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06 Apr

The Construction of Mark of the Devil's 'Author' in Blu-Ray Bonus Features

Written by Michael Fuchs
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Hoven vs. Armstrong: The Construction of Mark of the Devil's 'Author' in the Blu-Ray Bonus Features

One of the topics that emerges from these words by Michael Armstrong—especially the last few words—is one that can hardly be avoided when critically engaging with Mark of the Devil—the question of authorship. We all know the story: Michael Reeves, who had directed The Witchfinder General, was meant to direct Brenn, Hexe, Brenn (that is, Burn, Witch, Burn), a movie meant to cash in on Witchfinder's success and intended to allow distributor GloriaFilm to enter new markets. However, in February 1969, Reeves died of an overdose at the age of 25. Michael Armstrong took over the directing duties, but producer Adrian Hoven wasn't quite satisfied with the outcome, which is why he started directing scenes and eventually took over the director's job entirely. Especially in light of this somewhat confusing situation, the question is: Is there any one individual that can legitimately claim authorship of Mark of the Devil?

In discourses on the film industry, directors are generally regarded as the final decision makers, for they are ultimately responsible for choosing to include certain elements in the finished work and exclude others. The idea of directorial responsibility is strongly indebted to François Truffaut's 1954 piece "Une certaine tendance du cinéma français,"1 in which he attacked a tradition in French film criticism that overvalued polished literary adaptations at the expense of truly cinematic thinking. Truffaut, of course, favored the latter, which he saw reflected in movies in which the director was in total creative control, a production model typical of the works of directors like Roberto Rosselini and Robert Bresson. What seems important to highlight is that these directors also wrote the scripts for most of their films, a point often overlooked due to the dominant role attributed to directors. This overvaluation of directors is connected to Andrew Sarris' popularization of French 'auteur theory' in the English-speaking world. Sarris adapted Truffaut's privileging of the director as a movie's primary creative force, writing:

The auteur critic is obsessed with the wholeness of the art and the artist. He looks at the film as a whole, a director as a whole. The parts, however entertaining, individually, must cohere meaningfully. This meaningful coherence is more likely when the director dominates the proceedings with skill and purpose.2

Sarris saw this production model at work in Hollywood productions of directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Fritz Lang. By linking these mass media texts to art cinema, Sarris granted artistic legitimacy to the industrialized studio system. However, he did not fail to stress that "the first premise of the auteur theory is the technical competence of the director as a criterion of value. A badly directed or an undirected film has no importance in a critical scale of value."3 But especially in exploitation cinema, competence need not be a skill required for celebration. After all, Jeffrey Sconce already pointed out nearly two decades ago that paracinematic culture "celebrat[es] the cultural objects deemed most noxious (low-brow) by their taste culture as a whole."4 He goes on to explain that

[p]aracinematic films […] rarely exhibit such pronounced stylistic virtuosity as the result of a 'conscious' artistic agenda. […] [R]ather than explore the systematic application of style as the elite techniques of a cinematic artist, paracinematic culture celebrates the systematic 'failure' or 'distortion' of conventional cinematic style.5

Albeit introducing a whole new set of 'auteurs' to the canon, Sconce's article can be considered at the helm of a renewed interest in questions of authorship, which had somewhat faded in academia as a result of a shift towards ideological critique and poststructuralist influences on film studies in the 1960s and 1970s. On the other hand, the romantic notion of the director as a movie's singular point of origin sure has had lasting impact in popular discourses. The increasing interest in studying fan cultures and cinematic paratexts in combination with changing notions of producers and consumers in light of our participatory media environment, has recently ignited a renewed interest in questions of authorship. Indeed, as Nicholas Rombes has stressed, "rather than diluting the author concept," the "recent surge in personal websites and blogs [...] has helped to create a tyrannical authorship presence, where the elevation of the personal and private to the public level has only compounded the cult of the author."6

In narratology, these personal websites and blogs are referred to as paratexts. Paratexts, according to Gérard Genette, are discourses "around the text."7 As Jonathan Gray explains, paratexts "negotiat[e] or determin[e] interactions" between "the triumvirate of Text, Audience, and Industry."8 Thus, paratexts suggest "ways of looking at the film" and provide "frames for understanding or engaging with it."9 Today, many of these paratexts are collected on DVDs and Blu-Rays in the form of bonus features such as commentary tracks and making-ofs. In one of the seminal studies of DVD bonus features, Robert Brookey and Robert Westerfelhaus stress that

[p]rimary and secondary texts are usually physically distinct from one another and are often read at different times, creating an intertextual relationship that is marked by both temporal and spatial distance. However, by including such distinct but interrelated texts in a self-contained package, the DVD turns this intertextual relationship into an intratextual relationship.10

Although Brookey and Westerfelhaus overemphasized the inclusion of paratexts on DVDs as heralding a newly de-hierarchized textual relationship between primary and secondary texts, the degree to which DVDs have focused on discursive contexts should not be underestimated. Indeed, as Barbara Klinger has argued, "DVD acts literally as an ambassador of context, entering the home complete with its armada of discourses meant to influence reception, including behind-the-scenes industry information and commentary tracks."11

Since most of these commentary tracks feature remarks by the respective movie's director, Catherine Grant has suggested that DVDs are 'auteur machines' that encourage "a comprehensive attentiveness or responsiveness to the film's authorial context."12 In light of Catherine Grant's suggestion, it seems hardly surprising that one topic comes up time and again in the bonus features included in Mark of the Devil's limited Blu-Ray release published by Turbine—that, in the words of Michael Armstrong, "more blood was spilled off-screen than on-screen" due to various problems between Armstrong and Adrian Hoven. A related question that strongly reverberates in most of the bonus features is: Who is Mark of the Devil's 'author'? Director Michael Armstrong or producer and 'artistic supervisor' (as the German credits have it) Adrian Hoven? Even though the paratexts included in the disc set never explicitly answer the question, I will argue in the following that—consciously or not—the various bonus features, in fact, do provide an implicit answer to the question of authorship.

Michael Armstrong: The Romantic Genius

Despite the undeniable aura of the dead, Michael Armstrong has a distinct advantage over Adrian Hoven—Armstrong is still alive and thus his authorial traces can not only be discerned from the movie and its many paratexts, but are made explicit in his commentary track. His commentary track allows Armstrong to construct a more central creative role than he might have had. Armstrong narrates the first stages of the movie's production as follows:

In these few sentences, Armstrong stresses that his script developed entirely independent from Hoven's, not based on Hoven's, thus, of course laying claim to the scriptwriting credits, which are officially given to Hoven (or, rather, his two pen names). Armstrong thus emerges as the auteur in Truffaut's sense: both scriptwriter and director. Yet on top of that, this emphasis on Armstrong's independent thought is only the first step in constructing Armstrong as an author figure in the Romantic tradition. In his 1840 lecture "The Hero as Man of Letters," Thomas Carlyle merged English, German, and French aesthetic theory and defined the Romantic author as an autonomous individual inspired by 'originality' and/or 'genius'.13

It is exactly this 'originality' and 'genius' that various members of the cast and Armstrong himself repeatedly highlight. At one point during his ruminations on Mark of the Devil's development, Armstrong, for example, notes, "I was asked […] in an interview before whether I was influenced by Witchfinder General—not at all, really," and adds a little later, "The script and the whole thing is me." Herbert Fux supports Armstrong's self-construction, pointing out that “Armstrong was the creative genius" behind Mark of the Devil and connects the sequel's failures to the lack of Armstrong's involvement, saying "the second movie […] wasn't that good—Armstrong was not involved."14

Even though Armstrong stresses that 'the whole thing is him' at one point, he concedes that there were "one or two little alterations" to his movie. These 'one or two little alterations' turn out to be the score, editing, the special effect used when the advocate loses his eye (the only 'alteration' that garners praise), the scenes involving Hoven and his son, and, of course, the ending, which, according to Armstrong, "would have put the film into that other dimension," but Hoven and company didn't understand. Especially the emphasis on the lack of understanding for the original ending constructs Armstrong as the visionary artist—a misunderstood, alienated, and unconventional individual.

While many of the interviews and commentary tracks provide testament to Armstrong's creative 'vision', especially the actors and actresses repeatedly accentuate that Armstrong's artistry, in fact, overburdened the production. As Udo Kier, for example, highlights, Armstrong "had too many creative ideas for that time." In the same vein, Michael Maien notes that Armstrong's "problem was that he wanted to make an artistic, a highly artistic movie." Udo Kier tellingly adds: "Armstrong was that kind of director who would've filmed at least for four more weeks." Even though Armstrong initially admits to being hired to make Mark of the Devil, this notion is quickly overshadowed by the claim to purely artistic intentions and artistic authority expressed not only by himself, but also other members of the team. However, these artistic intentions appear to be entirely incompatible with the commercial drives spurring the movie's production.

Adrian Hoven: The Man with a Vision who Gets the Job Done

Herbert Lom makes Armstrong's problems most explicit when he narrates that Hoven "took over the direction of the film when [Armstrong] turned out to be not quite up to it." While Armstrong is constructed as the creative genius in the bonus features, Adrian Hoven emerges as the commercially oriented producer-creator. But Hoven's business orientation is already hinted at in stories about Mark of the Devil's creation from before he took over the directing job. Dieter Menz relates: "Adrian Hoven most likely had the idea [for the movie]. We distributed The Witchfinder General in the German-speaking countries […]. Thanks to this movie, […] Adrian Hoven came up with the idea of shooting a similar one." While Armstrong is depicted as the solitary genius driven by something akin to divine inspiration, Hoven is here shown to be clearly influenced by other movies (and most probably business interests).

In addition to influences from other movies, such as Witchfinder General, especially Dieter Menz and Herbert Fux underline the purported historical authenticity; that is, how history—and especially legal documents of the inquisition—inspired the movie. From this perspective, Hoven is less constructed as an extremely creative individual than the type of creator that brings an end to the author as a text's origin, for Mark of the Devil emerges as a text, as Roland Barthes put it, "woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages […], antecedent or contemporary, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony."15

While Barthes, of course, also proclaimed the 'death of the author', one should not forget that Barthes's stance on authorship is by far not as clear-cut as (especially) Anglo-American literary theory tends to portray it. After all, in Pleasure of the Text, he writes that even though "the author is dead […] as an institution, […] in the text, in a certain way, I desire the author."16 The author, as the figure controlling the work and its meaning, may have disappeared, but the author still exists in the text.

Indeed, Adrian Hoven quite literally exists in Mark of the Devil's text (in the narrow sense), for he—as we all know—appears in the movie. Arguably, Hoven's appearance offsets the poststructuralist notion of authorship, because it serves as a visible assertion of authorship. Not coincidentally did Hoven, in fact, appear in the first five films he directed. Thus, Hoven's self-inscription provides a trace, a "sign […] left in the text by the author,"17 that functions as a claim to authority, a claim to be responsible for the creation of Mark of the Devil. This claim is, for example, supported by Dieter Menz, who notes that the fact that the German opening credits name Adrian Hoven the movie's 'producer and artistic supervisor' was the only right decision, because—as he stresses at a different point—Hoven "made the movie." And, indeed, apart from the fact that Hoven did direct parts of the movie, there is also a tradition in film studies that supports Hoven's claim, for it considers producers movies' primary 'authors', as exemplified by Thomas Schatz's book The Genius of the System (1996).18

And even though, for example, Herbert Fux remarks that Armstrong's direction gave the movie a distinct style that Hoven merely replicated, it is noteworthy that Mark of the Devil's primary selling point—its visceral torture scenes—are thanks to Hoven. As Michael Maien relates:

The distributors and producers […] wanted to more clearly transport a feeling for the time of the events by depicting its harshness and cruelty. [Armstrong], however, was too sensitive. He didn’t want to show too much blood. […] In fact, he even shied away from shooting certain scenes.

Adrian Hoven, on the other hand, "was no pussy. […] He repeatedly wanted more." In other words, when returning to Andrew Sarris's criteria for authorship, it becomes apparent that while certain elements of Mark of the Devil's style serve as Armstrong's signature, others serve as Hoven's.

But Who is Mark of the Devil's 'Author'?

This brings us right back to the beginning: Can authorship be attributed to any one individual? In a recent article on cinematic authorship, Peter Sellors has rightfully stressed that "authorship is not an instance of solitary genius but, like most other human activities, a social practice."19 Indeed, in the commentary tracks, the input by many other members of cast and crew are highlighted, chief among them cinematographer Ernst Kalinke and actor Herbert Lom, all of whom have both individual (make themselves look good) and collective (make a good movie) interests and intentions. Indeed, since the paratexts included in the Blu-Ray edition never explicitly take a stand with regard to Mark of the Devil's author, they suggest that singling out one individual would diminish the movie's meaning. Like any other movie, Mark of the Devil was a collaborative endeavor. At the end of the day, the conflicts between Michael Armstrong and Adrian Hoven are part of the "murky and bizarre legends" that are among the chief ingredients that have assured Mark of the Devil's cultural presence.20 And not singling out one author not only accounts for the realities of the film's production (and film production in general), but also makes possible that generations of viewers may continue to debate the question of Mark of the Devil's authorship.

Notes

1 François Truffaut, "Une certaine tendance du cinéma français," Cahiers du Cinéma 31 (1954): 15–28. | return to main text |
2 Andrew Sarris, "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962," in Theories of Authorship: A Reader, ed. John Caughie (London: Routledge, 1981), 65 | return to main text |
3 Ibid., 63. | return to main text |
4 Jeffrey Sconce, "'Trashing' the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style," Screen 36, no. 4 (1995): 376. | return to main text |
5 Ibid., 385. | return to main text |
6 Nicholas Rombes, "The Rebirth of the Author," ctheory, 6 October 2005, par. 2. | return to main text |
7 Gérard Genette, "Introduction to The Paratext," trans. Marie Maclean, New Literary History 22, no. 2 (1991): 263. | return to main text |
8 Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 23. | return to main text |
9 Ibid., 10–11. | return to main text |
10 Robert A. Brookey and Robert Westerfelhaus, "Hiding Homoeroticism in Plain View: The Fight Club DVD as Digital Closet," Critical Studies in Media Communication 19, no. 1 (2002): 23. | return to main text |
11 Barbara Klinger, "The DVD Cinephile: Viewing Heritages and Home Film Cultures," in Film and Television After DVD, ed. James Bennett and Tom Brown (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), 21. | return to main text |
12 Catherine Grant, "Auteur Machines? Auteurism and the DVD," in Film and Television after DVD, ed. James Bennett and Tom Brown (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), 111. | return to main text |
13 Thomas Carlyle, "The Hero as Man of Letters," in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, ed. David R. Sorensen and Brent E. Kinser (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013). | return to main text |
14 Herbert Fux's and Michael Maien's statements are translated from German. | return to main text |
15 Roland Barthes, "From Work to Text" (trans. Stephen Heath), in Image—Music—Text, ed. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978), 160. | return to main text |
16 Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill & Wang, 1975), 27; emphasis in original. | return to main text |
17 Jane M. Gaines, "Of Cabbages and Authors," in Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, ed. Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 94. | return to main text |
18 Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era (New York: Holt, 1996). | return to main text |
19 Paul Sellors, "Collective Authorship in Film," Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism 65, no. 3 (2007): 263. | return to main text |
20 Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik, "What is a Cult Film," in The Cult Film Reader, ed. Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik (London: Open University Press, 2008), 7. | return to main text |