The Promise of Cinema: German Film Theory, 1907-1933

The Promise of Cinema: German Film Theory, 1907-1933

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Rich in implications for our present era of media change, The Promise of Cinema offers a compelling new vision of film theory. The volume conceives of “theory” not as a fixed body of canonical texts, but as a dynamic set of reflections on the very idea of cinema and the possibilities once associated with it. Unearthing more than 275 early-twentieth-century German texts, this ground-breaking documentation leads readers into a world that was striving to assimilate modernity’s most powerful new medium. We encounter lesser-known essays by Béla Balázs, Walter Benjamin, and Siegfried Kracauer alongside interventions from the realms of aesthetics, education, industry, politics, science, and technology. The book also features programmatic writings from the Weimar avant-garde and from directors such as Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Nearly all documents appear in English for the first time; each is meticulously introduced and annotated. The most comprehensive collection of German writings on film published to date, The Promise of Cinema is an essential resource for students and scholars of film and media, critical theory, and European culture and history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520962439
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/01/2016
Series: Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism , #49
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 704
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Anton Kaes is Professor of German and Film & Media at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written and edited numerous books, including Shell Shock Cinema and The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, and is coeditor of the Weimar and Now series.

Nicholas Baer is Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies and Philosophy at Purchase College, State University of New York. He has published many essays on German cinema, film theory, and the philosophy of history.

Michael Cowan is Reader in Film Studies at the University of St. Andrews. He is the author of numerous books and collections including, most recently, Walter Ruttmann and the Cinema of Multiplicity: Avant-garde - Advertising - Modernity.

Read an Excerpt

The Promise of Cinema

German Film Theory 1907â"1933

By Anton Kaes, Nicholas Baer, Michael Cowan


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96243-9





The [Kientopp

First published as "Der Kientopp" in Morgen: Wochenschrift für deutsche Kultur 1, no. 18 (October 11, 1907), 578–79. Translated by Eric Ames.

Early attempts to assess cinema's power and potential varied widely, but perhaps no issue was more central than sense perception, particularly vision. With its kaleidoscopic presentations, often strung together pell-mell, the cinematograph seemed to offer an aesthetic counterpart to the urban experience of hyperstimulation and sensory fragmentation described by Georg Simmel and others. It could also dazzle the senses with impossible spectacles such as fast motion and backward projection. Indeed, as early psychological theories such as Karl Marbe's Theorie der kinematographischen Projektion (1910) emphasized, the fundamental cinematographic operation of making still images appear as continuous movement presupposed the fallibility of spectators' senses, too sluggish to the perceive the trick and hence susceptible to further illusions (Jonathan Crary). This power over the senses formed the focal point of intense debates; while reformers decried cinema's alleged "damage to the eyes and the nerves" (see chapter 7, no. 99), as well as its suggestive power over young minds, other observers extolled its ability to generate thrills and to extend the human senses (chapter 3, no. 33).

This chapter brings together several prewar writings that sought to come to grips with the new "sensorium" of cinematographic projection: to understand its pleasures, situate it with respect to previous forms of entertainment, articulate its relationship to modern life, probe its interactions with spectatorial imagination, and assess the challenge it posed to aesthetic criticism. In the first text, which is also one of the first published articles on cinema by a well-known intellectual, Hanns Heinz Ewers marvels at the medium's "curious pleasures" for the senses in an exploratory tone that will be evident in several subsequent articles in this chapter. Ewers (1871–1943), best known as an author of horror and fantastic literature, also became one of the first literati to pen screenplays: Der Verführte (The seduced one, 1913), Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague, 1913), and other productions. This essay appeared in Morgen (1907–09), a short-lived weekly cultural journal published in Berlin.

Whenever I leaf through the newspapers in a café, and see how much is printed about all kinds of art, day after day, I can't believe my eyes. There are articles on theater, variety shows, art exhibitions, concerts, lectures, and books, but who speaks of the Kientopp?

Are all of these press people blind? Don't they know that the Kientopp is a cultural factor beyond comparison in its priority and power? Don't they realize that it can be placed beside Gutenberg's invention, for which we writers have our livelihoods to thank? An equal measure of vitality, please.

The Kientopp! I heard this word for the first time when I returned to Berlin and instantly fell in love with it. For four years, on three continents, in the most forsaken holes, I have been going to "cinematographic theaters" (what a dreadful term!); from now on, I am only going to Kientopps. I love the Berliners for inventing this word, a national word, which convincingly demonstrates their love of a good cause.

There is no point of view from which we should not welcome the Kientopp with resounding applause!

In terms of education, where else do you learn so easily, so playfully, thousands of things lying far, far off on the horizon? What book can offer you such a concept of foreign lands? Father, send your kids to the Kientopp! It's better than Sunday school! And you should go in yourself!

In terms of amusement, these are the circenses of the twentieth century! The Kientopp costs ten pfennig to enter. Not even bad sideshows are that cheap. And even the best are not nearly as amusing. What philistine has become so hardened that he cannot enjoy the delightful Parisian burlesque.

In terms of hygiene, no one smokes or drinks in the Kientopp. And the bad air is still much better than that of the beer cellars and schnapps bars. The Kientopp is as beneficial to the lungs as it is for the purse.

And so on! But what good is it if I blow my horn for the Kientopp in this paper and appeal to classes who don't even read it? Hence I wish to trade my floppy hat for a top hat, and now preach to the intellectuals. Go to the Kientopp!

It's not as if intellectuals could not learn a lot in the Kientopp, something new every week. But they could also, as an added bonus, gather rather curious pleasures here. Quite exquisite is, for example, the pleasure of suspended causality. It is not very easy to identify with it, since our stupid rational mind always stands under the tyrannical influence of cause and effect. Then comes along Mr. Kientopp and inserts his film backwards into the projector. A little sleight of hand — and it turns the history of the world upside down; the effect becomes the cause, the cause, effect.

Allow me to offer a simple example. I take a cigarette, stick it in my mouth, light it with a match, and smoke. The cigarette smolders and grows smaller, the ashes fall down, the paper burns up, and finally I throw away the butt. Now roll the film backwards. From the earth a burning cigarette butt flies up into my mouth. I smoke, the cigarette becomes longer and longer, and the ashes fly up from the ashtray and into the cigarette, turning themselves into paper, until my cigarette is whole again. Then I hold an already burned-down match, which also becomes whole again, and whose flame extinguishes at the moment when I strike it on the box.

Michel eats, and the noodles come out of his mouth; his child crawls out of the midwife's arms and back into the body of its mother! Who says that the prophets are all dead? Wasn't the magnificent August Kopisch a great prophet when he wrote his poem about a giant crab? And, if you will, let us fantasize a bit. Take whatever situations, plots, or events you wish and mix them together using inductive and deductive methods. With a little practice, one would become the greatest sophist who ever turned himself on his head.

At first, like all new art, the Kientopp mainly copies from nature. So far, this is the best it has had to offer. Up to now, what people have created for it has been partly dreadful, such as those silly magic scenes, and partly amusing, such as Parisian burlesque scenes, but mostly unsatisfactory for a refined taste. Where are the poets and painters who will create for the Kientopp? Many have already done so unconsciously. The best among them is Shakespeare; his Richard III would receive a better and more comprehensible treatment in the Kientopp than on many a theater stage. Or take Hogarth; string some of his scenes together and let them whir through the film projector, and you will see this artist coming to life.

Today, however, we are familiar with the Kientopp and can consciously create for it. Here lies a new terrain for art, an unplowed field. Who will help to cultivate it? And you, dear Mr. Censor, who have done so many foolish things and continue to do them, for once do something for which one may thank you. Now that you have absolute control, hire an artistic adviser, and a good one at that — for nobody expects you to understand anything about art yourself! And if the artists then come and hand you their Kientopp plays — and they will come! — separate the chaff from the wheat; stamp out the kitsch and foster the art! If you will do that, then I will write you the first Kientopp play and make you the hero.



Cinematographic Theater

First published as "Kinematographentheater" in Die neue Rundschau 20 (February 1909), 319–20. Translated by Nancy Nenno.

A prolific writer and a close friend of Franz Kafka, Max Brod (1884–1968) published his first novel, Nornepygge Castle, in 1908. The following feuilleton article, with its paratactic list of attractions witnessed in a film screening, offers a good sense of the "challenges" (mentioned by Brod in the last sentence) for any writer seeking to convey the phenomenological excess of a motion picture screening. Die neue Rundschau was one of the most prestigious literary journals of the time.

I imagine the members of the Pathé Frères company in Paris roughly as follows: on the trail of new cinematographic ideas, they stroll through the famously beautiful environs of Paris and come, for instance, upon a sand pit. One of them cries out immediately: "Voilà" and so on — in French, naturally. Translated, his words mean approximately that this spot, in his view, would offer a golden opportunity for a new shoot, one that could be titled Drama in den Goldminen Kaliforniens [Drama in the California goldmines]. So they quickly procure the necessary paraphernalia: broad-brimmed hats, revolvers, ropes for the loads of gold, winches, and cartridge belts to be strapped diagonally across the chest. Then they're off: under the supervision of the dandified director, the actors perform their best Wild West manners for the film. ... Alternately, the flat roof of a warehouse evokes images of romantic Moorish citadels; a bog suggests horseback rides through the Gobi desert; a passing prop wagon suggests all the scenery of the Earth. ... And I do not state this as a reproach. No, I am really enchanted by the fact that Edison's invention, which at first aspired to nothing more than sober copies of life, has brought so much fantastic theater into the world. I sit many an evening before the white screen (subsequent to the amusement I unfailingly experience upon entering the cinematographic theater and observing a ticket window, a coat check, music programs, ushers, and rows of seats — all of this pedantically exact as though in a real theater with live actors). After this truly witty (as it seems to me) observation, the low buzzing of the machinery makes me simmer with excitement. I have studied the program. I know which offering is "instructive," which is "outrageously funny," "sensational," or will present "touching scenes from real life." Suddenly, the hall darkens for Reise nach Australien [Trip to Australia]. I see streets with people walking by, their rapid clip not disrupting their ease in the slightest. Some stand still and look down at me from under their Australian caps. God bless you, fellow, you don't see me (perhaps you're already dead), it's all the same: Greetings! Next, I experience a conflagration — alarms, then the water brigade on the march, beyond the call of duty. It seems I already experienced the same fire on a trip through Chicago, but perhaps my cinematographic memory plays tricks on me. Besides, I didn't come to Australia simply to see fires; any minute now I'll be surprised by two tracks racing straight at me. I'm sitting, you see, in the locomotive of a speeding train. I'm delighted by mountains, rivers, and natives, by the absolute nothingness in the tunnel. Now I see types from the country's interior; as always with exotic shots, the razor must be there, as must the lathered-up black man making faces of a distinctly central European variety. Then, suddenly, "The End" is announced. Ah, why so soon? But the next film is no worse. Science receives its due; now cheer marches into place; and then the tragic, accompanied by the adagio of a Viennese song. There are the magic tricks, a thousand patiently colored photographs, metamorphoses of blossoms into ballerinas, Brahmans with long beards, wrongdoers whose heads drop off like nothing, people floating through the air, flying to the moon, deities, the devil. It wouldn't do to slight everyday events. Counterfeit rings are uncovered; criminals imprisoned after lengthy chases; poor children are tortured; innocent fathers of other children are condemned and saved at the last second. I already know the performing personnel well — it is that boy who can scarcely hold back his laughter whenever he is supposed to cry. Yesterday this deceived husband played a brother beyond the reach of emotion. Thus does the justice served surpass the individual deed. I admire this achievement, but even more I admire how gestures provide clear solutions for the most complicated of assignments. One sees "I hate you" or "Why did you tell my uncle that I was still home at half past five yesterday?" or "This man's son also robbed me twenty years ago." But one thing continues to puzzle me: since the actors already convey normal speech through such strong gestures, how would they portray cinematographically someone who makes himself understood in a foreign country through signs, or who naturally tends to gesticulate wildly? This is not, however, the time to reflect on this matter. For the second part is already showering me with pictures (you'll "laugh yourself sick," as the program puts it); pictures of drunken mailmen, primitive peoples, gallant lovers who hide themselves in crates in the rocking freight car to go on a long (oh-so-long, laugh-yourself-sick-long!) trip on the railroad. Mattresses come to life, glue bonds permanently, boots are too tight, plates crash noiselessly into dust, furies howl, and wisecrackers laugh. And whole collections of people who trash one another, whole colonies of people who wish, no matter what it takes, to capture an escaping gnome. ... The vitality of such a wealth of events has finally shaken me out of my semisomnolent state. On the way home now, I will become an inventor myself and think up a few new pictures for the Biograph, such as a chase scene in which, instead of automobiles or locomotives or trolleys, two ships run the race, a cruiser and a pirate ship. Over the broad surface of the sea, accompanied by the most furious shooting, the distance between them grows smaller ... But that would surely be an expensive film. All the cheaper, then, is the second idea: a poet in his lonely chamber, falling into a desperate rage over the challenges of powerful yet restrained representation.



On Living Photography and the Film Drama

First published as "Von der lebenden Photographie und dem Kino-Drama" in Der Kinematograph 112 (February 17, 1909). Translated by Alex H. Bush and Jon Cho-Polizzi.

Like the article by Ewers (no. 1), this text celebrates film's ability to surpass the laws of ordinary vision through trick photography, backward projection, time lapse, and similar processes. Gustav Melcher's description of the cinema's "expanded and improved eye" predates Vertov's better-known writings on the Kino-Eye by more than a decade. The text is particularly symptomatic of early writing on film in its interest in the endless potential of such vision, allowing us to see "through the eyes of limitless possibility." Like Brod (no. 2), Melcher reflects on the difficulties of grasping such visual excess through traditional aesthetic criticism. Melcher was a painter, a regular contributor to Der Kinematograph, and secretary of the Düsseldorf-based Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Lichtbildkunst (Society for the Promotion of Motion Picture Art).

Not long ago, an announcement ran in the newspaper classifieds that the Prince of Fürstenberg had attended a screening at a cinematographic theater. The same was said of the German kaiser. As no retraction followed, I decided that I, too, would begin to visit these art institutions.

I supplied myself with cigars, purchased a ticket at the theater box office, and let someone give me a program, which said, among other things, that my ticket was good for a journey through East India and for a ride through Chicago on the electric tram. At the same time, according to the program, I would also be deeply moved and die laughing several times over.

The program cost nothing, the ticket not even one mark. The program alone was worth ten marks. I had gotten a good deal. I had them give me another program.

Oh, these cinematographic theater programs!

Where can you find their like! The world is rich and life multifaceted. But when it comes to richness, one single cinematographic theater program leaves world and life in the dust. It is impossible to say what such programs consist of, just as it is beyond our power to say what constitutes life. What use is it to stillborn children if I say to them, "All the objects that you can find in Brockhaus and Meyer's Conversational Lexicon and lots of other unnamed and unnameable things exist in life"? And what use is it to the reader if I say to him, "Besides objects from the past and present, in a cinematographic theater program, you can find all the things that do not exist and never will"?


Excerpted from The Promise of Cinema by Anton Kaes, Nicholas Baer, Michael Cowan. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


User's Guide,
1. A New Sensorium,
2. The World in Motion,
3. The Time Machine,
4. The Magic of the Body,
5. Spectatorship and Sites of Exhibition,
6. An Art for the Times,
7. Moral Panic and Reform,
8. Image Wars,
9. The Specter of Hollywood,
10. Cinephilia and the Cult of Stars,
11. The Mobilization of the Masses,
12. Chiffres of Modernity,
13. The Expressionist Turn,
14. Avant-Garde and Industry,
15. The Aesthetics of Silent Film,
16. Film as Knowledge and Persuasion,
17. Sound Waves,
18. Technology and the Future of the Past,

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