Front Lines of Community. Hollywood Between War and Democracy

Kappelhoff, Hermann
Cinepoetics 1
Berlin 2018: de Gruyter
Anzahl Seiten
XIII, 375 S., 20 Abb.
€ 69,95; $ 80.99; £ 57.99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Elisabeth Bronfen, Englisches Seminar, Universität Zürich

In his book “Achieving our Country”, the philosopher Richard Rorty makes reference to the Hollywood platoon film as a telling example for the way the American cultural imaginary thinks about communality.[1] At issue for him is not only the fact that any sense of belonging to a group is forged by virtue of an affective bond among those deemed to be its members. Rather, Rorty also understands communality to entail an emotional agreement to participate in a political body that has developed historically, based on shared values, hopes and attitudes towards the world. At the same time, he is concerned with military units such as the platoon because his aim is to point out that participation in a community is invariably conceived in opposition to those who do not belong to it. Inner conflicts are, for him, a necessary part of liberal democracy not only in so far as America was founded in a war of independence. The political self-conception of this new nation was also based on the promise of an individual pursuit of happiness over and against state force. Given, however, that this claim to freedom could only be won through war, a seminal antagonism lies at the heart of America’s historical experiment in democracy. Militarization lays claim to the lives of individuals, even if it is fought in the name of liberal political society. As a consequence, the notion of America as a country to be shared by all its citizens is an ongoing process. It is to be achieved over and again not only regarding a permanent renewal of unredeemed promises but also the changing boundaries of the sense of commonality.

Negotiating the tension between militarization and civil society on screen has, in turn, proven to be a particularly resilient cultural aspect of this internal conflict. Fruitfully drawing on Rorty’s discussion of American society’s understanding of communality, Hermann Kappelhoff’s monograph offers ample proof that the war film is both witness to and medium of reflection on precisely this antagonism. At issue in this genre is, after all, the forging of politically motivated affective bonds in face of external and domestic enmity. This is the case regarding the narrations which war films bring to the screen as well as the relation they set up with their spectators. While Kappelhoff is first and foremost interested in how this genre emerged and developed as a response to America’s entry into the Second World War, he conceives of Hollywood cinema in general as a site of cultural self-reflection and the transmission of a cultural legacy. As such, his rethinking of the war film as a genre links historical re-imagination with the engendering of feelings of belonging to a community. These emotions, in turn, are produced by virtue of an ensemble of aesthetic modalities of experience that relate to and reflect on both past and current notions of communality. The function of the war film is, thus Kappelhoff’s provocative claim, to help a political community ensure itself of a shared horizon of values and relations to the world. Indeed, as he notes, “the aesthetic formation of pathos determines the ethos of the films” (p. 36).

A comparison between two propaganda films, namely Leni Riefenstahl’s “Tag der Freiheit! – Unsere Wehrmacht” (D, 1935) and Frank Capra’s “Prelude to War” (USA, 1942) shows how illuminating it is to read the war film not in relation to heroic pathos and, instead, to track the affective effects of aesthetic formalization. While Riefenstahl uses avant-garde montage to produce a homogenous perspective, Capra deploys a poly-perspectival narration to debunk a communality based on the sense of a totalitarian whole. As Kappelhoff convincingly demonstrates, the appeal of Capra’s critical engagement with Nazi ideology is so effective because his narrative uses emotionally charged cinematic rhetoric to draw on the tension between the individual to develop freely on the one hand, and, on the other, the moral claim the American nation has a right to make on individuals in times of military mobilization. While Kappelhoff acknowledges that both Riefenstahl and Capra explicitly propagate an ideal community, he is able to draw into focus the difference in political stance by foregrounding the aesthetic experience the war film offers. Indeed, his important claim throughout the book is that the war film can only help mobilize the home front if the commonality it speaks to is something grasped by the senses. It can only bear witness to the historical configurations of how political communities are proposed if it entangles the subjective reality of the spectators with the sense perceptions of the characters presented in the film narratives.

By rethinking the war film genre in terms of aesthetic experience, expressive modalities and an affect dramaturgy, all of which are continually reconfigured in relation to shifts in political thought, the genre as such is recalibrated. Precisely because the suffering of the individual soldier is at the center of these film narratives, it makes sense to think of combat films not so much as a genre of heroism. Instead, repurposing Aby Warburg’s notion of the pathos formula, Kappelhoff asks us to think about combat films in terms of melodramatic pathos scenes that have recourse to a series of narrative formulas: The transformation of the civilian into a soldier, his or her initiation into the military order, the enthrallment with military action, the home front, the intensity of love in the face of death, the renewal of civilian life. The culmination of these genre specific scenes is ultimately the transformation of melodramatic pathos into memory images and the communal mourning this affords. The illuminating reading of John Ford’s “They Were Expendable” (USA, 1945) offers an exemplary analysis of pathos scenes and the way they are aesthetically produced for emotional effect. What is also shown to be fabricated, however, is the cultural memory to which this film attests. Ford makes use of his unabashed elegiac tone because he conceives of the film itself as the affective bond between public at home and those who lost their lives in the war. The melodramatic sentiment is the glue that holds a community about to emerge from the war affectively together by invoking a duty to remember those who were sacrificed.

Kappelhoff’s point throughout is that precisely because the medium of film allows us to experience a world that is not our own, an affective relationship to the history of the community can be established and, with it, a sense of being connected in our moral values by virtue of sharing a particular perception of the world. The war film is paradigmatic for creating such a shared space of sensibilities because the community is formed around the discovery that something is missing. The sacrifice at the heart of the war film genre emerges as a trope for the sense of community as a fissured field because the tension between the demands of the military and the civil community can never be resolved. The war film constantly refigures the limits of community by rendering this antagonism visible, palpable and visceral. To revisit the affective effects of the poetic re-imaginations of battle Hollywood continues to produce, proves to be an important way not only of thinking about the vicissitudes of American history. It also draws into focus its entanglement with the history of the genre best known for negotiating the violent promise of America on screen.

[1] Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country. Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, Cambridge 1998.