The Mediapolis Q&A: Ofer Eliaz’s Cinematic Cryptonymies

Eyes Without a Face (Franju, 1960)

In this installment of our continuing series of conversations with authors of new books on cities and urban culture, film and television scholar Angelo Restivo interviews Ofer Eliaz, Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Ohio University and author of Cinematic Cryptonymies: The Absent Body in Postwar Film (Wayne State University Press, 2018).


Angelo Restivo: This is such an exciting book in so many ways. To begin with, I would say that the interest of your book goes well beyond an interest in the cinematic elaboration of (urban) topographies or spatial systems more generally; it also makes important interventions in film theory more broadly, e.g. in our understanding of the cinematic image itself, or of montage; and in the relationship between cinema and history. This is all held together by a formidable theoretical engagement with the psychoanalytic work of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok on the crypt. This leads me to two initial comments regarding our conversation: first, that it is bound to engage with issues of film theory that might at first seem unrelated to urban studies; and second, that we’ll have to parse out the difficult psychoanalytic concepts that are underpinning the argument. I hesitate to begin by asking you to present a summary of Abraham and Torok (as I believe we can let the concepts “unfold” as the conversation moves along); rather, I will begin by asking how you initially came to understand the importance of Abraham and Torok’s work to your own project.

Ofer Eliaz: When I first turned to Abraham and Torok, I didn’t have a very clear idea of what the project would look like or of the central story I was going to tell. Initially, their theory, which they call cryptonymy, promised a compelling way to talk about textual absence as something that has a real, dynamic role to play in our ability to listen to and to make sense of texts. They had introduced the idea of an intrapsychic crypt to talk about ways in which the active exclusion of specific words from speech could be understood as a defense mechanism that both preserved and erased—that, in fact, preserved by erasing—the history of trauma. This was something that I was seeing again and again in the films of European filmmakers of the post-WW2 era, especially those like Godard and Franju whose films touched on more or less explicitly the representation of history. In different ways, these filmmakers were using offscreen space and montage to frame very concrete figural absences: missing bodies that were both figuratively and narratively left out of the image where we would expect to find them. Cryptonymy gave me a set of concepts, or at least the starting point for a set of film-specific concepts that I developed as I worked, with which I was able to give these gaps an active role in the films’ treatment of history and to think about them as strategies of encryption in the sense outlined by Abraham and Torok.

I was also drawn to Abraham and Torok’s idea of transgenerational haunting, which is a term they use to talk about the inheritance of trauma that takes place purely at the level of language. That is, for them trauma can sometimes be passed on across generations in secret, or at least in the absence of direct speech and without any explicit reference to the traumatic scene. The passing down of silences and gaps in speech can, they found, cause one generation to recreate the responses of trauma present in an earlier one. For me there was a sense that the films I was working on were either repeating or working to undo the repetitions of formal and narrative absences that arose from historical trauma. This is where my work with Mario Bava and Naomi Uman was central, because I saw their films as ways of coming to terms with the ways that violence—in Bava’s case the violence against women that took on a specific form in the spaces of global capital and in Uman’s case in the violence of the militarized and policed border—gave rise to visual absences that was inherited transgenerationally.

So these two ideas were what drew me to Abraham and Torok’s work, but for a long time as I was working through these ideas in relation to the films, my writing remained very much on the level of a set of singular case-studies. This is when the manuscript was still my dissertation at the University of Iowa. What I now consider the story that my book tells, the story of the “body under erasure” which connects the different chapters by finding recurrences of a similar figure in the different films, came fairly late and as a consequence of the individual readings of films. It forced a long period of revision that I hope really gave the work a coherence and, most importantly, allowed the work I was doing with film to put new pressure on Abraham and Torok’s work and to introduce a new figure that came from cinema to their way of thinking. I hope that the final book both tells this story and keeps some of the traces of the process of coming to this through the analysis and the hesitations I had along the way to be able to see what the films were showing me.

Restivo: It seems to me that as we move through the book, there is a kind of “spatial-historical progression,” in the sense that we begin with the spaces of Europe in the immediate aftermath of WWII; then move to the period of great modernization in the advanced capitalist nations; then to the issue of decolonization and its relation to the spectacle; and finally to a consideration of borders in relation to global capital flows.

Eliaz: The spatial-historical itinerary of the book that you describe came as the final shape of the book was forming around this idea of the body under erasure, or the ways in which the different films were both marking the absence of bodies from specific spaces and participating in these forms of occlusion.

Restivo: What I was trying to get at here is the way in which an evolution in capitalist regimes of accumulation that happen from 1945 to the present are actively engaged in processes of spatial transformation. I’m wondering whether, before we get to the individual case studies, you might have some thoughts about the relevance of the crypt more generally to this historical evolution?

Eliaz: In the book I try to present the crypt as part of a history of both the diffusion and the intensification of spaces of bodily erasure. My model is Deleuze’s description of the shift from disciplinary societies to the societies of control. For Deleuze the Societies of Control marked the multiplication and intensification of spaces in which regimes of management were deployed. In Franju’s films, the crypt can be fairly precisely localized in spaces where the past is preserved, in a state of living-death, within the emerging façade of a modernizing, global Paris. His films are a remarkable catalogue of these cryptic spaces where the past is held in these cryptic enclosures. Here I mean cryptic not only in Abraham and Torok’s sense of something that is both preserved and erased, but also in the more everyday sense of places for the burial and the accumulation of the dead, and as places where the past is sectioned of as past from the topography of the present.

Franju’s spatial critique involves showing the ways in which these enclosures are used to contain the losses of the past without acknowledging them, without bringing them into active contact with the new Paris. They preserve the past that is being furiously erased within the dynamics of urban redevelopment.

In later chapters, however, these cryptic spaces become increasingly diffuse. In Bava the crypt is used as an image of historical repetition, and in Godard it contaminates, so to speak, any possibility of a utopian future. For Naomi Uman, all kinds of borders, both political ones and borders of language, become cryptic spaces. These is how I understand the diffusion of the crypt as something that increasingly does not take place, or occupy a particular site, but haunts the border itself.

My book ends in the early 2000s. I suspect that today the model of Societies of Control would have to be rethought, and along with it the place of historical encryption.

Restivo: OK, let’s talk about how Franju’s work engages with the crypt.

Eliaz: The first chapter takes up, as you say, the immediate post-war period in Europe. The main characters here are those who died in the war but could not be mourned, either because their deaths were not documented or because mourning their deaths would not have been politically expedient for creation of post-war Europe.

Restivo: Yes, I found it enormously helpful when you brought in historian Henry Rousso’s note that of the 600,000 French dead, only a third had died in battle. The rest, as he says, “had vanished.”

Eliaz: Rousso was an important entry point for me because he talks about his project in The Vichy Syndrome explicitly as writing the history of the silences that followed the Liberation. He considers how silence can be understood as playing an active role in the history of France. This helped me clarify, for myself, that the object of cryptonymy was not the dead, but the various forms of erasure of the (memory and image of the) dead that blocked them from an active role in the history and in images of the present. Thinking in terms of visual culture, the next move for me was to notice that these absences had to be created materially; it wasn’t just a matter of not filming or not showing, but of creating images that stood in the place of and blocked the gaps left over by vanished bodies.

I focus on Franju’s films here mainly because he has a unique way of showing these absences: he turns figures and bodies into forms of substitution where the living can stand in the place of those who are missing. The clearest example is Christiane’s white mask in Eyes Without a Face that allows her to function as a cipher for the dead women that her father literally buries in her tomb. His approach to space, and in particularly urban space, is also instructive. In films like Hôtel des Invalides but also in some of his narrative films he presents an image of Paris as a façade that encloses inner spaces not just of violence but specifically of historical violence and of the history of French violence.

Restivo: Throughout this chapter I thought several times of Italian neorealism: For example, if we consider the final shot of Paisà, Rossellini is actually showing us the missing bodies, the Resistance fighters being executed by being bound and thrown into the river. Would you say that this allowed the Italian cinema—for a brief time, at least—to hold an image of its past trauma for the sake of a utopian project of nation building (which turned out badly, from the POV of the Left, of course)?

Eliaz: I do think that Italian cinema, because of the history of neorealism and the power and influence that the movement had on it’s development long after neorealism gave way to other forms, was able to maintain an active relationship with its past images, including the images of missing bodies that appeared just after the war. What is also interesting to me about the Italian case was that this was able to happen across both the art cinema and the great variety of popular genre films. Getting a bit ahead of the question, my reading of Mario Bava’s gothic horrors depends on my sense that the ruins of the gothic are in cryptic conversation with the ruins of neorealism, and that the spectral presences of Bava’s gothic horror films can be read as gaps that preserve and erase the traumatic images of the absent bodies showing in early neorealist films like Paisà. So, in that sense, I agree with you that neorealism kept this possibility open for a brief time, but also that I want to understand the ways in which a certain line in Italian cinema, which is not bound by the categories of “art cinema” vs. “genre cinema” through which we normally think about the period in Italy, both preserved and covered up this utopian possibility.

Restivo: So this naturally leads us to your chapter on Mario Bava.

Eliaz: The second chapter takes up this story at the moment of modernization in Italy, which was also a period of the mass mobilization of surplus Italian labor into urban centers. Mario Bava’s films seem at first to be distant from these concerns, especially the gothic horrors that made him famous. But, of course, the gothic allowed Bava to project the anxieties of modernization and displacement taking place at the time. What interests me in particular is the ways in which these films use a recurring image of a marked and mobile POV shot whose original source is either entirely excluded from the film or, more frequently, displaced across characters of several generations. For example, in Kill, Baby… Kill! a look that appears to originate with a dead girl is ultimately, but only after many displacements, attributed to the family’s still living matriarch. This transgenerational transmission of a look across generations of women gives a visual form to the ways in which historical breaks, especially violent ones, create the conditions for the inheritance of trauma.

Kill, Baby … Kill! (Bava, 1966)

Restivo: Yes, I like how you uncover a very particular formal device that recurs in Bava’s work, one that works so well in relation to cryptonymy. In your argument, the transgenerational transmission seems to operate at a “longue duree”: from an ‘originary moment’ when witches were rooted out as obstacles to the erasure of the commons necessary for capitalism to take off, and the postwar moment of the economic miracle.

Eliaz: Abraham and Torok’s idea of transgenerational haunting is particularly useful for thinking cinematically because they argue that the historical transmission of traumas can occur in the absence of the transmission of specific knowledge about past traumas. What we inherit, they claim, are the formal structures of speech that adhere around attempts to avoid talking about and remembering trauma. As an inherently communal form, I thought cinema could be understood as a particularly useful transmitter of the absences that accrue around attempts to not see or not look at traumatic images, in the absence of a direct figuration of these traumas. In the Italian case, I was aligning three moments: the immediate post-war moment and neorealism, the 1960s the social and geographic transformations arising due to the realignments of global production, and lastly the emergence of the gothic as a fairly new moment in Italian horror films. I wanted to show that the specific formal device of the haunted POV-shot, a subjective shot where the owner of the look is never shown directly, can connect these three moments by registering the erasure of women’s bodies from the scene. So, in that sense there is a ‘longue duree’, but one that works as a formal repetition by which the absences of the past are written into the future moments.

Restivo: You talk about how Bava ultimately constructs labyrinthine and unmappable (or unreadable) spaces. In my own work, I framed the problem of the Italian economic miracle in terms of space and mobility: how the automobile for example creates a spatial contradiction for the labyrinthine urban spaces of Italian cities. I wonder if a link can be made here?

Eliaz: Perhaps. I was mostly thinking about the ways Bava creates space that is unfilmable, or rather where the filming of it either flattens or deforms the space in such a way that it becomes unnavigable. In his films, these kinds of distortions are the consequence of framing the image around the haunted POV shot, or the absent figure who is the bearer of the look and remains in the scene. This chapter for me dealt more directly with the conditions of time when it becomes a vector for the inheritance of trauma, so I didn’t think of it specifically in relation to the depiction of the space of Italy.

Kill, Baby … Kill! (Bava, 1966)

Restivo: To move to Godard, you begin with a kind of spatial-historical problem that gets articulated as/in Ici et Ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere). And you note—from Kristin Ross’s work—how the energies devoted to the administration of the colonies gets “incorporated” into the management of everyday life in the metropole, especially through television.

Eliaz: The absent figure in Godard’s films, which I take up in the third chapter, is one that comes into being between, to use Godard’s formulation, a here and an elsewhere. In that sense I do consider the relationship between France and postcolonial space in Godard, but also more broadly the ways in which other spaces, and the space of the Other, come to haunt Godard’s continued interest in images of Europe and of European history. I argue that for Godard these spatial and temporal crypts, in other words, the absences left by the inability of European cinema to produce coherent images of these other spaces, are understood through their power to undo any clear or continuous image of Europe. Godard’s montage practice completely transforms in response to this challenge. He develops what I call an ‘anasemic’ form of montage. Abraham and Torok talk about anasemia as a way of listening to language that puts words in the context of their origin in trauma. I don’t think Godard poses any image of original European plentitude, but I do think that his montage practice in this period is an attempt to return images to what he calls a ‘degree zero.’ This degree zero is the moment of their emergence as conflictual images from which something has been erased in order to produce an image of unity.

Restivo: You develop a very original way of looking at Godard’s montage practice via the idea of the “broken symbol.” One way to grasp this, as you note, is with the example of an archeological fragment: it points toward a lost object, but also toward an entire “topography and social world.” Can you talk a bit about how this allows us to understand Godard’s montage practice?

Eliaz: For Abraham and Torok the idea of the broken symbol involves words that don’t refer to the immediate situation in which they are found, but that are fragments carried over from a past situation that have to be completed by the analysts. For example, a patient may speak lines from a traumatic conversation, the other half of which has been repressed, and the analyst’s job is to discover the complementary components and recreate the total situation which has been repressed. Godard’s films since 1980, I think, have something of this sense of a lost unity. He speaks often, and this is noted by many critics, of the sense that he is living after something and that his films address themselves to this post-tense (after cinema, for example). At the same time, his editing practice has become fragmentary in a way that turns his films into kinds of rebuses that seem to resist any clear reconstruction. Abraham and Torok’s idea of the broken symbol gave me a way to talk about this montage practice where the interval or gap—indicating the place of world from which the images were taken but that cannot be retrieved—is privileged over the possibility of a unity of the final flow of images. So my idea was to take the shot as one piece of a fragment that is missing pieces, and to assume that it always suggests the presence of a ‘counter-shot’ that doesn’t appear in the movie itself, because it points to the world from which it was originally taken but that cannot be captured in cinema.

My most concrete example of this, perhaps, is the Mostar bridge sequence in Notre musique, where images of the bridge in the process of reconstruction are layed over with images of its destruction, and this copula itself is ‘interrupted’ by images of the character who has come to see the bridge photographing and looking. Between the destruction and the reconstruction, there is no possibility of a simply unity of shots that will create a smooth flow. Instead, Godard introduces this interval of the look that fragments them within seeing the totality. What takes place in the interval (here not just between two shots but between the two historical moments of destruction and reconstruction) is a look that doesn’t see. I am interested in the ways that montage becomes, increasingly, a matter of what takes place in the shot rather than between shots.

The danger with this kind of analysis is that it will posit something like a utopian ‘whole’ at the origin of the fragmentary images. I think the work of a film like Notre musique is to show the impossibility of this utopian first image.

Restivo: Let’s move on to the last chapter and the work of Naomi Uman.

Eliaz: The last chapter deals with Naomi Uman, migrant labor, and border crossings. It tries to sum up both the spatial and historical movement of the book, while tracking the questions I raise outside of Europe. For me this is the riskiest chapter because I am trying to make the case for a global spatial mapping of the idea of the crypt and cryptic space. Although the films I look at deal with a very specific situation—migrant border crossings between Mexico and the US and the conditions of immigrant communities in the US—I think that this chapter also makes the broadest claim for how cinema can be a form of witnessing of erasures and silences that are built into the logic of labor, migration, and flows of capital today. The chapter focuses on a comparison of Leche and Mala Leche, twin films made in central Mexico and central California, respectively. The films depict the very different living condition of members of the same family in both places. For me, however, it is the haunting image of the border and of border crossing, which is never shown in either film, that the film shows.

Naomi Uman’s Mala Leche

Restivo: Two points I would like to pursue in this case study, especially in relation to spatial mapping. One has to do with how you bring in Jameson’s notion of cognitive mapping, especially in relation to the function of the U.S.-Mexico border. As we talked about at the beginning of our conversation, the cryptic spaces become increasingly diffuse as we move through the book, to the point where we reach, to quote from your book, “a periphery within the interior, the global within the local, and the invisible within the visible.” Can you talk about how this speaks to the problem of mapping that is initially set forth by Jameson?

Eliaz: As I understand Jameson, the idea of cognitive mapping speaks to our need to be able to have a mental map—not just of space, but also of the shape of the world and our place in it—in order to orient ourselves and our actions. A cognitive map allows us to locate our everyday experience of space within the more abstract, global flows in which it exists. One of the features he sees in contemporary capitalism is the erosion of this mental map, and thus the feeling of inaction or the impossibility of action. A State border is a particularly resonant place to see this process in action, because while it instantiates, in a material way, a territorial boundary, it is also dependent on the movements of crossing and especially the juridical order of legal and illegal, proper and improper that is central to the spatial operation of the crypt. This is why I think of borders as forms of social encryption within the spatial order of the State. Because one of the consequences of encryption is that it creates pockets of space that are cut off from any active life within the milieu, the crypt can be thought of as an unmappable space. It is impossible to think of the United States without accounting for the presence of these “undocumented” spaces, but these spaces have been incorporated as what does not belong within the proper map of the state. I wanted to show how Uman responds to this by situation cinematically by creating different ways of representing the “internal off-screen” that can account for this erasure without turning into a document(ary).

Restivo: There is also the attention to rhythms, and to a lost dimension of artisanal labor, which the films chart.

Eliaz: Uman talks about her work as a way to see the past before it vanishes, not so as to preserve it as some kind of utopian idea outside of the present, but in order to prolong it into the present, to ‘thicken’ the present with the past. I see her work as a practice of counter-rhythm, a desire to insert deliberate gaps and pauses in the temporality of ‘rezoning’ and rebuilding whose purpose is partially to erase traces of the past. Again, the idea here isn’t to maintain the past, but to allow it to act within the present. This is a kind of counter-encryption, a making visible of the places where something has been but has now been occluded. Her work was important for me at the end of the book because whereas the other filmmakers I look at participate, even if critically, in the erasures that I analyze, Uman’s work is entirely turned toward making them visible.

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