Masse und Monument – Migration und Hollywood (Mass and Monument – Migration and Hollywood)

Masse und Monument – Migration und Hollywood (Mass and Monument – Migration and Hollywood)

A film series, compiled by Diedrich Diederichsen

Lecture by Diedrich Diederichsen on 22.04.2004, 7 pm

In classic Hollywood cinema, mass scenes are regarded as a sign of high production costs. At the same time, they satisfy a very particular and specific cinematographic curiosity that goes back to the beginnings of moving pictures. For Siegfried Kracauer, for example, cinema was the first medium to make the new metropolitan masses of modernity visible and also made a decisive contribution to their self-image and self-discovery: to mobilization as well as to stillness. For many discourses on migration, it is also the mass nature of the migrants that makes up its decisive and also psychologically and propagandistically significant component. This is particularly true in the phobic notions of invading hordes and floods, which are so crucial to the mobilization of xenophobia and racism. In the USA, and thus also in Hollywood cinema, there have always been two kinds of masses: such phobically occupied natural catastrophically dehumanized floods of evil masses (Indians, aliens, Vietnamese) and next to and against them the positively occupied masses of settlers, but also of migrants, who contribute productively to the melting pot.

Who is a good and an evil mass, and how this changed and was fought over in the history of Hollywood, wants to show this series with selected examples: certainly none of these films is uninteresting, but also none is simply exemplary, and they were not chosen for their qualities, but rather for their symptomatic qualities.

Even the earliest film represented here, “Intolerance” by the cinema pioneer Griffith, shows that the ambivalence of mass portrayal must take the path of monumentalization. At the moment when the masses achieve a face of their own beyond the sum or enhancement of the individual, they are suitable for dehumanization as well as idealization. Griffith’s film was a kind of apology for his racist classic “Birth of a Nation”, which drastically demonized African Americans. In both films, however, one can see how fleeing or conquering, threatened or menacing masses can be dehumanized – sometimes rehumanized – by means of minor cinematographic measures. Another film in this series was also intended as an excuse: Cheyenne Autumn was supposed to revise the demonization of the Native Americans in so many Hollywood productions, and for this it invents an image from the arsenal of the history of the mostly positively portrayed European migrants who emigrated to the USA: the Cheyenne become displaced persons, but unlike the migrants from Europe, no “new home” beckons to them. Accordingly, the pop-festival monumentalization “Woodstock” identifies the hippie masses with a nation of displaced persons who are looking for a new territory. With different accents, “Days of Heaven”, “Heavens Gate” and “Gangs of New York” also show the situation of European migrants in the USA of the 19th century as class destiny, and despite different weaknesses, beyond any idealization. The migrants in Hollywood rarely made it to revolutionary masses, despite the rather biblical “Spartacus”, but as a sought-after and desired special effect especially in the first half of its history, their image was always an open space open to different ideological instrumentalizations. In the process, standards and clichés emerged that even today shape the idea of crowds of people who are not represented by a form of government or another regulated collective identity.