Poetics of anguish: cinema and history in Sylvio Back

Image: Joan Miró.


Preface to the recently released book by Rosane Kaminski

In the 1970s, Brazil began to wait for the future, believing in General Ernesto Geisel's promise of "Openness", and trying to find a way out of the historical labyrinth guarded by a dictatorship that seemed to have no end, but which was increasingly questioned by the ordinary citizens. It was in this context, in 1976, that the film Hallelujah, Gretchen, by Sylvio Back, about the saga of a family of German immigrants in southern Brazil who suffered the influences of European and Brazilian history. The final sequence was particularly impressive: the Nazi picnic-carnival, simulacrum of a party for the integration of classes and races, which at the same time celebrated the birth of the Fourth Reich in the tropics.

As a matter of fact, the tropics portrayed in Hallelujah, Gretchen they weren't so tropical. The southern landscapes and photogenic aspects of Back's cinema showed us another Brazil, far from the hinterland / hill that fueled the critical imagination of left-wing artists in the 1960s and 1970s.

It should be remembered that the South had been left out of the imaginary of Brazilianness built in the times of Getúlio Vargas' Estado Novo, the period in which the film began. Vargas, ironically an exemplary son of the Rio Grande do Sul oligarchy, imposed a series of linguistic and cultural restrictions on the German and Italian communities of the South – which became more intense when Brazil declared war on the Axis, in 1942. In the peculiar ideological and affective geography of “national” Brazilianness -popular” on the right (and even on the left, which partly incorporated this cultural figuration), the “vital forces” of the nation were located between the historic Northeast of the sertão and the coastal landscapes, starting with the hills in Rio overlooking the sea, with a touch of romantic remnants from the Amazon jungles.

The rest was considered, by the ideologues of the New State's conservative Brazilianness, either as empty or as foreign pockets in national territory. The Estado Novo decided that it was necessary to march to the West, occupy the “empty places” – to the misfortune of the indigenous people who had been there for centuries – and nationalize the South. The state of São Paulo, home to the captains of industry, the coffee oligarchs, the rural jecas and Italian workers, lent its regional myth – the Bandeirante – to legitimize this movement.

The South was reinvented at this moment, becoming an “other” of Brazilian ideology. From then on, as a social imaginary, the “southerners” were divided between a proud nativism in being different and the critical anguish of not being equal, being frequently seen in this way by the “other” Brazilians.

But the South was also sertão, as much as other Brazils. The imaginary landscape of Cinema Novo films, the essence of an archaic-modern Brazilianness, was also portrayed in Back's cinema, with other lenses and people. Before the reinvention of the foreign South, Brazilianized by forceps in the 1930s, there was a war between sertanejos, landowners and the military, in which, as in the mythical Sertão of Canudos, the end of the world and the beginning of another were announced, beyond geography and of earthly history. The Guerra dos Pelados, better known as Contestado, was also one of the birth certificates of our Republic, uniting the history of the South with the dialectic of Brazil Grande Sertão where, as Roberto Schwarz said, “delay is shame and progress is tragedy”. .

These are the two central films in Sylvio Back's historically themed cinematography – Hallelujah, Gretchen e The War of the Peels – analyzed by Rosane Kaminski, professor at the Department of History at the Federal University of Paraná. Rosane Kaminski constructs a sophisticated analytical look that avoids transforming films into “representations” of history, “expression” of a context or mere “vehicle of the author's ideas”. The films are analyzed based on their mediations with authorship and with the historical material that inspired them, but at the same time taken as works with autonomy and with readings that are not always limited to intentions and context.

From this methodological perspective that renewed film and history studies in Brazil, Rosane Kaminski establishes a critical dialogue with the lineage of studies that begins with Ismail Xavier and that, in the specific field of historical studies, has as its initial references the works of Eduardo Morettin, Claudio Almeida and Alcides Ramos, made throughout the 1990s. Rosane Kaminski's book adds new perspectives, objects and perspectives to this lineage, the result of a transdisciplinary training that includes visual, audiovisual and historiographical studies.

The book is built around two central axes that structure the aforementioned films: historical time “without quality” or without redemption, and power relations (and violence) that reiterate social hierarchies and political immobility. From these categories and their diverse articulations and expressions in terms of film narratives, Rosane extracts the vision of history present in Sylvio Back's work, focused on a critical reflection on the Brazilian historical process, in the South in particular, as well as on the historical process tout court, of a more “universal” character.

The small and remote rural communities in southern Brazil portrayed in the films are crossed by forces that are external to them, both in terms of The War of the Peels how much in Hallelujah, Gretchen. The railroad in the first, symbol of international capitalism, and the Nazis, symbol of the oppression of “eternal fascism”, transhistorical and transnational, DNA of Latin American dictatorships. From these forces, small rural spaces are transformed into microcosms in which there is a clash between archaism and progress, immobility and social changes, oppressive power and resistance. A theorem is set up, perceived by Rosane: violence prevents the realization of the telos historical promise, preventing the passage of time, in the form of Progress or Revolution, from freeing man from obscurantism and oppression. On the other hand, even without pointing out paths or exhorting actions with an easy dramatic solution, Back creates the fictional conditions for a critical look.

Basically, this look, in charge of the spectator guided by the narrative of the films, allows identifying the permanencies and oppressions of various eras, and distrusting the easy future and the simulacra of rupture announced by those in power. This “transhistorical” view of Back is analyzed by Rosane Kaminski from the “filmic specific”, always in comparison with the critical fortune, with the director's lines and with the original script. In this way, the book not only performs an exercise of interpretation of the work from itself, but also offers us a panel of its insertion in concrete and delimited social and cultural circuits.

Back, from Santa Catarina of German and Hungarian descent, who lived and studied in Curitiba, was named “the chief of the South” by Glauber Rocha. This sentence, by the way, can be interpreted from many perspectives, but what matters is that it endorsed its recognition by the “group” of Cinema Novo, which in Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s was not a small thing. In Back's cinema, as Rosane shows us, in addition to the desire to make cinema to understand and change Brazil, many elements coexist: existentialism, Marxism, avant-garde cinema, literature, journalism and history. But, still according to the author, this mixture must be read from a peculiar spice: anguish, transformed into poetics, that is, a way of thinking and making cinema.

This way of thinking and making cinema operates as a key to reading the staged story, especially in the films in question. Made between the experience of the dictatorship's Anos de Chumbo and the first hopes of political distension, both films reveal a look that not only seeks to decipher time, but also the space in which a given specific experience in Brazilian history takes place. Deciphering the deep South, equal and different, Brazilian and foreign, pampas, mountains and sertão, provincial and universal, has been one of the hallmarks of Sylvio Back's cinema. But Back's anguish also stems from doubts about the meaning of history as a social and human experience, especially when involved in the forces of archaism that mark Brazilian society.

Rosane shows us that The War of the Peels (1971) still incorporates the subject of armed resistance against the dictatorship and the expectation of the future, a classic theme of the 1960s, which at the time of making the film was already on the threshold of a definitive political and military defeat. There was still the suggestion, as staged in the last sequence of the film, that the popular procession would find its promised land, just like Glauber Rocha's lonely peasant who ends God and the Devil in the Land of the Sun running towards the sertão-sea. In Hallelujah, Gretchen, Rosane Kaminski highlights the allegorical irony at the end, which does not carry out any historical project for the future, while at the same time incorporating all archaisms, reiterated by the caption “Today”, as if the other periods mentioned in the work, 1937 and 1955, were condensed in the “current”.

For Rosane Kaminski, this disenchanted look at historical time, especially in Hallelujah, but which is somehow already suggested in The War of the Peels, while connecting Sylvio Back with the criticism of the 1960s and 1970s, also reveals the formative moment of the author, based on existentialism and anguish as a given of the free will of the human being, whose trajectory goes from “nothing to nothing ”. In the meantime, we live and suffer history more than we can change it. The author argues that the deconstruction of revolutionary teleology is the result of this dialectical clash that marks the director's perspective. Of course, as the films are not a mere coherent expression of his ideas, as Rosane Kaminski insists on emphasizing, there is something of a collective historical matter and an imaginary of time as permanence that are affirmed in Back's historical films and that refer to to other traditions and authors.

At this point, I would add, Backian anguish dialogues with the melancholy irony that is one of the most important traits of Brazilian modernity. Even modernism, a movement that carried an optimistic activism in the face of the historical tasks that arose to build the Brazilian nation, was not immune to melancholy as a cultural trait. This melancholy stems precisely from the perception that time is passing, something is being lost, without necessarily affirming the new as liberation and the promise of happiness in the future.

Furthermore, melancholy is also a product of the perception that the journey towards the future imposes a very high price on collectivities, producing new victims of history. The melancholic artist perceives all this, but has no way of effectively communicating with the “other” who is being engulfed, mainly the popular subject, supposed collective hero of the story. The melancholy and anguished artist is realized in an intertime and in an in-between place: his work. This is a very strong trait in Brazilian cultural life, perceptible since Machado de Assis, one of the first to realize that the passage of time restores archaism and does not change the human nature that gives potatoes to the winner and skins to the losers. But it also reappears in Mário de Andrade, Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Chico Buarque, among others.

Back's cinema, in addition to the existentialist anguish highlighted by Rosane Kaminski, can also be seen as a chapter of this melancholy of Brazilian late modernism, when the reality of the dictatorship had demonstrated that the train of History can also head towards the abyss, under the gaze of impotent of the best critical consciences, such as that of the liberal Professor Ross at the end of Hallelujah, Gretchen.

Thus, between the critical imperative of resistance and engagement, one of the hallmarks of existentialist anguish and its ethical commitment to freedom, and the critical perception of immobility and defeat, Back made essential films for understanding Brazil in the 1970s and beyond. today (2021). As one of the characters said at the end of the film, also critical of that celebration of the tropical Fourth Reich: “…many years have passed, but the womb from which these people emerged is still fertile”.

The years have passed since Hallelujah, Gretchen and “these people”, born and raised, occupied the main stage of the Brazilian scene. Reviewing Back's anguish, as interpreted in this book by Rosane Kaminski, takes the reader back from poetry to politics without sacrificing the former.

*Neapolitan landmarks Professor of Social History at USP. Author, among other books, of Civil heart: Brazilian cultural life under the military regime 1964-1985 (Intermediates, 2017).


Rosane Kaminski. Poetics of anguish: cinema and history in Sylvio Back. São Paulo, Intermeios/UFPR-PPGHIS-AMENA, 2021.


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