"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
DESPITE THE CRITICAL SUPERLATIVES heaped upon Marek Krajewski’s Death in Breslau, the first of the Polish author’s Inspector Eberhard Mock Investigations series released in the U.S., the novel fails to ignite fully as a thriller.
But Krajewski more than compensates for the flaws of his plot and characterization by reminding us of the seminal role that Franz Kafka played in the development of noir — a genre that transcends the clichés of wisecracking private dicks and desperate grifters clawing out of the West Texas oil fields.
Death in Breslau is a prime example of intertextuality, an intricate pastiche that invests the setting of arbitrary tyranny, perversion, and mind-numbing violence that was Nazi Germany with a thoroughly Kafkaesque manner and mood. Indeed, Breslau owes a greater debt to Orson Welles’s 1962 film noir treatment of Kafka’s The Trial than to the hardboiled style of Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
According to no less perceptive a witness of the 20th century than Bertolt Brecht, “Kafka described with wonderful imaginative power the future concentration camps, the future instability of the law, the future absolutism of the state Apparat.” Here Brecht gave eloquent expression to the notion of Kafka as a “prophet of fascism” — a notion embraced, perhaps inescapably, by many postwar scholars and critics, but one that runs the risk of reducing the idiosyncratic genius to a kind of one-note Cassandra.
Roger Ebert throws in with the prophet of fascism crowd in his appreciative review of Welles’s adaptation of The Trial, writing that the novel, portraying the harrowing plight of Josef K, a bank CFO arrested and prosecuted for an unspecified crime, “reflected his own paranoia, but it was prophetic, foreseeing Stalin’s gulag and Hitler’s holocaust, in which innocent people wake up one morning to discover they are guilty of being themselves.” The persecution of the innocent goes to the very heart of noir and contributes a major nauseating plot point to Death in Breslau, at which we will arrive momentarily.
But this interpretation of Kafka is a matter of hindsight; we can’t help but see him through the lens of what came after, and, partly, through the lens of Welles’s film. As Marc Svetov writes in the Noir City Sentinel, Welles’s Trial is “a fine adaptation of Kafka to modern circumstances”: “Shooting in Europe on a shoestring, Welles employed an Expressionist lens: the state-built, low-rent high rises are bathed in shadow and run-down anonymity, sinuously twisting in a maelstrom of movement.”
In the interior shots of Welles’s film, Svetov continues, “we often seem to be looking up at the protagonists from the floor. In the scene where Josef K. finds himself among the guilty people waiting in the court hallways, Expressionist cinema is perfectly recaptured. Every one of them has been condemned, although none know why. The lighting, the distorted camera angles, the vulnerability of the people who all are raptly, timidly staring at Anthony Perkins — these eerie depictions of hopelessness reflect Josef K’s inescapable, unnamed doom. The Nazi death camps had occurred in the interim, of course, but it is really pure Kafka, whom we might term a seer. The author, had he lived that long, would probably have been among the Holocaust’s victims.” Here, all the elements are in place: the Expressionism of 1920s cinema, the ominous shadow of Nazism, and the Kafkaesque mood that benefits from the setting and technique, but also transcends it.
Svetov rightly concludes that what we today label Kafkaesque isn’t a matter of circumstances — it’s “an integral attribute of noir. It is the existential dilemma of being trapped.” Krajewski realizes this aspect of Kafka’s work, and though his novel is set in a world haunted by Nazism, the Kafkaesque implications run deeper: the characters in Breslau are not only trapped by the Gestapo, but also by their own sins and vices, as well as the fear of exposing the latter to the former.
There is another essential element to noir: the annihilation of the individual, either by outside forces or by one’s own hand. In Chandler’s work, characters go to great lengths to annihilate their biographies and birthright, obsessively crafting frangible, if not cracked, fictional facades. In Krajewski’s novel, set in Breslau in 1933, when the Nazis have suddenly occupied the halls of power, the Gestapo apparat alters the biographies of public personalities to make enemies of the state (Jews, Freemasons, leftists, and intellectuals) out of innocents; indeed, innocence is denied
Krajewski pays textual homage to Kafka throughout Death in Breslau, beginning with an opening chapter in a Dresden psychiatric hospital housing a patient with a pathological fear of cockroaches:
Imagination did, however, betray him when he saw small, busy insects scuttling across the room. Their yellowish-brown abdomens flitting in and out of the gaps between the floorboards, their flickering antennae sticking out from behind the washbasin, the individual specimen crawling on to his eiderdown: a pregnant female dragging a pale cocoon, or a handsome male holding its body high on quick limbs, or the helpless young tracing circles with thin feelers — all this would lead to Anwaldt’s brain being shaken by an electrical charge of neurons. The whole of him would curl up painfully, flickering feelers would burrow into his skin and he would be tickled, in his imagination, by thousands of limbs. He would then fall into a fury and was a potential danger to other patients, especially since the occasion on which he had discovered that some of them were catching insects, putting them into matchboxes and hiding them in his bed. Only the smell of insecticide would calm his jittering nerves. The matter could have been dealt with by transferring the sick man to another hospital — one less infested by cockroaches — in another town, but here unanticipated, bureaucratic obstacles would present themselves and successive heads of clinic would forsake the idea.
Krajewski is on the money when he is directly channeling Kafka’s ghost: frayed nerves, paranoia, mental illness, burrowing insects, and the obstacles of bureaucracy that perpetually trap a man in such a state. Unfortunately, the author cannot sustain this mood and tone consistently, framing his intertextual ode to the father of noir in a mystery plot that goes sloppily awry in the third act and is further undermined by the fact that, as critic and Irish crime novelist Bob Kitchin has observed, “every character in the book is highly flawed and criminally inclined”; it has “no heroes or anti-heroes, just villains.”
The convoluted plot of Death in Breslau is set in motion with the gruesome ritualistic murders of 17-year-old Marietta von der Malten — daughter of influential and malevolent Baron von der Malten — and her governess in a railway coach car. The killer leaves behind a cryptic note written in Coptic text in the ancient Syrian alphabet on the wall, and four scorpions to squirm and crawl over the mutilated corpses, not unlike those low-rent high-rises in Welles’s film, “sinuously twisting in a maelstrom of movement.” Summoned to the hideous scene of slaughter is Inspector Eberhard Mock of the Criminal Department of the Police Praesidium, interrupting his weekly dalliance with two prostitutes at Madame le Goef’s bordello.
From the get-go, Mock is peculiarly unsympathetic. Not only is he established as a serial adulterer with a “weakness for sensuous Jewish women” and curvaceous blondes, but Krajewski endows his protagonist with an inappropriate sense of humor that has him “seized by foolish laughter” at the sight of “the thin, pale shins of a street beggar cruelly beating a puppy,” and “bursting out” laughing again when his subordinate Forstner, a Gestapo spy within the police ranks and an under-developed character, slips on a pool of blood in the railroad car crime scene. But that’s only the beginning of Mock’s flaws.
Mock is a savvy political power player who owes his rise in the ranks of the Breslau police to the Baron’s patronage — and an abiding allegiance to the Masonic lodge “which had facilitated his brilliant career” — so when he is summoned to the eccentric von der Malten’s mansion and ordered to present a suspect immediately and turn him over to the Baron personally so he can wreak bloody vengeance (or else finish his career in the Fisheries Police in Lubin), the good Counsellor can do nothing but dutifully oblige. It is preferred, of course, that the suspect be a “mentally deficient pervert” for whom an “anti-German” biography — Jewish or Mason — can be concocted and fed to the tabloid loudspeakers of Nazi propaganda.
The suspect that Mock frames — yes, he frames a suspect with more than a disgusting hint of anti-Semitic derision — is Isidor Friedlander, “a 60-year-old mentally sick dealer” in exotic pets who, the rags report, shouts “in strange tongues” and has “horrifying, apocalyptic visions” and, “in such a state, [is] capable of anything.” The truth is — and Mock is fully aware of this — that “Isidor F.,” as the press dubs the accused (shades of “Josef K”), is an innocent epileptic.
Mock turns Isidor F over to the Baron, who has the man summarily tortured to death in a basement chamber. But, a few twists and turns later, the Baron discerns that Isidor F could not have been the real murderer and orders Mock to do all that’s in his power to unmask the true culprit. And since the Inspector has already been applauded by the tabloids for apprehending the killer, the Baron sends for Anwaldt, the alcoholic, entomophobic Criminal Assistant of the Berlin Police, to conduct a quiet investigation with Mock’s cooperation. Since Mock’s “greatest dream was to father a son” he becomes a putative father to Anwaldt; an attempt to soften the character, perhaps, but it’s a little too late.
The motive for the killings, we learn in the third act, has its roots in a macabre murder committed in the year 1205, during the Crusades — a bizarre and silly plot detour right out of a Dan Brown potboiler.
Compounding the damage imposed on the reading experience by a hackneyed story line and an unlikeable protagonist are some leaden passages in the translated prose, which are so anemic they makes an auto parts catalog read like Emily Dickinson. The third sentence of the first chapter is enough to stop the reader cold: “He examined his wet palm with care — like a palmist.” Yet sprinkled throughout the novel are cinematic flourishes that evoke the best of noir: green, hazy light falling through a stained glass window, rippling shadows, deformed children and schoolgirl prostitutes, a wasp furiously pounding on a window pane, the odor of rotten teeth and putrid gums, shabby cockroach-infested tenements (there are enough cockroaches to give an exterminator night sweats), dark corridors of trees, red brick prison watch towers in falling dusk, the smell of rotten potatoes, fermented wine and rat droppings, monumental buildings enclosed in white sandstone and neo-Gothic red brick, a zoo at sunset, black bread and black coffee, clouds of aromatic cigar and cigarette smoke, beetles crawling up grass stalks and a hairy goat peering into a ruined tomb. And there are nightmares aplenty in the fevered minds of Mock and Anwaldt, including a woman “sprouting syphilitic cauliflowers” from her stomach and thighs. The stuff of Kafka, Welles, and Gottfried Benn.
As many other critics have pointed out, it is hard to admire the 50-year-old “gloomy neurotic” Eberhard Mock. He is schooled in the “art of subtle blackmail, veiled threats and ingenious provocation.” Not to mention the fact that he’s an anti-Semitic, alcoholic cuckold “with a rather prominent belly”.
Throughout Breslau, I was constantly nagged by the sense that I had encountered the character of Eberhard Mock somewhere before. When I began drilling down on the astounding similarities between Krajewski’s novel, the works of Kafka, and the films of Orson Welles, I realized that Mock is a Nazi-era German personification of Orson Welles’s own snarling, corrupt, obese, alcoholic border Police Captain Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil (1958). Except, when adapting Whit Masterson’s novel Badge of Evil (1956) for Universal, the brilliant Welles had the good sense to add a counter to Quinlan’s corruption and perversion in morally (and physically) superior Mexican narcotics officer Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas, played by Charlton Heston in brownface.
The intertextual nature of Death in Breslau — indeed, of all art forms — is brought home by Orson Welles’s production of The Lady from Shanghai (1947). While adapting Sherwood King’s 1938 noir novel for the screen, Welles was an enraptured student of the theatrical theory of Verfremdungseffekt, the “distancing effect,” devised by Brecht, the author of the now-famous observation about Kafka’s presaging “the future concentration camps, the future instability of the law, the future absolutism of the state Apparat.”
“Welles had been reading and absorbing the theories of Bertolt Brecht, who stressed the artificiality of the theatrical experience,” writes Laura Boyes, Film Curator at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina, in her review of The Lady. “Brecht thought that the spectator should always be aware that he was watching a performance, and not share in the illusion that one was watching an event unfold. Welles hoped for ‘something off-center, queer, strange,’ to give the film a ‘bad dream aspect.’”
For better and for worse there is doubtlessly “something off-center, queer, strange” lurking in the pages of Death in Breslau, but in its worst moments, it unfolds like a forced repeat performance, an unsuccessful revival. It is definitely worth a look, but one’s valuable time might be better spent with the talents who inspired this adventure.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
Salon is proud to feature content from The Los Angeles Review of Books, a multimedia literary and cultural arts magazine that uses the evolving technologies of the Web to reinvent the great American tradition of serious book reviewing. LARB is a community of writers, critics, journalists, artists, filmmakers, and scholars
dedicated to promoting and disseminating the best that is thought and written, with an enduring commitment to the intellectual rigor, the incisiveness, and the power of the written word.