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Walter Benjamin and Rudolph Arnheim on Charlie Chaplin

From: The Yale Journal of Criticism
Volume 9, Number 2, Fall 1996
pp. 309-314 | 10.1353/yale.1996.0014

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The Yale Journal of Criticism 9. (1996) 309-314

Translator's introduction

The two short articles which follow both appeared in 1929 and respond in differing ways, though with similar enthusiasm, to the films of Charlie Chaplin. The Benjamin text is a combined review of Chaplin's The Circus and of an article on Chaplin by the poet Philippe Soupault, who later (1931) expanded the article into his book Charlot. In both the quotes from Soupault and in his own comments Benjamin here pursues some of his well-known themes: modern art as a product of detached, peripatetic observation of urban mass existence; the relation between artistic innovation, technical innovation, and capital; the dependence of art upon locality; and the revolutionary potential of art. Arnheim's review is largely concerned with defending Chaplin's rather subdued directorial style, and in particular his avoidance of montage; readers familiar with Arnheim's Film as Art will recognize his concern with balancing the expressive capacities of the camera and of mise-en-scene with a respect for the integrity of objects within "real" space and time. Both men observe and applaud a certain introspective conservatism characteristic of the Chaplin style, though it may be surmised that Benjamin and Arnheim would have justified this value differently: Benjamin by pointing to Chaplin's resistance to the blandishments of technology, Arnheim by his neo-Kantian ideal of a revelatory but patient camera-eye.

Unless otherwise indicated, all notes are by the translator.

I. Walter Benjamin: "A Look at Chaplin"

The Circus is the first of the later works of cinematic art. Charlie has grown older since his last film and, here, he acts like it too. The most stirring thing about this new film is the feeling that Chaplin is now looking over the spectrum of his artistic powers, determined to bring his work to completion with these powers alone. The variants on his great themes emerge everywhere and in full glory. The chase scene is moved to a labyrinth; Charlie's unexpected appearance is staged in a way that would amaze a magician; a mask of indifference turns him into a sideshow marionette . . . .

The teachings and exhortations that peer out of this great work have given Philippe Soupault the impetus to make a first attempt at conjuring up the image of Chaplin as a historical phenomenon. The outstanding Parisian revue "Europe" published by Rieder in Paris (and which we will discuss in more detail in an upcoming issue) in November published an essay by the poet; in this essay he develops a series of ideas around which, one day, a definitive conception of this great artist will be able to crystallize.

He begins by strongly emphasizing that Chaplin's relationship to film is fundamentally not that of the actor-protagonist at all, let alone that of a star. Following Soupault's conception one can almost say that Chaplin, seen in his totality, is as little a performer as the actor William Shakespeare was. Soupault says rightly that "The undeniable superiority of Chaplin's films . . . lies in the fact that in them a poetry reigns which everyone encounters in their lives -- admittedly without always knowing it." This does not mean, of course, that Chaplin is a "poet" of filmscripts. More precisely, he is the poet of his films, that is, as director. Soupault has seen that Chaplin was the first (followed in this by the Russians) to orient film toward theme, variation -- toward composition, in short -- and that all of this stands in total contradiction to the conventional notions of exciting portrayal of action. For this reason Soupault, unlike virtually all previous commentators, sees the peak of Chaplin's work in L'Opinion Publique, a film in which, as is well known, Chaplin himself did not appear at all and which played in Germany under the stupid title The Nights of a Beautiful Woman. (The "Kamera" should show this film every six months -- it is a foundation charter of cinematic art.)

When we discover that making this 3000-meter long film involved shooting 125,000 meters, we get an idea of the immense and devoted labor concealed behind Chaplin's masterpieces. It also gives us a...

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