In an influential 1998 essay, the theorist and critic Vivian Sobchack invited us to understand film noir through the spaces that the characters in these movies inhabit. Not the psychological or metaphorical spaces, but the real bricks-and-mortar locations in which the tough guys and femmes fatales pass their time – a kind of time that Sobchack called “lounge time”. The places “to which we should pay heed,” she wrote, “are the cocktail lounge, the nightclub, the bar, the hotel room, the boardinghouse, the diner, the dance hall, the roadside café, the bus and train station, and the wayside motel. These are the recurrent and determinate premises of film noir and they emerge from common places in wartime and postwar American culture that, transported to the screen, gain hyperbolized presence and overdetermined meaning.”
Sobchack identifies the fact that film noirs are hardly ever set inside traditional family homes, but in transient places instead – hotels, stations and bars, even prison cells. When we spend any length of time in a character’s home, as in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, it looks more like an upmarket cocktail lounge than a dwelling. Sobchack talks about “cold glitter of the houses of the rich, where money buys interior decoration and fine art but no warmth, no nurturance”. Or, in the same film, we see a traditional family home, with a nuclear family living within it, only to see that ideal destroyed in an instant.
For Sobchack “the loss of home becomes a structuring absence in film noir”. Sometimes characters will swap a real home for a pastiche, as when Mildred Pierce escapes her domestic kitchen to open a chain of restaurants feeding other women’s husbands, and families who are far away from home. Sobchack’s phrase “lounge time” represents the lives of the transients who dwell in these non-domestic spaces: “the uprooted, the unemployed, the loose, the existentially paralyzed,” she says. “Lounge time concretely spatializes and temporalizes into narrative an idle moment in our cultural history.” In Clash by Night, Barbara Stanwyck’s character says: “Home is where you go when you run out of places.”
In postwar America, Sobchack argues, men and women were unsettled by their recent experiences, but perversely felt the need to settle down, to recover from the trauma, to become families. There was a housing crisis, not enough homes to go around, which meant that traumatised men and women were living together in boarding rooms, hotels, trying to pretend that four walls could make a home.
It’s well documented that there is a link between film noir, and the cinema of Weimar Germany. That the various ex-pats working in Hollywood transfigured the psychological unease and shadowy photography of German Expressionism into the psychological unease and shadowy photography of film noir. But Expressionism wasn’t the only mode in Weimar cinema that has a link to film noir. The “street films”, the New Objectivity of German cinematic realists such as Gerhard Lamprecht and GW Pabst, all have something in common with the street-level grit, the low lifes and hard choices of film noir. Weimar Germany, as well remembered for its artistic success and sexual and chemical decadence as its rising crime, inflation, housing crisis and all the other social problems that followed the end of the first world war, could well be described as an “an idle moment in our cultural history”. Haunted by the past, and unable to make homes, raise families, Weimar men and women forgot their troubles, and put their lives on hold, to dance.
When I think about lounge time in film noir, I think about Weimar cinema too, and especially the spaces that recur in the films of GW Pabst. He sets his films in lounge time. In brothels, casinos, nightclubs, taverns, reform schools, in the criminal underworld of London (The Threepenny Opera) and even a lost ancient city, trapped underground, that is in actual fact a kind of cocktail lounge crossed with a boudoir (L’Atlantide). The homes that we see, whether opulent or pitifully shabby, are cold, with “no warmth, no nurturance”. In Pabst’s first film, The Treasure (1923), the family home has more economic than domestic value. It contains a secret hoard of stolen gold, and the mother squirrels away her savings in odd places. The people who live there are at odds with each other, and value the gold trapped in the house, not its sanctity as a family home. Stopping off on the way to this horrid house, our hero visits a tavern, which by contrast is filled with warmth, communality, and the shared comforts of food, drink and sexual pleasure.
In an early scene in Pabst’s 1924 film The Joyless Street, Greta Garbo goes to buy a coat in a dress shop. But this is no ordinary dress shop. The presence of avant-garde cabaret star Valeska Gert as the shop assistant might give us a clue, but the shop is just a front for a cabaret. And the cabaret is also a brothel. Lounge time exists in the shadows of respectable society, behind a door or a curtain. A moment later we will see Asta Nielsen, a young woman desperate for money to support her parents, hovering in an anteroom between the boutique and the cabaret, deciding whether or not to enter the latter space, and by implication into a contract to sell her body. The temptation is too strong to resist. The boutique is not the only suspicious shop on the street: down the road, the butcher offers flesh for flesh, exchanging meat for sexual favours.
In Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), the brothel where Louise Brooks’s character Thymian sells her body, is presented as sanctuary of pleasure in comparison to her cold family home, where her philandering father punishes the women he takes advantage of, where Thymian is raped in her confirmation gown, where her baby is taken away. The hedonistic honesty of the brothel is a contrast to this moral hypocrisy: the sins of the fathers, of her father, of the patriarchy.
In Abwege (1927), Brigitte Helm lives in a sleek and comfortless home with her cruel and distant husband, but she is drawn into the decadent whirl of the Berlin nightclub scene. Here she is as bewildered and horrified by what she sees as she is excited and seduced. It’s impossible to watch these scenes without thinking of Hans Ostwald warning about the newly liberated women of Weimar Germany, that their “‘erotic giddiness’ [could send] the world into a tailspin”.
How does time pass for the young woman she meets in the nightclub who moves slowly because she is languorously narcotised, and looking to sell her body for another dose? How will time pass for Helm, once she has swallowed the same poison? Is she still the woman she once was, or a lifeless doll like the one she is given as a gift?
In Pabst’s lounge time, sex is for sale, and even romantic relationships are tainted by economics. In Pandora’s Box (1929), Lulu begins her journey in this cold, glittering apartment and ends in this comfortless attic. In between there’s a floating casino, a no man’s land of economic and moral hyperinflation, in which couples conspire to sell other people’s bodies to pay their own debts, in which a lesbian prepares to give herself to a thuggish man, for love, and to pay someone else’s debt. There’s a wedding in the middle of the film, but it becomes the scene of a murder, and the marital bed is never slept in by man and wife.
Throughout Pabst’s films, idle men and women fail to create harmonious family homes – they seduce and punish each other in these dens of licentiousness and iniquity, which critic Lee Atwell calls “a typically Pabstian milieu”. In Pabst’s films, there is a particular kind of tension between “lounge time” and real time, the socially sanctioned domestic ideal of marriage, children and a comfortable home.
Look at Edith Jehanne in this scene from The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927). She’s living in lounge time, preparing to spend the night in this Paris hotel with her boyfriend, when she looks out of the window to see a wedding party, and its tearful bride.
If, as Sobchack says, “the loss of home becomes a structuring absence in film noir”, that is almost true in Pabst’s films too. His characters are driven out of loveless and hypocritical homes – they don’t believe in “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” – into places of greater honesty, with more emphasis on pleasure and less on the appearance of puritanism. In 1931, Pabst attacked the Hollywood philosophy that prizes marriage and material comfort above all, which he said “breeds discontent among hundreds of young people who are certain that silk beds and satin counterpanes are the high road to happiness in life, as the romantic films teach them. All this is so much mental dope and more immoral than any leg show banned by the censor.”
Pabst never allows his characters to fall victim to this particular lie, but he constantly reminds us that the transient world they escape into has its risks too. It’s a shadowy world of crime, degradation and commodification of the flesh. It’s Weimar Noir, and it’s dangerous out there.
- The Love of Jeanne Ney screens at San Francisco Silent Film Festival tonight.
- You can see many of Pabst’s “lounge time” films including The Threepenny Opera, Diary of a Lost Girl, The Joyless Street and Abwege, at the BFI’s brilliant Weimar season, which launches tonight.
- I appeared on Radio 4 this week, discussing gender fluidity in Weimar Cinema – you can listen here.
- My BFI Film Classic on Pandora’s Box is available to buy here.
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