In the opening scene of The Dead, by Christian Kracht, a soldier commits suicide by plunging a dagger into his abdomen while a camera is filming the scene. Kracht, a Swiss novelist whose work is often abundant with unusual and at times outlandish images, evokes the pure emotion and color behind pre-World War II Japanese films.
The opening scene is gruesome, but more than that, its astoundingly cinematic. The young soldier wheezing with the strain of keeping his dying body breathing for just a while longer, looks up at the camera and spits out “blood thickened to a glistening gelatinous mass.” Instructions have been relayed to keep the camera running, and as the chapter ends, the film is sealed in cellophane and delivered to an unknown location.
If this seems somewhat familiar it probably is. This first scene as well as the ones that follow, have the symbolic and physical traits of a Kurosawa film with a touch of Pasolini. It’s not far-fetched to think that this is Kracht’s intention, since the plot revolves around Emil Nägeli, a Swiss film director, his platinum-haired German fiancée Ava, and Masahiko Amasuko, the Japanese film minister during the early 1930’s. Unexpectedly, Charlie Chaplin also makes an appearance and his participation will be detrimental to the fates of two out of Kracht’s main characters.
Nägeli has been tasked to travel to from Germany to Japan in order to meet with Amasuko and carry out a joint project to make a film that will effectively compete with Hollywood’s increasing grasp on the moving picture industry. In Japan, Nägeli will also rendezvous with Ava, who is already there and unknown to Nägeli, being willingly seduced by the stoic but alluring Amasuko.
The chapters in The Dead play out like 35mm frames, these being short and almost abrupt in their narrative. Many of them take on the quality of liquid dreams, like thoughts and ideas in suspended animation, almost allegorical to Kirosawa’s work.
The novel isn’t long, only 195 pages, but it packs an overflow of events and major shifts in the lives of these three characters, and in the end none of them will remain unchanged by the presence in each other’s lives. True, some of the events that happen in the plot are confusing, and it’s not clear if perhaps this is due to the Daniel Bowles translation or simply a matter of Kracht attempting to describe something of a chimera.
The Dead doesn’t establish a necessary connection between dream sequences and the actual plot. We also never warm up to any of the characters, all of them being too self-involved, selfish and detached for anyone to feel much concern over them, not even when a shocking twist compels us that we should.
Chaplin is perhaps the sole exception. But the likeability of Nägeli, Ava and Amasuko or lack thereof has no import or influence over the novel’s wonderful tribute to a magnificent era in 20th century cinema.
It feels like with The Dead, Christian Kratch has written a series of visuals rather than a novel, a juxtaposition of movements, settings and emotions that allowed a film director’s mind to take over a writer’s hand to create a story where a talking picture tells this tale better than the script ever could.