Post for Cabbage: Early cinema

March 28, 2007 at 11:13 am | Posted in Film | 8 Comments
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An excerpt from an essay by Alfred Döblin about the cinema – early cinema, as the text was written in 1909. Bibliographic details: Alfred Döblin: Das Theater der kleinen Leute. In: Das Theater. Volume 1, No. 8 (Decemver 1909), pp. 191-192. Cited from: Prolog vor dem Film: Nachdenken über ein neues Madium, 1909-1914. Edited and commented by Jörg Schweinitz. Leipzig: Reclam, 1992, pp. 153-155, here: p. 155.

Deutlich erhellt: der Kientopp ist ein vorzügliches Mittel gegen den Alkoholismus, schärfste Konkurrenz der Sechserdestillen; man achte, ob die Lebercirrhose und die Geburten epileptischer Kinder nicht in den nächsten zehn Jahren zurückgehen. Man nehme dem Volk und der Jugend nicht die Schundliteratur noch den Kientopp, sie brauchen die sehr blutige Kost ohne die breite Mehlpampe der volkstümlichen Literatur und die wässrigen Aufgüsse der Moral. Der Höhergebildete aber verläßt das Lokal, vor allem froh, dass das Kinema – schweigt.

An attempt at a translation:

Clearly illuminated: the cinema is an excellent remedy for alcoholism, the keenest competition of small distilleries; one should pay attention whether cirrhosis of the liver and the birth of epileptic children aren’t going to decrease over the next ten years. One should bereave the people and the youth of neither pulp fiction nor cinema, they need the very bloody fare without the common stodge of folklore literature and the dilute infusions of morality. The person of higher education, however, leaves the locale, above all glad that the cinema is – silent.

Kientopp is an early expression for small cinemas and came out of fashion with the introduction of bigger movie theatres that tried to imitate bourgeois theatre. Smoking and drinking was allowed, it was cheap and – to the horror of the self-proclaimed educators of society – men and women sat down together in the same darkened room.

A Sechserdestille isn’t exactly an illegal pub (I don’t think), but a small place where people went to get cheap and heavy booze.

You might know Alfred Döblin through his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). He wasn’t a naturalist, but is deemed the German equivalent of James Joyce. Nevertheless, and considering this piece above was written in 1909, it might be useful for your project. Schweinitz’s collection of early writings about film is a treasure trove really, but I don’t think translated into English. Maybe something similar exists, or the doyen of early cinema, Thomas Elsaesser has published something.

Maybe Jetsam has suggestions for improving my translation.


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  1. I’ve never read Döblin’s novel, but I’ve seen Fassbinder’s lengthy–and brilliant–adaptation of it. I should read it.

    I like this part of the cinema quote: The person of higher education, however, leaves the locale, above all glad that the cinema – is silent. It surely begs the question: How did the “person of higher education” react and assimilate him/herself into the cinematic world once sound was introduced? Is intellect therefore dependent on adding interpretation to a work of art–in appreciating it–rather than enjoying it as a “fixed” meaning-ridden text, as it seems Döblin would suggest something along those lines.

    I wonder how he would feel about Fassbinder’s adaptation (in sound) of his own novel.

  2. Berlin Alexanderplatz is a fantastic novel – it was the first novel during the reading of which I experienced Barthesian bliss, although I didn’t know what that was at the time. Breathless…

    There were quite a few authors who were apprehensive of the movies beginning to talk: Béla Bálàsz, for instance, who celebrated film as the first international language. Talkies to him meant to take one step back. Others (can’t remember who) wrote that, with the arrival of sound, film characters had learned to jabber, but weren’t saying anything any more…

    Regarding the distinction between the educated (individual) and the uneducated (masses): Another voice in the discourse about early film maintained that the exposure to film might lead to confusion, but certainly only in the uneducated individual (not recognized as individual really, but just as its stereotype). The paper boy could impossibly be able to tell the difference between reality and fiction. That’s why it was claimed by some of the educators that film only be used for documentary and educational purposes, and that the film drama (=narrative film) be banned.

    Alexanderplatz adapted by Döblin would certainly be interesting.

  3. Yes. Even Hitchcock was very wary of the introduction of sound in cinema, which he sort of mocks–as the same time using the “new” medium–in The Lady Vanishes.

    If the novel caused you to experience Barthesian bliss, then I will definitely put it on my to-read list.

  4. This is wonderful, THANK YOU!! 😀

    I may be able to sneak in Doblin. My MA thesis is on John Dos Passos, who is considered by many, including our friend PIzer, to be one of the ’30s naturalists. Wikipedia suggests Berlin Alexanderplatz has “many viewpoint characters and a narrative style reminiscent of John Dos Passos.” Excellent. Formal justification. My advisor will grumble that I need an argument for why to include a German writer, but that’s easily accomplished.

    I’m so behind, and yet, want to drop everything and get the novel–must resist, for now… 😦

    I love the mordant tone: “one should pay attention whether cirrhosis of the liver and the birth of epileptic children aren’t going to decrease over the next ten years.” Thank you for the translation. My reading is richer knowing the associations of kientopp.

    No, I must read Doblin. Resistance is futile. 😀

  5. Btw, I’m reading the House of Mirth now, and completely drawn into it… just went back to the computer to check the meaning of Americana.. not sure whether the Wikipedia entry really covers it, as Percy Gryce’s Americana seem to consist of books, mainly. I haven’t read many books from around the turn of the 20th century, and it comes to me like a time bubble, relating past and current feminine questions (“What’s a women to do in a man’s world?”). An interesting mix of male gaze (Lilly being evoked by Selden’s gaze, by Gryce’s gaze) and a subdued feminine voice.

  6. I’m glad you’re enjoying HOM! What the wikipedia “Americana” doesn’t mention is that Americana has a kitsch connotation. Wharton does have a wonderful voice. It’s quaint, and yet the thematic concerns, as you note, are quite contemporary.

    The gaze is really important…I’m refraining from saying too much. We should chat about it when you’ve finished and I can’t ruin anything.

  7. I’ve ordered Berlin Alexanderplatz! I can’t wait!!

  8. 🙂

    You are not going to regret it

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