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From Berlin to Bunker Hill: Urban Space, Late Modernity, and Film Noir in Fritz Lang's and Joseph Losey's M

From: Wide Angle
Volume 19, Number 4, October 1997
pp. 62-93 | 10.1353/wan.1997.0018

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Wide Angle 19.4 (1997) 62-93


I. Film Noir and Late Modernity

Recent scholarship on cinema and the metropolis has sought to understand silent films by Dziga Vertov, René Clair, Dmitri Kirsanoff, and Walter Ruttmann in relation to the accounts of urban modernity advanced by cultural critics such as Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin, and Siegfried Kracauer. Whether we think of Clair's Paris qui dort (1925), Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera (1929), or analogues from the contemporaneous visual arts such as paintings by Fernand Léger and Robert Delaunay, the collages of Paul Citroen, or photographs by László Moholy-Nagy, these metropolitan representations from the period 1910 to 1930 appear indisputably as dynamic hymns to the industrial progress and productive forces which compose the machine rhythms of urban civilization. But they are also the product of their creators' search for new formal languages to represent the fresh realities of the modern city, a quest made palpable in the account by Blaise Cendrars of Robert Delaunay's struggle to paint the Eiffel Tower or in the aspirations of the makers of the "city symphony" film.

Depicting the turbulent realities of the city and mass production, these works of what, after Christopher Butler, I will call "early modernism," defamiliarize the metropolis. By abstracting and juxtaposing elements of urban culture in visual compositions of striking angles, contrasts, and colors, both the visual arts and cinema of the first three decades of the twentieth century explored techniques of assemblage and montage. Yet this modernist aesthetic of fragmentation and shock associated with the silent film and visual arts of the nineteen-twenties easily lends itself to a depoliticized interpretation as a heroic celebration of modernity, a means of drowning out the anomie and horrors of mechanization, war, and urban blight associated with industrial societies. Early modernism must, I would argue, be understood both as the cultural recognition of new technological possibilities and a means of adapting the human sensorium to the increasingly strident and alienating realities of twentieth-century capitalism. In the words of architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri:

...[I]n its own conditioning mechanisms the city reproduces the reality of the ways of industrial production.... Free the experience of shock from any automatism; found, on the basis of that experience, visual codes and codes of action transformed by the already consolidated characteristics of the capitalist metropolis (rapidity of transformation, organization and simultaneousness of communications, accelerated tempo of use, eclecticism)... these are the tasks that all together were assumed by the avant-garde of the twentieth century.

Yet if the late nineteenth and early twentieth century modern culture (spanning roughly from the celebrated writings of Simmel to the end of the nineteen-twenties historical avant-gardes -- the period of "classical modernity" in historian Detlef Peukert's phrase) possesses an inherent affinity with cinema through its explorations of montage, spatial dynamism, shock experiences, and fleeting temporality, in what sense does this remain true of the culture that follows it? Should we posit a fundamental continuity between the classical modernity of the years 1895 to 1933 -- a time frame that encompasses the silent cinema, expressionism, cubism, dadaism, and the new objectivity in the arts; the proliferation of a photographically-based visual culture in the mass press; the spatial discoveries of the Bauhaus and modern architecture; and the cultural criticism of Weimar Germany -- and the "late" modernity of the nineteen-thirties and post-World War II eras?

Answering in the affirmative would allow us to import now familiar concepts of shock, reification, rationalization, the decay of aura, distraction, flânerie, and the blasé attitude developed by Simmel, Kracauer, or Benjamin into our investigations of more recent cinema, and postwar American culture more generally. Or should we not acknowledge a break between the prewar and postwar eras -- between early and late modernity -- and develop a separate vocabulary of critical concepts to account for the latter and the new (and perhaps today already vanishing?) post-1945 realities of broadcast television, ethnically homogeneous suburbia, institutionalized modernism, urban renewal programs, and American economic and political supremacy?

Crucial here is the transformation from the earlier modernity of Taylorist and Fordist machine assembly that reached its acme in the twenties...

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