The Moviegoers

The Dead: A Novel BY Christian Kracht. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 208 pages. $25.

The cover of The Dead: A Novel

In his 1929 essay “Will Talkies Abolish the Theater?” Luigi Pirandello offered a provocative reading of cinema (and defense of the stage) when the younger medium was at a pivotal moment. “The greatest success to which film can aspire, one moving it even farther along the road toward theater, will be to become theater’s photographic and mechanical copy, and a bad one at that. Like all copies, it must arouse a desire for the original.” What stoked Pirandello’s criticism of film was the introduction of sound—he wrote the essay after seeing The Jazz Singer, the first talkie, and not long after lauding the special capacity of early cinema to inject images with dreams, memory, hallucination, and madness (“a silent expression of images understandable to all”). “The public after many years grew accustomed to the silent screen. Now that film has spoken however badly and grotesquely—intolerably enough, it would speak—anyone who returns to a silent film experiences a certain disillusionment, a disappointment, a dissatisfaction that earlier went unnoticed. Silence has been broken. It can never be restored.”

Pirandello sensed that language would bury the incantatory place of the image in film, which would turn the medium’s silent past into a ghost haunting its talkie future. Film was more than a side interest of his: In 1915 he wrote perhaps the first novel that took the making of a movie as a subject. Translated into English in 1927 as Shoot!: The Notebooks of Serafino Gubbio, Cinematograph Operator, the book was a nascent attempt to grasp the implications of a radically novel medium, suspended between art and entertainment, that unsettled the way viewers saw themselves and the world.

A century after Shoot! and nine decades after Al Jolson ushered in a new fantasia of sound and light, the Swiss novelist Christian Kracht has revisited this Pirandello-esque moment in The Dead. While Imperium (2012), Kracht’s shaggy-dog novel set during Germany’s colonization of the Pacific, concluded with the prospect that his protagonist’s story was being made into a big-budget film, The Dead gives cinema the full treatment, imagining a collision of the movie industries of Germany, Japan, and America just as film commandeers the global stage and politics takes a dreadful course. The year the book takes place in is never named, but 1932 can be inferred from the episode at the center of his tale: the so-called May 15 Incident, when a battalion of militant Japanese nationalists targeted Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai and his celebrity visitor, Charlie Chaplin, for assassination. In real life, Chaplin made the decision to take in a sumo wrestling match with Inukai’s son rather than dine with the prime minister, and it saved his life. Kracht’s text somewhat conveniently places Chaplin—the future celluloid Führer, and one of the few silent-film superstars to flourish after the arrival of sound—instead at a Noh theater performance, where he will be informed that the “most artful stories” in this traditional form “lack both plot and representative characters and feature ghosts.”

You don’t need to know classical Japanese theater for the unusual structure and tempo of The Dead to register, but Kracht decisively draws on Noh’s quirky structure—its tripartite form, with a meandering first part followed by a plot-quickening second and a swift resolution in the third. The novel is also inflected by its highly specific source history (especially the Mabuse-and-Murnau world of German cinema plumbed by Lotte Eisner and Siegfried Kracauer, both of whom are among the book’s significant characters) and its author’s penchant for meta-moments (the reader will eventually intuit that the text quite possibly coincides with a film titled The Dead). The plot, as it were, shadows the machinations of a certain Masahiko Amakasu, a perversely cerebral minister of film in Japan who has concocted a secret plot to undermine the nefarious dominance of the American movie industry in Asia by establishing a “celluloid axis” with Germany, “the only country whose cultural foundation deserved as much respect as one’s own.” He sends his colleagues at the UFA studio in Berlin a prospectus for collaboration, and for good measure includes a snuff film documenting a gory instance of seppukushot in profoundly arty silence.

Amakasu hopes Germany will encourage Fritz Lang or Arnold Fanck, maestro of the mountain-film genre and codirector of The White Hell of Pitz Palu (a vehicle for an aspiring actress named Leni Riefenstahl), to helm a Japanese-German projection. Instead, the head of the German studios summons the gloomy Emil Nägeli—director of the dreamlike, some might say plotless, Die Windmühle, and a depressed Swiss cineaste haunted by the death of his father. Nägeli is an interesting choice, given that he is foundering without a project following a desultory Nordic visit to Knut Hamsun to propose a film version of the enigmatic Mysteries. But the UFA suits cynically hope to get Nägeli to shoot a comedy in Japan, one that will make a world star of their own dubiously talented Heinz Rühmann.

Fritz Lang, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler, 1922.
Fritz Lang, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler, 1922.

Although Kracht establishes his novel’s conflicts fairly quickly, he is in no hurry to see them resolved. He spends a good portion of the book suggesting a buried kinship between Amakasu and Nägeli, as if there were a subterranean geopolitical cord connecting their miserable childhoods in Switzerland and Japan, where neither can escape a vaguely Proustian absorption with their unhappy memories. Nägeli recalls his father’s cold and wet hands, his pet rabbit being flayed and eaten by the neighbors, the noisome smells of rancid ham and warm beer in the peasant Alps; Amakasu remembers parents who fear his prodigious intelligence, his grandmother’s black, lacquered teeth, a boarding school rife with privileged bullies, an early indulgence in the unexpected pleasures of sadomasochism.

Kracht knits together the trajectories of his Swiss and Japanese leading men in a formally impressive ensemble, a play of narrative mirrors that gives his book an unexpected if chilly elegance alongside the farcical history. (The third main figure, Ida von Üxküll, a German actress who is Nägeli’s fiancée, will bridge the two and propel the story from Tokyo to Hollywood.) But plot and character aren’t really the driving forces of the book. The Dead unfolds in a slapstickseries of macabre accidents (bloody car wrecks, deaths by shooting, the odd drowning at sea), coupled with a curious set of recurring and poetic details (bad teeth, fingernails gnawed away by compulsive anxiety, fetid cooking odors, writing instruments with pale-violet lead) blown up and shown in strange and lingering focus. At times The Dead reads like a reboot of J. G. Ballard’s Crash, in a treatment by Wes Anderson, after a weekend spent binge-watching John Schlesinger’s version of The Day of the Locust.The result draws out a comicallybleak but shakily ambiguous vision of the coming image-world of fascist politics and Tinseltown productions, and of how both authorized a new power of the screen in startlingly effective ways. This includes the aestheticization of violence itself, of which The Dead is at once diagnosis and symptom. Here, a drunk and trigger-happy Chaplin is no less lethal than the prime minister’s killers or the gangsters running UFA.

Kracht might be the best-known contemporary German-language novelist apparently no one in the US has heard of. In Europe, he’s long been a highly visible and tendentious provocateur, known for keeping his cards close to his chest as he flirts with historically and politically loaded material. At times it’s been unclear to some critics how seriously to take him, or how seriously he takes himself, a gambit familiar to anybody who’s witnessed a certain Warholian strain in post-Pop art over the past three decades or read much Michel Houellebecq, followed enough press conferences by Dogme film directors, etc. On the page, Kracht doesn’t seem—with a big emphasis on seem—to have a critical bone in his body, and he certainly isn’t keen to show his hand. Like Imperium (also translated with gusto by Daniel Bowles), The Dead is marked by a deadpan archaizing style that in the original is frequently likened to a ventriloquized Thomas Mann. This arch if often humorous performance on the page, coupled with his cultivation of a dandyish persona that can come off as aloof and contemptuous, if not a little dickish, has made some German critics suspicious of his work and his politics for years.

Given Kracht’s media reputation, The Dead is at times mildly and surprisingly humane. Compared with the dark comedy of Imperium, the fictionalized retelling of the attempts of a real-life turn-of-the-century “cocovore” who attempted to found a utopian nudist colony in the South Pacific, The Dead keeps its wildest absurdism, not to mention its misanthropy, in check. In one of its most fetching moments, which is almost touching in its strangeness, a drunken Nägeli winds up in a Berlin taxi with the equally blotto Kracauer and Eisner. As per usual, there is a car crash—Kracauer has eye-gouged the man behind the wheel, after the driver unleashed a round of anti-Semitic eructations—and a morning-after scene in which Nägeli witnesses Kracauer doing a poor job of poaching eggs to go with a newly opened bottle of champagne. In the course of the binge, the two film critics convince Nägeli he has to accept the “misplaced Faustian pact” he’s been offered by UFA—it’s his unique destiny—but with one twist: The film he’ll make in Japan will have to be a horror film, and one that will be “an allegory, if you like, of the coming dread.”

The film the Swiss director winds up making intertwines the fates of Amakasu and Üxküll, stars them in fact, and has little to do with allegory. Yet it is more ghostly than anything Kracauer and Eisner would have prescribed. “Horror stories are universal,” Nägeli asserts at a pivotal moment. “They’re all very much alike, it’s just a matter of variations on a theme.” The Dead shows the manifold ways that truism unites his characters’ sad sagas, as well as the medium that brings them back to life.

Eric Banks is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities.