Sunday, October 07, 2007

Joseph Roth's Rebellion & Michael Haneke's TV Films

I saw Michael Haneke's film adaptation of Joseph Roth's Rebellion yesterday. I thought I will write something about the book too but then came across this review by James Wood in the Guardian. It is quite good, so I will just link it here. (He has written a longer essay on Roth too which is collected in his book The Irresponsible Self, titled "The Empire of Joseph Roth." I found it too technical but it is also quite good.)

This novella is not as great as his masterpiece The Radetzky March but if you have read that book you will probably want to check this one too. His melancholia and the dark and extremely pessimistic view of human history and human affairs in general is really something you can't shake off easily. For him things like God, Death, Fate, Destiny are all synonymous (he uses capital letters for all). Everything is already hurtling fast on the path towards doom and destruction, even the inanimate things. In common with a lot of Central European literature of that period, there is also an apocalyptic sensibility at work in his books which sees the end of the habsburgh monarchy as the end of the world itself. It was actually the case, specially for the Central European Jews who were left homeless after the rise of ethnic nationalism in the wake of the collapse of the empire, leading to catastrophic consequences just a decade later.

Wood is all praise for his craft and the skill with which he uses language but personally I find it a little overwrought though I can understand why someone can feel excited after encountering a sentence like, "Night attached itself to day, and then melted in the grayly victorious morning," to describe the passage of time. What I love in his books is not the craft, which is quite conventional, specially so if you compare it with his illustrious compatriots and contemporaries (Kafka, Musil, but rather his worldview and his dark, apocalyptic sensibility that I talked of earlier.

Roth wrote this book early in his career and it is very interesting to see how his ideas about the empire changed from an attitude disrespectful and critical of empire to a pure sentimental elegy. The hero of the novel is a "believer," he believes in the essential justness of the state (and the world) which he sees as an agent of a merciful and just God on earth, even after losing a leg in the war. It is only after a series of personal misfortunes that he realizes his folly and comes to the side of "the heathens," the rebels, the criminals, even the Bolsheviks! In the end though this idea of political revolution itself is given a completely different spin because of his "leftist melancholy" (as Walter Benjamin called it in a different context for a different writer whose I don't remember now.) This idea of moral rebellion against God and connecting to the the authority of an unjust state is already there in Dostoevsky. He even named his chapter in The Brothers Karamazov "Rebellion." It is quite possible that Roth had read Dostoevsky. The final monologue spoken by the hero, hallucinating that he is in the court while actually he is in his final death-throes, feels quite similar to Ivan Karamazov's speech in Dostoevsky's, the same accusation of injustice, the same expression of revulsion towards all authority figures including God, the same "I believe in Your existence but I revile You." Also the way he writes about the byzantine and comically (and tragically) inefficient Habsburg bureaucracy, intent on crushing weak and innocent human beings, does indeed put him in the same league as Kafka and Musil both, who wrote about the same on a much larger scale. (The cover picture above is very suitably Kafkaesque.)


Michael Haneke's adaptation of the novella as expected invites all kinds of superlatives - both as a cinematic work on its own and also as an enlightening companion piece to the book. (In fact it received a big applause from a packed audience at the moma.) This is one of those cases where the book and the film adaptation complement each, enhancing appreciation of both. I had read about the Viennese Waltzes that the hero plays on his portable Organ machine in the book but only in the film I really heard how it actually sounded. Haneke of course uses the same theme in other scenes as well, again giving a unity which is not as perceptible in the book. The cast as is usual with Haneke is uniformly brilliant, there is not even a single false note anywhere. He also bookends the story with newsreel footage of the war and the Vienna of the twenties providing a historical context which you otherwise have to bring with yourself when reading the book. The screen palette itself is a kind of faded brown giving it a feel of found footage. Also like in his adaptation of The Castle he uses overhead narration to mimic the omniscient voice in the book. It may seem like an easy way but it is actually designed very carefully, to create just the right ironic and contrapuntal effect between the action onscreen and the narration. I recently saw Fassbinder's Effi Briest, an adaptation of the nineteenth century German novel of the same name by Theodor Fontane, which used the same technique of extensive narration. In this case even many of the dialogues were "acted out" by the narrator. In the beginning the film feels static but as you get into its rhythm it is extremely effective.

The other TV film of Haneke I saw yesterday was not as good. Fraulein with the subtitle "A German Melodrama" looked at best a sub-Fassbinder work. The same subject is treated much more forcefully and effectively in Fassbinder's well known The Marriage of Maria Braun. It also takes a critical look at the speedy revival and regeneration of post-war Germany and shows that moral and spiritual compromise, willful amnesia are just the side-effects of the essential will to live and pursuit of happiness. This film has some complicated cross cuttings between the scenes making it very non-linear so stylistically it can't be compared to Fassbinder but I don't think this way of telling story added anything worthwhile apart from making it very difficult to follow, specially in the beginning. These two tv films also clarified the mystery specially for those who were astonished by his shocking debut The Seventh Continent. He had been honing his craft since quite long before venturing full time into feature film making. He also has an extensive experience directing Austrian theatre which probably explains his facility with the actors. I want to see his Three Paths to the Lake too which is based on a short story by Ingeborg Bachmann. It is sometime in the coming weeks. I had linked to the moma schedule before. Another link (the same exhibition I think) with brief details about his films here.

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