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MnemoCine | Himmel oder Hölle

[…] Cinema does not only depict memories, but it also produces memories. In this way, Wittmann makes the performative dimension of the cinema experience stand out, thus vindicating the intrinsic potential of cinema as experience.

[…] But these are only some examples of just one preoccupation and passion: vision itself, a passion that pushes him to dissect the eye of a dead cow with the hope of seeing the image that should have remained impressed in the cow’s eye before her death.

[…] The originality of Murnberger’s film lies in fact that the “memory onion” that he dissects and analyses is nothing but the cinema itself: the flesh of the onion is the experience of cinema, including projected films, the material film, the cinema theatre, the projection room, the cinematic games in nature.

What role does memory play in cinema? Can film be a way to remember? Is the cinematic experience an exercise in memory? How does film deal with associating memories with images? How do we perceive filmic work with memory? Matthias Wittmann wrote an important book on this subject and the Stadtkino Basel has organized a soirée dedicated to the presentation of his book MnemoCine. Wittmann himself chose to speak within the darkness of the cinema theater as he introduced the topics of his study not only by speaking about them but also screening excerpts of films that exemplified the main points of his theses. It is rare to have such an intriguing intertwining of complex reflections and brilliant speech. Of course, Wittmann could only sketch out a few of his arguments and finally decided to let a film speak for itself, Wolfgang Murnberger’s Himmel oder Hölle (1990).

This gem of Austrian film was an amazing discovery for us as it is an original study on both memory and film, rich with ideas in form and content. Murnberger’s inquiry into his childhood in Burgenland is a way to reflect on the very material conditions of filming and film projection. The fictional little Wolfi is the son of a projectionist and acts on his curiosity in discovering various material aspects of cinema. Such discoveries are constantly paralleled in the film by the discovery of nature and, more specifically, of the animal world in the countryside around him. This parallelism provides an analytical or clinical (and almost cynical) perspective on cinema. Wolfi seems to live in a family and society made of prohibitions and sanctimonious behavior, which exacerbates his inclination towards spying and his obsession with bodies – naked women, slaughtered cows and pigs being easily associated… But these are only some examples of just one preoccupation and passion: vision itself, a passion that pushes him to dissect the eye of a dead cow with the hope of seeing the image that should have remained impressed in the cow’s eye before her death. Now, in Himmel oder Hölle, the topic of vision is explored in relation to the content and form of the film at the same time. Murnberger’s play with forms of vision is nothing but a way to cope with the different degrees of memory, displayed through black and white images in dialogue with colour images, films within the film, stills, and flashbacks from Wolfi’s early childhood. Himmel oder Hölle can be considered a “memory onion” with the many layers of memory: Murnberger remembering his childhood, Wolfi remembering a film, or an image while viewing a film, and enacting the memory of films, as the cinematic imagination of westerns and thrillers dominates the games that Wolfi plays with his mates. Also, we as viewers are reminded of our own childhood and first experiences with film – and certainly the Austrian Matthias Wittmann himself, as a viewer, is remembering some cultural aspects of his country, or of its first screening of Murnberger’s film. The originality of Murnberger’s film lies in fact that the “memory onion” that he dissects and analyses is nothing but the cinema itself: the flesh of the onion is the experience of cinema, including projected films, the material film, the cinema theatre, the projection room, the cinematic games in nature.

Like Wittmann, I decided to take a large detour through Murnberger’s Himmel oder Hölle, because it is probably the best way to return to Wittmann’s study on memory and cinema, as the film anticipates many of the topics that appear in the book. In his short lecture, Wittmann managed to hint at the complex layers essential to the relationship between memory and the cinema experience. The mutual dependence of memory and perception is the foundation of that relationship, which was brilliantly exemplified by Wittmann through Hitchock’s Vertigo scene of the kiss between Judy and Scottie, in which Judy’s “epiphanic” manifestation coming from the bathroom – «the birth of perception», in Wittmann’s words – takes the form of Scottie’s memory of Madeleine. Among the many layers that follow, I would limit myself to stressing an interesting and pivotal distinction that Wittmann provides: his study is not only preoccupied with the many forms in which memory can appear in cinematic images, or, with the many ways we are forced to remember within the film. It also reflects on the way the cinema experience can stimulate memory, thus how the act of remembering can be cinematic. Cinema does not only depict memories, but it also produces memories. In this way, Wittmann makes the performative dimension of the cinema experience stand out, thus vindicating the intrinsic potential of cinema as experience. No experience can be brought to life only through the perception of a representation; it must also have a productive, performative force. I wanted to underline this specific aspect of Wittmann’s speech at the Stadtkino, because, on its own, it provides a very good reason to plunge into his book MnemoCine, which presents itself as a complete study of the relationship between memory and the cinema experience.

Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore
First published: September 25, 2016

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