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Seeing For Others?   

Alexander García Düttmann




One of the lessons Robert Bresson teaches the spectator is that if the artist, especially the filmmaker, is to see for others, in their place, he must break with representation and instead fragment and flatten the image without depriving it of intensity. He must cease to reproduce the ‘terrible habit of theatre’ (1), and must leave behind its mimics, its gestures and words. Is there not always bad faith inherent in representation, a denial of subjectivity? On the one hand, representation creates a stage that allows others and oneself to see a spectacle produced for the occasion; on the other hand, it excludes the one who creates this stage from the stage itself. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar provides an example in his ‘Brief Discourse on Hell’. He warns against a view, a necessarily retrospective view, that objectifies hell, turning it into an ‘object’ to be examined ‘scientifically’, and allowing for speculation about who is damned and who may escape damnation: ‘For then everything is transformed: hell is no longer my own, it is no longer mine in each case, but it is that which concerns “others”; luckily, I have escaped it’. (2) Bad faith itself does not belong to hell, though; von Balthasar alludes to the idea that after Judgement Day the damned do not ‘see’ heaven anymore since such a sight would distract them from their pain. (3) Against the bad faith of representation he invokes both the behaviour of saints who, when they ‘see’ a large number of humans striving towards hell, offer active resistance, and the grace that awakens the desire for substitution where a ‘personal experience of hell’ does not amount to actually seeing the damned. (4) Representation, one could say, is a seeing of others that, as a seeing for others, as a spectacle offered to others, to an audience, blinds itself without acknowledging it. Hence representation proves both too subjective and not subjective enough.



1. Robert Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), p. 12.



2. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Kleiner Diskurs über die Hölle (Freiburg: Johannes Verlag, 2007), p. 38.


3. Ibid., p. 49.


4. Ibid., p. 64.

But how, exactly, does Bresson break with representation, once he has recognised the need for cinema to renounce the ‘terrible habit of theatre’? He does so by advocating a certain blindness, a certain ‘automatism’ that belongs to the camera and the moving image. This automatism triggers two distinct effects. While the camera, lacking intentionality and betraying the ‘scrupulous indifference of a machine’, can capture what no ‘human eye’ (5) is capable of attaining and what ‘no pencil, no brush, no feather’ can make fast, namely reality and the ‘unknown’, it is the very exteriority of the filmic procedure that allows for an inward movement, a movement which is also twofold. Bresson states that the mechanical aspect of automatism points towards an ‘untouched’ interior (6), as if the camera preserved an inwardness that has not been informed by the intention of seeing and perhaps even of representing something. At the same time, Bresson makes it clear that the mechanical aspect of automatism permits, whenever possible, images to be replaced by sounds, eyes by ears, that is, an outward movement by a deeper, inward one (7), as if the camera were itself a necessary substitute, necessary to the extent that its outwardness keeps disclosing reality and the unknown. As a filmmaker, Bresson seems to suggest, I must entrust myself to the camera, to its outside, to its blindness, rather than using it to place myself outside of what I see and objectify the world seen. In theatrical representation, a blindness invisible to the one who sees results from a set-up that depends on an outside, from the creation of a stage filled with objects that keeps the subject on the margins: reality and the ‘unknown’ stay beyond the representing subject. In cinematic presentation, however, a blindness sought and affirmed results in a seeing that can but does not have to be achieved by the eyes alone: the presenting subject is embedded in the midst of things.


5. Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe, p. 35.

6. Ibid., p. 88.

7. Ibid., p. 61.


Is automatism not the ‘diabolical principle’ (8) that, according to Bresson, threatens to undo art yet proves ‘favourable’ to cinema? Automatism is spiritual, it has a value and cannot be reduced to the fact of exteriority. It has a divine value, or force, because the camera lets me see what I cannot see. Automatism is a seeing for others: for me as other. But automatism is blinding, too, and has a diabolical force because it forms a ‘habit’ that can be the ‘terrible habit of theatre’ and representation: I cannot see what I see. Thus representation reveals that automatism, the suspension of intentionality, is an ambiguous phenomenon. It can be the absent-mindedness of a habit that prevents me from seeing the very instant I believe that I see something. In fact, representation is all the more revealing, it advertises the ambiguous blindness of habit all the more clearly, as it comes with a claim to objectivity and, in a way, installs an automatism designed to accomplish visibility, the unfolding of a plot on a stage. It thus appears that the dividing line between the diabolical and the divine, between theatre and cinema, between representation and presentation, between not seeing what I can see and seeing what I cannot see, is extremely tenuous. Or, to put it differently, automatism is a ‘diabolical principle’ because it cannot be attributed a definite and clear value. All one can say about automatism in art is: the Devil, probably.


8. Ibid., p. 38.









At one point, the young man at the centre of Bresson’s film The Devil, Probably (1977) sits in a Parisian bus and talks to a friend. Does he have a sense of the meaninglessness that haunts all active involvement in the contemporary world, as Rainer Werner Fassbinder claims (9), who was an admirer of the film and inserted extracts from it in his mischievous satire on terrorism and capital in Germany? The two friends have attended a discussion about the usage of nuclear power and are on their way home. In a lecture hall a specialist has answered questions from the audience, justifying the usage of such power. Bresson introduces this scene by showing a television screen and an atom bomb exploding with a loud bang. In the bus the young men engage in a peculiar conversation about politics. Other passengers join in and continue the conversation, though the spectator is not always able to tell who is actually speaking and attribute the voice he hears to a particular character. The two friends talk about political deception, and the protagonist maintains that in order to reassure people it is enough to simply negate the obvious facts. His friend replies that obvious facts no longer exist since nothing is visible anymore and we have entered the domain of the invisible. The spectator can take this remark literally, as if it referred to the dissolution of recognisable objects caused by scientific and technological progress. But it is more likely to be an ironic remark. The protagonist retorts by saying ‘You are unbelievable!’, an exclamation that no doubt has an edge of irony. It signals the difficulty of believing someone who exaggerates. Yet if the domain of the invisible does indeed encompass all of reality, then the friend himself is an unlikely character, someone in whose existence one cannot believe easily. After the vehicle has come to a halt, passengers alight while others get on the bus. The conversation is interrupted when the stop sign is illuminated. In French, this sign reads ‘arrêt demandé’, which means ‘stop requested’; it is as if, by lighting up, the sign’s red letters had an immediate effect on the ongoing conversation: here the bus must come to a stop, here the conversation must end for a moment. When it resumes, the protagonist observes that governments tend to be short-sighted. A passenger sitting in one of the front rows overhears this remark, turns around to face the two young men and warns them: ‘Do not incriminate the governments!’ For in the present, he explains, no government can profess a knowledge of the art of governing – there is no one in the world left who would be able to see for others, as it were. Events are determined by the masses, or by ‘dark forces’ obeying an unknown law. As the conversation unfolds and the two young men become its witnesses, the camera focuses on the vehicle’s rear-view mirror and films the traffic on the streets as it appears in this mirror, next to the driver’s seat. Bresson’s refusal to employ naturalistic means of representation in his film and fall back into the ‘terrible habit of theatre’ is a refusal to see for others, for the spectator and for the fictional characters that he calls ‘models’. The fact that The Devil, Probably is an extremely elaborate film, or that Bresson does not simply leave the camera alone for it to capture whatever it will capture, should not detract from the link between automatism and the ‘model’.


9. In Fassbinder über Fassbinder. Die ungekürzten Interviews, ed. R. Fischer (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag der Autoren 2004), p. 398.





























A female voice butts in and speaks in the same unaffected and matter-of-fact manner as all the other voices. The unseen woman confirms that we are driven by something that turns us against ourselves; yet another voice remarks ‘We must go along with it, participate’. Finally a passenger who remains invisible, too, and exists only as a voice, asks who it is that amuses himself in this way, mocking humanity; someone else in the bus concurs with him and wonders who influences and controls human beings. The man sitting in the front responds: ‘The Devil, probably’.


When, in the late ‘70s, Le diable, probablement was screened at the Berlinale in Fassbinder’s presence and then distributed throughout Germany, the film’s title was translated as ‘Der Teufel, möglicherweise’, which means ‘The Devil, Possibly’. If the adverb that follows the noun is supposed to emphasise it, one could even translate the same title as ‘The Devil, Most Likely’.


‘Le diable, probablement’ – shall the spectator, shall the passengers in the bus, shall the two young men who no longer contribute to the conversation they have started, take this phrase seriously or should they understand it ironically? Does the juxtaposed adverb remove some of the weight attached to the noun, does it make light of it, or does it add even more urgency to what is at stake, does it add seriousness to it? Is it not enough to acknowledge the possibility of the Devil having a hand in what is happening in the world to awaken the suspicion that, in truth, the mere acknowledgment of such a possibility already denotes a high probability? In his War Primer, Brecht pastes a cutting from a newspaper, a photograph that shows a house in Berlin destroyed by British bombs, on top of an epigram addressed to a woman wandering around the ruins: ‘Stop searching, woman: you will not find them anymore! / But do not blame fate, woman! / The dark forces, woman, who keep treating you so badly / They have a name, an address, and a face’. (10)


The blond young man who is the protagonist of Bresson’s film reacts to the naming of the Devil by touching his friend with his arm, a gesture as ambiguous as the film’s title. It can mean: ‘Have you heard the nonsense they are talking?’ But it can also mean: ‘Do you hear? Now they are onto something’. Is irony the Devil’s refuge or does it protect against him? And what about raising such questions, speaking of the possibility or the probability of a diabolical intervention? Does this talk concede something to enlightenment or does enlightenment concede the impossible, the improbable, because it has nothing to fear? When reflecting upon truth and miracles in his Pensées, Pascal quotes from the Gospel of John: the Devil cannot open a blind man’s eyes. (11) Can the sudden naming of the Devil open the eyes of a blind man? Almost in the middle of Bresson’s film, a crash occurs. The bus driver, distracted by the naming of the Devil, provokes an accident that gives rise to a cacophonic chorus of hooting.




It is not evil that exaggerates, that pushes toward exaggeration, that entangles humanity in a deadly contradiction and brings it to the brink of suicide, on the contrary: it is the promise of the good that does so. As is well known, this is the objection that, in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor levels against the silent Redeemer who has returned on Earth.











10. Bertolt Brecht, Kriegsfibel (Eulenspiegel Verlag: Berlin , 2008), p. 22. In his book on Bresson and radical politics, Brian Price interprets the adverb ‘probably’ as flagging the ‘provisional’ character of belief, and thus ratifying what he describes as the film’s ‘polyphonic’ structure. Price, Neither God Nor Master (Minneapolis and London: The University of Minnesota Press, 2011), p. 182.

11. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, ed. M. Le Guern (Paris: Gallimard, 1977), p. 425. In John X, 19-21, the Jews disagree about the words of the Christ: ‘There was a division therefore again among the Jews for these sayings, and many of them said: ‘He hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye him?’ Others said, ‘These are not the words of him that hath a devil. Can the devil open the eyes of the blind?’’ (King John Bible).

The reader who follows Ivan Karamazov’s story about the Grand Inquisitor’s encounter with Jesus is told that ‘in Seville, in the most terrible time of the Inquisition’ (12), the Christ feels the desire ‘to appear for a moment to the people, to the tortured, suffering people’ who, ‘sunk in iniquity’, still love ‘Him like children’. He arrives in human form, ‘softly’ and ‘unobserved’, yet he is recognised and causes great turmoil, especially as he performs miracles. He heals a blind man and resurrects a dead man. The old and intimidating Grand Inquisitor, who, wearing a monk’s habit, has mingled with the crowds and witnessed the extraordinary resurrection, has the Christ detained and thrown into prison. Then, in the middle of night, he visits him in his dungeon. The story consists mainly of the long monologue which the Grand Inquisitor addresses to the Christ so as to justify his decision to condemn him to death, to let him burn at the stake – after all, the pile of wood has been built only for him, the first and the last heretic: ‘To-morrow, he observes, I shall condemn Thee and burn Thee at the stake as the worst of heretics. And the very people who have to-day kissed Thy feet, to-morrow at the faintest sign from me will rush to heap up the embers of Thy fire’. (13) At first, young Alyosha, to whom Ivan tells the story of the Grand Inquisitor, does not understand it, for to him it sounds like a fantasy, an outrageous exaggeration, the product of a ‘wild imagination’. This leads his elder brother to present his story as a vision before death, ‘the delusion of an old man of ninety’ whose head is still ‘overexcited by the auto da fé of a hundred heretics the day before’. (14)


The Christ has returned too soon, before the time, and his unexpected reappearance may have fatal consequences for the institution to which he gave ‘everything’ after his death on the cross and his ascent to heaven. In the eyes of the Grand Inquisitor, it is ‘for good’, for all times, that the church has appropriated the promise of freedom that lies in Christian faith, for as the administrator of this promise, it has been able to subjugate the rebellious spirit in human nature. It has rendered a tolerable and even happy life possible for the first time. Having thus inherited the Christ’s legacy in accordance with his own wishes, having exercised the right of binding and unbinding transmitted to it, the church has actually managed to turn the legacy into a true legacy and religion into a true religion: ‘Thou didst reject the only way by which men might be made happy’ (15), the Grand Inquisitor says to his prisoner, the trouble-maker, alluding to the submission of human beings the church has so successfully achieved over the centuries.


12. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 275.





13. Ibid., p. 277.


14. Ibid., p. 278.





15. Ibid., p. 279.

But if the Christ did indeed reject the ‘only way’, if he scattered the flock and ‘sent it astray on unknown paths’ (16), then, as the Grand Inquisitor claims, this is because he did not heed the ‘admonitions and warnings’ which the Devil gave him, the ‘wise and dread Spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-existence’. (17) In fact, it is as if with his ‘admonitions and warnings’, which the Bible presents as temptations, the Devil had performed something he could not perform. He performed a ‘miracle’, and the Christian who in matters to do with humanity endorses a pragmatist institutional politics must consider it a true, a ‘stupendous miracle’, a miracle that was the miracle of all miracles. Hence one could claim that the Grand Inquisitor is a heretic of orthodoxy inasmuch as the Christ represents an unreasonable demand for humanity, siding with a few chosen ones and remaining indifferent toward a majority confused by his promise of freedom. It is precisely in the name of the weak that the church is willing to endure the ‘freedom’ that it withholds from them. It is in the name of the weak that it concludes a pact with the Devil. As an institution, the church cannot tolerate exclusion if it is not to endanger its own existence. Thus, to protect the legacy of the Christian promise, which is itself inseparable from the human ‘craving for a community of worship’ (18), it needs to hold fast to the ‘rigid ancient law’. (19)


The rationale of the institution, the purpose of the Grand Inquisitor, coincide with the Devil’s design to the extent that the evil spirit seeks to accomplish a normalisation of the good, a taming of the excessive and the exaggerated, a disciplining of folly and enthusiasm. Such a normalisation, such a taming, such a disciplining produces the glory and the misery of the institution, the misery of the institution and the misery provoked by an institution that substitutes the mystery of miracles and authority, the mystery of power, for the mystery of freedom. If we stick to the correcting logic of the Grand Inquisitor, it is the Redeemer, not the Devil, who tempts man into suicide, into self-destruction: ‘We are not working with Thee but with him – that is our mystery’, the Grand Inquisitor admits. (20)


As can be gathered from the conversation between Ivan and Aljosha that follows the telling of the story of the Grand Inquisitor, his mystery consists in that he no longer believes in God. Yet this lack of belief results from belief. The institution, a machine of organised self-preservation, functions on the basis of such a contradiction. It must abolish the belief, the faith on which it feeds and that it is meant to keep alive. It must get involved with the Devil, who uses the contradiction and the petrifaction without which there would be no self-preservation to pursue his own interests. This is the reason why, sensing his own petrifaction, the Grand Inquisitor feels nervous when, in the coda that Ivan adds to his story, the Christ remains silent; and this is also the reason why the Christ does not respond to the long monologue with words but with a loving gesture that triggers the old man’s hatred. Perhaps art, perhaps literature and film can never exhaust themselves in their institutionalisation. For if they see for others, they do so by not seeing for others. Representation is the inquisition of art.


16. Ibid., p. 287.

17. Ibid., p. 279.





18. Ibid., p. 282.

19. Ibid., p. 283.





20. Ibid., p. 285.






from Issue 2: Devils


© Alexander García Düttmann 2012.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.