish; noting the place in the elaborate class hierarchy of non-public school characters, the precise calibration of their accent, whether their trousers have a neat crease in them or not, and so on.

This book was published in 1961, just before the attack on deference and class consciousness which was, allegedly, a key achievement of that noisy decade ie we should maybe forgive its dated attitudes. Still, the continual drip-drip of the just-so restaurant and the florid chaps calling each other ‘old man’ and ‘old bean’ over the whiskey or the port, grate a little on the nerves of someone who didn’t happen to go to a public school, impressive or otherwise.

Resignation

Only a few chapters into the novel Smiley resigns. He is already portrayed as over the hill, superceded by younger, flashier men in a much-expanded Security Service and he is enraged by his boss’s attempts to smooth over the murder. Thus he conducts the majority of the investigation unofficially, with the key aid of the CID man and Guillam, who remains ‘on the inside’, and can use the Service’s resources. At the end of the novel his smooth boss – Maston – sends him a letter urbanely rejecting the resignation, understanding that he was ‘under a lot of strain’ etc etc, of course consider yourself still employed. Smiley sends back a rejection of the reinstatement and takes a flight to the south of France to be reunited with his wife. But we know he’ll be back.

Credit

Call For The Dead by John le Carré, Gollancz, 1961. Quote from the 1979 Penguin edition.

Related links

The movie

Call for the Dead was made into a movie in 1966 with the title The Deadly Affair, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring James Mason as the Smiley figure (renamed Charles Dobbs), with impressive support from Harry Andrews as the solid English copper Mendel, Simone Signoret as the spy Elsa Fennan and Maximilian Schell as the old friend-cum-spymaster Dieter Frey.

It is not a good watch because of the Mason character; instead of Lady Ann, the screenwriters have lumbered the Smiley figure with a wife half his age, and foreign, and instead of Lady Ann’s tactful absence, this woman is there whenever Mason gets home, and they have horribly intense and realistic rows.

As so often in his later films, Mason comes across as a very tortured soul and the intensity of these scenes with his unhappy young wife completely overshadow the espionage plot. The whole thing is shot in a virulent technocolour which makes everyone look as if they’ve died and been badly made up by a cheap undertaker, and, given the gloom of the characters and the constant rain and the locations in the crappy back streets of south London, it seems wildly inappropriate that the film has a bright and breezy bossa nova soundtrack.

Poster for The Deadly Affair

Poster for The Deadly Affair

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

The Third Man by Graham Greene (1949)

Harry had always known the ropes… (p.103)

Graham Greene collaborated with Carol Reed, the celebrated British film director, twice. Once on an adaptation of his 1935 story The Basement Room. The film version of this was released in 1948 as The Fallen Idol.

Reed’s producer, Sir Alexander Korda, wanted the pair to follow up as quickly as possible and suggested a film set in post-war Vienna. Greene visited the city with Reed and progressed from sketches and treatments to writing a 100-page novella to act as the basis of the screenplay. In the preface to published editions he says it was ‘never intended to be more than raw material for a picture’. He explains that he wanted a surplus of material to create the mood and background for the director, for the dialogue they would be writing, and to have a reservoir of images and text to draw on in tricky script conferences. Interesting way to proceed.

The novella, much work later, became the movie The Third Man, released in 1949 and regularly described as one of the greatest films of the 20th century, maybe the best British film ever. To cash in on the popularity of both films the novella was published in 1950 in a volume along with the short story, The Basement Room.

The Third Man (novella)

There are numerous differences between novella and movie, which are listed in the Wikipedia or BFI articles, below. The most famous is the ending. In the novella Martins and the girl walk off arm in arm, promising some kind of happy ending. In the movie Reed held out for his famous shot of the girl walking the length of the wintry avenue at the cemetery and straight past Martins who lights a cigarette and, in the final dismissive gesture of the film, tosses away the match.

For me the key difference is the nationality of the two lead characters. In the novella both the protagonist, Rollo Martins, the writer of pulp Westerns, and the elusive central figure, the racketeer Harry Lime, are English. Not only English, they both went to the same private school. In the film version they are both Americans played by Joseph Cotten (Martins) and Orson Welles (Harry Lime).

English public school

It is a revelation to see how the English provenance of the lead characters in the novella and this shared public school friendship, changes the feel of the whole story: it seems posher and narrower. It means that at regular intervals Martins drops in memories of Harry at jolly public school, or just uses memories of school playing fields and school boys etc, all of which create a rather exclusive, very English vibe.

‘I met him my first term at school. I can see the place. I can see the notice board and what was on it. I can hear the bell ringing. He was a year older and knew the ropes. He put me wise to a lot of things…’
‘Was he clever at school?’
‘Not the way they wanted him to be. But what things he did think up! He was a wonderful planner. I was far better at subjects like History and English than Harry, but I was a hopeless mug when it came to carrying out  his plans.’ (1986 Penguin paperback edition p.24)

Do American thrillers worry about a character’s school days? Do Hammett or Chandler? No. This is one of the ways the novella feels smaller. And because it adverts quite frequently back to jolly schooldays, it also has a childish thread. Countless books and articles have been written about how Greene’s generation of writers was peculiarly haunted by their public school days, maybe because they were raised to conform to late-Victorian standards and then went out to take part in the mid-twentieth century which was harrowingly unlike anything they’d been led to expect.

In Auden and Isherwood and Cyril Connolly and Evelyn Waugh and Betjeman there is a constant nostalgia for childhood and the reassuring certainties of their school days. They nearly all reverted to the Christianity of their childhoods. As Calloway, the police inspector, reveals the nature of Lime’s crimes to his old schoolfriend

a world for Martins had certainly come to an end, a world of easy friendship, hero-worship, confidence that had begun twenty years before in a school corridor. Every memory – afternoons in the long grass, the illegitimate shoots on Brickworth Common, the dreams, the walks – were simultaneously tainted… (p.82)

This schoolboy theme emphasises that the characters – like so many English public schoolboys, apparently – never seem to have grown up. They still think in terms of the house master’s pep talk, the team spirit, and rebelling against silly insular rules. Was Martins Harry’s fag? Did he go and warm the toilet seat for him on winter mornings? The narrator, the policeman Calloway, notes of Martins, that he

has never really grown up and perhaps that accounts for the way he worships Lime… [After Lime’s funeral] Rollo Martins walked quickly away as though his long gangly legs wanted to break into a run, and the tears of a boy ran down his thirty-five-year old face. (First page)

Now he could tell that it was Harry, by the clothes, by the attitude like that of a boy asleep in the grass at a playing-field’s edge, on a hot summer afternoon. (p.43)

… two happy young men with the intelligent faces of sixth-formers.. (p.68)

[Harry] stood with his back to the door as the car swung upwards, and smiled back at Rollo Martins, who could remember him in just such a secluded corner of the school-quad, saying, ‘I’ve learned a way to get out at night. It’s absolutely safe. You are the only one I’m letting in on it.’ For the first time Rollo Martins looked back through the years without admiration, as he thought: He’s never grown up. (p.104)

[Harry] gave  his boyish conspiratorial smile. (p.104)

‘The school-quad’. The narrowness of this shared public school heritage in a way lays the ground for the narrowness of Greene’s imaginative vision. He is, as ever, beady-eyed and critical, zeroing in on the seedy and sordid about his characters: the ill-fitting toupée of the man Lime sends to look after Martins, the wide forehead and large mouth and small, stocky figure of Anna (Harry’s girlfriend), the super-clean Dr Winkler ‘creaking among his crucifixes.’ (p.52). Everywhere is dirty, shabby, claustrophobic, disappointing.

The literary mix-up

This is exemplified, though in a comic spirit, in a central issue of both novella and movie, the mix-up over Martins’ name. Rollo Martins writes pulp Westerns under the pen-name of Buck Dexter. It so happens that a famous literary writer named Benjamin Dexter is expected by the British Council in Vienna the same day Rollo arrives.

Martins stumbles into this misunderstanding, responding to his pen-name Dexter at the airport, and then milks it in order to be put up in a nice hotel and given pocket money by the Council, thus allowing him to pursue his investigations. But it is a very English joke, giving rise to continual little ironies and confusions, the kind of thing the tightly-wrapped English find hilarious, because it is about social embarrassments.

This mix-up results in Martins having to address a British Council literary meeting, a scene of downright farce played all out for laughs. But I also found it noticeable for the age and dowdiness of the English audience, waiting with ‘sad patience’ and who give ‘low subservient laughter’ as he autographs their books. ‘Little half-sentences of delight and compliment were dropped like curtsies.’ (pp.68-72) How stuffy. How crabbed. How English they are, and the scene is.

American open air

Contrast all this with the movie, set alight by its virile charismatic American stars, brash and confident that their country owns the world. Even the fact that both are, in their ways, defeated, can’t efface the memory of Lime’s superb arrogance and how handsome Martins is as he talks to Anna. Films are about images.

The fact that Martins and Lime were at school together is kept in the film, but it wasn’t a jolly English public school, it now has to be ‘a school’, an American school.

‘When I was 14 he taught me the three-card trick. That’s growing up fast.’ (The film)

Instead of arrested emotional development, instead of the implicit snobbery, the smallness and the stuffiness that come from the English side, Lime and Martins now sound like they have more in common with Damon Runyon or Raymond Chandler, they sound cool, and this change of tone liberates the movie to give the missing Lime his romantic, mythical quality. It may be the best British movie ever made but that’s hugely down to the power and freedom of its American stars and the glamour they bring.

Greeneland

On the up side, it’s the stuffiness of the novella, its English small-mindedness, which underpins Greene’s worldview and makes possible his characteristically acute obervations, the details and the tiny ironies which make the novella particularly enjoyable.

One light, in a heavily beaded shade, left them in semi-darkness, fumbling for door handles. (p.52)

It wasn’t a beautiful face – that was the trouble. It was a face to live with, day in, day out. A face for wear. (p.62)

A small child came up to his informant and pulled at his hand. ‘Papa, Papa.’ He wore a wool cap on his head, like a gnome; his face was pinched and blue with cold. (p.65)

Very Greene: crisp short sentences describing an acutely observed moment – poverty and misery (pinched and blue) mixed with the incongruous or grotesque (like a gnome). In fact, in the following paragraphs the small child becomes a demon as it points at Martins and describes in German the argument he saw him having with the dead man, until everybody in the crowd thinks Martins is the murderer.

The Third Man

The title, incidentally, comes from the mystery at the heart of the story. Pulp fiction author Rollo Martins arrives in Vienna to find that the friend who invited him over, Harry Lime, has been run over and killed. With the curiosity of a professional writer, Martins sets out to meet the witnesses and quickly discovers a discrepancy: three people claim to have seen Harry run over and killed – his friend Koch standing by him on one side of the street, the American Cooler on the other side of the street, and the driver of the jeep which hit him. They all claim that two of them carried Harry’s body inside.

But Martins talks to the owner of the flat next to Harry’s who heard the accident, rushed to the window, looked down and saw three men carrying the body. Both the other witnesses deny the existence of this third man. So – who is the third man? Because it is a verbal form, the novella is able to really build up this theme by repeating the phrase wholesale, much more so than in the movie, which is able to convey so much more with looks, angles, music.

It takes most of the novella, and the movie, for Martins to conclusively prove the third man was Lime himself, who has faked his own death because the authorities are getting too close to him and his illegal rackets.

Greene despair

Thankfully, Greene’s penchant for hammering the reader with editorialising about the horror of the human condition, the preachiness which is so insistent in a novel like The Heart of the Matter, is almost completely absent from the novella. His dismal views about human nature or modern society are mostly implicit in the storyline or characters, a blessèd relief. Although there are a handful of exceptions which show the preacher-man lurking behind the scriptwriter, just ready to resume his lecturing…

The third stiff whisky fumed into Martins’ brain, and he remembered the girl in Amsterdam, the girl in Paris: loneliness moved along the crowded pavement at his side. (p.60)

He was in the mood for violence, and the snowy road heaved like a lake and set his mind on a new course towards sorrow, eternal love, renunciation. (p.85)

Oooh getting close. Peeping out from behind the curtains. And then, towards the end of the text, the preacher does spring out at the reader brandishing a handful of Moral Truths.

For the first time Rollo Martins looked back through the years without admiration, as he thought: He’s never grown up. Marlowe’s devils wore squibs attached to their tails: evil was like Peter Pan – it carried with it the horrifying and horrible gift of eternal youth. (p.104)

And we nearly get away without any of the Catholic voodoo which is, of course, a feature of most of Greene’s fiction. Almost, but not quite, because right at the end Greene does make Lime a Catholic. Having realised Lime is a monster of amoral egotism, Martins accuses him:

‘You used to be a Catholic.’
‘Oh, I still believe, old man. In God and mercy and all that. I’m not hurting anyone’s soul by what I do. The dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here, poor devils,’ he added with that odd touch of genuine pity. (p.106)

(Pity, as we know from the long lecture which is The Heart of The Matter, is one of mankind’s worst traits. Apparently.) ,

Making Harry a Catholic, in fact making any of his characters a Catholic, lets Greene give the impression his story has an added dimension, a supernatural aura not available to mere mortal novelists and most of us secular readers. It feels too much like deploying religion as a rhetorical tool to heighten the horror, to give the reader a thrilling theological frisson. A rhetorical device, which he deploys pretty relentlessly, to add ‘depth’ to what are, in the end, totally secular stories.

Summary

This is a great, quick read, alive with Greene’s strengths: creating a strong sense of place, quickly sketching in believable sympathetic characters, a consistent eye for vivid, telling detail, a dry sense of irony, with none – well, hardly any – of the tiresome lectures about human nature and the Catholic hoodoo which mar a lot of his other books.

Related links

The movie

Trailer for the movie.

PS Allan Quatermain

Of all the things in the world to compare the labyrinth of sewers under Vienna’s street with, Greene compares it with the underground river which flows to the lost city of Milosis in the Henry Rider Haggard’s novel Allan Quatermain. Which is the second time he references it in so many books, as he also mentions it in The Heart of The Matter, where Quatermain is Scobie’s childhood hero.

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin (1943)

The Minister looked round with a very nice, rather practiced-looking smile and said, ‘These are the backroom boys, eh?’ (p.32)

Ever heard of the novelist Nigel Balchin (1908-70)? No, me neither. Came across this because it was adapted by Powell and Pressburger into a movie in 1949, starring David Farrar, a pretty much now-forgotten leading man of the time who also starred in Black Narcissus. As forgotten an actor as Balchin is a novelist.

Balchin’s biography

Balchin went to private school then Cambridge where he took a Natural Sciences degree before going to work for sweet manufacturers as a consultant, and where ‘he was intimately involved in the design and marketing of Black Magic chocolates and, he claimed, responsible for the success of the Aero and Kit Kat brands’ (Wikipedia). Sounds like early brand management.

Balchin wrote business books and screenplays besides his 15 or so novels. Another notable novel is Brightness Falls From the Air set during the Blitz. His first novel was published in 1934 which makes him roughly contemporary with Ambler (first book 1936) and Innes (first book 1937).

During the war he worked as a civil servant in the Ministry of Food and it is the crossover between research science and bureaucratic administration where this novel sits. It is not a war novel in the conventional sense. There is no action, no fighting, not even the Blitz, until the last 20 pages or so. Instead this novel is a riveting and completely convincing account of Whitehall gossiping and in-fighting. A wartime version of Yes, Minister. When the slimy civil servant Pinker tells the book’s hero that a new, rather notorious Minister is being appointed, he goes on to reassure him:

‘Oh, he’ll be alright. He’ll do as he’s told. In his last job I’m told they had a marvellous technique for dealing with him. They just used to tell him that he mustn’t bother with detail because  his time was too valuable. The old boy ate it, and they got him to the point eventually where they only sent him about two papers a week. They called it his ration.’ (1968 Collin hardback edition, p.112)

The first 160 pages are all like this, conversations in which lots of clever people talk about how they are going to control and manipulate other clever people.

The Small Back Room

The book consists of a first-person narrative by one Sammy Rice, lead research scientist in a down-at-heel experimental arms laboratory in England during the Second World War. We’re thrown straight into its office politics and relations, his subordinates Tilly and Corporal Taylor, his boss Waring, the Old Man, Professor Mair, in charge. People tired, wearing patched up clothes, smoking vile pipes, working in a dingy back room, talking spiffing.

Ideas have to be vetted, reports written up, updates presented at the monthly meeting, everything turned out in a hurry for a surprise visit by the Minister. Almost all the ideas are rubbish. The other civil servants are permanently manoeuvring for power. Rice is continually involved in conversations he doesn’t quite understand as departmental politics and alliances shift around him. Through a series of encounters he realises his demanding boss is being slowly surrounded by enemies and lined up for a fall in which he is unwittingly manipulated into playing a part.

The tone is unhappy, veering from long-suffering sarcasm to bitter satire. At its lightest it is similar to the tone of Len Deighton’s early novels which are also much concerned with Whitehall bureaucracy.

The Minister looked round and said, ‘Well, there’s certainly a lot of most interesting work going on here, Mair. Most interesting.’ Just to show how fascinated he was he made for the door. (p.32)

I worked in a government ministry for a while and experienced exactly such visits from the gods where my bosses rushed to put out the shiny goods and fell over themselves to demonstrate our achievements to the Big Man, while we foot soldiers laughed up our sleeves. When Rice meets the mover and shaker Sir Lewis Easton the latter complains that different groups aren’t co-ordinated, everyone works in silos instead of being joined-up. This issue was still being ‘tackled’ in the three ministries and government agencies I worked for in the 2000s. 1943, 1963, 2003: nothing appears to change.

And was wartime research really carried out by the bored technicians, ignorant managers and mealy-mouthed civil servants portrayed in this book – how terrifying!

The focus of the Whitehall scenes is a disagreement about the viability of the Reeves gun. Balchin’s book conveys with searing accuracy how one project can become the focal point for multiple storms: it divides opinion within Rice’s little team, sets his managers at loggerheads, provides a stick for the Army to beat the government agency responsible with, and becomes the pretext for a power grab by the seasoned committee man Sir Lewis Easton.

Around the middle of the novel there is a masterful account of a committee meeting where the warring factions converge and in which the narrator, as the technician with the figures, is put right at the epicentre of the argument, to his acute embarrassment.

Eventually the inevitable happens and Rice’s superior, the head of the Research Section, is squeezed out to be replaced by a man hand-chosen by Sir Lewis, who will toe the corporate line, who will cancel most of the informal (and most interesting) work they’re doing, and limit their (previously uncoordinated) work to official commissions coming through official channels.

It went on like that for about twenty minutes. He’d no idea what things were, or who the people were, or what we were doing, or whether it mattered. All he knew was that he was going to stop pretty nearly the lot. (p.149)

Is there anyone who’s ever worked at a large organisation, who hasn’t had an experience like that?

Oedipus

A decade before the story starts the narrator had his foot amputated and replaced with an artificial one, but it hurts all the time which makes him irritable. First novel I can remember reading which is narrated by someone in constant low-level pain. Not a comfortable read. And it colours his troubled relationship with fiancée Susan, particularly at the end of each day when he has to decide whether to take painkillers, drown the pain in whisky, or stay sober and tetchy.

His battle with alcoholism has escalated into peculiar role-playing with his girlfriend: on their ‘problem’ evenings they play act to diffuse the situation. On this evening, when he’s really angry with her for being late and leaving him alone with the bottle of whisky, he storms off down the pub, and it’s pre-arranged that she turns up there too, pretending not to know him, pretending to chat him up. This enables him to pour out all his bitterness and anger against her, to her, in her playacting role as shoulder-to-cry-on. And when he’s finally spewed it all out, they go back to the flat and have sausages and mash with wartime cabbage.

These are odd scenes. They’d seem weird even in a modern novel but are positively surreal set against the posh chaps-with-bowler-hats scenes of daytime Whitehall. (This sense of two rather different types of novel existing side by side in the same book is compounded by the advent of a third theme in the surprisingly nailbiting climax, see below).

The story of an inadequate man

Around page 120 there’s a fascinating scene between Rice and his girlfriend where she really indicts his personality, systematically showing him that he always chickens out of big decisions and then blames everyone else. This is disarmingly the kind of conversation real people have in real life, nothing like the brisk, plan-making of the thrillers. Rice denies it but Susan gives him such powerful examples he’s forced to accept it and go to sleep wondering if he really is such a loser, someone who evades decisions, avoids confrontation, always does what’s easiest, and then moans and complains when things don’t turn out as he wants.

She said, ‘You really are hopeless, Sammy. You seem to go out of your way to make – to make yourself useless… You won’t face things – not real things that are difficult. You just work on little easy things, like whether you like people or have known them a long time or something. You just want to be safe. When it gets difficult you run away.’ (p.126)

Unexplosive finale

These two strands come together in the last thirty pages of this short novel. In among all his other calls and contacts, Rice had had a few conversations with one Captain Dick Stuart about a spate of explosions killing peple who had picked up some kind of booby-trapped device. Rice met Stuart a couple of times and helped him with technical advice. At just the time that the big changeover comes between Rice’s easy-going old boss and the new, more by-the-book chap, Rice receives another call from Stuart who says they’ve found two examples of the device, unexploded on a Welsh beach, and asks for his help.

Relieved to be able to drop office politics and the criticism of his girlfriend, Rice takes the train to Wales only to be told, on arrival, that Stuart was blown up and killed trying to dismantle the first device. In a nerve-jangling final twenty pages to the novel, Rice follows Stuart’s notes as he dismantles the second device.

He is racked with nerves, becomes drenched in sweat, can barely see, and unscrews the tight fuse cap of the device with shaking hands. We feel the muscle in his thigh begin to twitch uncontrollably, the wire from the phone line around his neck brush for a second against the detonation terminals, we feel every inch of his fear.

And there, right at the climax of the novel, comes its great question: Rice spends an hour-and-a-half defusing the bomb, and, by a lucky chance, realises the location of the second fuse. By this time he is too weak and shaky to unscrew the second cap and it is done in a jiffy by the brave, strong, virile and whole-bodied lieutenant-colonel Strang, who has been overseeing the operation. Rice lies back and almost weeps. He had been determined to completely solve the problem or die in the attempt. He was at the same moment petrified it would explode and didn’t give a damn. But he ends up with the worst of both worlds, surviving but convinced he is a failure who ended up needing someone else to finish the job.

The question is: Is he right to feel this way? Is he a failure or a success? He is alive whereas Stuart is dead. He spotted the vital clue which Stuart missed. Using his method all similar bombs will be able to be defused. But he chooses to dwell on his physical weakness at the vital moment. Similarly, he retains his job where others have been fired. But he chooses to focus on how he missed earlier opportunities, offers from the oleaginous Pinker in a pub or in meetings with Sir Lewis Easton, where he could have manoeuvred himself into a better position. Sure he’s kept his job but with the grumpy resentment that he’s now being managed by idiots. Is he the self-pitying failure his girlfriend accuses him of being? Or is he actually reasonably successful but just twists everything so that it seems like failure in his tortured mind?

He returns to London completely demoralised and, on the last page, wanders into Hyde Park after dark at the end of his tether.

The moon was just going down behind a tree. I decided that when it disappeared I’d get up and go. I sat and watched it going and I knew there was no answer. If I’d been a bit sillier, or a bit more intelligent, or had more guts, or less guts, or had two feet or no feet, or been almost anything definite, it would have been easy. But as it was, I didn’t like what I was, and couldn’t be what I liked, and it would always be like that. (p.192)

This is an odd ending to an odd book. If it had stuck to the Whitehall merry-go-round theme and found some kind of fitting Yes, Ministerish ending to that plotline, it would have been one of the best books about office politics I’ve ever read. But it has this peculiar and insistent counter-theme which is almost tragic, or has a whiff of existentialism, concerning a man who is physically maimed and psychologically damaged and cannot be at ease with his own existence. That is the flavour which lingers when you close the book, and tends to eclipse the earlier, more humorous sections.

And then there is the nailbiting final sequence about bomb disposal, presumably a very early amateurish and more or less unsupervised bomb disposal, which also makes a powerful impression.

I think it’s the way it doesn’t really satisfactorily plumb the depths of any of these three subjects which has helped this novel sink into relative obscurity. But it’s a much more serious and searching piece of literature than the thrillers I’ve been reading recently, and well worth investigating.

Style

After the gripping narratives of Ambler and Innes it’s a shock to engage with Balchin. There is little or no dynamic to the story until the (exceptional) last twenty pages. Up till then everyone is stuck in the ruts of their boring nine-to-five, circling and conspiring against each other in the best bureaucratic tradition.

And after the thriller writers’ stripped-down, practical prose and dialogue, it’s like stepping into another world to hear Balchin’s characters talk: He and everyone he interacts with speak in old hat, clichéd, posh banter. Old chap, old man, old boy, sort of thing, for the love of Mike, the professor’s an old friend of the Minister, bung ho, what ho, oh I was at school with him, good show, good man, first-rate, frightful rot, ra-ther, get the wind up, prang, on the q.t., cheerful sort of cove etc etc.

(Note: It’s consistent with the jolly Battle-of-Britain bantering style, that – according to Wikipedia – this novel helped popularise the terms ‘boffin’ and ‘backroom boys’. If I’d read it in its year of publication I’d have wondered – like the protagonist does – whether anyone in Whitehall actually wanted to win the War or whether they were all too busy with their vicious little departmental in-fighting.)

All this said, Balchin does have a nifty way with a phrase. Earlier sections, in a nightclub, in a pub, in the office, sustain an entertainingly detached, satirical, sarcastic tone and pithy phrase-making:

He sat for a bit and stared into the distance as though he had known it once but proposed to cut it now. (p.82)

Easton turned his head very slowly and gave me the flat hard stare that served him as an expression of anger, surprise, interest and amusement, depending on the context. (p.85)

The doctor was a rather fat chap, very bald, with a red face and brilliant blue eyes. He had a hearty slap-you-on-the-back manner which he switched on and off like a motorist dipping his headlights. (p.99)

Dramatis personae

  • Sammy Rice: the narrator: research scientist with an amputated foot and artificial replacement, an inferiority complex and a drink problem. In love with…
  • Susan: his fiancée, who has to put up with Rice’s moods, bad temper, struggle with the booze. Also secretary to…
  • Waring: his boss, not a scientist, a PR man in Civvy Street, blissfully unaware of the complicated Whitehall politics surrounding him and his team – or is he? Is he in fact just effortlessly competent at playing the game?
  • Tilly: co-worker and scientist, the numbers man, always punching stats into his primitive calculating machine.
  • Joe Marchant: victim of the new broom who comes in and sweeps him right out of the department.
  • Corporal Taylor: working on fuses but troubled by his foreign-looking floozy of a wife.
  • Corporal Ellis: working on micro photographs.
  • Professor Mair: ‘the Old Man’, in overall charge of the research unit, we see him perform at various departmental meetings, before being ousted.
  • Dick: Sammy’s younger brother, twice-decorated RAF pilot.
  • Pinker: creepy civil servant acquaintance who’s always pushing for inside info about the department and conspiring to get other civil servants sacked: he’s managed 14 to date.
  • Iles: arrogant bureaucrat Rice encounters at a nightclub who thinks the services don’t deserve the wonderful civil servants who provide for them.
  • Sir Lewis Easton: chair of National Scientific Council. Extremely experienced political player ie slippery fish. Manages to get Mair ousted and replaced with his appointee, Brine, who knows absolutely nothing about their work.
  • Knollys: a pre-War friend working in a different lab, who has a whole sub-plot to himself exemplifying the utter absurdity of Whitehall life.
  • Hereward: Knollys’ boss who only signs off on ideas he’s persuaded he thought of himself.

The movie

Adapted into a movie by the famous British film-making team of Powell and Pressburger in 1949. Balchin himself worked on the script. It is long and pretty faithful to the novel but very wooden and stilted – though just about worth watching for the fine array of British character actors (Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusack, Geoffrey Keen, Robert Morley, Patrick Macnee and a very young Bryan Forbes).

Surprisingly, given P&P’s reputation for oddity and the involvement of the author, they change the ending: the novel’s puzzled irresolute inconclusion is transformed into a happy ending: Rice defuses the bomb all by himself, returns to London feeling like a hero, on the back of this success is offered a job running his own department, and his beautiful wife rushes into his arms. The perennial cowardice of film makers.

It tells you a lot about the standards of the day that it was nominated for a 1950 BAFTA Award as ‘Best British Film’.

Related links

Cover of an early American edition of the Small Back Room

Cover of an early American edition of the Small Back Room

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