- Resemblances: Between German Film Studies and History
Germany can be seen and heard in every frame of its films. It is ubiquitous even in those films that appear to lie farthest from reality, a group that includes its westerns, its science fiction films, and its Nazi melodramas. In “Transparencies on Film,” Theodor Adorno reproaches the medium in general for its semblance of immediacy.1 He finds it suspicious, just as he is suspicious of all art that gives the impression that it directly reflects the world—that is, art not dedicated to re-representing the many contours of our distorted perceptions. But how regrettable is it that things in films resemble the world they depict? The property that film studies calls the “profilmic,” which refers to those elements of reality that leave their impression on a film, is a windfall for the historian.2 Narrative films are the well-arranged debris of material culture. The real world, of course, always exceeds film’s scope. Film cannot depict the afilmic, which is always already outside of filmed representation, yet a bounty of real objects, chiefly contemporaneous persons and things, climb, with or without invitation, into the image. This superfluity of information is good news for the interdisciplinary scholar and for German Studies; film is more than only film, it is an incomparable source of history. Historians, however, frequently find themselves confronted with text-immanent—specifically, film-immanent—approaches centered exclusively on formal characteristics, or on “technique.” They may answer back that films invariably transmit material connected to the time and place of their production. Yesterday’s films are indeed aesthetic objects, and thus proper fodder for film-formal and rhetorical approaches, but they also come to us from out of the past.
All films, fiction and nonfiction, capture something from life, in particular its bodies and things; they document. Perceptions acquired at the movie house or in front of a monitor bring us no nearer to the things themselves, but objects in films appear there, shaped more or less as our eyes take them in, and it is well known that films have been mistaken for memories, long after the fact. For some, the apparent identity between image and referent is a lamentable deception, yet German historians and film historians may not be so naive. They may know that what they are seeing is not [End Page 490] those things; that the images only resemble those things, or that they are, at best, traces of them. There is certainly such a thing as documentary, but documentaries and features each portray arrangements of material; the distinction is one of degree.3 In Richard Eichberg’s Großstadt Schmetterling (1929), a café table adorned with a drawing that becomes a circulated commodity offers detailed information about the material culture of interwar Germany. It illustrates how ordinary objects at that point were apt to be labeled art, and bespeaks the director’s willingness to playfully dedifferentiate cinematic images from portraiture. A sequence in F. P. 1 antwortet nicht (1932) in which the mid-twentieth century movie star Hans Albers talks on the telephone seems banal, but it also speaks volumes about the function of telecommunications during the rise of the Third Reich.4 Arguments in favor of analyzing film as material history should not be taken to mean that one should renounce text-immanent approaches; films, like literary works, have an independent logic and much is to be gained from engaging in text-exegetical practices. However, knowledge of film’s profilmic nature—the fact that it portrays in sound and image the noises and shapes of people and things from 1895 through to yesterday—taken in conjunction with an awareness of the shifting technology of its production should surely affect readings.
Images may be scrutinized and analyzed to a variety of ends, and academic conclusions about the past are provisional largely because history is as complex and elusive as the present; it vanishes from one moment to the next. The arts have always been a trail of fading traces, and films are treasure chests of resemblances. Nations, for instance, can be found everywhere in their transnational productions, and there they appear in...