A programmatic Text
By Josef K. Jünger
By Josef K. Jünger
It is a mistake to try to think of film history from its current end, i.e. from today. And to assume that the current state of cinematography, the almost global and downright frightening dominance of Hollywood cinema and the narrative and viewing habits it mediates would be the goal and purpose of film history. Or, to put it another way: that film history developed consistently towards this state of affairs and that this development was laid out in film history. The history of film shows major breaks. For example, the Canadian film historian André Gaudreault emphasized in an essay (Kintop No. 12, 2003) that the pioneers of the early years around the turn of the century did not want to make films at all. They wanted to take living pictures; the term film does not apply to your products! An unmistakable break in film history is that from silent to sound film. There were advocates of the silent film who vehemently opposed the sound film. Seen from today, of course, they were lost. Charles Chaplin was one of them. He rightly emphasized that his figure of the tramp would only live from pantomime, gestures and facial expressions (German in Filmkurier; see Lotte Eisner’s biography “I once had a beautiful fatherland”). Chaplin found every word spoken superfluous. The sound film would destroy his character. That’s how it turned out. A long-term debate about the sound film was fought in the German “Filmkurier”. Lotte Eisner, film critic of this magazine, writes in her biography that the sound film set back the artistic endeavors of the silent film by 10 years. Lotte Eisner was of the opinion, and with her numerous German film directors such as Murnau, Lang and v. a., the artistic challenge would be to only want to tell a story through the picture and to use as few subtitles as possible. It was the German silent film of the twenties that performed the most outstandingly in this regard, and that is the main reason why we have so far focused on German silent films here. Other reasons are that it is easier to obtain German silent films; the presentation of foreign films is usually associated with extremely high costs.
It should be understandable that a story or a film that is told only through images demands more from the viewer than a story that is conveyed through subtitles, i.e. text. Subheads were the route of least resistance and if you looked primarily at the cash register, the method of choice. American cinema preferred this route, just as American cinema today owes its dominance to an aesthetic of the lowest common denominator that can be used to reach audiences worldwide. The other side of the coin? A huge loss of richness in terms of form and content, because national cinematographies, which choose much more material and forms that only appeal to a limited audience, are being pushed back.
Of course, there were also directors in Germany in the 1920s who produced action-oriented films. This should not be glossed over. In these films, a lot of subtitles had to be told almost inevitably in order to push the “action” forward. However, this is actually most evident in American cinema. Even at the top of Hollywood cinema like Erich von Stroheim you can find a relatively large number of subtitles.
The orientation of American cinema towards action-oriented films, with which a broad audience could be reached most easily, could also be observed at an early stage. In order to save my honor, I would like to refer to the Chaplin quoted above. There was and is another cinema apart from Hollywood in the USA.
Of course, reading subtitles is exhausting and annoying for the audience. So the invention of the talkie was almost a need of Hollywood. It made the annoying intertitles superfluous. The irony of film history: the invention was made in Germany in the early twenties, but it wasn’t until the USA that it was ready for use.
The artistic challenge of wanting to tell a story through a picture, as I said, was obsolete from one day to the next; old news. It was then again the German cinema, especially Fritz Lang’s film “M eine Stadt sucht einer Mörder”, which showed that the sound film also enables artistic achievements. However, they are on a completely different level. Figures can be characterized by sound and music, a space can be imagined with sound in a similar way as it usually happens in a film through the image / camera. This is not to be discussed further here.
So we show silent films precisely because of their artistic claim to want or have to tell stories only through images. This claim to the film is historical, but it is good to remember it and to show this film, precisely because today many audio-visual products no longer even meet the poorest aesthetic standards and only squint at the box office.
©: Josef K. Jünger, 2004
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