A Cinema Inhabited by the Angel of History



I participate in the fourth annual international conference organised by the Research Centre for Communication and Culture today. The centre is based at the School of Human Sciences of the Catholic University of Portugal. This year’s event is called (Post-)Conflict Cinema: Remembering Out-breaks and In-tensions and includes the Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz and Thomas Elsaesser (University of Amsterdam/Yale University) as keynote speakers. Further information here.

My paper is called “A Cinema Inhabited by the Angel of History: On Rossellini’s Paisan”:

In her poetry book, The Angel of History, Carolyn Forché shares a vision of the poet’s work as resembling that of the angel of history. This figure is presented in Walter Benjamin’s essay “On the Concept of History”. Inspired by Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920), Benjamin talks about this angel as a contemplative creature whose face is turned toward the past and whose back is turned to the future. Propelled into the future by progress, its eyes are fixed on the wreckage that piles in front of its feet.

Following Forché’s idea, this paper looks at the work of a filmmaker as resembling that of the angel that Benjamin describes. Robert Rossellini’s films, and his war trilogy in particular — Rome Open City (Roma, città aperta, 1945), Paisan (Paisà, 1946), Germany Year Zero (Germania anno zero, 1948) — are structured around ruins, the remains of what was (and that, because of its sheer presence, still is). These films look directly at the physical and mental disintegration that World War II has generated and, like Benjamin, they reject a set perspective on the past instead of a variable one. My focus will be on Paisan, a film in episodes whose structure intensifies the fragmentary feeling (or incompleteness) and the sense of indetermination (or openness) of the other two. As André Bazin suggests, by filming on location, within the debris and the life of devastated cities, this film turns history into something actual, present — a present made of many characters, languages, and stories. This is a cinema inhabited by a kind of angel of history, Rossellini, who sees cinema as an anthropological activity, as a way of understanding reality, and for whom the future cannot be quite anticipated, because it does not yet exist.