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Title: The Occupation Of A Bourgeois Genre
Author: Peter Märthesheimer, 1974

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The Occupation Of A Bourgeois Genre

Peter Märthesheimer



For some time there has been a marked tendency in television for the culture industry to standardise and serialise all its productions; even those which are clearly autonomous works of art tend to be labelled with the series rubric of 'The Autonomous Work of Art'. This development began with the importation from the advanced television countries the USA and England - of popular series for the early evening and then for peak - viewing programming too. But soon we too learnt how to produce our own series or rather to somewhat violently clamp together programmes which were quite disparate in form and content with common labels ('The location film', 'The studio film', 'The Monday play', or even for example'The Scene of the Crime'). The reasons for this are only partly to be found on the production side, the production of a series being relatively more economical than the production of plays. In the first place the series (whether it is the Western which only varies in minor details, the high-quality paperback, or the television series in several parts) has an advantage on the distribution side; even the cheapest and best product and the most relevant and most interesting television programme must first of all make a name for itself if it is to attract attention at all. This is achieved most easily if it is something blatantly familiar to the public - like a western, a high-quality paperback or a television series- If they watch the first five episodes then they will continue to watch the next eight.
It is in the Third Channel, which has shunned the world of commerce; that television most often displays its non-domestic potential for imaginative and creative uniqueness. Television lost its purity some time ago in the majority of its programmes and adjusted to the commerical mechanisms which came into play from the day the two channels began to compete with each other for viewers. Consequently this readjustment constituted an attempt to reach as many viewers as possible, for television was established from the start as a mass medium, its total technical range being closely linied to demand. In its efforts to create an audience for itself, television is of course dealing with an intrinsic characteristic which distinguishes it qualitatively from other media. A film can still be seen in the cinema three days after the première, a novel can still be bought three years after its appearance. Television, on the other hand, lives only through the transient minutes of its programmes, which only exist for the short duration of their transmission and generally cannot be repeated, and if they are, already seem dated. Television is forced, more than other media, to make its precise and ever new productions appear to have continuity and above all familiarity for the public, in order to have them on its side. It is easier to win people over to one's side if they think their interests are represented: 'their' master of ceremonies or 'their' star is appearing; a quiz programme is shown in which, without fail, the same questions are always put, always eliciting the same responses; a thriller is put on where the hero hunts down different criminals using different ruses and yet one is led to suspect that it is basically no different from the last one; finally there is the family series, the characters being so familiar to the viewers after the first episode that they not only know their problems but also the very way in which they will solve them.
The objectives of programmes which are to be accessible to the viewers inevitably work against themselves. When a programme succeeds in winning over the viewers, it is promptly appropriated by them and furthermore they actually control it - it has to surrender itself to them. As a mass medium television is constantly exposed to the temptation of subjecting its programmes to the law of the majority and creating a level of consensus. If one defines a 'borderline viewer' as the person whom television can still just about reach without sacrificing a certain level of quality in the programmes, the question arises whether the quality level should not be lowered in order to reach the last possible viewer whose level of reception then determines the programme. Serialising a programme is only part of this attempt to reach the largest possible audience. It is particularly in the series that television has always up until now lowered its standards so strikingly. This cannot be explained purely by the quantity of viewers. Reasons for this drop in quality must be found in the genre itself; a genre which has to be as familiar to its public as a series (and the so called 'family series' even more so), can for a short time avoid the demands of its fans, but it seems that sooner or later, it must succumb to their embrace.

'Eight Hours Are Not a Day'

The series Eight Hours Are Not a Day, conceived of from the beginning by Rainer Werner Fassbinder together with WDR, gave itself coyly (bearing in mind the dialectic intrinsic in a series) just like some young girl. Of course it did not want to remain quite unloved, it wanted to flirt with the favour of the people; it did not want to surrender, but then again it wanted to be desired. This conflict expressed itself clearly not only in some of the peripheral characters, for example, in Aunt Clara, the stereotype of the comic old spinster or in Mr Meier, the stereotype of the subordinate official, but also in the central figures like Grandma and Gregor, who in their splendid rarity leave no doubt that they have escaped straight from a farce and would not be dissuaded from introducing its devices and techniques even into the serious world of a working-class family. The dramatic strategy of the series is most clearly recognisable in the behaviour of Grandma and Gregor, which appears eccentric and extravagant. In the genre of the bourgeois farce or comedy, the technique of which they so dramatically exploit, Oma and Gregor would have remained comparatively inconspicuous. They only become so striking because the forms of expression which formerly belonged to the bourgeois and petit bourgeois milieu are in Eight Hours introduced for the first time into the proletarian milieu, and with these forms stories are told in a completely different way. This transplantation has two advantages - one of aesthetic effect: how the characters behaved was very striking, 'distanciated' against the given background; the other of ideology: the apparently unlimited scope for action and behaviour which bourgeois culture allows its heroes in the novel, the theatre and even in the family series, addicted to eclecticism and the cult of the private, offers an effective lever to make problematic the established, regimented and constrained working-class milieu.

The Bird's Eye View of Films About the Working Class

Films about the working class which had previously appeared on television, despite all differences in content and actual forms of presentation, can be distinguished by a common ideological view of milieu and characters. The milieu was portrayed as grey, sad and cheerless, especially the work situation, which was depicted as totally unbearable and inhuman yet essentially unchangeable. The characters were conclusively part of this bird's eye view, which was compassionate and sympathetic but in reality must have appeared arrogant at times from the victim's point of view; deprived and resigned human beings, objects and victims of a social situation which presented itself through the alleged stasis as a natural condition against which it seemed from the beginning pointless to rebel. And for those who dared to rebel in these films, perhaps out of sheer foolhardiness, failure was so absolutely certain that change for a worker was inconceivable.

The New Position: The Reality Which Can Be Changed

Thus from the beginning Eight Hours Are Not a Day was intended to create an alternative to the simple assumption that the worker is not only the, 'underdog' of this society, but must inevitably remain so. Certainly the workers are the negroes, on whose bones this society reproduces itself; certainly the official nomenclature is correct in labelling the workers as 'dependents", and certainly this dependence has an effect on the consciousness of the victims, which at times is as pitiful as the conditions from which it emerges. Yet the tendency to be limited to reproducing and repeating what has been found to be the case suppresses the contradictions inherent in relations which are not just conditions but processes, to which human beings are not simply subjected but which they keep in motion, whether through resistance or through initiative. Eight Hours Are Not a Day has thus provided its characters with qualities which general opinion formerly had not wanted to acknowledge in proletarian characters and which are rather carefully sketched: self-confidence, activity, tenacity, courage, smartness, cunning - qualities which one needs and must develop all the more if one's social situation is difficult. Furthermore this series made available to its workers actions and experiences which up to now had seemed to belong to the catalogue of behaviour and experience of another social group. So the workers in Eight Hours are actually interested in their work instead of just confronting it with disgust and suffering; they have happy experiences; they actually reflect on their living conditions and how they could improve them; they actually try to settle a conflict for themselves and sometimes they are even successful, or slightly successful. Eight Hours Are Not a Day is made as if workers are not mere objects of history, but could also be its subjects, as if they are not subjected to blind fate, but could take fate into their own hands.

Bourgeois Freedom in the Proletarian Milieu: the Proletarian Hero

Formerly the bourgeoisie had always seen itself as the sole subject of the history of bourgeois society, and consequently this was also reflected in bourgeois culture, which was concerned incessantly with its own kind in its novels, plays, films and also in its television series. The open and excessive rage which occasionally met Eight Hours can only be explained in this context. Clearly our characters have here stepped into alien territory; a playground of bourgeois freedoms, which until now seemed to be reserved for the bourgeois individual, as though the demand of this society had not taken into account the development of every individual. The reaction must have appeared all the more vehement because the bourgeoisie had already related its final family histories with Buddenbrooks or Debit and Credit, of which it could still be proud, and ever since has reflected more and more its decline and uncertainty. This social disorientation has found its most concrete expression in the family series, and there the former proud claim to be master of history has totally declined into the helpless and pointless struggle to remain master of a pitiful private destiny in the middle of an impenetrable and overwhelming world. Jochen and Marion and the other working-class characters who suddenly occupy this playground with such naïvety as if the world belonged to them are, through this behaviour, imitating nothing more than the proud conduct of the former bourgeoisie. And as this playground has been vacated for some time by their predecessors, it offers an excellent opportunity to slide into the old behavioural patterns and to test them out in a new world. This world, introduced into the genre by Eight Hours, was certainly one which encouraged an analysis of reality and was not the world of the private pseudo-conflicts which had previously dominated the genre and which were basically only an expression of the socially diffuse position of the petit bourgeoisie and its shaky, ill-defined and uncommitted consciousness.
The only interesting family series to have come out of the petit bourgeois milieu are those where the characters have emerged as socially critical liberals, who do not so much gaze at their own private navels as at socially relevant problems. The characters of Eight Hours were from the start at an advantage, taking into account incidentally the difficulties of attempting to be socially useful in the interests of others (because one's own interests are so difficult to define due to the heterogeneous nature of social grouping). The interests they fought for always represented the majority position as well as their own; they could thus act in solidarity, because 'solidarity' is not a foreign word to their class, but derives from the situation which is fundamentally common to them all, and to a great extent is perceived as such from the start and so may easily be made problematic. This had frequently been depicted in other films, namely the traditional films about the working class. What was new about Eight Hours was that the two concepts were brought together: the proletarian milieu on the one hand and the bourgeois hero on the other, a sociologically clearly definable social class and a fictional character whose very mode of behaviour had up until now always been attributed to another class.

The Didactic Effect of the Series

The contradiction intrinsic in this perspective, which the critics quite succinctly labelled as 'painted proletarians', in the first instance proved to be extremely productive (its limitations will be discussed later) as far as the possible didactic effect of the series goes. Learning through television is certainly a very complex process which is difficult to measure in any case, especially when the teaching material is an entertaining family series. It is probable that the mode of behaviour attributed to a popular and familiar character in a series requires from the start a relatively high degree of attentiveness. This attentiveness will probably be greater the more clearly the behaviour is perceived as something irregular, abnormal and unconventional, which nevertheless stimulates identifications or, further still, discussion. It may provoke discussion about those aspects of identification (how one once wanted to be and yet was not; how one should have liked to have acted and yet did not) and so this is made problematic and thereby requires examination. It was this critical relation to reality in Eight Hours which constituted the interest for the viewers (who watched faithfully for the five episodes of the series despite the attractive alternative offerings on the other channel, ZDF), because here reality was depicted - through the deviant and non-conformist behaviour.of the characters - as something which could be changed, provoking thought instead of reproducing yet again what exists in its apparently overwhelming entirety; because identical human behaviour was presented in a world intent on obstructing such behaviour, if not bent on its destruction; because here was being affirmed the refusal to endlessly adapt - for a limited time at any rate - when it would have been better to apply the principles of realism; because a direction which had been considered correct was not denounced as incorrect merely because it proved to be difficult to achieve.

The Limitations of this Perspective

Eight Hours Are Not a Day represented the first stages in establishing a working-class series on television reaching a public who would like to avoid confronting its own problems, meeting the representation of itself with disinterest and apathy - the numbers of those who switch on pertinent films being only too clear evidence of this. Eight Hours could only take this first step because it takes up the offensive at the same time as it retreats, in as far as the position of the proletariat is presented by a basically bourgeois character. This device, although necessary in view of the inarticulateness and powerlessness of the workers themselves, whose social position does not tolerate the self-confident hero made possible by the range in the arsenal of characters of the genre, at the same time points to the limitations of such a perspective. It has been criticised, not without justification, for the 'upright stature' of its characters, now and then exhibiting modes of behaviour which were 'individualistic and competitive' or 'hostile to organisation' - just those characteristics which they had of necessity acquired through borrowing from the bourgeois hero and which are now a hindrance. If the first five episodes of Eight Hours have succeeded nevertheless in making the figure of the 'proletarian hero' plausible in the consciousness of the public, if the resistance to a working-class series has been reduced a little with this first attempt, then one can more easily think afresh about how the proletariat could be more realistically portrayed from its own position.

Peter Märthesheimer, (from Fernseh und Bildung, no. 13, I 974; translation by Scilla Alvarado)