FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 37, September 1999

 


 

Paul M. Malone

Negotiating Modernity in Weimar Film Theory

 


 

 

 

 

Sabine Hake

_The Cinema's Third Machine: Writing on Film in Germany 1907-1933_

Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993

ISBN 0-8032-2365-X (hbk.)

xvii + 353 pp.

 

'Every time a new cultural practice emerges, the established systems of thought are put into question, and, for a short moment, critical paradigms are open to reexamination and renegotiation' (ix).

 

The title of Sabine Hake's massive book may at first sight puzzle any reader who fails to recognize its origin in Christian Metz's _The Imaginary Signifier_, which defined the 'third machine' as 'discourse about the cinema' [1] -- the first two 'machines' being the film industry itself and the cinema-socialised spectator's psychology. [2] That same reader, once enlightened by the epigraph to Hake's introduction (ix), may continue to be nonplussed if, as I am, that reader is inclined to dismiss most of Metz's psychoanalytically-inclined work as vague nonsense (and here I confess to being swayed by Noel Carroll's critique of Metz [3]).

 

The hypothetical and curmudgeonly reader I have imagined, however, would be mistaken to lay this important and informative book aside merely because of its title. For one thing, beyond a couple of cursory mentions of the 'imaginary' and a few appearances of the 'Other', there is not a great deal of Metz (or of Lacan via Metz, as the case may be) explicitly to be found in the book, pound for pound. Indeed, beyond the epigraph, Metz's name never once appears in the text. And yet, to forestall the disappointment of any Metz enthusiasts who may be reading this review, the spectre of Metz, informing Hake's approach and hovering over the book as a patron shade, is nonetheless curiously appropriate; for various reasons which I hope will become clear.

 

The central thesis of Hake's work, based on the premise given in the opening quotation to this review, is that during the years in question, the emergence of a new medium *cum* social practice forced German intellectual society, with its strong traditions of taking aesthetic criticism seriously as a constituent of public discourse, into a position of reevaluation: critics, in other words, used film criticism to 'define their function' both in relation to the cinema and in relation to 'the bourgeois public sphere' (ix). On this view, film criticism is in a sense hardly 'about' film at all, but rather about the society that produces both the criticism and its object. At roughly the same time, however, 'film' itself (or more properly the film industry) quickly began to develop its own self-promoting discourse, first through trade publications and later by means of fan magazines and other mass-media outlets, appealing to both prospective distributors and prospective spectators. [4] As a result, the totality of this discourse about cinema and film can be seen as a mirror of the larger society during a crucial period in German history, and as an aspect of the negotiation of mass culture and modernity.

 

Hake therefore argues further that the major watersheds in the construction of film discourse in Germany are not such events as the arrival of sound in 1927, dividing criticism into 'silent' and 'sound', but instead the social crises: the fall of the Hohenzollern monarchy with Germany's defeat in the First World War; the shaky founding of the Weimar Republic; the depression and the rise of nationalism and fascism (xi). The major transition during the period according to this interpretation, that is, from monarchy to republic, is reflected in a notable change of terminology in the critical discourse, as critics move from dealing with the 'cinema' (in German, 'das Kino' or old-fashioned 'der Kintopp' or 'Kientopp'; words which in German, as in British English, denote both the technology and the physical/social space where the technology is exhibited to the spectator) to discussing 'film' ('der Film', both as individual artwork and as abstract aesthetic category). Hake's account is accordingly divided into two sections, 'Writing on Cinema in Wilhelmine Germany, 1907-1918' and 'Writing on Film in the Weimar Republic, 1918-1933'. The end of the second period is marked by a final crisis: the crippling of all aesthetic criticism by Goebbels's infamous dictum that all art criticism in the Third Reich was to to be simply descriptive rather than evaluative.

 

Hake's first section is particularly noteworthy for its exposure to an English readership of a great deal of obscure writing: technical and trade journalism and sociological studies rub shoulders with better-known, though seldom-translated, examples of 'highbrow' criticism and fevered Expressionist enthusiasm. Even for the German-speaking reader, much of this writing would be hard to find without knowing exactly what to look for. At first, while the trade publications unashamedly treated cinema as a technical wonder whose drawing power made it a commodity, reformers from both ends of the political spectrum yearned for an educational cinema and bemoaned the potential effect of cinemagoing on the working classes who formed the majority of the audience; only after a brief settling-in period did discourse on the cinema expand to include sociological studies, references in poetry and fiction, and philosophical or psychological analyses. Vitalism and phenomenology, as well as Freud's theory of 'Schaulust', or the 'scopic drive', were enlisted to explain the pleasure taken by the film audience -- that is, by the audience except for the critic, who of course was only in attendance for scientific purposes (99).

 

Hake's refusal to privilege discourses on the basis of 'high' or 'low' culture, or to rank literary or academic production above public relations and trade writing, creates a lively cross-section of Wilhelmine culture while demonstrating common threads running through otherwise unconnected discourses. Her fine ear for the use of language in the texts she analyses is all the more impressive given the difficulty of working through translations of the texts, and the variable quality of those translations (many of the best, and some of the worst, are Hake's own; admittedly, some of the texts are doubtless bad examples of style in the original German as well). Particularly arresting is the agreement across the political spectrum in the early period that the cinema represents a social threat equivalent to drugs or alcohol: damaging physically, mentally, and morally (49-52). However dubious the existence of Metz's putative film spectator, subject to a supposed 'dream-like and sleepy confusion of film and reality', [5] in the condescending view of the critics of the Wilhelmine reform movement, the working classes formed exactly this sort of audience: the right wing feared that the workers would become too distracted to work, while the left was equally concerned that the proletariat would be too enervated to rise up. These attitudes later continue beneath the surface of the critical culture of the Weimar Republic; indeed, to some extent, they were reinforced in the 1920s by the rise of National Socialism on the one hand, and Leninism on the other (185-211). The Wilhelmine expressions of these attitudes are generally more overt, and never more so than when the subject is the relatively recent phenomenon of the working woman, doubly handicapped intellectually by being proletarian and female, and that even in the writings of (bourgeois) female sociologists such as Emilie Altenloh (45-48; 51-52).

 

Hake's long second section, compared to which the first only forms a brief introduction, deals with the Weimar period and the move from concentrating on cinema spectatorship to analyzing the filmic medium, as heralded by the rise of film-based, rather than cinema-based, terms of reference. During this period, the cinema began to appeal to the middle classes, not entirely coincidentally given that the government's propaganda aims in the final years of the war had led to the creation of major production entities, first Deulig and ultimately the famous Ufa studio. Almost overnight, film had to be taken seriously as a medium. The centrepiece of the book is formed by the first four chapters of the second section, 'The Rise of Film Criticism', 'Toward a Philosophy of Film', 'Fictions of Cinema', and 'The Politicization of Film'. All four of these chapters cover roughly the entire time span 1918-1933 from different perspectives: roughly and respectively, the ongoing commodification, aestheticisation, mediatisation, and, obviously, politicisation of film as art (or non-art, depending on the writer). In a sense, however, the second of these chapters, as the seventh of twelve in total, is itself a sort of pivot point for the entire work, and I will concentrate on this chapter.

 

Hake speaks here of a philosophy of film in the sense that the physicality and gestures of the body (including above all the face) in the silent film were claimed by humanistic critics as a sign of the universality of experience, and therefore as a spiritual counterweight to modernity's fragmentation of experience. Here, in materialist and essentialist claims which extolled the technology of film in service of a basically anti-technological romantic idealism, the body thus became the site where spectatorship gave way to representation as the subject of theory. Such early stars as Asta Nielsen and Charlie Chaplin provoked this concentration on face and gesture, but in this concentration, Hake argues, the stars became more 'real' than the spectator, so that in the end the spectator was reduced to a reflection of the star. In place of a discourse which focused on the working classes as quasi-somnambulistic cinemagoers receptive to good or ill from the screen, this new, more academic discourse of representation 'allowed writers to . . . project their dreams of redemption onto the images on the screen, which were simultaneously so distant and so close' (131). And here, incidentally, we leave behind the last recognizable echo of Metz. [6]

 

In the light of these projections of redemption, Hake's analysis links the increasing concentration of the film industry into a few major studios and the rise of the 'prestige' film with the growth in academic interest in film, expanding from the legal and economic disciplines pre-World War I to the humanistic disciplines post-war. Thus, even as the industry became more aggressively capitalist, the academic discourse became more aesthetic and theoretical, obscuring the social reality and apparently domesticating the new medium within an increasingly institutionalized conceptual framework which largely excluded political consideration (except where politics could be reintroduced under an aesthetic guise). Hence the proliferation of normative writings purporting to set out the artistic 'laws' of film, usually in terms of conventional narrative form under the guidance of a single artist's vision, equally out of touch with social reality and with the cutting edge of contemporary art (144-51). More avant-garde writers, such as the director Walter Ruttmann, favoured anti-narrative and even anti-representational forms, but remained marginalised in the face of the prevalent aesthetic discourse (151-7).

 

Hake's thesis is complex, and I have certainly failed to do it justice here, first by presenting it in its barest outlines and second by isolating this chapter from the other three which surround it. Suffice to say, however, that Hake argues her case throughout these chapters with considerable clarity and with a great deal of documentary evidence (admittedly, the evidence *could* be pre-selected and the translations, in this case, skewed, but this danger exists with all such projects and here I see no compelling reason to lay such charges).

 

The final chapters of the second section, and of the book as a whole, are a discussion of the early, and relatively unknown film writings of Bela Balazs, Siegfried Kracauer, and Rudolf Arnheim. The ideas of these critics take on a new and deeper resonance against the historical background provided in the preceding chapters All three men were leftists of Jewish bourgeois stock, steeped in contemporary philosophical movements, and all three were forced to come to terms with the rise of National Socialism, but each chose a different approach to film; Hake interprets them as the creators of a true 'theory of cinema' which incorporates cinematic experience as a whole -- as opposed to 'philosophies' which, on her view, isolate only specific aspects (212). Her bringing them in at the conclusion of this book is meant to reclaim them from an ahistorical and depoliticised view which identifies them with 'the heroic project of a universally valid theory of film' and 'present[s] as closed systems of thought that which is really the product of intellectual development under specific historical conditions' (213-4). Hake presents Balazs as an idealist whose vision of 'film as modern folklore' (216) moves him to attempt a synthesis of philosophy, traditional aesthetics, and radical politics; Kracauer as a materialist social critic with a detective's eye for 'the transgressive quality of cinema' (248); and Arnheim as a Gestalt-influenced cognitivist with a technician's eye and a firm belief in the critic's function to establish 'artistic standards' (282).

 

While all three of these lengthy portraits speak well for Hake's approach by providing a much richer and more nuanced view of these critics' ideas than one is likely to find in the standard reference works, it is the concluding depiction of Rudolf Arnheim and his complex, even self-contradictory ideas (further complicated by his exile and his having to rework his writings for a 1950s American readership), which is truly revelatory in comparison to the usual, rather offhand dismissal of Arnheim as a crank due to his championing of silent films for decades after the introduction of sound. It is in this connection that Hake, in two notes (318), quite rightly upbraids Noel Carroll (and since it was I who introduced Carroll as one of my intellectual influences earlier, it's only fair that I allow Hake a crack at him in response) for subscribing to precisely such a dismissal, failing to take into account the historical influences that shaped both his earlier and his later writings. [7] Hake's point is well taken here, and before I reread anything by Balazs, Kracauer or Arnheim, I intend to reread Hake's corresponding chapter first, in an attempt to keep at bay the preconceptions I inherited of them.

 

At the same time, however, it must be said that the book's conclusion, though impressive, also reveals a certain weakness of the work as it stands: the complexity and richness of the multiple discourses which Hake analyses throughout the book, and which she takes such pains to contextualise, seem somewhat reduced by the realization that the final, overarching result can itself be seen as a rather conventional, even mythic tale of rise and sudden tragic fall: the confusion of voices produces three giant figures of 'real theory' who are then sent into exile in their prime. I would speculate, for example, in contrast to Hake's placing a decisive full stop at the point of 'the repression of all critical discourse in 1933' (xi), that an approach which casts its net as wide as Hake does in search of texts would also find intriguing points of philosophical and aesthetic continuity in writing on film under the Nazis. But perhaps the structure of Hake's narrative is only further proof of her earlier assertion that 'myths, generalizations, and cliches were, from the very beginning, an integral part of film's discourse about itself' (143).

 

Hake's project is primarily historiographic rather than philosophical per se, and Hake therefore rightly spends far more time recounting the philosophical stance of others than she does her own. Because I too am primarily a historian, I take little issue here with the philosophical content of this book. Her account of the thoughts of others may be her own interpretation, but when those others are unknown I have no basis to contest her interpretation, and when her interpretation is more satisfying than the interpretations I am used to -- as is the case with Balazs, Kracauer, and Arnheim -- I am simply not inclined to argue. Thick as it is, this book's relatively modest goals include the introduction of this material in historical context in order to prompt further research, which will only then begin to debate in depth the critics of the period and their relationship to film and to philosophy (xvii). Among the projects which Hake singles out for potential future research, for example, is the tracing of continuities between the philosophical ideas of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the early stages of cinema and film criticism in Germany; likewise, a similar investigation of the beginnings of cinema criticism in other countries would be the next step towards a comprehensive comparative study (xvii). Particularly intriguing for me is the anticipation in the work of many obscure early critics of later issues in film theory -- above all, of exactly the sort of issues taken up again in the 1960s and 1970s: questions of presence/absence, identity/other, etc. (It is precisely this anticipation which makes Metz's work such an intriguing point of intertextual reference, regardless of my opinion of him.)

 

This book, however, has done far more than achieve its goals. Hake's well-argued analyses and careful placing of cinema and film discourse in the context of the debate on mass culture make her work vital, though certainly not sufficient, for a thorough understanding of late Wilhelmine and Weimar culture.

 

Two final caveats: while _The Cinema's Third Machine_ is hardly terribly abstruse philosophically, its terrific wealth of detail and non-linear narrative form may pose some challenge to any reader not reasonably conversant with historical events and intellectual currents in Germany, and in Europe at large, during this period. Most of the book's prospective readers, however, are likely to have exactly this knowledge, so this is hardly a major objection.

 

More importantly, this book straddles the threshold of respectability within German studies, the discipline in which Hake and I work, where it is practically a truism that film and film studies still do not get the respect given to literature; an earlier review of Hake's book, among others, has pointed out with slight exaggeration that under these circumstances, writing about films 'might be damaging to one's career' as a German scholar. [8] It may be in this light that one should interpret Hake's closing remarks, to the effect that the historiography of film theory must be separated from film history: 'Ultimately, the encounter of theory and historiography can only be staged from within and with the help of texts, that is to say, through textual interpretation' (300). Taken too seriously, Hake's polemic could be seen as endorsing a completely 'filmless' study of film theory; and it is true that her book mentions surprisingly few actual films, and most of them only in passing. It seems clear to me, however, that she means by this to redress an imbalance which has seen film criticism as having no other referent except film -- a view to which her work eloquently gives the lie.

 

University of Waterloo, Canada

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Christian Metz, _The Imaginary Signifier_, p. 14.

 

2. Ibid., pp. 7-9.

 

3. Noel Carroll, _Mystifying Movies _, pp. 32-48.

 

4. Metz, of course, argues that much film criticism becomes itself a form of film advertising, even against its will, and Hake's approach implicitly subscribes to this notion. On this point, I have no quarrel with Metz. (_The Imaginary Signifier_, pp. 14-15.)

 

5. Metz, _The Imaginary Signifier_, p. 103.

 

6. In particular, see Metz, _The Imaginary Signifier_, pp. 42-57.

 

7. Noel Carroll, _Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory_, pp. 17-91. Of course, the ahistoricity of certain of Carroll's claims does not necessarily invalidate all of his criticisms of Arnheim's theory.

 

8. Renate Fischetti, 'Review Essay: German Cinema', p.179.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Noel Carroll, _Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory_ (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

--- _Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory_ (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

 

Renate Fischetti, 'Review Essay: German Cinema', _The German Quarterly_ vol. 71 no. 2, Spring 1998.

 

Christian Metz, _The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema_, trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster and Alfred Guzzetti (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982).

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

Paul M. Malone, 'Negotiating Modernity in Weimar Film Theory',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 37, September 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n37malone>.

 

  

 

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