The Optics of Orientation: Walter Benjamin and Mikhail Kaufman in Moscow
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The Optics of Orientation:
Walter Benjamin and Mikhail Kaufman in Moscow

How would a film look if Walter Benjamin had been behind the movie camera? Miriam Hansen entertains this possibility in Cinema and Experience (2012) when she speculates about an “imaginary city film” made according to Benjamin’s aesthetic principles. Such a film, Hansen writes, would include a variety of avant-garde techniques “from French Impressionism to Soviet experimental cinema, in particular montage (that is, discontinuous and rhythmic editing), nonconventional and expressive framing, and camera movement.”1 Yet Hansen’s version of a Benjaminian film practice is inferred almost entirely from Benjamin’s film theory, while his descriptive essays on European cities—“Naples,” “Marseilles,” and the focus of this article, “Moscow” (1927)—are missing from her authoritative survey of Benjamin’s thought. That “Moscow” is absent from Hansen’s analysis follows a tendency in Benjamin scholarship to treat the essay as a minor work, as either a methodological precedent for his landmark study of Paris, the Arcades Project or, worse, a byproduct of an autobiographical curiosity, the Moscow Diary (1986).2 This article brings “Moscow” to the fore and derives from this densely visual text a Benjaminian film practice grounded in his impressions of the Soviet capital. Rather than project Benjamin’s later film-theoretical claims onto his experience of the city, I argue that his depictions of daily life and cultural transformations underway in Moscow were decisive for his developing views on cinematic perception.

Benjamin spent two months in the Soviet capital during the winter of 1926–27, and in “Moscow” he blends luminous street [End Page 751] scenes with probing judgments of the cultural and political atmosphere under party rule, reporting the tumultuous effects of the New Economic Program, along with the uncertain transition unfolding in the wake of Lenin’s death in 1924.3 Unlike Berlin, where Benjamin was born and spent most of his life, and Paris, whose cultural world he reconstructs in the Arcades Project, Moscow remains distant, foreign, inscrutable to Benjamin, even as it threatens to overwhelm both him and his reader with the sheer volume of its concrete sensory stimuli.

The Revolution is the thread that binds the disparate elements of the essay into a coherent whole, and Benjamin organizes his experience of Moscow through formal techniques that are correspondingly dialectical. Graeme Gilloch remarks that Benjamin’s city essays “aspire to be textual equivalents of the cinematographic” because among all artistic media, “film captures the fleeting, fluid character of the modern metropolitan environment” (Myth and Metropolis, 45). While it is true that “Moscow” contains filmic elements, the essay does not find Benjamin subordinating textuality to cinematic verisimilitude (45–46).4 Instead, he links cinema to an exploration of literary form, as in metaphors whose vehicles consist of the cinematic apparatus itself, rhetorical figures that foreground their literariness while underlining their connection to cinematic technology. Benjamin’s film practice thus comes closer to what Johannes von Moltke has recently dubbed “media promiscuity”—the fictional exploration of cinematic themes not reducible to filmic writing as such—which von Moltke claims was a response to the experience of exile on the part of classical film theorists.5 Neither a work of fiction nor a product of exile, “Moscow” nevertheless registers a deep sense of cultural estrangement that renovates Benjamin’s critical gaze: “what is true of the image of the city and its people applies also to the intellectual situation: a new optics is the most undoubted gain from a stay in Russia,” Benjamin testifies. “However little you may know Russia,” he continues, “what you learn is to observe and judge Europe with the conscious knowledge of what is going on in Russia.”6 With his ability “to observe and judge” inflected by the real effects of revolutionary change, Benjamin channels a “new optics” through his descriptions of Moscow, a film practice that occurs amid a range of intermedial strategies used to document a city as it dismantles the oppositions between urban and rural, labor and capital, art and life (“Moscow,” 22).7

Benjamin’s engagement with visual media finds a serendipitous counterpart in a neglected city-film—a real, not imaginary one...


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