ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 46, November 1999



Ian Verstegen

A Formalist Reborn





Rudolf Arnheim

_Film Essays and Criticism_

Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997

ISBN: 0-299-15260-X

ISBN: 0-299-15264-2

253 pp.


The English-speaking distaste for publishing historical documents for their own sake has finally been overcome in the case of Rudolf Arnheim, whose collected early writings, _Kritiken und Aufsatze zum Film_, has gratefully been translated. Carl Hanser Verlag of Germany is responsible for all of Arnheim's early German-language works, including the original version of the famous _Film as Art_ (_Film als Kunst_, 1932), the original manuscript of _Radio: An Art of Sound_ (_Rundfunk als Hoerkunst_, finished in Italy in 1935) that was never published because of Arnheim's exile, and finally the collected essays. Not a book but a judicious selection of works first chosen and brought together by Arnheim and Helmut Diederichs in 1977, _Kritiken und Aufsaetze zum Film_ stands the test of time as the most efficient vehicle for studying Arnheim's early non-monographical output. Now this is available to English-speakers through Brenda Benthien's excellent translation.


As is often the case with first-time translations, this is the cause of a major reassessment of Arnheim, who has become a caricature of his former self. In surveys of film theory Arnheim is routinely included with the founders of film theory, in a manoeuvre that effectively cuts him off from the strands that blossom into contemporary concerns. Arnheim is denigrated as a *formalist* or an *aesthete* that cannot engage film with the real world. The volume at hand does not directly address these concerns, obviously, but through the attention to three issues that figure prominently in its pages one can gain a major insight into the real Arnheim. These issues relate to Arnheim's vision of the nature of criticism, his notorious pronouncements on the sound film, and his little-known dealings with censorship in Nazi Germany. I shall begin with the first issue.


Recently Gertrud Koch treated Arnheim's work from her Frankfurt School perspective and had to admit, grudgingly, that it contained sensitive criticism. As a German, she did not suffer from the unavailability of Arnheim's early work but her hesitancy arose, I suspect, from Arnheim's inability to hitch his work to any larger perspective. The issue is evident if we compare Arnheim, the Berlin journalist for _Die Weltbuhne_, with Siegfried Kracauer, who occupied a similar position for the _Frankfurter Zeitung_. Kracauer's essays in _The Mass Ornament_ deal with the symbolic import of institutions and (new) modes of experience in their quasi-sociological significance. Arnheim never becomes speculative, but remains with the work or film at hand. Theoretical issues are not absent but discovered or refuted in the material itself.


Criticism and Formalism


Arnheim's reviews and portraits from his journalistic career at _Das Stachelswein_ (1925-1928), _Die Weltbuehne_ (1928-1932), and after, are of most interest to film historians as archival reports of day-to-day reviewing. But they are preceded by a short chapter with some brief pronouncements on the role of the critic (101-110). In his essay 'Professional Film Criticism' Arnheim notes the elaborate apparatus of filmmaking and its importance for the critic's job. The discrepancy between the means and the ends is much greater, he notes, than in other more established arts, thus it is precious knowledge to the critic. One must know something of how the film was made so that on opening night one has a better understanding of its real accomplishments and limitations. This is not so much relativism, or taking-into-account, but an informed judgment.


These seemingly innocuous statements bring to the forefront the problems facing criticism. Arnheim was trained as a gestalt psychologist in Berlin between 1924 and 1928. He never repudiated the label of 'psychologist' and this has important consequences for his positioning as a theorist. Arnheim did not produce socially-inspired works because his profession did not call for it. He had a very clear image of science in which his activities as a psychologist could be applied to film as an adequate burden. He was cautious of reading too much into films because he was aware of its historicizing consequence. The problem he faced was of turning a methodological observation about the difficulties of claiming knowledge into a theorized statement about its possibility. In short, because of his interest in epistemology and psychology, Arnheim is too aware of what has been called the 'self-excepting fallacy', or the imputation of distorting effects upon knowledge that one would not wish to impute to one's self.


The dilemma appears in the book. After reviewing a Rene Clair film, Arnheim responded to a defence by H. Sinsheimer. 'After you, honorable Doctor Sinsheimer, described last Sunday in this space how I 'dragged (Rene Clair) into sociological and aesthetic postulates' and 'made aesthetics demands'' he writes, 'the reader must take me for a balding old writer with thick glasses. But are aesthetic laws something other than laws of practical effects?' (183).


If the book could have been amplified in any way beyond the original selections of Diederichs, one might have looked to some documents that help clarify this issue. Arnheim writes of 'laws of practical effect' and this does not nominate aestheticism per se and in fact points to his more sophisticated position. The reader may be aware of Arnheim's espousal -- in his essay 'On the Nature of Photography' -- of the so-called 'causal theory' of photography, according to which the photograph is understood as having some special ontological or causal relationship to the world. This does not jibe with our common understanding of Arnheim. The arch-formalist here paradoxically argued very succinctly for the causal theory. Ironically, theorists like Joel Snyder would adopt Arnheim's old views of the constructedness of photography in order to oppose Arnheim's new theory. The key to understanding this contradiction is that photography and its technology have not stood still: new technologies call for new assessments.


An extremely important article that might have been added to the volume, 'Fiction and Fact', shows a change in Arnheim's attitude to film as early as 1940. Arnheim writes of a war film, _The Lion Has Wings_ (1939), which features both staged RAF flyers and actual war footage. He notes the jarring effect of mixing highly realistic journalistic footage with staged studio scenes. He is signalling that photographic technology has advanced to the point as to call for a reassessment. Arnheim had already been disturbed by the unsuccessful combination of real actors and expressionist props in _The Cabinet of Dr Caligari_ (111-112), and wrote of Chaplin's recent films that the director,


'had perfectly maintained his style; but the improvement of the lighting technique and the higher sensibility and better tone rendering of modern emulsions had destroyed the crude black-and-white effects which had given the photographic picture the abstractness of a wood-cut. There was now a clear contradiction in seeing knockabouts moving in a perfectly real every-day world.' (44)


With this quote, we can begin to see Arnheim's attraction to the old silent films of the 1920s, and also the partially-correct label of 'formalist'. They isolated visual action into a pure medium, and, accompanied by pure musical sound (piano accompaniment), were irresistible examples of pure expression. But Arnheim was not lamenting anything, he simply recommended that film would bifurcate, into 'photographic theater' (which he likens to television, which has a minimum of cinematographic device), and 'reality', or documentary. At this point Arnheim entered official American academia, and left full-time film (and radio) theorizing to the past.


In a letter of February 1st, 1946, Arnheim wrote to the Italian film theorist Renato May that, 'on these subjects, my dear May, you must understand that I am no longer occupied . . . I see few films and when I do see them I find them interesting only from the point of view of their ideological content'. [1] In 1948, in a letter to the journal _Bianco e Nero_ (another piece that might have been added) Arnheim alerted his colleagues to Siegfried Kracauer's _From Caligari to Hitler_: 'ideological analyses seem essential in this moment, much more important than discussions of form and technique'. [2] This shift was due to technology, which, through a new-found focus on causality, thrust the real people and their work into the attention of the movie-goer. Thus Arnheim said that as an aesthetician he was no longer interested in film, but as a man of the twentieth century he could not help being so.


Arnheim's reconciliatory position was summed up in an article of 1957, 'Accident and the Necessity of Art'. Arnheim wrote that 'the uniqueness and cultural worth of photography . . . lies precisely in the encounter of natural accident and the human sense of form'. [3] Arnheim's formalism must be contextualized within an informed causal chain of perception and technology. Only then can we understand both the 'formalist' and 'realist' aspects of Arnheim's position.


A Notorious Judgment on Sound


A closely related issue is the infamous stance Arnheim took on the sound film. The going consensus is that Arnheim thought that sound -- any sound -- ruined film. This sounds so bizarre that it is often mentioned mockingly in introductory textbooks and courses and then quickly passed over. Fortunately, this is a subject that is amply documented in the first third of _Film Essays and Criticism_ (29-51), in contributions that give a real flavour to the debates as they occurred. As it happens, almost nobody has read Arnheim's entire 'New Laocoon' that concludes English-language editions of _Film as Art_ (thus unnecessary to include in this volume, although it appears in the German edition). But attention to it in the context of the present essays brings out a real problem in the glib gloss given to Arnheim's position.


It seems that there are three issues that are misunderstood about Arnheim and sound, and these are that Arnheim's judgement was quickly made, that his opinion was made based on poor technology (perhaps a correlate of the first issue), and finally that sound is bad in some way because it is a technical improvement toward radical realism. The first thing we realize is that Arnheim's was no snap judgment based on a one-time experience of the talking film. Arnheim disliked talkies from the very beginning. In his 'Sound Film' of 1928 he states that the first time the actor opens his mouth with amplified voice, 'film art abdicates its hard-won place back to the good old peepshow' (30). However, we have further contributions continuing until 1934, all elaborating the same view-point. This means that Arnheim was both elaborating a well-thought position and doing so with increasingly good technology.


Arnheim has amply defended his appreciation for the addition of film and music, from the original piano accompaniment of the silents to the modern scored film, thus this can be dismissed. Arnheim did not object to sound (in fact he insisted on it), rather, he objected to *talking*. However, it becomes clear that he did not regard talking as another bad elaboration on the simplicity of early films. It is true that Arnheim was against the color film, and the changing aspect-ratios, because each increased the realism of the work and reduced its expressive properties to an undue proportion. But this is ultimately separate from Arnheim's discussions of talking in films. As a shorthand argument Arnheim sometimes lumps them together (as he might lump surround-sound with panavision, etc.), but his own discussions point out how they are separate problems.


For Arnheim, the talking added to a film clashes syntactically with the moving image -- its very structure does not harmonize with the visual element. In _Film Essays and Criticism_ we see Arnheim searching for the position ultimately adopted in 'New Laocoon' in which he sees speech as both an irrational movement applied to visual pantomime and restrictive of the symbolism of the action to a practical level of simple interaction. Removed from the world of talking, photographed objects can 'speak'. With talking, objects can only with difficulty become carriers of visual symbolism, hence so much symbol-mongering via conventional meaning rather than visual expression. For Arnheim, these difficulties ought to be obvious to any sensitive viewer, but he makes recourse to what are ultimately ontological arguments that show once again his searching with comparative-aesthetic problems. Again and again he approaches film, not from an immersed view-point, but with a critical eye on the other arts and general principles lest technology and the masses carry him away.


Politicizing Arnheim


The interposition of Arnheim within a sensitive web of causal real-world processes mediating art and the aesthetic help us better appreciate his real-life dealings as a human being living in the deteriorating Weimar Republic -- also documented in _Film Essays and Criticism_. Arnheim signals an early (1929) protest against Weimar censorship (89-92) when he questioned the use of the old 1920 laws put in place with the establishment of the new republic. Outside of Arnheim's participation directly, but extremely pertinent to his life, was the sensation caused by the release of _All Quiet on the Western Front_ in December 1930. At the premiere of the film version of Remarque's book, Nazi sympathizers let loose rats in the theaters and terrorized anyone attempting to see the anti-war film. Arnheim's editor at _Die Weltbuhne_, Carl von Ossietzy, wrote a brave response to the terror, and galvanized Arnheim in his own protest two years later.


This took place with the release of the Bertold Brecht-Ernst Ottwald written, S. Th. Dudow directed, and Communist funded film, _Kuhle Wampe_, also known as _Wither Germany?_. At issue were the self-same censorship laws already mentioned, now more precarious with increasing Nazi pressure put on the weakened state. The film is a slice of life of contemporary Germany, showing quotidian life and its uglier side, as when a young unemployed man commits suicide and a young woman searches for an abortion. Arnheim defended the film before it went to the review board (93-94), after its rejection by this body (94-96), and finally delivered a speech at a rally that helped eventually admit the film, with much editing, to general projection. Arnheim noted how _Kuhle Wampe_ was undertaken in a conservative vein, not pointing to causes but to showing simply that 'strength lies in unity' (95). He objected to the defensive posture of the Social Democrats, 'seeing communism in every robin red-breast and in every red cabbage' (97), and after the board objected to a church spire and church bells during the scene in which athletes run nude into the water, advised future film-makers to 'have his assistant director scour the horizon with binoculars for church spires, and his sound man listen for the possible ringing of bells, so that the inviolable precincts of the church not be infringed upon' (95).


Arnheim shows a mature view in these pieces, pragmatically questioning censorship and advocating freedom not for their own sake but as instruments in the positioning of the Weimar state on the eve of its dissolution. In this vein one reads the brilliant satire of Hitler's moustache, 'Chaplin as Teacher' (222-223), whose original title 'Chaplin als Erzieher' plays off of a well-known proto-nationalistic work 'Rembrandt als Erzeiher' (1890) by Julius Langbehn. Arnheim departs from the delightful coincidence of Chaplin and Hitler's moustache and plays up the similarity to illustrate 'the fact that the master's moustache is unsuited to regulation blond Teutons' (222). Arnheim ends his raucous lampoon by concluding that the Hitler moustache: 'is as brief and 'snappy' as the SA's order of the day. But this is not pertinent frugality. It is the impertinent disproportion between little capital and a big mouth. Chaplinesque.' (223) In an interview Arnheim has indicated that a friend, who was registered with the National Socialists, informed him that the piece had been put into a Nazi file with Arnheim's name. The next year this led -- along with his Jewish ethnicity -- to his decision to move to Italy.


Arnheim regarded _Kuhle Wampe_ as more or less of a failure in that it did not name the causes of the injustice it showed. Yet he defended the film to be shown, just as Ossietzky defended _All Quiet on the Western Front_. Some years later Arnheim criticized Chaplin's _The Great Dictator_ for its lack of edge (211-215). One should note that in all these instances Arnheim held fast to his 'aesthetic' imperatives for the purposes of effective communication or, as he wrote, 'laws of practical effect'.


As a critic Arnheim lived with film art for several years, contributing to its life and world. _Film Essays and Criticism_ shows us, philosophically, a model of responsible criticism as an instrument of the *vita activa*. Although his guiding principles were never stated explicitly, Arnheim followed a common sense route to make only those claims that his materials support, without endangering his own position. Far from viewing Arnheim's formalism as apolitical or *status quo*, _Film Essays and Criticism_suggests that formalism and social progressiveness were not deemed incompatible, just as they are not in Arnheim's contemporary, Bahktin. Correspondingly, we are led to view Arnheim's recent work as a species, not as a form of cognitive-formalism, but rather a critical realism. [4]


Temple University, Philadelphia, USA





1. Aristarco, 'I sistematori', p. 106.


2. Arnheim, 'Lettera dagli Stati Uniti', p. 42.


3. Arnheim, 'Accident and the Necessity of Art', p. 170.


4. See Verstegen, 'Rudolf Arnheim'.





Aristarco, Guido, 'I sistematori: Balazs e Pudovkin; Eisenstein e Arnheim', _Storia delle teoriche del film_, (Torino: Einaudi, 1951).


Arnheim, Rudolf, 'Fiction and Fact', _Sight and Sound_, no. 32, 1939/40.

--- 'Lettera dagli Stati Uniti', _Bianco e Nero_, vol. 9, 1948.

--- 'Accident and the Necessity of Art', _Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism_, vol. 16, 1957; reprinted in _Toward a Psychology of Art_, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966).

--- 'On the Nature of Photography', _Critical Inquiry_, vol. 1, 1974; reprinted in _New Essays on the Psychology of Art_, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986).


Koch, Gertrud, 'The Materialist of Aesthetic Illusion', _New German Review_, 1990, pp. 166-78.


Kracauer, Siegfried, _The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays_, Thomas Y. Levin, ed., (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995).


Verstegen, Ian, 'Rudolf Arnheim', in M. Kelly, ed., _The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics_, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999


Ian Verstegen, 'A Formalist Reborn',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 46, November 1999 <>.




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