Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Brian Price reviews The Politics and Poetics of Cinematic Realism

Hermann Kappelhoff. The Politics and Poetics of Cinematic Realism. Trans. Daniel Hendrickson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 280 pp.

Review by Brian Price

Throughout the history of film theory the relationship between aesthetics and politics has been cast in a paradoxical way. If the project of political film theory is to imagine a privileged mode of emancipation in relation to what any given theorist takes to be the determining characteristics of a medium and the expressive norms of its culture, what so often comes forward instead—and expressly in the guise of an emancipatory aesthetic to be repeated everywhere—typically does so in the form of newly drawn categorical imperatives. Sometimes it appears as though film theorists have never really rejected the idea of norms and categories so much as they have wished for a set of conditions and parameters that makes emancipation possible by way of aesthetics, and do so as if category itself was not a barrier to aesthetic or political experience. In this regard, the history of film theory is a record of incommunicable grievances about the necessary relation between style and emancipation. What remains incommunicable in these histories is owed to a tendency to understand aesthetics and politics as a relation guided by necessity and never contingency—or, at least, by a pervasive tendency to confuse contingency with necessity on the force of our respective political enthusiasms. It is just that when we voice our own principles, as opposed to the moments in which we absorb the sounds of someone else’s, they feel less like principles than they do justice, which might amount to nothing more or less than a life lived without difference or disagreement. After all, are there not differences that we prefer more than some others? Can we still regard as a difference a wrong that we nevertheless believe to have redressed? If we do, the form such an acknowledgment takes is typically nothing more than a moral reduction of aesthetic experience that comes in the form of lists, an assemblage of acceptable styles, which makes for an even more limited understanding of politics as always already revolutionary or retrograde, always already in opposition to what can be named as permanently different, permanently other. If so, what use could film really be for politics?

One very promising answer to that question is to be found in Hermann Kappelhoff’s The Politics and Poetics of Cinematic Realism. As Kapelhoff suggests at the outset, his book takes its title from a book that accompanied Documenta 10 in 1997, which he rightly indicates as an important moment in which cinema enters the art world. Not only that, it is also a moment in which the very notion of what counts as a medium, and thus a discipline, becomes questioned in ways that have now become rather importantly familiar to us. One consequence of thinking about cinema in this context is that it rather tacitly makes clear something that I am indicating more explicitly above. Namely, that if ontology has been for so long a preoccupation of film theory, it has only been understood in its more parochial terms as medium specificity. What the moment of Documenta 10 provides for Kappelhoff is a broader understanding of ontology itself, one that not only calls into question the nature of categorization and categorical identifications (already a larger domain of ontological inquiry) but also treats the moving image as something that has important consequences for political ontology. If cinema is a form of political ontology, then the questions that concern us are not what makes film unique as film, but how does the moving image participate in the production of social relations, even if that participation only leads to a complication of the various forms of social and personal identity rather than involving itself in a larger imagination of what counts as the social at any given moment. In fact the tension between broad scale social formations and the values that underlie them are often featured in Kappelhoff’s examples as ones that necessitate, in the films on view here, a display of the idiosyncrasies of the self as that self/selves come into contact with what it can never fully belong to, or be described by. For instance, the strongest kind of general claim about the social that Kappelhoff is concerned to make is to say, as he does, about Pedro Almodóvar, that “Almodóvar’s films show a world in which the patriarchal system of order is, on the one hand, only a memory, but which, on the other, remains a memory that is difficult for the characters to bear” (p. 195). What Kappelhoff’s readings of Almodóvar and other filmmakers is concerned to indicate, then, are the difficulties that follow from a tension between dominant social values and the complications we can only retain as complications in our own self-understanding, as well as the charity so many of the figures on display here show to others in an effort to reckon with another’s particularity. This reckoning occurs independently of the demands for categorical unification made on the other at the level of the social, or even simply in friendship or familial life. In this regard, I note, especially, his very compelling reading of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s anguished performance of himself, of his grief, and of his rage at his mother in Germany in Autumn (1978), who clearly takes on a more dismissive, authoritarian attitude about the deaths of the RAF founders in Stammheim that opposes Fassbinder’s leftist sympathies. Of this conversation, Kappelhoff writes: “The film thus attempts to grasp politics where it is realized in concrete social relationships, as a family matter and a complex of relationships. But this is in no way a familial constellation presented as a parable of society. Instead, what is enacted, scene for scene, is a kind of being-in-society that is concrete experience to be carried out in the flesh” (p. 106).   

As a work of political ontology, then, Kappelhoff refuses to submit the films to an ideological, categorical judgment. Fassbinder’s impassioned shouting is understood as no less belligerent than his mother’s refusal to countenance the complications of the RAF. That is to say, Fassbinder’s claim on our empathy is no greater, potentially, than his mother’s, even if most viewers of such a film would already be inclined to sympathize with Fassbinder’s politics. As a consequence, a much more complicated picture of real politics emerges in the pages of The Politics and Poetics of Cinematic Realism, so much so that by “realism” we can begin to see something more than the approximation of spatial coordinates in a particular way and characters who show themselves as recognizable types with solvable problems. Rather, the characters described by Kappelhoff struggle in one way or another with images themselves, not simply the kind that come from movies—though that is important, here, too—but the images we all keep of ourselves or observe in and as another, which are derived from a larger constellation of socially inflected nouns that we respond to in a variety of ways: patriarchy, authoritarianism, but also democracy and freedom. The latter can inspire rage, too, even if that rage only completes the paradox. If anything, the images that come from movies, in Kappelhoff’s account, are not so easily separated from the ones we think of as being derived from the social. And the point here is that no one ever measures up to any of them in any exact way. Our vitality, as human beings, and also our political strength, is owed—rather than merely hampered by—the ways in which we begin to acknowledge such complications in ourselves before trying to resolve the complications we perceive in others. This, it seems to me, is a way of ennobling the very enterprise of film studies, in its political dimensions, insofar as we can and should begin to understand ontology as something more than an account of materials and their animating limits as a mode of aesthetic purification that leads to a pure politics of either the Left or the Right. Rather, following Richard Rorty’s lead, Kappelhoff proposes something much for promising for our understanding of the relation between aesthetics and politics: “That is why art cannot at all refer in a functional way to political goals—for instance, as a special way of poetically making new descriptions; rather, its goal is to create possible reference fields of experiences that politics can fall back on in order to articulate itself” (p. 20).