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The crisis of the individual as a precept of political cinema: Kuhle Wampe (1932) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947).

For David Carter

In the contemporary neoliberal environment discussions of individual agency tend to be grounded on conformist cliches of "moral responsibility" that obfuscate the interactions between individuals and their social environment. The typical Thatcherist motto that there is no such thing as society reduces social problems such as unemployment and crime to "individual irresponsibility" rather than treating them as systemic malfunctions. Such a contention originates from an understanding of the individual as a "rational actor" whose success is contingent on his or her ability to integrate into a rational market environment. Inability to "adapt" is not to be blamed on systemic deficiencies, but on individual failure. Tellingly, contemporary cinema has not been immune to this "moralization" of social questions, and many films concerned with political questions have the tendency to valorize abstract notions of ethical choice instead of addressing the ways that social processes can be the route to understanding individual behaviors. Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle, for instance, mention Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) and the BBC film Freefall (2009) as contemporary works that fail to represent the current economic crisis politically. The political structures of late capitalism are disregarded, and a complex issue such as the global financial crisis is viewed as symptomatic of moral failure on the part of some "greedy" individuals. These media objects imply that social changes can be achieved by means of changing individual attitudes and not the social scheme of things. Indicative of their moralist standpoint is the romantic valorization of family as a solution to the current crisis; as Toscano and Kinkle explain, this reveals "a world whose imagination is stripped of collectivity and riven to a narrow horizon of finitude, in which the best one can imagine is more family and less greed, fewer commodities and more stability" (Toscano, Kinle).

One contradiction arises here: in their attempt to criticize the reality of financial capitalism these media objects propagate the neoliberal logic of the "responsible and autonomous" individual. (1) Jyostna Kapur and Keith Wagner rightly observe that neoliberalism is in a way a return to nineteenth century free market capitalism (2); this goes hand in hand with a reanimation of ideas of "individual libertarianism" that have their roots in classical liberalism (Harvey 42). David Harvey explains how liberal ideas grounded in the view of society as a system based upon mutual cooperation among autonomous individuals valorize notions of moral autonomy without regard for systemic formations. Criticizing John Rawls' ideas that social justice can be achieved by rational individuals without altering the capitalist social structures, Harvey sets as an example the problem of uneven distribution and concludes that liberals like Rawls fail to understand how social injustice, scarcity, and deprivation can be socially organized so as to serve market objectives. Whereas for Rawls social justice can be achieved by responsible individuals within an environment that allows markets to act competitively, Harvey argues that the very structure of the market society produces social injustices (2009; 109). Yet while liberals accept the idea of social cooperation between free and responsible individuals, neoliberalism pushes further the liberal maxims of individual autonomy and moral responsibility so as to interpellate subjects within a market reality. What benefits the market is automatically viewed as positive for society, and inability to adapt to the market reality is scorned as irresponsible citizenship. As Wendy Brown observes, social inequality is simply dismissed as "mismanaged life," and such moralistic rhetoric depoliticizes social and economic divisions, which are structural in form (43).

The foregoing comments set the tone for understanding that representing capitalist crises as something that can be attributed to "greedy" characters fails to politicize representation, since it relies on dubious ideas of individual responsibility. 1 contend here that a distinguishing feature of political cinema is its ability to problematize the depiction of the individual and disclose the collective processes and mechanisms that can explain why typical individuals behave in specific ways under particular circumstances. On this account, dramas that foreground clashes between personalities fail to grasp the essence of politics, namely the processes taking place on a mass scale, which shape collective attitudes and the individuals' position within the civil society.

Challenging the notion of the sovereign individual character takes on a new significance today, because for the past decade film studies as a discipline has tended to downplay the analysis of collective structures in favor of approaches that insist on the ways subjectivity reflects "correct" or "incorrect" attitudes. Under the banner of "ethics," a number of recent studies emphasize the ways film characters may reflect ethical standards of conduct. A seldom-questioned assumption that underlines many of these theoretical viewpoints is that characters exemplify "ethical points of view" (Wartenberg 150) or that they can teach the audiences "correct emotional responses" (Gaut 69) to fictional situations and problems. Robert Pippin goes so far to suggest that only films with psychologically defined characters can have political implications, since they draw attention to issues of individual responsibility, but obviously his interest is in questions of ethics rather than politics (240). (2) One can interpret this contemporary emphasis on issues of subjectivity and ethics as symptomatic of a historical period in which political questions are "moralized," while the neoliberal understanding of the individual as self-determined is nonchalantly accepted, albeit under the guise of Aristotelian, neoplatonic, and Christian truisms.

Counter to any abstract notions of a transhistorical human nature and moral autonomy, the dialectical view of the world, which is the basis for understanding political conflicts, proposes that individual behaviors are in dialectical interaction with the social environments in which they emerge. Thus, different social conditions can produce different individuals. The neoliberal ideology of the "active" social beings who can sort their own problems fails to account for the complexity of this dialectical view, focusing only on individual behavior and neglecting to discuss processes taking place on a mass scale. In the following section, I trace the politics of Kuhle Wampe and Monsieur Verdoux in their representation of the individual as a nexus of social forces rather than as a unified entity. I suggest that this is what differentiates objects that address political questions from objects concerned with moralist reformist changes.

Kuhle Wampe: Modern Subjectivity and a Collective Subject in Process

Set and produced during the German economic recession of 1932--one year before the establishment of the Third Reich--Kuhle Wampe was the German left's first sound feature film and the last one before Hitler's ascension to power. It was the product of collective labor (directed by Slatan Dudow, co-written by Bertolt Brecht and Ernst Ottwald) and remains a paragon of a film that successfully reveals social and political concerns behind the dramatic veneer of things. During its production, Germany was experiencing one of the worst economic depressions in its history. Shattered by the Wall Street crash of 1929 and its reliance on Western Banks, the German economy experienced a 40% reduction in industrial output, and by 1932 more than five million were unemployed. As the film historian Bruce Murray explains, the elite of the time tried to divert attention from the systemic faults and attributed the crisis to the national particularities of the German economy and the republican government's erroneous handling of the crisis (146). Meanwhile, the industrial elite started opportunistically to support the Nazi party, aiming to offer a pseudo-alternative to people's dissatisfaction with capitalism by employing a nationalist rhetoric that blamed the German economic problems on Bolsheviks and Jews. In 1932, Hitler presented to 300 representatives of heavy industry his program for dictatorship and violent suppression against the workers, which warrantied his party's agreement not to challenge the basic relations of production (Hecht, Muhl).

Shot amidst this loaded political climate, the film aimed at historicizing the crisis by revealing the social processes behind it, rather than reducing the historical factor to a secondary dramatic backdrop. The script was loosely based on Brecht's one-act play Die Kleinburgerhochzeit (1919), which describes the tensions taking place in a middle-class wedding celebration. Dudow mentions as another source of inspiration a newspaper report about a desperate unemployed man who committed suicide after numerous failed attempts to find work (Herlinghaus 14). The narrative is divided into three episodes. The first part is titled "One unemployed less" and focuses on the immiseration of the German working class caused by the 1930s economic crisis and the President's (Paul von Hindenburg) emergency decree, which suspended the unemployment benefit for young people. The first act of the first episode centers on a group of adolescents looking desperately for work, and the second act concentrates on the Bonikes, a working class family devastated by the crisis. After a family argument, the youngest son Frantz Bonike (Alfred Schafer) decides to end his life following his unsuccessful search for work.

The second episode is titled "The best years of a young man's life" and shows the eviction of the Bonike family, owing to its inability to pay their rent. The family moves to a campsite called Kuhle Wampe and takes lodging at Fritz's (Ernst Busch)--the young daughter's partner--tent. Anni (Hertha Thiele) gets pregnant, and under familial pressure the young couple decides to engage. After a disastrous engagement party that exposes the family's lumpen attitudes, Anni takes the initiative to end the engagement. Following an abortion, Anni is shown to be part of the communist youth of the time. She eventually reunites with Fritz, and they attend the workers' competitions, whose collective militancy acts as an alternative to the previous lumpenproletariat reality of their familial environment. The concluding episode, "To whom does the world belong?" was directed by Brecht. It takes place within a train wagon and shows a political dispute caused by a newspaper report on the destruction of a huge amount of coffee beans in order to maintain their market price. This episode indicates that the clash between the "old" and the "new" is a precondition of social change.

A close analysis of selected passages from the film highlights its central visual motor: the revelation of social processes, their effect upon the subject and the collective aspect of subjectivity, which cannot be understood through 19th century individualist concepts. This is evinced from the film's beginning, starting with a series of unconnected urban visuals devoid of dramatic dialogue. Emblematic images of modernity, such as bourgeois spaces within Berlin and departing trains, are followed by a number of low angle shots capturing council houses. Not surprisingly, Rudolf Amheim, a renowned aficionado of early cinematic language praised the film "as a work of naturalness and reality" (qtd in Birgel 52).These first shots attest to the film's desire to investigate the social divisions within the modern landscape, which is reinforced by the ensuing montage of newspaper front pages reporting on the rapid increase of unemployment in Germany. These first visuals do not function as dramatic establishing shots, but as images concerned with showing the social and historical context in which the storyline takes place. As Gal Kim aptly explains, these images of the city operate as a "metaphor" for the class divisions (35). The same applies to the subsequent shots that capture a group of unemployed people in their futile pursuit of work. Initially, the camera frames a crowd waiting for the morning newspaper; then slowly focuses on Frantz Bonike. Yet despite his key role in the narrative universe, Frantz is not individualized, but rather constantly shown as part of a group. This is affirmed by a number of subsequent medium-shots capturing him and a large group of unemployed adolescents cycling frantically in pursuit of work. While the jobless are initially framed within the shot, eventually the camera "decapitates" them, and we can only see the wheels of their bicycles moving frenziedly, a stylistic choice that underpins the individual's subordination to mass phenomena.

The accumulation of social material exceeds the production of consistent narrative economy, and an important formal element in these opening scenes is Hans Eisler's music. The music punctuates the visual material without generating melodic harmony to reflect emotional states. A proponent of the political employment of music, Eisler reacted towards Western culture's tendency to valorize the act of seeing over the act of hearing. Arguing for a more responsible listening activity, he countered the dominant cinematic practice of creating a harmonious undifferentiated emotional state, which simply reduced the musical element to an imitation of dramatic action. What he proposed instead was the employment of music in a way that could bring to the fore contradictions that would provoke feelings of shock to the audience without predetermining their emotional response. Commenting on his practice on Kuhle Wampe, he stated:
   Decayed suburban houses, a slum district in all its
   misery and dirt. The "mood" communicated by the
   image is passive, depressing: it creates misery. On
   the other hand, rapid, sharp music is set, a polyphonic
   prelude of marcato character. The contrast of the music
   --the strict form both like the sound to the bare mounted
   images causes a kind of shock that, by intention, creates
   resistance rather than sympathetic sentimentality (99).

Eisler's points bring to the fore the desire to use sound and image counterpoints in ways that can reveal the environment's effect upon the individual without, however, imposing a socially deterministic standpoint. The conflict between passive images and vigorous music puts this forward strongly, since the acoustic elements do not serve an ornamental purpose, but a productive one. Instead of reflecting the emotional state of the character, which would simply individualize the problem, the soundtrack aims to sensitize the audience to the social dimensions of the crisis. Lotte Eisner explains that this effect is produced by the "violence of the music" which does not illustrate the documentary images but counteracts them in a dialectical manner (qtd in Alter 85). In this way, the film avoids the common pitfall of presenting the economic crisis in a tragic way, that is, as a natural, unavoidable disaster rather than as a historical product. This modus operandi is thus an attempt to open up the visual and the acoustic to something anew and demonstrate the dialectic between the individual and the social environment.

Eisler's method is in line with Brecht's and Dudow's understanding of politicized representation. Both thought that political art's task was not to force the audience to experience the feelings shown on the screen, but to enact strong ideas that are resistant to explanations of "individual destiny." The desideratum was not simply to show misery but to try to identify its social causes and teach the audience the ability to think in processes. Unlike the psychological Strasse melodramatic films of the late 1920s, which presented tragic stories of males succumbing to the evils and low morals of the proletarian public sphere, or the Zille films (named after the Berlin artist Heinrich Zille, whose work focused on authentic images of social reality), which mused on the potential for social mobility while treating poverty as an unchangeable tragic destiny (Murray 34; Mennel 31), Dudow and Brecht aspired to reveal the social particularity of the epoch and the connection between the individual and the political reality. A central prerequisite for this was the renunciation of melodramatic Einzelschicksals (individual fate) (Herlingaus 12). It is not accidental that both of them reacted against other leftist films of the time, including Phil Jutzi's Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Gluck (1929), which offered a compassionate portrait of an elderly woman whose social misfortunes lead her to end her life. Dudow, on the one hand, thought that the film simply presented the vicious circle of social misery in a deterministic way (Herlingaus 10), whereas Brecht suggested that by the end of the film, "out of all the human emotions only sorrow prevails" (Gersch 118).

A much talked about scene in Kuhle Wampe's first episode serves as an index of the filmmakers' intent to produce counter-images that connect individual misfortunes with social phenomena, as well as to contest the standardized tragic trope of ending a film in a sympathetic tone for individuals victimized by the system. After long and futile job-hunting, Frantz returns home and faces a hostile reception by his parents, who blame his unemployment on the lack of personal initiative. Father Bonike (Max Sablotzki), who is also unemployed, seems particularly enslaved to this moralist ideology when he questions Frantz and suggests that one cannot be unlucky for seven months in a row. Following the family argument is a scene in which Frantz decides to end his life. The camera captures the character in a static frame. The next visual focuses on a banner that reads, "Don't blame the morning that brings hardship and work. It is wonderful to care for those one loves." This slogan communicates strongly the ways capitalist values infiltrate working-class environments. Immediately after that, a medium shot of Frantz follows; he looks straight at the camera and breaks the fourth wall. Within a long uninterrupted shot we get to see him moving towards the window. The camera closes-up on his wrist and focuses on his watch. In a mechanical and clinical manner he removes his watch and then repositions the flower pot next to the window. After he commits suicide, we do not get to see the dead body. Instead, a montage of images follows, the first one showing his watch, then the flower pot, and finally an image from the beginning of the film portraying a group of the unemployed cycling frantically in pursuit of work.

Frantz's individual misfortune is thus placed within a social context. The shift from the self-determined tragic hero to the socially motivated character was one of the reasons why the film was initially banned and later on released but censored, as evidenced in an anecdotal essay published by Brecht. When Brecht, Dudow, and Heisler tried to appeal against the film's ban, Kurt Haentzschel (the Ministry expert) responded:

Yes it might surprise you that I criticize your depiction for not being adequately human. You have not portrayed a human being, but, let's be honest, a type. Your unemployed is not a real individual, not a man of flesh and blood, different from other people, with his particular worries, his particular friends and his particular destiny. He is portrayed very superficially, and, as artists forgive me for the strong expression, we get to know very little about him, but the consequences are of political nature and force me to disapprove the film's release. Your film has the tendency to portray suicide as typical, as something not connected with this or that (pathologically assessed) individual, but as the fate of an entire social class! Your standpoint is that society forces young people to suicide by denying them job opportunities. And you are not even bothered to recommend something to the unemployed that could change his situation. No gentlemen, you have not acted as artists here. You did not want to portray the shocking fate of an individual, which nobody would prevent you ... But you have to admit though that your suicide avoids anything that seems impulsive. The spectator does not want to stop him, as it would happen in an artistic, humanistic and warm hearted portrayal. For Christ's sake, the actor does it, as if he wanted to show how to peel a gherkin (Brecht 93-94, my translation).

This mechanical portrayal of suicide refuses to pathologize a problem that is social per se and displays the burden of the historical process on the individual's body. The absence of pathos and the lack of psychological investment in the character produce a generalization concerned with revealing the fungibility of the more vulnerable within a crisis-prone system of production. From this perspective, neither the economic crisis (forcefully established in the beginning of the film) nor its negative effects upon the individual can be seen as tragic eventsbut as the outcomes of specific social relations. The first episode is somehow a lesson in the crisis of modern subjectivity that has been heavily affected by mass processes, such as industrialization, uneven wealth distribution, and crises of over-accumulation. In a somehow apodictic tone, the film asserts that changes in personal circumstances cannot be dissociated from changes at a mass scale. The film's continuing political importance in the present is evidenced by the fact that it is frequently screened by leftist parties in film festivals in the crisis-ridden Greece, where suicides have increased dramatically since 2010 and where anti-austerity groups refer to Kuhle Wampe to oppose mainstream media's coverage of suicides as the pathological actions of troubled individuals. (3)

To return to the film, one also needs to mention that suicide is shown as one amongst many other options and certainly not as an unchanged teleological development. This is the reason why Frantz's suicide takes place in the first episode and not in the film's finale as was the case in other leftist films of the time (Birgel 51). Siegfried Kracauer intimates that this choice synopsizes the film's radicalism, which rests on its departure from the German film narrative traditions of the time. Referencing an anecdotal discussion between himself and Dudow, Kracauer suggests that the latter had been pressured by producers to shift this scene in the film's ending so as "to reestablish the natural order of things" (246). However, Dudow, Brecht, and Ottwaltt retained it and aimed to show that the crisis of modern subjectivity and the individual's reliance on mass phenomena could develop into a key aspect of social transformation and change. This insistence showcases the film's historical materialist standpoint that, according to John Lessard, is evidenced by its tendency to focus on the historical present as well as to look into the future and point to the need for political change (72).

Indicative of the need for social change is the negative representation of the older generation of the German working class and the portrayal of women as revolutionary agents. In the film's second episode we get to see Anni's failed betrothal party, which is tarnished by the borderline petit-bourgeois and lumpen proletariat attitude of hers and Fritz's family, who appear as simple-minded alcohol and food gluttons. By the end of the party, Anni walks away and decides to call her engagement off after seeing that Fritz's decision to be with her was to be attributed to her unexpected pregnancy. Evident here are the petit-bourgeois attitudes on the part of the oppressed, and this operates as a negative example; as one reviewer of the time pointed out, the film is far from idealizing the working class (Jhering 143). Instead, it indicates that the prerequisite for political changes is to dispense with the past values and ethics that are taken for granted.

In the following episode, we get to know that Anni has joined the Communist youth, and thanks to the solidarity of her coworkers she manages to have an abortion (another reason why the film was banned). Her eventual development as a zoon politikon is interconnected with her departing from traditional gender roles. In this context, the film firmly advances the idea of the individual as a process, as a nexus of conflicting forces and not as static ontology. Anni is the one who will also make Fritz join the Communist youth, and it is by means of their politicization that they will get to resume their relationship. Historical evidence shows that the KPD of the time (German Communist Party) was the only party that tried persistently to attract women and demanded equal pay, full gender equality, and the right to abortion (von Danwitz 14). Unlike the Weimar Strafie films, in which the destabilization of traditional gender roles was paralleled with decadence, social and moral degradation, or the subsequent Nazi films in which women were reduced to the status of mothers, wives, and providers (Elsaesser 412), Kuhle Wampe shows that women's participation in the class struggle is key to the formation of a collective revolutionary subject.

From the prolegomena, one can easily comprehend that the film politicizes representation thanks to its portrayal of the individual as a social product whose actions are motivated by its interaction with the environment, and as a process, as something subject to change. For it implies that the modern individual affected by mass-scale processes can either choose to accept social reality passively or to benefit from its reliance on the mass and organize itself politically. Then again, as the film's finale shows, the mass is also divisible, since it consists of diverse agents and social interests; thus one cannot not take sides. When a middle-aged man asks in the final episode "who is going to change the world?", a young woman responds: "those who do not like it." This final statement illustrates the essence of politics, which cannot be grounded on abstract notions of "humanity" or on the depoliticized understanding of "the people" (Hitler's concept of Volk), but on the conflict between opposing social interests.

Monsieur Verdoux: The persistence of the social

Monsieur Verdoux is one of Charlie Chaplin's most complicated films, demonstrating a dialectical understanding not only of the individual but of ethics as well. Unlike Kuhle Wampe, Verdoux operates ex negativo, since in its exploration of the individual's reliance on the mass it does not offer a glimpse of hope for the development of a prospective counter-public sphere. Still, like Kuhle Wampe it considers how the individual can be seen as an ensemble of systemic structures. The film was based on an idea by Orson Welles, who thought that the dramatization of the story of the French murderer Bluebeard Landru would have been a good dramatic part for Chaplin (Chaplin 454). It tells the story of Verdoux, a former bank teller who lost his job during the great depression and decided to follow his own "entrepreneurial plans," which involved marrying middle-aged spinsters and murdering them for their money. His real wife is an invalid who takes care of their son and does not know anything about his occupation. Verdoux sees himself as a businessman fixated with investing the capital he gains in the stock-market. Occasionally, he pays visits to his family "as a bourgeois husband after a hard day's work" (Chaplin 473). A second recession destroys him financially, and many years later he ends up being arrested and eventually sentenced to death. In his trial, he defends himself by arguing that he is nothing but a product of his epoch. He refuses to be labeled as a mass-murderer on the basis that capitalism makes massive profits through the arms industry, whose sole purpose is scientific killing. He thus concludes that "as a mass-killer, I am an amateur by comparison." The crux of his argument is that he only tried to adapt himself like a "rational individual" to the logic of the market.

Verdoux made Chaplin an FBI target, while the press almost in its entirety tried to read the film as an expose of Chaplin's "communism," and of his negative view of the US capitalism (Davis 55; Sbardellati, Saw 504). The latter point holds true to an extent. The film is set in France, but one cannot fail to notice the references to American capitalism. Not only because the majority of characters with the exception of Verdoux - fail to pronounce French words (at one point in the film a man ironically reflects on his incapacity), but also because the historical references to the great depression and its effect upon history cannot be attributed to the failures of French capitalist production - relatively small compared to its American counterpart. Furthermore, towards the end, when the second economic recession takes place, a number of images showing failing banks appear. In all these visuals we get to see the US dollar falling, and all the declining shares are priced in US currency too, whereas throughout the film Verdoux's exchanges are via French francs. Obviously, it is hard to believe that this was directorial oversight, considering Chaplin's renowned meticulousness.

Verdoux is an amalgam of classical Hollywood narrative and of modernist fragmentary style. The dramaturgy is both coherent and loose at the same time. A number of temporal ellipses take place throughout the narrative, while a series of train sequences interrupt the diegesis and are suggestive of the character's commitment to the aggressive expansion of his "enterprise." Andre Bazin rightly maintains that the film is a synthesis of the formal abstraction that characterizes Chaplin's early films and of a narrative with a moderately psychologically defined character (106). It would not be far-fetched to suggest that the film's capacity to combine standard popular culture elements with formal abstraction, as well as the ways the story and the individual character are imbricated in history and social situations, fit the schema of the popularized political aesthetic envisaged by Brecht. Not surprisingly, Chaplin mentions that at a random meeting with Brecht in Santa Monica, the latter read the film's screenplay and he commented on it approvingly (471). Stephen Parker also informs us that Hans Eisler and Brecht were invited by Chaplin to a private screening of the film. Unlike Chaplin's wealthy guests, Brecht and Eisler were the only ones laughing at the scenes showing the bankers committing suicide during the economic crisis (481).

There is also historical evidence that Brecht influenced Chaplin during the making of Verdoux (Flaig 3). But what is more in cahoots with Brecht is the way Verdoux develops relentlessly the concept of the individual as a historical and social product. Thus, while Chaplin utilizes a small degree of psychology in his depiction of the character, the social context is omnipresent from the film's beginning. This can also be attributed to the defamiliarizing employment of comic effects. Marc Silberman compellingly argues that for Brecht the comic emblematizes "a structural principle underlying acts and communication that exposes the conflict between what is and what should be; between a subject's acts and thoughts and the harsh reality imposed upon them" (170). Importantly, Chaplin's comic antihero managed to estrange friendly (in Socialist states) and hostile audiences (in the US). Jindriska Blahova mentions that despite Chaplin's popularity in Czechoslovakia, Verdoux was criticized by the Czechoslovak press, which praised Chaplin's courage to show the inhumanness of capitalism but also criticized him for not offering clear-cut "solutions" (330). Again this lack of narrative answers relates to the Brechtian motif of employing anti-social comic characters with which the audience cannot identify, but as Silberman explains, "they can make visible political relations so that they can be evaluated and changed" (182).

The opening scene is a temporal ellipsis, since we start from the ending. The set is a cemetery, and the camera captures a grave with the name Henri Verdoux imprinted on it; Verdoux's voice-over addresses the audience in a heterochronistic way, since he talks while being dead, a practice that could be compared to Dreyer's Vampyr (1932) in which the camera visualizes a dead man's point of view. Verdoux's voice-over synopsizes the film's basic plot. Not only does he introduce us to the character but also to the social context, since he explains that he lost his job as a bank teller after the 1930s depression and then he became a Bluebeard, which was "a strictly business enterprise to support a home and family." The visual that comes immediately after that takes us back in time to the South of France and the house of a bourgeois family of wine merchants who are troubled about their old sister's whereabouts after having married a younger man. This introduction builds a sense of suspense, and then we get to see Verdoux presumably after having killed the aforementioned woman. A comic episode follows in which he flirts with a middle-aged woman interested in buying his house, then a train sequence interrupts the narrative as a temporal ellipsis. The camera captures Verdoux reading a finance newspaper and later on at a cafe in Paris, in which once again Chaplin references the social context. Verdoux has a dialogue with his employers from "the good old days" (prior to the recession), who admire his business acumen. One of them observes, "you must have made a killing," to which Verdoux responds affirmatively but nervously. The same man continues by referring to the slow growth of the market, only to be told by Verdoux that "now is the time to buy, when everyone is selling." The film has a Kafkaesque gallows humor that differs from Chaplin's early comedies (Tyler 307), but still the comic elements are persistent against arguments that the critique of capitalism subdues the film's humor (Rasmussen 368).

The abovementioned dialogue summarizes in a humorous way the film's central syllogism, which is that accumulation of individual wealth comes always at the expense of someone else. In other words, Chaplin seems to suggest in a Marxist way that capital accumulation is a violent process that creates wealth and poverty at the same time. Verdoux realizes this quite literally when the economic recession forces him to leave his legitimate career and turn from a simple worker to an "entrepreneur." Rather than choosing to be part of what Marx calls the "disposable industrial reserve army" (781), he decides to become a businessman, recognizing that the essence of capitalism lies in creating profit through exploitation. After the aforementioned scene, this new identity is clearly established when he receives a telephone call to be informed that the market has gone down. He either deposits 50,000 francs or he loses everything. In his disappointment, the first idea that comes to his mind is Lydia (Margaret Hoffman), a middle-aged wealthy spinster whose murder will solve the problem. The problem of the market fluctuation and the concept of capital investment as vicious theft are recurring themes throughout the film, which tries to identify the causes behind this seemingly impersonal alien force that as Marx says, "hovers over the earth like the fate of the ancients and with invisible hands allots fortune and misfortune to men" (Marx, Engels 54). Yet the treatment of the material is dialectical; along with Marx, Chaplin does not treat the market and profit as a natural force of supply and demand but as a product of particular historical processes, which implicates the individuals in a reality that appears outwardly "self-evident."

Clearly, the film reveals the inapplicability of Kantian universalism within a system of capitalist accumulation and conjectures that unless a radical systemic change occurs, the individual's ethical choices are limited. The metaphor of entrepreneurism and capital expansion as murder points to the dialectical structure of capitalist production, in which growth is achieved through deficit and one's profit is contingent on another's immiseration. This point is also made poignantly clear when Verdoux visits his family. Not unlike the stereotypical model of the capitalist entrepreneur, Verdoux is a paradox in the sense that he is ruthless in his business but a paragon of an affectionate family man. Yet this contrast between the private persona and its social function is constantly questioned throughout Verdoux's interactions in his family arrangement. At one point, his invalid wife (Mady Correll) reads him the newspaper headlines reporting on the global rise of unemployment, only to respond with relief about how fortunate the family is that he is employed. The persistence of the social in the private sphere is once again put in the picture, and the myth of the responsible individual who manages the affairs of his/ her oikos (the etymology of the word economy is the Greek word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which has private and not social connotations, since [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] stands for house) is also called into question.

The character within the film's dramaturgy is therefore presented as an amalgam of social relations. Interestingly, however, the narrative agent Verdoux has a specific desire that motivates his actions, and this takes us back to the aforementioned point that the film combines elements from classical Hollywood narrative and modernist formal looseness. Verdoux's desire is articulated from the very beginning when he states that all he aspired to was to support his family. Later on, he states emphatically that he wishes to stay in "business" for two more years and then retire so as to be able to spend time with his family. Thus, the diegetic starting point draws on a commonplace narrative device of an ordinary man's" struggle to provide for his beloved ones. Then again, the film's formal and narrative texture manifestly downplays the character's desires, which are eventually obscured, and his actions are permeated by motivational incoherence. This is mainly achieved by the perpetual intrusion of the social within the narrative, as well as by the fact that Verdoux realizes the principle of endless capitalist expansion; this is astutely represented by the equation of the movement of capital with the recurring train shot, which interrupts the narrative flow and, as Bazin observes, "provides the film with an interior rhythm like a leitmotif, it reaches a level almost of abstraction, so tightly does it condense time and events into a single image" (122). Put simply, this formal abstraction indicates that psychological explanations cannot alone account for his actions.

Verdoux eventually turns into the perfect capitalist; he starts his "business" to avoid becoming a cog in an uncertain cycle of production, knowing that capitalist growth goes hand in hand with joblessness and working insecurity. Yet while he changes from a simple surplus value producer (a bank teller) to a producer of capital, the task of expansion and circulation consumes him. It is not accidental that after every single murder his first undertaking is to wire money into the stock market. Ultimately, he commits murder for murder's sake, which is not unlike the capitalist ethic of production for the sake of production. Consistent with Marx's point in Capital about how it is not only the working-class that becomes a machine for the production of surplus-value, but the capitalist too turns into a mechanism "for the transformation of this surplus-value into surplus capital" (742), Verdoux's initial motivation (caring for his family) eclipses. Reading the film in the present, Verdoux can be compared to what Wendy Brown defines as the neoliberal "rational calculating individuals" "whose moral autonomy is measured by their capacity for 'self-care'--the ability to provide for their own needs and service their own ambitions"(42). Verdoux simply exists for the process of production. One thing, however, eludes him, and this is that capital circulation can lead to a global metastasis of crisis that can affect not only the surplus value producers but the "business enterprisers" too. As a gloss on this point, I wish to refer to a moment in the film in which Verdoux experiences the second economic crash. In a scene that is a paragon of montage culture along the lines of Eisenstein and quite similar in scope with the first visuals in Kuhle Wampe, Chaplin aligns a series of visuals consisting of newspaper headlines reporting on the financial crisis in Europe, desperate crowds gathering in banks, individuals committing suicide, newspapers describing the rise of fascism, and images from Hitler's and Mussolini's fascist parades.

There are two main points of interest in this scene. The first one is the way it makes one understand the systemic nature of capitalist crises, which can affect members from various social strata, including the warmest supporters of the current mode of production. Thus, one is asked to think of structures rather than individual responsibilities. Second, the scene opens further consideration of the ways financial crises become social crises that give birth to political extremism and intolerance. Contrary to the cliched understanding of fascism as "an excess of evil," Chaplin seems to be in agreement with Brecht that fascism is simply "a historical phase of capitalism" (Schriften 272) aiming to preserve the threatened mode of production.

This conjecture is also implied at a meeting Verdoux has with a poor young woman whom he had previously supported. She is now married to an ammunitions manufacturer, whose business is thriving thanks to the upcoming World War II. When Verdoux says that he should have invested in this type of business, she responds cynically, "yes it will pay dividends soon." Critical here is the contrast between Verdoux, the lone entrepreneur who makes profit literally by killing individuals, and the charming young woman whose profit also relies on killing, though proportionally on a much broader level. The obvious inference is the cliched point also voiced by Verdoux in his trial that killing for profit at a mass level is a respectable business, whereas on a smaller scale a crime. Effectively, Chaplin's abandonment of the dramatis personae with clear-cut morals demonstrates that the Aristotelian division of characters based on concepts of "wickedness or virtue" is not applicable, because characters cannot be seen outside collective processes and structures. In his autobiography, Chaplin claimed that American censors were infuriated by Verdoux's argument that his murders "are a mere 'comedy of murders' in comparison with the legalized mass murders of war, which are embellished with gold braid by the 'System'"(Chaplin 473). (4) The film's forceful privileging of the social over the individual needs to be seen in its historical context, something that has been discussed by Jean Renoir, who saw Verdoux as a turning point in Chaplin's oeuvre.
   Before we could imagine that the adventures of the
   little tramp took place in some world that belonged
   exclusively to the movies, that they were sort of a fairy
   tale. With Monsieur Verdoux, such misapprehension
   is no longer possible. This one really takes place in
   our time and the problems faced on the screen are
   really are own. By thus giving up a formula which
   afforded him full security, and undertaking squarely
   the critique of the society in which himself lives, a
   dangerous job if ever there was one, the author raises
   our craft to the level of the great classical expressions
   of the human novel... (174).

Renoir's comments accurately capture the significant aspect not only of Verdoux, but of both films I have discussed in this article, which is that their representation of the individual does not derive primarily from dramatic conventions but from their interest in social forces taking place outside the world of the cinema. The represented problems cannot be reduced to isolated tragic narratives, since both films position their characters in the nexus of historical reality, social conditions, and modes of production. Thus, characters do not produce social relations on their own, but respond to historically situated relations that can be changed not via individual actions but only via changes in the social frame. Such a portrayal of the individual runs against the grain of the dramatic convention of the self-determined character, the understanding of social problems as moral failings, and the reduction of politics to questions of moral reformation. In the wake of the neoliberal tendency to "individualize" economic and social faults as isolated failures of exclusive individuals, or even nations, both Kuhle Wampe's and Monsieur Verdoux's interest in exploring systemic structures renders them as objects that retain their political potential for the present.


(1) Milton Friedman sums up this dubious understanding of the individual when he states that "freedom is a tenable objective only for responsible individuals" (35), that is, for those who are willing to integrate into an incontestable established configuration.

(2) Richard Ruston endorses Pippin's aforementioned argument and suggests that studies in political cinema need to address the politics of "democratic individualism" (56). Yet this viewpoint does not seem to deal with the quintessence of politics, which is the collision between private and general interests. Thus, Ruston and Pippin seem to me to represent a rationalized acceptance of the neoliberal rhetoric of the autonomous individual.

(3) This report from the conservative newspaper Kathimerini is indicative of the mainstream Greek media's view of suicide as something not necessarily related to the economic crisis. http://www.ekathimerini. com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite1_1_22/1112012_471244

(4) John Sbardellati and John Saw mention that many theater owners urged for a "national ban on the film" while in other states demonstrations by conservative groups "forced its withdrawal" (503).

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Date:Mar 22, 2015
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