(Im)Permeable History: Notebook on Cities and Clothes (pt. 2)

The Harbor (August Sander, 1923-28); Young Farmers (August Sander, 1926). Source: MoMA
Thomas Elsaesser traces Wim Wenders and Yohji Yamamoto's intertwined history through personal upheavals and national trauma to arrive, unexpectedly, at Weimar photography.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “The Essay Film and The City.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Taking up Igor Krstic’s invitation to treat the conjunction of cinema and the city as a variation on the theme of the palimpsest, I have two responses. One is to refer to a recent essay of mine, called “Trapped in Amber: The New Materialities of Memory,”1 Thomas Elsaesser, “Trapped in Amber: The New Materialities of Memory”, Panoptikum nr 19 (2018), 144-158. where I argue that celluloid film has become something like the ‘fossil record’ of the 20th century, where ephemeral or discarded films, such as home movies and other so-called ‘found footage’ films can offer insights and memory traces that the more accomplished works do not. The other response is to try and decipher a certain historical constellation in Wim Wenders’ Notebook on Cities and Clothes as a kind of palimpsest, a specific layering of temporalities, but also as a sedimentation of iconic images, whose historical and hermeneutic significance are only emerging in retrospect, in light of the migration of motifs and the fashion designer’s and the filmmaker’s internal dialogue, each with himself, and yet mirrored in the other. Such a process of layering, sedimentation, migration and re-emergence I once called ‘diagonal memories’, but here it joins biographical memories – in one case, of a possessive mother, in the other, of a remote father – with traumatic national histories, where absences create their own insistent presence.

‘A historical reality transformed into a reper­toire of signs’ that emerge and recede like faint but distinct echoes of images we nonetheless recognize may thus be an apt way to describe Yamamoto’s fashion look. He clearly draws much inspira­tion from stylising accessories and clothes dating from the 1930s, especi­ally work clothes and utilitarian garments, such as the overalls of female workers in a Russian steel mill or Jean Paul Sartre’s winter overcoat worn as he hurried through the snow to the Café de Flore in Paris. In other words, part of Yamamoto’s skill lies in abstracting from the material reality of an earlier period, translating the world of work or of city weather into another idiom. He can cite the idea of toil or cold, stripped of all context by moving from function to sign – at ease and at home in that ‘Empire of Signs’ so eloquently evoked by Roland Barthes. This alchemy of super­imposition, this miracle of trans-substantiation, would be impossible without that crucial intermediary, the photograph, almost as valuable when it is a newspaper snapshot as it is when taken by a Cartier Bresson. After a generation or two, all filmic fictions take on a documentary dimension, especially when viewed with a detached eye, such as Wenders looking at Japan and Yamamoto looking at Paris. Isolating details from a different culture’s self-representa­tions creates a special space of reflexivity and estrangement, which contains the potential for the kind of receding layered-ness of the palimpsest, also called mise-en-abyme: in this case, the mise-en-abyme of the two artists’ apparent and mirrored symmetries.

What they communicate to each other, across the creation of a fashion look and the creation of a film oeuvre, is a common anxiety over authorship, and a common reference to a respective history that for each is as tempting as it is traumatic: regarding authorship, they fear imitators and self-parody, of not be­ing able to reproduce other than in that mode of self-invention, pastiche or plagiarism once known protec­tively as ‘postmodernism’. As to personal history as palimpsest: when Yamamoto candidly admits to a fear of women in high heels, he references his suffocating boyhood with an overbearing mother running a garment business. Making flat shoes, using infinite shades of black and surrounding himself with an army of ‘guardian angels’: these distinctive (trade)marks of his style suggest less a rebellion than a response – at once traumatised and playful – to a formative experience, mastered and turned creative by repetition and (small) difference.

Notebook on Cities and Clothes (Wim Wenders, 1989)

Yet Yamamoto’s ironic references to photographs and their echoes make him a kind of ethnogra­pher of a Western pictorial imagina­ry, catching us in the reverse end of that telescope usually trained on other cultures by what, especially in the case of Japan, are often “distant observers.” No wonder, therefore, that Wenders recognizes and rediscovers himself in Yamamoto’s shirt, nor why it so strongly reminded him of his father. In one sense, obscurely, another oedipal story – distanced, deferred, doubled yet infinitely removed – is hinted at.

As palimpsest history, the mystery is less deep: Yamamoto shares Wenders’ enthusiasm for (and has borrowed freely from) a famous collection of photographs dating back to the last years of the Weimar Republic, August Sander’s People of the 20th Century. This collection, which owes some of its fame to the fact that each photograph wants to be both ethnographically specific and self-consciously emblematic, perfectly captured a look that already at the time – the late 1920s – was detached and nostalgic, with a hint of the bizarre and the surreal. Carefully composed as series under thematic headings, the photographs facilitated the abstracting gesture of taking out of context and reinvesting the fragment, the face and the accessory with unsuspected meaning, with minimalist beauty or uncanny intensity. From one collection (Sander’s photographs) to another collection (Yamamoto’s clothes).

If Yamamoto had indeed succeeded in translating into fabric and the cut the quality of August Sander’s camera’s look at Weimar faces and clothes in the shirt which Wenders bought and felt that it was wearing him, then the German director’s interest in fashion would have been no passing fad nor forced upon him by an art commission: Notebook on Cities and Clothes would then be readable as what it so anxiously, but also inimitably is: a film signed by Wim Wenders, a director who experiences his German-ness preferably through the eyes (and the clothes) of the other, making Weimar culture – and the cities of the Rhineland, of Hamburg and Berlin – the wished-for palimpsest of West Germany in the 1970s and ’80s.


1 Thomas Elsaesser, “Trapped in Amber: The New Materialities of Memory”, Panoptikum nr 19 (2018), 144-158.
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