Watching Star Wars in Berlin

Still from The Rise of Skywalker.

It doesn’t take massive expenditures of imagination to see—and hear—the Star Wars trilogies as an allegory of American movie might, that crucial branch of the imperial project. Clandestine operations have their place, but sometimes the Watchdog of Democracy just wants to be watched—by millions on screens big and small.

In the Star Wars franchise, as in so many American movies, the Watchdog presents itself as Underdog. Spoiler alert: the Underdog always wins in the end. The ragtag Star Wars freedom fighters are the good guys and mow down countless storm troopers in white suites—and lots of red-suited ones too. That fetching color is easily seen as an allusion to the Watchdog’s perennial enemy: Russia. Once a commie always a commie.

In the “last” installment of the third trilogy called (Episode IX) , the patriotic heirs to Luke, Han, and Leia are Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron. They’ve got better teeth than their forbears, but the same indomitable spirit. That Force may be carbon neutral but it sure causes a lot of battle smoke across the not-so-friendly-skies.

Claiming on-screen to have only a longshot at liberty, the real Empire based in its Hollywood Death Star has been striking back for decades and will doubtless launch many more campaigns before it either slides into the Pacific or the Pacific slides into it. A surging clima(c)tic battle at seaside cliffs in the latest Star Wars installment is a portent of one or both of these possible endings.

The current operation, codenamed The Rise of Skywalker, invaded the cinemas of the world in mid-December. A month into the hostilities, the forces of freedom have raked-in over a billion dollars at the box office.

I took in a matinée between Christmas and New Year’s at the Zoo Palast cinema in Berlin, so named because it is near the city zoo. Close in the other direction is the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, hit by allied bombs in World War II then architecturally stabilized in that haunted, ruined state as a warning monument to the madness of war.

There has been a cinema on the Zoo Palast site for more than a century. The original (the Palast am Zoo) hosted many famous/notorious world premieres, among them Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927 and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will in 1935, an event for which Albert Speer designed the special façade decorations: long swastika flags on either side of a Nazi eagle, all illuminated with Nuremberg-scale spotlights whose beams stretched to the same night sky from which the bombs would rain down ten years later.

The present Palast rose from the rubble in 1957. Its interior modified since then, the building retains its mid-century modern glamour, the golden-flashed and glassy entrance flanked by a bar to one side (called the Zoo Loge — a pun on zooLOGical and the German word for “box seats”) and the ZOOBA café to the other. The rectilinear impression of the exterior is eased by the faintest arc to the roof of the high cinema hall that rises above these street level pre- and post-film locales. The opulent mirrored foyer leads to the main screening auditorium, gently racked and rounded, and glowing a louche red that evokes Berlin’s famously permissive past—and present. The seminal film theorist Siegfried Kracauer, who spent plenty of time in the Palast am Zoo during the Weimar Republic, praised the original cinema for its excellent sightlines. The same could be said for its successor. That Lang and Riefenstahl have given way to a steady diet of American triumphalism shows one thing for certain: The Marshall Plan worked. American imports are the main course for the cinema-loving animals of the Zoo Palast.

Across the street from the great movie house is the Breitscheidplatz, a square that hosts a popular, and extremely kitschy, Christmas Market, where, three years ago before Christmas, a terrorist truck attack killed twelve people and injured fifty-six. The driver had been given orders by the Islamic State.

Now protected by massive steel bollards, the market appeared to thrive this year. Its defenses have something of the Death Star to them, too, and impart an aura of threat and tragedy to the yuletide jamboree of commercialism. Then again, these measures update the Christian celebration with a brace of reality: after all, Bethlehem, the setting for the first Christmas, is now menaced by the West Bank Wall and ringed by Jewish settlements. From the Holy Land to the Mall of America, security is now as much part of the season as mulled wine.

 

The main thing about the Rise of Skywalker is that it is a long movie. Its 142 minutes are filled up with lots of action and little to no leavening comedy. There are desert scenes and a snake and heavens buzzing with warships and a final decisive contest between Good and Evil (though a rematch always looms). There’s even a hologrammic resurrection—the late Carrie Fischer’s Leia back from the dead, and doomed, it appears, to roam the purgatorial skies in eternity.

This uncanny appearance is accompanied, as are all the main characters and ideas, by its own special music. Leia’s leitmotiv is delivered by seductive flute then exotic oboe, its serpentine melody riffing on the shawms and modes of the Middle East. This is a characterization of mysterious feminine power that has survived the Me Too Movement.

Commanding these musical forces—from the sinuous to the swashbuckling—is John Williams, the greatest of the Star Wars generals, still at his post after battling through poor health in recent years. He has said this will be his last campaign and without his commanding presence the film would feel not just long, but endless. Williams’ genius for profiling loyalty and loathing, friend and foe, enemies and allies, fight and flight, on screen, will never be superseded. Williams is a vastly prolific and ever-pleasing composer, who has defined Americanness: audacity and security in equal measure. It is the sound of courage and safety.

Williams is an empire unto himself. In his sixty-year career he has received more than fifty Academy Award nominations (only Walt Disney garnered more) and taken home five of them. Here’s predicting that his current bid for this year’s soundtrack Oscar will land him his sixth statuette.

It takes several imperial legions to make a Star Wars film, and the credits go on forever. The packed Zoo Palast audience remained in its seats since the list of names—like the scrolling wall of a war memorial—occasions Williams’ greatest symphonic effort, one that crowns a six decade career: The Rise of Skywalker Finale. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RCp_VD-Abc) An intensely skilled exercise in the euphoria of triumph, from its yearning beginning to its cannon’s-roar, cavalry-charge conclusion, the Finale is a mighty symphonic movement of some ten minutes. The work is as long and as saber-rattling as the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, whose strains can be heard to echo through Williams’ main Star Wars theme as it does so many other heroic works of the European tradition over the last two centuries.

 

Williams’ is certainly prudent to hang up his light sabre/baton after the Ninth Star Wars, since the curse of a Ninth symphony looms over great composers ever since Beethoven. Even if retired from active duty, Williams’s music has a long afterlife ahead of it.

Sonically bolstered to fight the good fight, we exited the matinee orgy of righteousness. Night had fallen. The lights of the Christmas Market and the eerie outline of the broken church could well have been a movie screened against a dark sky. I realized now that there were no mighty bulwarks protecting the square in front of the Zoo Palast from a rogue big-rig. An attacker could simply skirt the Maginot Line across the street at the Christmas Market and head for the cinema where the Watchdog struts his stuff. The Zoo Palast could well be a target, for what is more American than America’s movies?

However victorious Williams’ music may be, it takes much of its force from the truth that out in the real world—and not in a galaxy far, far away—there are many bent on the destruction of the empires and, as Speer knew, their spectacles.

 

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com