The Notary, Our Noble Master

Gardeavue

Watched this classic again last night. Lino Ventura plays a detective who subjects a wealthy local lawyer — suspect in the rape and murder of two young girls — to an hours-long interrogation in police headquarters. Lino Ventura intensely watchable as always with his Easter Island head and ludicrously gigantic hands. And Michel Serrault is perfectly cast as the clever, oleaginous yet despairing suspect. Romy Schneider, as his wife, is just plain Romy. She never really becomes anyone else no matter what role she plays, but you won't hear me complaining.

I first saw this movie years ago, before I was even a lawyer, in the U.S. Part of a Romy Schneider film festival. As I watched it again, a few memories of my earlier reaction to the movie came back. First of all, I remember being surprised when the detective tells the suspect that he can call a lawyer, but the lawyer is not entitled to meet him. "Whoa," I thought back then, "that's totally unconstitutional!" Which it would have been, in America.

The second cultural misunderstanding comes from the fact that everyone keeps mentioning that the suspect, Jérôme Martinaud, is a "notary". As an American, I said: "Who cares?" Yet this fact is mentioned several times, and the script calls attention to when and whether characters refer to the suspect as Master (Maître, the official designation for French lawyers and some other professionals). 

In fact, at the time I saw the movie, I was a notary, even though I didn't even have a college degree. In the U.S., the only function of a "notary public" is to put a stamp on official sworn documents. You just ask someone if the document is accurate, get them to sign it, and stamp it. Anyone over 18 who doesn't have a serious criminal record can be a notary. Anyone. You just fill out a form, pay a small fee, and bingo! you're in.

The situation is vastly different in Continental Europe, where notaries must be lawyers. Not only that, they benefit from an ancient privilege system that (1) requires dozens of different kinds of documents to be notarized, and (2) limits the overall number of notaries. This grants most notaries a regional monopoly, reducing competition and driving up costs. The Economist describes the cultural divide:

Notaries are important gatekeepers in many economies, in particular when it comes to establishing property rights—the bedrock of markets. At best, notaries are facilitators who, for instance, verify the identity of the signatories of contracts and the veracity of their statements. At worst, they are overpaid bureaucrats who delay the passage of simple transactions and bloat their cost.

By contrast, notaries are unknown in many common-law countries, such as Britain and its former empire, which take a more freewheeling approach to contracts. America is the odd country out: although its legal system is based on common law, it boasts 4.8m notaries, many part-time. Yet these exist mainly to satisfy America’s maddening appetite for stamps and seals, and have little in common with their highly qualified European namesakes. “They are butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers,” scoffs a European notary.

Both traditions have their drawbacks. In Europe notaries’ highly regulated work has made them the most prosperous of lawyers. Tax returns suggest that Italian notaries are paid better than any other professionals (though perhaps they are most honest about their earnings). A report in 2004 found that notaries made up 22 of Slovenia’s 100 highest earners. French ones are the most privileged of all, says Gisela Shaw, an expert on the profession. They can compete with solicitors to provide legal services. They may sell their practice when they retire.

A website on French property law notes:

With about 5,000 offices, 7,500 notaires and 40,000 assistants, the notarial profession has representation all over France and has an effective monopoly. The Notaire is the public official responsible for receiving all the "actes" and contracts to which the parties wish to confer the seal of authenticity, to assure their date, to hold them in trust and to deliver authentic copies of them.

The Notaire is under the authority of the Minister of Justice (Ministère de la Justice) and is appointed by decree. The Notaire's office (Etude) depends geographically on the area in which he lives.

So the status Jérôme enjoys result from the fact that he is a member of perhaps the most privileged group in French society: lawyers who have gained a coveted notary position. One of Jérôme's first lines of defense is that people are always starting rumors about him because they envy his wealth and social status, which explains why people are circulating unfounded rumors about his involvement in the murders.

It doesn't happen often, but there you have it: an instance in which comparative-law knowledge deepens your understanding of art!

Bambi’s Friends the Communist Spy and the Viennese Whore

Bambi

[from the extremely NSFW website Slutbambi]

If you're a fan of Roald Dahl, you know that in addition to the beloved children's classics such as James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he also published a collection of erotic stories entitled Switch Bitch.

But that's nothing compared to what the author of Bambi got up to. Bambi was originally published in Austria in 1923 as Bambi, eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde (Bambi, a Life in the Woods) by the Austrian writer Felix Salten.

Now before we get to the Viennese whore, it's time for a detour to visit with the Soviet spy. Bambi was translated into English in 1928 by none other than Whittaker Chambers, one of the most notorious American figures of the Cold War. Take it away, Wikipedia:

Whittaker Chambers … was a 20th-Century American writer, editor, and Soviet spy.

After early years as a Communist Party member (1925) and Soviet spy (1932–1938), he defected from communism (underground and open party) and worked at Time magazine (1939–1948). Under subpoena in 1948, he testified in what became Alger Hiss's perjury (espionage) trials (1949–1950) and he became an outspoken anti-communist (all described in his 1952 memoir Witness). Afterwards, he worked briefly as a senior editor at National Review (1957–1959). President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 1984.

But Bambi's unwholesome associations go even further. Long before he wrote the story of the cuddly deer baby Bambi, Felix Salten wrote what one critic called "the only German pornographic novel of world-wide status", the 1906 book entitled Josefine Mutzenbacher, or the story of a Viennese Whore as Told by Herself (Josefine Mutzenbacher oder Die Geschichte einer Wienerischen Dirne von ihr selbst erzählt) (full German text here). The initial printing was subscription-only to avoid censorship laws.

Salten never explicitly admitted authorship of Josefine Mutzenbacher, and because neither he nor the publisher submitted it for copyright protection, it was freely pirated, and remains in print to this day, having sold some 3 million copies to date. It furnished the basis for not one but 11 German soft-core porno films made between 1970 and 1994 (the original film's English title was "Naughty Knickers").

But even that's not all. The original novel itself was put on an "index" of books harmful to minors by the Federal Republic of Germany's Federal Review Board for Media Harmful to Minors in 1969. This didn't mean the novel was banned, but it did severely restrict sales and marketing. The Wikipedia summary of the book's plot may give you an idea of why they made this decision:

The story is told from the point of view of an accomplished aging 50-year-old Viennese courtesan who is looking back upon the sexual escapades she enjoyed during her unbridled youth in Vienna. Contrary to the title, almost the entirety of the book takes place when Josephine is between the ages of 5–12 years old, before she actually becomes a licensed prostitute in the brothels of Vienna. The book begins when she is five years old and ends when she is twelve years old and about to enter professional service in a brothel.

Although the book makes use of many "euphemisms" for human anatomy and sexual behavior that seem quaint today, its content is entirely pornographic. The actual progression of events amounts to little more than a graphic, unapologetic description of the reckless sexuality exhibited by the heroine, all before reaching her 13th year. The style bears more than a passing resemblance to the Marquis de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom in its unabashed "laundry list" cataloging of all manner of taboo sexual antics from incest and rape to child prostitution, group sex and fellatio.

Adding to the general perversion, Bambi himself makes a cameo appearance in one of those group-sex scenes [no, he doesn't — ed.]. In the late 1970s, a legal campaign was launched to remove the book from the index. In 1990, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court issued a landmark decision on the case.

Although the court acknowledged the book had plenty of potentially child-endangering pornographic elements, including a rather eye-popping amount of pedophilia and incest, it also had literary qualities which qualified it as a work of art, thus entitling it to protection under the artistic freedom provisions of Article 5 of the German Constitution.* The Court decision held (g) that some parts of the youth protection law were unconstitutional infringements of artistic freedom.

Nowadays, Felix Salten is largely forgotten, but that didn't stop the Austrian government from sending an official delegate (g) to the Jewish Museum of Vienna (Salten was Jewish) to open a 2007 exhibition on the man and his work.

* Just so nobody gets the wrong idea: the Court's decision doesn't mean that the book can't be regulated, it just means that the book's qualities as a work of art must be taken into account when balancing artistic freedom against the legitimate government interest in preventing harm to minors.

A Short Review of ‘Poem’

Poem, a 2004 movie by Ralf Schmerberg that I watched for the first time last night on DVD, consists of dramatized recitations of 19 German poems from Goethe onward. Some of the poems are quite famous, others moderately so, and some slightly obscure. The dramatizations aren't connected in any way, save for the framing device of a Tibetan man carrying another man on a handmade back-chair through the mountains, which intervenes every 30 minutes or so and culminates in a poem-accompanied religious ceremony. The poems are presented in utterly different ways: some as direct dramatic declamations; some as accompaniments to documentary-like records of child-rearing, weddings, or religious processions; some as theatrical mini-spectacles; some as accompaniment to scenes which involve no humans at all.

This is a very German movie, in the best way. The poems which are recited by characters on-screen (including David Bennent, Carmen Birk, and Klaus-Maria Brandauer), are recited with whacking great dollops of dramatic flair, in the tradition of German-speaking lands. Some English-speakers, who are accustomed to less stylized poetry recitation in which the 'words are supposed to do all the work', may find this a bit off-putting at first. Yet when this sort of dramatic declamation is done right (as with Brandauer above, rendering every other reading of this Heine poem — perhaps any Heine poem — superfluous), it is enthralling. (It's also worth keeping in mind that these poets wrote in a culture in which they would expect their poems to be dramatically declaimed by actors.)

The settings and accompaniment for the poems are never predictable, and, at their best, create a touching, ironic, or bizarre field of interference with the words of the poem itself, as when Ernst Jandl's bleak Believe and Confess (g) (in which he bluntly states that he knows he will never see his dead loved ones again and confesses that he hasn't the 'slightest wish' for this to happen) is accompanied by tear-stained, boozy, unstaged scenes from a very ordinary German wedding, or when Trakl's frothingly mystical Morgenlied (g) is recited by David Bennent, in full knightly armor, wandering down the median of a German highway.

'Poem' is by turns mesmerizing, pretentious, funny, moving, witty, ironic, and preposterous. A few of the musical choices have gotten a bit stale (the music of Arvo Pärt, for all its charm, has become an art-house cliche), and a few of the settings are in questionable taste. But that's what makes 'Poem' so lively — the filmmakers take risks, and sometimes the rewards are spectacular. Strongly recommended.

Trivia Contest Solution

A few days ago, I challenged readers to identify this film still:

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I was a bit disappointed that nobody came through. Mr. M wanted to know the answer. The still is from the 1963 Czech science-fiction movie Ikarie XB-1. The entire original version, with good English subtitles, can be found on YouTube and is highly recommended. It's a moody, philosophical film about a crew of astronauts who stumble upon an abandoned ship from an earlier voyage and much else besides. As you might expect from a Czech movie, the futuristic spacecraft furnishings are stylish and appealing. There's even a party scene in which we hear the easy-listening music of the future and watch astronauts dance to it!

The New Brother Theodore DVD is Out

I blogged before about To My Great Chagrin, the documentary about Brother Theodore, scion of a wealthy Jewish Düsseldorf family who was chased out of Germany by the Nazis, landed in the U.S., and started a career as the strangest, darkest, absurdest stand-up 'comedian' you're ever likely to see. He called his bit 'stand-up tragedy.'

I've now got news that the producer, Jeff Sumerel, is offering a new, enhanced DVD with interviews with Woody Allen, Eric Bogosian, and many others. You can — and should — order it here.

Thoughts on ‘Funny Games’

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A few days ago I watched Funny Games, Austrian director Michael Haneke's 1997 succes de scandale — which he remade in the U.S. a decade later. Since there will be spoilers, the rest comes after the jump.

The plot could hardly be more simple: a wealthy bourgeois German family retires to their sprawling lakeside second home. There's the father, the mother, and a boy about 10 years old. Two young men named Peter and Paul, apparently acquaintances of one of the neighbors, appear at the house. They're dressed in what looks like tennis whites and are wearing white cotton gloves like antiquarians. They insinuate themselves into the home, take the entire family captive, cut them off from the outside world, and torture and kill all three after playing bizarre mindgames with them. All for no discernible reason, except twisted kicks.

Funny Games is a patholological, cynical, ugly masterpiece, because it's a bundle of paradoxes. On the one hand, it's remorselessly faithful to its premise of bleak honesty: this is going to be a movie in which nobody heroes up, the bad guys win, nobody escapes, and there is no justice or accountability. Haneke almost taunts the audience by setting up story lines that start moving into the familiar grooves of resourceful-rescue stories. For instance the plucky, adorable son, Georgie, manages to escape from the house where his family is imprisoned and get to a neighbor's house — only to find the neighbors have all been massacred, and Paul is waiting there to bring him back. Peter and Paul dunk the family's cellphone in water to disable it, but later Georg, the father, painstakingly blow-dries the phone until the display finally re-activates — to show the phone's battery is dead.

On the other hand, though, Haneke continuously undermines his own premise by breaking the fourth wall. Paul, the smooth, cunning home invader, occasionally turns to the audience and winks during the cruel escapades. He asks us, the audience, who we think will survive the movie, and chides us for predictably siding with the innocent family. At about the 1 hour point, he addresses the viewer and reassures us that we shouldn't imagine the film will be ending soon, since that would be much too short for a feature film. He then tells us that he and his friend Peter will leave the house for a while, to give the remaining family members time to try to and escape, thereby increasing the suspense. After the wife suddenly reaches for a gun and kills Peter, Paul finds the remote control, 'rewinds' the plot as we watch, and takes the gun away from her. Haneke also has his fun with the smugness of the bourgeois family. Like all good high-bourgeois Germans, they have surrounded their home with carefully-maintained fences, walls, and gates — which paradoxically lock them in when they most need to escape.

Some reviewers found this to be a cheap gimmick, while others suggested it made the audience somehow 'complicit' in the barbaric fun. I don't really agree with either suggestion. The asides to the audience add another layer of chilling, alienated weirdness to what is already an intensely unsettling movie. The underlying point of Funny Games is to mock the lazy conventions of kidnapping/rescue dramas (especially the audience's expectations), and sabotaging the mimetic effect does that nicely. Yet, paradoxically, these asides actually enhance the suspense: they show that Haneke is blowing the conventions of the genre wide open, which means the audience can no longer rely on the assumptions it brings to 'psychological thrillers'. They are one of the first clues that are probably not going to see a heroic last-minute rescue, or a heart-to-heart in which the kidnappers gain insight and relent, or any of the other convenient knot-tiers used in dramas.

At the same time, the asides don't really make us 'complicit' in the pair's actions, anymore than a drunken barfly's leering makes a woman 'complicit' in his seduction plans. Rather, the asides set up an uncomfortable dichotomy: the family members are not in on the joke, and their suffering is 'real', but both the viewers and the home invaders are on the side who 'know' the whole thing is a game and who need not suffer any consequences. We're the voyeurs, they're the dungeon masters, and the family's ultimate humiliation, perhaps, is the fact that they never realize they are mere toys. That's also the key to the movie's title, which is in intentionally stilted English, not German. The end of the film, in which Paul charms his way into a neighbor's house, starting the cycle of murder once again, is about as brilliant and bleak as the famous ending of Cure, another deeply disturbing movie.

Funny Games is perhaps the archetype of a polarizing movie: the negative reviews treat the movie as if it were not just bad but soiled, debased, harmful and toxic. Those reviews may be the true yardstick of Haneke's achievement.

Review of ‘To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore’

Domestic bliss chez les Gottliebs

Theodore Gottlieb, the subject of 'To My Great Chagrin', was born in 1906 in Düsseldorf, to parents who each came from wealthy families. The family industry was fashion publishing, and they circulated among the highest circles of inter-war society. Albert Einstein was a frequent guest of the family, and a favorite chess opponent of the precocious young Theodore. Theodore completed Gymnasium, visited the University of Cologne, and became something of a man-about-town. Judaism seems to have meant little to the Gottlieb family until the mid-1930s, when it suddenly became overwhelmingly important. The family moved to Vienna in 1938, hoping to escape the Nazis, but as Gottlieb puts it, Hitler 'followed him to Austria.'

Gottlieb was imprisoned at Dachau concentration camp, and forced to sign over his inheritance rights to his family's wealth in return for being allowed to leave the camp. Gottlieb had been promised that the paperwork he had signed would permit his family to live unmolested, but instead they were all deported  and murdered by the Nazis. After Gottlieb's release, he lived in Switzerland for a while, before Einstein helped arrange the complex paperwork that permitted him to emigration to the United States. He eventually settled in California, penniless and with a much younger bride (Else Gabriel). To make ends meet, he worked as a janitor at Stanford University and hustled chess.

 

During the late 1940s, he tried to establish a career in Hollywood, acting in a few obscure B-films and Orson Welles' 'The Stranger.' Yet it was as a monologist that be really began to make his mark. Theodore's act was a combination of mad scientist and nihilist metaphysician. In his German accent, he would launch himself into paragraph-long, spittle-flecked tirades ending in a crescendo of shrieking, arm-waving, desk-clearing  mayhem. Or he would begin fingering his face as if it were a strange rock, or stare intently at one audience member, and deliver the monologue directly to him (or, more frequently, her). His topics ranged from 'non-existence, advisability of' to 'death, welcome relief provided by' (his gravestone reads: 'As long as there is death, there is hope') via 'teeth, unhealthy obsession with' and 'God, probable non-existence of; if existing, depraved nature of.'

 

Californians didn't know what to make of this literate Mitteleuropäer with his peculiar brand of Weltschmerz-cabaret (he called it 'stand-up tragedy'), so Theodore moved to New York City, where the bohemian life beckoned. His only marriage dissolved in the late 1940s, and Theodore set about enjoying the company of young female admirers, which his old-world charm won him in droves. He was fondly adopted by the Beats, and seems never to have had much problem getting invitations to perform, even appearing on early television shows with the likes of Steve Allen and Jerry Lewis. Woody Allen hired him to play the Commissar in his early play 'Don't Drink the Water', but he proved too erratic for regular stage work. Nevertheless, Allen seems to have kept up a life-long friendship with Theodore. Despite attempts, Theodore never broke into the mainstream, although his legendary appearances on David Letterman ensured him a cult following that lasted until his death in 2001, at the age of 94.

 

'To My Great Chagrin' is a documentary every bit as distinctive and disorienting as its subject. Director Jeff Sumerel eschews the trappings of ordinary documentaries, such as on-screen talking-heads interviews and timelines of dates and facts. All of the voices from Theodore's friends and colleagues (including Dick Cavett, Eric Bogosian, and Woody Allen) come from offscreen, and are not introduced or identified in any way. The focus is relentlessly on Brother Theodore (as he began calling himself in the 1950s): he dominates almost every frame of this hour-long documentary. When he himself is not onscreen, a puppet — inhabiting an odd, sepia-toned brothers-Quayish dressing room — 'narrates' interviews conducted with Gottlieb. It's a bit disconcerting at first, hearing a mournful-looking puppet answer questions in Gottlieb's voice , but it doesn't take long before you understand the dream-logic of it all. The movie itself a litmus test: If you're the sort of person who 'got' Brother Theodore, you will instinctively understand why it would be too safe and too predictable to describe him in a conventional, fact-driven, linear documentary. If not, not

 

'To my Great Chagrin' is as funny as the man himself (one commentator compares his wit to Dorothy Parker's) and unexpectedly touching. Gottlieb seems to have spent his life  between two stools, as the German saying goes. In fact, many more than two stools. He understood the comic potential of his German accent and peculiar habits in America, but had too much dignity to fully exploit the Mitteleuropäisch mad-scientist, crazy-philosopher shtick. He was capable of saying spectacularly funny things, but never wanted to be seen as truckling to his audience. He craved mainstream success in Hollywood horror films, but was either unwilling or unable to work in a team. Finally, Theodore had the deep aversion to confessional self-revelation typical of the European educated elite — Lenny Bruce once advised him to talk about the Holocaust during his act, whereupon Gottlieb told Bruce to stop using profanities — yet his entire act consisted of sublimated references to his experience of alienation, rootlessness, and senseless death. The overall impression is of a man whose profound sense of identification with the values and the Weltanschauung of Europe frustrated his intermittent twinges of longing to adapt to life in America. He died alone, but not friendless.

 

'To My Great Chagrin' is available for a 'donation' of $20, which you can make here. The DVD is rather bare-bones (it contains only the film), but the producers have promised more features and bonuses as resources allow. So keep the Paypal donations coming!

Kinski on Herzog

I'm slapping together a short review of Alex Ross' book "The Rest is Noise," but while looking for a nice image of the book's cover, I came across this review by Ross of an English translation of Klaus Kinski's memoir, Kinski Uncut:

Episodes recorded in Kinski Uncut fall into four categories: 1) sexual encounters with hundreds of women, beautiful and ugly, young and old, in a grotesque pornographic idiom that excludes sensual pleasure; 2) Céline-esque voyages of degradation and misery, often involving vomit, excrement, and delirium; 3) excoriations of incompetent directors, producers, writers, actors, journalists, and generally, all individuals who are not Kinski; 4) bouts of self-righteousness mixed with intense self-loathing. He actively sets out to make himself appear the biggest creep who ever walked the earth.

[Kinski on Herzog]: "Herzog is a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, blackmailing, cowardly, thoroughly dishonest creep. His so-called 'talent' consists of nothing but tormenting helpless creatures and, if necessary, torturing them to death or simply murdering them. … Every scene, every angle, every shot is determined by me. … I can at least partly save the movie from being wrecked by Herzog's bungling,"

I should note that since Ross' review was written, Herzog made the excellent documentary Mein Liebster Feind (g) in which he tells the story of Kinski visiting him (at one point, Herzog and Kinski were neighbors), and asking Herzog to help select grotesquely insulting adjectives to describe himself. "I'm sorry to do this to you, Werner," he recalls Kinski saying, "but you know people — they only want to read the bad stuff!"

[Photo: ultra-creepy digital age-progression showing how Klaus Kinski would look today, created by a team (g) of programmers and filmmakers in Baden-Württemberg]

Buruma on Fassbinder

Ian Buruma assesses Fassbinder’s eccentric-but-convincing film of Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz:

When Fassbinder made his fifteen-hour-long film of Berlin Alexanderplatz for television in 1980, Döblin’s city was mostly gone, destroyed by Allied bombs, Soviet artillery, and East German wrecking balls. And what little was left, in the east, was hidden behind the Berlin Wall, and thus out of bounds for Fassbinder and his crew. A documentary approach was clearly impossible. And even if it had been possible to reconstruct the Alexanderplatz, Fassbinder felt that you could tell how it really would look out on the streets better from the kinds of refuges people created for themselves, what kinds of bars they went to, how they lived in their apartments, and so on. So he recreated the city as a kind of theater set, confined to a few interiors–Biberkopf’s room, his local bar, Reinhold’s apartment, an underground railway station, and a few streets — built in a Munich movie studio.