Tony Rayns

"Die Geburt der Nation (The Birth of a Nation)"
Sight and Sound, London, Winter 1973/74)

Wyborny's film is in two distinct halves (dated 1972 and 1973 respectively), the second being an appendix to the first and itself subdivided by the appearance of a caption. The Birth of a Nation: A title sets the action in Morocco in 1911, but there is no other attempt to evoke the period in the episodic narrative that follows; its sections are linked and 'interpreted' by an intermittent voice-over narration. Jim, Joe, Jack, Naomi and Fred meet on the hill which covers the ruins of Ancient Carthage. Jim had previously stolen food from the others' camp while they were occupied in reviving Naomi, found unconscious in the desert; he is elected first president of their republic, and each of the others is assigned a specific responsibility. The republic flourishes, although a kind of anomie seems to pervade the group. One day Jim, finding it lonely at the top, decides to drop out: he dons stage make-up, starts calling himself Nadine, stages a performance for the entertainment of the others, and then leaves with Joe to found a rival 'civilisation'. Both groups founder, and the five individuals eventually come back together on the original site. They see their situation as an impasse, but then they begin to forget their 'old' language, and soon only a few words (love, despair, desire, the yearning for eternity) survive. Before long they are silent, and a new life begins for them. Appendix to The Birth of a Nation: The images of the foregoing narrative are repeated, in variously altered forms: many shots are 'missing', some are shortened or extended, some appear to be 'out-takes'. They are first seen in grainy black-and-white, with an orchestral soundtrack; from the point that the narration began in the first part (the meeting of the five, and Jim's election)- the images shift into black-and-white negative, and the soundtrack changes to a piano solo. At the point when Jim makes up for his performance, the images change into colour negative. The original sequence of events is followed up to the point where Jim and Joe leave Carthage. In Carthage, a small place on the Nile: What was formerly the narrative now begins over and over again, progressing less far into the sequence of events each time, with the images transformed in increasingly complex ways. At first, with a soundtrack of Arabic vocal music, they are 'treated' with rich, artificial colour, added in the optical printer. Then, in silence punctuated by single, resonant piano chords, they are shown overprinted on themselves, so that their pictorial content is steadily obliterated and the film's grain and texture are instead emphasised. The film's final image is a faint 'ghost' of its first.

Die Geburt der Nation climaxes the series of shorter films made by Klaus Wyborny since 1968, in which he ran rings around narrative form; his method in them was usually to introduce a film 'statement' and then repeat or permutate it, playing wittily (albeit often with considerable emotional intensity) on audience expectations. That approach had a marked rapport with other German avant-garde movies of the time (those by Wim Wenders or Werner Nekes, for instance), but Die Geburt der Nation is a notably original extension of it: it begins the investigation and charting of an area that can be thought of as Wyborny's own. Its two, complementary halves can be seen both as an essay with following notes, and as a narrative confronted with its opposite (not so much non-narrative as counternarrative). The title, of course, invokes Griffith, an association reinforced when an opening caption locates the action in 1911 and the first long sequence is constructed like a summary of Griffith's shooting and editing styles of that date. The film in fact begins as an 'exemplary' narrative, cross-cutting with perfect lucidity between three parallel actions (Jim scouting the ground and executing his theft; Joe and Fred tilling the fields; Jack drawing water from a pool, coming upon Naomi's prone body and then pursuing the thief).

Even as the simple story unfolds, though, unusual emphases begin subverting the narrative cogency: monochrome arbitrarily gives way to colour for isolated shots, a musical theme fades in and out without apparent reference to the visuals. And from the point when the three strands converge - the moment, that is, when all five characters meet - the visual form serves the narrative less and less; the narrative function is taken up by the soundtrack, where Wyborny himself starts whispering a commentary that sometimes clarifies, sometimes complicates and sometimes contradicts what is shown. If watching the first ten minutes is like learning to 'read' silent movies again, then the experience of watching the form turn away from narrative expressiveness and hearing the soundtrack assume a disproportionate importance corresponds quite closely to one's viewing of many early tackles.

The effect is teasing, ambiguous and occasionally frustrating, but by no means obscure. As the film proceeds, Wyborny gives its visual form an increasing autonomy, independent of the narrative; by the end of the first part, each image is isolated from its neighbours (and many are fragmented within their own duration) by fades in and out, a formal device that actually nullifies narrative. The key to Wyborny's intention (and a strong pointer towards the second part of the film) lies in the commentary, which introduces an extraordinary romantic metaphor: the social organisation of the group is poetically linked with the concept of language, which in turn is linked with the concept of film-language, and specifically the dominant notion that film-language serves narrative structures (cf. Christian Metz). Wyborny partly supports the notion by parodying it: his story of a social group in crisis is 'told' through a visual form that is itself in a critical state, Just as anomie is the rot that infects the group from within, so each 'narrative' image is alienated from those before and after it. Baldly abstracted, the metaphor sounds dubious or even obtuse, but it furnishes a substantial theoretical base for a practice that disarms objections. The first part of the film is at once nostalgic, funny and sad: its elegiac mood brings a real poignancy to its portrayal of the elusive, insubstantial characters. The second part of the film is naturally enough, the 'new beginning' heralded by the commentary. It echoes the form of the first part, using identical or similar images in the same sequence, in order to propose another way of 'reading' the visual part of the film. Divorced from their role in the service of narrative (which none the less determines the order in which they appear, as if the storyline survives as a memory or a phantom), the images can be seen as a fabulous treasure trove, an inexhaustible wealth of textures, rhythms, colours and patterns.

The structure of the appendix is built around the various technical processes that Wyborny puts his images through:
printing on different film stocks, juxtaposing positive and negative images, superimposing images on themselves a few frames out of sync, and so on. The cumulative effect of these processes is to drain the last vestiges of drama from the images, and to make them ever more painterly: it retrospectively becomes clear that the timbre of the first part has served to prepare the audience for the more contemplative act of appreciating the second. As current debates on theories of narrative syntax and the nature of realism as an aesthetic mode in the cinema gather momentum, Wyborny's film looks increasingly crucial. In its exceptionally beautiful way, it situates itself at the heart of modernist cinema, while at the same time respecting its own origins in film history. Few films can claim as much.

(Tony Rayns in: Sight and Sound, London, Winter 1973/74)

zurück zu Kritik | back to summary