Abraham Lincoln sagte: “Du kannsyt der Verantwortung von heute nicht entkommen, indem du es morgen meidest”
(Abraham Lincoln said: “You cannot escape the responsibility of today by avoiding tomorrow”).1
The Landlady, Mensch Versus Mittwoch
There is a sequence in F.G. Hoch’s Mensch Versus Mittwoch in which Eli, played with brilliant care by Emil Jannings, leaves a bar and walks drunkenly down a Berlin alleyway. He is set upon by an unseen assailant, who beats him to a bloody mess. The attack is shown reflected in the eye of a cat, who watches the action before turning away to toy with a dying mouse. It is such an extravagant piece of camera-work, stepping way beyond the usual stark theatricals of the Weimar Expressionists towards something quite new, that it threatens to rip the film almost completely away from its own narrative.2 This stylistic exuberance has its critics. Tony Deflower described the sequence as an ostentatiously decorated Christmas Tree in August: beautiful, distracting, and completely out of place.3
Several meanings can be inferred though, surely: by obscuring the brutality of the beating, director Hoch might be suggesting that the violence is too much for us; or, with the cat’s disinterested stare, that the violence is banal; or that the viewer is complicit, because we want to see Eli beaten because we go to the cinema to see action; or all of the above. Hoch invites this kind of examination in the very next scene, too. A bloodied Eli limps into his room, and falls down on his bed. He reaches for a blanket to cover himself, but drops it. There is a knock at his door. It is his concerned landlady. She asks if he is ok. Yes, of course, he says. Fade to black. This scene takes two minutes. It is then shown again, in its entirety: Eli limps in, falls down on his bed. Drops the blanket. A knock at his door. It is his landlady. Bist du ok? Ja, naturlich. Fade to black. Many first-time viewers claim to miss this repetition, this record-skipping break of the verisimilitude. It is as if the brain corrects itself to believe that the scene only played once, similar to how it combines the information from two eyes into one picture.4
To Tony Deflower, this repetition was even more egregious than the beating scene. He called it a pointless trick. But isn’t it an imaginative evocation of Eli’s concussed confusion? This is a film that is very much a meditation on the inevitability of the calendar. In this context, the repetition seems considered and absolutely relevant. Deflower’s dismissal seems hasty. And when you consider the use of such stylistic devices as flashbacks and dream sequences (which are widely understood by viewers despite their inherent falseness), it is surprising that this kind of nuanced duplication hasn’t been explored more often since.5
Hoch was rarely so bold again. As film scholar Joseph Pranden said when reviewing the downward spiral of the filmmaker’s career, the early prognosis of ‘terminal genius’ was premature, and with time the outlook receded to become something less spectacular.6 Those extreme spells of inspired sickness included Gestalt Honey (1932) and Zwölf Jünger (Twelve Disciples, 1935), but by the time of Kiss Killer in 1950, Hoch was in pot-boiler territory, and would never leave.
Hoch’s departure to a new beginning in America in 1937 was actually an ending. Far from flourishing in Hollywood like his friend Fritz Lang, he struggled. But Mensch… is Hoch at the summit of his powers. His confident direction is fully backed by Weimar studio Ufa, and Mensch… was one of their last great pictures before the subsequent suppression of the Nazis.
In the film, Eli experiences the week as seven individuals, each with a distinct personality and agenda. These seven people visit him in the same sequence, over and over. At the beginning of the film, the meetings appear to be random and accidental: Tuesday runs into him in the marketplace, Wednesday in the café, Thursday at the entrance to his building. Each seems polite, at first. They all wear their own colours, but it seems as if Eli is the only one to see this. (When sitting at a table in a restaurant with his acquaintance Strom, Eli sees Tuesday and points him out. See that man with the yellow flower on his lapel? No? Over there. The band on his hat matches it. Strom says, Him? It looks brown to me. Green even.)7
Each of the seven visitors has their own personality. Monday carries a red pen and a ledger. A name tag says Gedanken Editor (Thought Editor). He wears thick spectacles. He tells Eli that his short-sightedness is good for his job, because he only needs to look at his page, up close: I need only see in two dimensions; across the ledger, and down the page to the bottom line. Tuesday, more reticent, is always a few steps behind. Wednesday and Thursday often get themselves confused, but crucially never arrive in the wrong order. Friday is a boisterous drunk, Saturday too. Sunday, the only female, offers a haven for Eli.8 She is calm and apologetic, and meets Eli in parks and cafés, trying to explain that the increasingly frightening mixture of petty punctuality, brawn, and casual indifference that the others display isn’t their fault. They just do what they do, Eli. You have to understand. It isn’t personal. Eli tries to persuade Sunday to visit more frequently, maybe twice a week. But she runs away, telling him that he knows when he’ll see her next. This is how it must be, Eli.9
Eli wants to run away with Sunday. He makes a plan. He figures that Wednesday is the most timid of the rest of the days. If he can avoid Wednesday he might disrupt the chain, and escape the clutches of routine. The spell broken, perhaps he’ll then be able to spend weeks on end with Sunday with no threat of Monday arriving. But where can he go where Wednesday cannot find him? Week after week goes by, and there is Wednesday, following Tuesday, followed by Thursday, in the gardens, in the streets, in the woods. No refuge can be found. Eli changes his regular paths. He throws everything out of sync to surprise even himself. He loses his job and friends. Is it a girl, Eli? his boss says, after reluctantly firing him. It’s always a girl. No, Eli says. I just need more time. But still, the days always catch up with him, and their aggression grows. Eli drinks and tries to sleep through an entire twenty-four hours, but wakes to find that one of his assailants has visited, destroying his room. What day is it, he asks the landlady when he gets up. She shakes her head at him. Shouldn’t you be at work?
He resorts to a final plan. He barricades his room. He locks the door, shutters the windows, and waits. If Wednesday can’t find him, Eli wins. He sits and reads. Noises occasionally distract him from his book (itself a distraction from the situation). He inspects the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom, then returns to sit. Repeat. Sickeningly slowly, Hoch allows us to begin to realise what Eli will, a beat or two behind us: someone else is there in his small apartment. It takes an age, but when Eli finally turns his back on the dark bedroom, Tuesday steps out from behind the long curtains. Tuesday quickly and quietly unlocks the apartment door for his eternal successor.10 They nod familiarly, their celestial relay handover as smooth as ever. And Wednesday enters, knife drawn.
Mensch Versus Mittwoch
Directed by F.G.Hoch. Produced by Franz Lammer. Written by Lisbeth Heinz, F.G.Hoch. Starring Eli Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Max Hiller, Werner Krauss. UFA/ Goldwyn Distributing Company. Release Date: November 1930 (Ger). 87 mins. Tagline: Tomorrow Won’t Wait.
1 by avoiding tomorrow… The landlady has, of course, got the quote wrong. When her tenant Eli points this out to her, she says: You’re still in bed at noon and I’m the one who is back-to-front?.
2 from its own narrative: The only other contemporary example of something similarly striking might be Alice dans le Pays des Merveilles (Man Ray, 1929). My English teacher Mrs White had the poster of Alice… in her classroom. The image, with a Mad Hatter that looked more like the vampire in Nosferatu (F.W.Murnau, 1922), was pinned to the wall behind my chair. Once, during a group discussion about war poetry, I raised my hand to volunteer an opinion on the imagery used by Siegfried Sassoon. I was interrupted by laughter from Mrs White.
I’m sorry, Mark, but the way you’re sitting, it looks like you’re part of the poster and wearing a top hat. You look uncharacteristically sinister.
I didn’t raise my hand in lessons after that.
3 out of place: Tony Deflower, “Hoch Deflowered,” Film Styles Vol 3 Issue 4, Summer 1975.
4 fade to black: Psychologist Berndt Schwartzer, in a 1962 study, claimed that, when shown the same film twice consecutively, subjects are likely to argue that they were different. They also frequently feel that the second film was shorter. Schwartzer called this the Wayback Feeling, because a journey on a previously unfamiliar road seems to take less time on the return trip, due to the surroundings having already been seen and catalogued in the brain. I watched Mensch… twice. The first was at my Nan’s on TV one Sunday afternoon. At the time I was drawing a picture of a soldier being shot (in careful detail), so I mostly only heard it. The second time was with broken headphones in the dark boxy TV room at the library. I was watching a German film in lieu of going to my German lesson. I felt that this excused me somehow. I came out of the library into the rain, fingering my left ear which had been bothered throughout my viewing by a low buzzing noise. I walked down the ramp to the underpass, and saw a bunch of kids from our school, their red shirts showing under their coats. I was surprised to see them, as I thought that the film would finish long before school was finished. I thought that they were bunking too, but the clock face above the town hall said it was nearly four-thirty. Later than I thought. I was on my own time. Wayback Feeling.
The group came closer, and I stood tall and sucked in my tummy. They were from the year above. Vicki was with them. She was L’s best friend. She was considered more pretty than L, in the cannibalistic (and widely understood, despite never being explained) playground ranking system. But she had a blankness to her. She never smiled with her eyes. She whispered with the group, and then waved me over. She’d never acknowledged me before. Didn’t see you in German today, she said.
No, I said.
Going to the arcade later, she said.
Maybe, I said.
We might sneak into the George after, she said.
Cool, I said. The older kids laughed.
Have you ever been in the George, one of them said.
Not for a while, I said. But I didn’t even know where it was. They laughed. But they seemed to buy my story, and I walked on. I felt like the kid in Hhhh (Sara Gillespie, 1991) who convinces a peer that he can tell the time by the sun to the exact minute, all the while sneaking glances at his digital watch.
5 surprising: Or is it? Maybe it is limited for storytelling purposes. Maybe we need new information each time. In Bergman’s Persona (1966) an eight-minute scene is repeated, but this is so we can see the faces of both Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in turn. There are any number of films containing Rashomon-style retellings of the same situation from different points of view. But the only example of the same scene repeated twice in exactly the same way like Mensch… that I can think of is in Rappaport (1982), when Alun Armstrong’s depressed detective suffers a series of Deja-vu moments. They are Deja-vus for the viewer at least, as the character doesn’t seem to ever notice.
6 Film As A Popular Art Form, 1971, Scholar Books. I read this book at the library when I was once again bunking off school. Inside was a message. Spoken to her yet? Y [ ] N[ ] Kissed her? Y [ ] N[ ] Tongues? Y [ ] N[ ] DH.
7 it looks brown to me: Hoch, like Gyorgy Ligeti, Franz Liszt, and Eddie Van Halen, experienced visual synaesthesia. This scene is a recreation, Hoch said, of discussions with Fritz Lang about the colours of weekdays. Fritz insisted that Thursday was duck-egg blue. A scandalous lie (My Life In Cinema, Hippo Books, 1963). We learned about synaesthesia in science late that February. Encouraged, I’d started going to school more since the valentine landed on my desk. L was in my science lesson, and I now sat in a seat vacated by a kid with a long-term sickness (Rich with glandular fever? Tom with shin-splints? Rob with measles?) that offered a better view of her. Mr Harris tried to get a class discussion going, with his usual agitated energy: Do any of you have any colour feelings like this? Anyone? Come on, people! (clap) What colour is happiness? (clap) death? (clap) Monday? He picked on L. She blushed. She was usually quiet in class. But after some prompting she went on to talk more than I’d ever heard her talk before. Her voice was scratchy and thin, and her sentences would periodically drift into uncertain noises, rather than come to a deliberate end. But her ideas were quite original, and I could have listened to her for much longer. To her, Monday was dark blue, Tuesday was yellow, Wednesday orange, Thursday brown, Friday green, Saturday black, and Sunday white. An animated discussion ensued, as members of the class volunteered their own thoughts. One kid disagreed completely with L’s version. I put my hand up to say that I agreed with L that Tuesdays were yellow. (While I remember her spectrum well, I don’t remember the rest of mine, perhaps because I wasn’t as taken with the premise as she; perhaps because I was more taken with her than the premise. I do remember that none of my days were black or white, and that Saturday was, and remains, Ferrari red.) I glanced over. L wasn’t looking, but Vicki was grinning at me. We agree on Tuesday, I thought. After that, I examined our behaviour more closely than usual on Tuesdays, looking for examples of extra rapport. One Tuesday in early March, L swung her bag onto her shoulder and it lightly hit my arm. Sorry, she said, and looked at me very briefly. My fault, I said. I began to imagine that our first kiss would be on a Tuesday, but then I realised that any focus on this idea removed six days from the calendar of potential.
8 a haven for Eli: In Anthologie de l’Humour Bleu, (1942, Roman Books) Andre Breton said that Hoch and writer Lisbeth Heinz’s characterisation of Sunday as female was indicative of a petit bourgeois conservatism. One of the premises on which the Surrealist Manifesto was built postulated that the days of the week are all women (p.78). It is hard to argue with such absurd defiance.
9 this is how it must be, Eli: It is possible to read this exchange as a warning of the organized violence of the Nazis that was on the horizon, and the part the German people would play in letting atrocities play out. Hoch denies this: Critics give me too much credit. I wasn’t smart enough to see them coming.
10 eternal successor: This moment, in which Eli almost finds Tuesday, but turns away, has divided critics. James Anchon, writing in the New York Times after the film’s screening at the Vision Festival in New York in 1968, complained (in the manner of many viewers of horror films ever since), that for a man so careful to suddenly be so careless destroys the tension of the film completely and utterly. He talks about Eli, but could mean Hoch too. Victor Perkins however, in his masterly Film As Film (Da Capo Press, 1972), countered that rather than being a poorly made sequence, it might represent a considered choice. Perkins suggests that Eli’s oddly mannered turn away from the curtain, the one that prevents him from seeing the interloper, actually reflects a change of heart. As if Eli knows Tuesday is there, and cannot look for fear of confirming his suspicion; that he saw what he didn’t appear to see: Indicated to us by a lingering look at the floor, it is as if Eli has arrived at the conclusion that he cannot reject the sequence of events that is happening, and will continue to happen. Rather than asking why Hoch allows Eli to appear so careless when he almost trips over Tuesday’s shoes but does not find him, we should ask why Eli would be so blind at such a moment. For surely it is easier to believe that Hoch the film-maker is making a deliberate decision here, that late in the day, Eli knows that Wednesday must come in. Is already here. Was always here (p.234). Like a Greek Hero, Eli’s fate was cast the moment he tried to fight. He is a man who sees things others cannot, and cannot see the one thing the others can: that one day will follow another, until it does not.
Mark Savage is an author and musician from Portsmouth, England. He lives in Portland, Oregon. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.