Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Dietmar Brehm’s ‘The Murder Mystery': Sado-porn or genius noir?

Dietmar Brehm’s The Murder Mystery (1992) is a powerfully disconcerting film of only about 15 minutes’ duration. It has been described as sado-pornographic – a description I do not agree with, except for the “sado-“ prefix, which is accurate if this alludes to the impression created by the fragmentary, disjointed, “noir-ish” images flickering across the screen, that someone is at the receiving end of sadistic actions.

I use the term “impression” advisedly, in the absence of any clear narrative indication that sadism is in fact what is at stake here, or murder, for that matter. Were it not for the title, The Murder Mystery, few viewers would conclude from what is “seen”, strictly speaking, that a murder has been, or is being committed. There is no dialogue or voice-over narration, nor any smooth Hollywood-style edited final product to provide guidance to the perplexed, which means more or less every first-time viewer of this tantalising representative of avant-garde cinema, which approximates a sustained, if not quite accelerated, montage.

That being said, the title does, unavoidably, supply one with a hermeneutic key of sorts, directing one’s interpretive faculty to be receptive for every sign that might betray evidence of the eponymous murder. There is the fleeting image, near the beginning of the disorganised series, of a scuba diver walking onto the beach from the surf, succeeded by one where two men lay the supine body of another, apparently naked man, down on the ground, suggesting something like looking for, and finding a dead body in the sea.

But this brief sequence is very different from the rest of the film, where images of a sunglass-wearing man’s face alternate with grainy images of male and female sex organs (sometimes separately, being touched; sometimes interconnected, copulating), of the face of a woman, sometimes ostensibly in a state of ecstasy, as well as of another man, sometimes wearing a grimace of pain. Intermittently the images are difficult to identify, while the soundtrack suggests either thunder and rain, or the sound of waves crashing on the beach.

In short, Brehm does not yield to the average viewer’s desire for visual security. Instead, his film tantalises the viewer in the etymological sense of the word, keeping any reassuring order and coherence just out of reach, like the trickle of water kept just too far from the mythical Tantalus’s mouth to slake his thirst. This is what Jean-Francois Lyotard calls “acinema” (as in amoral or asocial), a form of cinema that resolutely eschews mainstream (Hollywood and Bollywood) cinema’s penchant for the ideological construction of the viewer who is secure in the knowledge of more or less where the narrative is going, and what to expect in the shape of narrative closure (usually of the feel-good variety).

In presenting a series of disordered images, which one cannot even call a series, Brehm places himself squarely in the company of directors like fellow-Austrian Michael Haneke of Funny Games and The Piano Teacher fame, as well as Hollywood’s enfant terrible, David Lynch, not to mention the doyen of surrealist film, Luis Bunuel, all of whom have employed similar cinematic devices to rupture the secure perspective of the discursively normalised spectator.

Who will ever forget Bunuel’s interruption of “normal” visual pleasure in That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), by means of the simple, but effective device of alternating between two different actresses (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) in the role of one character, the excruciatingly sexy and attractive Conchita. If one cottons on to what he is doing, and plays along, looking for clues explaining the switch from one to the other, a pattern seems to emerge – one actress plays Conchita when she seems to be yielding to the Spanish gentleman (Fernando Rey) Mathieu’s amorous advances, and another takes over this role when she appears to rebuff him. But just when you believe you have cracked the code, as it were, the pattern is scrambled, and you are back where you started.

Just how disorienting this directorial technique is for audiences, is apparent from the fact that several spectators actually leave the theatre after a while – they cannot deal with the counter-intuitive visual disruption of their psychic security. Haneke’s Funny Games does the same sort of thing, by inflicting images of unexpected sadism on the audience, who has invariably been conditioned by mainstream cinema to expect a narrative turn for the better, just when things seem to go terribly wrong for “the good guys” – except here (as in Darryn Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream) things go from bad to worse, and never get better until the ghastly end.

The cinematic genre of film noir is exemplary in resisting and thwarting conditioned audience expectations, and not surprisingly, Brehm’s short masterpiece shows clear affinities with noir, which is premised on the diametrical opposite of Hollywood movie principles, namely, that the world is not as coherent and predictable as we would like it to be (and as Hollywood would like us to believe, to our detriment). It also displays some of the “formal” features of noir, like flickering alternation between black and white, and lighting, which foregrounds light and dark aspects of objects that are difficult to discern clearly.

Many a film reviewer has embarrassed him- or herself by erroneously slating a noir thriller for being disjointed, full of red herrings, having an indecipherable plot and the like, only to find out later that this is what film noir is – a cinematic genre which reminds viewers forcibly that it is a human tendency to practice what Freud called “secondary revision”, regarding one’s habitual smoothing-over of one’s dreams when relating them to others. Film noir goes further by literally showing spectators just how unintelligible, incoherent and disruptive life can be, not just perceptually and cognitively, but morally as well, and how people smooth over this for the sake of their psychic comfort.

Brehm’s The Murder Mystery therefore remains a mystery in the end, but a disturbing one, as it should be, given its concentrated shattering of one’s fondest illusions, combined with its subtle insertion of an inexplicable, countervailing desire into the space usually occupied by all one’s normalising desires. One has to approach it simultaneously from a phenomenological and a psychoanalytical perspective to make the most sense of it, though.

Phenomenologically, in as far as one allows the images themselves to address you, without “reading into them”. As for psychoanalysis, the Lacanian notion of the “objet petit a” is likely to yield a rich harvest for every individual subject. The “little other object” could be anything, from a song, a sound, an image, a memory to a person, a colour or a word. What all “objects a” have in common, is that they serve as a trigger for desire in the subject – not a clearly articulated desire, but mostly a vague, amorphous longing for an “I-know-not-what”, or – on the other hand – an equally hazy, obscure, yet irresistible anxiety about some unidentifiable thing.

The point is that what the “object a” evokes in you, is desire – the singular, unconscious desire that makes you who you are, and can only be approximated by recognising the things that function as “objects a” in one’s life. In this short film it could be anything from the erotically charged images to the deadpan expression on the face of the man with sunglasses – apparently a voyeur of some sort, which suggests a snuff film in the making – or the flickering light that sometimes seems to gel into a recognisable object. Invariably, however, if one knows how to decode them, they are very revealing about the self you do not normally suspect you are.

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    • Bert

      Brehm’s film, The Murder Mystery, will be one of the subjects of a discussion at the iMPAC (Initiative for Motion Pictures within the African Continent) Festival, on the Open Window Campus, John Vorster Drive, Centurion, on Friday, 4 October 2013, from 16h00 to 17h30. The festival runs from 2 to 5 October, and the programme includes discussions and a wide variety of short as well as feature films. If you can make it, come and join us for the discussion of Brehm’s brief masterpiece.

    • Udo

      Thanks for alerting me to this. The film is an effective antidote to Hollywood mainstream films as ideologically sugar-coated trash. It condenses what those other movies (Requiem for a Dream, etc.) you allude to, do – to disabuse audiences of their fondest illusion, that all will be well in the end. An analysis of this motif of mainstream cinema along the lines of the “principle of hope” suggested by Ernst Bloch, would yield interesting insights. My question would be: what’s the difference between hope and ideological obfuscation? And what does such obfuscation do to promote the reigning ideology of capitalism, beginning with the anaesthetic use of mainstream movies that always lures audiences back to the movies, reinforcing the reigning ideology repeatedly?

    • Isabella van der Westhuizen

      This is one of my favourite examples of neo-Gramsican filmography challenging the hegemonic discourse and subverting the superstructure of our textual interrogation of the tension between ourselves and our infantilizing id and super-ego

    • Jan Koster

      I uphold and endorse Kopp’s 18th eschatological eternal truth – if you have a hero,look again: you have diminished yourself in some way – (in itself a key critique of the ideological thrust of mainstream cinema) but I will summarise Bert Olivier’s presence at iMPAC 2013. Forceful, wise, generous, humble, and inspiring. Thoroughly cinematic and philosophical. It was a heartfelt privilege to have Bert as a speaker.

    • Bert

      Thanks for those thought-provoking questions/problems you pose, Udo – they are certainly worth pursuing, especially in terms of Bloch’s philosophy of the principle of hope.

      Jan – Thank you very much for the confidence in me, although I don’t really think I deserve it. The interaction with you, other staff members at Open Window, and your students, was great, though. They are privileged to be studying under the guidance of people like yourself and the indefatigably energetic King of the Underworld, Pluto.