Can we ever know the intention behind a moving image, unless we hear it from the horse’s mouth, colloquially speaking? Documentary specifically poses a philosophical approach to this unanswerable question of intentionality, by further complicating it: if it can be proven that documentary does not represent The TruthÔ, but rather, A Truth mediated by the filmmaker’s intention, is the whole “truth” point moot in all moving images, by way of intentionality? Are we befallen with bias, and if that is a reality to consider, are moving images doomed to lie? I seek to analyze the utility of documentary footage within auteur Lars Von Trier’s seminal The House That Jack Built (2018), as yet another way to complicate the questions of truth in “documentary” – both the style, and the form.
Documentary as a form works through visual languages, as well as through voice, where the two in tandem represent the affect of the film, as in the detectable style transmitted by the collage of footage itself. Film theorist Bill Nichols discussed the three stories in every documentary: the story of the filmmaker, the story of the film itself, as in the actual content that defines the work, and the story of the audience, based on reception, which, in the case of documentary, is a causal relationship contingent on how the history itself is presented. On voice, Nichols articulated that “The voice of documentary is not limited to the voices of unseen “gods” and visible “authorities” who represent the filmmaker’s point of view—who speak for the film, or to social actors who represent their own points of view—who speak in the film but to all means of communication, be they verbal or nonverbal,” (Nichols 52). In this way, the point of view a documentary seeks to take can be completely explicit, or completely implicit – where this distinction can be gleaned through an interpretation of the ways in which the elements of communication create a style in itself. This style is planned, in that it “…involves the use of figures of speech and codes of grammar to achieve a specific tone,” (Nichols 66). So, documentary as it represents, dually constructs, as well as recognizes – these elements are all choices within a style, a voice, a means of conveying a historical world to the corporeal one.
Susan Sontag’s Fascinating Fascism provides critique on the ways in which these visual languages can be strategically used in documentary to serve agendas. Sontag discusses German films during the Third Reich as beyond “tensely romantic,” in terms of Leni Riefenstahl’s work. (Sontag 3). Using Riefenstahl’s work for the Nazis as a case study, Sontag digs through the historical implications of Triumph of the Will, citing that “There was never any struggle between the film maker and the German minister of propaganda. Triumph of the Will, after all her third film for the Nazis, was made with the fullest cooperation any film maker has ever had from any government,” (Sontag 5). With an unlimited budget and resources aplenty from the German government, Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is based around a planned rally that Sontag refers to as the ideal set up of a filmic spectacle, something unquestionable from audiences as a beautiful display of history, though a planned event staged for the film itself. In the time Sontag wrote Fascinating Fascism, there was a perception of Riefenstahl as a cultural icon, a promotion she believes is due to the fact that she is a woman (Sontag 8). She implicates an imposition of identity politics here in a way that articulates a valuation shift; where the intention of creating great work may overshadow the dangerous political affiliations that led to the creation of the work in the first place. There is an emphasis on effectiveness in spite of the fact that Triumph of the Will is a Nazi propaganda film, where the strength of the visual language becomes some notion of objective beauty. Sontag implicates beauty further, charting that “…a stronger reason for the change in attitude toward Riefenstahl lies in a shift in taste which simply makes it impossible to reject art if it is ‘beautiful,’” (Sontag 8). Riefenstahl says that she is mainly concerned with beauty, which, when any critical analysis is applied, can be understood as a way for beauty, as it is communicated within the visual language of a documentary, to cannibalize what that beauty might signify. In this way, Riefenstahl prioritizes “…what is beautiful, strong, healthy, what is living,” where each one of these adjectives has the privilege of her subjectivity, as a filmmaker. To Sontag, the ways in which Riefenstahl created a visual language in her work born out of Nazi propaganda suggests a fascist aesthetics. A key distinction to make is that she describes a fascist aesthetics, rather than fascism, aestheticized. Sontag is concerned with something a lot of film people are very concerned with today, namely the idea of “effectiveness,” where the content of any moving image should be overlooked as much as the message is disseminated in the way it was intended. Sontag probes this idea, not as a means to draw absolution from how Riefenstahl’s work is automatically invalidated because of the historical ties the message has, but as a means to articulate the power dynamic particular messages in films possess, in terms of visual language and aesthetics. Further, Fascinating Fascism provokes a question of the ways in which visual language create an aesthetics unique to the documentary, and have the power to cultivate a complacency, as well as the potential to verge, in the case of Riefenstahl, toward fascist propaganda.
Sontag’s points bring up the contemporary conversation of “separating the art from the artist,” and whether or not it is a viable model for audiences and critics to follow. Two noted examples are that of deceased rapper XXXTENTACIÓN, who was “cancelled” on the Internet for brutally assaulting his then girlfriend, Cleopatra Bernard, and Kanye West, who was dually “cancelled” for his aesthetic support of Donald Trump. During the public cyber takedown of both artists, many people on Twitter advocated for boycotting both musician’s work respectively as a means of erasing them. Ultimately, this is an argument based on ideas of how aesthetics are used to execute power dynamics, therefore the only viable solution is to consider the efficacy of the art and the artist’s reputation as one in the same. You could be a Riefenstahl, or you could be a Kanye. In the social media age, we have been reminded that power is not solely executed from a top-down structure – we are not agency-less, however we cannot have an impact as widespread, and effective, as that which comes top-down. In this way, we can execute our agency via self-regulation and policing: we can shift our consciousness to decide that we suddenly would like to listen to those who have experienced assault, ie Cleopatra Bernard, or not listen to those who present as aligning with conservative American politics, ie Kanye. It is here where I return to Sontag: “If the message of fascism has been neutralized by an aesthetic view of life, its trappings have been sexualized,” (Sontag 17). Yes, we can influence the zeitgeist, but influence is a currency, and the way we feel like we have power in the face of this relationship, to Sontag, is fascist in that it is a purely aesthetic view of life. And we love it, we fetishize it – we think that we are the ones with the power to “cancel,” when really, no one would be cancelled if there wasn’t a way to profit upon it. Beyond their social effects, what does “cancelled” as a label really mean, what does not separating the art from the artist actually accomplish?
The ability to separate the art from the artist implies equal knowledge of the art and the artist which, is not anything to fall back on when the repercussions on the Internet are more of the spectacle of a virtual guillotine than they are any act of retribution, any act of accountability. Engaging with the visual language, the aesthetic, of an artwork is not synonymous with knowing the artist themselves – this comparison assumes that in our interaction with the visual language of any artwork, an interaction that consumers of artwork are limited to, that we can know who the artist is. I argue that we cannot know the artist when our only engagement with them is via an artistic medium, a phantom limb, if you will.
I would like to use The House That Jack Built (2018) by Lars Von Trier to distinguish the difference between being able to know the artist from their work, and being able to recognize an artist’s work as uniquely theirs from the standpoint of Nichols’ ideas of visual language, and Sontag’s critique of fascist aesthetics. The film, in few words, is about an architect named Jack who recounts the five most important moments in his career – all of which are murders. In the classic Lars Von Trier code of aesthetics, the structure of the five incidents are clearly delineated by hand-animated title cards, where the limbo between each incident is accentuated with Jack conversing with Verge, a character who remains unseen until the final incident. All of these elements are ways to recognize Von Trier as an individual, a likely target for the cancel-brigade due to both his use of documentary footage of Hitler in this work, accusations of misogyny in the wake of Antichrist (2009) and Nymphomaniac (2013), and for certain unsavory comments made at a press conference for his film Melancholia (2011) that resulted in his being banned from the Cannes film festival. Both of these elements make appearances in The House That Jack Built (2018), coincidentally, the first time Von Trier himself was allowed to attend Cannes, only to witness a mass walk-out of the screening of the film. In 2011, Von Trier voiced his interest in the Nazi aesthetic, saying that he “could understand” Hitler and, realizing the identity politics hole he had just dug himself, chose to dig deeper and deeper until he reached hell itself. This how The House That Jack Built ends, and also the subject of which it explores, in a meta sense, as a critique on absolution, on postmodernism, on the ways in which people can get buried for awkward conversations. Von Trier’s Hitler comments make an appearance in a sequence between the fourth and fifth incidents, where Jack talks about the value of icons, and the value of ruins. The sequence features documentary footage of Nazi architect Albert Speer laughing beside Hitler, cut between footage of Speer’s work, and animated diagrams of how he constructed his buildings. Jack takes this opportunity to talk about Speer and his wonderful intentionality in constructing his buildings with materials both weaker and stronger than their counterparts, “so that they, in a thousand years, would appear as aesthetically perfect ruins.” Jack also mentions the Stuka, a German dive-bomber plane known to produce an unforgettable screech as it dove, as we see documentary footage of its construction and performance of violence. Verge pushes back against Jack and what he assumes is a penchant for ruin, assuming that Jack’s romanticization of the screeching Stuka was more of a “sadism” disguised as an opinion on beauty. The end of this sequence is a black screen – leaving only Jack’s rejection of beauty for something more – the icon.
As discinclined as the world is to acknowledge the beauty of decay, it’s just as disinclined to give credit to those who create the real icons of this planet. We are deemed the ultimate evil. All the icons that have had and always will have an impact on the world are, for me, extravagant art.
Jack’s dialogue here resembles Riefenstahl’s insistence that she is not concerned with beauty as it is conventionally understood; but what is strong, healthy, living. This so-called independently defined notion of beauty is what Sontag critiqued within Riefenstahl’s work as a gaze that, coincidentally enough, was heavily biased in Triumph of the Will, a film entirely sponsored by Germany’s minister of propaganda at the time. Von Trier goes beyond beauty, proving Jack to be the ultimate aesthete, someone who takes beauty to the next level – iconography. In fact, the only house that Jack actually builds is one of frozen bodies that leads him to hell in a handbasket, with the guidance of Verge.
There are stylistic aspects of The House That Jack Built (2018) that establish it as absurd – a critique on the real repercussions Von Trier has faced himself that uses an atypical serial killer who mainly targets women as if to write himself out of his work by provoking audiences to heavily attach the art to the artist. Upon claims of misogyny, visually, it makes sense for Jack to hunt a mother’s two children for sport, and then have her force-feed her dead sons pie before killing her; it makes sense for Jack to cut Simple’s breasts off, leaving one under the windshield wiper of a cop car, and keeping the other as a wallet. Jack is a psycho – so Lars must be too.
Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires which we cannot commit in our controlled civilization. So they are expressed instead through our art. I don’t agree. I believe heaven and hell are one in the same. The soul belongs to heaven and the body to hell. The soul is reason and the body is all the dangerous things, for example, art and icons.
Lars Von Trier, as an auteur, is a filmmaker whose work is recognizable through the visual language he has codified for the duration of his career – one that includes the use of documentary footage both aesthetically and, in the case of The House That Jack Built (2018), to directly raise questions on the way in which his art is deemed The TruthÔbased on past comments. While a work of fiction, The House That Jack Built critiques the postmodern role of interiority as something latently imbued in all artwork, posing an interesting debate to further complicate questions of where truth comes from in the moving image, by studying how that truth is constructed aesthetically.
Hammid. “Lars Von Trier -- ‘I Understand Hitler...".” YouTube, 18 May 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpUqpLh0iRw.
“The House That Jack Built (2018) - Full Transcript.” Subs like Script - All Movies and TV Shows Transcripts, subslikescript.com/movie/The_House_That_Jack_Built-4003440.
Sontag, Susan. “Fascinating Fascism.” The New York Review of Books, 20 Oct. 2020, www.nybooks.com/articles/1975/02/06/fascinating-fascism/.
“What Gives Documentary Films a Voice of Their Own?” Introduction to Documentary, by Bill Nichols, Indiana University Press, 2017, pp. 48–68.