Revisiting the Dark Continent
By Richard Kovitch.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Red Desert (1964) presents an industrial landscape as spectral and mesmerising as any in cinema. Revisiting the film after 45 years of increasing environmental panic, initially it appears to be about the ecological consequences of the machine age. Extraordinary colour photography lingers on factories billowing out smoke, telegraph wires scar a gunmetal sky. We spend much time drifting through eerie streets or trapped in concrete rooms. In mechanised dockyards a cargo ship appears like an apparition from smog-thick mist. The soundtrack is oppressive, either punctuated by a roar of heavy industry that drowns out human voices, or haunted by hollow silences. In a scene framed against desolate edgelands, Richard Harris and Monica Vitti discuss the trickle of man-made chemicals into a ruined lake. But to interpret The Red Desert as fixated upon ‘ecological catastrophe’ would be to miss Antonioni’s deeper objectives. The truth is the director was relatively indifferent to mankind’s infliction of unnatural processes upon nature; he even found Ballardian pleasure in the industrial landscape. What Antonioni was really exploring was the trauma of adapting to new worlds. As he explained:
“It’s too simplistic to say—as many people have done—that I am condemning the inhuman industrial world which oppresses the individuals and leads them to neurosis. My intention was to translate the poetry of the world, in which even factories can be beautiful. The neurosis I sought to describe in The Red Desert is above all a matter of adjusting.”
This tension between mutable environments and the individuals struggling to adapt to them has a discreet tradition in post-war European film, one that illustrates how fragile European identity has been during the continent’s long, tortured history. Such themes can be located in a strand of cinema that begins with The Red Desert and continues to the present. Notable examples would include Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably (1979), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983) Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown (2000), Ulrich Seidl’s Import/Export (2007) and Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector (2008). All evoke historian Mark Mazowar’s description of Europe as ‘The Dark Continent’, a landscape scarred by crumbling empires, two world wars, the Holocaust, authoritarian ideologies, a Cold War and – underpinning it all – barely contained tribal anxieties. Mazowar establishes Europe as a traumatised continent defined by permanent traction, a territory where economic and geographic uncertainties have twice forced it to the brink of self-destruction. It is an old story and yet it continues to haunt the European future, irrespective of what Europeans like to pretend.
That Europe in the twentieth Century can be considered a ‘Dark Continent’ – originally a derisory nineteenth Century colonialist’s term for Africa – is a stark reminder that, despite its Enlightenment flag waving, it has always harbored conflicting mindsets. Its heritage of science and reason encouraged it to colonise with a heart of darkness – significantly in Africa, Indo-China and the Middle East – and enabled the authoritarian ideologies of Nazism and Communism. And now, at the turn of the century, decades of once redemptive post-war social projects are being abandoned to meet the relentless demands of neo-liberal economics. These catastrophic missteps remind us that despite the illusion of progress Europe has projected, regression shadows it constantly, its predilection for reason imprisoning it as much as setting it free. Thus, at the dawn of the twenty-first century it remains unchained from the sun – as Nietzsche identified in The Gay Science – and has only un-elected technocrats and deregulated market forces to light its way.
As such, visions of Europe as a meaningful body pertain to imagined states rather than the discordant reality. Its beleaguered Eurozone – repeatedly resuscitated on the operating table with transfusions of cash – remains driven by an ideology peculiar to a continent running in fear from its violent history. As Margaret Thatcher observed – drawing on a determinist tradition that feeds itself – “Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy.” The EU is an attempt to contain that history, to finally apply philosophy to the ‘Dark Continent’. Yet, as Mazowar illuminates, as a system of government it has always lacked the supporting democratic institutions and practices to make such a future attainable. The countries bound to the EU, all of which are distinct in language, religion, law and historical experience, have little to encourage them in their plight except the failures of their collective past and the seductions of a broken financial system. In this context, it seems perverse that in the 1990s – as the Soviet Union dissolved into skeletal traces and German re-unification commenced – some commentators speculated that a united Europe would play a crucial role in shaping mankind’s future. In 2012, with the Eurozone in free-fall and mainstream politics increasingly discredited by the economic systems it genuflects before, this seems optimistic at best, vainglorious at worst. Europe’s thuggish underbelly may have retained some fight at street level – as both the Golden Dawn’s presence in Athens and the Breivik shootings in Norway intimate – but the continent’s wider political objectives have been distorted to the point of obscurity.
Yet, how rare it is to see this Europe acknowledged. It either passes unsaid, sanitised by the heritage culture that has reduced once thriving cities such as Paris and Vienna into tourist friendly museums; or its complexities are rendered obsolete by the quick-fire new media that dominates the way people communicate, creating the illusion of an accelerated culture – of rapid change and immediacy – when in actual fact old, slow burn anxieties continue to drive history. As Europe struggles to ‘rebrand’ via the EU, the continent remains exhausted from the horrors of its twentieth Century, even as first-hand experience of them fades. Its uncertain relationships with a weakened America and a wounded Russia veer wildly. And now in the early twenty-first century with the ‘rise of the rest’ (China, India, South Africa and Brazil) old hierarchies are rapidly being dissolved. Europe’s status as the world’s largest economy risks being reduced to mid-table. Adapting to the future has become a truly epic task.
These anxieties have always been discernible in a strain of European cinema that began with Antonioni and Bresson, and continue to permeate the films of Haneke and Seidl. The ominous atmosphere these filmmakers convey is as real as the history that underpins it. In the twenty-first century The Red Desert still lurks in Europe’s subconscious, haunts the gutted Ukrainian tenements of Import/Export, finds expression in the immigrant tensions of Haneke’s Code/Unknown. Europe remains its own conundrum. Fearful of its past, dreading its future, forever struggling to adapt. As Antonioni concludes, “There are people who do adapt, and others who can’t manage, perhaps because they are too tied to ways of life that are by now out-of-date.” The future though is already upon us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Kovitch is a writer and director based in London whose work has won awards in Europe and the US. He has been published by Clinicality Press and is currently developing several screenplays and a photography project.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 19th, 2012.