15 May 2009

Die Terroristen, Der Regisseur: Die Hard


Not many people would have Die Hard down as a cinematic roman à clef. But how else to explain its arch-villains? And their peculiar resemblances to certain figures in German cinema?

Two Germans: one is tall with hangdog features. Cerebral, organizing, hands-off, the director of events, rather than a performer. The other is shorter with long wispy blonde hair and carries out the orders of the other (though with a distinct undertone of insubordination). Effectively the id to the senior partner's ego, he exists on the physical level of performance, action, electricity, violence, consummation, death.

So here we see, on the set of Die Hard, Alan Rickman, as 'Hans', the German mastermind of an audacious terrorist strike at the corporate heart of downtown LA:

And here, Alexander Godunov, resting between takes at Fox Plaza, who plays Hans' righthand man and enforcer, 'Karl':

And here we see Werner Herzog, German director with radical associations:

And his favourite familiar, favourite fiend, collaborator-in-chief, the actor who brings physical form to his imaginings, Klaus Kinski:

The vast seething ideological unconscious of the Hollywood 'dream' factory, channelling through the conduits of director John McTiernan or casting director Jackie Burch, has dreamt into a being a world in which Herzog and Kinski are recast as terrorist mastermind and terrorist goon.

Comparing filmmakers with terrorists isn't difficult: both tend to work in small cell-like units, going round shooting things. They both work to create the spectacular and are keen on pyrotechnics, shock, awe, the disruption of the everyday. But it is the idea of spectacle – Debord's Spectacle – which shows us how, fundamentally, they work to entirely opposing effect. The filmmaker, no matter how socially radical their intentions, faces perhaps the greatest struggle in any artistic field not to simply reproduce and reaffirm the dominant mainstream discourse. Everything about film's production process militates against: it's expensive to shoot, edit, print, distribute and advertise. No other aesthetic activity - writing, music, painting - requires that you must first convince Big Capital to invest in you in before you can even make the art; the filmmaker must become the client of cash-rich patrons (studios, producers, investors, wealthy dilettantes looking for a tax-break or some cultural kudos) who can afford to buy them a seat at the table. No other artform forces the auteur to submit to such a commercially-minded battery of ideological pre-approval. Filmmakers, with the possible exception of their TV counterparts, are the most deeply implicated in the social-financial-political web which constitutes Debord's 'spectacle'.

The terrorist - left, right, religious - wants to disrupt and destroy the Spectacle's matrix.

This animus against Herzog is encoded, unconscious, and doubly irrational because while his ultra-low budget techniques threaten to tell truths beyond the boundaries of the circumscribed ideological horizons of moneyed Hollywood, they represent little direct professional threat to Die Hard's makers as filmmakers. But then this smear-by-association, which aligns and elides German radical cinema with German leftwing radical terrorism works in two directions. It seems almost quaint now to imagine German terrorists but in 1988 Hans and Karl invoke for audiences real-life counterparts from the recent past such as the Red Army Faktion (the Baader-Meinhof Group). A minor plot 'twist' (more of a tweak) comes when hero cop John McLean discovers that the terrorists are in fact merely thieves, only there to steal a fortune in bearer bonds. McTiernan deliberately introduced this script change to (in theory) depoliticise the terrorist element and smooth the commercial passage of the film, but rather than ideologically neutralizing Hans, Karl et al, it simply creates a more damning (and politically desirable) implication, that terrorists at heart are secretly motivated only by raw greed rather than idealism (just as socialists don't really want a fairer society, but use this claim as a cover to steal from the deserving rich). The terrorists have to be foreign because in the history of America which Hollywood tells itself, domestic terrorism does not exist (pace Mark Pellington's Arlington Road in '93). This despite the fact that the Red Army Faktion's raids on banks were directly inspired by attacks on property in the 1965 Watts Riots -- and that the Symbionese Liberation Army (the captors of Patty Hearst) where busy robbing banks throughout the early '70s. But as part of this political neutering of the terrorists, the Hans-Herzog, Karl-Kinski pair-off finds its double meaning, as it implies that Hans and Karl, in their dollar-driven daze, are not the revolutionary radicals they pretend to be, but, like McTiernan, are mere traders in big bangs and colourful lights, distraction, display, prestidigitation, dazzle, smoke and flames: dealers in the bloody spectacular, not overturning its table in the marketplace, but complicit in its machinations.

in Part II: Citizen McClain vs McLean, VA; the Unabomber onscreen
in Part III: Kubrick, Stockhausen and Die Hard's demolitional sublime


Seb said...

Okay, so my ex-film-student father raised me on some odd films; I still don't know if showing an 8-year-old Bertolucci's The Conformist was such a hot idea. But it meant my cultural inculcation with some unconventional (and pretty bad-ass) points of reference.

That is, even when I first saw Die Hard at age 9, I thought, "Yo, that blond dude looks a lot like Klaus Kinski!"

Perhaps an appropriate counterpoint to McTiernan's film could be Don Delilo's novel Mao II, which illustrates how little difference there can be between the social function of an artist and a terrorist. But, as you said, novelists aren't put through as fine-toothed a thresher as filmmakers...

Sam Davies said...

Thank God I'm not the only one.

Alexander Godunov who played Karl [Kinski] interestingly was a Russian defector... it's a sad story - he was a dancer with the Bolshoi & refused to get back on the plane after an LA appearance - the Russian authorities refused to let his wife off the plane to join him & they never saw each other again. Godunov drank himself to death in '95.

Haven't read Mao II, I'll check it out... Thanks

Sam Davies said...

LA on the brain... double checked this and it was actually after a New York appearance that Godunov defected & was separated from his wife.

Anonymous said...

Hey very nice blog!! Man .. Beautiful .. Amazing .. I will bookmark your blog and take the feeds also…die casting

Anonymous said...

Come on, what is Kinsky's picture doing in this topic?

Sam Davies said...

I'm proposing that you can read Hans and Karl in Die Hard as a kind of disguised (perhaps entirely unconscious) depiction of Herzog and Kinski, based on their nationality, the degree of physical resemblance, and their relative roles as director/mastermind (Herzog/Hans) and star actor/right-hand-man & enforcer (Kinski/Karl). Only just noticed, but the initials match up too!

Anonymous said...

That gratuitous ß in the title hurts my German.

Sam Davies said...

but the incorrect use of die/der did not? I'm sure your German will recover!