Introduction (January 2021): One of the greatest delights of my four intense years of full-time teaching at Melbourne State College (MSC) between 1982 and 1985 – a job that gave me, in my early 20s, total pedagogical freedom alongside incredibly low pay – was the opportunity to lecture frequently and enthusiastically on Samuel Fuller. The Naked Kiss (1964), Shock Corridor (1963), Run of the Arrow (1957) and Underworld USA (1961) were among the films of his that I was able to schedule – in glorious 16mm, no less – into my various courses, taught at all levels from 1st to 4th year at this teachers’ college. I have reconstructed below, from the detailed, handwritten notes laid out almost like a poem, my lecture on Verboten!, which is among Fuller’s most unusual works. I would, no doubt, express myself a bit differently on it today (39 years later!) – consult my DVD audio commentary on Fixed Bayonets! (Eureka’s Fuller at Fox boxset) for an extended sample – but I have left the text intact, as I found it in my archive. At the end of 1985 I left teaching and moved to Sydney to try to be a student (again, and again unsuccessfully) for the following two years; the next person who got my MSC job enjoyed, because they had the proper academic credentials, literally four times less workload and four times more pay!
The B movie – cheap and nasty. Let’s interrogate our presuppositions about this type and style of film.
Verboten! is both funny-obvious and beguiling-strange.
It’s a “I was never a Nazi!” tale, with the aim “to help clear things up” in post World War II history. The past has never really passed …
Typical of writer-director-producer Samuel Fuller [1912-1997], it tries out various possible positions, embodied in statements, speeches, emblematic events, and clashes them against each other for our judgement:
Hitler believed he wasn’t a Nazi, even as he was.
Hitler would never admit his Nazism, but he always deceived, all the way to his death.
Hitler wasn’t a Nazi.
Hitler was a Nazi, but that’s a momentary lie easily seen-through.
What’s at stake in this semantic spin? Precisely the opposition between Truth and Appearance, between Authenticity and Performance, between Knowing and Being Deceived.
“I saw Goebbels. I saw film. I didn’t know”.
The film’s story is pure fabrication, fiction.
It’s a film of pure rhetoric, pure persuasion. It wants to grab your mind and shape it, change it, convince it.
Verboten! is about knowing the truth of what you see (and hear).
“I saw Verboten!. I didn’t know”.
Verboten! is a blast of self-righteous truth-propaganda issuing from a certain American “moral majority”: democratic, militaristic, Christian, family-values-based. Or so it might, at first, seem to you …
The film isn’t “true”, and the language of its rhetoric – it’s own deception, in a sense – is painfully, painstakingly obvious. This seems to be wholly planned and intentional on Fuller’s part. His work often addresses the spectator directly. It “shows its hand” on all levels.
There’s a total and massive discontinuity at work here between the real and the fictive, the “captured” and the staged. Full versus Empty, Natural vs. Clumsy … Documentary vs. Theatre.
Where does the film leave you in relation to the Truth?
“I saw film. I still don’t know”.
Positions of multiplicity, contradiction and equivocation.
Look at this signage text: “
“We’ll build democracy with Nazi bricks”.
“We know the wheel is fixed, but it’s the only wheel in town”.
The character of Helga Schiller (Susan Cummings): is she authentic? When and where, exactly, is the proof of her change of mind & heart?
And what, exactly, is verboten? Who does this forbidding? Who believes, who obeys? And who cares?
A detour: On the B Movie.
The B in B movie does not mean “bad” (no matter what you’ve heard). It refers to the level of the production budget, and particularly its theatrical placement as the lower half of a cinema double-bill.
There are often simple sets, and workhorse actors who never (or rarely) made it to stardom. Clint Eastwood made it out of there.
Films that are sensational, in all senses. Including the best senses.
And also a privileged soapbox for a self-styled, outrageous preacher/ideologue like Fuller. He could get away with (almost) anything!
B movies are often hit-and-run projects, shot and assembled quickly, relating to historical events and cultural obsessions close in time. Like youth, drugs, sex, crime waves …
In many cases, B films were – at least ostensibly – not meant to make much money or be “artistically impressive”; no “Academy Award nominated” material here. And yet undoubtedly great artists, the “Kings of the Bs”, ruled this domain and became immortal: Edgar G. Ulmer, Jacques Tourneur, Joseph H. Lewis, Phil Karlson, Ida Lupino … among many others.
B movies were well-placed to use the values of shock, surprise, discovery: for example, the Nuremberg footage included in Verboten!.
B movies can strike us as “sub-professional”. But we need to invert that snobbish value judgement and grasp the situation in a completely positive way.
When we watch a film like this, we realise that no “professional standard” in cinema is natural; it’s all, in fact, highly constructed, entirely fabricated.
And what follows on from that: if cinema is always a construction, then its effects of Truth, Belief and Knowing depend on things including continuity, seamlessness, seduction of the spectator, homogeneity, a single, uncomplicated goal and a felt, narrational voice … in all, a certain tone of control and refinement.
Remember the use of the radio/tape in Verboten!, and compare that to a typical story on TV’s Sixty Minutes. In fact, imagine a Fuller version of such a typical TV spot: bits and pieces would be left as bits and pieces (not “smoothed over” by post-production montage and video effects); shock effects would be blatantly obvious; there would be the material, technological evidence of documents on audiotape, on newsreel … There would be Fuller’s direct “handwriting” (as it were) displayed in messages all over the screen. There would be blatantly fake, quasi-Godardian bare sets for the “dramatic reconstructions”, a song added … a play of noise and music (Fuller and regular composer Harry Sukman [1912-1984] worked together in perfect sync, for maximum sensationalist effect).
On Samuel Fuller. He reflects the intense, pressure-point ambiguity of American ideology. He brings together cheap & nasty with pious liberalism … thus contaminating both sides, forever. His films speak moral codes (often placed as utterances in the mouths of eternally torn characters), while blasting them in the blaze of their own, internal contradictions.
Fuller’s own attachment to American values comes over as extraordinarily ambivalent – and critical, whenever he feels there is a need for that. You can read a lot about this aspect in the commentaries by Phil Hardy, Nicholas Garnham, and the contributors to the Edinburgh Film Festival Retrospective book of 1969 (Wollen, Elsaesser, Durgnat, etc.).
Fuller also has a perverse sense of humour that may also be “typically American”. In this film, for instance, if all is verboten on both sides of the political fence, then what’s the use, what’s the point? All social systems become, at some point of their devolution, absurd to Fuller: East or West, Communist or Capitalist, Civilised or Savage. Too many rules and interdictions, then everything implodes – and individuals run for cover as best they can.
On one side of the ideological equation (no matter which nation: they all line up in mirror-image for Fuller), there’s Obligation: for nation (fighting a war on its behalf); family (marriage, kids); religion (church); and tradition (transmitted via education). On the other side, there’s the pressure of Necessity: self-survival over national commitment; opportunistic allegiance over the code of the family unit; irony and cynicism in place of religious values … the world of the present, rather than the past and its traditions.
In this Fullerian context, Nazism itself is a totally irrational concept: an exaggerated projection of fears and phobias onto an Other (the Jews). It is abominably evil, deceptive, animalistic … Verboten! offers us a familiar, supremely ahistorical, explanatory connection between the phenomenon of juvenile delinquency and the rise of the Hitler Youth (like 1970s punks without family, without tradition, “No Future for you” … )
But: at the same time, the film slams us with the brute truth of the concentration camps, this grand historical atrocity that understandably obsesses storytellers and cultural theorists everywhere, from Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five, 1969) to George Steiner (Language and Silence, 1967).
So, in the films of Samuel Fuller, there’s a constant tension between the Individual and the System. There’s a manner of creating and energising narrative space that is akin to comic strips. And there’s what has often been referred to as a “tabloid newspaper” style of presentation: bold headlines to catch your eye, the striking graphics of mise en scène, apparently simplified but really in-depth reporting and investigation.
MORE Fuller: The Big Red One
© Adrian Martin 27 July 1982