Brechtian critiques / A Model Family in a Model Home (Zoe Beloff, 2015)

20 Aug, 22

“The motive for realism is never confirmation of reality but protest.”Alexander Kluge, “The Sharpest Ideology: That Reality Appeals to its Realistic Character” (trans. David Roberts), Alexander Kluge. Raw Materials for the Imagination, ed. Tara Forest (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012), p. 192.

“The situation is complicated by the fact that less than ever does a simple ‘reproduction of reality’ tell us anything about reality”, writes Bertolt Brecht in 1931. “A photograph of the Krupps factory or of the AEG yields practically nothing about these institutions. The genuine reality has slipped into the functional. The reification of human relations, the factory say, no longer gives out these relations. Hence it is in fact ‘something to construct’, something ‘artificial’, ‘posited’. Hence in fact art is necessary.” This often-quoted statement shows that realism, in its Marxian sense, exceeds the mere question of style: it is considered a fundamental political, philosophical and artistic attitude which not only fosters awareness of the very constitution of reality, but also constitutes a moment in the dialectics of emancipation from domination. Understanding reality as it truly is, uncovering the ideological veil that obscures the reigning underlying power structures, is considered the basis of the battle against the capitalist order and the maintenance of the status quo of oppression. What is at stake in this realism is thus the very problem of reality itself, as well as the relation between reality, artistic production and the latter’s potential to mobilise the public in order to engage in a course of political action.

But how is it possible to penetrate both conceptually and artistically into the complex constitution of a profoundly alienated reality? What kind of awareness can an artwork produce? How should the content and the form of an artwork relate to each other? Which position should the artist adopt towards the reality at stake and the spectator? From where does the artist draw the authority to outline what should be considered authentically real? And what gives him or her the authority for a call to action?
click here to read Stefanie Baumann’s full text “Prisms of Realism. On the Question of Emancipation and Authority in Art (Lukács, Brecht, Adorno, Kluge)”
first published in Revista Constellazioni n.4: Il realism nelle arti (e altrove), éd. Pietro Montani, 2017

A Model Family in a Model Home or a Tale of Fictitious Capital
Zoe Beloff
I am an artist and filmmaker. I think of my work as a process of drawing timelines between past and present that might help us imagine a future against the grain of reactionary ideology. For me the best place to start is with fragments: ideas cut short, abandoned, victims of forces beyond their control, forces of culture, politics and economics.

I find myself drawn back to a certain time in history, roughly from the 1920s through the 1940s. I believe we can learn from the work of artists and filmmakers who attempted to communicate with a mass audience in a way that was both critical of the status quo and optimistic in that they wanted to show that things can be other than they are.
It was during the economic crisis of 2008 that I started to think that Brecht’s writing might help us understand what was going on. And it seemed to me here in the United States that the best place to look to him for guidance was in Los Angeles. As I researched his work in Hollywood, I became intrigued by his sketches for films that he had not been able to realize. One in particular caught my attention, A Model Family. Only a few typed notes and some scrawled notebook entries remain. Brecht based his idea on an article in Life magazine from 1941, “A Model Family in a Model Home,” that describes how an Ohio farm family won a prize, a week in a model home at the State Fair. The drawback was that the home was open to the public twelve hours a day. I felt that its themes, architecture as a representation of social and economic relations, surveillance, spectacle and the commodification of family life resonated in our century.

Brecht’s work in Hollywood has often been considered a failure. On the contrary, I would like to suggest that his ideas were merely lying in wait for us. I imagined how interesting it would have been if Brecht had had the opportunity to make a film about ordinary working people in the Midwest, then it dawned on me that since he did not have the opportunity to realize his vision, it was up to me. Rather than create a pastiche of a film he might have written, my task would be to make his project relevant today. In this essay, I will discuss Brecht’s notes as a starting point for my own film and consider how an unfinished work, even the barest literary fragment, can be a productive entry point. This way of working shows us how history itself is open to change always in relation to our present circumstances. The very fact that I was working with a fragment required active participation on my part. I could not simply illustrate but had to speculate and improvise. There was no fixed structure, no narrative closure. Indeed many different filmmakers could each make their own very different film based on the same material.

Out of the many scenarios that Brecht sketched out while in Los Angeles only one film, Hangmen Also Die, was actually completed. Of course the film industry was and is a for-profit machine. But nonetheless Brecht never took the elitist position that the radical and the popular are antithetical. On the contrary, I would argue, Brecht’s interaction with the central engine of American popular culture, the Hollywood Studios, was itself a political project. Even though he was in exile desperately trying to earn enough money to keep himself and his family going, he refused to do hack work just to pay the bills. While the studio executives talked about “catering to an audience,” that is dumbing things down to the lowest common denominator, Brecht wanted to do something much harder. He aimed to engage their audience but also invite them to think. Brecht put it clearly in his essay “Against Georg Lukács,” where he wrote that one must not assume what ordinary people like and want, one must not second-guess their taste.[1] It is these kinds of assumptions that keep working people oppressed in the first place. He saw no contradiction between being popular and radical. And it is this idea that I think we need to hold on to today.

[1] Brecht explains that ordinary people must now be the subjects not the objects of politics and it is condescending to make assumptions about who they are and how they think. This is one of the reasons I use home movies, I want to incorporate how people represent themselves. “Against Georg Lukács,” in Aesthetics and Politics, trans. Stuart Hood (London: Verso, 1977), 80-81.

Brecht took Hollywood cinema seriously. Living in Los Angeles he sometimes went to two matinees a day and thought that gangster films were the best documentary representation of American life[2]. When he incorporated popular culture into his own work, it was not to wrest it away from its roots but to make it more interesting and thought provoking. Cinema is a medium that is accessible and affordable to almost everyone. He was an enormous admirer of Chaplin and indeed one can imagine his sketch for A Model Family as a comedy about one family’s adventure at the State Fair where everything goes wrong!
From the beginning I conceived of Brecht not as a master to be emulated but as a collaborator and comrade across time. To work with his ideas I had to take on several roles. On the one hand I was the ventriloquist or medium through which his concepts might be realized. On the other hand, I felt it important to be the “bad” student, someone who talks back and thinks for myself, always aware of the great distance between us.

[2] James K. Lyon, Bertolt Brecht in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 56.

I wanted to make this relationship clear within my own film, a cinema essay that explicates Brecht’s ideas and then follows their lead from the 1940s to the present day. There are always two voices in dialog: that of the narrator, that is myself, and Brecht’s own voice. The film opens with a prolog. Brecht is explaining his relationship with the film industry to the committee at the HUAC hearings. The viewer hears his voice but sees a series of drawings that look like those of a court reporter. Of course I am that reporter. I could have chosen to use archival footage. But I decided not to. Archival film can too easily create the illusion of real presence. It gives the audience the illusion that they are there, when they are not. Drawing in contrast is clearly partial, subjective and incomplete. In reality I as the director can only convey the events second hand, and what is shown is clearly my interpretation.

[3] Ronald Hayman, Bertolt Brecht: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 116.

Accused of making revolutionary works, Brecht describes himself simply as a playwright and poet. He is both introducing himself to the panel led by J Parnell Thomas and introducing himself across time to a contemporary audience who at least in America may well never have heard of him. It is important to me not to assume the audience comes with insider knowledge. I aimed to emulate Brecht’s down-to-earth approach to a project. He wanted to invite his audience to think about the situations he depicted, calmly and objectively. He wanted to re- present everyday life to us in such a way that we could understand how economic forces shape our lives. He thought that a newspaper report was the best model for dialog and dramatic action [3]. But that didn’t mean that the film should be dry or dull. He believed in creating a montage of disparate elements so that the audience could look at a subject from different points of view. His co-writer on Hangmen also Die, John Wesley, recalled that Brecht wanted to incorporate film clips, posters, songs and even a chorus into his Hollywood films.4 In the spirit of a movie that celebrates everyday life, I constructed my entire film in the vernacular format of the twentieth century 16mm, incorporating drawings, home movies, newsreels, instructional and promotional films, so that A Model Family in a Model Home is itself a “home movie” about a home.

Part One introduces the audience to Brecht’s thoughts on American architecture, in which he describes Los Angeles as a city of gleaming facades that hide something much darker. We see home movies of Hollywood: hotels, shiny cars, mansions, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the studios in gorgeous super-saturated Kodachrome, but at the same time I wanted to show through the voice-over that Brecht’s years of exile taught him to sense impermanence everywhere. We hear him read his poem “On thinking about Hell:”

The houses in Hell, too, are not all ugly.
But the fear of being thrown onto the street
Wears down the inhabitants of the villas no less than The
inhabitants of the shanty towns [5]

[5] Brecht, Poems 1938 – 1956, edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim (London: Eyre Methuen, 1976), 367.

He ends with a line from his journals, “The landscape here lies behind plate glass and I involuntarily look for a little price tag on this chain of hills or that lemon tree. I also look for the price tag on people…”[6] These words introduce the key themes of the film, that in America everything and everyone is for sale and one’s home is only as solid as one’s last paycheck.

[6] Brecht, Journals 1934-1955, edited by John Willett, trans. Hugh Rorrison (New York: Routledge, 1993), 193.

The second part of the film, titled Reconstruction, begins after Brecht leaves the United States. I, the narrator, explain that today it us up to us to realize Brecht’s unfinished scenarios. He is represented here as a ventriloquist’s doll, “Little Bertie,” so that it is clear that I am the one putting words in his mouth. The sequence opens with Bertie relaxing in the garden reading Life magazine. A story catches his eye, “A Model Family in a Model Home.” The article in Life was a report on the residency of the Frank Engel family in a model home at the State Fair. The Engels hailed from Berlin Ohio and were the proud winners of a competition for “Ohio’s most typical farm family,” sponsored by the local newspaper the Columbus Dispatch. The only drawback was that the model home was open to the public who marched through their living quarters from dawn to dusk. Brecht imagined what might have been the result; family quarrels, smashed furniture, and a divorce.

Brecht read Life not only to improve his English but also to learn about the American way of life. Living in Los Angeles, reading the popular press, he must have been well aware of the public’s fascination with the very American ideal of the “model home” that burned most brightly in the illumination of movie-star mansions by Hollywood’s glamour magazines. While these homes were far beyond the reach of ordinary people, the magazines would also include set designers’ tips on home decoration aimed at the middle-class housewife [7]. While Brecht’s compatriot Douglas Sirk would go on to reveal these palatial homes as “both throne room and torture chamber,” to use Walter Benjamin’s evocative phrase, of the American haute bourgeoisie, Brecht himself chose to focus instead on the “aspirational home” of the worker [8]. The one in question, illustrated in Life, could be purchased for just $4,000.

[7] See Amy Lawrence, “Trapped in a Tomb of Their Own Making: Max Ophuls’s The Reckless Moment and Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow,” in Film Criticism 23, no. 2/3 (1999).
[8] Thus Walter Benjamin describes the photographer’s studio at the end of the nineteenth century with the oppressive draperies and painted backdrops, but the ornate Hollywood studio sets of the 1940s and 50s could equally well fall into this category of faux opulence. See Walter Benjamin, One Way Street and Other Writing, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (London: Verso, 1985), 24.

A Model Family is in part about the nightmare of visibility. Life described the Engel family stay in the model home thus: “the mere business of living was a domestic strip tease.”9 Brecht must have sympathized. He was well aware that, as an “enemy alien,” he himself was being monitored by the FBI.10 However I do not think that surveillance was his central interest in this story. While I am sure he understood how disconcerting it was to find oneself on a kind of stage, forced to perform one’s own life for an endless series of spectators that traipsed through the living room and stared in the kitchen window, I do not think he was interested in using the story to make a statement on the prurient interests of the public or the exhibitionism of ordinary people. Quite the contrary, Brecht did not want to sensationalize working people or turn them into objects of ridicule. If he imagined that the Engel family destroyed everything including themselves as a family, it was for a different reason. And to understand this, I would have to learn more.

[9] Life, September 15, 1941, 42.
[10] Lyon, Bertolt Brecht in America, 36.

[11] In his HUAC testimony Brecht is asked about his visits to Moscow. He replies, “I was invited to show a picture, a documentary picture I had helped make in Berlin.” Mr. Stripling asks him for the name of the picture. He replies, “The name – it is the name of a suburb of Berlin, Kuhle Wampe.” https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Brecht_HUAC_hearing_(1947-10-30)_transcript (accessed January 12, 2017).

It was important for me not only to reconstruct the story Brecht wanted to tell but to imaginatively reconstruct his working methods, how he would prepare and go about presenting the story so that it would include ordinary working people at every stage of its construction. So there is no simple demarcation between documentary and drama. Brecht alludes to the idea of the staged documentary in his HUAC testimony when he mentions that he made a documentary in Germany [11]. He is referring to Kuhle Wampe or Who Owns the World, which, although it was staged, clearly documents the economic crisis. To document for Brecht was not simply to film life unfolding in front of the camera, but rather to use this as a starting point to analyze the economic and political forces at work so people can understand why.

I imagined how he would have tried to learn everything he could about the American farm family so that he could show actors how to represent them. Following Brecht’s discovery of the story, the next sequence in my film shows a home movie made by an Ohio farm family proudly documenting themselves at work and play; feeding chickens, milking cows, plowing the fields with an old car. A woman swings from a branch, family and friends picnic by the lake, grilling sausages and toasting the cameraman with beers. This is not the Engel family. But that is not important. What is important is that the family present their lives for themselves and their friends, an affectionate self-portrait in stark contrast to the objectification the Engel family experienced at the State Fair as they posed for Alfred Eisenstaedt, Life magazine’s staff photographer, and the passing throngs of spectators.

The following sequence also comes from a home movie from the same period in Ohio, close-ups of ordinary people posed simply against a curtain. Old and young face the camera with humor, reluctance or downright grumpiness. I suggest it could be a local casting call and I wrote the narration based on Brecht’s ideas about casting: “How to behave in front of the camera, how to project the text is something that can be taught. I want show that interestingness of the actor depends on the interest he brings to the social phenomena that he is concerned with in his acting. The audience watching people like themselves can judge the American family rationally and impartially.”[12]

[12] Brecht, Journals 1934-1955, 284.

But how would Brecht have analyzed the situation of the model family trapped in the model home for all to see? Since his short scenario provided only a few clues, I set out to research the story myself. Only after discovering more about the actual events at the Ohio State Fair did his notes began to make sense to me. Alfred Eisenstaedt took almost a hundred photographs of the event. Brecht saw only the ones that were published in the magazine. I was able to review all the outtakes as well. I read articles and advertisements published in the Columbus Dispatch, the newspaper that sponsored the competition.

It became very clear that The Model Family in the Model Home was a marketing ploy. The Columbus Dispatch ran lengthy articles about all of the companies that built and furnished the home. Everything in the house had a large price tag affixed to it. The lamps were still wrapped in cellophane.
A lady in a white coat, the “home economist,” demonstrated the latest kitchen appliances to Mrs. Engel and the passing multitudes. The photographs made concrete – in the most literal way – what Brecht had already observed about life in Los Angeles, that everything, even people, comes with a price tag attached. In contrast to the freewheeling home movies of the Ohio farm family of the previous sequence, here the film presents a selection of the Eisenstaedt photographs, which are carefully framed and set up. Here the family members are simply objects among other objects.

The competition held out the promise that “Ohio’s Most Typical Farm Family” would be honored at the State Fair. Instead they were simply used as living advertisements. Their job was to move the merchandise. It was hard unpaid labor. The intimacy of family life was just one more commodity that was on view. I imagine that Brecht wanted to show that it was against this alienation that the family rebelled, destroying not only the model home but themselves as a model family. They simply refused to be exploited.

To bring Brecht’s notes to life, my film returns to “Little Bertie” the ventriloquist’s doll. Himself a model, this time he’s looking at an architectural model of the model home. He peers in the windows excited by the sounds of smashing pots pans and furniture declaring, “For the first time they do not follow the script…They break the rules. They cannot, they will not, play the role of Model Family. They tear off their blue ribbons, the same ones awarded to prize livestock. In an act of desperation they turn on the Model Home where everything is for sale… From wreckage can something new begin… Yes! A Battlefield… everyone runs amok… A scene of destruction: a demolished living room, a letter from a divorce lawyer, a frazzled lady’s hat.”
I want to show that he respected working people and believed that against all odds they had the courage to challenge injustice.

[13] On his arrival in Los Angeles Brecht wrote “Almost nowhere has my life ever been harder than here in this mausoleum of easy going. The house is too pretty and my profession is gold- digging.” Next to this text he pasted a picture of air-force bombers that were being shipped to Britain. See Bertolt Brecht, Journals 1934-1955, 157.

Throughout the film, I inserted shards of World War II newsreel, a reminder that while the Engel family captivated the readers of Life, war raged across Europe. Studying copies of the Columbus Dispatch it became clear that the heightened promotion around the State Fair was part of a collective psychic drive to block out, at all cost, the horror that was engulfing the rest of the world. In fact on the first day of the fair the newspaper stamped a map of Ohio, with a cornucopia spilling out of it, over almost the entire front page, blocking out articles about the World War including a report of the siege of Leningrad. Again I took my cue from Brecht. Even when he did not write about the war, his journals were full of photographs of the conflict overseas ripped from the newspapers. Indeed I believe that this irreconcilable split was in part the reason that Brecht hated America. With Europe and Russia plunged into hell, how could Santa Monica be so pleasant? It seemed indecent, utterly wrong.[13]

However the core of my film, the real conflict introduced by the events at the State Fair, revolves around the economics of home ownership. Brecht left the country in 1947 at the very inception of the postwar housing boom. One could say that the marketing of mass-produced suburban homes to ordinary Americans began with competitions like the one that staged the event “A Model Family in The Model Home.”

Part three of my film, titled “Socialism or Capitalism?,” presents the economic choices that faced rural Americans at the time when Brecht was writing in the 1940s. Without commentary, I present two films that make this choice starkly apparent. By the People, For the People, produced by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, shows socialism in action. Farmers form cooperatives to bring electricity to rural America. The film shows neighborhood meetings where farmers debate ways and means of putting this new idea to work. They sign up for membership. In cooperatives farmers own their electricity, run their own companies and are not beholden to commercial interests.

The second film, Homes Unlimited: A Tale of Free American Enterprise, produced by the National Homes Corporation, a company that built prefabricated houses, presents the capitalist model. The film’s idealized vision of home ownership is clearly inspired by the motion pictures of Hollywood. Accompanied by a lush orchestral score, a young couple peruse photographs in a real estate office. A family enters a perfectly furnished ranch house for the first time. The narrator explains how individual home ownership benefits business.

I present these two films not as historical facts but as potentials that for a moment in the 1940s could have led in different directions. Of course we know the outcome. Americans overwhelmingly chose individual home ownership. In the final part of the film, “Fictitious Capital,” set in 2015, we see the results.

My narration explains how in the capitalist model, homes have not only use value but exchange value. Home-ownership becomes a form of saving for the people in them, an asset. But over the last thirty or forty years home-ownership has become a form of speculation. In the twenty-first century, finance has evolved. Today’s model home is constructed with what Marx called “fictitious capital,” that is money that is produced purely thorough the manipulation of assets by various financial instruments, that includes bundling mortgages and selling risk. The credit system manages production and demand. The banks fund the developers to build the subdivisions. The developers need a market so the financiers lend money to families to buy their houses. And because they regulate supply and demand they can also manipulate prices and in the case that all the homes are foreclosed on they still make profits off the fees.

The film shows how the landscape of the rural Mid-West has changed since 1941. Giant malls with big box stores have replaced local merchants that furnished the model home. The city sprawls into the country, the farm home has been eaten up by the subdivision.
The housing crisis of 2008 was caused by uncontrolled speculation that led to massive foreclosures. Ordinary people lost upwards of forty billion dollars in assets. Six million lost their homes. The film shows what happened in Missouri. The film documents what are technically known as “zombie subdivisions.” Not subdivisions taken over by blood-sucking zombies, but subdivisions that were foreclosed on or never finished, where forlorn street lamps stand beside unfinished streets and grass grows up through the cracks. The film ends with a song “Supply and Demand” from Brecht’s play The Measures Taken, re-written for today. It is sung not by a merchant but by a banker because today it is the bankers who control supply and demand in the housing market. Here is one of the verses:

The market makes it efficient
I found a way there’s nothing to lose The risk has all been traded
Eager buyers took on debt
That debt’s been sold and bundled
If these homes are all foreclosed on
It will not affect me
There are far too many homes anyway
What is a home, actually?
Do I know, do you know,
Don’t ask me my advice
God only knows what a home is I only know its price [14]

[14] Cf. Brecht, The Decision, trans. John Willett, in Collected Plays: Three (London: Methuen Drama, 1997), 77-78. These new lyrics were written by Maggie Carson and Hannah Temple.

By sketching out different forms of ownership my film suggests that housing collapse was not natural or inevitable. And if the present system of finance is not working, ordinary people might be well to decide, like Brecht’s model family, that they have had enough.

I conclude this essay more than a year after the film was completed with some speculations. I began by describing how Brecht’s notes for A Model Family are by necessity incomplete, making them open to change and active collaboration across time.
In his essay On the Concept of History Benjamin described better than anyone how history is not something that is fixed and eternal: “Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing the past ‘the way it really was.’” He passionately declares “that ‘eternal’ past of the historicist” is just sentimental rubbish. The task of the historical materialist is to blast a specific event or work out of time to see and use it anew[15]. He invites us to rethink history as an act of liberation, to proceed in the spirit of irreverence. The present can redeem the past. The failures of revolutions past can become the not yet of their present or future fulfillment.

[15] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 4 (1938–1940), edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press Harvard, 1996-2003), 391, 396.

But on a much darker note, we only have to look around us to see the past rise up. I write this now on the eve of Trump’s inauguration. His slogan, “make America great again,” puts this very succinctly. But just when was America great and great for whom? Will he drag the country back to the Jim Crow era, segregation, and anti-Semitism? The New York Times has a new weekly column titled This Week in Hate documenting the outpouring of hate crimes since the election. Swastikas are everywhere it seems.
Yes, the ghosts of the past are not dead and as they walk amongst us they have very real effects. Perhaps notes and fragments that are incomplete and provisional are the most honest way to represent just how much history is a contested territory. In this spirit I think of my film as a critique of documentary practice. In a conventional historical documentary, archival footage is used to illustrate the narration, to guarantee its veracity. For example, when we see a documentary on World War II with news footage of the invasion on the Normandy beaches and at the same time hear what happened in voice-over, picture and sound are locked in sync. Together they provide closure. Things could not be other than they were. The Nazis lost, the allies won, the images prove it.

In contrast where I use archival footage it is not as “evidence” but rather as different perspectives or lenses through which we can picture the world. I invite the viewer to speculate, to ask questions about what might have been. There was nothing inevitable about the choices people made or will make. Things can always be other than they are.
To come back to the example of World War II, the fascists lost that battle but it didn’t have to turn out that way and their contemporary incarnations on the far right are well on their way to being winners. I am haunted by the specter of Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy’s vicious young henchman who links the communist witch-hunts that forced Brecht out of our country to our present politics. Because as fate would have it, in the 1980s Cohn, in his capacity as Donald Trump’s lawyer and friend, coached him in all the tactics of race-baiting and dirty tricks that he puts into play today [16]. I am also well aware that rural Ohio overwhelmingly supported Trump in this last election and that if I made A Model Family in a Model Home today a year and a half later, my film might be different. I, like Brecht, would have to grapple with how to confront the fact that there are times and places when working people betray their own interests by falling for a swindler and a charlatan.

[16] Jonathan Mahler and Matt Flegenheimer, “What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthy’s Right-Hand Man,” New York Times, June 20, 2016.

Brecht wrote:
For time flows on, and if it did not, it would be a bad prospect for those who do not sit at golden tables. Methods become exhausted; stimuli do not work. New problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change. Nothing comes from nothing; the new comes from the old, but that is why it is new.
To be true to that thought we must re-imagine his work in the light of our present situation; and the unresolved fragments of ideas might be the best place to start.17 I believe that the archive is only there for us to activate and that if we cannot, it is nothing.

17 Brecht, “Against Georg Lukács,” in Aesthetics and Politics, 82.

More information about the larger project A World Redrawn: Eisenstein and Brecht in Hollywood can be found here