Journeys from Berlin, 1980

When Yvonne Rainer began developing her exposition on such seemingly disconnected themes as terrorism, alienation, division, and psychoanalysis in the early 1970s as a result of her first-hand experience as an expatriate – and in particular, an American – artist in (West) Berlin, the idea of domestic terrorism and the specter of 9/11 had not yet permeated the collective consciousness of American society. However, it is precisely within this contemporary culture of a pre-emptive war on terror, suicide civilian attacks, and increasing isolationism that her characteristically idiosyncratic and deeply personal film, Journeys from Berlin can be seen as a curiously prescient, incisive, unabashedly cerebral, and relevant film on the nature and psychology of violence, isolation, trauma, and repression. Opening to the sound of an urban couple’s (Vitto Acconci and Amy Taubin) off-screen conversation about the woman’s ongoing research on the infamous Baader-Meinhof gang juxtaposed against a scrolling text describing the political climate of 1960s Cold War era (West) Germany as the Federal Criminal Investigation Bureau sought to contain the influence of the opposition deemed a threat to government stability on the general public through active surveillance and aggressive prosecution of radicals and dissidents, even as the East German government (under the aegis of the Soviet Union) sought to politically insulate themselves as well from an equivalent threat with the construction of the Berlin Wall, the film, too, can be seen as a multi-layered reflection of seeming irresolvable, contradictory synchronicity – of dichotomous collisions between image and sound, words and sentiment, time and memory, ideology and action.

One layer of free associative collision occurs in the off-screen urban couple’s heady deconstruction of the rise and fall (and legacy) of the domestic terrorist group, the Baader-Meinhof gang (Red Army Faction) amid the assorted sounds of performed household chores. In this offbeat, establishing sequence, the mental image of upended institutions and contraventions of power and social structures are subverted by the aurality of mundane domestic ritual in which the superimposition serves as an illustration of their implicit existential contradiction: the narcissism of empty intellectualism. This sense of disconnected, impotent intellectualism is further reinforced by repeated tracking shots of an eclectic (and occasionally modulated) arrangement of mantelpiece curios and estranged, refracted views from an apartment window looking down into the street – both intrinsically reflecting transient images of decontextualization (the presentation of sentimentally meaningless objects to the audience that may or may not allude to ideas brought up during non-diegetic conversations) and isolation (the metaphoric disconnection of the couple’s implied self-defeating intellectualism from the reality of the grassroots site for social change: the streets). In each seemingly casual, alienated visual survey of everyday objects and performance of quotidian rituals, the viewer’s instinctive sense of imbalance and anomaly reflects a broader notion of a world perturbated out of balance by artificially created social division, political suppression, self-righteousness, and moral inertia.

Another intersection occurs during an unseen young woman’s recitation of passages from her diary (excerpted from Rainer’s own journals in her youth) – in particular, her uncomfortability over the implicitly imposed power structure of a store clerk’s subservience while shopping for a pair of shoes – against aerial views of Stonehenge and tracking shots of a Berlin street – the latter, a reinforcing image that is prefigured in the psychoanalyzed, suicidal patient’s (Annette Michelson) fractured memory. Intrinsic in the free association of these seeming disparate psychological and geographic landscapes is the evocation of a monolithic structure (as symbolized by Stonehenge) that the Berlin Wall also embodies: an iconic representation of a division that is both physical and ideological, real and figurative. Placed not only within the broader context of implicit class and social structures, but more directly, within the context of the government’s suppression of political dissidents and the Baader-Meinhof terrorist acts, the insurmountable monolith becomes an indirect representation of incollapsible, opposing, inhumane institutions that become innate (and recursive) reflections of each other: the strong-armed injustices of monopolistic governments against the coercive, violent acts of radical militants. In turn, these mirroring images of entrenched inequality, systematic persecution, and arbitrary violence serve to reinforce the film’s recurring theme of suicide through its representation of the broader psychology of social self-destruction, where institutional acts of aggression and suppression become spiraling, self-feeding cycles of escalating violence and dehumanization. It is this corrupted ideology of perpetuated intolerance, social disparity, tyrannical injustice, and Hammurabian vengeance that inevitably defines the true nature of terrorism within the veneer of an enlightened, civilized society – a culturally ingrained, systematic social suicide borne of a myopic collision between intractable, monolithic walls of privilege and exclusion, idealism and realism, altruism and egoism.

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