Mario Slugan: Montage as Perceptual Experience. Berlin Alexanderplatz from Döblin to Fassbinder.

Mario Slugan: Montage as Perceptual Experience. Berlin Alexanderplatz from Döblin to Fassbinder.

Rochester: Camden House, 2017, ISBN 978-1-64014-005-9, 244 p.

Nenad Jovanovic

Keywords: Alfred Döblin; Piel Jutzi; Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Weimar Germany; montage; cinema; literature.

Mario Slugan's Montage as Perceptual Experience is a book of great intellectual aspiration. Its theoretical slant distinguishes it crucially from earlier English-language scholarship on Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) and its screen adaptation by Piel Jutzi (Germany, 1931), such as Paul Jelavich's historically-oriented Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film, and the Death of Weimar Culture (2009). The book expands its scope beyond the context of interbellum Germany by including also an analysis of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's monumental small-screen rendition of the novel (Germany, 1980). Proceeding from the view by such highly influential 20th century's cultural critics as Theodor Adorno that montage constitutes a paramount principle of modernist art, and building upon the work of an impressively wide range of authors who have engaged with different applications of montage across the media, Slugan proposes a novel definition of montage that aims to rescue the term from what he considers a conflation with related but distinct ideas.

Slugan's examples, all of which are narrative artworks, at once mandate and validate his criteria for determining whether a particular technique constitutes an instance of montage in literature and film / television. The majority of those criteria concern narration: first, the use of materials that are stylistically discrepant from the artwork's dominant style (actually or seemingly borrowed from other contexts); second, the insert's refusal to be interpreted as a manifestation of the interiority of a character inhabiting the diegetic world; third – the refusal of the insert to be subsumed under voice-modulation so as to give rise to the perceiver's impression of a unified and controlling narrator behind the diegesis.

Systematically deployed elements of a narrative artwork that satisfy the three criteria, he claims, produce an effect that makes montage unique – that of perceptual disruption. Because he rejects the view of linguistically-oriented film semioticians such as Christian Metz that film images and sounds inevitably imply their producers (“enunciators”) in the manner of verbal utterances, Slugan replaces the third criterion for the purposes of analysing cinematic montage with that of a perceived unity of filmic space and time: “it is a particular brand of spatiotemporal dislocation that diverges from the norms of classical Hollywood editing and the construction of space and time that constitutes film montage” (Slugan 2017: 109). As suggested already by the caveat of the vague qualifier “particular” in the above quote, this redefining of montage entails changing the meaning also of a number of related concepts.

A case in point is Slugan's understanding of classical Hollywood editing, a style that aims to ensure the viewer's orientation in space and time as depicted in most films – through separately created images and sounds – by a systematic deployment of cues of spatiotemporal continuity or breakage from shot to shot and from scene to scene. He identifies with concision and precision the techniques of mise-en-scène, cinematography, sound, and editing that comprise the style, but holds it to be much more rigid than it has been in both American and continental film practices. From the inconsistencies in camera angles and screen direction in the tram-ride sequence from Jutzi's film that he subjects to a commendably rigorous analysis, Slugan thus concludes that not all of the shots are organised around the perspective of the protagonist (Franz Biberkopf). It follows from this that the sequence satisfies the second and third of Slugan's criteria for what constitutes cinematic montage. But different versions of Slugan's own acknowledgment of the viewer's presumed “inclination to attribute [the shots] to Franz” (ibid.: 113), found throughout the analysis, make it difficult to determine what is being contended here. The force of the only logically suitable argument – that the sequence's editing mismatches are deliberate, and do not attempt to emulate the character's perception as distorted by the overwhelming stimuli – diminishes if one considers it alongside the film's other departures from the system of continuity editing (a later dialogue scene, for example, blatantly violates the 180 degree rule).

Similarly, Slugan likens the film's edit that connects two segments of a single line spoken in different spaces and times with Dziga Vertov's radical formal experimentation in Ėntuziazm: Simfoniia Donbassa / Enthusiasm (USSR, 1931), and discusses both in relation to Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Grigorii Alexandrov's Budushchee zvukovoi fil’my. Zaiavka / Statement on Sound (1928) – the famous programmatic essay that advocates the use of image-sound counterpoint in film. The choice is motivated by a contemporary critic's (unelaborated) reference to both Jutzi's and Vertov's films as experiments in form, but the descriptor “radical” hardly applies to the sound bridge on which Slugan bases his argument. Comparable examples can be found in films that predate Jutzi's Berlin Alexanderplatz and conform to the logic of continuity editing, such as René Clair's Le Million / The Million (France, 1930) and Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (Great Britain, 1929). What is puzzling is not the overlook of these earlier examples of innovative use of sound in commercial cinema, but the discrepancy between Slugan's discussion of the edit and his conclusion: “Strictly speaking, this is not exactly what the authors of the sound manifesto had in mind, for the effect is one of continuity rather than disruption” (Slugan 2017: 127). Which position, then, is Slugan arguing?

Classical Hollywood editing – commonly called also “invisible” for its purpose of distracting the viewer from its own operations – is often contrasted with Soviet montage, a film style that flourished for less than a decade in the pre-Stalin USSR and was represented by the majority of the above-mentioned Soviet filmmakers. What made it “visible”, that is conspicuous and obtrusive, was an an array of formal strategies that challenged to various degrees the status of characters as the elements of diegesis that in traditional cinema (Hollywood and Hollywood-like) command subservience of all other elements of film form. To give examples of two among the most celebrated products of the style, Eisenstein's Bronenosets Potëmkin / Battleship Potemkin (USSR, 1925) dislodges the individual (protagonist) from her position of the agent of causality that she performs in conventional narrative forms, whereas Vertov's Chelovek s kino-apparatom / Man With a Movie Camera (USSR, 1929) interrogates the very process of narration itself.

Slugan enriches the taxonomy of editing by identifying “city symphony montage” as a separate category (ibid.: 43). Judging by the references sprinkled across to the pages devoted to it, the term is inspired by Alexander Graf's discussion of the purportedly unique editing patterns that Slugan perceives in the relatively small cycle of films produced mostly in the second half of the 1920s (with Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt / Berlin: A Symphony of a Great City (Germany, 1927) as a paradigmatic example of particular thematic relevance to his case studies. The need for introducing the term, he argues, stems from the inability of both continuity editing and Soviet montage to communicate the perceptual experience of confusion – one of the three responses to hyperstimulation as a defining feature of modernity that he distinguishes between. Thus, the former two types of editing are associated, respectively, with continuity and disruption, and “city symphony montage” with confusion. Even if one agrees that continuity editing and Soviet montage cannot communicate confusion as the book defines it, the question remains what the denotative stability of “city symphony editing” could be, given that – unlike “continuity editing” and “Soviet montage” – it seems not to distinguish itself in terms of any unique techniques.

Further complicating the matters, the book posits that not all city symphony films employ city symphony editing, offering Vertov's Chelovek s kino-apparatom and Ruttmann's Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt as examples. It uses the contemporary reviewers' accounts as the data from which a given film's conformity to the criteria of perceptual experience associated with the three editing types is ascertained. Based on the fact that considerably more of the sources consulted invoked confusion in relation to the latter film, Slugan concludes that “city symphony editing” does not apply to Chelovek s kino-apparatom. (The implication of a different statistical result would indeed have been preposterous – a removal of the Soviet montage film from the context of Soviet montage filmmaking.) In this instance, the criterion employed to determine what perceptual experience corresponds to a film in question appears curious, if we consider that the sense of clarity of a filmic representation depends to an extent on the cultural and historical context of its reception. Slugan acknowledges that himself by citing Yuri Tsivian’s discovery that elliptical editing and close-ups – today widely regarded as paradigmatically cinematic devices – induced spectatorial confusion as late as the 1910s (ibid.: 53). Could it be, then, that Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt – unlike Chelovek s kino-apparatom – perplexed the German audiences because it predated the Soviet film by more than a year? The study does not explore that possibility.

Slugan's understanding of what montage in literature and cinema entails is admirably clear, but – like his understanding of continuity editing and the alternatives to it – seems too restricting to accommodate the wealth of film practices that can produce spatiotemporal dislocation, which he cites as the medium-specific condition of montage in film. He appends the view that “the perception of a cut is […] a necessary precondition for visual montage” (ibid.: 163) by noting that the spatiotemporal dislocation produced need not be instantaneous. This allows Slugan to include various examples of the use of rear projection that challenge the viewer's sense of coherence between the cinematic representation of space and time. The question that stems from the study's focus on medium-specific devices is whether an identical event can be produced with mise-en-scène elements alone. Various stage and theatrical film practices suggest an affirmative answer to that question – for instance, Hans Jürgen-Syberberg's placement of a modern-day TV set next to a toga-clad Adolf Hitler in Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland / Hitler, A Film from Germany (Germany, 1978), a montage of deliberate anachronisms that does not owe its impact to the cinematic apparatus it employs. But focusing on an example that does not crucially use medium-specific elements would have revealed the questionability of the use of the cut (actual or metaphorical, as in the examples of the rear projection scenes that Slugan offers, which “cut” simultaneously across different spaces or / and times) as a criterion for the occurrence of montage as a perceptual experience.

In conclusion, despite the indicated shortcomings that result from its restrictive understanding of montage, Mario Slugan's original and thought-provoking book represents a major contribution to the scholarship on the technique in visual arts, literature, and cinema. It seems highly probable that future researchers will embrace the emphasis that the book places on perception, and that the application of its solid analytical framework to other, more culturally and thematically varied artworks will confirm its strength further.

Nenad Jovanovic

Wright State University

nenad.jovanovic@wright.edu

Bio

Nenad Jovanovic is Assistant Professor of Media at Wright State University’s Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures, and the author of Brechtian Cinemas: Montage and Theatricality in Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Peter Watkins and Lars von Trier (SUNY Press, 2017).

Bibliography

Döblin, Alfred. 1929. Berlin Alexanderplatz: Die Geschichte vom Franz Biberkopf. Berlin.

Eisenstein, Sergei M., Pudovkin, Vsevolod I., Aleksandrov, Grigorii V.. 1988 (1928). “Statement on Sound.” In S. M. Eisenstein: Selected Works, vol 1, edited by Richard Taylor, 113-114. Bloomington.

Graf, Alexander. 2007. “Paris – Berlin – Moscow: On the Montage Aesthetics in the City Symphony Films of the 1920s.” In Avant-garde Film, edited by Alexander Graf and Dietrich Scheunemann, 77-91. Amsterdam.

Jelavich, Peter. 2006. Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film and the Death of the Weimar Culture. Berkeley.

Filmography

Eisenstein, Sergei M. 1925. Bronenosets Potëmkin / Battleship Potemkin. Goskino.

Clair, René. 1931. Le Million / The Million. Films Sonores Tobis.

Fassbinder, Rainer Werner. 1980. Berlin Alexanderplatz. Westdeutscher Rundfunk.

Hitchcock, Alfred. 1929. Blackmail. British International Pictures.

Jutzi, Piel. 1931. Berlin-Alexanderplatz: Die Geschichte Franz Biberkopfs / Berlin-Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf. Cine-Allianz Tonfilm.

Ruttmann, Walter. 1927. Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt / Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. Deutsche Vereins-Film.

Syberberg, Hans-Jürgen. 1978. Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland / Hitler: A Film from Germany. TMS Film GmBh.

Vertov. Dziga. 1929. Chelovek s kino-apparatom / Man with a Movie Camera. VUFKU.

Vertov. Dziga. 1931. Ėntuziazm: Simfoniia Donbassa / Enthusiasm. Ukrainfilm.

Suggested Citation

Jovanovic, Nenad. 2018. Review: “Mario Slugan: Montage as Perceptual Experience. Berlin Alexanderplatz from Döblin to Fassbinder.” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 7. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2018.0007.123

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner's terms.





Apparatus. ISSN 2365-7758