Weblog since 2004 on books, films, art and travel.
Subscribe to the RSS feed.

a monstrous, cheating lure

"To all whom it concerns, let it be known:
Who hath this note, a thousand crowns doth own.
As certain pledge thereof shall stand
Vast buried treasure in the Emperor's land.
Provision has been made that ample treasure,
Raised straightway, shall redeem the notes at pleasure."


I sense a crime, a monstrous, cheating lure!
Who dared to forge the Emperor's signature?
Is still unpunished such a breach of right?


Remember, Sire, yourself it was last night
That signed the note. You stood as mighty Pan,
The Chancellor came and spoke in words that ran:
"A lofty festal joy do for thyself attain:
Thy people's weal- a few strokes of the pen!"
These did you make, then thousand-fold last night
Conjurors multiplied what you did write;
And that straightway the good might come to all,
We stamped at once the series, large and small;
Tens, twenties, thirties, hundreds, all are there.
You can not think how glad the people were.
Behold your city, once half-dead, decaying,
Now full of life and joy, and swarming, playing!
Although your name has blessed the world of yore,
So gladly was it never seen before.
The alphabet is really now redundant;
In this sign each is saved to bliss abundant.


My people take it for good gold, you say?
In camp, in court, sufficient as full pay?
Although amazed, still I must give assent.

From Goethe's 'Faust, Part II' (in the translation by George Madison Priest).

Who would have thought this play from 1832 had something to say about the current global financial crisis. Mephistopheles introduces paper money to prevent the Emperor from going bankrupt. Cunningly, the paper money is issued as pledge against "vast buried treasure", i.e. against possible future wealth instead of current reserve, making it in effect a form of speculation.

One of the themes in the complex second part of 'Faust' is man's unbridled ambition and exploitation of nature, as the current adaptation by Het Nationaal Toneel shows. Despite the fact that Part II lacks a clear dramatic arch (like the story of Gretchen provides in Part I), it still makes for engaging theatre, managing to be both spectacular and intimate.

See also the play's program (PDF, in Dutch) which includes an essay on 'Faust, money and nature'.

the naked city

Ladies and gentlemen, the motion picture you are about to see is called The Naked City. My name is Mark Hellinger. I was in charge of its production. And I may as well tell you frankly that it's a bit different from most films you've ever seen.

'The Naked City' (1948), part of a string of classic film noirs directed by Jules Dassin in the 1940s, is narrated by the film's producer, starting with its opening credits (there are no titles). Over aerial shots of Manhattan, he introduces - you'd almost say, pitches - the film.

As you see, we're flying over an island. A city. A particular city. And this is a story of a number of people - and a story also of the city itself. It was not photographed in a studio. Quite the contrary. Barry Fitzgerald, our star, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor, Ted de Corsia, and the other actors, played out their roles on the streets, in the apartment houses, in the skyscrapers of New York itself. And along with them, a great many thousand New Yorkers played out their roles also. This is the city as it is. Hot summer pavements, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone, the people, without makeup.

Next comes a lengthy introductory sequence with the camera wandering through the city at night, showing a variety of people going about their lives, with the narrator interpreting what we see. In this caleidoscope of people and stories, the camera finally settles on the actual story, which starts with the dead body of a young woman.

Another day, another ball of fire rising in the summer sky. The city is quiet now, but it will soon be pounding with activity. This time yesterday, Jean Dexter was just another pretty girl, but now she's the marmalade on 10,000 pieces of toast.

The story of 'The Naked City' is a straightforward crime affair, but with its emphasis on the legwork of the investigation there is a lot of room for that other story, "of the city itself". Back in the 1940s, shooting on location was rare, let alone in such a documentary way, and Hellinger (whose tone has also been described as "mildly oleaginous") rightly presents it as one of the film's unique points. The scenes on the streets of New York are alive with real people going about their daily lives, and the award winning cinematography, with its particular attention for the city's architecture, is stunning.

The films Dassin made in the 1940s, which also include 'Brute Force' (1947), 'Thieves' Highway' (1949) and 'Night and the City' (1950), share a potent mixture of film noir and neorealism - stark tales of seduction and corruption, but also realistic slices of life depicting ordinary people and their struggles to stay afloat.

'The Naked City' just seems to characterize this specific style best, if only for its ending - somehow compassionate and disinterested at the same time - when the narrator wraps things up with what became a catchphrase:

There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.