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the green face

There was an all-pervading, matt half-light; the poplar outside the window, the distant bushes and the towers of Amsterdam were faintly illuminated, as if by dim floodlights. Beneath them lay the plain like a huge, blind mirror. Hauberisser scanned the city with his binoculars; in the wan light it stood out from the shadowy background as if frozen in fear and expecting the death-blow at any moment.

While not as archetypical as his masterpiece 'The Golem', and often a bit too schematic in its esotericism, Gustav Meyrink's second novel 'The Green Face' ('Das grüne Gesicht', 1916) still makes for a gripping, mind-expanding read.

Interestingly, 'The Green Face' is set in Amsterdam, which in Meyrink's universe is just as gothically haunted as Prague in 'The Golem'. Its complex story of spiritual initiation takes place against a background of impending apocalypse in the decadent city, creating a palpable atmosphere of confusion and doom.

Fritz Schwimbeck - The Collapse of St. Nicholas

Written during WWI, the story takes place after the war, when refugees from all over Europe are flooding into Holland. In Amsterdam the less reputable areas of town, behind the St. Nicholas Church, around the Zeedijk and the Nes, are filled with the "dregs" of continental Europe. Here the foreigner Hauberisser, in a magician's shop in the Jodenbreestraat, has a vision of a horrible green face.

[He] stared back in horror; the face before him was like nothing he had ever seen before. It was smooth, with a black strip of cloth tied over its forehead, and yet it was deeply furrowed, like the sea, that can have tall waves but not a wrinkle on its surface. The eyes were like dark chasms and yet they were the eyes of a human being and not empty sockets. The skin was a greenish olive colour and looked as if it were made of bronze, such as the races of ancient times may have had of whom it is said they were like dark-green gold.

Like 'The Golem', Meyrink based 'The Green Face' on a Jewish-Christian legend - in this case the story of the Wandering Jew, which he mixed freely with Eastern and Western mysticism to create his own unique symbol.

In Medieval folklore the Wandering Jew had refused Christ a rest on Golgotha and was cursed to wander the earth until the Second Coming. The German name of this figure is 'der Ewige Jude' (the Eternal Jew), which emphasizes his immortality, and it is this aspect that Meyrink uses for his mysterious character of Chidher Green, who has been on earth "ever since the moon, the wanderer of the skies, has been circling the heavens". Chidher also combines elements from the Islamic figure al-Khidr (the Green One) as well as the more general motif of the Green Man.

Crucially, as Franz Rottensteiner puts it in his afterword to the book:

...his Wandering Jew is not a soul in need of redemption, but a being that has already been redeemed, and one who can therefore act as a spiritual guide for others; a sort of mid-wife in the spiritual re-birth that is the mystic theme of Meyrink's novel.

The Ritman Library in Amsterdam has Meyrink's notebooks which show that he did in fact visit Amsterdam (contrary to some biographers who assumed he made it all up) - and indeed his descriptions of the city's geography and neighborhoods, especially the Jordaan, are detailed and vivid. His dialogues also contain some charming Dutch expletives.

The library also points to an additional layer in the story which some Meyrink commentators seem to have missed. An article titled 'Amsterdam was a centre of magic and mysticism' discusses the novel's references to 17th century Amsterdam and historical figures like biologist Jan Swammerdam and mystic Antoinette Bourignon, who was the center of a spiritualist network in North-Western Europe. Meyrink imagines Amsterdam to be such a spiritual haven in the early 20th century, full of excentric seekers and mystics, but at the same time portrays it as a modern-day Sodom or Gomorrah teeming with false prophets and poisonous spiritualists.

Developing these intertwining themes of worldly corruption and mystical union, the book's climax finally sees Hauberisser's spiritual enlightenment coinciding with the cataclysmic destruction of Amsterdam. Here Meyrink shows himself a master of horror and suspense, with awe-inspiring visions of apocalypse in the polder, and for these final scenes alone 'The Green Face' is well worth seeking out.

As daylight grew the sky gradually began to change: against the pallid background, great whorls of whitish cloud twisted and turned, like gigantic worms whipped to and fro by invisible eddies, but always remaining above the same spot: a battle of aerial monsters sent down from space. High up in the air cones of cloud spun round like immense inverted goblets; the faces of wild beasts with grinning jaws fell upon each other and wound themselves into a seething tangle; below, on the ground, was the same lowering, deathly stillness as before.

Quotes are from the translation by Mike Mitchell. The book illustration from Fritz Schwimbeck shows 'Collapse of St. Nicholas'.

dutch horizons

In 'Fishing for Amber' (1999), his alphabetically ordered yet delightfully unclassifiable tapestry of Irish stories, Dutch history and Ovidian metamorphoses, Ciaran Carson discusses the four Dutch words for horizon. It is a rare instance where English, usually lousy with synonyms, has only one option, whereas Dutch, which tends to make up for a lack of vocabulary with idiomatic expressions, boasts no less than four.

Carson's narrator here is a Dutch pipe-smoking, jenever-importing sailor in a pub near Lough Neagh, County Antrim. The rubric is Opium. The paintings used as illustrations - here by Turner - are just two of many discussed in the book, mostly from the Dutch Golden Age.

Horizon: this word bears many of your English associations of the line at which the sky and earth appear to meet, or the boundary or limit of any sphere or thought. We, too, sometimes think of it as a great circle of the celestial sphere, the plane of which passes through the centre of the earth and is parallel to that of the sensible horizon in a given place; and the broad ring in which our early artificial globes were fixed is also distinguished by the word horizon. We are familiar with the concept horizontal. More specifically, a poetic usage of horizon is 'where Holland ends'.
J.M.W. Turner - Antwerp: Van Goyen Looking for a Subject
Kim: this keen word is found in the jargon of mariners, and is like your English 'rim' or 'edge'. One could apply it to a pewter plate as easily, or to any like vessel, but it is more congenial to a seascape: here, one easily imagines brisk days, and the sails whipping and slapping, outward boats leaving the cold harbours, bound for the Spice Islands. Your English painter Turner, who spent some profitable time in Holland studying our Dutch masters, displays a transcendental grasp of kim in his dramatic Antwerp: Van Goyen Looking for a Subject. Here, the far-off cloud-capped palaces and spires of Antwerp float on the edge of the sea, illuminated by a sun-shower, like a vision of the New World. Everything else is tossed about by the breeze, including the yacht in which van Goyen stands, identified by his plumed hat. This is one of Turner's many tributes to the Dutch. I recall that when, towards the end of his life, Turner would still receive the odd visitor on his home-made roof terrace in Chelsea, he would point inland, saying, 'My English prospect', and downriver whispering, 'My Dutch prospect'.
Verschiet is indeed 'prospect', with all its attendant ambiguities and implications of futurity. It is the direction in which an object, such as a building, faces; an outlook. It is something presented to the eye: a pleasant prospect. It is a thing expected, or the chances of a thing's success or failure: perhaps not a pleasant prospect. (...) It is the thing which flits incessantly into the future, and is found in market-places thronged with prospective buyers. Without it, there would be no profit, for promises could not be made. The paintings of the Golden Age are redolent with verschiet; and even in interiors its rule is manifest.

(Today most Dutch speakers, I'd say, are familiar with 'verschiet' only in its metaphorical meaning of prospect, and probably only in the expression 'iets in het verschiet hebben', 'to have something on the horizon'.)

J.M.W. Turner - Dutch Boats in a Gale: Fishermen Endeavouring to Put their Fish on Board
Lastly, the increasingly archaic einder, the end of sight, as far as the eye can see. We note its Biblical connotations: the end is nigh, to the last syllable of recorded time, world without end. Turner manages to portray both kim and einder in his Dutch Boats in a Gale: Fishermen Endeavouring to Put their Fish on Board. To our left, an ink-dark squall - einder - blown straight out of Apocalypse, threatens to capsize the central fishing-boats with their ill-advisedly full sails, and the crew of the smaller vessel, busy gathering their catches into baskets, is unaware that they are on a collision course with the other boats; only by backing his jib could the helmsman avoid a crash, but the wind needed for this manoeuvre is in any case stolen by the bulging sails of the other boats. To the right, a beurtschip, or Dutch packet-boat, lies close-hauled on the starboard tack in a strong south-easterly, while two other ships, also close-hauled, diminish in the long perspective towards a strip of yellow between sky and water not yet overwhelmed by the cloud - kim -

rosy-fingered dawn

Leaving aside the local opinions on the new wing, the reopened Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam makes accessible again a great collection of 20th century art. One highlight is Willem de Kooning's 'Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point' (1963), with its mysterious quality of subdued yet dazzling light.

The title of the painting refers to the specific location of Louse Point on Long Island, a favorite spot of De Kooning when he lived in New York. And it quotes Homer's famous phrase from the Iliad, "When the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn, appeared."

Willem de Kooning - Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point

'Rosy-Fingered Dawn' has been called an abstract landscape, leading to awkward interpretations of its various elements and colors as land or sky or reflections in water. But as the poetic yet specific title indicates, it seems to depict not so much a location as a specific type of light - dawn - in that location.

Artists throughout history have attempted to paint qualities of light, and Dutch painters especially - from Vermeer to Van Gogh - were obsessed by it. But they all needed tangible scenes - interiors, landscapes - to make it visible. By contrast, De Kooning painted dawn itself, an abstract rendering of that delicate early light that bathes the world in subdued pastels.

'Rosy-Fingered Dawn' is dominated by yellow, pink and grey, where the bright yellows and pinks are tempered by the greys, creating a subdued, milky light. (On many reproductions the grey appears as white, but it isn't. In fact, the effect of white would be a totally different and much brighter type of light!) The composition accentuates the edges of the canvas, with balancing colors surrounding an empty centre, creating an effect of open space and unfocused life.

Dawn is light that doesn't have full power yet, it is only just starting to clear out the darkness. There is no warmth in it yet, but it carries the promise of warmth and brightness. Dawn is still partly the expectation of light, not yet bright and dazzling but on its way to become so. This is the short, mysterious moment that De Kooning caught on canvas, full of freshness and promise of the day to come.

Well worth a visit to the Stedelijk, as screen reproductions really can't begin to convey the same effect.

iffr: ziba

Looking back on the Signals: Inside Iran program of the Rotterdam Film Festival, a film that stood out in the rich variety of Iranian cinema harvest - from the scathingly absurd ('Modest Reception') via low-budget sci-fi ('Taboor') to the outright bizarre (Tiger winner 'Fat Shaker') - is 'Ziba', an unflinching study of alienation and ennui.

With an intelligent script and impressive acting, 'Ziba' is the kind of film that throws you off-guard to end up leaving an almost physical impression. As the filmmakers put it, this film is “not a character portrait per se”, but rather a “visceral metaphor of the general state of oppression and imposed silence in Iran today”.

The film starts out conventionally enough with Ziba, the listless trophy wife to a Tehran real estate developer, leaving for a weekend on the coast with her husband. On the way he needs to take care of some business, and they make a stop in a newly developed area of Tehran, where skeletons of new housing projects stand amid dusty empty lots. In the one completed building the first tenants are moving in, and Ziba's husband needs them to sign some papers while she waits in the car.

Ziba - 1

Through a series of misunderstandings that reveal both Ziba's lethargy and her husband's callousness, she is left in this strange no man's land, in the sweltering midday heat, and she is stuck there until her husband returns. It takes until at least halfway into the film before you realize that this is not some drawn-out detour in the story - this is it, and we will wait out the whole endless, stifling afternoon with her.

While Ziba wanders around with nowhere to go and nowhere to stay, conversations with the family moving in offer off-hand glimpses into the lives of middle and lower class Tehranis. Ironically, the father and daughter she meets don't really live there either, so that everyone appears to be in transit, uprooted and disconnected.

Ziba - 2

As director Bani Khoshnoudi explained at the Rotterdam screening's Q&A, the Farsi name Ziba means beautiful, “with a connotation of aesthetic beauty, something you look at that's beautiful”. Continually sighing and adjusting her headscarf, the character of Ziba reminds of nineteenth century literary heroines, beautiful, rich and neurotically bored. For some viewers, especially in the West, her passivity will be maddening, but the accidental way in which she drifts into other people's lives makes for fascinating cinema.

Subtly picking apart the social fabric of Tehran, 'Ziba' has much to say about the position of women, the boredom of the affluent class and the disempowered “lives of quiet desperation” led by the rest of the population. The metaphor is for Iranian society, but the alienation it depicts is universally recognizable.

iffr: les chevaux de dieu

A highlight at the IFFR, Nabil Ayouch's 'Les Chevaux de Dieu' ('Horses of God') is a chilling investigation of the motives of Muslim extremist suicide bombers. Based on the real events surrounding the 2003 Casablanca bombings, it gives an impressively nuanced account of how the desperation of poverty and the explosive polarization following 9/11 can lead a group of young Moroccans to become “horses of God galloping into paradise”.

Les Chevaux de Dieu - Horses of God - 1

The film follows a group of young boys growing up in one of the sprawling slums of Casablanca, where the only way out of the squalid poverty seems to be a life of crime. This changes when, after the attacks of 11 September, a radical Islam appears in the slums with a seductive proposition of order, discipline, self-worth, brotherhood and a sense of belonging – in fact everything the boys have been lacking.

To Ayouch's great credit, the film continues to sympathize with the boys even when they take the path of radicalism. It shows this to be a slippery slope where the positive influence of discipline and purpose is slowly poisoned by the violent rhetoric of radical imams and the sinister forces lurking in the background in whose plans they are all just puppets.

Les Chevaux de Dieu - Horses of God - 2

By the time they are “chosen to become martyrs” they have been thoroughly indoctrinated to accept this as a privilege. They have also been progressively isolated from their families and the “imperialo-zionist” plot led by the infidels, to the point where the only outside influence consists of grainy videos of other chosen martyrs extolling violence.

However, here too the film invites a nuanced reading, with other, more complex motives leading the young men to follow through their desparate act of violence. The main character Yachine, for instance, seems ultimately driven to outdo his older brother, while his close friend Nabil wrestles with feelings that have no place in Moroccan society.

Ultimately, it is the inevitability with which the chain of events is presented that makes this film so harrowing to watch. After the bloody climax Ayouch cuts back to the slum where the huge explosion in the distance momentarily disrupts a football game. We are back where the film started, except that this is the next generation of boys with no future, who in a few years time will be targeted by the recruiting Islamists.

'Les Chevaux de Dieu' thus offers little hope as long as the root cause of extremism, poverty, is not addressed.

Update: In interviews, director Nabil Ayouch has emphasized the complexity of the suicide bombers' motives. In a Cineuropa interview he stated:

The intention wasn't to judge these youth, who are also canon fodder. They are turned into what they are by an economic context, by texts. They are also victims. (...) You don't become a suicide bomber just because you are poor.

In a Wild Bunch presskit interview (pdf) he says what he learned from his extensive research was:

The way the fundamentalists have appropriated the notion of solidarity. How they operate to recruit these youths who want for a father figure.

He elaborates on this breakdown of social structures in the slums, and the vacuum it creates:

The lack of access to education for these kids, the breakdown of family structures that brings with it a loss of bearings. There is also the unity of the place, which is very specific to this story, since these kids had never left their slum. There was a closing in, even if that isn't all bad. Indeed, shanty towns are horizontal structures where people communicate with greater flow than in the vertical structures of block housing complexes. But the limit to living in a vacuum of this kind is that people turn rigid. Moreover, in these slum niches, micro systems sometimes arise, like the Wahhabi fundamentalism that reached Morocco in the 1980s and 90s from Saudi Arabia. It's difficult for a kid who has never known anything outside neighborhood life not be permeated and sometimes thoroughly convinced by the idea that these new micro systems, in this instance radical Islamism, are their only future.

And summing up this poisonous mix of destitution, isolation and Islamist brainwashing:

What I wanted above all to convey was the everyday life of these kids, their environment, their parents, the lack of paternity, the strong bond between them and all of the micro traumas of life that make that at some point or another, it all transforms, as they grow up, into desperate, unbearable resentment. Their small stories forge their destiny and turn them into part of history, that of national and global geopolitics.

(The same presskit also contain interviews with Mahi Binebine, author of the book 'The Stars of Sidi Moumen' which served as inspiration for Ayouch's film, and with a surviving member of the Casablanca bombings.)