Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the forthcoming novel Maintain (Ampersand Books, 2012). A regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books, Dew is the author of Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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In a cartoon from the pages of Der Stürmer, that mirror of the Third Reich, we see Der Führer at, of all places, an art exhibition. A rodent-faced artist is exhibiting a sculpture wherein a dozen tiny, human forms struggle with each other—a representation, one imagines, of the existential crisis of the individual, alienated from any sense of community, alone in the crowd. Hitler smashes this sculpture down to a lump of clay and, in the final panel, shapes this raw material into an example of Nazi art—an image of the ideal German male, muscular, heroic, standing proud and tall. Art in the service of the superhuman: this is a theme lurking in the sharp-angled shadows of Fauth’s novel Kino, which is the story of a young American woman’s discovery of her grandfather’s life as a German filmmaker. While the Nazis sought a utopia of uniformity, Kino—as he names himself—sought a utopia of diversity, with “all the freaks, homos, and Jews in it, and all the gypsies and pimps,” yet this cultural tourism, this sense of diversity for the sake of diversion, “freaks” as décor, has its own problematic politics. Mina, Kino’s granddaughter, must wrestle with these implications as well as the possibility that her grandfather’s films predict future events, the likelihood that cinema itself is a kind of drug, plus assorted cloak-and-dagger baddies seeking copies of supposedly long-lost films.
Some of the story is told in e-mails from Mina to her new husband, struck with dengue fever on what was to be their honeymoon—“Please please please call me as soon as possible. I’ll send this epic email now. It felt good writing it. Once I hit send, I’ll be alone again.”—who then disappears from the hospital—An e-mail, later: “Sam, where the fuck are you? Why aren’t you answering your phone? Maybe you’ll check your email at least. You always check your email.”—and who may be struck with permanent brain damage—“Was that a migraine Mina felt coming on, or was she in the middle of a nightmare?Had the nurse really said the words ‘permanent brain damage?’ Why would Sam check himself out of the hospital?”
Other parts of the story are told in Kino’s voice—“Fritz Lang. Even before I ever met the miserable son of a bitch, with his monocle and superior airs, I hated him.... In person, he was an insufferable asshole. He bellowed orders and treated people like puppets.”—allowing a glimpse into his milieu and his megalomania—“Even when the Nazis burned my movies, I clung to hope. You have marked me crazy and yet you ask me to explain myself. Art will prevail! I’ll make another movie yet. Cinema cannot be detained! Nothing can stop me, for I am Kino.”
But beyond the set pieces and the shuffling scenes that advance the plot, Fauth is interested in the role moving pictures play in our lives, and, particularly, the political power of cinema—not merely as intentional propaganda, but also as a ubiquitous frame for our experience, our dreams. The President of the United States, dressed in a “tight flight suit,” lands on an aircraft carrier that has been circling just beyond a harbor—this is Kino, well-edited spectacle, entertainment as event, the manufacture of an idea that, once seen, lingers and haunts as surely as the silhouette of Count Orlok. And as Kino can also be poetry, what sort of poetry can stand in the face of Auschwitz? “There’s no such thing as a harmless movie,” one character here insists: when cinema tells “lies about gaiety and happiness when the reality was death and fear and destruction and oppression,” the art becomes a means “to distract the masses from the blood-letting. Is that any less dangerous? Less damnable?” While this novel ends with a feverish image of a dispersed community of bricoleurs at work re-assembling and re-editing pieces of film via the Internet, utilizing the radical potential of our moment’s technology, these questions about the dangers and responsibilities of cinema cast a shadow far longer than this book.
Official Jürgen Fauth Web Site
Official Atticus Books Web Site