The death of Gabriel Axel on 9 February received little attention in the newspapers. Less than ten lines were dedicated to his Academy Award for Babette’s Party (Babettes gaestebud) in 1987 and the fact that he passed away at the ripe old age of 95. Gabriel Axel Mørch was born in Aarhus, in a part of Denmark that Neelie Kroes used as a deterrent, when she said that The Netherlands would turn into ‘the Jutland of Europe’ if Schiphol was not allowed to expand (in spite of the fact that Jutland once has been declared one of the most dynamic regions in Europe by the American Chamber of Commerce). At a young age Axel moved to Paris, where his father had a furniture factory. When he was eighteen, he returned to Denmark, where he set out on a long career in the film industry. He was an actor in Denmark and France, worked for television (in both countries), made soft porn in Germany (where else?), shot films that were predominantly shown in Scandinavia and succeeded in raising funds for his Karen Blixen-film after years of opposition (by among others the Danish Film Institute). The result was an international success and an Academy Award. He was seventy by then.
It is tempting to call him a European filmmaker and to forget that he was also and above all very Danish. Babette’s Party marks the beginning of what turned out to be a renaissance in Danish cinema. The next year Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror won an Academy Award and eight years later Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogma manifest would appear.
William Carlos William once said: ‘Localism alone can lead to culture.’ That is Joyce’s Dublin, Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, the bleak Scandinavian light and human relations in The Bridge, Tarkovsky’s romantic memories of Russia. In the local and the private the universal comes to life. We are all Madame Bovary, in every hotel a Lost in Translation is lurking.
It is a beautiful thought. The question is whether we are still sensitive to it in a time in which we are chiefly fascinated by national self-analysis. Switch on the bbc, and ten to one that Britain’s unique contribution to European developments in the areas of technique, art and culture are being applauded, even though those same Brits do not consider themselves Europeans. The Germans have rediscovered their Germanness, the French the uniqueness of French culture and the Italians keep on thinking that administrative chaos is not a bug, but a charming Latin feature. Europe in the second millennium is no longer looking outward, but is glorifying its own individuality and the realization that foreign influences form a threat to the uniqueness of sausages, cheese, language and tradition. This is not the sort of ‘localism’ that William Carlos William alluded to. This is oppressive provincialism.
IFFR festival director Rutger Wolfson declared the recent Rotterdam Film Festival’s theme a sort of examination in which ‘iffr together with filmmakers and audiences is searching for answers and perspectives, something politicians no longer seem able to’. The question is whether politicians are indeed no longer able to do this. There are parties who say sensible things about Europe, but these views are no longer shared by a wide audience. Geert Wilders and his European congeners are seized by a sense of xenophobia, in which logic has made way for fear, and the middle parties do all they can to be more like Wilders, afraid as they are to be considered supporters of Europe. This is just as bad as saying that fascism might be a good solution to our problems.
There still are answers and perspectives, but the answers are not satisfactory and the perspectives no longer tempting. And what could well-meaning filmmakers and film lovers do about that?
Actually one shouldn’t have to think about Europe. A government is like a utility company: it has to be there and it should run. But just like several smaller governments, the Europe of the politicians in Brussels has fallen prey to the ambitions of men (and a couple of women), who for the sake of grand and compelling political dreams have forgotten that a government should first and for all be effective and at the service of its citizens. Just like the mayor of a small town strives for more housing estates and industry, Europe aspires to more countries joining and an even bigger market (and above all the primacy of this market in all things European). Becoming, being and staying important is the dream controlling the European government. The beautiful feelings and thoughts we cherish about Europe – be it a guarantee for long-lasting peace, a market with no interior borders or the sublimation of a thousand years of cultural history – evaporate when it becomes a bureaucracy mainly occupied with preserving itself, growing and increasing its hold on ‘us’.
Maybe we should have picked another name for the cooperation that resulted from the European Coal and Steel Community. After all the myth of Europe is the story of power and impotence, of the girl Europe who dreams of a stranger without a face or figure tearing her away from her mother Asia. Even in her dream this stranger comforts Europe when he says: ‘Fate has decided that you will belong to the ruler of the world.’ Shortly after, when she is playing with her girlfriends on the grass, Zeus appears in the figure of a bull. The curious girl climbs on the bull’s back and is carried off, over land, into the surf, over the sea. Ovidius concludes his version the moment the girl is sitting on the bull’s back, surrounded by water, alone as never before: ‘The girl was very frightened and looked back at the beach behind her, from where she was carried off. Her right hand was clasping the bull’s horn, her other hand was resting on its back and her gown was fluttering in the breeze.’ A story about abduction and powerlessness is not a promising creation narrative for a continent.
Do the narrativearts actually have a role in the European crisis? The general, the familiar, the big and the topical subjects are meant for television and journalism. Film, theatre and literature are occupied with the particular, the unknown and the small things. That those subjects can nevertheless become grand and compelling has more to do with what narrative art entails – imagination, style, narrative power – than with their importance. Cause what is the importance of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus’ wanderings for Dublin? What does it matter, in the light of world history, that Krapp was making love to his sweetheart and felt the world underneath him move? What is it to us that Aurelio Buendia, right before his execution, remembers the first time that ice cream arrived in his native village? Does Stalker’s spiritual worrying say something about the state of the state and do we need Almodovar or Von Trier for the development of our European attitude to life? The subjects that are treated by film, theatre and literature are all immensely important and at the same time completely irrelevant.
Artists in search of answers and perspectives, be it with an audience or without… I don’t know if it works. Generally art arises by accident, it is seldom planned. Take for example Casablanca, once voted the greatest film of all time. Casablanca was shot in the studios of Warner Brothers, where in the 1940s annually around fifty films were produced for a hungry wartime audience. Do you remember who was the director of this cinematic masterpiece? Michael Curtiz. And that it was based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s play Rick’s Café? Did you know that the production schedule in Warner Bros’ insane studio system was so tight that one started shooting when there was not even a hint of an ending for the film? And that for a film of which the ending is so important…
Casablanca is the classic example of an artwork that was not supposed to exist but still did. In some way or another everything clicked: Bogart and Bergman, Max Steiner’s score, Michael Curtiz, who surprised himself as a director, two playwrights with a script not adapted to film. It had to be a run-of-the-mill production and turned out to be an artwork that perfectly summarized the ambiguity of good and bad and the twilight state on the fringes of war.
The example of Casablanca tells me that it can be quite difficult to reach a collective self-analysis of makers and audiences, which is instigated by an organisation. It quickly starts to reek of political quasi-ukases resembling Bolkenstein’s famous appeal to Mulisch for more political inspiration and Grand Designs or Jacques Delors, who some ten years ago said that we should quickly develop a European soul, a European spirituality and a European sense of meaning, or else things would start to look bad. Ten to one that soul, spirituality and Grand Designs never make one think of a novel in which water sports lead to two characters actually converging – Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre – or of a pop song with the refrain ‘Cut the kids in half’ as is the case in Radiohead’s Knives Out, in which a divorced man gives new meaning to the phrase judgment of Solomon. When politicians talk about what art and culture should be able to do for The Netherlands, Europe, world peace or general well-being, they always mean their own art and culture. You know, NRC art, which is pleasantly modern, but still refined, Volkskrant art that may make you think you’re modern and multiculturally engaged, and you can still meet other progressive singles during the break. When politicians talk about art, meaning, spirituality and soul, they talk about an objective, we do not know what kind of objective and they will never tell, but that doesn’t matter, because good art never has an objective.
Although I am a passionate European, who has never voted in the European elections (because I think Europe is not a real democracy), I lack the ideological inspiration to talk about things like soul, spirituality and Grand Designs when it comes to countries, borders and budgets. Europe is the best, most practical solution for a problem, not a move into another Age of Reason. Just like I am a convinced supporter of the United Nations, not because I believe that ‘alle Menschen werden Bruder’, but because it is stupid and short-sighted to think otherwise. I believe in reducing suffering, war, hunger and deprivation to a minimum and in protection for children, education, food and civilization. Those are the conditions that with a little effort allow me to call myself a cosmopolitan humanist, were it not for the fact that I hate people who describe themselves as cosmopolitan or humanist. I reserve inspiration for art and injustice. I am sceptical about political inspiration, even when it goes in the direction of a united Europe or a healthy United Nations. And I get really suspicious when that inspiration is coupled with demands that are made on the arts, be it an inquiry into the state of Europe or the creation of a European soul.
Marcel Möring is a novelist. His most recent work is Louteringsberg (2013)