It is more than fifty years since the first publication of Joseph Kerman’s Opera as Drama, a disturbing work then, as it is still, for the way it dismantles some of our most cherished cultural practices. Kerman’s target was the opera buff, the lover of opera, whose uncritical idea is that whatever can be staged and described as an opera or appertains to an opera, including the singers, the opera houses, gala openings, well-loved tunes and anecdotes and remembered performances, constitutes an opera world to which moral and intellectual distinctions are irrelevant. Kerman upset many people by saying, for example, that Tosca, considered as drama, is a “shabby little shocker,” that Puccini does not breathe the same air as, say, Verdi, that the sentimental and glamourised notion of an opera world itself stands in the way of proper critical judgment.
As much, and more, could be said of the movie world, of the whole apparatus of production and promotion and consumption of cinema. Besides obvious points of comparison—star celebrity, technical virtuosity, lavish expenditure of resources—opera and cinema have in addition intrinsic powers of absorption and suspension. They have, to a degree no other form of narrative art reaches, the means, in their characteristic repertory of devices, of casting the beholder precipitously into an unfolding action, to play with him as a cat with a mouse, prolonging or shortening the perceived passage of time as necessary, making us active participants in a reality not under our immediate control to stop or start or analyse. It may be this absorptive or dominating power which, paradoxically, and in self-defence perhaps, leads to feelings of specious familiarity, ownership, a hobby, fandom, a question of taste.
I thought of these matters after seeing Barbara, a fine little film of Christian Petzold that neatly illustrates the possibility of moral transparency in cinema as drama.
Barbara is constructed on two sturdy narrative scaffolds. The first is the romantic comedy of misplaced affection. A woman of spirit and intelligence is about to commit herself to a man of means who will solve many of her pressing problems, but at the price of her autonomy. Another man appears, a flawed but hugely attractive character whom we see immediately is Mr. Right. The pleasure to be derived here consists in watching how skillfully the film-maker will postpone the inevitable epiphany and resolution.
The second ready-made, so to speak, on which Barbara hangs, is the dynamic of life in the old German Democratic Republic, now well-trodden ground in films. The action of the film takes place entirely in a provincial backwater on the Baltic coast, a shithole of casual brutality and meanness within which, in spite of everything, something like a normal life surfaces in unexpected ways. We are implicitly invited to ponder these familiar antinomies.
But neither of these things is what the film is about. Moral urgency, like a pervasive wash of colour, flows from the circumstance that the eponymous heroine, played with austere economy by Nina Hoss, and André (Mr. Right), played by Ronald Zehrfeld, both doctors banished to a provincial hospital for past transgressions, must each make, under difficult conditions, critical decisions involving personal and professional responsibilities, promises made that cannot be broken, simple decencies that cannot finally be sacrificed to expedience or even self-preservation.
When we step back from the movie and consider it whole, it is not the scenery or the characters or the plot that determine meaning, but rather that this cinematic language has been deployed to place another object—neither the romantic plot nor the awfulness of the DDR—into the foreground of the theatre of one’s mind, so to speak. This object being the idea that no one is exempt from the moral imperative. No one is excused because of transitory circumstances, political or personal, favourable or unfavourable to one’s life chances, on the wrong or the right side of history. And this embrace of one’s moral imperative is true freedom.
That may or may not be a radical idea but it does breathe the air of Verdi.