Michael Sicinski

draft #3 / in progress


Working Through the City: Ernie Gehr's Signal - Germany on the Air


In an unpublished interview conducted in August of 1978, filmmaker Ernie Gehr was asked about his place of birth.  Gehr (said by Scott MacDonald to be “unusually reticent about his life” [1993, 37]) replied,   " 'Planet Earth' . . . I refuse to acknowledge nationalistic or state boundaries.  I will recognize geographical boundaries . . . Earth; same planet as the rest of the human race" (1978, 1).  One may well understand this answer as a form of sarcasm cloaked in idealistic internationalism -- after all, does it really help us to better comprehend Gehr's films to know that he was born in Wisconsin?  It would also be possible to locate this reply within a discourse of intellectual pan-nationalism.   Such an explanation has been used to characterize the aspirations of that segment of the avant-garde film community with roots in European "high culture,"  for whom national borders have been somewhat irrelevant. Peter Wollen, in his classic 1975 essay "The Two Avant-Gardes," has described the issue in this way.


New York is clearly the capital of the Co-op movement. Consequently, from New York,

Godard looks much more distinctively European than Kren or Le Grice, a fact which

simply reflects the realities of power in the art world, to which the Co-op movement

is closely tied.  Indeed, there is a sense in which avant-garde Co-op filmmaking in Europe

is closer to New York than Californian filmmaking is . . . (Wollen 1982, 93)


Such a representation of the globe-trotting culture of "art-world" filmmaking, however, is not especially favorable in Wollen's account.  In contradistinction to that "political" avant-garde embodied for Wollen in the work of Jean-Luc Godard, whose films analyze international politics from within a concrete national frame of reference, the unwillingness of the "formalist" avant-garde to specify its collective enunciations from within a national "place" becomes a marker of an ostensibly studied apoliticism, summed up by Wollen as a "preoccupation with pure film, with film 'about' film, a dissolution of signification into objecthood or tautology" (Wollen 1982, 97). 

I begin my analysis of Ernie Gehr's 1985 film Signal -- Germany on the Air with these somewwhat unflattering domestications of the filmmaker's statement on borders, rather reluctantly, but necessarily, I think, in order that I may leave them behind.  I also rather speciously call upon a personal statement by Gehr, a statement retrieved from the archive, in order to allude to an implicit concern with the transgression of national boundaries at that historical moment in Gehr's career when, by popular account, his work was at its most anti-referential.  "Anti-referential," here, is the least problematic term I can think of with which to express an entire genre-identification of Gehr's work, one with a phalanx of reductive labels and shorthands to which I allude at present, again, in order to leave them behind.[1]  Instead, I would like to recast Gehr's comment as both a prescient statement of purpose, and as a dare.  I believe that the filmic work performed by Signal is accomplished, in part, by a refusal to "recognize"  national boundaries, or the bounded construction of "nation."  Or, if we are forced to recognize national boundaries, Signal seems to demand that we do so deconstructively: to "re-cognize," to remap those boundaries cognitively. 

Signal is located in a concrete space and time, that of Berlin in the early 1980s, and the film subjects this location to relentless scrutiny.  In the course of the film, the formal properties of this physical space become articulated with that space’s historical specificity, the active relationships between the two revealing a shifting yet indivisible social formation.  But the film never pins the space down, or halts its evolution in order to point at it and simply describe. Inevitably, Gehr finds history in Berlin, but in Signal, he never delivers a deceptively clear image of that history.  The film’s power derives from its unwillingness to offer its viewers familiar, consumable pictures of “the Holocaust,” “the Nazis,” or “postwar Germany,” at which a comfortable audience might simply nod in assent. [In the full-length essay, I discuss Bersani and Dutoit’s reading of Resnais’ Night and Fog, and its relation to this problem.]  Gehr's film disarticulates the stability of the nation, its imaginary coherence, as well as -- perhaps most radically -- the imagined coherence of the viewer, who may well understand him or herself to exist safely on the "other side" of that national border which quarantines the past of Germany.  Signal physically inscribes an undecidable, "unotherable" space, using filmic materials to construct a space which resists total comprehension and, subsequently, comfortable consignment to somebody else's past.  Along these lines, Gehr also issues an ethical dare: in order to occupy this earth, in order to create the space for the possibility of humane dwelling, one must disentangle and ultimately dismantle the boundaries of national division, as well as the self / other demarcations of subjective mastery.  One must risk one's illusion of safety in the present, by plumbing the lingering uncertainties of the past. 

I. Signal as Counter-surveillance

Gehr's film consists mostly of a continuous non-diegetic graft of image and sound, both recorded during a residency in West Berlin.  For the majority of the film, the images are composed of fixed-camera, truncated pans of multiple views of a traffic circle in a commercial section of the city.  While pedestrians and motorists become visible in these short sweeps, at least initially the film makes clear that they are incidental players in a physical, geographical "drama."  Jim Hoberman describes the film as follows.

Signal . . . is a 40-minute suite of "empty" compositions and puzzling pans, set mainly

in a summery, but otherwise nondescript, urban intersection where five streets cross.

The movie is deliberately anti-dramatic. As Benjamin wrote approvingly of Atget, Gehr's

landscapes "lack atmosphere." Like Atget as well, Gehr could be said to photograph

the street as though it were the scene of a crime (Hoberman 1995, xvi).


The simplicity of the single filmed views, aggressively frontal, is matched by the utter dislocation of the fragmented multiplicity of these views, each presented in rapid-succession montage.  In such sharp contrast to the classical construction of filmic space as to render it practically irrelevant even as a point of comparison, Gehr composes this cubist space as an exploded bombscape.  The depiction of the intersection's component parts is usually stabilized, slightly, with such vertical anchoring points as lampposts and trees, which in turn come unmoored in the tic-like horizontal pans.

Against this series of spaces, an audio collage of apparently random radio broadcasts maintains a continual level of audibility, if offering no more solidity of reference than the image track.  Paired with some diegetically motivated (but temporally disphased) audio from the intersection, such as footsteps accompanying scenes with no pedestrians, we hear a tuner scan the dial: bits of Radio Bavaria, some rock and roll, a waltz, and discussion in various languages.  While aurally disorienting in its own way, the audio track does in fact provide an all-enveloping presence which provides a counterpoint to the jarring, segmented vision of the intersection images, this apparent presence in keeping with the normal sensual contrast between sound and vision.[2]

In the above quotation, Hoberman likens Gehr's intersection to the scene of a crime.  It is precisely the question of the culpability of Germany, in even its most quotidian spaces, which saturates Signal's spatial inquiry.  Spatial dislocation in the cinema is usually something of a jolt in itself, given the film medium's typical use for the soldering together of coherent, legible spaces. But Gehr's material disarticulation of the space is of even greater concern to us as viewers, because there is something "we" want to know, that we desire to learn through seeing and hearing.  “We” want hard evidence.  It is this transparency of the space of German responsibility, and "our" typically imperious spectatorial position in relation to it, which Gehr steadfastly disallows.

This space of the intersection is rife with storefront signs, traffic signals, billboards as well as mobile ads on the side of the occasional bus.  These signs, as we understand from our own urban experiences, are designed to alleviate confusion, either by providing the directions necessary to attain a predetermined goal ("How do I get there?"), or by offering forceful tips for the satisfaction of lingering, undirected desires ("What do I want to buy?  Where do I get it?").  On the face of it, these "benign" navigational tools are rendered inscrutable by Gehr's compositional method.  However, Tom Gunning describes the filmic scene accurately I think, as revealing a directional and locational chaos implicit in the urban scene itself.


The overlapping vantage points of successive shots tease us with the possibility of

mapping out the total space and finally orienting ourselves.  At the same time the array

of directional signs and the tangle of urban objects which solicit our attention increas-

ingly convey the bewilderment of anyone who pauses to contemplate this intersection

rather than simply being channeled by it (Gunning 1993, 8).


Through its distanced repetitions, perspectival shifts and unfixed glances, Signal, in part, enacts a paradoxical meditation on the inability to think.  But the search is not only for breathing room.  Signal's camera is indeed looking for traces of history, all the while employing a method of inquiry which obscures the legibility of the "evidence" it compiles.

How does Gehr compose his filmic rhetoric of the material scene of the Berlin cityscape?  Despite sharing certain affinities with the stationary "realities" of the early films by the Lumičre brothers[3], the camera of Signal alludes, I think, to a much more "artless" form of image-making, the "empty" documentation of the surveillance camera.  For one thing, the film's chief visual subject matter, noteworthy for its seemingly unspectacular sights, invites viewers to recognize their own inability to watch passers-by stroll, to count the various cars, et cetera.  Moreover, the "scene of the crime," a crime with no visible traces and apparently no suspects, is visualized apart from its "moment of truth."  We gaze at these multiple, partially random views either in the aftermath, or in anticipation, of an "event."

In an essay delineating the invention of modern photographic surveillance, John Tagg makes clear that simply placing a camera in a square, or photographing an event of legal import, is insufficient for the imbrication of image and truth, and that this imbrication is rhetorically necessary for the constitution of "evidence."  The photographic construction of a document can occur only within a discursive context which deliberately eschews the photograph's multitudinous other readings.  The image, then, is only legible within an historically specific discourse.


If the instrumental camera was to operate as a controlled extension to the expert or

supervisory eye, then the structured possibilities of its representational system had

to be invested in the drives and desires of a constellation of apparatuses of power. If

the photographs such a camera produced were to claim the status of technical docu-

mentation, then they had to be differentiated from a field of photographic represen-

tations. They had to shun the picturesque and sensational, disdain the moralism of

philanthropic reformism, affect a systematicness beyond commercial views, and

relinquish the privilege of Art for the power of Truth (Tagg 1994, 90).


Despite the now-naturalized character of surveillance footage, such footage can only perform its political work by inscribing itself within a specific set of rhetorical moves.  For instance, the same multi-perspectival quality which, on first viewing, makes Signal so spatially "incomprehensible" would not be at all jarring if we were watching the television monitor mounted in the upper corner of a 7-Eleven.  Within the rhetoric of surveillance, we as viewers understand that the "need" to patrol space, to optically control it, demands a spatial logic in excess of the coherent 180-degree fabrications of narrative space.[4]

Of course, one may well ask, apropos of Signal, how far such a disjointed representation can go before it too becomes illegible.  Gunning comments on Gehr's camerawork and its difference from the official camera-in-the-square.  Signal "yields a more fragmented image, less useful for mapping and surveillance than the various panopticons of the modern age" (Gunning 1993, 10).  Signal marks out its difference with its too-rapid pans, its elegant, intentional compositions, which exceed the rhetorical boundaries of institutional discourse by drawing undue attention to the workings of the apparatus itself, as well as the guiding intelligence behind it.  And this, of course, is as it should be -- Signal is a critical work of art, not a security tape.  I want to argue, however, that Gehr's visual allusion to the surveillance mode is not adventitious.  Signal's "record" of the scene of a crime is an act of counter-surveillance, but one which reconfigures the meanings of both surveillance and counter-surveillance.

The term "counter-surveillance" gained currency in the 1980s, when relatively inexpensive video equipment became commercially available, first in Japan, and then elsewhere in the industrialized world.  In contrast to the ever-present security state maintained by the state apparatus and its capitalist counterpart, which is designed to patrol the spaces of private capital and the governmental / police activity which enables those spaces to exist, counter-surveillance was a move by citizens to empower themselves by watching and recording the police, the government, and big business.  Of course the most infamous example of counter-surveillance in U.S. history is the George Holliday videotape of the beating of Rodney King.  Another example, one which gained extensive media exposure as well as marking the beginning of the widespread discourse of counter-surveillance, is Paul Garrin's camcorder documentation of police abuses during the Tompkins Square homeless uprising.  But while some countersurveillant images become headline news, other such activities are scrupulously ignored by mainstream media, most notably perhaps the international contingent of independent telejournalists who have logged hundreds of hours of unseen footage of post-Gulf War civilian carnage in Iraq.[5]

Signal too constitutes an act of counter-surveillance, but one which disarticulates the transparent truth-claims in which such documents typically are invested.  Gehr accomplishes this with a number of interconnected strategies.  For one, he is returning to the "scene" (Germany) of a series of state abuses of the past.  However, while Signal does present a dilapidated factory-like structure which we discover, reading a worn sign, to be the former Gestapo headquarters, the film actually unleashes its primary scrutiny upon a "neutral" space, in which "nothing" of note seems to happen in the present. Furthermore, there is no hard evidence that anything specific happened there in the past.  As opposed to the presentist "hard fact" of the Holliday or Garrin tapes, Gehr's film, on the one hand,  searches in vain for material traces which would ratify our suspicions about the all-pervasive culpability of "Germany," even at its most banal.  This aspect of the project, the material spatialization of Hannah Arendt's famous truism on the "banality of evil," is described by Gunning.


. . . the shadow of history, the recognition that the horror of fascism and the nightmares

of history were always absorbed into just such every day urban landscapes, that the

screams of the tortured never penetrated in an audible way into these spaces. Gehr

returns to this tangle of streets, not simply to find his way around, but with the suspicion

that signals still flash within the configurations of streets and traffic and are borne invisibly

on the air (Gunning 1996, 15).


On the other hand, Signal inscribes the futility of such a search for the location of visible / audible blame, as well as formally undercutting that secure subject position of the detached investigator whose ability to locate blame is undergirded by his or her process of national and cultural "othering."[6]  While the film clearly takes a stand in its very looking -- an assertion through the material of film that this space has a history -- Signal's inscription of the coeval character of present and past affirms two philosophical positions.  The first is that, while Nazi Germany was an historically specific conjunction of circumstances, such a form of terrorist social control which saturates daily existence invisibly (floating "on the air") is not the sole province, historically or contemporaneously, of  "Germany" or, worse, "the German mind."  As David Sterritt notes, "even commonplace urban objects come to be seen as reflections of a manipulative mentality not limited to any one nation" (1985).  Second, the past, in the present, of "Germany," as both national imaginary and geographical space, can continue to exist, to have such luxuries as a routine day of shopping, only by subduing those historical "ghosts" which walk unseen through these mundane spaces of the present.  Gunning sums up the conundrum.


                                One recalls in the midst of this traffic how important an efficient system of circulation

was to the Nazi final solution: the elaborate use of the railway to transport Jews to the

death centers, the use even of mobile gas chambers mounted on trucks.  If this present

day traffic intersection carries the freight of so much past horror, then how can we escape

it?  And if it doesn't -- if the traces are truly dispersed and lost -- then how can anything

be saved (Gunning 1993, 8)?


Signal disallows an authoritative answer to this question.  Mimicking the visual discourse of evidence-collection, Gehr undermines the dominating clarity of standpoint which, to a great extent, has been inscribed in the cinematic apparatus itself, with its triangulation from 16th century Albertian rationalization and 19th century juridical methods.  He subverts the medium while at the same time mastering it, proving that nothing is inherent to the photographic medium.  As Tagg has said, photographic practice is legible only within specific social inscriptions.


[If it is granted] that the photographic always exceeded its colonization, investment and

specification in institutional frameworks of use, it is not to concede any intrinsicness of

"the medium." It is not to equate a discursive structure with a technology. Nor is it to posit

any unity or closure to photography's discursive field. It is precisely in this sense, therefore,

that I have denied that photography as such has any identity. . . A technology has no

inherent value, outside its mobilizations in specific discourses, practices, institutions and

relations of power (Tagg 1994, 91).


Rather than denying the camera's imbrication with relations of power, Gehr works out this discourse, refusing to allow it to speak him.  Gehr's film unmakes the instrumental sense which is an undeniable part of the Fascist horrors whose simultaneous unfathomability and indelible memory the film "documents." 


II. Disarticulating the German Nation [excerpt]

The materialism of Signal does not rely on a presumed documentary authenticity between image and sound.  Gehr's film, as stated above, employs a contrapuntal strategy which serves to further disarticulate the German scene presented in the film, and this image / sound disphasure (until the very end of the film) points the way to a more radical materialist project, the dissolution of the confident fiction of the national.

The Berlin radio broadcast to which the title alludes introduces a metaphorical thickness to the difficult scene of the intersection.  As people move or are moved quickly into and out of the frame, they cannot hear the various messages which are carried "on the air" that they breathe.  Hoberman concurs, noting that "In Signal, the radio serves to make the invisible world concrete" (Hoberman 1995, xvii).  In this respect, the discord of the shifting audio represents the slippage between palpability and absence, not only of those historical criminals of the Third Reich who haunt the square as memories only, but also of centralized power of any kind, whose very effectiveness lies in its simultaneous elusiveness and reach.

The use-value of communications technologies for the Third Reich, particularly the radio, is well-known.  The key to this effectivity was the building of an imaginary unified body, "the nation," through homogeneity and simultaneity.  While one may debate exactly how much attention was paid to the broadcasts (the radio in The Marriage of Maria Braun, for instance, is ever-present but as background drone), the necessity of binding the expanse of the nation with one authoritative voice, and one language, was clearly understood by Goebbels as part of official National Socialist policy.  But as Homi Bhabha, in his project of "DessemiNation," argues persuasively, the unity of the nation must be continually maintained in this way.  Borrowing from but expanding upon Benedict Anderson's work, Bhabha describes the time of the modern nation as a "meanwhile," a vertical time-space which links diverse subjects with conflicting interests within a geographically / linguistically bounded "community" (Bhabha 1990, 308).  A paradox emerges in the process of activating the "national imaginary": a unified "now" can be etched out by recourse to a mythologized past.


For the political unity of the nation consists in a continual displacement of its irredeem-

ably plural modern space, bounded by different, even hostile nations, into a signifying

space that is archaic and mythical, paradoxically representing the nation's modern

territoriality, in the patriotic, atavistic temporality of Traditionalism.  Quite simply,

the difference of space returns as the Sameness of time, turning Territory into Tradition,

turning the People into One (Bhabha 1990, 300).


The effectiveness of such media mythologizing is ambivalently mocked and mourned by Syberberg in a scene from Hitler, a Film from Germany, in which a fat man in his Nazi uniform listens to an old radio broadcast, hugs his gun, and weeps.  Syberberg is correct in emphasizing the aural as the most plangent site of mourning for the lost object, "Germany."

Gehr's use of modern radio sound as the counterpoint to his visual disarticulation of the legibility of Germany maintains the all-pervasive menace of media in an administered (this time, capitalist) society.  However, underscoring the breakdown of the fiction of racial and national purity of the Reich, internationalism returns with a vengeance.  Blended with the recordings of street noises of dispersal and transit, the sounds of German radio are hopelessly hybrid, incorporating English, French, and Russian languages.  The chauvinistic desire for "pure" Germanness is cast adrift on the wind.  In fact, the presence of English on the German airwaves brings to anyone who is listening (and who is listening?) an (inadvertent?) undermining of the comfortable forgetting of the Nazi past which furnishes West Berliners with the official fiction of a "zero hour."  In the second substantial portion of Signal, we leave the intersection to meander contemplatively before the crumbling Gestapo HQ, along ominous disused rail lines and boxcars, laden with a well-known history.  "On the air," we hear a man and woman exchange phrases: "You can't accuse me."  "I blame you."  "Who's to blame?"  "It's all your fault."  "Are you accusing me of all this?"  "You people are all the same."

In this way, Gehr demonstrates the layered temporality of modern Germany, which can be understood in Bhabha's terms to expose the impossibility of the smooth functioning of the "national" fiction.


To be obliged to forget -- in the construction of the national present -- is not a question of<

historical memory; it is the construction of a discourse on society that performs the prob-

lematic totalization of the national will.  That strange time -- forgetting to remember -- is

a place of 'partial identification' inscribed in the daily plebiscite which represents the per-

formative discourse of the people (Bhabha 1990, 311).


For Bhabha, the eruptions of performativity within the activity of "willing" the nation are moments of inevitable (though not inevitably observed or exploited) slippage, reemergences of the suppressed force of cultural difference which the work of the signifier introduces into the nation. 

The performative intervenes in the sovereignty of the nation's self-generation by

casting a shadow between the people as 'image' and its signification as a differentiating

sign of Self, distinct from the Other or the Outside. In place of the polarity of a pre-

figurative self-generating nation itself and extrinsic Other nations, the performative

introduces a temporality of the 'in-between' through the 'gap' or 'emptiness' of the

signifier that punctuates linguistic difference (Bhabha 1990, 299).


This temporality of the "in-between" militates against the ahistorical self-evidence of the nation, but also against simple historicization or linear archeology.  Rather than tracing out the trajectory of the national illusion -- "how we got here" -- Bhabha insists upon a radical discontinuity which breaks through in the present while also resituating the past.  This eruption, it seems, occurs within the fragmented time of Nachträglichkeit, as repetition with an as-yet-unvanquished difference.  "Historical" time, Bhabha writes, becomes synchronic, in order to assert the vertical homogeneity of the national "meanwhile."  But does this project of exorcism succeed?

The narrative structure of this historical surmounting of the 'ghostly' or the 'double' is

seen in the intensification of narrative synchrony as a graphically visible position in

space: 'to grasp the most elusive course of pure historical time and fix it through unmedi-

ated contemplation'. But what kind of 'present' is this if it is a consistent process of

surmounting the ghostly time of repetition (Bhabha 1990, 295)?


To return to Signal -- Germany on the Air, I want to reiterate my claim that this film graphically articulates the space of "ghostly" repetition, not in the simple sense of "past" and "present," pancaked or interpenetrated, but as a demonstration and opening up of the difference of temporality within an historical scene of memory.  Time and space in Signal are subject to repetitions and condensations which are perceptible (we observe the return of specific places if we look closely) but not apprehensible.  Our ability to master or delineate this haunted temporality is hopelessly compromised.  The people depicted in and out of the frame, we the viewers, and possibly the subjectivity behind the camera, all enter a temporal "clearing" in which the performative gesture of forgetting, which undergirds the solidity of the national fiction, becomes critically doubled.  We can no longer forget that we are obliged to forget.  Those fictions which authorize nationhood (a whole present in part one, a univocality of language in part two) are thwarted by the material inscription of Signal.


III. Signal is a Real Thing

As should be evident from the passages I have quoted extensively above, Bhabha's theoretical project aims to allow the emergence of an otherness which possesses the disruptive strength to disarticulate the nation.  The suppressed "double" of history and language -- both understood as components of an "other" temporality -- for Bhabha marks the way toward the nation's unnarratability.


We must always keep open a supplementary space for the articulation of cultural knowledges

that are adjacent and adjunct but not necessarily accumulative, teleological, or dialectical.

The 'difference' of cultural knowledge that 'adds to' but does not 'add up' is the enemy

of the implicit generalization of knowledge or implicit homogenization of experience

(Bhabha 1990, 313).


Signal -- Germany on the Air is a film which provides an example of "different" cultural knowledge.  Gehr's creation of a filmic space which refuses to engage in the fiction of coherence or to offer itself for mastery or specular subjection, is a politically principled determination to "add to" but not to "add up."  The space of Gehr's Berlin is a series of parts which will not comprise a whole, precisely because the histories of absent memories, of the victims of barbarism, are temporally present as absences.  By carving out this space of irreducible, irreconcilable difference, Signal resists the cultural homogenization of the official narratives of postwar West Germany, which attempted to substitute an Economic Miracle for a working-through.

Along with Gehr, I argue that film is a real thing, and that the disarticulation of the spaces of the nation in the material realm of film has substantial consequences.  The refusal to offer a clear-cut, stereotypical spatial impression, a refusal which characterizes much of Signal, could be misconstrued as simply a withholding, but nothing could be further from the truth.  This material disarticulation of the fraudulent wholeness of the German city provides an "other" space through which we can, first, experience surprise and sensual pleasure, and further, begin to rearticulate space from within a non-forgetting, non-totalizing temporality.  Gunning characterizes the freedoms of the former.


We can not assume an assigned place before a Gehr film, ultimate positioning eludes us.

But we never feel abandoned or ignored by these films. Instead they directly solicit us

to entertain a number of often contradictory positions, to try them out, and switch

between them.  In this way Gehr explores the interaction between those processes of

space, motion and time inscribed in the cinematic machine and our own perceptual and

mental processes.  Gehr's game with forms of space explores possible contradictions and

tensions and invites us to experience zones of place that remain for most of us terra

incognita (Gunning 1993, 7).


In pointing the way towards possibilities for the latter, I would like to cite a passage from Michel Foucault on the negotiation of spatial practices, as well as to discuss how Ernie Gehr concludes Signal with just such a consideration.  Foucault, in an interview on space and power with Paul Rabinow, made measured comments about the impossibility of total domination, the continual crawl-space of tactics.  He noted, however, that those very sites of German history represent the absolute limit of freedom, in which no possible negotiation exists.


There are a certain number of things that one can say with some certainty about a

concentration camp to the effect that it is not an instrument of liberation, but one

should still take account -- and this is not generally acknowledged -- that, aside from

torture and execution, which preclude any resistance, no matter how terrifying a

given system may be, there always remain the possibilities of resistance, disobedience,

and oppositional groupings (Foucault 1984, 245).


Foucault is quite clear in admonishing that this "is not to say that, after all, one may as well leave people in slums, thinking that they can simply exercise their rights there" (ibid, 246).  Nevertheless, he insists that spatial power typically can be refigured through practice.

As should be evident by now, this is what I believe Ernie Gehr has done in Signal -- Germany on the Air.  But moreover, he has gestured toward a new articulation of the local in the conclusion of his film.  Most of the critics who have written about Signal (whose work I have repeatedly cited in this essay) have emphasized the gradually growing legibility of the space of the intersection.  This is partially a function of the viewer's sustained attention, but also registered in a slight adjustment of approach in the concluding minutes of the film.  First of all, the sound / image disphasure gives way for the most part to images and sounds of a rain storm.  Compositions become smaller, yet less claustrophobic.  The takes are longer; a noticeable change is that pedestrians no longer vanish in mid-stride, but tend to make it across the frame.  Many of the shots in this final portion look down the sidewalks rather than into the tumult of the traffic circle.

One might well wonder why a film so involved in the radical demolition of the masterable spaces of the national / historical imaginary would resolve these tensions in the spatial equivalent of a happy ending.  But this is not what I think is going on -- such a trite resolution would not be offered at the point of its greatest incredibility.  Instead, I think that Gehr has attempted to remind us that ghosts of the past are not the only occupants of the square.  Real everyday people navigate these spaces, and perhaps having undergone the trauma of interrogating the in-between temporal space of the opening section, they and we can look toward a new space in which this working-through itself becomes quotidian.  If so, this newly articulated space points the way toward the eventual illegibility of those authoritarian national fictions which demand purity and enforce forgetting.

The final image of Signal is not an "image" at all, but a real thing.  A loud clap of thunder from the rain storm on the soundtrack coincides with a popping yellow end flare, the end of the roll.  Gehr informed me that he timed the end flare with the thunderclap, allowing the rest of the soundtrack for the final portion of the film up to that point to sync up as it may.  In addition to being a beautiful effect, this pairing of diegetic sound and material filmic phenomenon seems a perfect metaphor for the hopeful activity the film ultimately performs.  A future moment of reconciliation has the capacity to retroactively realign the sounds and spaces of our past.



[1] Commenting on the formal readings of Gehr's work, which focus only on  its alleged modernist self-reflexivity, John Pruitt writes, "A misapprehension of this kind has given birth to a whole school of filmmaking and a body of criticism in close attendance, both of which for the most part prove embarrassing" (1982, 67).

[2] Sound, being less distanced from the body than vision, has been discussed in terms of providing a (false) plenitude for the hearer.  See Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror (Indiana Univ. Press, 1988); Mary Ann Doane, "The Voice in the Cinema," and Pascal Bonitzer, "The Silences of the Voice," in Philip Rosen, ed., Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology (Columbia Univ. Press, 1986).

[3] The perspectival character of the Lumičres' early actualities are, as Richard de Cordova has argued, not simply 16th century - derived views, precisely because their motion disaligns the stability the Albertian model typically provides. "From Lumičre to Pathé: the Break-Up of Perspectival Space." Thomas Elsaesser, ed. Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative (BFI Books, 1990).

[4]  I am drawing my conception of the material construction of the space of classical cinema from Stephen Heath, "Narrative Space,"  Philip Rosen, ed.  Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology (Columbia Univ. Press, 1986) [essay originally published 1976].

[5] Most recently, both “official” and countersurveillant images have been conflated by the media in their reports on the police violence during the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle.  In this new development, mainstream media outlets have appropriated countersurveilant acts in order to inscribe them within a narrative of “peaceful protest” versus the “illegitimate” destruction of private property, the latter apparently justifying wanton brutality on the part of the Seattle police.

[6] This "implication" of both filmmaker and viewer has led Hoberman to jokingly refer to Signal as a "structuralist noir," and while this is amusing, the analogy doesn't quite hold.  Who's the femme fatale?  Germania herself?