Tadhg Dennehy
University College Cork, Ireland

Creative Commons 4.0 by Tadhg Dennehy. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Stephanie Schwerter

New York: Bloomsbury, 2022, 312 pp.

ISBN: 9781501380457

City Limits: Filming Belfast, Beirut and Berlin in Troubled Times offers the reader an engaging outline and thorough analysis of over thirty films concerned with the cinematic representation of these three cities — three highly significant sites of conflict and political unrest in contemporary European history.

Schwerter establishes significant links between Belfast, Beirut and Berlin as cities of division and investigates the extent to which filmmakers have expressed the distinct, and sometimes shared, characteristics of these three cities across a varied range of productions. These parallels are established quite succinctly in the book’s opening chapter, “Historical and Cultural Background”, where Schwerter charts the political and social reasoning behind each city’s divided nature. Indeed, it is this trope of division — the division of cities through sectarianism, through the clash of socio-political ideologies — that binds the study. In this opening chapter Schwerter charts the history of sectarianism and religious division in Belfast. Beirut’s division, as in Belfast, is evident along religious lines, whereas in Berlin division is physically manifested though the presence of the Berlin Wall, a concrete demonstration of opposing ideologies.

As well as providing the reader with a comprehensive political and historical context for each city, Schwerter also helpfully provides a decent insight into the histories of the film industries in Northern Ireland, Lebanon and Germany. Lebanese cinema, we learn, is a “comparatively small cinema which consists of … disparate filmmakers living both in Lebanon and in exile” (2022: 35), where Beirut serves as a near constant setting. This dispersion of film practitioners leads to an inconsistency in representation; Schwerter cites Elie Yazbek when she states that “despite Beirut’s omnipresence…the city never shows a stable and unchanging identity from film to film” (2022: 37-8). We are provided with a brief, but comprehensive history of the development of German cinema; of particular note is a reference to films produced by East German producers who “deviat[ed] from the syrupy image of life under socialism” (2022: 43), such as Konrad Wolf’s The Divided Sky (1964) and Gerhard Klein’s Berlin Around the Corner (1965).

As a student of Irish cinema, perhaps it is only natural that this reviewer is slightly more informed, and thus critical, of the section concerning the development and history of Northern Irish cinema, relative to those of Germany and Lebanon. There are two points I wish to take up: firstly, given the cinematic analysis that follows in subsequent chapters, the omission of any reference to Carol Reed’s 1947 film Odd Man Out is significant. According to John Hill Odd Man Out “artistically […] set the pattern for many cinematic portraits of the ‘troubles’ that followed” (2006:191). Its non-inclusion in this opening section of the book is noteworthy given its undeniable influence over subsequent productions and its thematic foreshadowing of much of the analysis that follows. Yes, there is a brief reference to Odd Man Out in the book’s fifth chapter, where its plot is compared to Yann Demange’s ’71 (2014), however this in no way does enough to give due account of the film’s impact.

Secondly — and perhaps this is a point that simply requires a little more clarity on the author’s part — Schwerter references an article by Irish language novelist Alan Titley, where he states that Northern Ireland had “managed to replace the Soviet Union as an important thriller location” (2022:53). This was a bold statement by Titley when he made it in his 1980 article “Rough Rug-Headed Kerns: The Irish Gunman in the Popular Novel”, but perhaps it is even more jarring for Schwerter to reference it in 2022 given the benefit of forty-two years’ worth of hindsight. Northern Ireland and the Troubles never impacted mainstream consciousness and collective cultural myth making to the same extent  as the Soviet Union and its role as enemy — as the Hollywood propaganda machine saw it — in the Cold War. Yes, Hollywood took note, shoehorning in the occasional IRA man or woman as tragic hero (see Brad Pitt in The Devil’s Own (1997)), fatalistic man of violence (Sean Bean in Patriot Games (1992)) or even as femme fatale (Natascha McElhone in Ronin (1998)), but it is quite unconvincing to suggest that the Northern Ireland conflict ever really supplanted the might of the Soviet Union in these terms. One need only think of GoldenEye (1995), where James Bond, played here by Pierce Brosnan — whose list of acting credits does include an IRA gunman in The Long Good Friday (1980) — straightens his tie while hurtling through Moscow in a Russian army tank to recognise that Northern Ireland could never have surpassed the Soviet Union as a popular cinematic location in the eyes of Hollywood.

Schwerter’s well-researched and detailed textual analysis of the films under investigation is neatly divided under several chapter headings: “Urban Space and Territoriality”, “Tropes of Violence”, “Representing Division Through Humour” and “Between Present, Past and Future”.

In the first of these, “Urban Space and Territoriality”, the concept of territoriality — how the partition of an urban space is communicated, be that physically through “walls, barricades or demarcation lines” or through “mental representations of…hostile grounds” (Schwerter 2022: 47) — contributes greatly to the development and progression of plot in the films under scrutiny. The presence in Belfast of murals, peace lines and kerbstone paintings, which serve to distinguish predominantly Catholic areas from Protestant, acts to guide characters as they navigate their way through this contested city space. Schwerter focusses on Nothing Personal (1995) and Resurrection Man (1998) as two “so called troubles thriller[s]” (2022: 48) where the characters’ “mental maps” (2022: 55) of the territoriality of the city space act as an important tool in their navigation through the city’s streets. This concept of mental maps, of “emotional and mythical meanings…and memories associated with place” (2022: 55), is carried through to Schwerter’s analysis of Beirut, the Encounter (1981), In the Shadows of the City (2000) and The Belt of Fire (2003). In Beirut however, the demarcation of urban division is not as clear as in Belfast; therefore, characters can find themselves easily “destabilized by the evolving territoriality of their environment” (2022: 69). This is not an issue in Berlin, where the Berlin Wall clearly marks the divide between the politically divergent West and East, a division which is starkly represented in One, Two, Three (1961), The Man on the Wall (1982) and Wings of Desire (1987), where “the presence of two completely different ideologies…visibly shape Berlin’s urban space” (2022: 84).

In “Tropes of Violence”, Schwerter provides a very interesting analysis of Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer (1998), where she highlights the psychological violence the wives of Republican prisoners were subjected to; where they were forced to “give unrestricted support without being allowed to have a life of their own” (2022: 107). In a similar vein The Lives of Others (2006) highlights the psychological oppression the German Democratic Republic (GDR) enacted on its citizens through the actions of the Stasi. In the chapter “Representing Division Through Humour” Schwerter frequently cites Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, whose theory of the carnivalesque is shown to be highly applicable to several films mentioned in the chapter. Schwerter states that the “humorous subversion of received power and value systems…liberates from traditional perceptions of the respective conflicts” (2022: 151). This is perhaps most evident in the Northern Irish satirical black comedy Divorcing Jack (1996) and in the German film Meier (1986) when the character of Ede Meier encounters GDR border police; their authority undermined through humour. In the book’s final chapter, “Between Present, Past and Future” we are presented with fresh, contemporary cinematic perspectives on the three cities’ recent histories. Of particular note is the Lebanese film A Perfect Day (2005), in which the city of Beirut bears few traces of the civil war; rather the “violence [of] the past keeps influencing the characters’ present” (2022: 243).

While comprehensive in terms of its research, I feel this study could go further in offering well-founded cinematic links between the three cities under scrutiny. What we are left with reads instead as three distinct studies of cinema concerning Belfast, Beirut and Berlin, rather than an interlinked study of the three. In this regard the book never really transcends the sum of its parts, in that each section, while well researched, feels somewhat incomplete.

City Limits: Filming Belfast, Beirut and Berlin in Troubled Times would, however, serve as an excellent introduction to anyone interested in the cinematic representation of these three divergent sites of political unrest in contemporary European history. For this reviewer the most compelling sections were those concerning Beirut and broader questions surrounding Lebanese cinema; the region’s cultural production perhaps neglected in this part of the world. One unfortunate point to note is the considerable number of typographical errors present throughout the text — an issue for the book’s publisher and editors — and, at times, the slightly inconsistent nature of the prose. It is testament to the strength and depth of the author’s research however that, while distracting, these formal concerns do not detract from the overall quality of the analysis — it remains an engaging read.

Works Cited

Hill, John. (2006). Cinema and Northern Ireland. London: British Film Institute.