David Levente Palatinus PhD is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Ruzomberok. His research moves between and across visual studies, digital media, and cultural theory. He has worked and written on violence in serial culture, medicine and autopsy, autoimmunity and war, and digital subjectivity. He is co-editor of the ECREA section of Critical Studies in Television Online, and sits on the editorial board of Rewind: British and American Studies Series of Aras Edizioni (Fano, Italy). He is currently working on a book-length project called “Spectres of Medicine: The Ethos of Contemporary Medical Dramas.” Email:
When writing about the manifestations of the noir mode in a Central European context, one is ultimately challenged by the sublimating notion of noir itself. Tracing the reverberations of whatever is signified by the term noir in fiction and film makes one re-think the concept, constantly expanding its boundaries and testing its frontiers by writing about works that may or may not fall within specific definitions or classifications of noir. In this study I am, too, trying to navigate in that liminal space James Naremore’s talks about, “somewhere between Europe and America, between high modernism and ‘blood melodrama,’ and between low-budget crime movies and art cinema” (Naremore 2008, 220). Mapping out the typology of Central-European noir is indeed a challenging enterprise. Not only because the cultural history of this unique phenomenon covers almost a century, but also because it cuts across cultural, geographical and intellectual diversities.
Noir impacted multiple genres and media, and also established itself both as a marketing category as well as a common critical currency, a sort of travelling concept that is deployed from time to time to describe and envelop a range of things, from responses to (an actual or imagined) social reality to particular modes of representation. Expanding the logic of Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton’s provocative summary, namely that film noir is whatever is “noir for us; that’s to say, for Western and American audiences of the 1950s (Borde and Chaumeton 2002, 5),” one might infer that noir is (also) that which displays certain noir characteristics, that is, a dark tone underlying its narrative and poetics. Even if these characteristics have eluded the attention of mainstream interpretations of the work in question, as would be the case with the majority of those Central European films I will focus on. These traits might include a preoccupation with a pessimistic, disillusioned world view, the prevalence of the uncanny, depictions of a society based on subversion and corruption, where loyalty and integrity are still absolute values that are present through their absence. In this respect, noir also comes to represent an underlying nostalgia (or an ethos) for that which is lost. This controversial claim that apparently reverses the logic of Borde and Chaumeton’s observation (i.e. how can something be noir that is not considered noir by mainstream criticism) will be central to my argument, especially when I attempt to trace the history of Central European noir. I will look at selected novels and films that, from an eminent point of view, qualify, but have not necessarily been perceived or analyzed in the past as ‘noir’ by mainstream criticism. These endeavors also directed attention to the question of (public and critical) awareness, to the entanglement of the popular visibility of noir – and that of crime fiction in general – and criticism’s willingness to address it. Even after the fall of Communism, when various genres and media that fostered the commoditization of crime imploded onto the Central European economic and intellectual climate, mainstream criticism stayed reluctant (if not resistant) to analyze and assess the question of crime as a cultural product, or to reflect on the practices of crime-consumption. Only in the past decades have there been attempts to critically engage with crime and crime fiction.1
On the other hand, mobilizing noir as a ‘master term’, or rather as an operational framework, would run the risk of reducing it, paradoxically, to mere functionality, to a vehicle, or, more precisely, a mould that one can apply to give form to some cultural content. This view would be difficult to sustain because the delineation of cultural content is highly problematic in itself. Also, such mobilization of the notion would not account for the transformations noir undergoes in a Central European context. These shifts have to do with the particularities of the historical, political and economic entanglement of Central European countries and their cultures. Peter Hames argues, that these countries are characterized simultaneously by a sense of belonging-together and separation. He writes the following:
[i]n addition to geographical and historical realities, there is also the concept of a ‘cultural’ Central Europe – a sense that, whatever the differences and conflicts, these countries have a shared set of cultural references. […] [T]he cultures of countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary had always been in constructive interplay with that of Western Europe. (Hames 2009, 2)
Therefore, despite the slight differences between these cultures, in this article I will still treat their cultural landscape as relatively homogenous. For practical reasons, it is easier to explore the manifestations of noir across a platform that is international but at the same time provides a more refined image of the Central European ethos. Consequently, I will look at examples of Czech(oslovak) and Hungarian fiction and film that capture that curious, dark sensibility so characteristic of classical and emblematic examples of noir, and re-position it through the registers of their own peculiar narrative and visual modes.
Although the term ‘noir’ was introduced retrospectively by the French film critic Nino Frank in 1946 to denote a particular set of Hollywood films that display a bleak vision of society and build on the subjective depiction of the psychology of crime (cf. Naremore 2008, 15), film noir has grown beyond its initial connotations and has globalized itself as a category encompassing a wide variety of cultural production – also outside the United States. The meanings of the term fluctuate between indications of a particular mindset, aspects of (visual) style, and the peculiarities of setting, plot, character as well as narrative technique. Since film noir is “in essence, a discursive critical construction that has evolved over time” (Mayer 2007, 5), definitions of this category are always somewhat reductive and narrow, as are attempts to map out the constituents of an underlying noir iconography. Wheeler W. Dixon points out that “classic archetypes” like dark, rainy alleys, lone protagonists “accompanied by an omnipresent voiceover”, or the cynicism of hard-boiled detectives trying to decipher seemingly unsolvable puzzles “represent only one manifestation of this pervasive film genre” (Dixon 2009, 1).
Apparently, even the most quoted conceptualizations of noir are caught between mapping the traits of a genre and those of a style, and point to the underlying heterogeneity of the phenomenon: Nino Frank celebrated the dynamism, cruelty and irrationality of noir, whereas Chartier saw it as the manifestation of “accents of rebellion against the fatalities of evil” (Naremore, 17). Bazin recognized the philosophical dimension of its expressive style, and linked it to experiments with expressionism, surrealist aesthetics, and existentialist ideology (Bazin 1985, 37). Alain Silver and James Ursini highlighted the embeddedness of film noir in contemporaneous cultural discourse, namely the legacy of hard boiled (represented by authors like Hammet, Chandler, and J.M Cain), and the relatively controversial reception of Freudian psychoanalysis, citing that “these theories helped promote a worldview that stressed the absurdity of existence along with the importance of an individual’s past in determining his or her actions” (Silver and Ursini 2004, 15). Their claim that “the haunted past” and “the fatalistic nightmare” are the “two most important sources of the noir movement” (15) proved to be of crucial importance for the study of later developments of noir films and fiction as well. Warshow and Durgnat read noir genre(s) primarily against the political, cultural and economic backgrounds of contemporaneous American urban society.2 They presuppose a point of reference where the artistic appeal of film as a medium is predominantly assessed on the basis of its ability to mirror, stage, and, consequently, reflect upon the social reality of the urban experience. Despite their distinct standpoints, both Durgnat and Warshow delineate the critical perspective of an implied “social aestheticism,” and assess it with respect to its ability to subvert the underlying teleological pride and optimism of post world-war American urban society. Durgnat, downplays the ability of Hollywood cinema to address these issues – as opposed to European film, whereas Warshow argues for the continuous presence of a latent or disguised form of disillusionment with the commonly celebrated achievements of the modern society. Such a conception of art entails the construction of reality either by critiquing it directly, or by providing a (fictitious) alternative that seeks to “express by whatever means available to it that sense of desperation and inevitable failure which optimism itself helps to create” (Silver and Ursini 2007, 12).
Andrew Spicer reads the noir hero along the lines of disillusionment too. He depicts an “eccentric” who attempts to escape conformity by turning the hypocrisy of the system on itself (Spicer 2002, 3). Schrader portrays the private eye and the lone wolf as two emblematic characters that emerge as an (almost immediate) reflection, parody and criticism, of the American ‘self-made-man’. Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (dir. by Billy Wilder, 1944), or Philip Marlowe in the Big Sleep (dir. Howard Hawks, 1946) stand out not because of their achievements, but because they refuse to blend in: Neff turns down a desk job with the insurance company because he rejects the confinement and the conformity the office environment embodies. Marlowe admits to General Sternwood to have been fired from the police force for insubordination. Both figures represent the individual pushed to the periphery of society. They are both ultimately tragic characters, with a mission to decipher a mystery surrounding a dangerously seductive and manipulative woman, the femme fatale, whom they eventually fall victim to.
The multiplicity and diversity of definitions substantiate the opinion shared by the majority of viewers as well as critics that noir “is better used to denote a kind of sensibility which colours a range of novels and films […], rather than a consistent set of generic conventions” (Nicol et al. 2011, 4). The fact that the notion of noir extends beyond the question of genre also explains its enduring global appeal. It reveals a certain configuration of culture, a prevalent preoccupation with crime. Noir frames a cultural space that is inhabited by “characters that […] subvert the codes that regulate modern society.” It exposes the forces at work to break the “normative roles of existence” (1). Such symbolic accounts of crime have a long history. Modern attempts to rationalize crime, ranging from philosophical attempts and medico-legal documentations to criminal biographies and to fictional representations, all indicate that crime has been regarded as a matter of social concern, as well as a product of culture since the early days of modernity. Nicol, Pulham and McNulty explain that since the inception of the “Enlightenment project” that is, “a range of developments in post-eighteenth-century philosophy, culture and science marked by a teleological, humanist, positivist view of society and history” (2), crime has become an attribute integral to modern urban(ized) ways of living, and as a consequence, found its way into “popular modes of narrative” (2). Aspirations to political dominance, exertion of control and the competition for resources brought about a prominence of individualism that, at the same time, resulted in criminality becoming more exposed and more visible. Crime’s visibility and its socially subversive potentials were amplified by the intellectual and economic climate of the Depression Era. The great age of film noir in the 40s and 50s laid emphasis on the questioning of absolute moral values. Central European reverberations might include Halálos Tavasz (Deadly Spring, 1939), and Édes Anna (Sweet Anna, 1958) in Hungary, or some of the films of directors of the Czechoslovak New Wave (Miloš Forman, Jiři Menzel, Vera Chytilova). These films expressed the disillusionment, pessimism and anxiety of social and economic turmoil of the post-war years (Billi 2012, 53). The “postmodern noir” of the 80s and 90s brought about a new fascination with low-lifes, paving the way for end-of-the century and post-millennial heist narratives, the inner portrayals of criminality (Nyócker! (The District, 2009) and Kontroll (2003) in Hungary, and Pouta (Walking Too Fast, 2009) and Czech-Made-Man in the Czech Republic), or dark and disturbing psychological themes of trauma, abuse, cruelty and despair (Torzók (Abandoned, 2001) and Taxidermia (2006) in Hungary, and Requiem Pro Panenku (Requiem for a Maiden, 1992) and Sílení (Lunacy, 2005) in the Czech Republic).
The exponential growth in the number of crime genres in the media-saturated environment of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, with new documentary programs, news reports, fiction, film, television dramas, videogames, and other digital contents appearing on a daily basis, indicates that “crime is something that we habitually consume” (Nicol et al. 2011,2). It is, however, the very notion of consumption that, at least from a historical perspective, complicates the critical assessment of Central European noir. This, of course, is not meant to undermine the global claims to a crime culture, or the apparent, and much discussed, entanglement of modernity and crime. The truly global appeal of crime / noir narratives is substantiated by the fact that these genres now enjoy the same popularity in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland as in the US or any Western European country. In fact, the cultural and economic policies of the publishing industry, film distribution, and television programming operate with a truly global pool of choices, with works produced in countries like the US, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, and also Scandinavia and Turkey.3 But as far as the critical assessment of noir is concerned, the difficulties arise from a number of historical circumstances.
On the one hand, the literary tradition of genre fiction commensurate in scope and cultural impact to the works of Doyle, Christie, Hammet, Chandler or Cain is technically missing. This does not mean that there were no narratives that contained elements of crime, or features that would qualify for the labels ‘hard-boiled’ or even ‘noir’. But these works never really registered in cultural discourses, and most importantly in criticism, as crime stories in the conventional sense. The longstanding, rigid separation of the high and low registers in critical and literary analysis, and criticism’s resistance to assess the noir mode as an instance that not only mirrors, but also shapes culture also contributed to its ambiguous position. These books and films were discussed in terms of war narratives, social criticisms, or, in most cases, as melodramas.4
For instance, the 1939 film Halálos Tavasz (directed by László Kalmár) builds around a tragic love-triangle, and tells the story of a suicide in retrospect. It was never really referred to as film noir, despite the fact that the film established Hungarian actress Katalin Karády’s status as a celebrity and an iconic actress. The memorable scene in which Karády undresses behind a screen repositioned her as femme fatale, a role she resumed both in her real life as well as in subsequent productions. Karády’s public image was designed to resemble that of Hollywood divas like Lauren Bacall or Barbara Stanwyck, partly by way of her physical appearance and epitomic deep voice. Halálos Tavasz was later banned by political censorship for its harsh and critical portrayal of pre-war society.
Another example is Édes Anna (Sweet Anna), the adaptation of Dezso Kosztolanyi’s eponymous novel published in 1926, where the striking characteristics of noir and hard-boiled modes were also greatly overlooked by mainstream criticism. The novel follows the tragedy of a young maid, Anna, in the urban environment of Budapest. She is seduced and betrayed by the playboy son of her landlady, and forced to terminate her pregnancy. The hypocrisy and ignorance of the Budapest socialite lead to a tragic and disturbing resolution with Anna brutally murdering her landlady’s family – “Norman Bates-style,” with a kitchen knife. The narrative draws greatly on Freudean psychoanalysis (theories of repression), and is set against the political and economic background right after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. The 1958 film adaptation (directed by Zoltán Fábri, and starring another iconic Hungarian actress, Mari Törőcsik) was attenuated to the post-1956 political climate. It mainly thematized the clash between social classes and presented Anna as a martyr of bourgeois hypocrisy. The delineation of the complex and chaotic atmosphere of 1919 when the story is set, or the paradoxical intellectual and cultural sentiment of the 1920s when the book was written stayed relatively underexposed.
From this perspective, it is difficult to contextualize noir with regard to a Central-European literary tradition (if one can posit the homogeneity of such tradition at all). Technically until the fall of the Berlin Wall the concept was identified with predominantly subversive Western responses to modernity. The preoccupation with questions of subjectivity, the metaphysical standpoint from where we investigate the origin of evil, the interdependence of power and corruption, or the disjunction of social norms and individualist ethics are not only attributes of what Deleuze and Guattari referred to as capitalist schizophrenia (2004). Fatalistic visions of the human condition haunted by paranoia are independent of ruling ideologies. And yet, it is still problematic to trace a sense of real continuity from the early, American and French conceptions of noir to their post-millennial Central-European reverberations. From a strictly aesthetic point of view, where the assets of noir are primarily defined on the basis of a visual compositional logic, the traits of noir cinematography are easily recognizable: elements of mise-en-scene, camerawork, lighting, the technological dimensions of production, the uncanny and suspenseful atmosphere, the emphasis on subjectivity, the problematization of the interrelation of the gaze of the camera and the gaze of the spectator, the engagement with the psychological aspect of the image, have rapidly become integral components of a particular subset of Central European filmmaking as well. But in place of the modern urban dystopia of the ‘designed-for-consumption- spectacularity’ of high crimes, and the graphic portrayal of violence, these films build on the counter-position of hope against paranoia. W.W. Dixon explains this paradox as follows:
Noir holds both promise and danger. If we view the domain of noir as a zone in which our inhibitions are loosened, we can also see it as a place without rules, where restrictions are relaxed, where people can pass us by unnoticed, until it’s too late. Noir functions as a literal and figurative zone of darkness, a place that must be illuminated so that we can see. In all noir films, darkness surrounds the characters within the narrative, threatening to engulf them at any moment. The frame’s blackness seeps into the faces of the protagonists in these doomed films, etching their features with fear and apprehension. (Dixon 2009, 4)
A common feature of films that qualify for the noir label is their visual rhetoric. This cinematographic mode entails a realism that emerges as ‘hyperrealism’ in the sense that it finds a way to visually amplify (distort and reassert) social and cultural anxieties. Accordingly, this realism does not have to do with ‘reality’. It has to do with the appearance of the real, with what the audience recognizes and appropriates as ‘real’. Therefore the hyperrealism of film noir does not signify a return to an extreme or naturalistic representationalism; film noir does not re-present in the classical sense of the word; it dramatizes reality in such a way that the real is exposed to and, subsequently, informed by the viewers’ (superimposed) experience of it.
Noir vs Ideology? From Post-War Legacy to Post-Millennial Reverberations
One of the reasons why socialist cultural policy-making could not really accommodate classical hard-boiled patterns was that the idea of systemic corruption, high crimes, and a level of individuality that characterized femmes fatales and hard-boiled heroes was simply incommensurate with the principles of centralized control. Therefore the fatalistic and uncompromising criticism of post-war society, and the economic and political controversies of the 50s were passed on under the guise of perpetuated war since the prevailing ideology needed substantial grounds to legitimize its actions – also against its own citizens. Violence was an act of defense the legitimacy of which derived from its ability to incapacitate an aggressor that threatened the status quo from an outside. As a consequence, the cultural politics of the post-war decades favored fictionalized re-narrations of World War II for obvious ideological reasons. War films served as vehicles through which a strong anti-Nazi propaganda could be delivered (cf. Cunningham 2004, 41-60). Epic pictures that glamorized the heroism of the war and the nobility of self-sacrifice abounded on both the American as well as the Soviet/communist side. The Czechoslovak Tanková Brigáda (Tank Brigade, 1955) is often interpreted (somewhat mistakenly) as an example of practice for the mystification of war and the deployment of pro-Soviet propaganda. The compelling portrayal of battle scenes of epic magnitude (where, according to a report, battle maneuvers for the film were performed by 3000 members of the Czechoslovak Army)5, render Tanková Brigáda a cinematographically (as well as dramaturgically) challenging enterprise. The extensive use of extreme long shots renders the film’s cinematography comparable to that of such big-screen spectacles as Spartacus (1960), A Bridge Too Far (1977), or Kelly’s Heroes (1970). The film’s focus on the personal fates of the members of one tank crew brought the machinery of war, in a literal as well as a in a metaphorical sense, in close proximity to the viewers. In fact, the Tank Brigade draws greatly on apparatus theory, where the cinematographic apparatus is designed to keep the discrepancies of subjective experiences of viewers within the desired ideological framework.
On the other hand, in response to the formulaic patterns that enveloped the elevated heroism of American and Soviet war movies, comedy became a standard mode of criticism. It filled in a void where under the guise of irony more subtle critical reflection was possible. An emblematic Hungarian example is A tizedes meg a többiek (The Corporal and the Others) by director Márton Keleti, from 1965, just nine years after the events of 1956. This movie might be read as the Hungarian ‘anticipation’ of Kelly’s Heroes inasmuch as it caricaturizes the moral conundrums of soldiers weary of fighting, drawing mostly on cynicism over the shallow concepts of heroism and sacrifice. These men simply try to survive by avoiding open confrontation with the enemy as well as with their own superiors. Having lost motivation and belief in any cause greater than mere survival, PFC Molnár and his company hide in an abandoned castle and plan to wait out the end of the war. Each character is a caricature. Their extremely humorous and ironical dialogues produced some of the most enduring aphorisms (“Már a spájzban vannak az oroszok – the Russians are already in the Speiz” and “Document yest – I have a/the document”) that allowed for a sarcastic, in today’s sense, almost meme-like re-positioning of opposing ideologies, indicative of the growing skepticism and disbelief that was widely shared at the time.
Czechoslovak director Karel Stekly’s Dobrý voják Svejk (The Good Soldier Svejk, 1957) takes a similar approach to the war. The film tells the story of a soldier who obeys every single order literally, and becomes a mockery of both the authorities and the armed forces. The film is a forerunner of the Czechoslovak New Wave of the early 1960s that mainly took its inspiration from postmodern literature and produced adaptations of the works of authors like Milan Kundera (The Joke, 1969) or Bohumil Hrabal. Jiři Menzel’s tragicomic noir Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Observed Trains, 1966, based on the 1965 eponymous novel by Hrabal) juxtaposes a young man’s encounter with political resistance to the narrative of his first sexual experience. The absurd universe of the remote train station where the story is set, the tragic death of the protagonist, the intensity of daring shots (elements of explicit nudity) position the film between a subversive, nourish take on life and a drifting adaptation of Hrabal’s parodistic novel. Most of these films pursue an anti-authoritarian agenda in the guise of irony and parody displaying socially critical edge.
Juraj Herz’ 1969 adaptation of Ladislav Fuks’ novel Spalovac mrtvol (The Cremator, 1968) touches upon a different but all the more sensitive subject-matter. It presents a diabolic and unnerving view of the underlying ideologies of the Holocaust. The film draws greatly on the legacy of German Expressionist cinema, and combines elements of black comedy as well as horror. Set at the end of the 1930s, at the time when radical racist ideologies were on the rise in Europe, the film follows focuses on Karel Kopfrkingl who works in a crematorium and later becomes the director of the institution. The film plays upon the uncanny parallelism between Hitler’s rise to power and Karel’s obsession with his job as a cremator. He considers his profession more like an art, which, by way of its liberating power, is capable of eliminating suffering and pain. Karel’s conviction grows into a mania that leads to an inevitable obliteration of his family: when he learns about the Jewish origins of his wife, and, consequently, the “taintedness” of his children, he murders and cremates them. Cinematography also brings this film close to the noir mode, and as Peter Hansen explains, the deployment of wide-angle shots and the use of depth of field visually amplifies the uncanny inescapability of madness where “any sense of logic, order and realism is stripped away to reveal a political world where only a madman can remain with some form of control” (Hames 2009, 107). The Prague Spring in 1968 brought about a strict censorship that resulted in a stronger political grip on the Czechoslovak film industry. Many films, among them Spalovac mrtvol, were banned after their premiere.
Under the influence of neo-noir preoccupations with questions of subjectivity, personal- and collective memory and the re-evaluation of the cultural past (Horsley 2002, Palmer 2007, 151-3), the Hungarian Fifth Seal (Az Ötödik Pecsét, 1976, directed by Zoltán Fábri), a “strange, slow moving film with only a few gloomy locations, little action and lots of dialogue” (Cunningham, 129) thematizes a rather philosophical take on the authorities’ justification of surveillance, control, or the use of physical violence (i.e. the seemingly unsubstantiated beatings of detainees by the secret police), and on the individual’s ethical responsibility. These films, however, are regarded by most critics and historians of cinema as ‘auteur-’ or art films rather than works that feature popular characteristics (Kovács, 355-357, 376). What these pictures and their American neo-noir counterparts have in common, despite their plausible differences in the handling of what Lee Horsley calls “the view of contemporary society as a culture of consumption, consuming not just commodities but performances and spectacles,” is a serious engagement “not only with the historical period [they] represents but with issues that are of contemporary relevance” (Horsley 2002). These films re-configure the underlying elements of (neo-)noir cinematography, like the contrast of light and shadow, the alteration of long shots and close-ups, editing, the reliance of enclosed, claustrophobic spaces in the mise-en-scene of theatrically delivered dialogues, in order to visually accommodate the sometimes heavy philosophical content. They attest to an underlying Central European dimension of cultural discourse, where reflection on the present is inexorably linked with reflection on, and critical re-interpretations of, the past. These films therefore are also characterized by a strong tendency toward (political and historical) allegory, which proved to successfully satisfy the expectations of an intellectual audience more inclined to engage with the subtleties of narrative and symbolism. Also, such allegory often functioned as a guise, or more precisely, framework that was tolerated by censorship (Cunningham, 63, 195).
It is important to note, however, that the 80s also brought on a loosening of strict censorship and a curious form of adherence to Western standards – at least as regards the proliferation of popular registers and the gradual commoditization of crime, especially in the case of television, which in these decades was still considered one of the central media of easy-access popular entertainment. Two Hungarian productions deserve attention here: the films of István Bujtor (affectionately dubbed as the Hungarian Bud Spencer) re-imagined the stand-alone hard-boiled cop in a Central European context. Shot on-location in small towns near Lake Balaton, the films also popularized destinations of domestic tourism via popular media. The other instance is the television series Linda (1983-1986-1989), with a female police detective and martial artist (played by Nóra Görbe) in the centre of the stories. The series rapidly gained popularity in the neighboring countries as well, and Linda’s name today is closely associated with a curios form of nostalgia for the 80s. Linda gained fame for its extensive use of two specific kinds of camera techniques that later became the signature-shots of the program: on the one hand, the show’s cinematographers extensively relied on long establishing shots of the Budapest cityscape. These images showed Budapest as a world-class city, pretty much in the style of Western capitals. But they also served the purpose to imitate a more noir-like atmosphere, with their night-for-night sequences emphasizing a vibrant but dangerous nightlife, with scenes involving street gangs, molesters, arsonists, and drug dealers. On the other hand, the program also used the cinematographic legacy of the popular martial art movies of the 80s. Sequences showing Linda deliver her signature-kicks shot at very high frame rates were clearly intended to showcase a more Westernized spectacularity.
The new millennium gave impetus to the proliferation of crime films and novels on a massive scale. Popular films started to address questions about the pitfalls and shortcomings of a newly founded democracy: common citizens, low-lifes and drifters, substance abuse, homosexuality, race, and otherness in general came into focus. Discourses that used the language of crime to criminalize (in an ethical as well as legal sense) those who cooperated with the preceding regimes continued. Noir films of the new century (or films that relied on an assumed noir legacy) sought a visual language that was apt to accommodate the cultural and intellectual turmoil of the period. This was the time, when exposure to the pitfalls of a market economy driven by consumerism, competition and an obsession with private enterprises started to generate responses similar to those in post-war and post-cold-war America. Films from the first decade of the 21st century like Kontroll (2003), Czech-Made Man (2011), or the animated noir comedy Nyócker! (The District, 2004) reflect an intellectual and emotional sensibility to the social and economic ambiguities by taking a parodistic, irony-driven tone. They caricaturize the void that remains after the disruption of (the fiction of) a calculable and, consequently, cheatable system. The idea of a controversial nostalgia, however, does not imply the mourning of the relative calculability of economic safety (which already registered in the contemporaneous mind as a simulacrum). Rather, in a similar way to the American films noirs of the 70s and 80s, these narratives direct attention to the systemic nature of corruption, failure, and to the manipulative tendencies of the authorities to cover up things by keeping up a world of appearances. Tomas Lunak’s 2011 rotoscope that adapts the 2003 graphic novel Alois Nebel to the screen describes this historicizing imperative in terms of a haunting legacy. Set in the final years of the cold war, and echoing in its use of black-and-white imagery both classic film noir and the graphic novels of the 50s, it tells about alienation and disillusionment with superficial human relations through the life of a train dispatcher at a station on the Czech-Slovak border. The protagonist’s haunted visions of ghosts from the Central European past passing through the station embody the region’s entrapment in the past, one of the underlying anxieties that determine the Central European ethos.
Classical Noir Re-fashioned – Three Case Studies
The political agenda to pursue social justice is an inherent and recurring element of culture. Political and historical discourses about the past in Hungary, as well as recently produced crime narratives, tend to depict the events from the point of view of ordinary people, and break all the taboos known to socialist representations of society. In this regard, the bestselling novel series of Vilmos Kondor provides an excellent example of practice. Kondor’s books gained international popularity and generated positive critical response. The first book in the series, entitled Budapest Noir (2008) immediately caught critics’ attention after its publication, and has often been labeled as “the first true Hungarian hard boiled fiction” (Scanlon 2012, 97). The series comprises five volumes to date, each of which focuses on a particular period of the life and work of investigative journalist Zsigmond Gordon. The stories place Gordon in particular historical contexts, where the emphasis falls not only on the investigation, but the portrayal of the cultural, social and economic context plays an equally important role. Budapest Noir is set in Budapest in 1936, on the brink of Hungary becoming a Fascist country. Gordon investigates the murder of a Jewish girl, while high profile socialites including politicians, tradesmen and even members of the police try to cover up the case. The story offers a realistic representation of corruption, violence and cruelty beneath the appearance of an idealized society, where money prevails over loyalty and integrity, and where politics can be used to manipulate justice. The novel was critically acclaimed for its ability to present the historical context ‘objectively’, in a way where it becomes somewhat detached from the ideological discourses later inscribed on it (Hartlaub 2013). Kondor managed to maintain his approach for the next four books as well: the subsequent three sequels (Bűnös Budapest – Budapest Sin, 2009; A Budapesti Kém – The Budapest Spy, 2010, and Budapest Romokban - Budapest Ruined, 2011) are set before, under, and after World War II, whereas the last novel of the series (Budapest Novemberben - Budapest in November, 2012) looks at the events of 1956. In the final volume of the series Gordon’s involvement is seemingly apolitical: he travels from Vienna back to Budapest, where his only concern is to find her daughter amidst the chaos following the outbreak of the revolution.
Kondor’s books embody nostalgia in a dual sense. They have to do not only with the nation’s past but also with already existing cultural depictions of the past. By way of a cultural recourse, Kondor’s novels draw equally strongly on the nostalgia for classical hard-boiled narrative patterns, and re-invent those narratives from a 21st century perspective by project present imaginings back into the past. Kondor fills in the void in the Hungarian literary tradition created by the lack of the hard-boiled tone and color Hammet and Chandler represent.
Julius Sevcik’s motion picture Normal: The Dusseldorf Ripper (2009) emerges as a curious example of the post-millennial re-fashioning of classical film noir. It is somewhat problematic to discuss Normal in the context of Central European film noir, partly because it adapts Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson’s drama to the big screen, and partly because it situates the plot in the Dusseldorf of the 1930s. The subject matter, however, is a typical noir cliché. The story is based on actual events, and revisits the story of Peter Kurten who committed a series of sexual crimes and murders between 1929 and 1931 in the city of Dusseldorf.6 The narrative of the film unfolds in retrospect, along dialogues between Wehner, the young ambitious defense attorney and the notorious serial killer. While Neilson’s play tells the story from the point of view if Kurten’s attorney, the film juxtaposes and plays against each other the perspectives of Kurten and Wehner. The film adopts a classical noir narrative pattern: it opens when Kurten is captured, and the events that culminate in his arrest, including scenes from his childhood, and the narratives of the murders, are told in flashbacks interjected into the interview scenes between Wehner and Kurten in the prison. Kurten’s statements also function as voice-over narration to the flashbacks, and in a similar way, Wehner’s letters to his parents represent his own reflections on the case. The film draws greatly on the well-established patterns of the serial-killer narrative as well: both the historical reality and the film’s gothic atmosphere (not to mention the telling title) bring Kurten and Jack the Ripper in close proximity. The physical appearance of Milan Knazko reminds of the cinema-image of Hannibal Lecter, immortalized by the memorable performance of Sir Anthony Hopkins. The dim blue mise-en-scene of the the prison cell, the camerawork deployed to capture the rivalry between the attorney and the criminal, Kurten’s willingness to confess, and his determination to manipulate and confuse Wehner, all recall the noir-thriller atmosphere of the Hannibal Lecter films.
The dynamism of the meetings between Wehner and Kurten soon reveal that the real question is who conducts the interviews. Wehner is gradually driven to reconsider, and, eventually, give up his idealist views about human nature and the psychological foundations of violence. His initial purpose is to prove Kurten insane, but their conversations reveal a much more disturbing truth about the origin of evil. The film replicates early twentieth century anxieties surrounding the corporeal dimension of serial murders as well as (post)modernity’s prevailing fascination with phantasies of body-horror. The juxtaposition of sex and killing reaches a climactic point when Kurten confesses how the smell and taste of human blood makes him aroused. The uncanny parallelism between Kurten and Wehner is also enhanced by the double symbolism of blood. Kurten’s confession triggers Wehner’s curiosity. Driven by a need to succumb to his animalistic desires, he has violent sex with a prostitute in a local brothel. When he leaves the building, he is confronted by the father of one of Kurten’s victims, who wants justice to be served. Wehner, confused feelings of shame and euphoria, vents his frustration by beating up the man.
This uncanny coupling of pleasure and pain, the fact that both murder and sex are interpreted as forms of the loss of innocence opens up a perspective where desire and repression are conceptualized within the framework of the Lacanian pleasure principle. Also, as the title of the film suggests, normality always presents itself as a construct, and is always-already defined with respect to its excesses. Normal (and similar instances of the psychological noir) direct attention to the fact that any rationalization of violence that is reverted (and reduced) to a physiological cause poses a hermeneutical constraint upon itself. This constraint might suffice for a medico-legal explanation, one that Wehner seeks, and it might even be satisfactory as long as it can give closure. But it leaves the phenomenology of violence at odds with the very premises it is predicated on.
In the Shadow (Ve Stinu, 2007 directed by David Ondricek) provides a dramatized insight into the behind-the-scenes of Communist show-trials, and is dedicated to the victims of such atrocities that took place in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. The narrative begins as a simple and insignificant jewel robbery, but turns out to be an intricate conspiracy designed to incriminate respectable members of a Jewish social service group, and use them as anti-capitalist propaganda. It is set against the background of the impending monetary reform of the 1950s. The suspicion and anxiety surrounding the introduction of a new currency haunts the plot throughout the film, and provides the framework of the events.
In the Shadow is a curious case of the noir thriller. It mobilizes noir iconography in terms of mise-en-scene, characterization, but at the same time, it can also be read as a parody of noir iconography inasmuch as it ‘easternizes’ and, consequently, fine-tunes the iconic patterns of noir. The depiction of the city (Prague) retains something of the visual legacy of the noir city-scape with its narrow, dark streets, wet, rainy cobbles, dimly lit shop enterieurs. But the use of establishing long shots serve not so much the purpose of disorientation (like in classical noir) but rather of orientation; they contribute to the reality effect of the visuals by making the locations recognizable to the present day viewer. These spaces generate an ambiguous nostalgia as well as an uncanny relation to the very historicity of those locations, through which realist retrospection can be achieved.
The opening sequence features the silhouettes of a person wearing a trench coat, hiding behind the corner, lighting a cigarette. But the run-down blocks with minimal living spaces, shabby kitchens and gloomy stairways, the dirty and desolate factory buildings, are reminiscent of an improsperous economy. The protagonist, detective Hakl smokes only half a cigarette, and eats potato dumplings in a factory pub that falls very far from classy. The automobiles, the cliché-like status symbols of the hard-boiled hero in the noirs of the 40s and 50s, fail to start. The characters need to take the tram, the iconic means of public transportation in Central European capitals that render social differences obsolete. The automobile, however, symbolizes something else – the specter of the state security. The concept of the black vehicle with darkened windows imprinted in the Central European mind the internalized, uncanny sense of surveillance and control, a sense of paranoia that haunts the film throughout.
The film borders on the docu-drama and the political thriller, but, like Kondor’s books, it also focuses on the impact of mayhem, and how conspiracy running high among the functionaries of the Party impacts the life of average people. Hakl and his family are drawn into an irreversible chain of events because of an ethical conundrum that Hakl cannot resolve any other way. He knows who are responsible for the theft and the resulting murders, but when instructed by his superiors to look the other way so the case can be closed, he refuses to assist in the unsubstantiated persecution and conviction of innocent people.
A curious form of emblematic tracking shots (executed by the deployment of Steadicam) accompanies the scenes featuring the main character, detective Hakl. Place and Peterson argue that camera movements “are used sparingly in most noir films […] because of the great expense necessary to mount an elaborate tracking or boom shot” and because in most cases effect is achieved through cutting and editing (Place and Peterson 2005, 69). In the Shadow, on the other hand, achieves the conflation of Hakl’s viewpoint (of what he sees and how he sees it) and that of the viewers’ by construing a strange, 3rd person perspective, where continuous camera movement shows the character and what he is looking at at the same time, often within the same frame. This technique also substitutes for the lack of voiceover narration. Camerawork functions as a narrative focalizer: the conflation of viewpoints creates a narrative sequentiality through which the viewer can trace the focus of Hakl’s attention – from an object that is a key piece of evidence to the circumstantialities of the crime. Focalization thus constitutes a space the where viewer retains his or her subjectivity as a viewer, but at the same time is exposed to the subjective experience of the character. Therefore the film’s true narrative unfolds not so much along the dialogues as via visual narrative sequencing and editing. In this way, In the Shadow can indirectly thematize the preoccupation of the 50s with the thin line between the speakable and the unspeakable, between the truth and the cover-up, between that which is said, and that which is silenced and kept in secret. It is interesting to see how a cinematographic technique Place and Petersen describe as “non-noir” (69) serves the purpose to visually amplify the very obscurity that characterizes the narrative structure of classical noir plots.
The film, in an auto-reflexive move, also calls attention to the psycho-social drives that necessitate the political and ideological underpinning of crime: socialist conceptualizations posit crime as foreign, as that which always belongs to others, but not to the proper; it does not belong to the state, it belongs to the enemies of the state. These enemies have to be identified, fought, and overcome. Therefore, criminal activity is always already shifted to a group that is alien to society: collaborators of the West, representatives of a judeo-plutocratic, capitalist ideology. But the film subverts such socio-political concepts of criminality, indicating that the real criminals are the ones who manipulate the events from the background.
When the crime scene photographer takes a picture of a portrait of Stalin hanging on the wall at the scene of the jewel robbery, the detective ironically remarks “Is he a suspect too?” Mr. Janata, the jewel thief, is just a pawn in a game of politics, and is brutally murdered by his “employer,” who incapacitates him before throwing him in front of a freight train. The German secret agent, Major Zenke who is an uncanny conflation of an ex-SS officer and a spy hired by state security, is also forced testify against the Jews against whom he had to forge evidence. It turns out that he is a prisoner himself in the hands of the local authorities that keep him from returning home unless he agrees to co-operate. Hakl’s investigation, his rejection to stop, puts his own family in danger. He manages to orchestrate a plan with which he can save the German agent, the innocent Jews, and his family, but only at the cost of his own life. At the end of the film he is led by two thugs into a basement where he is brutally beaten and then killed by an injection, in a hint to the authorities’ attempt to tie off all loose ends.
Film noir consistently disrupts the morally established categories of good and evil through the portrayal of its protagonists’ psychological and emotional struggle: the more they try to stop the ”machinery” of the events, the more he is submerged in their flow. Hence the tragic sense of film noir. In Violence and the Sacred Rene Girard describes the dynamism of the tragic and its relation to violence:
Tragedy begins at that point where the illusion of impartiality, as well as the illusions of the adversaries, collapses. (…) men and women [are] caught up in a form of violence too impersonal in its workings, too brutal in its results, to allow any sort of value judgement. (…) [V]iolence invariably effaces the differences between antagonists. (Girard 2005, 48-49)
Consequently, noir, in its eminent forms, always-already focuses on the tragic sensibilities of our remaining culture. Borrowing the arguments of martin Swales, noir sensibility, is predicated on a dialectic “inherent in a tale which, of its very nature, speaks of mayhem – of criminality, transgression, violence, carnage and (most usually) death” (Swales 2000, xii). Since this dialectic incorporates a “Dionysian tumult and chaos within parameters of Apolline order, of (social and literary) convention” noir can be “conservative and subversive” at the same time (xii). According to Swales this dialectic can be explicated from a number of interpretive positions. In a “theological” approach noir is considered to “address our inborn sense of guilt” where the figure of the detective arises as a redeemer. A so-called “thanatological” interpretation accentuates the underlying role of death. The primary concern of the “cognitive-cum-philosophical” paradigm is the struggle between “rationality and logic” and the “irrationality of psychological promptings.” Some stories are appreciated on the basis of their “Barthesian effect-of-the-real,” encompassing the “social configuration of the world” (xv) where the noir mode becomes detached from its American realist heritage and comes to close proximity with a Central European confessionalism that chooses everyday objects, figures, and events to filter through a subversive subject-matter. Noir, then, becomes the framework of what Kundera described as “the unbearable lightness of being.”
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1 See for instance Krisztián, Benyovszky: A jelek szerint. A detektívtörténet és kelet-közép-európai emléknyomai, Bratislava: Kalligram, 2003.; Benyovszky Krisztián: Bevezetés a krimi olvasásába Dunajska Streda: Lilium Aurum, 2007.; Tamás, Bényei: Rejtélyes rend: A krimi, a metafizika és a posztmodern. Budapest: Akadémiai kiadó, 2000. ↩
2 Cf. Warshow, Robert: “The Gangster and the Tragic Hero.” Alain Silver & James Ursini, eds. Gangster Film Reader. New York: Limelight Editions, 8th ed., 2007, 11-18. and Durgnat, Robert: “Paint it Black: The Family Tree of Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. eds. Silver, Alain and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996, 37-52. ↩
3 As regards television, the proportion of productions from each of these countries varies by television network as well as by genre. Central European television networks also follow EU directives in maintaining a balanced ratio of domestic, EU, and international productions in their programming policies. It is interesting to notice, however, that most of the crime (noir-themed) programs are foreign imports, with an exceedingly high number of productions coming from the US. See for instance http://filmadatbazis.hu/sorozat/krimi/1/. Accessed: 21 March 2016 and http://www.kinobox.cz/zebricky/nejlepsi/serialy/krimi. Accessed: 21 March 2016. ↩
4 See for instance Veress, József: A magyar film története. Budapest: Anno, 2006; Nemes: Károly: Films of Commitment: Socialist Cinema in Eastern Europe. Budapest: Corvina, 1985. Cunningham, John: Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House to Multiplex. London: Wallflower Press, 2004; Kovács, András Bálint: Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema 1950-1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.; Gács, Anna and Gábor Gelencsér (eds.): Adoptáciok: Film és irodalom egymásra hatása. Budapest: Kijárat, 2000. ↩
5 The Tank Brigade. Entry, Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0261340/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl. Accessed: 15 March 2016. ↩
6 For a detailed but somewhat populistic account of the Kurten cases, see Tom and Michael Philbin: The Killer Book of Serial Killers. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Inc., 2009, 237-244. ↩