representation of ruins: epistemological uncertainty and material vitality
It is commonly agreed that cinema offers new modes of temporality, including the repetition of time. Likewise, ruins—with a help of the imagination—invite their visitors to traverse time and travel to the past without leaving the present. A variety of aesthetic strategies to call attention to the ruins via film attest to the possibility of cinematic mediations of both: process of ruination and traces of the catastrophic past. Not only do filmic representations of ruinous remnants can record transient durational moments, they can also work as material connections that link the spectator of ruinous sites to the past. In other words, images of ruins represent and activate temporalities as complex as those of the cinema with the ability to reverse linearity of time and trigger the spectators political imagination.
Besides conceptual similarities between film and ruin, ruinous things and sites attract post-socialist filmmakers’ interests also due to exceptional cinema’s abilities to direct the spectator's gaze towards the material remnants by projecting them for the alternative spectator's experience of history. In his essay, "Ruin Cinema” Johannes Von Moltke offers a study of the link between film spectatorship and ruin travel suggesting that “the century-long obsession of cinema with the image of ruins, [...] is but the visible manifestation of cinema’s and the ruin’s common function to visualize history in modernity.” (Von Moltke, in: Julia Hell and Andreas Schönle eds. Ruins of Modernity, 397). As Von Moltke writes, "[s]low, ostentatious camera movements, long takes and contemplative viewing are the key devices of the cinematic ruin aesthetics”. (Von Moltke, 399) What in this chapter I call ruin aesthetics is, therefore, post-socialist cinema’s realist attitude to the socialist materiality that is dysfunctional or in a state of decay. Beyond the conceptualization of cinema under the banner of ontology—as, for instance, it is scrutinized in André Bazin’s influential works—I also discuss ruin aesthetics from the perspective of philosophy of history. In other words, in addition to the classical statements that the film style most suited for realistic imprint of material change can be recognized in attempts to capture ruination on film, I suggest to explore a link between cinema and ruin that goes beyond ontological questions and is based on the study of affective impact on understanding a particular transitory time in history of Eastern European countries. Films that depict ruinous remnants of the socialist matter (infrastructures and their components) make us to recall the particular time between 1988 and 2000, when the Communist era falls apart and "[h]istory breaks down into images, not into stories” (Buck-Morss, 2000, 68). The post-socialist films challenge the linear nature of the shared narrative of the transnational past by employing material images to reflect the crisis of the idea of progress after the fall of the Soviet Union. As Georges Simmel has pointed out, ruination can inflict negatively on the mnemonic capacity of things for humans, but—what I want to emphasize in this Chapter—its representation in post-socialist films does not result in mnemonic oblivion per se. Images of ruination in post-socialist films—I suggest via DeSilvey—can be seen as a mode of disclosure or revelation, and thus a form of recovering or bringing forth new or different memories (DeSilvey, 2006, 335-336). Therefore, in parallel to the psychoanalytical reading of the ruin imagery that treats ruins as a symptom of trauma or epistemological crisis, in this chapter I propose to focus on the affectual agency of the ruins exposed cinematically. In audiovisual culture, the ruin aesthetics has been applied to represent a broad scope of emotions, including anxiety, chaos, horror, shame and the sublime. In what follows, thus, by focusing on select examples I attempt to consider for what purposes, in addition to exposing film's indexical and symbolic properties, ruin imagery of post-socialist films represents the act of ruination of the material world as well what implications it has on the spectator's alternative treatment of history.
The films I explore in this chapter focus on communist spaces and things undergoing material changes in post-communist times. The ruin in these films is not just an index of the shift to the market economy and its accompanying crisis of industry, but it serves also as a mark for a temporality of different scale that juxtapose human history to the non-human centered history.
As I show in the analysis of Aleksandr Sokurov's Second Circle a stylistic focus on thingness of stranded objects unsettles the spectator and inflicts contemplation of life and death. One could see the film revealing an autonomous life of things embedded in their own time that defamiliarize and conquers the human death. The death of the fatherly regime of the Soviet Union, opens a new vision of the world.
As I show in the analysis of The End of the Road (directed by Marina Rabezkhina) and Damnation (directed by Bella Tarr), Soviet trauma and crisis of transition in some of these films are considered as an ecological harm that cannot be apprehended looking from human perspective.
Therefore, I argue that the ruin not only symbolizes the epistemological crisis, but also bears its own vitality and in turn affects the spectator, in ways that are extra-discursive. Paraphrasing Steven Shaviro, in these films we "respond viscerally to visual forms, before having the leisure to read or interpret them as symbols.” (Shaviro, 1994, 27) Thus, without devaluing how representations of things and sites can be, and often are intentionally deployed to act as mediums for commemoration, or lieux de mémoire, to use the term coined by Pierre Nora, through the analysis of select post-socialist films, I want to emphasize how things in the state of decay or ruination are represented being in power of their own durability and affects.