Louis Malle’s consciousness of the disjunction between language and reality expressed itself in an effervescent cinematic discourse, a heroic attempt to cover over the gap with the brash antics of his heroine Zazie and with a film style that celebrated diversity, surprise effects, and comic references to the history of cinema. Other filmmakers have had quite a different reaction to self-consciousness; if Malle attempts to save himself (and his art) through comedy, these filmmakers seem more allied with a tragic vision.
In this chapter I will be discussing a group of films that seem related as though by metaphor. Although each is by a recognized film author, they enact, in turn, a poetics of silence—the cinematic equivalent of Barthes’s “white writing.” Among these I would count Last Tango in Paris (Le Dernier tango à Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972), Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), Kings of the Road (lm Lauf der Zeit, Wim Wenders, 1976), and Quintet (Robert Altman, 1979). What these films have in common is a moment in which the characters in them reach the farthest outpost of civilization, beyond which meaning ceases. Each one seems to exist, as Stanley Cavell puts it, “in a condition of philosophy.”1
In their orientation toward the tragic and in their search for the meaning of Western civilization, these works are part of the tradition that began with Sophocles’ dramatization of the myth of Oedipus. In the Oedipus plays, I shall argue, Sophocles put into dramatic form the way language was born out of the Greek city. If today that language seems increasingly called into doubt, this was an outcome already foretold by the Greek dramatist. The universally felt anxiety about the status of any discourse, whether it takes the form of a literary work or a film, was foreseen by Sophocles. His plays reflect the realization that manmade rationality would only offer a temporary shelter against the forces that wait on the destruction of civilization.
Yet, despite their pessimism, each of these works ends on a note of hope. This hope takes various forms: a hope for radical change (Wenders), for salvation through confrontation with the unknown (Altman) or from some clue to be found in memory, through a reexamination of the past (Bertolucci, Coppola). In each of the films, the filmmaker has tried to forge a new reality, while being restricted to the language of cinema. In that sense, each has contributed to a project first outlined by the French critic André Bazin: that of allowing the screen to function as a window, letting reality transpire through it, while at the same time ensuring that that filmed reality should be a visioned reality, a heightened and intensified experience of the real.
Bazin’s injunctions influenced a whole generation of filmmakers from the French New Wave onward. The filmmaking practice he advocated is political in the broadest sense of the term. To write with the intention of fusing language and reality is to write with a sense of the civic community, of the polis. In Bazin, realism becomes the battlecry, the political engagement which serves to define the great cinematic author. Only those directors who have furthered the cause of realism in cinema are awarded the distinction of being called “authors” in Bazin’s system. His famous phrase la politique des auteurs comes to have two meanings: the impetus for seeking out and consecrating individual directors is a political one in that the approximation of cinema to the real will be furthered by it; at the same time, Bazin implies that the realist tendencies of those very authors stemmed from a political commitment on their part.2
The four films I will be discussing stand on a kind of threshold. Although each is the creation of an expressive film author, each in turn questions the possibility of saying anything at all, either because the reality they seek to portray seems beyond any verbal or cinematic language, or because their very subject is itself the limitations of cinematic expression. Although these themes run throughout each work, there is a moment in which they reach a crisis.
In Apocalypse Now that crisis comes when Captain Willard, proceeding up the river to Kurtz’s hideout, comes upon a battle taking place over the water at Do Lung Bridge (Fig. 3). A string of lights is the only apparently significant demarcation between the two sides of the battle, but none of the soldiers questioned knows who is in charge or where the enemy line begins. I take this to be a metaphor for the limits of meaning per se, when all difference and hierarchy is effaced. Beyond this line, Willard says, is only Kurtz, a man gone insane whom the natives worship as a god.
A similar moment occurs in Im Lauf der Zeit. The Wenders film is the recounting of several months of companionship between two men (Fig. 4). In the opening shots of the film, Robert drives his VW beetle straight into a lake and sinks it. At the edge of the lake Bruno stands beside his truck shaving. Intrigued by the action of Robert, he offers him a ride. This, in turn, gives Robert the opportunity to explain the details of the marital breakup which have upset him. Bruno makes his living by fixing the projectors in village movie theaters, a profession that allows Wenders to make comments on the movie industry: the film begins with a sort of prologue, an interview between Bruno and a film theater owner, a former Nazi, whose theater was shut down after the war. It closes with another interview at the Weisse Wand (white screen) film theater whose owner refuses to show the films that are sent to her by distributors, films, she says, “in which people lose all sense of themselves and of the world.” Nevertheless, she keeps her theater in working order in case good films begin to be made again. Bruno decides, upon hearing this, to quit his job. As he drives away his windshield reflects the “WW” of the Weisse Wand (white screen) theatre, which are also the initials of Wim Wenders.
Quintet posits an end-of-the-world scenario in which the last remaining outpost of human habitation is frozen in an ice age or nuclear winter. In the city survivors have taken up a deadly game by which the gamemaster establishes a roster of murders to be performed (Fig. 5). According to the rules of the game, you cannot kill out of turn, but you may avert your own death by killing your assigned murderer just before s/he kills you. The “hero” who returns to the city after a long absence accidentally assumes the place of one of the “players” and manages to win the game in progress by skillful self-defense. But rather than stay on to practice his skill as player, he sets off alone across the ice.
Last Tango in Paris takes place mainly in a practically empty apartment on the outskirts of the city where two people who were out apartment hunting become lovers. The character played by Marlon Brando refuses to know the girl’s name (I use the word “girl” advisedly, since there is a continual play on her status as child-woman—only at the end does Tom, her fiancé, say that they have become adults) or to tell her his name. They meet only in the apartment, which he attempts to cut off from history and from the past. As in Im Lauf der Zeit, a telephone left connected serves to accentuate their lack of communication, as they listen to each other’s silence at opposite ends of the apartment. His own wife, the proprietress of a seedy hotel, has just killed herself by slitting her wrists with a razor. Throughout the film, the Brando character seems in a state of aphasia and shock, until the girl he is pursuing finally shoots him.
It seems to me that each of these films enacts the moment when words fail and when meaning dissolves with the disappearance of the differences between words and things that enable meaning to exist. They enact the failure of language and presage new possibilities of representation, of subjectivity, without actually finding a solution. They are philosophical in that they bring to the foreground an element of Western culture that philosopher Stanley Cavell has problematized in his writings. In particular, I believe that each of these works relates to the issues that Cavell raises in his discussion of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, for each in turn enacts a moment in which the there is something like a final throw of the dice.
That element is language, or what since the time of the Greeks has been called logos. I have said that I find these films to be united by a common metaphor, the metaphor of the birth of language as the ordering force of the world. Its principal myth, I believe, is that of Oedipus as dramatized in the trilogy of Sophocles: the Oedipus Rex, the Antigone, and the Oedipus at Colonus. These plays, I would argue, can be understood as the representation of a conflict between language and the city, a conflict that led to the new practice of an urban language that became the linchpin of our civilization and which now finds itself under attack in philosophy, in psychoanalysis, in linguistics, and in works of art such as the four films I have cited above.
Historically, one can speak of the dramatization, in the work of Sophocles, of the formation of the new human order—the political entity of Athens that ushered in a new kind of language. It was to celebrate that order that these plays were initially performed, as part of a religious festival. Not surprisingly, they deal with the very principles that made Greek civilization, from which our own derived, different from any other.
As Jean-Pierre Vernant explains in Les Origines de la pensée grècque (The Origins of Greek Thought), the growth of the city entailed several radical changes. First of all, the reception hall of the Homeric kings was replaced by the agora of the city—the marketplace where citizens could meet on a daily basis to discuss political issues. Then, writing inevitably led to the concept of historicity and to the consciousness of living in historical time. Finally, with the growth of a professional class, natural science replaced the idea of a mythic origin of humankind with a new view of them as a constituent part of the natural world.3
In the agora, speech became the agent of change—through speech, men attempted to alter concrete political facts. To this reality corresponded a new language. Sophocles’ task in the three works centering around the Oedipus myth will be to liberate this new language from the mythical practices that preceded it and to establish the reputation of Athens as the privileged place where this language is spoken and flourishes.
There are three levels of language mentioned in the Oedipus Rex, and they are set in dialectical opposition to one another.4 Logos is the rational speech that Oedipus champions over chresmos, the oracle, and ainigma, the riddle. Oedipus believes in, and identifies with, his own language. To Tiresias he boasts: “I came, know-nothing Oedipus, directed by my own thought rather than gaining my knowledge from the birds.” His beginnings in Thebes seem to justify this optimism, for he has vanquished the Sphinx with his words and thought. Hegel, in The Philosophy of History, equated the Sphinx with the irrational. She comes from Egypt, from pre-Greek times:
In the Egyptian [Goddess] Neith, Truth is still a problem. The Greek Apollo is its solution; his utterance is: “Man, know thyself” . . . Wonderfully, then, must the Greek legend surprise us, which relates that the Sphinx—the great Egyptian symbol—appeared in Thebes, uttering the words: What is that which in the morning goes on four legs, at midday on two, and in the evening on three. Oedipus, giving the solution, Man, precipitated the Sphinx from the rock.5
In the fourth century gloss on the play by Aristophanes the grammarian, the Sphinx herself practically gives away the answer to her riddle. She says: “There is a two-footed creature on the earth which is also a four-foot, and has a voice, and a three-foot” (esti dipoun epi ges kai tetrapon, hou mia fone, kai tripon). Taking the cue, Oedipus answers straight off: “Hear, whether you want or not, my voice”—thus making the text of the enigma into the instrument of its own solution.6
But all too soon Oedipus, whose strength relies upon language, finds that his own logos reverts to a riddle. For example he says that he may after all (despite all evidence) be innocent of Laios’s murder because the witness mentioned several assailants and “one man can’t be the same as many, of course.” This turns into a riddle and an irony because the sophistry meant to ward off punishment makes him look for exactly the details (the shepherd’s story) which will show him to be “the same as” brother and father to his children. In this way he falls victim to his own language, as the Sphinx did. Oedipus defends himself against the irony of Tiresias and against Creon, the second-in-command, because he foresees that his defeat will entail the defeat of the new city he represents: “You intend to betray me and let the city die.” The new city, the new urban language, will in the end not be founded at Thebes, from which Oedipus is banished.
It will, in fact, be founded at Athens. In the Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus arrives at the sacred grove at Colonus outside Athens. When the Chorus first discovers him, they are horrified because his curse defiles their sacred place. But Oedipus explains that the special nature of his sin can be turned to the profit of the city that honors him. The Chorus argues Oedipus’s case before Theseus, the ruler of Athens, and wins. At the end Oedipus is carried off by the Gods somehow. His instructions are that no one should know the place of his death except Theseus; as long as the secret is kept Athens will be secure. From now on, the city will be justified and protected by a sacred element exterior to it, an element that has to do with the violent disruption of the old order. Logos triumphs and is installed at Athens.
By keeping Oedipus outside the city Sophocles implicitly sets up the possibility for the continuance of a dialectic between the forces (the Gods) that have both doomed and saved him; the situation suggests the same sort of instability as the hero’s limp, which one feels obliged to take into account in any interpretation of the myth. With uncanny prescience Sophocles intimates that urban man and the language he wields stand on somewhat shaky legs. If the Greek philosophers, as Foucault and Derrida have argued, opted for a logos to which there was no alternative,7 I understand Sophocles to predict a return of those repressed elements of the dialectic that the establishment of logos had negated.
The disequilibrium that always threatens this delicate balance is dramatized in the last play of the trilogy, the Antigone. Here the heroine insists on burying the corpse of her insurgent brother against the explicit orders of Creon. Successful politics, Sophocles shows, can only come about through shared language. Statesmanship is equated with the skilled practice of language, in the famous hymn to the accomplishments of man who may have “speech and wind-quick thought and city-strengthening anger” (353). The failure of Creon and Antigone to come to terms is a failure of language. Haemon, the king’s son, argues with Creon that the voice of the city speaks against him; Creon responds that he is the sole ruler (“whoever the city has established, he should be listened to.”) Haemon’s answer, “anyone who thinks he’s the only one with a mind or a tongue or a soul, when unfolded proves empty” (707), neatly summarizes the Athenian notion of democratic political rule, an ideal not yet achieved in Thebes. Sophocles shows that, in the absence of a shared language, humankind is doomed to incomprehension and suffering.
In our own century, from the surrealists to Ionesco, from the plays of Jean Anouilh to the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet, literature has proclaimed that the connection between language and reality has been lost. Orthodox surrealists such as Andre Breton pursued the irrational Freudian rather than the rational Hegelian Oedipus: gain access to your unconscious, they said, and creative forces will be liberated that will enable you to transcend the rationalist prison that encloses you. The languages of art, transformed by automatic modes of composition, will give back to artists the mirror of their true, unconscious selves. The surrealists share with the theater of the absurd a lack of concern for representation, and the use of language as a discovery mechanism that will transcend conventional categories. Yet the surrealists still hoped to forge a new relation between the self and the world, an ambition that the theater of the absurd abandoned to become pure language play, a document of our enslavement to words. The lost relation between language and reality is vividly illustrated by the modern version of Antigone by Anouilh, in which Creon says: “Nothing is true except that which is left unsaid.”8 His Antigone and his Creon are left with the sterile accomplishment of their scripted roles in a world where meaning has fled.9
Alain Robbe-Grillet brings the dissolution of the relation between language and reality one step nearer in Les Gommes (The Erasers), a novel in which the pretense of representation is continually erased, as the title suggests.10 What makes this novel interesting for the present discussion is that the author includes over a hundred references, both obvious and veiled, to the Oedipus myth.11 But with the unraveling of the plot, the reader comes to realize that the multiple allusions to Oedipus were mere ploys. The reader of Robbe-Grillet’s novels finds that the narrative is about the reading. In this work, the Sphinx has come back to haunt us, the plague has returned to attack language itself. Literature sets itself in motion to search for the cause but finds that the core of the disease lies within literature. When Claudio Guillen writes: “Civitas verbi: artistic wholes and literary systems are, like great cities, complex environments and areas of integration,”12 he is talking about the sort of art work that it is no longer possible to write.
Thus the “age of suspicion” described by Nathalie Sarraute13 strikes film as well. In my discussion of the four films I have mentioned, I take as my point of departure Stanley Cavell’s remarks on Beckett’s Endgame, in particular his statement that the main character of that play, Hamm (or “homme,” man—since, as Cavell notes, ha’am is Hebrew for “the people) “presents a new image of what the mind, in one characteristic philosophical mood, has always felt like—crazed and paralyzed.” Endgame shows us where logic got us.14
Robert Altman’s Quintet links human fate to the fate of the city. Everything in the city is based on the number five: there are five sectors, twenty-five levels, and one can find any person by knowing just five numbers and a color code (Fig. 6). Filmed in Montreal’s “Family of Man’’ exhibit from the World’s Fair (and in the experimental apartment dwelling “habitat”), the ice-covered environment is a perfect representation of the end of technology. The game of quintet itself, which has become the sole focus of interest and purpose for these dying vestiges of humanity—amid which a train buried in snow literally signifies “the end of the line”—is based on five sectors, in the middle of which there is a “killing circle” surrounded by an area called “limbo” which is marked off into fields. The five players roll dice, trying to get a combination of five, and move around the board. The “killing order” is determined by the sixth player—the “sixth man,” similar to the “dummy” in bridge, who plays the “survivor.” In the tournaments played at the Casino, the game has become literal: the “players” are actually expected to kill each other off, and the five sectors of the city become the board on which the “game” is played.
Altman’s hero Essex is a man who returns to the city after a long absence, in the company of his young wife (she is said to be “the youngest person alive,” and she is pregnant). What Essex doesn’t know is that the brother he visits has just been selected for a tournament, and within a few moments of the hero’s arrival, his wife is killed in a deadly attack on the brother’s family. Essex is the only survivor. His search to avenge his wife’s death brings him ever closer to the truth, as he comes to realize the true meaning of the game. Altman is careful to limit the spectator’s knowledge, so that he or she barely knows more than Essex knows. To follow the plot of the film thereby becomes a cognitive exercise in which the spectator identifies with Essex’s progressive enlightenment and discovery.
I have said that none of the films I will discuss end on a note of pessimism; having found out the truth and killed all the other players, Essex starts out across the ice toward the unknown. This unknown is represented metaphorically as a goose which is seen at the beginning of the film, flying north to what seems like certain death. Yet the unknown also offers the possibility of hope, a chance to solve the dilemma of life. It is toward this hope that Essex sets off northward, stalking the goose through the frozen world. Quintet can be said to be part of the same philosophical project as Endgame: “Solitude, emptiness, nothingness, meaninglessness, silence—these are not the givens of Beckett’s characters but their goal, their new heroic undertaking.”15
Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris recasts another theme of Beckett’s—that of “life outside the shelter (of authority, family, place, sanity).”16 Paul refuses to know even the name of the young woman he meets in the bare apartment; they invent their lives from ground zero. “There’s nobody here anymore,” he tells an anonymous caller over the phone, “il n’y a plus personne.” Paul’s shock at his wife’s suicide stems from his realization that he never knew her. Women are always pretending either that they know who you are or that you don’t know who they are, he complains to Jeanne. He wants to eliminate all games, to take the chance of loving someone he doesn’t know.
In the end, Paul follows Jeanne to her mother’s apartment after their “last tango” in a dance hall (Fig. 7). Panicking at the thought that she won’t be able to get rid of him, she shoots him. At the end, she tonelessly recites what she will tell the police (“I don’t know who it is, I don’t know his name”). Yet this is only one side of the equation. At the other side is Jeanne’s relation with Tom, the young man who wants to marry her and who is making a film about her (Fig. 8). The two films, Tom’s and Bertolucci’s, sometimes become one, as in the moment when Tom drops the mike and the enframing film—Last Tango—also loses its sound. I find it significant, and perhaps even hopeful, that Tom’s attempt to forge a link to the future through memory of the past is posed against Paul’s indifference to and denial of the past. While making his film, Tom encourages Jeanne to relive her childhood and sends her back through time in a replay of Cocteau’s Orphée. Later, he throws a life preserver over Jeanne which is marked with the name of the boat in Jean Vigo’s film about a young marriage, L’Atalante. Bertolucci suggests that memory may be the way out of the dilemmas of the past, although this solution is presented ambiguously through the somewhat comic presentation of Tom and because the life preserver, when thrown into the water, sinks.
The death of Paul, the suicide of Rosa become the equivalents of the mythic sacrifice that precedes the birth of language. To put it another way, Rosa and Paul are the tragic heroes, Tom and Jeanne the common folk—the chorus—that can live because the ritual sacrifice has been made. “You’re all alone,” Paul says to Jeanne, “until you look up the ass of death, until you find a womb of fear.” Sacrificing him is the compromise that Jeanne makes with normality; she puts aside the attraction she feels for Paul in order to settle comfortably with the clichés of what she herself calls “a pop culture marriage” based on the false promises of advertising.
Although Jeanne is attracted to Paul, Bertolucci shows that her fascination ultimately threatens to imprison her. Paul’s repeated denials of the past are attempts to establish freedom, yet the apartment becomes like a cage for Jeanne (Bertolucci underscores this theme in scenes where they behave like wild animals). The weight of Paul’s past continually surfaces, especially when he turns toward more violent forms of sexual expression. The viewer realizes, though Jeanne does not, that much of Paul’s behavior is a reaction to the crisis brought about by his wife’s suicide and to the marginal existence he led even before that as the “kept husband” (living side by side with the kept lover) in a hotel that serves a clientele of prostitutes and drug dealers.
Bertolucci metaphorically represents a world emptying itself of sense through small but noticeable details of the mise-en-scene. Throughout most of the film, a large object looms in the back of the apartment, covered by a white sheet. This object offers the promise of discovery. Although Paul looks under the sheet when he first comes to the apartment, the spectator’s knowledge is restricted to the point of view of Jeanne, who does not look. Only when Jeanne discovers that Paul has moved all of his furniture out does she pull down the sheet in an act of frustration. But the objects under the sheet (a headboard and some other furniture) are disappointing, to her as well as to the film viewer.
The director also uses the sound and movement of aboveground metro trains to accentuate the impersonality of Paul’s and Jeanne’s relationship. Between the credit sequence and the film’s first shot, we hear the train; the camera then zooms down from a high angle on Paul to show him holding his ears to escape the sound of the train. Jeanne passes him on the sidewalk bordered by the pylons that hold up the train tracks. After he and Jeanne first make love in the apartment, a shot slowly pans from her leaving on street level, up to his separate departure on a bridge, and continuing upward, shows the departure of a train. After a violent lovemaking scene later in the film, Bertolucci cuts to two trains veering off in different directions. When Jeanne leaves the apartment after discovering the departure of Paul, he is waiting for her again under the pylons; visually Bertolucci makes it clear that the intense confrontation between these two individuals is drawing to a close. Significantly, their meeting from the beginning is a chance encounter, made possible by the social fabric of the city in which they live.
Although Jeanne ends up the survivor, Bertolucci hints that Paul is actually the stronger figure, for he has faced life’s absurdity. At the same time Jeanne’s ability to respond to Paul shows that she will never really believe in the superficial happiness that her pending marriage promises her.
Cavell writes that what Hamm sees is that “salvation lies in the ending of endgames, the final renunciation of all final solutions.”17 This is what I take to be the import of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a film in which more is at stake than in the first two because it dares to take up the subject of the United States’ war in Vietnam. The voice-over narration presents the first-person story of a certain Captain Willard sent upriver into Cambodia to assassinate a former war hero now gone mad, who is being worshipped among the stone monuments of Cambodia as a god. In order to tell this story, Coppola digs deep into myth; Kurtz has based his pretense of godhood on readings from the Bible, The Golden Bough, From Ritual to Romance, and T. S. Eliot. Once he finds him, Willard kills him in a ritual sacrifice which is intercut with the sacrifice of a water buffalo performed simultaneously by the natives. Coppola assimilates the story of Willard’s ritual murder with that of the totem killing of the father as described in Freud’s Totem and Taboo: having killed Kurtz, Willard is adored as the new god, father of the tribe. But Willard returns to civilization, leaving behind him the knowledge that Kurtz, at least, has come face to face with the madness that erupted within our own civilization. As in Quintet, there are dead bodies everywhere in Kurtz’s camp. This “god” has chosen a language beyond words to express himself, because “it is impossible through words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means . . . horror and moral terror are your friends; if they are not, then they are enemies to be feared.”
The uncertainty of words, of conventional supports is one that Coppola imposes on us in the bridge scene I have mentioned, and which draws us into the state of cognitive uncertainty that Willard experiences. As Miriam Hansen has written, we as spectators “may feel encircled and disembodied ourselves, temporarily dislocated from the safe ground in front of the screen.”18 That this uncertainty is a metacommentary on the authority of the cinema spectacle itself is clear from an earlier attack scene in which Coppola himself plays the role of a television newsman filming the attack: “Don’t look at the camera,” he shouts to the bewildered soldiers, “just go by like you’re fighting.” Like Bertolucci, Coppola calls upon the cultural memory of his audience, producing quotations of Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (the boat which goes in circles after its captain has been killed), 8 1/2 (self-referential film), Dr. Strangelove, and many literary references.19 Yet the effect is different; in this film the past is not set up to save us. Coppola’s Kurtz recites the Eliot poem that takes a line from Conrad’s original Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness, as an epigraph. The voice is paralyzed, in Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” as in the aporia that was our involvement in Vietnam: a failure of logos, of language: “Our dried voices, when we whisper together, are quiet and meaningless . . . Shape without form, shade without colour, paralysed force, gesture without motion.”
Coming from the killing of Kurtz, ritually daubed in variegated hues of mud, Willard holds the writings of his victim like Moses (Charlton Heston) holding the stone tablets in the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film The Ten Commandments. His face is half darkened, as Kurtz’s was. Like Beckett’s Hamm, like Oedipus, Willard must take the place of the god. This is no facile exploration of a man gone over to the “dark side,” as the officers who brief Willard suggest; it is a reenactment of the brutal forces that attend the birth of civilization and that, perhaps, also wait on its destruction. Coppola shows that Vietnam was an “endgame,” played for real stakes. It was a game in which the myths that held our society together came apart, “a problem,” as Cavell says of Beckett, “developing in our relation to our own words.”20 Words like freedom or democracy? Willard will bear Kurtz’s knowledge back with him and become the author of his confession, the “caretaker of his memory.” Only for this hope of a new beginning has Kurtz allowed him to live.
Nowhere better than in Im Lauf der Zeit, perhaps, do we come close to the actual mise-en-scene of Beckett’s Endgame. The two friends have decided to spend the night on the tightly guarded border between East and West Germany, in an abandoned United States Army bunker. The walls are covered with scrawled messages that serve to accentuate the placelessness of American soldiers on German soil: their lack of belonging, of connection to any space to which they could meaningfully relate. Bruno actually manages to reconnect the telephone wires in order to call his estranged wife. But he gives up on the project: contact with the outside world appears impossible from this place, which seems to exist outside time and space. The two men in the bunker wait out the dawn. They can go no further—they have come to the edge of their world and ours, the barbed wire fence separating the two Germanys. In this lonely spot Robert explains to Bruno that he is a language specialist, that he treats children whose mental disturbances show up in their writing, in the stories they are able to tell about the letters they form. The letter “l” is a woman, Bruno suggests, “mean as she can be.” And he poses himself a riddle: what he wants is to be both with a woman and alone. Both one and two, we hear the Sphinx say in the background, what is the animal . . . ?
In the morning Robert leaves the bunker and goes to the bus stop where he observes a young boy writing. He arranges to trade all his possessions for the boy’s notebook. On the door of the bunker he has left this message for Bruno: “Everything must change,” alles muss anders werden.
What is striking about each of these films is the fact that, while they attest to the seeming impossibility of reconciling life and language, they end on a note of hope; each in its own way announces a new beginning. This too is consistent with the spirit of Beckett’s play as Cavell understands it: “The end of the game will be to show that the game has no winner . . . that games, plays, stories, morals, art—all the farcing of coherent civilizations—come to nothing, are nothing. To accomplish this will seem—will be—the end of the world, of our world. The motive, however, is not death, but life, or anyway human existence at last.”21