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3 Film Noir and the Historical Imaginary

3 Film Noir and the Historical Imaginary

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Out of the Past

the work on pre-war German cinema of Siegfried Kracauer and Lotte

Eisner two traditions—Expressionism and Weimar Cinema, respectively—that, in responding to the German national trauma of World War

II for Kracauer and the legacy of Romanticism for Eisner, provide from

the vantage points of New York and Paris a retrospective coherence for

German cinema. Already, I could say this begins to sound rather like a

psychoanalytic discourse, and this sense is compounded, I suggest, when

Elsaesser adds that, in From Caligari to Hitler and The Haunted Screen,

he sees “mirror relations at work, providing an occasion for recognition/

miscognition effects, which in turn favoured discourses and perspectives

on their subject that necessarily occluded other, equally well-founded

film-historical approaches and film-aesthetic evaluations”.57 For example, Elsaesser notes that émigré journalist HH Wollenberg’s Fifty Years of

German Film, published in the same year as From Caligari—but arguing

against the psychological reading of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari—has

been all but forgotten.58 Studies such as those by Kracauer and Eisner,

Elsaesser argues, succeeded because they reinforced the prejudices of their

host countries towards West Germany as successor to the Third Reich.

In America, for example, Kracauer’s criticism of the 1920s German cinema reflected the general feeling of unease towards Germany as a whole

following the war. The categories that Kracauer and Eisner produced—

Expressionism and Weimar Cinema—presented ready-made identities

“for Western eyes” and against which, Elsaesser suggests, it is difficult to


This, for Elsaesser, is the function of the “historical imaginary”. He

clarifies his terminology by explaining that he does indeed mean “imaginary” in the Lacanian sense, which is to say: “the field of representations

that a subject lives as his/her identity across self-images, alienated because

structured by an (invisible) symbolic, and determined by the (inaccessible)

presence of the significant other(s)”. He suggests that, with the notion of

the historical imaginary, he identifies a “dynamic of miscognition” in the

construction of generic and national identity, with history functioning as

a Symbolic, and the cinema as the field of representations. Elsaesser suggests that in this miscognition—which overtly indicates Lacan’s Mirror

Stage—the intervention of an imaginary order promulgated by Kracauer

and Eisner allowed German cinema to become the mirror or shadow of


The Boundaries and Meaning of Noir


the German historical trauma that was the Third Reich. The function

of this historical imaginary was to permit a first attempt at understanding such trauma where, as Elsaesser explains, “unrepresentable history

found less its ‘objective correlative’ than its negative image and thus the

illusion of a hidden truth” in the field of representations. In this way, I

could say that German cinema becomes cast almost as automaton: the

imaginary-symbolic machinery that I described in the previous chapter,

which crashes into motion in response to the tychic irruption of a traumatic event. The result, Elsaesser continues, was the production of certain

master narratives with respect to the German film industry: for example,

that UFA became synonymous with the decadence and grandeur of the

period and was commonly understood as a “child of the Wehrmacht” and

thus little more than an extension of the propaganda wing of the Nazi


Most significantly for my purposes, Elsaesser goes on to explain that he

finds this historical imaginary also at work in the historiography of noir—

inextricably linked as it is to the history of “German Expressionism” in

Hollywood—and finds similar master narratives in play. He suggests

that “the history of film noir derives its semblance of cogency from the

mirror-confirmation (i.e., the imaginary relations) which its images and

concepts entertain with the economic, linguistic and political (i.e., symbolic) factors structuring this history”. There is in film criticism, Elsaesser

observes, a broadly presumed German ancestry of noir that involves a

relationship between Hollywood and Europe entailing the “circulation

of cultural cliché and backhanded compliment” and providing “mutually

sustained imaginaries of ‘otherness’”. I will explore the intricacies of this

trans-Atlantic cultural dialectic in the next chapter; what is of most interest to me here is what Elsaesser identifies as the function of the historical

imaginary with respect to noir as “simultaneously ‘covering up’ and ‘preserving’ the inconsistencies, multiple realities and incompatible entities

named by German Expressionist style, political exile and the Hollywood

film industry, constructing an effect of self-evidence by giving them a

single name and a cause-and-effect ‘history’”. Indeed, I should reiterate

that—like the retroactive nature of the critical category of noir I identified at the outset of this work and as I have discussed in the preceding

chapters—it has been a commonplace of film historiography to assert the


Out of the Past

connection between German Expressionist cinema and American noir.

However, we should remember that this connection seems to stand on

less stable foundations than that other truism of film criticism. Elsaesser

wonders whether the two histories—noir and Expressionism—are in

fact both largely “imaginary”. He asserts that “[b]y placing them back to

back, across a listing of German émigré directors, the histories are made

to mirror each other in an infinite regress that has tended to produce a

self-validating tautology” and suggests that it is for this very reason that

they continue to be of interest to film criticism and historiography. This,

for Elsaesser, is another instance of the German historical imaginary:

what he calls “a veritable history of the false” in cinema and an enduring

aspect of cinematic discourse.60

Elsaesser points to Schrader as the principal raconteur in the case of the

master narrative of the German influence on film noir; he suggests that

it was Schrader who “explicitly and at length, associated film noir with

German Expressionism and its cinematic legacy, pointing to its ‘unifying’

force”.61 Schrader is indeed an enthusiastic proponent of this supposed

genealogy of noir: in the seminal “Notes”, he declares that “when, in the

late Forties, Hollywood decided to paint it black, there were no greater

masters of chiaroscuro than the Germans” and that “[l]ike the German

expatriates, the hard-boiled writers had a style made to order for film noir;

and, in turn, they influenced noir screenwriting as much as the German

influenced noir cinematography”. Thus, the visual style of noir is—for

Schrader—as determined by the “German expressionist influence” as the

noir narrative structure by the fiction of Chandler, Hammett and James

M Cain.62 Elsaesser rightly singles out Schrader as a significant figure in

this discourse but, I must add, he is by no means alone: Higham and

Greenberg’s Hollywood in the Forties, which predates the “Notes” by four

years, suggested that noir was characterised by “grim romanticism, developed through U.F.A. and the murky, fog-filled atmosphere of pre-war

French movies, [which] flowered in Hollywood as the great German or

Austrian expatriates—Lang, Siodmak, Preminger and Wilder—arrived

there”; and Raymond Durgnat’s “Paint it Black: the Family Tree of Film

Noir” (1970) notes that “German expressionism heavily influenced

American films noirs, in which German directors (Stroheim, Leni, Lang,

Siodmak, Preminger, Wilder) loom conspicuously”.63 This “German


The Boundaries and Meaning of Noir


connection”, moreover, constitutes a fundamental assumption running

through film noir criticism: for example, Hirsch’s assertion of the influence of Expressionism in those moments where “the [noir] film becomes

overtly subjective, entering into the hero’s consciousness to portray its

disordered fragments”; or a more recent study such as Andrew Dickos’s

Street with No Name, which acknowledges the difficult nature of such a

connection but still asserts the “German influence” on film noir’s chiaroscuro lighting and, I should note, quotes approvingly from both of

Elsaesser’s agents of the historical imaginary: Kracauer and Eisner.64 The

key filmic players we can identify in such a discourse are, of course, Fritz

Lang’s M (the prototypical study of tormented subjectivity in a tenebrous

and labyrinthine city), the Weimar Strassenfilme of Karl Grune and GW

Pabst (such as Die Strasse [1923] and Die freudlose Gasse [1923]), and von

Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel (1930) (with Marlene Dietrich as the original

femme fatale).

Against such an imaginary configuration, Elsaesser offers a number

of points of critique: the most significant of which is a deconstruction

of the Expressionist myth both after the fashion of and explicitly referring to Vernet’s “Film Noir on the Edge of Doom”, which I discussed

in the previous chapter. On closer inspection, Elsaesser suggests, the

“historical arguments” for the German influence on noir have very little

credibility; for example, Hollywood—as I have already noted—had its

own chiaroscuro or “Rembrandt” lighting technique, actors such as Peter

Lorre were relegated to minor roles as perverts and foreigners, and Ernst

Lubitsch’s reputation for femmes fatales led to a dead-end in Hollywood

with Rosita (1923).65 Similarly, Elsaesser notes that, among the émigrés

to Hollywood, it was the “wrong Germans” who ended up making films

noirs; it was not Pabst or Grune (who went to Britain) but the Menschen

am Sonntag filmmakers, Siodmak, Wilder and Edgar G Ulmer.66 I would

say, however, that Elsaesser’s most devastating critical blow is to push the

historical imaginary to its absurd conclusion; he simply lets the historical narrative of the German influence and émigré creators of noir play

out. He works through a number of “what-if ” scenarios in a “virtual film

history”, in which “William Dieterle directs The Maltese Falcon and not

Satan Met a Lady” and Robert Wiene becomes a successful noir director

in Hollywood, instead of fleeing to Budapest, London and then Paris.67


Out of the Past

Furthermore, Elsaesser indulges in a long historical fantasy that

rewrites Siodmak’s career in light of his Hollywood noirs and that is of

particular interest for my study. Siodmak’s oeuvre crosses both continents

and genres: from Menschen am Sonntag and Abschied (1930) to La Vie

parisienne (1934) and Pièges (1939), Elsaesser suggests that “not much

seems to lead to Phantom Lady [(1944)] and The Killers, even if one leaves

aside Son of Dracula [(1943)]”. However, if Phantom Lady is taken as

central to Siodmak’s work, “it is as if his whole previous film making

rearranges itself, around a certain kind of coherence that, however is less

due to the benefit of hindsight, and rather follows the more convoluted

logic of a J.L. Borges story, doubling up on its own temporal and spatial causality”. In light of Phantom Lady, a film such as Pièges appears as

part of the explorations of an auteur, but, Elsaesser notes, “Pièges, looked

at in its own film-historical context, does not anticipate Phantom Lady

half as much as Phantom Lady implies Pièges”. Without the “benefit” of

such hindsight, Pièges remains a thoroughly French film of high pedigree. And we should remember that, in this historical fantasy, in moving

from Menschen in Germany to The Killers in Hollywood, “[i]t is as if,

in exile, Siodmak ‘remembered’ the lighting style of Murnau, Pabst and

Dupont”.68 Thus, I can say, Elsaesser lays bare the inadequacies of the

discourse of the historical imaginary.

There are, I suggest, a number of striking aspects to Elsaesser’s discussion here—the dimension of Nachträglichkeit at work I will discuss

below—but what is of particular interest to us, in the first instance, is

the term “virtual history” because it points to a crucial dimension of

Elsaesser’s effort to work against the historical imaginary.69 It evokes an

aspect of his approach to historiography that, I will contend, coincides

with Žižek’s discussion of a Deleuzian “pure past”.70 Beyond a straightforward critique, Elsaesser offers what we can recognise as something of

a positive project aiming to undo the effects of the historical imaginary:

to uncover other, potential histories obscured by this discourse. He suggests that “[i]f in their deconstruction, the false histories have one advantage, it is that they let us glimpse so many different ‘other’ histories”.

Through Elsaesser’s intervention in the history of German cinema, the

past is opened up to the possibility of an understanding less influenced

by the historical imaginary. In the case of noir, Elsaesser points to the


The Boundaries and Meaning of Noir


role of the B-feature and independent studios, the introduction of colour

cinematography, and “the single, irreducibly individual and unique fate

of each and every German film maker [who left in the 1920s and 1930s]”

that suggest another history of noir.71 And it is this question of “another

history” here that will be central to my focus.

In an introductory lecture on Lacan, Žižek comments on the term

“virtuality”, suggesting that it is “possibility which is not simply cancelled

once it is not actualised; it continues to haunt what happens”. Already, I

suggest, does the correlation between Elsaesser’s “other histories” and the

“virtual” become apparent: the discourse of the false histories (that which

is actualised) does not erase other possibilities but obscures them. The

other histories remain “virtual”. Žižek goes on to suggest that “[i]n order

to understand what happens, you have to include its echo, it reverberates

the possibilities”. This, I argue, is for what—in a metaphorical way—

Elsaesser aims; as he deconstructs the historical imaginary, he listens for

the “echoes” of other possibilities, the other histories of noir and émigré

filmmakers. Like Elsaesser, Žižek states that, apropos of the past, “[i]t’s

not enough to know what happened, what might have happened is part

of what happened”.72 We can say, therefore, that the alternative histories

are part of the history of noir and their place in the cinematic discourse

must be discerned.

Further to this, Žižek points to TS Eliot, who, in “Tradition and the

Individual Talent”, sets out his notion of the historical sense as “a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence”.73 When

read via Žižek, Eliot’s injunction that “[n]o poet, no artist of any art, has

his complete meaning alone. You cannot value him alone; you must set

him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead” can be understood, I

suggest, as such an insistence on the appreciation of the virtual. Elsaesser

also has a keen “historical sense”; he is aware of what Eliot calls “a sense

of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the

temporal together”.74 An engagement with the historical imaginary puts

complex temporalities into play, as I described with the case of Siodmak.

And in the retrospective movements of his historiography, Elsaesser

attempts to bring out the virtual conditions of a history: what I might call

the “present-ness of the past” in the history of film noir. Further to this,

Michael Wedel suggests that Elsaesser’s notion of the historical imaginary


Out of the Past

provides a useful tool in the deconstruction of cinematic myths, while

acknowledging “their very determining power as the founding impulse

and ultimate justification of why we should care for not only writing

but ‘doing’ and even ‘living’ and ‘experiencing’ the history of the cinema”.75 Elsaesser’s intervention is, I contend, thus both a redoubling and

an undoing of the original retroactive gesture of the historical imaginary;

it follows a similar retrospective trajectory but uncovers the virtual field

of history rather than occluding its possibilities.

As such, I would argue that the most powerful weapon in Elsaesser’s

struggle against the historical imaginary is the historiographer’s ability—

like the psychoanalyst’s, as I will explain below—to introduce new possibility into the past. He wonders whether it is possible to “revive” Weimar

films (or film noir, for that matter), asking, “[w]hat would it mean, for

instance, to ‘give back’ to them some of their other possible futures,

rather than keep them the ones that history (the historical imaginary)

seems to have locked them into?”76 Again, I suggest this coincides with

Žižek’s theorisation of the relation between past and present. Addressing

this point in The Parallax View, Žižek himself turns to Bergson and the

possibility of changing, in a formal manner, the virtual dimension of

the past. Žižek suggests, “the emergence of a radically New retroactively

changes the past—not the actual past, of course (we are not in science

fiction), but past possibilities”.77 As an example, he points to Bergson’s

experience of the outbreak of a war that previously had seemed simultaneously probable and impossible and that then became both real and possible in its actualisation. Bergson explains that, with what I could call the

retroactive appearance of possibility, “[he] never pretended that one can

insert reality into the past and thus work backwards in time. However,

one can without any doubt insert there the possible, or, rather, at every

moment, the possible inserts itself there”.78 Elsaesser, I contend, effects a

similar formal transformation: his historiography performs a reconfiguration of the elements of the past so that, as Žižek puts it, it “remain[s]

factually the same but the virtual dimension of possibilities changes”.79

Elsaesser describes his move as a “brutal revisionism” but, I would add,

such violence is necessary to break through the barrier of the imaginary.80

He suggests that, in the light of the historical imaginary, “[f ]ilm noir is

thus in a sense a textbook example of how not to write film history” and


The Boundaries and Meaning of Noir


points to a more rigorous historical analysis of each individual filmmaker

in Germany and America. Elsaesser notes that such scholarship allows

for consideration of historiographical possibilities “that otherwise—even

with the best intentions—would remain hidden, blocked out and lost

to history by such a blanket term [as ‘film noir’]”. Through his restructuring of the possibilities of the past, Elsaesser finds that Hollywood

tended to use European cinematic movements such as Expressionism and

Surrealism to depict disorder and pathology (e.g., the dream sequences

in Stranger on the Third Floor and Spellbound). This ironic cultural appropriation returns Elsaesser to Caligari, which constituted Expressionism

as the depiction of a disturbed mind, leading him to conclude, “[s]uch,

then, might be the ‘real’ history of the German origins of film noir”.81

We can therefore say that the new possibility introduced into the past is

that, far from the valorisation of émigré filmmaking styles by the classic Hollywood tradition, film noir presents a difficult terrain of mutual,

trans-Atlantic cultural scepticism.

There is clearly a dimension of what I identified in Chap. 2 as

Nachträglichkeit at work in the relation to the past expressed in both

Elsaesser’s discussion and its corollary in the notion of a “pure past”.82

Bergson continues his reflection on the status of the past with an expression of this “afterwardsness”. A new reality, he suggests, “reflects itself

behind itself in the indefinite past”; it is found in the past as a possibility

only after it has emerged as a reality, so that “its possibility, which does

not precede its reality, will have preceded it once this reality emerges”.83

We could say, then, that its emergence determines its own possibility in

the past retroactively, so that it begins to have always been in the same

way that, to recall my examples in Chap. 2, the Wolf Man’s symptomdream will have always been a primal scene, or the stain on Walter Neff’s

shoulder will have always been a wound. Furthermore, I should note

that Elsaesser, in fact, states explicitly (though almost in passing) that,

apropos of noir, what is “[m]ost noticeable is the term’s historical imaginary as deferred action (Nachträglichkeit)”.84 This brief reference is principally in relation to the cycles of noir criticism—what Elsaesser, quoting

Vernet, refers to as the “unanalysed discourse of … predecessors”—however, I contend that the effect of afterwardsness is to be found at a much

more profound level in his exploration of the noir historical imaginary.85


Out of the Past

I suggest that there is a fluidity to the past in, for example, the long discussion of an imaginary history for Siodmak that is characteristic of the

psychoanalytic concept of Nachträglichkeit. I have already noted that to

focus on Phantom Lady has an effect on Siodmak’s previous films such

that they rearrange themselves around this point—indeed a sort of point

de capiton—in a new configuration. Moreover, we can say that the logic

of Elsaesser’s historical imaginary retroactively transforms the history of

émigré filmmakers in Paris in the 1930s. Accordingly, Siodmak’s Pièges

“should really have been made in Hollywood, and by Ernst Lubitsch …

because it illustrates to perfection the ‘miscognition’ factor of AustroGermans as directors of Hapsburg decadence or Parisian operetta”; and

his La Crise est. finie (1934) and La Vie parisienne “should have been

directed by Max Ophuls, who was already in 1936 inescapably associated

with Vienna, musicals, operetta, … the Hapsburg monarchy or Parisian

fin de siècle”.86 Elsaesser also suggests that Ophuls himself expressed

awareness of the workings of the historical imaginary when he suggested

that he should have directed Lang’s Liliom (1934) in exchange for his

own On a volé un homme (1934).87 Such a reorganisation of the past, I

suggest, evokes both Eliot’s observation that “the past should be altered

by the present as much as the present is directed by the past” and its echo

in Lacan’s insistence that, as I quoted earlier, “[h]istory is not the past.

History is the past in so far as it is historicised in the present—historicised in the present because it was lived in the past”.88 So we could say,

therefore, that history is made in the present.

Moreover, I argue that Elsaesser’s work suggests that the retroactive

movement of the historical imaginary has a particular effect: repression.

Indeed, I could note that Weimar Cinema and After is replete with references to repression and the repressed. Elsaesser comments upon “the

‘repressed’ of which Lang’s film cannot speak” and Lubitsch’s treatment

of classic subjects “to show that tragic inevitability or a tragic ending

was often a matter of the author having repressed materialist motivations

for the sake of aesthetic coherence or ideology” and more generally “the

systems of repression and displacement characteristic of the German art

cinema”.89 Most interesting for my purposes, however, are the points at

which Elsaesser connects repression with the historical imaginary itself;

he suggests that the categories of the post-war historiographies of German


The Boundaries and Meaning of Noir


cinema tended to present oppositional pairs—such as Expressionism and

Neue Sachlichkeit—that have a “symmetry [that] seems to repress something”.90 There was something lost in or by the discourse of the historical

imaginary—which Elsaesser aims to recover—that I will suggest points

to a way in which the conceptualisation of the historical imaginary can

be taken in another or a new direction through my emphasis upon a

Lacanian understanding of this configuration.


The Noir Metaphor

Lacan articulates the mechanism of repression through the structure of

metaphor: and via a brief detour through Lacan’s elaboration of this structure in relation to the Oedipus complex, I will make clear how further

significance can be granted to the notion of what I am calling the “noir

metaphor” (first identified in Chap. 2) and what implications we could

say this has for the historiography of noir. As I noted in that chapter,

Lacan suggests—after Jakobson—that metaphor is a process of substitution. A crucial step in Lacan’s transliteration of Freudian meta-psychology

into the terms of structural linguistics, I contend, was the metaphorisation of the Oedipus complex: both the rendering symbolic of its terms

and its expression through the structure of metaphor.91 The precise permutations of “Les trois temps de l’Œdipe” are not here my concern; instead,

I suggest that certain key aspects of the navigation through the complex

can elucidate this mechanism of substitution and repression. In this work

on the Oedipus complex, Lacan presents what he calls “the formula for

metaphor, or for signifying substitution” thus:

S $9


  S 

$9 x


Lacan explains that capital Ss are signifiers, x is an unknown signification, and the lower case s the signified “induced by the metaphor, which

consists in the substitution in the signifying chain of S for S'. He adds

that the bar through the signifier S' represents its elision, which is “the


Out of the Past

condition of the metaphor’s success”. In other words, we could say that

the signifier S' has been repressed, it has fallen below the bar, and so is

written $'. This formulation, I suggest, can be understood when worked

through Lacan’s theorisation of the Oedipus complex and “the metaphor

of the Name-of-the-Father, that is, the metaphor that puts this Name

in the place that was first symbolized by the operation of the mother’s


Name  of  the  Father

Mother’s Desire

 A 

 Name  of  the Father 

Mother’s Desire

Signified to the Subject

 Phallus 

To situate these terms briefly, I will say that the “signifying chain” on

the left is the “father function”, which replaces the “signifying chain”

on the right, which could be considered the “maternal signifier”; or, as

Lacan states, “[t]he function of the father in the Oedipus complex is

to be a signifier substituted (…) for the first signifier introduced into

symbolisation, the maternal signifier”. That which is produced—the

right-hand side of the formula—is a “phallic signification” that I will

explore in a moment. The “maternal signifier” represents, I suggest,

Lacan’s discussion of frustration through which he draws the Fort-Da

game into the Oedipus complex. The mother is the one who comes and

goes—symbolised by the “there” and “gone”—and her absence raises a


what is the signified? What does she want, that one? I would really like it

to be me that she wants, but it is quite clear that it is not only me that she

wants. There is something else at work in her. What is at work is the x, the


The mother is therefore found to be desiring (of something other than

the child), and the “Mother’s Desire” is thus an x, an unknown signified.

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3 Film Noir and the Historical Imaginary

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