Alain Tanner At The Pacific Film Archive

by Peter Wong on August 14, 2018

IN THE WHITE CITY, Bruno Ganz, 1983

SWISS FILMS’ traveling exhibition of forgotten director Alain Tanner’s oeuvre comes to a close this weekend with the screening of “In The White City,” Tanner’s classic of 1980s art cinema, at the Pacific Film Archive.

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the Swiss filmmaker made a number of films that put his country on the world cinema map.  Three films in particular cemented Tanner’s cinematic prominence.  These still relevant films, which deliver thought and humanity in various proportions, are “Charles Dead Or Alive,” “Jonah Who Will Be 25 In The Year 2000 (hereafter “Jonah”)” and the aforementioned “In The White City.”

All three of these films became career milestones for Tanner.  Debut feature film “Charles Dead Or Alive” took home the Grand Prix at the 1969 Locarno Film Festival.  Ensemble comedy/drama “Jonah” successfully brought Tanner to international attention. The poetic “In The White City” reignited interest in Tanner’s work.

Acolytes of Syd Field would probably sneer at Tanner’s “In The White City.”  Its lead character, Swiss ship engineer Paul (legendary German actor Bruno Ganz), is at loose ends in Lisbon.  Aside from drinking and randomly absorbing the city’s sights and sounds, he and housekeeper/barmaid Rosa become lovers.  Meanwhile, Paul’s unnamed Swiss significant other slowly becomes incensed by the enigmatic letters and silent movies he sends home.

Knowing that Tanner and Ganz worked without any script whatsoever in making “In The White City” would probably cause such aforementioned Field acolytes to say the plotless results seen on-screen weren’t worth it.

Conceivably, the same charge of plotlessness could also be levelled to a lesser degree at “Charles Dead Or Alive” or “Jonah.”  The effort to find the missing title character in “Charles Dead Or Alive” proves less important than seeing patriarch Charles De get drunk or read philosophy as he tries to build a life outside his well-off family’s traditions and expectations.  The eight main characters of “Jonah” have no grand plan for rebuilding the revolution from the ashes of 1968. Instead, each of them tries to muddle through in a world of post-revolutionary failure. A more mean-spirited lover of plot uber alles may snort that these flm descriptions precisely show why Tanner’s work is forgotten today.

Yet these three Tanner films show that a director shouldn’t only offer the ability to cinematically chunder from Point A to Point B like Paul’s ship in “In The White City.”  Tanner shows that there’s equal fascination in following the emotional meanderings of protagonists lacking the certitude of social “usefulness.”

Charles and Paul represent polar opposites in the way the director tells these searchers’ tales.   Philosophical awakenings and the discussion of long-suppressed feelings are the media for following Charles’ search for a less spiritually eroding life.  Visual metaphor, particularly in Paul’s movies home, and Ganz’ on the fly performance as Paul become keys to forming hypotheses about this enigmatic sailor’s aims.

If both men are bound by their willingness to see what surprises life brings their way, they’re separated by the respective urgency of their quests.  Charles uses study, manual labor, and drinking to make a once-in-a-lifetime flight from the traps of family responsibility. Paul’s drinking and casual sex covers his whimsical fatigue of life on a floating factory of madmen.

Outside forces do force a solution on Charles’ dilemma.  But that fate underscores that Tanner rejects the puritanical idea of equating hard work with personal salvation.  Happenstance plays a bigger part in helping Paul and “Jonah”’s politically aware protagonists find a species of emotional resolution.   Paul does eventually leave Lisbon, but it’s strongly suggested that domestic bliss is not a strong motivating factor. Mathieu in “Jonah,” by contrast, gets out of the emotional slump brought on by unemployment via the indirect route of manure shoveling and an impromptu lecture.

Music plays considerably different roles in these three Tanner films.  In “Charles Dead Or Alive,” it is unnoticeable at best compared to the film’s many intellectual contortions.  In “Jonah”’s communal dinner sequence, an improvised song cements its random characters as a makeshift community.   Jean-Luc Barbier’s soundtrack for “In The White City,” particularly its mournful saxophone solos, does the film’s heavy emotional lifting of conveying Paul’s unstated yearnings.  It could even be argued that Tanner’s 1983 film may be best approached as a cinematic version of an extended jazz improvisation. Certainly the ambiguous conclusion of Paul’s Portuguese sojourn owes more to music’s conveyance of a feeling than to the dramatic mechanics of reaching a resolution.

Approaching this trio of Tanner films in search of quotes on rebelliousness worth personal ganking will only frustrate the viewer.  A “subtly subversive” quality of these Tanner films is their admitting the universe will not end if decisive answers aren’t found to the questions pushing his characters.  Finding a way to satisfactorily live despite the lack of answers beats drowning in Charles De’s proverbial cottonwool bath.

This struggle is most satisfyingly explored in warm and often funny detail in “Jonah.”  Its eight anti-capitalist characters find various ways to reject the Swiss sociopolitical system they live under.  Marie works in Switzerland illegally as a supermarket checkout clerk. But she uses her position to provide occasional “free” liquor.  As a history teacher, Marco uses a blood sausage chain and cabbages to teach his students that appreciating history requires more than memorizing dates, names, and events. Tantric-minded secretary Madeleine happily shares with burnt-out activist Max dirt on her employer’s land-buying scam.  If these and the other ensemble characters have any long-term hopes, it’s living for the titular Jonah’s future or at least not living in political resignation.

Tanner’s sympathies for his cinematic rebels stops well short of ignoring their bouts of foolishness.  Charles’ daughter Marianne may be her father’s surrogate rebel. But her justification for protest group Self Defense and her later indifference to actual political change suggests she’ll eventually embrace the privileged De family life.  The simpler petit bourgeois life of painter Paul and common law wife Adeline ultimately palls on Charles because it fails to provide the spiritual renewal he craves. Playing whale song recordings to the children in “Jonah” may be more emotionally enriching.  But it doesn’t advance the manure shoveling that helps the Certoux organic farm keep going. And “In The White City,” Paul’s rejection of a life built around serving a ship’s machines is replaced by an apparently aimless sojourn equating finding life changes with finding driftwood.

These musings do not mean that Tanner is a visually arid director in these three films.  He’s also able to deliver subtle visual storytelling effects.

For example, the opening moments of “Charles Dead Or Alive” begins with a shot of the factory workshop followed by a close-up of main character Charles De’s face entering the frame.  The conjunction of those two images convey two subtle emotional messages. First, the business has existed before and will exist after Charles’ tenure as head. Second, the sense of authority expected from the executive portrait-like framing of Charles’ face is undercut by his visage bearing the expression of a deer seeing the headlights of an oncoming car five seconds from impact.

Or take the moment from “Jonah” where Max and Madeleine have a conversation touching on the similarities between the sexual drive and the desire for political revolution.  The conversation takes place at a carnival where both characters talk while chomping down on cooked sausages. Rather than obviously point out this Freudian act of consumption, Tanner keeps viewer attention focused on the two soon-to-be-lovers’ conversation and lets the sausage eating be another visual detail for sharp-eyed viewers to notice.

On the other hand, the on the fly images of “In The White City”’s Lisbon will lack for some viewers a sense of reflectiveness of the city’s life as a whole.  The many stone staircases seen in the film, though, would give pause to regular walkers of San Francisco’s North Beach staircases.

This current political time in the U.S. might very well make this the right moment to re-discover these three Tanner films.  The central characters in each of these films live between a sensed collapse of the old certainties and the terrifying shadows of new uncertainties.   An excellent distillation of the mental state Tanner dramatized was recently summarized by writer and strategist for high growth environments Jay Springett.  His thoughts on the fake news plague and Truth in today’s society could apply equally to the feelings of Charles, Marco, Marie, Paul and the rest of Tanner’s protagonists:

“You do not know what the f**k is going on.

Your job is to be absolutely certain that you have no idea what the f**k is going on.

And from that raw chaos, that raw uncertainty…as a default state of being.

Learn how to feel.

Learn how to move forward and act in the world.”

(“In The White City” screens at 4:30 PM on August 19, 2018 at Pacific Film Archive (2155 Center Street, Berkeley).  “Jonah Who Will Be 25 In The Year 2000” is still available on YouTube. For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go to https://bampfa.org .)

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