Chronicle of a death foretold

By JAMES PARKER  |  October 24, 2007

Joy Division cannot begin to be understood without reference to Curtis’s consistent invocation of Nazi Germany. The band’s name itself was taken from a favorite novel of his, 1955’s House of Dolls by the Auschwitz survivor Yehiel De-Nur, writing as Ka-tzetnik 135633 (the Yiddish word for “concentration camper” and the number tattooed on De-Nur’s arm). It’s a text that straddles the line between fictionalized reportage and Holocaust porn: in a Nazi labor camp, a group of female prisoners are sterilized and then prostituted to their guards. They are the Joy Division. “I cringed,” wrote Deborah Curtis of the moment when she heard the name. “It was gruesome and tasteless and I hoped that the majority of people would not know what it meant.”

Such, however, were her husband’s preoccupations. Curtis’s lyrics in songs such as “Leaders of Men” and “Walked in Line” made murky allusions to the crimes of a hypnotized populace. Others, such as 1977’s “Failures,” were wistful for some kind of apocalyptic reckoning with greatness: “He no longer denies/All the failures of the Modern Man. . . . In his time he was a total man/Taken from Caesar’s side.” These were cues picked up, apparently half-consciously, by the rest of the band, who began to affect a totalitarian dourness of dress and demeanor.

“Anybody remember Rudolf Hess?” sneers Bernard Sumner, played by James Anthony Pearson in Corbijn’s Control, before an early Joy Division show. (Hess was Hitler’s deputy in the Nazi Party, interned for life in solitary confinement at Spandau Prison.) Musically and conceptually, Joy Division seem to have operated like this — undercover, as it were. The spirit emanating from Curtis would be translated or embodied with mediumistic accuracy by his bandmates, who would then cheerfully profess that they had no idea what he was on about. “Here, here/Everything is by design” went the song “Autosuggestion.”

While he functions, the depressive leads a double life. In one dimension, Ian Curtis was married, living in a small house outside Manchester, nine-to-fiving it by day and having a laugh with his mates by night; in the other he was assailed by leadership fantasies, near-cosmic guilt, and the blood-stink of the Coliseum. Northern English working-class beer-’n’-cigs culture, with its verbal economy of glum understatement, its hooded passions, was the strangest of homes for him. “Joy Division’s stage presence,” Deborah Curtis observed, “the power they held, had nothing in common with the timid, giggling boys who would stand at the bar.”

This is the flaw, for me, in Corbijn’s decision to shoot the entirety of Control in legendary black-and-white. Curtis lived between two worlds, and one of them was in humdrum color. Could Corbijn have devised some kind of back-and-forth between the mutable spectrum of the everyday and the mausolean tones of Curtis’s visions, he might have served the story better. Because like all stories, this one was about specifics. Time and place. And eternity.

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