Kuhle Wampe - 1932 Germany directed Slaten Dudow script by B. Brecht.
Score Hanns Eisler
Hertha Thiele as Anni
Side Cinema - 1 2 04
The last shot of the film remained with me long after the lights came up. And I mean the end of the film, not of the polemic drama. Because Kuhle Wampe was a film with two creative impulses pushing through it. Although Brecht and Dudow achieve congress as collaborators, you can see which of them is in the driving seat at any point of the film, in which dialogue and image work in counterpoint.
So to return to the ending …there is long and played out but amusing piece of theatre that takes place on the U-train in which the riders react to a news item read out by one of the passengers about the thousands of tons of coffee that has been destroyed in Brazil. On the train common man and woman react with the intellectual tools at their disposal - common sense, bigotry, bewilderment and the arithmetic of poverty. Also on the train, the young communists, returning from their week-end jamboree, are savvy to the algebraic formulae of world commodity markets. They understand and can explain that scarcity is a product of the market.
This cleverly penned scene with small groups of passengers talking arguing swopping insights about coffee is fundamentally theatrical in composition and orchestration. Conceptually its built up like a piece of music, a cannon or a fugue: no one individual dominates and the different sub groups build on and repeat with variations their points of view and ideas. There is some emotional input from the bigot, but emotion does not disrupt the balance of the section which works filmically because of its formal musical construction. We experience repeat sequence of characters to whom we return with variation. It is a successful piece of filmed theatre: the innate humour and intelligence of the writing shine out(as it does in the rest of the film) but the scene would sit equally well performed on stage.
The culmination of the sequence arrives when the question is asked: how things are ever going to change? (the question is no different today). The sequence cuts to a high key shot of Annie - the female protagonist(with a haircut that is pure Bauhaus) - who answers direct to camera with the polemic line: It will change because we will not accept it the way it is. The line immediately feels like the end of the drama - the dynamic switch to a full face close up, the line enunciating a concluding idea.
It is the end of Brechts drama. But it is not the end of the film. Slaten Dudow has the final sequence, the last image. From the close up of Anni, the film cuts to a subterranean tunnel, part of the U-Bahn. A long wide mouthed structure funnelling through shadows into darkness. From the camera side crowds file past into the tunnel: perhaps people who have just got off the train - old young well dressed poorly dressed, everyman all life, all Germany filing into the darkness.
All though the film, being on the hind side of history where all has been told, I am acutely conscious of the date and time, 1932, and the implications this has for how I see this film. Kuhle Wampe, a camp for the unemployed and dispossessed a benign proleptic image of the Nazi concentration camp. Such imagery of dispossession was perhaps familiar and vaguely comforting to Germans. But no where in the film is there any reference to the political situation in Germany. No reference that on the streets of Berlin extraordinary events are taking place. The Nazis, the Stromtroopers don’t exist. Perhaps it raised issues that were uncomfortable. Both Nazis and Communists made similar use of propaganda, youth organisations and rhetoric of the oppression and certainly the long sequences in the movie portraying the Communist Youth Organisation, the club, the sports rally and jamborie, had a frozen mechanical quality, which if different in detail from the organised Nazi youth activities, seem parallel in spirit. Neither the Hitler Jugend, the Hitler Band, nor Hitler and the Nazis appear or are or alluded to. Except in the last and final shot which silently wordlessly directs us towards this future which is endlessly streaming out of this present as the people get off the train.
The shot depicts people, perhaps the people who have just got off the U-bahn coming into shot from behind camera and moving past it to go down into a large wide dark tunnel. The shot is held for some considerable period. It is a shot in itself. It is not part of a sequence. A shot in and for itself that in concluding the film references it without specific sign. The people advance endlessly press forwards into the shadow (of the future). In ending his film in this way Dudow uses image to suggest fears emotions feelings for which Brecht lacked words. Perhaps Dudow, an outsider, a Bulgarian recently come Germany after studying in the USSR, knew that his film had to end not with the challenge of socialist polemic but on the vista of the uncertain. I don’t know how contemporary audiences understood this ending, but many in Germany were wired into the foreboding zeitgeist. The end of the film both presages the descent into darkness and death that came with the Third Reich. But also, in another key, this shot anticipates the development of post holocaust cinema with its abstracted locations its dislocation of time and its awareness of perception.