Laurence A. Rickels (Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste Karlsruhe)
The Rocket as Mourning Prosthesis in two Essay Films (Countdown and Test Stand 7)
Film theory has served as axis for the greatest possible spread of theorization of cultural phenomena – and as keel in the turbulent wake of Marxism’s demise. If high theory was the provenance of Comparative Literature, everything that its philosophical criticality denied, including the politics of deconstruction itself, came back to middlebrow-beat its legacy as Cultural Studies. It was film theory alone that continued to represent the philosophical, psychoanalytic, and sociological standards that had withdrawn into the recent past as though into prehistory. Is all this because theory is not extraneous or applied to film? This is the hypothesis. Cinematic self-reflexivity more so than literary irony, for instance, which is restricted to linguistic skill and overkill, is already a theoretical installation. The expertise Walter Benjamin wrote about as being along for the rise of dissemination in film culture is medium intrinsic but also medium specific. Digital interactivity, for example, does not loop through the momentum of self-reflection in cinema as heir or transformer. In fact film appears uniquely impervious to the influence of digitalization, both culturally and formally.
What remains new about digital mediatization is the synthetic access it opens up to all the names, eras, and artifacts of history. In the pre-digital era of opposition between projected and live media, for example, between, in other terms, Old Testament and New Testament media, the stretch marks of conflict and assimilation, even incorporation, could be observed in film’s relationship to TV’s traumatic influence. But all that meets and crosses over in the digital hub of everyone’s workspace – in virtual reality, in other words – largely stays there, at least when it comes to film. While even commercial movies have thematized new digital conditions of production, for example Scream 4 (2011), or of editing, see Minority Report (2002), film by and large seems to have come out of digitalization intact as our unique continuity shot with the recent past. The projection of the imagined prospect of digitalization or virtualization coming soon, whether in music videos in the 1980s or in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise folding out of the same period, deposited an impasse that displaced innovation from formal application – with the exception of the split-off and quarantined area of special effects – to concept or content. Pre the era of anticipation of digitalization, the best fit with self-reflexivity in films could be found in horror cinema. The projection of the creature, for example in the cutting apart of inert matter and the stitching together of the pre-existing pieces as well as the electric animation of the resulting amalgam, illuminated process and status of cinema. But already in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as spelled out in the author’s 1831 preface to her own, as she identified it, monstrous progeny, this self-reflexive conceit allegorized a textuality of invention and conception reclaimed from creation ex nihilo.
An alternate reflection in and on the film medium arose with the vampire, already in Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), the first adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. What gets represented, as the land of the phantoms for instance, is the UN-representable. While it is logical that the vampire Count, since divorced from his own mirror image, would qualify as Doppelgänger, which is how Murnau largely interprets him, his doubling is not caught between the literal and the literary. It is not until the advent of the film medium that the vampire can arise as sheer image without copy or double. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, the vampire is conjured up out of the collapse of the running film depiction, as in the lurching, jumpy advance of the Count’s carriage, or in other scenes of the between state that reverse negative and positive. In Vampyr (1931) Carl Theodor Dreyer continued the cinematic exploration of vampirism, this time as lying between two visual media, painting and film, but ultimately as the liminal state basic to cinema itself. In Jean Painlevé’s Le Vampire (1945), while voiceover and a map would lead us out of the land of the phantoms, as in the professor of anatomy’s lecture in Nosferatu, into the light of instruction, what the record shows, what is literally monstrous, is the creature suspended and yet sustained, as Hannah Arendt advised, between the not yet and the no more. What Murnau’s original projection of the vampire seized upon is what self-reflection otherwise denies: the blind spot in representability, indeed, and constitutively, of representability. As Friede Grafe wrote of Painlevé’s oeuvre, which is aligned with Murnau’s inside view of cinema, at least to the extent that Le Vampire cites or incorporates images from Nosferatu, it is the invisibility of the unconscious before which the viewer is pulled up short.
Although the short circuit between experimental film and scientific experiment – animal testing for example – is integral part of Painlevé’s work, Le Vampire is rather an example of the essay film, which can be seen as coming down the assembly line of cinematic self-reflexivity, perhaps as its ultimate form and forum. The essay film does not develop toward a new or greater diversity vouchsafed by digital developments. Didactic intentions notwithstanding, every essay film is constitutively diverse or eclectic. The genre arose during the holy war between media that traumatically beset film and offered with experimental film an alternative to the symptom or culture industry of analogical forecast of virtual reality as special effect and editing phantasmagoria. Free to respond to whatever comes toward it on its own terms of diversity, the essay film did not await the reality of digital novelty to be delivered, transformed, or outdated.
Murnau’s revalorization of the vampire for cinema as new Doppelgänger made the jump cut from German Romanticism to film and psychoanalysis, which would soon establish itself as the continuity shot of German science fiction. No sooner projected it was enlisted in the Nazi era of realization of science fantasy – which is why, when it came time to do the aftermath, it was the prehistory to be forgotten of a genre now identified as Cold War exclusive. I am thinking in particular of the rocket that took off in 1942, picking up where Fritz Lang’s two-part introduction, in Metropolis (1927) and Woman in the Moon (1929), left off. Two more recent films, which can be considered as essay films, track the metabolic trajectory of this submerged German history. In 1991 Ulrike Ottinger’s Countdown summoned in the absence of the rocket’s mention but in the midst of admission of the grief otherwise withheld from science fiction the event or advent of traumatic realization. Already the title cites the formal conceit that Lang conceived for the fictional takeoff of his rocket, but which was adopted for the subsequent practice, rocket by rocket, of the so-called conquest of space. That Albert Einstein attended the celebrated Berlin premiere of Lang’s rocket film is caught in another commemoration. As Countdown explores Erich Mendelssohn’s Einstein Tower in Potsdam, another kind of takeoff lets go the performance of a dirge for the victims of the Nazi era. That the film is at the same time the document of the ten days leading up to unification of the German currencies in 1990 introduces as layering of untenably paralleled histories what can be termed the ambivalent introject, a crucial phase in the metabolization of traumatic histories, whereby the heirs to psychopathic violence approach the onset of the ability to mourn, now by reparation, now by integration.
The other essay film example, Robert Bramkamp’s 2002 Prüfstand 7 (Test Stand 7), reassembles the film history of the rocket by pulling the realized rocket back through Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. What the streamlining of science faction had deferred for German history (although, I hope this is clear, all of us participate in this deferral) underwent ambivalent introjection in the course of Pynchon’s fabulation of the rocket. When in his 2003 preface to Nineteen Eighty-Four Pynchon commented on its bracketing out of the Holocaust as Georg Orwell’s requirement for thinking his way through in 1948 to the post-war period, he was also identifying his 1973 novel as on schedule with this staggering.
Gravity’s Rainbow hitched its status as new Moby Dick to the pursuit of the V2 rocket and its continuity shots, which at or as the end of the Rainbow, almost as 9/11 forecast, detonated the movie theater in Los Angeles in which Pynchon assembled his readership. But before the Nazi rocket enters American history through this loop with cinema it is reassembled on the track of its future development as V to the nth power in the meeting of otherwise opposed or repressed contingencies. In South-West Africa Germany routed the Herero rebellion and sent the vanquished nation into the desert to perish. In Pynchon’s fiction the surviving Hereros, “the Empty Ones,” follow out their trauma-enforced suicide-drive in voluntary service to the rocket. Pynchon’s Schwarzkommando, the mystical blue flower in the no-man’s land of technologization and death, which guards and guides the super version of the V2 all the way to its strike against LA, has its recognition value in the racism of the GIs, who may have conquered Germany but are wary of Blacks equipped with rockets. The unlikely fiction of the Nazi African-German brigade meets the fact of unlikelihood on the other side: for the WWII effort no African American was admitted into the US air force. It is by the effects of racism that Pynchon conjoins the inscrutable mass murder in the foreground of the Nazi war with the crypto fetishism of the rocket, which must be read as trying to outfly it. The war of political differences or even that of competition between special interests was a diversion: “secretly, it was being dictated instead by the needs of technology. … The real crises were crises of allocation and priority, not among firms – it was only staged to look that way – but among the different Technologies, Plastics, Electronics, Aircraft, and their needs” (521). Somewhere over the positivism of machine histories for which the Holocaust does not compute there is the techno war revalorized as continuing beyond both the mass death and the opposition. That we are no longer parties to WWII but the reproductive and mortal milieu for the evolutionary scheme of technology’s ultimate autonomy nevertheless places us inside what the theory marks as its unrepresentable cornerstone, the missing link, the reconstruction of what remains a link with the missing.
Bianca, the woman given in passing in Pynchon’s fiction as daughter, love object, and object of mourning searches in Bramkamp’s film for her origin in the rocket. That she keeps running up against the so-called oven inside it sparks the eternal flame in a place gone without mention. But the eternal or internal feminine of mourning cannot draw us onward by so direct a hit. And so the film enters the blind alley of the figure of the severed and thrown hand to mediate our identification with Bianca’s search for the history internal to the rocket. The severed and thrown hand touches on the mythic significance of Antwerp even or especially in name, one of the targets of the V2 rocket attacks. But it also joins in the mystery of a photograph of Wernher von Braun’s arm in a cast taken at the moment he was crossing the threshold to his postwar assimilation, the mystery Kubrick perhaps revalorized as the reflex salute otherwise so hard to contain (in his 1964 Dr. Strangelove). From Ernst Kapp through Freud and McLuhan the detachable hand waves through the prosthetic understanding of our relationship to technologization. In Pynchon’s novel the rocket, as in Friedrich Kittler’s genealogy of media, opens up a technological horizon of auto development before which the prosthetic or humanist reach of our following falls short. And yet, to the extent that technologization cannot be separated from the European culture of death diagnosed in Pynchon’s novel, the prosthetic relation comes to be reinserted in our effort to understand and make amends for violence that we cannot but consider as externalized in our technological relation. To make reparation, commence integration, and aim for the onset of the ability to mourn we reclaim the automatic course of technologization, otherwise auto-accelerating by velocities or computations with which our intellect cannot keep or catch up, as our prosthetic responsibility.
In Test Stand 7 a relay of direct hits with the recent past alternates with blind alleys of allegorization whereby we are brought closer to mourning’s admission as group, collective, or global work. Otherwise mourning would be the prerogative of individuals or couples and group commemoration solely a forum of denial. Judith Butler’s current consideration of mournability and unmournability no longer from the glamorous perspective of undeath but from the point of view of the living would be, then, not a late arrival of the study of repressed mourning but a timely reflection of a chance or change for the new in our setting of digitalization. In Countdown the document of the first gay rights demonstration and celebration on Alexander Platz in the span of German reunification is not only a strong sign of Ottinger’s basic reversal of traumatic exclusion as the affirmative embarkation upon the adventure of encounter with the margins where reality begins. It is also another instance of the film’s double take: following the opening commemoration it doubles back to stagger and layer mourning’s release within the ongoing work of integration that alone makes history contemporary. By the deregulation and eclecticism it admits on the basis of its broken self-reflection, the essay film proceeds by integration rather than opposition or repression to address problems and processes that are, as we say, bigger than the two of us.
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“Foreword,” George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orlando 2003: vii-xxvi.
Shelley, Mary. “Introduction.” Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus. London 1992.