With his black female companion, arched shoulders and prominent rib cage, several of Joaquin Phoenix’s scenes in the recently released film Joker directed by Todd Phillips are reminiscent of Christian Schad’s 1929 painting Agosta the Pigeon Chested Man and Rasha the Black Dove. And the similarities extend beyond appearances. Both humanise men considered freaks in their respective societies. Both have a strong sense of place and impending doom. Both are appeals to sobriety in moments of collective stupor.
Both Fleck and Agosta were paid performers, Fleck a low-grade clown for hire in Gotham City, Agosta a sideshow in a northern Berlin funfair. Freaks and outsiders are recurrent tropes in literature and the visual arts. But unlike Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame or David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man, in which the protagonists are depicted as victims of their society’s cruelty, Joker and Schad’s painting elevate their subjects above the level of ordinary men to the status of Übermenschen.
Schad was inspired by the Italian masters. But unlike the aristocrats and religious figures depicted in Renaissance art, his work featured everyday people, eccentrics and outsiders. Schad’s commitment to the everyday allowed him—like Christopher Isherwood through Goodbye to Berlin set in the same period—to capture the momentous times in which he lived.
Matthias Erbele says in Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s:
Schad employed the forms of earlier aristocratic portraiture to convey the remoteness, the inaccessibility of the modern individual. Moreover, in his choice of models he did not limit himself to the salon but rather drew from the most varied sources. He painted uprooted aristocrats, secretaries, unsung poets, loners, and deformed sideshow performers, ennobling them with style.
Agosta’s defiant gaze is a repudiation of the position his society had carved out for him. Through his body language he says I am different but I am human. I am misshapen but I am a man.
Similarly, Joker humanises Arthur Fleck, the type of person regarded by many in the mainstream media and woke corners of the internet as the cause—not effect—of social malaise, the most disgusting iteration of the human condition. The film explodes the simplistic narrative that people like Fleck are innately evil and their disenfranchisement therefore justified. We see that Fleck was not born a villain but made that way. That if Joker is a monster, we are Dr. Frankenstein.
A Sense of Place
Context is an important aspect both of Schad’s painting and of Phillips’ film, and in several respects the Gotham depicted in Joker resembles the Weimar-era Berlin in which Agosta lived. Both societies were ruled by a decadent and remote elite. Both were in the grip of severe economic recessions, with large swathes of the population languishing in unemployment and despair. Both, therefore, have a strong Nietzschean aspect, in that in each society God is long since dead, collective values and solidarity crumbling under an air of impending doom.
Is it me, or is it getting crazier out there?
— Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) in Joker
A strong sense of place is indispensible to character-driven art, especially stories. New York is as much a character of Taxi Driver as Travis Bickle. The same is true of Saint Petersburg in Crime and Punishment and Paris in Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. In all of these works, context is difficult to distinguish from the protagonists—cities mere extensions of the characters’ minds—like Ballard’s High Rise and Burroughs’ Interzone.
This is a key ingredient of Joker’s success. The film’s backdrop is a diorama of early 1980s New York City. The rubbish-strewn streets match the corrosion of the protagonist’s mind. The moral, physical and psychological disrepair are absolute, from the Flecks’ decrepit apartment to the heavily tagged subway cars to Arthur’s malformed body.
An Appeal to Sobriety
Schad was a member of the New Objectivity—sometimes called New Sobriety—movement, the Weimar school of painting characterised by dispassionate, often photographic realism. At the time Germany’s economy was acutely depressed. Many of the men who survived the First World War were maimed and destitute. The country’s pride and energy were depleted under the weight of reparations.
New Objectivity was a response to the hyper-real circumstances in which its members lived. A society in which there was no need for exaggeration or stylisation. Where the fictions abounded, leaving it to artists to create the reality. In times of collective stupor, art becomes sober, artists designated drivers.
The simplicity and sobriety that characterises Schad’s work is also true of Joker, at least the first half of the film. And this simple character portrayal is even more relevant now than it was in 1981. New York is cleaner and less crime-ridden than it was then. But there are more, not fewer, Arthur Flecks scattered across the hidden recesses of this world now than ever before. Ignored and ridiculed by a cruel and partisan media, it falls to artists to humanise those members of society otherwise considered inhuman.
Schad’s message in The Pigeon Chested Man is simple. Agosta and Rasha are human beings. Joker goes further. Phillips shows that Arthur Fleck too is human, an embattled but decent man who becomes a monster. And we made him that way.