By chance, in a Berlin sports arena in 1927, an American showman and a Weimar critic sat side by side, watching a troop of British women performing marching displays merely for ornament.
The American was a springy thirty-two, a veteran, a dancer, and interested in everything. At thirty-eight, with a nose more at home on the face of an ill-starred boxer, the German was one of Europe’s most respected intellects.
The weather was mild, the crowd delighted as pretty young women broke and circled and came together again like centipedes scanned through a kaleidoscope.
The German’s reading of the event would teach the so-called Frankfurt school of critics how to read popular culture seriously. The American would reproduce the march in Hollywood, and thus turn American film prismatic.
Stocky and grimly at grips with his own thoughts, the German grunted from time to time, troubled by a heady brew of revelatory disgust. The American paid equally little attention to the man beside him, occupied as he was with fixing the distant figures into mental notes.
(It is generally thought that the American, Busby Berkeley, was in New York at this time. Berkeley, however—happily blind as the present so often is to misguided hindsight—had recently received a small inheritance from an aunt he had made laugh at his seventh birthday party. In a household of vaudeville performers, little attention was paid to the aunt, who was small herself, and rather quiet. On a drunken whim, Berkeley sailed the money and rode the train to Berlin, having heard there was quite a scene on the stage there. How he came upon the news of the British troop, known as The Tiller Girls, is not known, nor is what routine he performed to delight his aunt.)
The two men shared no language in common. But the German, Siegfried Kracauer, held a brochure upon his leg. Apparently rolled up tight for some time, his hand rested inside the black-and-white photograph like a fish swimming fitfully inside a hollowed log.
Berkeley—being American—drew the German’s attention by tapping his elbow. He then glanced at the image, rolled his own warm fish in the air, and squinted an eye to say, mind if I take a gander?
Though deep in thought, the German was no fool, even at short notice. He passed the magazine—fairly snapping it to say, I am thinking—and Berkeley gazed.
Chorus girls in tank-tops and gym shorts lay on their backs in a column receding from the camera; head to trunk and head to trunk, the nape of each girl’s neck lay snug in the next girl’s crotch, having a fine old time though two are still getting perfectly settled. Comfortably cradled in each other’s laps, the legs of each shoot up—a gauntlet of Vs to the distance.
Seven years later, in a film titled “Dames,” Berkeley re-enacted the configuration as exactly and as lavishly as only Hollywood dared in the fifth year of the Crash.
Kracauer believed that in the spectacular drills he’d seen that day, in the plotted machinations of the marchers, he had witnessed a muscle-and-bone reproduction of the thinking into which capitalism dreams of incorporating all human beings. And indeed, in the year before “Dames” was released, with the backing of the nation’s industrialists, and public rejoicing, Adolph Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, and a murderous empire started to march.
Meanwhile, in Berkeley’s rendition (shot in the year of the Chancellor’s triumph), we face the back of a line of staunchly pretty legs, though only the pair in front is fully visible, the others standing behind. Suddenly the dancers hop, spread their feet, and land solidly upon a gleaming stage. The camera now looks down the same gauntleted V of shapely thighs and ankles—the Tiller Girls’ spread, though performed upright in the form of an A.
But where are the smiling faces?
The dancers are not as snug together as first appeared, for now they all lean down at once—looking back and upside down toward the camera. Then the camera too turns on its head, and we are looking at the reinverted image in the magazine. Except of course that here the camera can move.
It rolls forward, and each smile it might concuss swings down (or up, for literalists) and away: the original gauntlet, reproduced as a lover’s assembly line. (1)
Kracauer, however, insists there was nothing erotic about the stadium spectacle. Except perhaps for its most immediate seduction—a sweet, as it were, for those willing to service the state’s most hateful machines.
America’s greatest service in World War Two was not in its sacrifice of men (Russia alone gave forty times as many), but in making itself rich beyond precedent as the world’s arsenal.
It is true that Berkeley’s stunts—including those he would later cook up for Esther Williams—put the lives of many women at risk of drowning or concussion. Yet despite insurance costs and generally high budgets (which would end Berkeley’s career until he met Esther), these feats of “mass choreography” (2) made millions for the Warner brothers. By 1935, on the backs of Berkeley’s girls and MGM’s Marie Dressler—a woman who’d cleaned rooms to feed herself a few years before she saved that studio—the American film industry emerged from the red and became the perfect machine for making movies (at a time when Americans—being Americans—were making machines for making everything else).
In the first collected edition of Kracauer’s Weimar essays published in English, on the page facing Kracauer’s seminal essay about the Tiller Girls, there is a picture. (3) The same he snapped at Busby Berkeley.
Yet who recalls the name of Berkeley’s quiet aunt, or what pleasure she took in little Busby’s antics?
Who remembers Mr. Tiller? Or his photographer?
Let alone the names of those girls? Any one of whom might have been a Jew, a dancehall Berlinerin recently fled from the continent and trusting that, as part of an English troop, she could never be questioned?
So it seems we had warning, even in silly movies.
One doubts today that the best security experts can decipher all that evidence.
The wonder is that we don’t perfect everything instantly. Or kill ourselves just as quickly, by sheer inattention.
(1) The Coen Brothers reproduced the image again in “The Big Lebowski.” Here the camera tracks Jeff Bridges (who is because he has the smaller financial lebowski) as he floats through that gauntlet.
(2) Ephraim Katz on Berkeley in The Film Encyclopedia. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.
(3) The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Trans. Thomas A. Levin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Doran Larson is Professor of English & Creative Writing at Hamilton College. Since 2006, he has led the Attica Writer’s Workshop, inside Attica Correctional Facility. He is the founder of the Attica-Genesee Teaching Project, which began delivering college-credit courses inside Attica in January 2011. Larson’s essays on prison writing, prison teaching, and related issues have appeared in Salmagundi, Radical Teacher, AGNI, College Literature, English Language Notes, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is the editor of Fourth City: The Prison in America, an in-progress collection of essays on the prison system by currently incarcerated writers across the U.S. and of The Beautiful Prison, a forthcoming collection of essays by academics and incarcerated Americans imagining the prison as a socially constructive institution. Larson has also published two novels, a novella, and over a dozen short stories, as well as literary criticism, travel writing, and opinion.