Between Hell and History

Underworld

by Don DeLillo
Scribner, 827 pp., $27.50

Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo; drawing by David Levine

Underworld is the title of the archetypal first gangster movie(written by Ben Hecht and directed in 1927 by Josef von Sternberg), from which so many conventions of plot and lighting and characterization and incidental business still employed today directly descend. The term “underworld” now carries the title’s sense—that of gangland, of a separate criminal sphere existing just under the skin of ordinary life—almost exclusively, so that its original metaphorical connotation has been nearly lost. But then, far fewer people believe in a literal hell anymore.

The movie Don DeLillo refers to in his panoramic novel, however, is Unterwelt, the product of Sergei Eisenstein’s period of exile in Berlin in the 1930s. Long thought lost or maybe apocryphal, this film, or a portion of it, is restored and shown in a gala presentation at Radio City Music Hall in 1974. The audience, composed of period hipsters, is agog at the hall, its murals, its lavatories. The orchestra appears and its platform is mechanically lowered into the pit, a procedure greeted with cheers. The Rockettes come out in West Point gray with plumed dress hats and bondage collars—speculation runs through the theater that they are actually a troupe of female impersonators. Then the film begins, haltingly. It is dark and oddly, for the 1930s, silent. In some underground complex a mad scientist fires an atomic ray gun at a deformed victim, “who begins to glow in the dark, jerking and dancing and then looking rather wanly at his arm, which starts to melt away.” There does not appear to be a plot, just more and more of the same. After intermission the film resumes with an escape scene, accompanied by a Prokofiev march camped up by the theater’s Wurlitzer organ. But then the scene shifts to “a landscape shocked by light, pervasive and overexposed,” with “many long shots, sky and plain, intercut with foreground figures, their heads and torsos crowding out the landscape.” Out in the open, the victims of the previous scenes now seem startlingly human, not Eisenstein’s habitual social types, but individuals freed from class strictures perversely enough by mutilation. “You could feel a sense of character emerge…a life inside the eyes, a textured set of experiences.” The escapees are recaptured; the footage breaks off.

The film, unlike anything Eisenstein is actually known to have made, seems peculiarly plausible—maybe your imagination, prompted by DeLillo, devises its own montage of fragments from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Dr. Mabuse, intercut with landscapes from Que Viva Mexico. Certainly the circumstances of its showing are exactly true to the period, the meeting of camp dazzle and countercultural scholarship that fleetingly took place in the 1970s. As a historical novelist, DeLillo is pitch-perfect, evoking times and places with deft, minimal strokes. The scene may at first appear gratuitous, an invention for its own sake, but it is far from idle. As Klara Sax, an artist, watches the…


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