Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: Part 1

I recently stumbled upon an awesome documentary series about the tumultuous and exciting 20th century. Dr. James Fox’s narration takes you on a journey through the century, stopping at three different cities that exemplify the radical changes taking place.

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I will be posting some brief summaries of each of the three episodes. There’s not really any “spoilers” warning I can give because this is history, but I highly recommend watching these 50 minute episodes for yourself. The show provides some great film and imagery of what each city looked like during the specific year. You really get a sense of what life was like throughout the 20th century. With shots from modern day as well as recovered historical footage, you are able to be swept away into the world of Vienna in 1908, Paris in 1928, and New York in 1951.


Vienna, 1908

  • Hitler attempted to pursue a career as an artist, got cold feet, applied for art school, got shot down, turned to politics (influence by Karl Lueger’s antisemitism; “I decide who is a jew”); & the rest is history
  • Hapsburg Empire: the largest and oldest empire in Europe; everyone thought it would last forever (pre-WW1); 1908 was the Emperor’s Diamond Jubilee
  • Gustav Klimt premiered his world-famous painting The Kiss, Dr. Fox claims that the doubt surrounding the optimism of the era is evident in this painting because of the “ambiguous embrace”Gustav Klimt - The Kiss - 1907-8
  • Adolf Loos’s Ornament and Crime manifesto was published this year; theories and ideas from the manifesto culminated in the Raiffeisenbank/Looshaus commission, which was marked as the first modern building
  • Vienna is seemingly trapped between the past and the future, transitioning from the world of empires and monarchies to a modern society; 1908 had the highest recorded suicide rates
  • Fabulous Freud introduced his Oedipus Complex Theory, and the world went crazy over it; although, in 1908 Vienna, this wasn’t the craziest idea to be suggested
  • Artist Egon Schiele was developing a new expressionistic figural style, evident in a self portrait

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    Self-Portrait by Egon Schiele
  • Arnold Schoenberg joined the expressionist art movement as a composer; his most well-known work is the Second String Quartet, which experiments with atonality

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    Portrait of Schoenberg by Egon Schiele
  • Social issues were prevalent to say the least; prostitution (the dark underbelly of middle class men was called out by author Else Jerusalem in her novel Red House), poverty and homelessness was so severe people started taking up shelter in Vienna’s sewer system (documented byEmil Kläger & Hermann Drawe)
  • October 6, 1908: Bosnia Herzogovnia/Balkans were annexed, which would lead to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914

Encounters With Herzog: Finding “Truth” At the End of the World

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Werner Herzog’s impressive oeuvre includes a mixture of both fictional feature films as well as documentaries. There is no easy way to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction is his films because a mixture of both forms is always prevalent. Herzog works both within and against the context of documentary cinema in order to reach what he calls the “poetic, ecstatic truth” (Ames, ix). And this Herzogian truth is only attainable through the use of “fabrication and imagination and stylization” (Ames, 2). Encounters at the End of the World serves as a specific example of Herzog’s style in which he documents his experiences at the McMurdo Research Station on Antarctica. Here he chronicles the everyday lives of eccentric people who have chosen to live there as well as the beauty of a place far removed from any other people on the planet. The long, uninterrupted takes of life both above and below the ice, asynchronous music, and voice over narration characterize Herzog’s style and also sets the stage for a performance in which he sets out on a philosophical exploration of “truth” at the end of the world.

The characteristic long takes can be found throughout Encounters. The seemingly never-ending takes show life above, below, and inside of the ice that makes up Antarctica. Herzog employs long takes in order to establish the authenticity of his story. The camera remains a passive observer, letting the events unfold in real time. For example, the opening scene shows a diver under the ice of Antarctica (Encounters). The surreal underwater landscape is seen in only three different shots. There is no action occurring in these shots other than observation, either by the camera or by another diver seen on screen. Herzog’s narration is even kept to a minimum by providing the audience with simply the location and the source from which the images were captured. The long takes and objective source of scientists reinforce these images as being accurate depictions of Antarctica that were not constructed or reproduced on a studio set. Because there is minimal interference with events and long uninterrupted takes, the authenticity is established by just letting things progress naturally in a scene. It is a common element utilized in documentary films that set out to objectively observe. However, Herzog also uses long takes to establish a different sort of authenticity, especially in the interviews with the inhabitants of McMurdo. In interviews such as those with Scott Rowland, driver of Ivan the Terra Bus, or Douglas MacAyeal, a glaciologist and professional dreamer, Herzog’s presence is rarely ever invasive. He allows the social actors to talk about their experiences both past and present, thoughts, or observations, without directing the conversation in any direction. The camera tends to linger on them much longer than seems necessary sometimes, which leads to improvisation on the part of the social actor. A specific interview that stands out is with David Pacheco, who Herzog gives the title of “Journeyman Plumber” (Encounters). Pacheco talks about his supposed ancestral link to Aztec kings based on the way his fingers match up. Once Pacheco has finished talking, Herzog does not ask any more questions and simply lets the camera linger on him. This produces quite an awkward experience for the audience and presumably for Pacheco as well, who just picks up his tools and continues to work after a few awkward silent moments (Encounters). For Herzog, the awkwardness and improvisation on the part of the social actor produces a sense of authenticity, which allows the audience to connect with the character.

There is a focus on the audience that permeates throughout most of Herzog’s films, which is achieved through a variety of techniques. A subtle yet intrinsically important technique used is non-diegetic music. For Herzog, a documentary is a performance, and therefore moments of it are often staged (Ames, 4). Music helps to call attention to this staging by focusing on affecting the audience’s experience emotionally or sensationally with the images on the screen. In terms of Herzog’s attempt to portray “truth,” using music to create on affect adds to the stylization of a film. The music used in Encounters calls attention to the documentary as a construct produced by Herzog by highlighting his involvement in the creation of a specific meaning that accompanies an image. The opening scene, again, is a good example that illustrates this. By indicating that the footage seen on screen was taken by a professional diver working at a research station in Antarctica assumes that this footage is meant to be objective and factual like something from an observational documentary. However, Herzog adds in the soundtrack what sounds like a choir singing in church (Encounters). This immediately evokes a feeling of spirituality, making the experience seen on screen have a more emotionally affective impact on the audience. This technique is utilized again later in the film on the second dive (Encounters). The chanting choir of voices is not the same that is heard in the beginning of the film but undeniably evokes the same feeling. The dive becomes analogous to the spiritual or religious experience that one might encounter while in prayer. Another example of music used to add or evoke a specific meaning to an image occurs after Herzog interviews the cell biologist and professional diver Samuel Bowser (Encounters). Bowser has a personal affinity for science fiction doomsday films and sees aspects of these stories in the microscopic world of the single celled organisms he collects on his dives. He begins to compare the creatures to man-eating creatures from science fiction films, and even mentions that they are the reason life evolved and fled from water to seek escape on land after prompted by Herzog. This point coincides directly with the twelfth point in Herzog’s “Minnesota Declaration” that states:

Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species—including man—crawled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue. (Ames, x).

This shared view of the world beneath the layers of ice in Antarctica is immediately evoked as the camera follows Bowser into the water to explore the horrible world of these microscopic monsters. The music Herzog chooses for this scene sounds like someone is playing the violin off-key. It is loud and jarring and makes the images feel somewhat terrifying. For a moment this is no longer the surreal experience in the opening scene, but the underwater world as seen through Bowser and Herzog’s vision of it as “sheer hell.” The use of music lends itself to the ecstatic truth that Herzog is intent on portraying by revealing Herzog’s interpretation of the images for the audience.

Another technique characteristic of Herzog’s filmmaking style is the use of voice over narration. In his documentaries, Herzog often provides the narration to accompany the images, which implies his films come from a more personal point of view. More often than not, Herzog inserts opinions, thoughts, and personal observations into his narration to create a vocal presence (Ames, 33). Herzog’s experience becomes the experience of the audience. An explicit example of Herzog’s vocal presence through voice over narration appears just before the second dive takes place. Immediately prior to the dive, people were shown creating the hole that the divers would enter the water through, which gives a sense of simple observation. Next, the divers are shown preparing for the dive by putting on various layers of neoprene wetsuits, gloves, and hand warmers. During this moment Herzog’s narration picks up again, drawing comparisons between the silent preparations of the divers with priests preparing for mass. This personal insight from Herzog reshapes and contrasts with the simple observational technique used just before. It forces the audience to reconsider the importance or meaning of the role of the divers, McMurdo, and Antarctica. To reinforce his observation, Herzog continues to assert his presence and opinions through the use of the music that was previously mentioned. Herzog in a way forces his presence on the documentary. Encounters is as much about Herzog’s personal views and experiences as much as it is about life at the McMurdo Research Station, global warming, or Antarctica.

Encounters serves as a clear and concise summation of Herzog’s stylization techniques utilized in his documentaries. The long takes, asynchronous yet affective music, and voice over narration are undeniably characteristic of Herzog’s films, and all of these techniques assert his presence within the film. Even though long takes are meant to be objective and observational, Herzog uses this to create authenticity in the people he films by pushing them out of their comfort zone. The music is specifically chosen to evoke certain emotions or meanings to accompany an image. And the most explicit assertion of his presence is in the voice over narration where he freely provides his views, sometimes corresponding to the music and image. Herzog is able to use these elements in his documentary films to put on a performance for his audience. He stages scenes for the purpose of creating an emotional connection to the audience, to shock or irritate them into a new way of thought.

The Issue of Identity: A How-To Guide by Fatih Akin

In the early 1960’s there was an influx in immigration to Germany as guest workers. People from Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, and other countries began pouring into the country to take advantage of the abundant work opportunities. Eventually, these immigrants had children who grew up culturally and socially as German while still retaining their parents’ traditions. The immigration that took place led to the creation of fluctuating border zones as well as notions of identity as these children were tied to both Germany and, in the case of Fatih Akin, Turkey. Akin is the son of Turkish immigrants and was born in Hamburg. This duality of identity is frequently explored throughout his films that are often autobiographical in nature as he deals with this “tricky balancing act that shapes the existence of people like himself who juggle more than one language, tradition, and set of codes”. Akin often uses broad, recurring themes such as travel, identity, and multiculturalism, all which are enhanced by the use of music, to reconsider and reconcile what it means to belong. These themes and devices are exemplified by his films In July (2000) and Head-On (2004), through which Akin is able to explore a fluid cultural identity within the transnational spaces of the twenty-first century while redefining German identity in the film industry.

Places in Akin’s films are most often connected by the plotline, as opposed to geography or politics. This is achieved through the theme of travel. For In July, the protagonist Daniel embarks on a road trip with Juli, a free-spirited woman who plays a part in setting him on the journey, to Istanbul in search of who he believes to be his true love. The romantic comedy follows Daniel and Juli’s developing love relationship, which is central to the film’s story. Along the way Daniel meets a variety of characters and has many cross-cultural experiences. The theme of travel helps to create a sense of fluid borders where boundaries have been dismantled so that these cross-cultural encounters and alliances can occur. The use of the road trip in the plot of In July highlights the relatively short distance between Germany, the heart of Europe, and Turkey, which remains on the periphery. In this way, Akin’s film becomes slightly politicized, especially when considered in the debate over Turkey’s integration into the European Union. However, the story of In July focuses more on the deconstruction of fixed national identities. As Daniel and Juli make their way across Europe, crossing borders freely, they are also overriding the idea of rigidly defined boundaries and identities of nations based solely on language, culture, or ethnicity. For example, about halfway through the film, Daniel meets Luna, a mysterious woman driving a military jeep along a dirt road, there is a close-up shot of the back of the vehicle as they drive away. This shot reveals Luna’s national origins as Yugoslavia, but even more significant is the red “Ex” spray-painted over the sticker. Akin uses this to situate the film within an international framework by confronting Europe with its former East. Europe’s own identity is in flux, calling into question what exactly constitutes Europe. This ties in to the autobiographical nature of Akin’s body of work, dealing with the idea of a more hybrid or fluid identity influenced by many places and cultures instead of a fixed identity with set boundaries.

A narrative element that also lends itself to Akin’s exploration of identity is the focus on multiple, sometimes conflicting traditions. This is most evident in the film Head-On, a dark melodrama about two Turkish-Germans who are brought together by fate. This film is the first installment in Akin’s “Love, Death, and the Devil” trilogy. But more importantly is the way Head-On exposes the psychological strain of mixing cultures and what happens when Turkish-Germans do not adhere to cultural expectations. Sibel and Cahit, the two main protagonists, struggle with this very problem of living up to the expectations associated with being a German born Turk. On one hand, Cahit denies both German and Turkish culture, commenting to Sibel that he has all but abandoned his Turkish side. His apartment is decorated with posters of bands representing his subcultural tastes. On the other hand, Sibel is forced to adhere to the rituals and traditions of her Turkish family but seeks sexual freedom. As a result, they engage in a fake marriage as a form of mutual escape. The wedding scene exemplifies the expectations of Sibel and Cahit and how they comply to yet disregard them. For the protagonists, the wedding is only a show. They engage in the replay of rituals as a ruse for Sibel’s family. This is underscored by the shot of Sibel and Cahit taking lines of coke as the wedding continues on in the background. Also, their delirious, drug-induced dance anticipates their later interaction when they dance to a punk-rock tune in Cahit’s apartment shouting, “Punk is not dead!”. Inevitably, the couple ends up becoming emotionally reliant on each other, failing in their fake marriage and their attempt to escape adherence to both German and Turkish conventions. In the end, when Cahit and Sibel reconnect in a final sexual encounter, their physical transformations become a façade for their rebellion, indicating their failure to defy conventions as they are forced to re-assimilate into society’s social norms.

Creating a sense of character is a central focus in Akin’s films. The stories become personal and serve as insights into the lives of these fictional characters but also more generally the lives of immigrants dealing with a dual or mixed identity. The use of music in Head-On provides additional insight into the emotional and mental states of the main characters. For instance, at each critical transition point in the film, A Turkish chorus introduces and obliquely comments on the story. They are arranged in a line with their backs to the Bosporus River and performing for the camera. The chorus enhances the visual storytelling of the film by calling attention to important themes or elements of Sibel and Cahit’s struggle. Also, the soundtrack throughout the film is also in conversation with the characters, emphasizing certain aspects of images and content. In the beginning of the film, as Cahit attempts suicide by driving head on into a brick wall, the dark and moody sounds of Depeche Mode’s “I Feel You” echoes his unstable mental and emotional state. Music is employed again in a later scene when Sibel has finally realized her love for Cahit. The melancholic, bittersweet sounds of Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” accompanies Sibel as she is shown laughing and smiling, enjoying the thrills of amusement park rides. Music as a theme also occurs in relation to Sibel and identity in the digital age. In the scene directly following Cahit defending Sibel’s honor and accidentally killing a man, Akin contrasts close-ups of Sibel with a CD. The song that plays is Turkish, which speaks to Sibel’s family background and belonging to that culture. However, the CD also represents a new notion of identity in the digital era as one that transcends national borders. Sibel’s identity is a clash between her Turkish and German backgrounds; it is one that exists without borders because she does not identify as neither Turkish nor German but both. As Mine Eren argues in her essay on cosmopolitan filmmaking, the use of the CD “demonstrates the easy access to global culture and the transformation of national subjects into ‘hyperlinked’ individuals”. The use of international music, coming from Turkish, German, and American backgrounds for instance, in the soundtrack relates the characters of Sibel and Cahit to a bigger picture on transnational identity in a time when crossing borders has become an inherent part of immigrant experiences. As the shot of Sibel and the CD suggests, identity has expanded beyond national borders.

The reception of Akin’s films within Germany often ranges from an emphasis on his Turkish-German background to praise for the European dimension of his work. However, his films work within a broader context of German cinema that contributes to redefining how Germany is seen in the global arena. As a result of the guest worker program initiated in the 1960s, Germany has inevitably become a country of immigration. In correspondence with this, films often celebrate differences of those living in Germany, with a strong emphasis on successful integration into German mainstream culture by assimilation. Akin’s films fit into this context of German culture by moving beyond stereotyped or clichéd representations of immigrants to address broader human questions about love, pain, or self-discovery. For instance, In July deals with issues of border crossing within Europe, finding love, and for Daniel the road trip serves as a moment of self-discovery. Similarly, Head-On can be described as a “Turkish drama in Germany” but also deals with topics that could take place in any location because it deals with universally human issues actuated by the Otherness of the protagonists. Akin’s films, exemplified by In July and Head-On in this case, contribute to the changing notion of German cinema by creating a cinema of migration that is defined by the hybridity of the characters.

Akin often emphasizes the autobiographical nature of his films while also drawing attention to their status as a work of fiction as well. He draws on the familiar in order to create stories about outsiders, love and loss, as well as self-discovery in a world characterized by immigration, border crossing, and fluid identities. His characters seem to be perpetually on the move, either crossing borders or vacillating between identities. Drawing on the familiar from his own life, Akin places his characters in the same world, which is most evident in a shot from In July of a road sign pointing in opposite directions to Hamburg and Istanbul. He resists any notion of a fixed identity through this road sign by showing both aspects of his identity competing and intersecting in a single representative space.

How to be a Successful Don Corleone (or Die Trying)

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Francis Ford Coppola juxtaposes the stories of Michael and Vito Corleone explicitly in The Godfather: Part II by alternating flashback scenes of a young Vito with the present, showing Michael coming into power as the new Don. Through the contrasting use of lighting and costume, in regards to each of the Dons, Michael becomes a cold-blooded businessman while Vito remains true to his Sicilian roots.

The rise and fall of both Michael and Vito is told through the epic story of the Corleone family. Lighting plays a significant role in capturing the different characters of each of the Dons, which creates a clear juxtaposition between their stories. An example illustrating this is a comparison of Michael and Vito in their office as Don. Vito Corleone is introduced in the opening scene of The Godfather meeting with a minor, rather unimportant character, Amerigo Bonasera. The film opens with a close up on Bonasera, and as the camera slowly pulls away, Vito’s office comes into view. It is a dark and sinister room, draped in shadows from the low-key lighting, with figures looming in the background, barely visible as only a hand is seen or a voice is heard. There is a sense given of the business-like atmosphere of the office as well as the threatening nature of the business itself which Vito is head of. When Vito finally appears on the screen, he is also in shadow, consistent with the lighting in the rest of the room. His eyes are hidden by the shadows and the soft warm lighting highlights his facial features. In contrast to this, the scene immediately following this meeting takes place outside at Connie’s wedding. Vito is shown with his family surrounding him, gathered together to take a family photo. The daylight provides natural high-key lighting to illuminate the celebratory event. The contrast between the different lighting used in correspondence to Vito suggests the separation between his business and his family life. As it is revealed throughout the rest of the movie, family is very important to Vito, and this separation becomes a very important aspect of his character.

On the other hand, at the end of the film, Michael takes over as Don of the Corleone family in an act of extreme violence. While Michael’s order to kill off the other Dons of the rival families in New York is enacted, he attends the baptism of Connie’s son, renouncing sin to become the boy’s godfather. The crosscutting between these two events highlights Michael’s rise to power and the simultaneous fall of his morality. Close-ups of Michael reiterate this point even more. With his face completely in shadow, Michael has renounced any attempt to break free from the illegitimate business of the Corleone family. Since this is revealed at a significant family event, the separation between business and family no longer exists for Michael who has completely immersed himself in the underworld of criminal activity. This is again underscored in The Godfather: Part II as Michael struggles with making the family business a legitimate one. The flashback scenes of young Vito building the business and his family as an immigrant in New York call for a contrast to the story of Michael expanding the business and destroying his family. His continuous commitment to the business conflicts with family, which brings down the barrier between each part of Michael’s life. For instance, in the sequence of Anthony Corleone’s First Communion celebration, Michael is shown holding meetings in his office, calling to mind a direct comparison to the opening of The Godfather. While Connie’s wedding crowd consisted of family and friends, Anthony’s celebration appears to include politicians and business partners. And to emphasize the difference between the two Dons, the lighting is not differentiated between the two locations of outdoor party and interior of the office. Also, side lighting is often used in shots of Michael. Although it is softer in the beginning of The Godfather: Part II, as in the scene in which he meets with a politician at his house in Tahoe with soft natural lighting coming in through the office window, it gradually becomes a more stark contrast towards the end of the film. The shadows nearly envelope his entire face to mark his moral descent as he becomes a more powerful Don.

Another interesting point of departure between the characters of Michael and Vito is the role costume plays in portraying their values. For Vito, his immigrant background remains prominent throughout his life, especially at the end. The reference to his origins can be seen clearly in a scene from The Godfather when a meeting is held with Sollozzo over the Corleone family’s involvement in drug trafficking. Here, all of the men in the meeting are dressed in dark suits that are in vogue for businessmen during this time period. Vito, however, is wearing a brown suit, green shirt, and red tie. As author Anthony Julian Tamburri notes in his essay “Michael Corleone’s Tie: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather,” Vito is “dressed like any Italian immigrant grandfather.” In this meeting, Vito essentially refuses to become involved in the drug trade because his intentions as Don are ultimately about helping his family and community instead of making a profit. His intentions do not correspond with the business-like approach that the other men in the meeting represent. When Vito Corleone meets his end, he is also dressed like an Italian immigrant. His outfit consists of natural colors that indicate his closeness to the garden in which he is situated. The location speaks just as much to his Sicilian origins as does his costume.

In contrast to this, Michael Corleone’s wardrobe in both The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II reflects his affinity for the business side of his role as Don. Within the first two chapters of The Godfather saga, Michael’s changing wardrobe also reflects his moral evolution into the lone figure seated in his shadowy throne at the end of Part II. Michael is first introduced on screen in his United States military uniform at Connie’s wedding. Afterwards in following scenes, Michael wears outfits consisting of many shades of brown, reflecting close ties to nature like his father. When Michael sets out to kill those responsible for the attempted assassination on his father, he opts for a gray suit. However, he also wears a brown coat, which reflects his conflicted mindset. This outfit signifies the beginning of Michael’s descent into the criminal world of the family business. The dark gray suit he wears in the scene of the baptism marks his full transition to Don.

Although their approaches are different, Michael and Vito both succeed as Don of the Corleone family. Their success can be defined in different ways, as Vito retains his family while Michael ends up alone in the end. Even though Michael sacrificed his family, his path to success was intended to be a dark and lonely one from the beginning, signified by the use of lighting and costume choice for his character. The events that take place in The Godfather: Part III, especially Michael’s lonely death, are foreshadowed by the closing shot in Part II, which shows Michael as the lone ruler enveloped in the darkness that pervades his success as Don Corleone.