- Bilder einer besseren Welt. Die Utopie im nichtfiktionalen Film by Simon Spiegel
Zürcher Filmstudien 40. Marburg: Schüren, 2019. 424 pp. Paperback, €48, ISBN-13 : 978-3741003400.
While the utopian fiction film is dominated by dystopian cautionary tales, the real home of the "eu-topian" film can be found in its nonfiction, documentary modes. This is one of the central tenets of this study of nonfiction utopian film that deserves a wide readership and maybe an English-language translation.1 Not only does it cover a widely neglected genre of films, it does so in a knowledgeable and stylistically elegant way, uncovering many texts along the way that turn out to be gifts that keep giving. An added bonus to the study is the fact that most of the films discussed are readily available on platforms such as YouTube or Vimeo. The author is well versed in documentary film and utopian studies and is commendable in providing a comprehensive theoretical perspective on its subject. I welcome the sound theoretical footing of part 1 [End Page 143] (entitled "Utopian Concepts") that prefixes the analysis of a set of representative films in part 2, "Utopian Films." In this way, the study steers clear of the Scylla of theoretically unambitious analyses and the Charybdis of overzealous theoretical furor that tend to mar many a German-language postdoctoral dissertation.
The theoretical premises of Spiegel's comprehensive introduction are laid out clearly, and many examples from film history feed into the chapters preceding the core analyses. He convincingly argues for a utopian heart of dystopian narratives (beyond only critical utopias); he maintains the importance of conflict for successful fictionalization; he discusses mockumentaries, reality TV, and the various nonfiction film genres, with special attention to the important work of Peter Watkins. Concerning the difficult but necessary differentiations between reality, fact, and fiction, Spiegel follows Odin's semiopragmatics, looking at the way films are interactively situated as "documentaries" or "nonfictions" rather than fictions. Spiegel uses Peter Joseph's Zeitgeist Trilogy, low-budget conspiracy theory still available on YouTube, to illustrate the filmic modes of the documentary-propaganda spectrum. The study throws the differences between the public-political utopias and the private-individualist versions into sharp relief, for instance in the more (or less) appellative character of these films (308–9).
In the second part, the focus is first on socialist movies from the former German Democratic Republic and its film company DEFA, unearthing almost-forgotten curiosities such as Joachim Hellwig's Liebe 2002, a weird visual riff on A Clockwork Orange that juxtaposes gender relations in a capitalist and socialist future. Here, Spiegel highlights the fundamental problem of the critical impulse of utopianism and the supposedly achieved socialist perfection that seems to preclude utopianist futurism.
Spiegel is aware of ethical problems invited by a joint discussion of National Socialism and Soviet, Zionist, and Islamist propaganda movies, and he is at pains to insist merely on joint formal features (213). Still, a chapter that discusses Blut und Boden (1933) in conjunction with the Zionist Land of Promise (1935; premiered in Berlin when the Nazis seemed to support Jewish emigration to Palestine), as well as the literary Zionist Utopias Freiland (Theodor Hertzka) and Altneuland (Theodor Herzl) and movies from the ISIS Caliphate from 2015–16, as collected by the Quilliam Foundation, seems to invite controversy. The discussion of these surprisingly utopian ISIS films with relatively high production values renders fascinating details, such as a modeling of the ISIS health service logo on the British NHS. [End Page 144]
The next part discusses city utopias, such as the garden city in the 1939 movie The City by Ralph Steiner and Willard van Dyke, William Bel Geddes's World Fair exhibit Futurama (1939–40) and its film version To New Horizons (1940), or Disney's The EPCOT Film (1966). In the case of To New Horizons, Spiegel focuses on the panoramic utopia of cities and highways, and its sanguine mise-en-scène of car mobility that leaves a jarring note in today's climate-conscious ears. Spiegel juxtaposes the late nineteenth-century garden city...