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Der Gehülfe

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Thomas Koerfer 1975 122'

After a considerable period of unemployment, 24-year-old Joseph Marti is offered a position as a clerk in the technical office of the engineer and inventor C. Tobler, of Bärenswil.

Tobler has invested his entire fortune in inventions that have failed to attract anyone's attention. In addition to taking dictation of what are for the most part high-flown pleas for assistance, Marti's duties include a range of household chores and services to his master's family. To this end he is given the tower chamber as his digs, where he spends his leisure time cursing his fate, developing his skills of resistance and rebellion and rehearsing in his mind the shy, confused moments he has spent with the young Mrs Tobler.

The viewer is drawn into the slow fall of the house of Tobler, into the pointlessly lavish round of parties, and suffers along with the assistant as he is subjected to a series of brutal psychodramas by Tobler, who is in the process of being mentally outstripped by his employee. There is also the hint of an erotic relationship, which serves Joseph as an excuse to make reproaches of maternal neglect.

As Tobler's bankruptcy grows ever more inevitable, his clerk takes on more and more of the characteristics of a household servant, receiving from his insolvent and dishonest master a weekly allowance instead of a proper salary.

After a half year in Tobler's service, Marti resigns. He leaves the ruined Villa zum Abendstern on New Year's morning, taking with him the repressed emotions of Mrs Tobler's farewell.And with that the assistant is thrown back upon his uncertain, dislocated existence, longing for a sense of belonging and a connection to his own kind.

The office

The moon is looking in at us,
it sees me as a poor clerk
languishing beneath the stern look
of my superior.
Ill at ease I scratch my neck.

Lasting sunshine in life
I never knew yet.
Lacking is my lot;
having to scratch my neck
beneath the stare of my superior.

The moon is the wound of the night,
drops of blood are all the stars.
Though far from fortune's favours
I'm made to have modest wants.
The moon is the wound of the night.

Robert Walser

Commentary

By Martin Schaub

Many people, chief among them those who love Robert Walser's work, have asked, «Can Walser be filmed at all?» If it is indeed possible to do so, such a production would only make sense if the film-maker in question were to make visible his or her own (personal, contemporary) reading of the work filmed: to make visible, that is, both the book and the film-maker. A work of this kind can hardly hope to display any so-called loyalty to its source, although this may function as a means to an end. Films based on works of literature are uninteresting when the director disappears behind them, neither to be seen nor heard from. There wouldn't be much to say about Thomas Koerfer's ASSISTANT if Koerfer had attempted to play Walser.

Koerfer and Feldhausen have not seen in Robert Walser the alienated fantasist he is (wrongly) thought to be by so many readers and interpreters. They have taken him at his word, and not only by that which appears in the novel he published in 1907. While their screenplay does pay careful attention to that book, it has Walser's entire oeuvre in mind at the same time. Where they found Walser's Assistant lacking in clarity, they did not hesitate to use passages from the Tanner Siblings and the minor works; indeed, in some cases the resulting perspective is grander than Walser's own might have been.

Joseph Marti's story takes place between two periods of unemployment; and it is during this brief episode of activity that he is witness to the decline of the modest Tobler engineering firm. Tobler, the little technician yearning for independence, wants to be known as the Swiss Edison. But he is unlucky: his inventions are out of sync with his era, and attempting to con people won't help either. When Joseph departs from the Villa zum Abendstern, having failed to help the businessman keep his head above the water, it is to join the rest of the unemployed and leave Mrs Tobler in the knowledge that she and her husband and children will eventually be dwelling «somewhere in the city, likely in a cheap neighbourhood».

What is the engineer Tobler, after all, but a white-collar worker with a great dream: the American dream? The era of corporate adventurism in the last quarter of the 19th century overflowed with people at a loss to fit into their societies, seeking to make themselves independent: and failing at it.

Among Tobler's inventions is a so-called 'fantasy machine', a colourful box within which, upon the insertion of a coin and the use of an eyepiece, one can view a series of prettily nostalgic images, interspersed with advertisements. When Joseph attempts to impress him with the wonders of this hen-that-layed-the-golden-egg, a potential 'capitalist' — that is, a man approached to finance the machine — responds: «I must say that I expected something else, something more like the cinematograph; you know what I mean. What, you don't know the cinematograph? Then you had better head straight for the city and have a look. It's absolutely the latest craze among assistants!»

Koerfer's Joseph Marti does not dream of independence. He is in his way a figure for the salaried idealist of the 20th century, and is essentially incapable of understanding Klara, the proud and quarrelsome friend who comes unbidden into his mind, and whom he visits in the city on two occasion. «You employees, now,» says the socialist Klara, «are distinguished from the working class by virtue of the fact that you are spiritually homeless. For the time being you are unable to join the comrades, even while the house of bourgeois ideas and emotions in which you had been dwelling has come tumbling down, its foundations having been removed in the latest economic developments. You are at present living without the benefit of a teaching that might lend you purpose, without a goal that might guide you ...»

Klara views the world with a clearer eye than does Joseph. She is not a dreamer, but a photographer, who captures her surrounding reality in documentary images, and who has a goal.

Joseph Marti, on the other hand, writes poetry understood only by Mrs Tobler, who suffers secretly and in silence. Before the Toblers' splendid social façade collapses in its entirety, before their 'house of bourgeois ideas and emotions' comes tumbling down, Mrs Tobler appoints the clerk as her 'Minister of the Interior'.

The price of innocence is loneliness, which Joseph pays silently, although he is occasionally beset by dreams and longings. He dreams of a human kindness which would solve all problems, of the equality of all people; he longs for Klara's decisiveness, and for the security of a mother's embrace. In reality, however; in reality there is nothing standing between him and the stars he gazes on each night from his little room. Marti is not in search of a solution to his way of life: he is in a sense hoping for redemption. And as he waits he spins himself ever more securely into his cocoon, observing himself and the beautiful letters he continues to produce. I am not quite convinced by the awakening consciousness that seems to be etched into his features when he once again returns to the ranks of the unemployed. Marti remains a calligrapher, scratching with his sharpened quill on the white paper while history unfolds itself outside his window.

Joseph Marti is 'innocent'. But how innocent have our century's Joseph Martis been: all of those who could not find their place in the narrative because they believed one could occupy a position midway between those of the worker and the entrepreneur?

Marti's fate is that of millions of employees, a fact he only fails to recognize because of his excessive introversion.

Marti's existential angst and eccentricity shed light not only on his own social situation, but on an element of Switzerland as a whole. Perhaps nowhere has the opposition of the classes been internalised to the extent that it has in Switzerland, where the 20th century has also been witness to an unmistakeable need to remain apart, outside of history, and to be washed in innocence.

In the person of Joseph Marti, Robert Walser has given us a portrait of himself; for his part, Thomas Koerfer observes both of these figures, creator and created alike, from an amiable distance, attempting at one and the same time to comprehend them and to judge them. He sketches Walser's world, and he takes his audience on a gentle tour of its weak spots, those places where the viewer's own fantasy, speculation and memories can take root.

Thomas Koerfer's film adaptation of THE ASSISTANT is distinguished principally by the calm beauty of its extraordinary images, a beauty, however, which has nothing to do with Joseph Marti's calligraphy. It is a beauty rendered problematic by the insistent and explicit interrogative attention Koerfer pays to one specific element in Walser's novel. With the brilliant aid of his cameraman, Renato Berta, Koerfer denies his viewers the pleasures of indulging in a series of pretty pictures. He does not want to be their 'Minister of the Interior'; if anything, he might aspire to the portfolio of Minister of Information. The viewer notes the film's beauty, but sees also its function, and its fragility. The beauty with which the dreamer and entrepreneur Tobler surrounds himself is a kind of mask. «As long as the house contains a little vine like this one, see here...», says Tobler to his friends in his garden grotto, illuminated with electric light; but soon his power will have been cut off, and the proletarian gas lamp will have been lit in his house as well. Before she embarks on her final quest for alms, Mrs Tobler will receive a new dress. The scene in which she leaves the house to seek a rescuer in the form of a 'capitalist' somewhere in the world is entitled 'A portrait of the twentieth century'. [...]Abridged version of a text by Martin Schaub